I had already heard about a lot of the content in this book. This is probably because of its heavy crossover, in content, with the writings of BloomsI had already heard about a lot of the content in this book. This is probably because of its heavy crossover, in content, with the writings of Bloom´s mentor and fellow linguist Stephen Pinker, and through reading other allied popularizers like Dennett, Dawkins and Baron-Cohen. But had I not already learnt of the content before, I should think that it would have made for the most fascinating single collection of popularized insights that have ever been borne from the fruits of decades of academic work since the cognitive revolution of the mid 50s.
Bloom´s background is in child language development, but also knows about the whole range of literature on child development and, to boot, the brain science behind all the psychology. In addition he includes his personal areas of research in the psychology of disgust and the psychology of religion. It emerges that there are any number of very unique and specific, natively-programmed faculties sitting in the mind. They take assessment of the situation like uniquely dreamt-up process commands once the living creature goes "on line" at birth. The faculties merely await activation in the "on-line" mind. They are already latent at the moment that consciousness takes over control. It is mindblowing to anyone who considers the consequences. Bloom does not indulge in any lengthy, nerdy trek through the branching divisions in dis/agreement of any philosophical literature, but that is probably because such a thorough book could hardly ever end, given the breadth on display in this briskly written, friendly and witty tour. I'll try to justify this highfalutin praise:
The collective body of evidence from cognitive science puts a cannonball through much of the work of philosophers: ordinary political philosophy as well as on the most arcane thought in the tradition of Descartes through Kant and beyond. It has the only authoritative say on matters of political urgency like "how can we discourage racism and nuclear war?" as well as contributing hard facts to perennial head-scratchers like "are men born evil?" "are we enshrined in nature or above it?" Most importantly, the work showcased in this book gives new vitality to the hard questions of body and soul, reality and perception. Are we rational beings? Are we blinded from reality or do we perceive it accurately?
So I cannot recommend this book enough to curious people, not-all-too familiar with any of what I just wrote, who, however, see the value in such questions and could approach cognitive science with an open mind. For those a little more familiar with the subject, it would definitely still tie things together into a very gratifying and witty 200 pages. This was my experience and I'm very glad that I read it....more
For whatever rhetorical power Penny has at her command her writing is rife with overstatement and a determined ugliness of depiction. Her main metaphoFor whatever rhetorical power Penny has at her command her writing is rife with overstatement and a determined ugliness of depiction. Her main metaphors are of slavery ("drudgery" "suffering" "oppression" "cruel machine"), filth, violence and unclean physicality ("butchery", "stink of my flesh" "cannibalistic", "brutal" "the ooze and tickle of real-time sex") but above all, POWER.
The final words of this collection are "we need to end our weary efforts to believe that our bodies are acceptable and begin to know, with a clear and brilliant certainty, that our persons are powerful." Specifically, that power is to "say "no"" and only through this will "woman of the 21st century," according to Penny, "regain their voice and remember their power." Though this is an adaptation of her journalistic writings and should not be expected to be too unified, the desire for power (nominally expressed as a collective striving) is by far the strongest single thread in the collection, as far as I could tell. One may judge for herself. ...Though repulsed by the perceived constant abuse of power over women by the patriarchy, Penny does not think that the glory of power is suspicious in any way, if one is to judge from her tried and tested political revenge-rhetoric. The purpose of this hypothetical power is not clear: equality under the law is not the vanilla mission statement, but rather the complaint is of a more deep-rooted form of spiritual corruption that is allied to the exercise of power (see the quotes to follow).
However what dimensions of power are worth women holding? Penny explicitly ridicules the "drudgery" of "brain-bleedingly pointless tasks" such as knitting and cupcakes, and to accuse as false superiority women who boast of their rule in the domestic setting, and of "well trained" male helping hands in the domestic sphere (p.58). But again, what dimension of power matters? This dimension of power is real enough: possession thereof seems to satisfy many women who are not Laurie Penny and her readership. And the object of this sort of power is clear: to make a habitable, peaceful sort of environment to live in through some concrete division of labour. Neither the justification nor the lifestyle would appeal to Laurie Penny and her readership, but the existence of this power - roundly dismissed here - seems to undermine the flat demand that women realize their power: what Penny rather means is unsure, then. Perhaps that women should demand political power, though the reasons for this are unexplicit and more obscure than the reasons for baking cupcakes and maintaining domestic chores.
