Category Archives: quick and dirty book summaries

post-orals… fallout?

Hi friends!

I passed my orals!  Woohoo!  This is good for me because it means I don’t have to drop out of grad school and can spend this summer working on my prospectus instead of looking for a full-time job just yet.  It’s also good for you, if you’re studying for your own exams, because it means that the level of info in these book summaries should be sufficient – if you, like me, will just need a basic knowledge of a book’s argument and its main points.  I hope they’re helpful!

That said, after cramming 275 books into my skull last month, I can’t seem to squeeze any more in just yet, so this blog will be on a bit of an academic hiatus until I start dissertation research in June.  In the meantime, if you’d like to check out what I’m doing to decompress (when I’m not out ridin’ bikes), head on over to  I’ve never built a website of any sort before, but hey, learning something detail-oriented seems like a good way to regain some balance.

See you soon!

summer vacation

116: Doreen Massey’s Space, Place, and Gender

Doreen Massey’s Space, Place, and Gender is a collection of articles from the late 1970s to the 1990s, all of which attempt to formulate concepts of space and place in terms of social relations, class and gender in particular.  Her basic arguments, many of which she develops later in For Space, have to do with the development of a decentered, relational, temporal/process-based, postmodern concept of space, and the mutually constitutive relationship between space and social relations/ inequalities.  She sees
“space-time as a configuration of social relationships within which the specifically spatial may be conceived of as an inherently dynamic simultaneity.  Moreover, since social relations are inevitably and everywhere imbued with power and meaning and symbolism, this view of the spatial is an ever-shifting social geometry of power and signification.” (3)
In other words, space is the social “stretched out.”  Hence there are echoes of Deleuze, de Certeau, Bourdieu in here, and moving space and place to the cultural plane gives her more flexibility in constructing it (yes, she insists that space and place have objective, material components, too, but what she’s talking about for the most part is meaning rather than the physical environment itself.)

While I’m not terribly interested in gendered spaces, I DO, however, like her use of feminist theory as a way in to social/ spatial difference rather than as the be-all and end-all of social difference, and I also like that she actually began with class, which I agree is probably more important than gender as far as social/spatial shaping.  

I also like that she develops her theses regarding the social construction of space, place, and gender in direct response to political issues – her empirical studies lend weight to her ideas AND provide examples for how seemingly abstract theory can actually be useful.  These case studies are particularly effective with respect to issues of gentrification (Docklands/ Isle of Dogs yuppie invasion), class and gender-based economic exploitation (siting factories where working-class or ethnic people or women will provide cheaper labor sources), or inner-city deterioration (thinking of place as porous and geography as linked to social and economic factors helps contextualize urban problems and provide support for structural solutions rather than just blaming the poor for their poverty).

Her writing is compelling and well-organized, and I can imagine using one of her case studies, or the intro to one of the sections, in a course on transportation and culture.  

Originally published on 6.8.2012.

40: Bill Cronon – Changes in the Land

Bill Cronon’s Changes in the Land is an ecological history arguing that “the shift from Indian to European dominance in New England entailed important changes…in the ways these peoples organized their lives, but it also involved fundamental reorganizations… in the region’s plant and animal communities.” (xv)  By extension, history and ecology cannot be separated; further, biological and ecological changes were just as active in shaping history as were the intentional actions of human beings toward each other.  Cronon builds his argument for interdisciplinarity/ interconnection/ ecological history using a variety of sources, including geography (of course), historical descriptions of landscape and environment, anthropology, and, when sources from these disciplines proved too general or inconsistent, “modern ecological literature.”  The result sometimes feels like a smaller Nature’s Metropolis or a more academic Guns, Germs, and Steel: English attempts to make New England more like Europe economically and politically were intimately connected to ecological changes.  (Indians were not passive in this transformation, either.) 

