Friday, August 13, 2004

(Books for this political season)

Originally posted: Fri, 13 Aug 2004 09:06:13

As we gear up for the Republican convention and a fall campaign that will quite possibly be close and brutal, I've assembled a "top ten" list of books for this political season. These are in no particular order, and they include plenty of books that don't seem obvious. They also exclude some obvious picks, such as Machiavelli's The Prince and Sun Tzu's The Art of War. And no, they don't include Joe Trippi's recent book or Extreme Democracy, neither of which I've been able to read yet. But these selected books all have direct bearing on aspects of this year's presidential election.

So here they are:

1. Kaufer and Butler. Rhetoric and the Arts of Design.

Kaufer and Butler's discussion of rhetoric as a design art is quite valuable, especially when applied to the Lincoln-Douglas debates. The authors provide a really useful taxonomy for structurally analyzing those debates -- and I find myself applying it to the current candidates' speeches as well. Although Douglas was eventually declared the winner of his debates with Lincoln, Kaufer and Butler successfully argue that he overrelied on tactics, underinvested in a persistent rhetorical strategy, and underestimated the impact of print media on the campaign. Look for parallels in the upcoming debates.

2. Machiavelli. The Discourses.

While Kaufer and Butler provide a close analysis, Machiavelli's analysis of the Roman republic has a much larger sweep. Machiavelli, an ardent republican (small R, of course), discusses in detail what makes a republic work and what kills it. This book has plenty of advice that is pertinent to this political season. President Bush could have benefited from his advice not to trust exiles, for instance. Most interesting to me is Machiavelli's contention that republics almost always make better decisions than princes.

3. Latour. Pandora's Hope.

Latour was heavily influenced by Machiavelli, so it's no surprise that he draws a similar conclusion. In two consecutive chapters in Pandora's Hope, he analyzes the debate between Socrates and Callicles from The Gorgias. Too often, he says, we want to take sides in the debate: Might (Callicles) or Right (Socrates), power or knowledge, earth or heaven. One leads to tyranny, the other leads to the philosopher-kings lauded in Plato's Republic. But even as Socrates and Callicles were hashing out this choice, the democratic Athenians were enacting their own solution: negotiating, haggling, bargaining, and compromising to yield a workable solution. The debate between Might and Right, Latour charges, is at its core antidemocratic -- and foolish in its tunnel vision.

4. Surowiecki. The Wisdom of Crowds.

Latour and Machiavelli agree that crowds make better decisions than princes or kings. So does James Surowiecki, in this book -- which I'm still finishing up. I picked up Surowiecki's book after reading the recommendation on Dan Drezner's site, but my wife also heard a blurb about it on NPR. Like Latour and Machiavelli, Surowiecki argues that "crowds" can often make better decisions than individuals, even if the individuals are not terribly well informed or intelligent; as long as their input is aggregated well, decision-making turns out to be far more accurate even than the experts'.

Now, to my mind, this thesis is severely flawed in that it is explicated by reference to problems whose answers can be retrospectively verified, typically with quantitative measures. Examples include guessing a heifer's weight, the coordinates of a lost submarine, or a political candidate's margin of victory. Surowiecki explicitly disallows the question of deliberation (though he sneaks it in through the back door) -- the focus is on aggregations of guesses, the closing in on an objective solution, not the forging of open-ended political settlements. So the real value of The Wisdom of Crowds this political season, I think, will be in the examination of polls and voter data.

5. Zuboff and Maxmin. The Support Economy.

Voters have changed considerably over the years, of course, and Zuboff and Maxmin suggest that this can be explained partially through a paradigm shift in the economy. Citizens, they say, are looking for more individualized choices. That's true in the market, their primary focus, but they suggest that the shift can also be seen in how citizens have left large political organizations in favor of smaller a la carte movements. Whereas our parents might have been willing to subsume their political will to an organization, letting (for instance) a union leader speak for them, we are more apt to want to represent ourselves. Witness the success of Howard Dean's online fundraising -- and, I would argue, its swift collapse. And notice also the proliferation of blogs representing constituencies that can't be catalogued using the traditional left/right dichotomy. This phenomenon led to bloggers at this year's conventions as well as the rapid fact-checking of older media.

