Friday, January 15, 2016

Description of the World - Part 44

Consumer Reports, How to Clean Practically Anything (Belongs in the kitchen.)

The Baffler #19 (You often hear that the political left has no new ideas and if you mean it lacks some overarching new theoretical foundation comparable to Marxism in either scope or seductiveness, that’s quite true. There’s been plenty of less grandiose, more empirical thinking, however.
The problem is that when an accurate diagnosis of political and social problems doesn’t result in actions that either ameliorate the problems or at least create new ones, the repetition of the diagnosis is just depressing. Which is probably why I didn’t subscribe to the Baffler after reading this issue even though the contributors are mostly people I respect or at least think are usefully wrong.)

Gabriel Kolko, The Triumph of Conservatism (Kolko argued that political progressivism, far from representing a revolt against the business interests, was a way that they could maintain and even increase their control over the economy and the workers. I don’t know what to think about the specific thesis of this book, but I have developed my own suspicions about Teddy and Woodrow’s versions of reform in the years since I read it. I prefer to call myself a liberal instead of a progressive because, in Roosevelt’s version at least, progressivism was high-handed, top-down, careless about civil and political liberty, and stood for an aggressive, imperialistic foreign policy. Of course Democratic politicians use the word progressive because they think liberal has become poisonous, but there is something Daddy-Warbucks-like in the politics of at least some of the modern progressives that is reminiscent of Rooseveltian noblesse oblige. Bloomberg comes to mind; but so does Obama’s especially when he does trade policy via secretive commissions. That is not necessarily disastrous; and, as I’ve often written, it may be the best we may hope for in the post-democracy era. I think that government has to play a major role in a modern economy, not only on the distribution but the supply side—the alternative is stagnation and environmental degradation—but if the people have no effective and on-going voice in the process, the result will not be a rationalized economy but an economy organized in favor of the few and just for that reason one that is not that dynamic or efficient either.)

Wallace Sterner, The Spectator Bird (Like many another novel in my collection, I never got around to reading this one. I was going to say that my semi-allergy to fiction is based on the prejudice that half of the novels I encounter begin with a description of the weather. Then I opened this paperback and read “On a February morning, when a weather front is off the Pacific, but has not quite arrived….”)

Peter Gay, Weimar Culture (This copy has many underlined passages, but I know the annotations aren’t mine because they carefully identify the main points instead of pointing out quirky bits as mine are prone to do. I did read it, however, and found it rather better than some of Gay’s other efforts, perhaps because Gay lived through the era he describes in the book. I’ve had the suspicion for some time that his later books, the big ones especially, were like Rubens paintings, i.e., creations of the studio, impressive canvasses not all of whose brush strokes were made by the master. Well, I’m probably being unfair. I have a certain antipathy to Gay left over from a long argument I had with him about something or other at a cocktail party—only the memory of the bad feelings remain. Incidentally, I don’t mention having met the man by way of name dropping, though it probably comes across that way, when I make comments like that. To me it is just the reverse—not a way of bragging but simply more evidence that I am, indeed, a human tangent line that over his life touched a great many things, ideas, and people, some of them important, but only at a point. Anyhow, it’s no trick to meet eminent historians, philosophers, and scientists, at least until they become celebrities. It’s mostly the insignificant people of the day that have the armed guards. You can exchange emails with the folks who will be discussed in 22nd Century intellectual history courses.)
Elizabeth L. Eisenstein, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (I first read this book in a library copy when it first came out and was delighted to acquire my own copy when it was reissued in a single-volume paperback I could mark up. This is my favorite scholarly book, bar none. A great deal has been written about the advent of the book and its consequences since; and, of course, the idea that printing “altered the face and state of the world” [Bacon] is hardly new. Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin wrote a notable work on the subject. In my opinion neither the old nor the new works on this topic compare to Eisenstein—I noticed that David Wooton, the British historian, came to the same conclusion in his recent Invention of Science. For Eisenstein’s larger findings, you really need to read the book, which is hardly an unpleasant assignment; but little observations and facts lend her work much of its richness. For example, she points out that Gutenberg’s first print job was not the Bible, but an indulgence and in another place that when “ they handled manuscript books copied by eleventh and twelfth-century scribes, quattrocento literati thought they were looking at texts that came right out of the bookshops of ancient Rome.”)

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