Working at the intersection of two disciplines (history and ecology), Cronon organizes his argument both chronologically and ecologically (lucky for him, they work out to be about the same).  He begins with a picture of pre-colonial New England as being a varied “patchwork” with many more species than we know today; critical here is the relative abundance of the region and the interconnectedness of an ecosystem not yet mined for commodities (which atomize the landscape into a set of extractable units.)  He begins by characterizing the pre-colonial Indian relationship with the land.  Indians tended to deal with seasonal changes by moving to different areas in pursuit of food (streams in the spring for fish, summers near the ocean for shellfish, winters inland for hunting, and a couple of lean months in Feb and March, which kept their food consumption and population density down and thus preserved the natural abundance of the land.  These migratory practices led them to think of land more in terms of its function than in terms of property: Indians were more interested in living well (and remaining mobile) than in acquiring a lot of stuff.  They also created “edge habitats” by planting fields with many different species in them and practicing selective burning, which resulted in fertile ground, good food sources for all sorts of animal life, and therefore abundance.
By contrast, the English come from a sedentary, precapitalist, agriculturally monocultural society, which relied on systematization of the landscape (property, commodities), economically-based relationships, and close ties between accumulated wealth and power.  The changes their arrival made in the New England landscape, both ecologically and socially, were vast.  They began by implementing European ideas of property on the landscape and redefining land in terms of exchange-value rather than use-value (landscape becomes more stable, less varied, less fertile); then, in conjunction with European diseases that ravaged the Indian population, they encouraging the hunt for fur-bearing animals and thus simultaneously depleted the beaver population of New England and transforming a personal, diplomatic Indian society into a pre-capitalist one (though Indian fur trade made use of pre-existing trade diplomatic networks among tribes, devastation due to epidemics allowed for drastic social reorganization).  Then, in clearing forests for timber (which selectively depleted whole species), for grazing (which compacted the land and encouraged weeds, clover, grasses, and other European plants to grow in place of natural species), and monocultural farming (which led to soil exhaustion), they reduced the number of species in New England and reduced the land’s ability to support the hybrid, interconnected patchwork – and the abundance – the Indian agricultural methods had encouraged.  Finally, the sedentary English system of monocultural farming and raising domesticated animals rather than hunting wild game led to a world of fences, fields segregated by function, an intensification of the concept of property, increased weeds and pests, decreased land fertility, and a replication of Europe – both good and bad (they even brought wheat diseases – the “blast”).
There are a lot of interesting things in Changes in the Land.  Rather than take the celebratory tone of more traditional histories of the early colonists, it is written (as much as it is able) from the perspective of the Indians and the land itself and thus tells a tale of depletion and disruption rather than one of cultivation and domestication.  Further, the not-so-subtle subtext throughout the book is that the imposition of a commodity- and property-based social organization on the landscape is ridiculously unhealthy for people and for the land: the monocultural, sedentary, property-oriented, densely-populated economic and geographical situation we find ourselves in is not natural, and it is actually worse for the environment than maintaining low population density and moving seasonally.  And in attempting to draw in voices of the Indians and the land – though he has to do so largely through anthropological and ecological sources – Cronon is building a history where there was little or none.

However, the book is not without its problems.  The precolonial Indians seem to live in a happy harmony with the land and with each other, and despite Cronon’s protestations in the conclusion that germs, increased population, and decreased abundance were partly responsible for the changes in the landscape, the implication that the European Enlightenment/ capitalist system was most directly responsible for resource depletion and social and ecological reorganization is clear.  The result is that the two poles feel undertheorized/ oversimplified: the Indians are perfect, pure; capitalism is evil.  Further, as an ecologist (geographer), Cronon is clear where his biases lie: sustainable relations between humans and the environment involve flexibility, mobility, an emphasis on use-value over exchange-value, and ecological variety and complexity over cultivation, order, and legibility.  While I am totally sold on this claim in theory, we’ve reshaped the landscape so drastically and built such a dense population around it that I’m not sure we could go back to the natural balance he espouses.  Could we support our current density using earth-friendly methods?  Or if I’m reading him incorrectly and he doesn’t want us to go back to a precolonial past, how might we integrate a more equitable connection between humans and the land into our current situation?  (In other words, this book is mad timely.)

Cronon, Bill.  Changes in the Land.  New York: Hill and Wang, 2003 (1983).

30: Kathy Peiss’ Hope in a Jar

Some books on feminism and women’s culture make me really psyched to be a lady.  Some make me feel like a grumpy old stick in the mud, grousing about too-short skirts and a lack of self-respect among the younger generation.  Unfortunately, Hope in a Jar belongs in the latter category.

