Monthly Archives: June 2012

Richard Rhodes – The Making of the Atomic Bomb

Rhodes is a novelist, and The Making of the Atomic Bomb is, as most reviewers have noted, a readable, and at times engrossing, epic (or as Hacker calls it, an “Atomiad.”)  It traces the development of the atomic bomb from the early 1900s, when physicists were just beginning to suspect the existence of an atom (though he locates belief in the “atom” as “an invisible layer of eternal, elemental substance” in ancient Greeks Leucippus and Democritus) through Los Alamos and WWII, and on to the development and testing of the “Super” or hydrogen bomb in the 1950s.  Various reviewers put their own political slants on Rhodes’ thesis, but Broad, I think, captures it most fairly: since 1945, when the United States dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, science has for the first time become powerful enough to challenge the state.  Critically, unlike technological determinists, Rhodes sees that though atomic technology has changed the way politics is enacted, the relationship between politics and technology is a two-way street – which means, following Bohr, that a peaceful, unified, global system is just as possible in the Nuclear Age as the current system of warring states.

It’s hard to summarize some 800+ pages in a single paragraph, but here are a few highlights.  The book is divided into three sections: Part 1, the development of nuclear physics from the early 1900s to WWII; Part 2, the wartime work on nuclear energy by both the Allies and the Axis powers; and Part 3, discussions of the explosions at the end of WWII – one at Trinity and the others in Japan.  The Epilogue traces the in-group politics at Los Alamos that led to the development of the “Super” hydrogen bomb, and moralizes against technological determinism and toward a “world system” precipitated by the desire to avoid the war to end all wars.  Actors include Szilard, Rutherford, Oppenheimer, and Edward Teller, who was apparently the only one interested in making more weapons – everyone else lobbied congress to get more political power for scientists (as the only people who really knew what the bomb was).  Espionage and politics abound.  (The reviews above are better for color than I would be.)
The book does make use of archival work as well as interviews with those participants still alive in the 1980s, and both academic and popular fact-checkers find the research to be sound (if over well-trod territory and a bit sweeping.)  Most reviewers refer to the narrative/ epic character of the book, and popular reviewer Broad very much liked Rhodes’ personal take on history.  But if Broad liked the attention to personality and the ‘network’ approach to technological development, Badash found the ‘psychological’ detail thinly researched and sometimes unnecessary.  Hacker echoed my criticism – that the attention to individual actors obscures the larger cultural context, and makes it look like a few charismatic scientists were entirely responsible for the development of the bomb.  In other words, by focusing so much on the motives and ideas of individuals, Rhodes falls victim to the ‘great man’ syndrome that plagues so many histories of technology.  In walking the line between networks and great men, Rhodes is in the company of folks like Langdon Winner and especially Thomas Hughes, who focused on great men (like Thomas Edison) to show that invention is more hard work and trial and error than a flash of genius.  But I do agree with Hacker – strong research aside, the novelistic flourishes and attention to character development that make The Making of the Atomic Bomb accessible to a non-technical audience tend to obscure the larger, more complex picture.
Rhodes, Richard.  The Making of the Atomic Bomb.  New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986.

the unabomber as a radical philosopher of technology?

David Skrbina and Ted Kaczynski have been corresponding since 2003, and they have a lot in common – intellectually, I mean.  Both come from educational backgrounds in mathematics; both have since turned from math to philosophy; and both are fascinated by the relationship between technology and society. Skrbina has also written a good bit on panpsychism, a philosophy which sees ‘mind’ in all things and which he relates to eco-philosophy, so it’s not entirely unsurprising that in 2010 Feral House published a collection of Kaczynski’s writings as Technological Slavery: The Collected Writings of Theodore J. Kaczynski, a.k.a. “The Unabomber,” with a supportive introduction from Skrbina.  Like Skrbina, Kaczynski develops a critique of technological society from a perspective of mind/ psychology rather than from more (academically) conventional dialectical or social constructivist approaches; also like Skrbina, he questions the levels of dependence on technology in ‘advanced’ societies.