What also turned me off, at a more stylistic level, was the reliance on literary techniques, such as the employment of spuriously holistic entities such as "society" "the culture" or "the world" with the active singular voice to create a ghoulish, vampire-like personificaton: "[society] condemns young women as wanton strumpets," "[women] are destroying themselves and western society, fostering a deep loathing for female flesh applauds them for doing so." This last example is interestingly mirrored in a later, in my opinion unconscionable, accusation against her own family for encouraging her anorexia: "my family complimented my new figure, reinforcing the message that good girls don't eat."
The frequency of such autobiographical anecdotes reveal a sad personal history of self-hatred, mental illness and hermit-like behaviour which goes some way to explain to the skeptical reader why she views the world as such a scary place, and more importantly why the uncomfortable metaphors of bodily violence and unclean physicality are so superimposed upon the entirety of Society, which is deemed to work so homogeneously and conspiratorially. In addition, her own mental problems are retroactively gilt-framed as a kind of unconscious rebellion: "a rebellion by self-immolation, by taking society's standards of thinness, beauty and self-denial to their logical extremes."
"Women are not powerless beings without agency, even in this circumscribed culture, and only by acknowledging that fact will we ever achieve full adult emancipation, or ever save ourselves from the hell of narcissistic self-negation. We need to take responsibility for our part in the cruel machine of enforced feminine starvation psychosis. To do anything else would be to accept our own victimhood." p.29
Penny is adamant that women should not live as helpless victims, however there is some tension between her stark and visceral choice of words, magnifying the threat of the obstacles to liberation, and her willingness to imply that socially constructed entities such as gender ("human biology is not subject to cultural norms of gender polarity"p.39) can be swept away given such simple advice as "remembering how to say no."...more
This is a social history book which is written for the layman and counts no more than 160 pages in my edition. In this short space, Power provides a vThis is a social history book which is written for the layman and counts no more than 160 pages in my edition. In this short space, Power provides a vivid taste of life across many sub-epochs of the medieval age. The chapters, progressing chronologically, are deliberately concerned with chiefly one historical document. From this one document she describes the living persons that the document concerns; the recipient of a guide to good housewifery in the late 14th Century, the Frankish peasant farmer who Charlemagne's detailed tithe records names; the nun who was the inspiration for Chaucer's Eglentyne; Marco Polo, as recorded by his own words, and so on.
The early medieval empire of Charlemagne in the late 8th/ early-9th century is represented by "Bodo," whose whole family had to be hard-working to meet the quotas of the demanding boss, the steward of the "seignorial land" of the "fisc" of "the lands of the Abbey of St Germain" that Bodo happened to live on. But on the special occasions that Bodo did not need all day to farm the land, he could give his familiy the treat of visiting the travelling fairs, in which they could see clues to the wider world:
Bodo and Ermentrude and the three children, all attired in their best, did not consider it a waste of time to go to the fair even twice or three times. They pretended that they wanted to buy salt to salt down their winter meat, or some vermillion dye to colour a frock for the baby. What they really wanted was to wander along the little rows of booths and look at all the strange things assembled there [...] Frankish nobles bargained there for purple and silken robes with orange borders, stamped leather jerkins, peacock's feathers, and the scarlet plumage of flamingos (which they called "phoenix skins"), scents and pearls and spices, almonds and raisins, and monkeys for their wives to play with [...] And Bodo would hear a hundred dialects and tongues ,for men of Saxony and Frisia, Spain and Provence, Rouen and Lombardy, and perhaps an Englishman or two, jostled each other in the little streets [...] Then there were always jugglers and tumblers, and men with performing bears, and minstrels to wheedle Bodo's few pence out of his pocket. And it would be a very tired and happy family that trundled home in the cart to bed. For it is not, after all, so dull in the kitchen, and when we have quite finished with the emporor "Charlemagne and all his peerage," it is really worth while to spend a few moments with Bodo in his little manse. History is largely made up of Bodos. p.32-3
The chapter following the real Madame Eglentyne of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales distinguishes her, the object of an historian's imagination, from the product of a literary critic's symbolic decyphering:
