Author Essays, Interviews, and Excerpts

Andrew R. Highsmith on the crisis in Flint

February 10, 2016
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Andrew R. Highsmith on the crisis in Flint

Below follows an excerpt from “Flint’s toxic water crisis was 50 years in the making,” Andrew R. Highsmith’s op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, which builds on the scholarship of his book Demolition Means Progress: Flint, Michigan, and the Fate of the American Metropolis. Read his piece in full here. *** As with so many environmental disasters, this one was preventable. Evidence suggests that the simple failure to use proper anti-corrosive agents led to the leaching of lead into the city’s water. It has also become apparent that the slow responses of local, state and federal officials to this crisis — as well as their penchant for obfuscation — prolonged the lead exposure. It would be a mistake, however, to conclude that Flint’s predicament is simply the result of government mismanagement. It’s also the product of a variety of larger structural problems that are much more difficult to untangle and remedy. Over the past three-quarters of a century, waves of deindustrialization, disinvestment and depopulation eviscerated Flint’s tax base, making it all but impossible to improve — or even maintain — the city’s crumbling infrastructure. Flint — which once claimed 200,000 residents — now contains fewer than 100,000, nearly half impoverished, more than half African American. . . .

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Free e-book for February: Outside the Gates of Eden

February 3, 2016
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Free e-book for February: Outside the Gates of Eden

Our free e-book for February: Peter Bacon Hales’s Outside the Gates of Eden: The Dream of America from Hiroshima to Now Download your copy here. *** Exhilaration and anxiety, the yearning for community and the quest for identity: these shared, contradictory feelings course through Outside the Gates of Eden, Peter Bacon Hales’s ambitious and intoxicating new history of America from the atomic age to the virtual age. Born under the shadow of the bomb, with little security but the cold comfort of duck-and-cover, the postwar generations lived through—and led—some of the most momentous changes in all of American history. Hales explores those decades through perceptive accounts of a succession of resonant moments, spaces, and artifacts of everyday life—drawing unexpected connections and tracing the intertwined undercurrents of promise and peril. From sharp analyses of newsreels of the first atomic bomb tests and the invention of a new ideal American life in Levittown; from the music emerging from the Brill Building and the Beach Boys, and a brilliant account of Bob Dylan’s transformations; from the painful failures of communes and the breathtaking utopian potential of the early days of the digital age, Hales reveals a nation, and a dream, in transition, as . . .

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What is an Air Guitar?

February 1, 2016
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What is an Air Guitar?

The University of Chicago Press: you’ve got the answer(s), we’ve got the question(s). (And by questions, I mean Dave Hickey’s other books.)          To read more about The Invisible Dragon, click here. To read more about 25 Women: Essays on Their Art, click here. . . .

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Jennifer Tyburczy on Sex Museums for Artforum

January 29, 2016
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Jennifer Tyburczy on Sex Museums for Artforum

Just a snippet from a fab piece by Jennifer Tyburczy for Artforum on the research informing her recent book Sex Museums: The Politics and Performance of Display, which places the museum in its spatial, political, and sexual contexts, each imbricated by the other, as well as our notions of public and private. You can read more from her “500 Words” piece here. *** The big surprise, though, was that as soon as I started to write about sex museums, they started to close. The latter part of my book is dedicated to an ethnography of these spaces. It was disconcerting when I would plan out a visit to Los Angeles to see an erotic museum that then closed mere months before I could make the trip. Part of the book became about the failure of these ventures, and I don’t mean in a Jack Halberstam, Queer Art of Failure kind of way. Ultimately, many of these museums could not provide what visitors wanted, which was a really raw experience with sex drawn from the archive and arranged in displays. A lot of the museums I discuss—whether in New York, Denmark, or Spain—had an ingrained idea of who their normative visitor was and where their threshold . . .

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“Anthropology’s Storyteller-Shaman-Sorcerer”

January 28, 2016
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“Anthropology’s Storyteller-Shaman-Sorcerer”

From a recent review of Michael Taussig’s The Corn Wolf at Pop Matters: Taussig’s work is the sort of bewilderingly beautiful prose (one is often tempted to call it poetry) that’s able to operate on multiple intellectual levels. The first essay in the collection, “The Corn Wolf: Writing Apotropaic Texts”, immerses the reader fully and mercilessly in the style. It opens with a poor graduate student realizing that writing up their fieldwork is the most difficult and important task of graduate school, and also the one thing graduate school teaches you nothing about. Fieldwork and writing; “they are both rich, ripe, secret-society-type shenanigans. Could it be that both are based on impossible-to-define talents, intuitions, tricks, and fears?” No wonder many careerist academics dislike him. Of course the essay isn’t so much about graduate writing as about his own writing, and about the act of writing—the magical act of writing—itself. For example, Taussig considers anthropology’s treatment of magic and shamanic sorcery: “Pulling the wool over one’s eyes is a simpler way of putting it… What we have generally done in anthropology is really pretty amazing in this regard, piggybacking on their magic and on their conjuring—their tricks—so as to come up with explanations that . . .