If the publishers of Technological Slavery make good use of Kaczynski’s criminal fame to promote the book – a pipe bomb graces the cover, and its contents include interpretations of his court case and disclaimers that Skrbina and Feral House do NOT condone his crimes – they also, I think, perform a useful recovery.  Like many anti-technology thinkers before him, Kaczynski fears technological domination of society, and reading his manifesto, I’m reminded at times of folks like Langdon Winner, Ivan Illich, and various anti-car bike activist groups, not to mention more mainstream doubters of technology like Thoreau and Lewis Mumford.  If he gets lost in social psychology rather than cultural constructivism, he’s in good company there as well – cultural theorists have lately been recovering Freud, Lacan, and other psychoanalysts in pursuit of what makes society tick.  I may think that psychological/ biological explanations tend to be more essentialist than useful, but not everyone does.  And if he proposes radical, possibly violent, revolution as a solution to technological domination – well, really, what Marxist doesn’t?

I’m not in a position to determine whether Kaczynski is a truly original or important thinker, and I think Skrbina’s dismissal of the deaths he caused is a bit flippant.  But I will say that historically, he is rather important: a man who withdraws from society, who diagnoses technological overdevelopment as a social ill, who resorts to anonymous violence to get his voice heard, and who is willing to trade life in prison for immortality in print, but who becomes largely silenced within the larger media spectacle surrounding his crimes – his trajectory has as much to say about the present dominance of the technological, capitalist system as do his writings.  If other folks are writing about him, I hope they don’t try as hard to separate the two.

Some links:

Review of Skrbina’s Panpsychism in the West, Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, 2005
Skrbina’s Dissertation (why is the whole thing online?  weird), University of Bath, 2001
The Unabomber’s Manifesto
Review of Technological Slavery, The Independent, October 3, 2010
Theodore Kaczynski, The Road to Revolution, 2009

J. Nicholas Entrikin – The Betweenness of Place

Basically, Entrikin is arguing that narrative representation in general and emplotment in particular is the trajectory that geography should take, because it mediates between pure objective representation of the material world and subjective experiential interpretation of that world.  Narrative creates relationships and a trajectory – in other words, it creates meaning out of otherwise disconnected parts.  Since narrative is tied to a narrator, there are many narratives that could be told about a place and all would have equal value, BUT: geographers are in the unique position to tell geographical narratives, because they are trained to be objective, but they also live in the world and thus are subjects – they can describe and explain simultaneously.  

As far as Modernism goes: modernity is a dialectic b/n the Enl binaries of obj and subj, and our goal is to mediate between the two and stop swinging back and forth between binaries.  Would it be fair to say that he’s one of those people that sees PoMo as part of the larger picture rather than its own thing? 

Andrew Merrifield apparently thinks that Entrikin is trying to reconcile humanism, Marxim, and spatial geography in a static way that doesn’t admit for dialectics… maybe I see dialectics in everything (because I think they’re neat) but I think he’s got some mutually constitutive elements in here – subjective  experience, objective world – and some narrators who look a lot like intellectuals or some other mediating specialist group.  Actually… his narrators create narratives, but while these narratives interpret place/ give it meaning by linking the social with the spatial, I don’t know that the social and the spatial ever interact, or that these mediating narratives have any political impact beyond creating broader, more nuanced understandings of the world.  Nothing moves – he’s just bringing together/ fusing the objective with the subjective, with no end in mind.  He’s still stuck in the Enlightenment.

I buy Merrifield’s argument, but I also find some elements of Entrikin’s book useful, particularly his conception of narrative and representation as critical to the creation of meaning – he’s down with the whole linguistic turn, he doesn’t believe in the constitutive outside, and he locates the agency to create meaning in the subject/ narrator, who is simultaneously an expert/ outside the world and a subject who experiences the world.  I imagine most PoMos (erm, de Certeau?) would say that such a position doesn’t exist, but that’s precisely why I like it – a (flawed) attempt to pull the best of both Mod and PoMo into a new conception of truth – multiple perspectives on the meaning of objective places.  The objective location exists outside discourse – subjective discourse of narrative gives it meaning and turns a location into a place.

Really, I think the blurb on the back of this slim volume covers its purpose nicely: “To geographers arguing the merits of hard, scientific data versus subjective experience, Entrikin offers a compromise.  ‘To understand place,’ he suggests, ‘requires that we have access to both an objective and a subjective reality.  From the decentered vantage point of the theoretical scientist, place becomes either location or a set of generic relations and loses much of its significance for human action.  From the centered viewpoint of the subjective self, place has meaning only in relation to one’s own goals and concerns.  Place is best viewed from points in-between.’”