Everyone knows Chaucer's description of the Prioress, Madame Eglentyne, who rode with that very motley and talkative company on the way to Canterbury. There is no portrait in his gallery which has risen to more diverse comment among critics. One interprets it as a cutting attack on the worldliness of the Church; another thinks that Chaucer meant to draw a charming and sympathetic picture of womanly gentleness; one says that it is a caricature, another an ideal; and an American professor even finds in it a psychological study of thwarted maternal instinct, apparently because Madame Eglentyne was fond of little dogs and told a story about a schoolboy. The mere historian may be excused from following these vageries. To him, Chaucer's Prioress, like Chaucer's monk and Chaucer's friar, will simply be one more instance of the almost photographic acccuracy of the poet's observation. [...] the most subtle kind of satire, which does not depend upon exaggeration. The literary critic has only Chaucer's words and his own heart, or sometimes, low it be spoken, his own desire to be original, by which to guide his judgment. But the historian knows; he has all sorts of historical sources in which to study nunneries, and there he meets Chaucer's Prioress at every turn. p.69
And life in the nunneries and monastries is presented with the humdrum humour and humanity which is left out of the picture in the cliched imagination:
A story is told about a priest in Worcestershire, who was kept awake all night by the people dancing in his churchyard, and singing a song with the refrain "Sweetheart have pity," so that he could not get it out of his head, and the next morning at Mass, instead of saying "Dominus vobiscum," he said "Sweetheart have pity," and there was a dreadful scandal which got into a chronicle. Sometimes our Bodo did not dance himself but listened to the songs of wandering minstrels. The priests did not at all approve of these minstrels, who (they said) would certanly go to hell for singing profane secular songs, all about the great deeds of heathen heros of the Frankish race, instead of Christian hymns. But Bodo loved them, and so did Bodo's betters; the Church councils had sometimes even to rebuke abbots and abesses for listening to their songs. And worst of it was that the great emporor himself, the good Charlemagne, loved them too. p,26
Powers describes how the young nuns and monks were only human, after all, and how far from ideal they could fall. My favourite part of this chapter is the mention of the "special Devil called Tittuvillus" who was created to warn slackers from cutting corners in the services:
So prevalent was the fault of gabbling that the Father of Evil was obliged to charter a special Devil called Tittivillus, whose sole business it was to collect all these dropped syllables and carry them back to his master in a big bag. In one way or another, we have a good deal of information about him, for he was always letting himself be seen by holy men, who generally had a sharp eye for devils. One Latin rhyme distinguishes carefully betwee nthe contents of his sack: "THere are they who wickedly corrupt the holy psalms: the dangler, the gasper, the leaper, the galloper, the dragger, the mumbler, the fore-skipper, the fore-runner and the over-leaper: Tittivillus collecteth the fragments of these men's words." [...] Tittivullus used to fill up odd corners of his sack with the idle talk of people who gossiped in church; and he also sat up aloft and collected all the high notes of vain tenors who sang to their own glory instead of to the glory of God... p.78-9
The nuns, of course, would not have been human if they had not sometimes grown a little weary of all these services and this silence; for the religious life was not, nor was it intended to be, an easy one. It was not a mere means of escape from work and responsibility. In the early golden age of monasticism only men and women with a vocation, that is to say a real genius for monastic life, entered convents. [...] The basis of wise St. Benedict's RUle was a nicely adjusted combination of variety with regularity; for he knew human nature. Thus monks and nuns did not find the services monotonous, and indeed regarded them as by far the best part of the day. But in the later Middle Ages, when Chaucer lived, young people had begun to enter monastic houses rather as a profession than as a vocation [...] little suited to monastic life, and who lowered its standard. because it was hard and uncongenial to them. Eglentyne became a nun because her father did not want the trouble and expense of finding her a husband, and because being a nun was about the only career for a well-born lady who did not marry. [...]The early tradition of learning had died out and many nuns could hardly understand the Latin in which their services were written. The result was that monastic life began to lose that essential variety which St. Benedict had designed for it [...] and the series of services degenerated into a mere routine of peculiar monotony, which many of the singers could no longer keep alive with spiritual fervour [...] became empty forms, to be hurried though with scant devotion and occasionally with scandolous irreverence [...] though the monks were always worse about it than the nuns. Sometimes they "cut" the services. Sometimes they behaved with the utmost levity, as at Exeter in 1330, where the canons gigled and joked and quarrelled during the services and dropped hot candle wax from the upper stalls on to the shaven heads of the singers in the stalls below! p.76-7
Powers opens the chapter on marital relations with the fake epigraph: "The sphere of woman is the home --Homo Sapiens" but she is nonethless charmed by the document from the late-14th century; which is an early example of Conduct Literature for women. Despite being on the face of it an exhaustive and exhausting set of rules for the busy wife in the home, Power finds the emotional currents that lie under the form of the text and must first come after we dissolve our modern unfamiliarity with its intentions:
