Reading Group

I’ve gotten good feedback from some of you regarding the reading list I posted. Thank you!!!

Mary points out that most of the books I listed are published on academic presses, which means they are probably not going to turn up at your local bookstore (unless your local bookstore is a really good one in a college town!) and they won’t be in the public library. However, you can get them at your local public library using Interlibrary Loan. If you’ve never ILL’d before, ask a librarian! Librarians love helping people with research, in my experience.

But this leads to a bigger issue, raised by my friend Eileen in an email: how do you read academic texts if you don’t have any practice with doing it? It requires a different set of reading skills than those required to read other kinds of texts. It’s like a conversation that’s been going on for generations, and people are always referring obliquely back to stuff someone said ages ago as well as to different schools of thought that have cropped up in response to that thing, and if you don’t know any of that stuff it feels like walking into a conversation in the corner of a party where sweaty intense people have been talking for hours and then you try to immediately perceive what the topic is and what everyone’s stance on it is. And reading stuff that is “critical” and “analytical,” instead of stuff engaged in simply providing information, uses sort of a different part of your brain. I think struggling to understand high-level critical thinking is really good and necessary, but it does take a kind of focused time that most people these days lack. So I agree it’s important that we also be collecting and reading smart stuff written for a general audience, and please alert me to such stuff when you come across it.

To reiterate, I will say that the Federici, the book about the sharing economy, and even most of the essays in Mapping Multiculturalism, do not seem TO ME to be “too academic” in any of the above ways, so if you are stressed out by the Wendy Brown, I say start with those others. Also I don’t think the Harvey book is hard because it’s “academic,” I just think it’s a lot of economics that is hard to wrap your mind around. So many pages about interest rates!!

Additionally, here are some other cool resources along these lines:

This British leftist has written a lovely, coherent summary of the introduction to Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, the surprise best-seller from a few years ago in which he used data to prove that capitalism always generates inequality. The book is super long and FULL of math and graphs, the kind of thing that makes my heart quail. But the introduction is excellent, and you should totally read it if you want. But then also, here is a smart guy explaining that introduction to you! What could be better??

Similarly, I feel ZERO SHAME in utilizing Oxford’s wonderful “A Very Short Introduction” series. These are extremely short little paperbacks that summarize an entire field of thought or object of study for the non-specialist reader. They are written by expert scholars in the given field. I’m really interested in the psychology involved–the kind of scholarly mind that sees writing one of these as a fun challenge (boiling down the 30 years of knowledge and ideas you’ve accumulated on a subject into a pocket paperback any educated adult could read) and those who probably think of it as pointless labor. The ones I have read have been pretty great. I haven’t read either of these but I recommend them to you regardless (and you can usually get these cheap used). Sidenote: there are SO MANY OF THESE, it’s insane. There’s one on “Time,” one on “The Universe,” etc. I really think these are so cool and such a good resource for non-academics and also for academics trying to get a quick feel for an unfamiliar topic or field. Anyway there you have it:
Neoliberalism: A Very Short Introduction
Marx: A Very Short Introduction (this one’s by Peter Singer!!)

Coming up with non-academic reading material is also a good idea because we need to read stuff that is published more quickly–scholarship takes years to gestate and move through peer review etc., and it’s important to read good smart deep takes on current events as they are happening, especially now when we all need to be apprised of actions to take. I recommended Jacobin magazine, which so far I am finding pretty spot-on (and it’s aesthetically pleasing too, which has not always been the case with socialist publications LOL!!!). Eileen mentioned Dissent, but neither she nor I know that one well–can anyone comment?

I had also suggested reading feminist science fiction, which I stand by. Seriously, Le Guin’s collection The Birthday of the World!! GO READ IT. And Eileen also suggests: Alice Walker, Rachel Maddow, Chimamanda Adichie, Zadie Smith, Sophia Al-Maria, Angela Davis, Kiran Desai, Hannah Arendt, and Barbara Ehrenreich. A great list of smart women writing about the world. Really just dip in to their oeuvres wherever you want and it’ll probably be great–I haven’t read everyone on this list but I’ve read many of them and recommend them very highly. Read “Nickel and Dimed” and you will be well on your way to developing a healthful class rage!

What else should we be reading? The Elena Ferrante novels get pretty deep into class and the long-term multi-generational effects of capitalist inequality, starting mostly notably in book 2, if you’re looking for amazing novels that are also about capitalism. Book 3 has this harrowing plotline about trying to organize the exploited workers in a sausage factory, and all the ways the political ideals of the privileged intellectual class who is trying to do the organizing come into conflict with the lived reality of the actual workers, who are afraid not only for their livelihoods but their physical safety, and who resent the students who come in with their slogans and pamphlets. Brutal and sad and disheartening stuff.