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The Party Decides on The Brian Lehrer Show

January 27, 2016
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The Party Decides on The Brian Lehrer Show

The Party Decides: Presidential Nominations Before and After Reform is having quite a week—and quite an election season, in general. The book was adopted early by Nate Silver at his FiveThirtyEight blog, which led to explorations of its hypothesis here and here, and most recently here: where Silver posits the book as the most “misunderstood” of the 2016 primary season. The point of Silver’s statement rests on whether or not a Trump nomination would destroy the Republican Party. The book’s argument is that party elites—unelected insiders—control who ultimately ends up nominated at the convention, and that decision is made many months before the primary campaign season even begins. Was anyone but Trump the nominee (say Marco Rubio, or even Jeb Bush), then The Party Decides had it right all along; if Republicans put forward DT, then it may be less a sign that the statistically supported data of the book is incorrect, and more a case of the possible dissolution of the Grand Old Party. In the meantime, you can hear more about the book and what a Trump nomination might signify on today’s episode of The Brian Lehrer Show below: To read more about The Party Decides, click here. . . .

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WJT Mitchell on Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur

January 21, 2016
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WJT Mitchell on Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur

From WJT Mitchell’s review of Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur, live at the LA Review of Books: The Pet Collector reminds us of the most fundamental role of language: the ability to name things, and by doing so, to make them belong to us, and we to them. (The naming of and “dominion over” animals are central to Adam’s role in the Garden of Eden.) But the Collector doesn’t just take possession of his adopted family of animals; in his excessive abundance of attachments, he is clearly also possessed, and appears to be a fearful hoarder of living things. Arlo, by contrast, only needs his one companion, Spot, and he is comfortable with letting Spot go when he finds a human family to join at the conclusion of the film. All this reeks of what anthropologists used to call totemism, the adoption of natural things (animals and plants) as kinfolk and symbols of kinship in so-called primitive cultures. The problem is that dinosaurs were unknown to primitive cultures; they are a thoroughly modern discovery, never named, classified, or adopted until the British paleontologist Richard Owen proclaimed their existence in 1843. Could it be that modern cultures need totemism too? Freud’s Totem and Taboo argued . . .

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If the US economy is so good, why does it feel so bad?

January 19, 2016
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If the US economy is so good, why does it feel so bad?

“If the US economy is so good, why does it feel so bad?”* by Salvatore Babones (*adapted from Sixteen for ’16: A Progressive Agenda for a Better America, first published on the Policy Press Blog) *** With a 2 percent annual growth rate, 5 percent unemployment, and zero inflation, the US economy is the envy of the world. Growth seems to be rising and unemployment seems to be falling, which means that most analysts expect an even better US economy in 2016. Throw in low gas prices and a strong dollar, and what’s not to like? If the US economy is doing so well, why are ordinary people so unhappy with their own economic prospects? The aggregate US economy may be growing but most people’s personal economies are not. Census Bureau data show that real per capita income is still below 2007 levels—despite six years of solid economic growth. And Bureau of Labor Statistics data show that despite today’s low unemployment rates the jobs still haven’t come back. Back in 2006 the employment rate of the civilian population—the proportion of adults who had jobs—was over 63 percent. Allowing for people who are still in school, people who are retired, people who . . .

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The Normalization of Deviance

January 7, 2016
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The Normalization of Deviance

In his piece for the most recent issue of the Atlantic on the origins of the corporate mea culpa and its promulgation of evils, Jerry Useem turned the theory and research of Diane Vaughan, including that drawn from her book The Challenger Launch Decision: The sociologist Diane Vaughan coined the phrase the normalization of deviance to describe a cultural drift in which circumstances classified as “not okay” are slowly reclassified as “okay.” In the case of the Challenger space-shuttle disaster—the subject of a landmark study by Vaughan—damage to the crucial O‑rings had been observed after previous shuttle launches. Each observed instance of damage, she found, was followed by a sequence “in which the technical deviation of the from performance predictions was redefined as an acceptable risk.” Repeated over time, this behavior became routinized into what organizational psychologists call a “script.” Engineers and managers “developed a definition of the situation that allowed them to carry on as if nothing was wrong.” To clarify: They were not merely acting as if nothing was wrong. They believed it, bringing to mind Orwell’s concept of doublethink, the method by which a bureaucracy conceals evil not only from the public but from itself. More explicitly, for Vaughan, the O-ring . . .

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Free e-book for January: The Thousand-Year Flood

January 4, 2016
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Free e-book for January: The Thousand-Year Flood

Our free e-book for January: David Welky’s The Thousand-Year Flood: The Ohio–Mississippi Disaster of 1937 In the early days of 1937, the Ohio River, swollen by heavy winter rains, began rising. And rising. And rising. By the time the waters crested, the Ohio and Mississippi had climbed to record heights. Nearly four hundred people had died, while a million more had run from their homes. The deluge caused more than half a billion dollars of damage at a time when the Great Depression still battered the nation. Timed to coincide with the flood’s seventy-fifth anniversary, The Thousand-Year Flood is the first comprehensive history of one of the most destructive disasters in American history. David Welky first shows how decades of settlement put Ohio valley farms and towns at risk and how politicians and planners repeatedly ignored the dangers. Then he tells the gripping story of the river’s inexorable rise: residents fled to refugee camps and higher ground, towns imposed martial law, prisoners rioted, Red Cross nurses endured terrifying conditions, and FDR dispatched thousands of relief workers. In a landscape fraught with dangers—from unmoored gas tanks that became floating bombs to powerful currents of filthy floodwaters that swept away whole towns—people hastily . . .

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