The greater part of the Ménagier´s book is concerned however not with the theoretical niceties of wifely submission, but with his creature comforts. His instructions as to how to make a husband comfortable positiviely palpitate with life; and at the same time there is something indescribably homely and touching about them; they tell more about the real life of a burgess´s wife than a hundred tales of Patient Griselda or of Jehanne la Quentine. Consider this picture (how typical a product of the masculine imagination!) of the stout bread-winner, buffeted about in all weathers and amid all discomforts, nobly pursuing the task of earning his living, and fortified by the recollection of a domesticated little wife, darning his stocking at home by the fire, and prepared to lavish her attentions on the weary hero in the evening. p.101
Power quotes at length the manual, which is indeed, in spite of its instructive tone, an openhearted and thoughtful reflection on home comfort and cohabitation. The Ménagier seemed to perceive that childhood was, in general, an oppressive experience for most men, or at least one which cannot compare to the loving attentions of a lover - regardless of the material wealth that such a match brings, and that would better appease the parents:
It is certain that when fathers and mothers be dead, and stepfathers and stepmothers argue with their stepsons, and scold them and repulse them, and take not thought for their sleeping, nor for their food and drink, their hose and their shirts and all their other needs and affairs, and the same children find elsewhere a good home and good counsel from some other woman, who receives them and takes thought to warm them with some poor gruel with her and to give them a bed and keep them tidy, mending their hosen, breeches, shirts and other garments, then those lads cleave to her and desire to be with her, and to sleep warm between her breasts, and are altogether estranged from their mothers and fathers, who before took no heed of them and now want to get them back and have them again. [...]Then the parents lament and weep and say that these same women have bewitched their children and that they are spellbound and cannot leave, but are never easy save when they are with their enchantresses. But whatever may be said of it, it is no witchcraft, but it is by reason of the love, the care, the intimacies, joys and pleasures, which these women do in all ways unto the lads, and on my soul there is no other enchantment. p.102
Power also translates parts of the manual which advise the tone with which a good housewife should administer to her servants. It is clear that stories of houses ruined by disobedient servants and doormat masters inspired a high awareness of the need for some skills similar to modern "human resources" departments:
If you find from the report of her master and mistress, neighbours and others that a girl is what you need, find out from her, and cause Master John to register in his account book, the day on which you engage her, her name and those of her father, other, and any of her kinsfolk, the place where they live and her birthplace and her references. For servants will be more afraid to do wrong if they know that you are recording all these things and that if they leave you without permission, or are guilty of any offense, you will write and complain to the justice of their country or to their friends. And notwithstanding bear in mind the saying of the philosopher called Bertrand the Old, who says that if you engage a maid or man of high and proud answers, yo ushall know that when she leaves she will miscall you if she can; and if, on the contrary, she be flattering and full of blandishments, trust her not, for she is in league with someone else to trick you; but if she blushes and is silent and shamefast when you correct her, love her as your daughter. p.105
As soon as they begin to tell stories, or to argue, or to lean on their elbows, order the béguine to make them rise and take away their table, for he common folk have a saying: "when a varlet holds forth at table and a horse grazes in the ditch, it is time to take them away, for they have had their fill." p.106
Power introduces the chapter on the merchant Thomas Betson by asking us to forget the industrial importance of iron and cotton, and to remember the great wealth "grown on the backs" of our own cattle:
The visitor to the House of Lords, looking respectfully upon that august assembly, cannot fail to be struck by a stout and ungainly object facing the throne - an ungainly object upon which in gull session of Parliament, he will observe seated the Lord Chancellor of England. The object is a wollsack, and it is stuffed as full of pure history as the office of Lord Chancellor itself. For it reminds a cotton-spinning, iron-working generation that the greatness of England was built upon, not upon the flimsy plant which comes to her to be manufactured from the Far East and West of the world, nor upon the harsh metal delved from her bowels, but upon the wool which generation after generation has grown on the backs of her black-faced sheet. First in the form of a raw material sought after eagerly by all the clothmakers of Europe, then in the form of a manufacture carried on in her own towns and villages, and sent out far and wide in ships, wool was the foundation of England's greatness right up to the time of the Industrial Revolution, when cotton and iron took its place. [...] The Lord Chancellor of England is seated upon a woolsack because it was upon a woolsack that this fair land rose to prosperity. p.116
The wool trade was not tightly regulated, and it seems that there existed a sense of mutual enrichment, rather than explotations, between the producers of the raw wool and those who made it into the finished product:
