The Hot Type column in the June 1 Chronicle of Higher Education discusses Angus McLaren’s new book Impotence: A Cultural History. Peter Monaghan gives a nice overview of McLaren’s project to document the history of male sexual impotence from Renaissance Italy to our modern age of Viagra:
Impotence was with us long before Viagra and Cialis. And curing it has never been quite as simple as popping a pill, reports Angus McLaren in Impotence: A Cultural History. … Ancient Mesopotamians chanted spells and ate helpful plants and roots to combat it, but some more-recent salves seemed liable to further unman the man. During the 20th century, the German surgeon Peter Schmidt’s “Steinach operation,” for example, involved cutting the vas deferens and injecting “testicular extracts,” which were drawn from prisoners executed at San Quentin State Prison in California or from goats, rams, boars, and deer. …
As for Viagra, its cultural workings are worth pondering, suggests Mr. McLaren. While such medications may work, forgoing the magic pill then becomes “almost a lack of responsibility, and defeatism,” he writes, leaving men no freer than before from trying to live up to masculine ideals.
Read a special feature drawn from the book: “Two . . .
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In his new book, The Secret History of Emotion: From Aristotle’s Rhetoric to Modern Brain Science author Daniel Gross embarks on an intellectual voyage to examine the history of emotions in western culture. Writing for the Times Literary Supplement reviewer Stephen Pender praises Gross’s newest work for delivering a fascinating counterpoint to the way we generally understand emotions today. Pender writes:
One way to prise open the emotional sphere is to situate the passions socially, to investigate their exigencies with an eye on the polis. And we have a fine guide in Daniel Gross, the author of The Secret History of Emotion. To recognize the social in the passionate, Gross urges a turn to Aristotelian traditions, and in particular to the Rhetoric, which offers “a pragmatic phenomenology of the passions.” In opposition to “current platitudes of emotion,” Gross offers a bold, compelling and occasionally rebarbative argument about the turn from seventeenth- and eighteenth-century political rhetoric, which articulated the social and the particular in the passionate, to a hopelessly insular psychology, marked by disingenuous universalizing and specious materialism.… Gross’s deft and remarkable book should be required reading for neurobiologists and, of course, for humanists of every school.
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Dorothy Cheney and Richard Seyfarth’s new book, Baboon Metaphysics: The Evolution of a Social Mind, has received several notable reviews over the past month. Writing in the May 19 issue of New Scientist primatologist Frans de Waal notes the the author’s insightful study of baboons’ social organization, and the implications of their research in gaining a better understanding of our own human society. Steven Poole also reviewed the book for the May 12 issue of the Guardian noting the book’s entertaining study of the often dramatic social lives of these primates. Poole writes:
What have years of observing wild baboons in Botswana taught the authors about social thinking and learning abilities? The vivid narrative is like a bush detective story, as the authors conduct ingenious experiments, setting up loudspeakers to play back prerecorded baboon calls (the baboons recognize individual voices, and act surprised if a sequence indicates a violation of rank), or lament the loss of their favorites to lions and leopards. The detail of how baboons keep track of the, er, grunting order is almost novelistic, as we track social peaks and troughs in their lives, and the authors’ conclusions have intriguing implications for the evolution of language . . .
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This week’s edition of Nature has quite a positive review of Charles Thorpe’s new book, Oppenheimer: The Tragic Intellect. Catherine Westphall writes for Nature:
Does the world really need yet another book about J. Robert Oppenheimer? … Amazingly, Charles Thorpe’s Oppenheimer still manages to provide a fascinating new perspective. …
What’s new here is a precise and compelling description of how Oppenheimer’s Los Alamos persona was forged by wartime circumstances and the Los Alamos community. To succeed in its grim mission, Los Alamos needed a certain type of leader, and Oppenheimer nimbly fit himself to the role, becoming the intellectual, moral, and social center of gravity for the constellation of scientific and engineering problem-solving. Thorpe argues that just as Oppenheimer created Los Alamos, so Los Alamos created, or at least reconfigured, Oppenheimer.
Westphall’s review concludes: “Thorpe’s book provides the best perspective yet for understanding Oppenheimer’s Los Alamos years, which were critical, after all, not only to his life but, for better or worse, the history of mankind.”