I’m not trying to say that it’s an unnecessary or uninteresting book – it’s quite the opposite, actually.  Hope in a Jar is a history of the American cosmetics industry “from the bottom up,” and Peiss takes pains to show how women and minorities actively participated in and shaped beauty culture and the cosmetics industry that grew out of it.  It’s the first book to take this industry seriously by looking at it from this perspective; even better, Peiss is an American Studies scholar, so she does that thing where she tells you a lot about both her little slice of life and about its impact on American culture as a whole.  Accordingly, Elizabeth Arden, Madame C.J. Walker and Mary Kay, among others, are portrayed as both intimately connected to the all-female networks, grassroots marketing strategies, and white-focused beauty standards developed in Americas beauty culture and savvy businesswomen who brought fresh ideas into American business culture.  Therefore, after WWI, when the beauty business mushroomed (along with the rest of the economy) into a male-operated, mass-media behemoth, it was instrumental in bringing both female consumers and female businesswomen into the mass market, thus empowering women in the interwar economy.

Women were also empowered in those interwar years by the application of makeup itself.  Rather than succumb to sedate mass-market beauty prescriptions, women followed the lead of their favorite actresses and painted up; bobbed hair, short skirts, and rouged lips and cheeks defied authority and emphasized women’s sex appeal.  How better to celebrate their new status as equals in the marketplace than by asserting their physical presence and personal autonomy?

Right.  Here’s where my inner grump comes in: even if makeup can be seen as liberatory (which, hey, in the 1920s it probably was), it still focuses the attention on a woman’s body, on appearances, on sexuality.  At the risk of sounding like a generation-late Andrea Dworkin or a watered-down Maureen Dowd, women are always already seen as sexualized bodies, so emphasizing those bodies isn’t particularly subversive.  And anyway, the slide back from subversive subject to sexualized object is just too easy when both take the female body as their reference point.

But I digress.  That kind of feminism definitely had its place, and Peiss’ book is good at exploring its empowering intersections with mainstream beauty culture.

29: Joy Kasson’s Buffalo Bill’s Wild West

Buffalo Bill’s Wild West is one of those cool pop culture books that simultaneously teaches you a ton about a cultural product and about the culture that produced it.  In this case, the product is the ever-evolving, politically-topical, travelling western variety show hosted by “Buffalo Bill” Cody around the turn of the last century; the culture that produced it is turn-of-the-century America, a world as uneasy about the conflict and exploitation in its past as it was about the growth of industrial capitalism in its midst.  Arguing that Buffalo Bill himself was among the first modern American celebrities, Kasson shows how his Wild West shows knit together celebrity, American history, and cultural memory into a new narrative of American national identity.

Kasson uses a lot of interdisciplinary hoopla to achieve her goal, but basically, her argument goes like this.  Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show was enormously popular starting in the 1890s, and its producers constantly tweaked it to incorporate both audience feedback and topical stories, so we can safely consider it embedded enough in turn-of-the-century American culture to have both affected and reflected the mood of the times.  Further, the show presented itself as both authentic history and spectacle, and Buffalo Bill himself was both a real person and a widely-publicized invented celebrity.  By walking a very hazy line between fact and fiction, the show started an enduring link between American history and popular culture, where history becomes a spectacle created by the people for their own edutainment.  Conflicts, wars, even struggles with Native Americans get whitewashed; in the name of pleasure, even the bloodiest battle scenes end with Indians – yes, real Indians! – and Anglos reconciled to the applause of the audience at the end of the show.

And finally, from history as edutainment, it’s but a few short steps to national identity as edutainment: to paraphrase my friend Jessica, we like the lies we tell ourselves; if we tell them enough, eventually we come to believe them.

I like this book because it is readable, but also because it still rings true today.  Have you been to Disneyland?  Seen Lincoln?

28: Lynn Hunt’s Inventing Human Rights

In Inventing Human Rights, Lynn Hunt links the development of universal human rights – the idea that all people, as a rather formative American document puts it, “are created equal” and have “certain unalienable rights” – to two 18th-century events: the French Revolution and the rise of the epistolary novel.

The French Revolution resulted in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, which argues for the existence of a universal humanity – “man” – and the necessary connection between the rights of this universal body and the body politic.  If that language feels a lot like that in the Constitution, that’s because it is: universal humanity and equal rights were both Enlightenment concepts, and the framers of the Constitution were Enlightenment men.

But the novel?  Hunt argues that novels, which didn’t even exist before the 18th century, were hugely important in the construction of human rights because they created a sustained, intimate relationship between the reader and characters whose lives were very different from their own.  In particular, epistolary novels – especially ones about women – drew readers in with the most intimate details about characters’ lives; if reading through fictionalized correspondence seems pedantic today (er, it does to me, anyway), back then, this extended snooping allowed readers to become familiar with, even attached to, people they had nothing in common with.  Arguing that familiarity breeds empathy, Hunt finds in the novel a necessary corollary to abstract concepts like “universal” and “equality:” individual empathy.  This empathy, she says, is necessary for universal human rights to work, since you can only see another person as an equal when you can see yourself in them.