Entrikin, J. Nicholas.  The Betweenness of Place: Toward a Geography of Modernity.  Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991.

Lewis Mumford – The City in History

 Mumford is such a lovely writer, and it’s easy to think that what he lacks in primary research he more than makes up for in thought-provoking speculation.  He’s a utopian thinker who advocates a balance between humans and their environment in the form of decentered, thoughtful, federated social structures. He also writes a lot about the relationship between space and technology.  This book is a ginormous grand narrative of “the city” in Western civilization, from the very dawn of time to the present, so here are just a few of my notes:
In an era shaped by white flight, deindustrialization/ suburbanization, not to mention the fear of nuclear war, Mumford calls for a return to city building instead of destruction.  He argues that cities serve two main purposes: religion and the state.  Biology is a (distant?) third, though really cities are for the people, so people should come first.  The shrine and the citadel are its two dominant structures, carried over from villages.  The city exists to nurture human biological and cultural reproduction, not to use technology to tame whole populations into submission.  The city is the stand-in for society, and he is very adamant that spatial forms and social forms interconnect.  Also, space and the built environment are articulated with technology; humans shouldn’t be afraid of their own inventions or let a few wackos use technology to control them.  The city should be humanity, magnified; communality, nurturing, love.  I sense Hardt & Negri here, where a surplus of love and community lead to a radical democracy, and also the dread fear of totalitarianism and technology, which apparently went hand-in-hand in WWII, what with the Nazis and all.  

It does have its issues, of course.  There is the obvious one of trying to create a grand narrative about all cities ever based on the high points of Western history; also, he has more than a little nostalgia for the ancient village as a model for future societies.  And we won’t even talk about the gender essentialism that’s going in in this thing – I guess he’s sort of feminist in a Kristeva or Irigaray way, but really, it’s offensive now.   
Nonetheless, this book is fascinating – think about what he’s dealing with – the remains of turn-of-the-century industrialization and centralization, run amok with over-centralization in Germany, the US, Soviet Russia, a few powers trying to speak for the whole world, with human lives taking a back seat to the posturing; massive standardization, ideological dominance… jesus.  I would want decentered, federated structures and living situations so that I could matter in day-to-day life but also get the higher-level resources I needed, too.  I just like that he’s not saying fuck centralization – he’s advocating balance, global bodies more as coordinators than as rulers; and I like the lending library model, with its local, regional, and global coordinating levels – though what, he’s advocating bureaucracy?  What would he have thought about the internet?  
He’s modernist – grand narrative, Western-focused, etc – but in a Berman kind of way – where modernism also means exchange between the rulers and the ruled, where the ruled have a lot of power in how things work, where he actually thinks all people are equal and have the ability and desire to rule themselves, and where he wants to set up the physical, social, political, cultural, technological landscape in a way that enables them to do so.  If cities are political relations writ large on the landscape, then he wants a federated, democratic structure – not totalitarianism, but not communism, either.   
I am pleasantly surprised by the respect for humanity that Mumford has, as well as by his hopes for technology and his belief that good city planning – which involves both centralized planning and two-way communication with community residents – can help create a more democratic society.  People help build their own society! Balance!  Sustainability! In 1961!
Mumford, Lewis.  The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations and Its Prospects.  New York: Harcourt, Inc., 1989(1961).