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Last Monday Salon.com ran an in-depth review of Angus McLaren’s new book Impotence: A Cultural History. Drawing from McLaren’s work, reviewer Laura Miller walks through several centuries of male sexual failure and the various theories behind its causes and cures to explore its social impact throughout the history of western civilization. But according to Miller, it’s what all this history has to teach us about our attitudes towards impotence today that make McLaren’s book notable. Miller writes:
The final chapters of Impotence, covering the last 50 years of sexual liberation, feminism and Viagra, are the most interesting. McLaren’s long historical view lends substance to his argument that our current, “enlightened” take on sex hasn’t necessarily made things easier for the average guy. The idea that manliness consists of being able to sexually satisfy a woman—not merely penetrate and impregnate her—increased the pressure. So did the rise of sex therapy, with its notion of sex as a body of sophisticated techniques requiring planning and practice—sex as work, in effect. A mid-20th-century preoccupation with “simultaneous orgasm” as the pinnacle of marital love and a necessity for any truly happy couple set many couples up for disappointment and insecurity. With the advent . . .
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The May 20th Boston Globe featured a review of not one, but two new books celebrating the “breathtaking diversity of life” inhabiting the earth’s deep oceans. Reviewer Anthony Doerr writes:
Two new books from the University of Chicago should help forever banish the paradigm of the lifeless deep. Tony Koslow’s The Silent Deep is an illustrated survey of deep-sea ecology, deeply informed by history and rendered in straightforward, careful prose. Claire Nouvian’s The Deep is a big, glossy book of deep-water photographs, punctuated with short essays by 15 leading oceanographers. (Koslow has an essay in Nouvian’s book. )
The two books present earth’s biggest, strangest ecosystem with reverence and wonder. Koslow tells the stories of deep-sea pioneers like Wyville Thomson and William Beebe; tours us past hydrothermal vents, underwater mountains, and whale falls; and laments the destruction of deep-water habitats caused by mining, pollution, and bottom trawling.
Nouvian’s The Deep features more than 200 color portraits of the planet’s least-known creatures: sparkling pink octopi like floating lanterns; iridescent squid with corkscrew tails; predatory fish with hooded eyes and translucent teeth looming in the darkness. Some of these are the first-ever photographs of certain organisms. At least eight of . . .
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The May 12 Financial Times ran an interesting review of Anne Goldgar’s new book, Tulipmania: Money, Honor, and Knowledge in the Dutch Golden Age. Simon Kuper writes for the FT:
We think we know the story of “tulipmania”: the 17th-century Dutch dropped fortunes on tulips, ruined their economy, even killed themselves over the bulbs. In short, tulipmania is remembered as the first market bubble. It has been used as an analogy for subsequent ones, most recently during the dotcom boom. However, Anne Goldgar tells us at the start of her excellent debunking book: “Most of what we have heard of it is not true.…”
The bubble grew from late 1636.… Prices of Switsers bulbs, to cite one example, rose 12-fold from new year of 1637 to peak on February 3 at 1,500 guilders a pound.… The crash came in early February 1637, when prices fell by approximately 90 per cent.… Yet the effects were modest. It’s a myth that tulipmania devastated the Dutch economy. How could it, when so few people traded tulips? Even those who did survived the crash. Tulips were merely a sideline to their real professions. Rather, tulipmania damaged the code of honour that underlay Dutch . . .
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In the 1630s the Netherlands was gripped by tulipmania: a speculative fever unprecedented in scale and, as popular history would have it, folly. We all know the outline of the story—how otherwise sensible merchants, nobles, and artisans spent all they had on tulip bulbs. We have heard how these bulbs changed hands hundreds of times in a single day, and how some bulbs, sold and resold for thousands of guilders, never even existed. Tulipmania is seen as an example of the gullibility of crowds and the dangers of financial speculation.
But it wasn’t like that. As Anne Goldgar reveals in Tulipmania: Money, Honor, and Knowledge in the Dutch Golden Age, not one of these stories is true. Making use of extensive archival research, she lays waste to the legends, revealing that while the 1630s did see a speculative bubble in tulip prices, neither the height of the bubble nor its bursting were anywhere near as dramatic as we tend to think. By clearing away the accumulated myths, Goldgar is able to show us instead the far more interesting reality: the ways in which tulipmania reflected deep anxieties about the transformation of Dutch society in the Golden Age.
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