Hunt thus puts a very human face on universal human rights.  While she could pay a little more attention to the lives of non-readers and the complex power structures in which they live and work, in this book she still provides a compelling intellectual and cultural history of a very formative idea.

26: Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media

Reviews of Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man seem to follow roughly the same format: a brief overview of McLuhan’s life that characterizes him as a wacky, provincial English professor-turned-overnight-celebrity; a few vague references to his most famous dictums; and an extension of his work to today’s media, with an insistence that despite the passage of time, McLuhan’s work is still surprisingly fresh and new and relevant. 

Be that as it may (hey, I’m all for finding relevance, even if I don’t have the need to call someone a prophet), McLuhan’s language is as obtuse as it is lovely, which makes for hard slogging.  Since one of the things he’s known for is his tendency to write in aphorisms, I think the easiest way to summarize him here is to write out the three that gave me the most trouble, plus a fourth that gives me faith in humanity.

“the medium is the message”

This is the phrase McLuhan is probably most famous for.  Because it is so short, it’s also a hard one to wrap my head around, and McLuhan wasn’t much for giving careful explanations. The “is” doesn’t help, either, because it implies that the two things are equal – which is confusing because it implies a tautology.  The way that this makes sense to me is to think about the relationship between social media and communication forms: a tweet or a Facebook status update or a Tumblr post is radically different from a blog post both in length and content; with less space and a greater emphasis on visuals, whatever information you’re trying to convey in these smaller, more networked formats gets compressed, transformed, digested.  It’s less medium = message and more medium –> message.  And the most successful messages are those that are well-tailored to by synergistic with their medium.

“the content of any medium is always another medium”

Ok.  Thanks, McLuhan, for defining a word with itself.  He goes on to explain, however, in his chapter on radio, that “[t]he content of the press is literary statement, as the content of the book is speech, and the content of the movie is the novel.  So the effects of radio are quite independent of its programming.”  In a way, media are like a hall of mirrors or like Baudrillard’s simulacra, copies of copies of copies; or maybe, in a more subversive vein, like Judith Butler’s processes of translation.  They are telescoping, reflecting and repeating one another like a big, coordinated multimedia ad campaign.  And because of the time-space compression of newer media (see the blog-to-Twitter progression), older media are kept alive, at least for a time, within newer media: books within e-books within blogs and so on.

 “the bad news sells the good news”

Ever wonder why the news is always bad?  It’s because bad news draws the viewer in to gawk or recoil in horror at the spectacle, so that the good news – the advertisements that show you what you can buy to make the horror go away – can catch you at a vulnerable moment.  Thus, when McLuhan was writing, anyway, commercials and programming were combined into one big program, so that program flowed into ad flowed back into program.  The interesting thing is that because a series of commercials is really a set of fragmented, disconnected texts, programmers rely on viewers’ brains to fill in the gaps and connect the fragments into a larger coherent narrative.  Luckily, our brains are trained – ideologically, repetitively – to look for common threads, and to see nothing strange about a seamless integration of real life news, entertainment, and injunctions to consume.

Although “the medium is the message” seems to argue that content follows form, the telescoping nature of media seems to ensure that we stay on a technologically-mediated level playing field of reflected images, and the media themselves seem capable of sheer manipulation, I don’t think that McLuhan was necessarily a technological determinist.  I say this because of his discussion of bicycles:

“It was no accident that the Wright Brothers were bicycle mechanics, or that early airplanes seemed in some ways like bicycles.  The transformations of technology have the character of organic evolution because all technologies are extensions of our physical being.”

Technologies may condition the way humans communicate, but human beings are still very much a part of the technological system; technological change is still “organic evolution” because technologies are “extensions of our physical being” and therefore humans, not technologies, control the direction and rate and quality of technological change.  To folks who fear that the culture industry is going to take over the world and we’ll wake up one day and find ourselves in the middle of Idiocracy, McLuhan argues that humans have the power to stop that kind of development from happening.  Which, if you think about it, was a necessary, albeit old school, message for Cold War America, presented in an interestingly old-fashioned print media-turned-celebrity package.