on conferencing

This past semester, I presented at my three very first academic conferences EVER: a graduate student history conference in Michigan, a social theory conference in Boston, and a food studies conference here at UT-Austin.  Since I’m still pretty new to this business, these were also the first three academic conferences I’ve attended, which means that I spent at least as much time soaking up what academic conferences are like as I did presenting and learning about what other scholars are up to.  (And don’t even talk to me about logistics!  I spent so much of April navigating transportation systems in different parts of the country that I could write a whole article on bus culture alone.  Just going from Detroit to Boston was seriously like travelling between different planets – technologically, culturally, spatially, awesomely…!)
Anyhow.  Transportation issues aside, going to three radically different conferences in three different parts of the country was even more instructive than I’d hoped.  Here are a few things I’ve learned in the past few months:
1.      Different kinds of conferences have different purposes, so choose accordingly.
The first conference I went to was a food studies conference aimed at both academics and foodies; the purpose here was mostly to promote our oral history project and get people interested in it, so we set up our presentation so that the oral history subjects, via video and audio recordings, did most of the talking.  The history conference, by contrast, was a graduate student conference aimed at providing inexperienced grad students with a supportive environment and a great deal of feedback.  And the social theory conference was designed to help professionals in a specialized field get together and network.  Because my goal in going to conferences this spring was to learn how conferences work and how to present at them, the grad student conference was by far the most useful for me at this stage in my career (and coincidentally, it was also incredibly well-organized and well-run!), and bigger, discipline- or field-specific conferences will be more useful later, when I’ve got the conferencing thing down and am looking to network with folks in my field.
2.      Presentations are performances.
It’s one thing to present your final paper to ten fellow grad students at the end of a seminar or to lecture 15 undergrads for a few minutes; it’s entirely another to get up in front of a hundred and fifty foodies and talk about your oral history project or to try and interest a group of tenured professors in your dissertation research.  These are performances more than they are presentations, and – if you’re anything like me – they therefore require a good bit of prep to calm the nerves and keep the stage fright at bay.  And yes, this includes planning well in advance, rehearsing multiple times, knowing where the holes in your research lie, and thinking about how you’ll answer the inevitable well-meaning – or not so well-meaning – questions from the audience about them.
3.      The humanities and the social sciences have different presentation conventions.
As I was preparing for the history conference, I thought to myself: ‘I know the idea here is to present a paper, but people can’t possibly just get up there and read papers.  That would be horribly boring.  I bet they make presentations and just hit the high points of the paper.’  So I made a simple Prezi outlining my argument, picked out a few key scenes to talk about, and went to the conference.  Where everyone read papers.  Often without visuals.  And sometimes it was boring, but mostly it was interesting, and the best speakers were able to combine ample detail with good storytelling techniques.  By comparison, my presentation, which I had constructed to be direct and to the point, seemed a bit empty and unromantic.
So, a week later, while I was preparing for the social theory conference, I thought to myself: ‘The papers I really liked at the history conference had a fair amount of detail and a good story to them, and no one really bothered with visuals.  I’ll just trim my paper down a bit and read it.’  So I cut my paper down a bit and went to the conference.  Where everyone had very structured, scientific presentations. And professional-looking visuals.  With lots of diagrams.  And again, sometimes it was boring, but mostly it was interesting, but this time the best speakers had clean, easily intelligible graphics diagramming their arguments.  And they had very little interest in having stories read to them.
Now you know: the humanities and the social sciences have different presentation conventions.  Prepare accordingly.
4.      Talk to people!  It’s fun – and important.
You know what’s awesome about conferences?  Meeting new people and learning new things.  In Michigan, I had the good fortune to be on a panel with a gentleman who was working on a similar project, but focusing on a different city, and to have lunch with a soon-to-be-graduate who was using similar methods to mine.  In Boston, I stayed with a well-travelled artist and bookseller who turned out to be incredible resources on the city’s public transportation, and I learned more about social movements in a single day of conference sessions than I could have in a year’s worth of reading.  And in Austin, our presentation sparked a flurry of questions about tourism, growth, and networks among restaurateurs, all of which provided ample food for thought.  In other words, the presentations are important for sure, but getting to know people informally is what these things are all about!
5.      Travelling is expensive, yo.
I do like travelling, I’m psyched that I got to go to so many different places, and truthfully I needed to get a few lines on the old CV, but jetting all over the country is not exactly the most efficient or the cheapest way to get conference experience.  All told, I spent about a thousand bucks to go to two conferences, which isn’t exactly cheap when you’re on a TA salary.  And frankly, grad student conferences and small regional conferences happen all over the country, so why not go to the ones close to home and save your money for big national conferences (you know, the ones that look good on your CV) instead?  Unless you’re just looking for an excuse to visit friends or you’ve got an expansive travel budget, that is.
In sum: Know your discipline, prepare well, and try as best you can to match up what you want to get out of a conference with the kind (and location) of conference you apply to.  That, and take the time to talk to people.  Business school long ago cured me of ever wanting to use the word ‘networking’ again, but that’s what it is – and it’s important.  And at the grad student conference I went to, it’s also surprisingly fun.

virginity, guilt, and suburbia?

The virgin sidewalk – the physical embodiment of sprawl’s guilty conscience – reveals the true failure of suburbia, a landscape in which automobile use is a prerequisite to social viability.

Duany, Andres, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck.  Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream.  New York: North Point Press, 2000.