Midwinter, Busshe, and Elmes were all wool dealer, or "broggers" - middle-men, that is to say, between the framers who grew and the staplers who bought wool, but often the staplers dealt directly with individual farmers, buying the small man's clip as well as the great man's, and warm friendships sprang from the annual visits, looked forward to in Yorkshire dale and Cotswold valley. It strikes a pleasant note when Richard Russell, citizen and merchant of York, leaves in his will, "for distribution among the farmers of Yorkes Walde, from whom I bought wool 20 l., and in the same way among the farmers of Lyndeshay 10 l." (1435) p.132-3
The will of a Thomas Paycocke also shows a generosity of spirit:
he did not forget Nicholas Goodday of Stisted and Robert Goodday of Coggeshall and their families, nor their relative John, who was a priest and had ten shillings for a trental. All these Gooddays were doubtless bound to Thomas Paycocke by ties of work as well as of friendship. They belonged to a well-known Coggeshall family, for generations connected with the cloth industry. Thomas Paycocke's namesake and grand-nephew, whose will is dated 1580, was still in close relations with them, and left "to Edwarde Goodaye my godson Fourite shillinges and to every brother and sister the saide Edwarde hath livinge at the tyme of my decease tenne shillinges." The hurrying, scattering generation of to-day can hardly imagine the immovable stability of the village of past centuries, when generation after generation grew from cradle to grave in the same houses, on the same cobbled streets, and folk of the same name were still friends, as their fathers and grandfathers had been before them. p.155
Power then speculates in what manner Paycocke's industry was set out. It surprised me that industrial unrest had significant precusors in the late-medieval economy:
One detail Peacocke's will does not give us, which we should be glad to know: did he employ only domestic weavers, working in their own houses, or did he also keep a certain number of looms working in his house? It was characteristic of the period in which he lived that something like a miniature factory system was establishing itself in the midst of the new outwork system. The clothiers were beginning to set up looms in their own houses and to work them by journeymen weavers; as a rule the independent weavers greatly disliked the practice, for either they were forced from the position of free masters into that of hired servants, obliged to go and work in the clothier's loom shop, or else they found their payment forced down by the ucompetition of the journeymen. Moreover, the clothiers sometimes owned and let out looms to their work-people, and then also part of the industrial independence of the weaver was lost. All through the first half of the sixteenth century the weavers in cloth districts kept on petitioning Parliament against this new evil of capitalism. It was as though, long before it established itself in England, they had a prevision of the factory system and of the worker no longer owning either his raw material, his tool, his workshop or the produce of his industry, but only his labour; the master-weaver dwindled into a hired hand. P.157
Short though it is, this is a extremely rich book, and for me shone some spotlights onto an overwhelmingly large area of darkness. It's human approach helps the imagination along in building bridges from our modern mindset to the ones of our ancestors. The book presumes a knowledge of French and middle English, but does not quote these sources often....more
This is a sometimes exhausting book which is a joint parody of hard-boiled detective fiction and time-travel science fiction. The jokes are very thickThis is a sometimes exhausting book which is a joint parody of hard-boiled detective fiction and time-travel science fiction. The jokes are very thick and fast. Not all of them hit the mark, and many actively disturb any sense of flow in the story, but at times there are moments of comic timing that put you straight in mind of classic Simpsons episodes, for example in this early episode when the lead character, Detective Burley, drops by a homeless man's home in the local dump to ask about a suspiciously valuable-looking possession:
There were fancy painting on the wall. I looked closer at one of them. It shoed an old lady sitting on a chair. "Did you paint this?" I asked. "Because it's good." "Yeah, I painted it last night. So what? Get outta here. You ain't invited to as many places as you show up." There was a brass plate attached to the frame that said "WHistler's Mother." "Wait a minute." I said. "This is Whistler's Mother!" "Used to be, maybe. It's my mother now." [pg 18]
At other times the cartoonishness didn't work for me at all, as scenes of high violence or action flashed by and were gone, with little affect on the continuing plot, in the space of a couple of sentences:
I called them up, told them where the car was, and jumped out. I was going over sixty at the time, but luckily I didn't hit the ground. There was a cliff there and I just went harmlessly over that. But just when you're sailing along, thinking everything is going to be okay, something unexpected comes along to jar you out of your complacency. For me, in this case, it was the bottom of the cliff. I got bruised up pretty bad - they say I bounced for an hour - but luckily no bones were broken. THat's where that protective layer of fat I was telling you about comes in. [pg 37]
Can you really imagine him bouncing for "an hour"? Many moments like this distracted me and were more funny curious than funny haha. Schwartzwelder has a reputation for obsessive oddness and secrecy and some passages did seem like they were like jokes being spit out unfettered by a machine-like comedy-writing idiot-savant.