6. Bakhtin - The Dialogic Imagination.

Of course, the explosion of political blogs reminds us of something we too often forget, which is that the Republican and Democratic parties are themselves fragile and contentious coalitions. Discussing what the "typical" Democrat or Republican thinks leads to straw person arguments because the discussion rests on the notion that each party has core principles to which all members subscribe -- typically something you can put on a bumper sticker. Bakhtin's most read book provides a valuable corrective to that notion by reminding us that different dialogues are always going on, combining and coexisting perhaps, but not necessarily synthesizing in the sense that dialectic would have us imagine. What a timely message as both candidates begin their attempts to chip away at the constituencies of the other party.

7. Wertsch. Voices of Collective Remembering.

Bakhtin, of course, labored in obscurity in the Soviet Union -- served often by his ability to hide his un-Soviet theorizing in Marxist language. He invoked the dialectic as a sort of trope for dialogism. That protective reframing was, of course, widespread practice in the Soviet Union. In Voices of Collective Remembering, Wertsch helps us to examine the false histories, the double consciousness, and the clandestine discussions that would occur in the USSR. Furthermore, he suggests that in some cases these harsh conditions actually resulted in more critical examinations of history than here in the US. This book reminds us of what is at stake in telling history, and suggests to me that the current wild diversity in the blogosphere could help us to become more critical consumers of news and history.

8. Jungck. Future Workshops.

As we consider new computer-mediated opportunities to expand our political participation (what some are calling "extreme democracy"), we might recall an older, more time-consuming aproach meant to route around accreted political-bureaucratic structures. Robert Jungck's approach, future workshops, involved recruiting interested citizens for intensive brainstorming, problem solving, and consensus building. The point was to avoid the groupthink and blind allegiance that characterized the Nazi regime as well as the mindset of the early Cold War. The H-bomb horrified Jungck; he believed that if he could get ordinary citizens to invest themselves in decision-making, real change could occur. Future workshops later became integral to the participatory design approach, in which workers strove for political and technological change in their workplaces.

9. Latour. War of the Worlds.

And that brings us to this slim pamphlet, the second entry of Latour's on this list. Based on lectures Latour has given over the last several years, and framed by the events of 9/11, War of the Worlds suggests

that these events should spur a reexamination of how we think about other cultures. For too long, Latour says, we have approached other cultures through either ethnocentrism or multiculturalism -- two sides of the same coin, he argues. Our mistake, he says, is to posit that there are several cultures but only one nature. So we may "respect" other points of view, but deep down we believe there's only one correct one -- ours, since we are expert at apprehending nature as it really is. Nonsense, Latour says. There are just as many natures as cultures: in a later book, he uses the term "natureculture" to drive home the point that any separation is artificial. And if that's so, we should earnestly negotiate settlements with others to agree on a world we can coinhabit. That doesn't mean giving up on our cherished values and beliefs, but it does involve understanding that theirs may be just as cherished and valued.

10. Law. Aircraft Stories.

Finally, along the same lines, we get to a book to which I gave an uncharitable review a while back. I don't regret that review -- but let's give credit where it is due. Politics become instantiated in the material environment, and not just in the obvious ways discussed by so many cultural theorists. In his study of how aircraft were designed and built for the British military, Law demonstrates quite well that a variety of constraints guided this complex work. Among those constraints were the representations of the Soviet Union, its strategies and tactics, its technologies and pilots. These were just as important and concrete as wind shear and other "natural," "objective" constraints. Examining Law's argument here helps us to reexamine the supposed split between politics and technology, politics and nature, politics and work.

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