I'm finish by saying that if you like the Simpsons you'll probably enjoy reading John Swartzwelder. He has that excellent quality of being able to tell jokes which seem dumb, but contain a fluent command of american cultural iconography. The plot device of the time machine allows Schwartzwelder to exploit this knowledge of americana to the full, and showcases a, if anything, over-fertile comic instinct, brimming with both affection and subversion. This book is flawed, but what with it being his first published, I would not say no to reading him again, and I can certainly recommend him for his better moments. ...more
An insubstantial book of very specific american interest. The "notes" section is impressively thick and responsibly detailed, although perhaps a littlAn insubstantial book of very specific american interest. The "notes" section is impressively thick and responsibly detailed, although perhaps a little too thick and detailed for such an impressionistic survey of the disconnected subjects it covers. Personally the "case study" approach didn't work for me, although it made for a more engaging narrative thread to tie up the analysis. Schlosser is shy of making loud moral statements, despite dealing with thorny issues, and prefers to make observations about the bigger picture, making glib references to ancient Rome and medieval Christianity. I thought these parts cheapened the journalistic tone and their only value was to point towards some interesting further reading in the bibliography. I would personally have preferred a more frank moral assessment from Schlosser himself. Overall I wouldn't recommend it, except for some interesting insight into how illegal labor is structured (Schlosser unfortunately misses the chance to draw the bigger picture here)....more
I've read criticisms that this book is too insular (boring) and that the writing comes from a very specific, privileged sort of place. I think that thI've read criticisms that this book is too insular (boring) and that the writing comes from a very specific, privileged sort of place. I think that this criticism is unimaginative. So long as there is a depth of emotional intelligence, it's possible to be moved by fictional character who aren't just like ourselves, and whose lives may be relatively boring compared with the improbable creations of many other authors on offer. Tomine's low-key writing is observant and ecomonical - just as in his earlier collection of "short stories," Sleepwalk. The lead character, Ben Tanaka, is sympathetic but deeply flawed. What makes the story so rewarding is that none of the supporting cast can give an authoritative voice to what exactly he must fix, since they are so animated by their own flaws to a lesser degree. The story leaves a lot of judgement unsaid, and it rewards a sympathetic investment in the admittedly "whiny," all-too-ordinary lives of the protagonist and his small circle of friends. The critics tend towards a blanket dismissal of any problems in life which are too bourgeois or what have you, in view of the misery of the less privileged, but however noble this outlook is, it unfairly steamrolls well-crafted and intelligently observed works of modern realism like this one. Self pity, I agree, is unsympathetic but one of the strengths of Shortcomings is its thoughtful style of self-deprecation, and its subtle, everyday drama....more
Loses one star for the annoyingly prissy tone the author takes, but on the whole this is a great book for the outsider to economics. It explains withLoses one star for the annoyingly prissy tone the author takes, but on the whole this is a great book for the outsider to economics. It explains with just the right pace and repetition the core concepts behind the world of finance and the last few chapters, which detail the political obstacles to change in our current circumstances, were very eye-opening for me. I will gladly read another non fiction book by this author....more