I am also loving all the millennial commies I’ve been following on Twitter

Specifically w/r/t one of the topics on my reading list (multiculturalism), Erin also writes: “I too work at a large university (though not teaching) and there’s been a lot of talk about diversity and inclusion post-election. The quote you give above by Ahmed really struck a chord with me. Committees are being created across campus with good intentions (perhaps), but I also find myself wary of them for some of the same reasons she describes.” YES. Anyone working in academia right now is well familiar with this much-publicized push to get “diversity initiatives” in place, and such moves are also becoming familiar in other industries, like even Silicon Valley where the CEOs of Intel and Apple and whatever are bragging about their diversity initiatives. I am most familiar with what’s going on in higher ed: most of these initiatives are half-baked at best, but the real problem boils down to the problem I have with basically everything, which is that any “solution” that comes from the top down, instead of the bottom up, will always be flawed and will always serve power in some way. These solutions might honestly be well-intentioned! But whenever an initiative comes from on high–from the provost, the president, the CEO, the king, whoever–always poke into it and see if you can figure out how it is serving power, because it always will be, sometimes obviously and sometimes obliquely.

For example, if you actually listen to the CEO of Intel talk about diversity initiatives, as I unfortunately have, it is always about expanding the Intel brand worldwide. It is always about reaching more consumers in more and more far-flung places, by “having a workforce that represents the diversity of our consumer base.” It is never about justice, equality, dismantling racism for its own sake, as a SOCIAL good. It’s about canny brand positioning and the ability to infiltrate foreign cultures and indoctrinate them into loving Intel’s products. So then the “diversity” that you somehow embody, as a non-white person, becomes just another corporate asset. If we let corporations define the terms of what it means to care about racial justice/gender equality/whatever, it means allowing moral or ethical content to be totally evacuated from those concepts and replaced only with economic rationality–does this make or lose money?–which then means those concepts become flimsy and capricious (see Wendy Brown for much more on this). It means that if a time comes when “celebrating diversity” is no longer considered financially profitable, it will be jettisoned as a corporate value, and since we’ve let corporations define why that value is important we will be left with no way of defending it. Many smart people would call me old fashioned for saying so, but I think it is incumbent on us to understand and value things we believe are good in terms other than the merely economic. Good things can’t be good solely because they are financially profitable; I can not live in that world.

The Ahmed quote indicates another way we can see these initiatives serving power–they allow institutions to masquerade as socially conscious, egalitarian, even politically-activist, without disturbing the fundamental inequalities and biases such institutions are built upon. For example, everyone knows that lowering or abolishing tuition would have a dramatic and salutary effect on the “diversity” of a college campus, because our country’s long history of racialized inequality has meant that non-white people are more likely to be poor, and thus unable to afford college tuition, than white people, which means that the ability to attain a standardized education has itself become racialized. Meaning your ability to become officially educated is tied to your race, statistically speaking. This is simply a fact, backed up by pure cold data, and everyone knows it, and all but the biggest jackasses think it’s unjust and unAmerican and should be rectified. BUT, the most obvious solution–making education free–would not serve power, because while it might make college more just, more egalitarian, more racially diverse, and thus ultimately more valuable to the greater society, it would also make college a financially unprofitable industry. In theory, we all “know” that a college should not be a profit-driven business and that no decisions regarding the education of our nation’s youth should be made using the profit motive–that education is a social good that should be equally available to everyone!–but there is where you see the tension between theory and practice. In practice, colleges have to show ever-increasing profits, just like any other business, and that’s the only reason for their existence, in the eyes of the boards of trustees and high-level administrators who have increasingly come to run them since the 1960s. Thus, when confronted with pressure from students making accusations of racism, the university needs to publicly be seen as committed to listening to and responding to students, because that is, in theory, its only purpose as an institution. But it must do so in a way that does not jeopardize its bottom line, because in actuality the purpose of a college is to generate profits. So, colleges do not take the one obvious step that would actually go some distance toward concretely addressing the problem, and instead they hire a bunch of new people to form committees to “start a conversation” about “diversity” (“diversity,” never “racism”), which ultimately makes no concrete change to the unjust structure of the education system except to inure the administration from future criticisms of racism. How can they be racist? They implemented all these diversity initiatives!


I have so much to tell you about the bird feeder in our yard but I will save that for another time

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4 Responses to Reading Group

  1. Eileen says:

    This is something good to read, by someone on tumblr called ecc-poetry (not me despite what it might look like):

    I’m making two different 2017 reading lists, one that’s 100% not white dudes, as YT referenced via author list above, because intersectionality is important. The other list is antifascist and includes Stefan Zweig, Camus, Hannah Arendt, etc. Actually Arendt and various other antifascist work is on the first list too, because I started it first.

    Reading list resources:
    BUST’s Top 20 Books Of 2016
    The Okayafrica 2016 Year-End Book List
    Chicago Review of Books Best Nonfiction Books of 2016 <- these are the people who are boycotting reviews of Simon and Schuster in 2017

  2. Eileen says:

    Also, for those of you interested in tech stuff, you should read Kara Swisher. Observe:

  3. erin says:

    I do library work, so I’ll also throw this out there if anyone else is interested: Safiya Noble looks at racism in algorithms and information science,”algorithms of oppression” as she puts it. I just picked up a book of essays that she co-edited that deals more with race and internet culture (versus LIS). I’ve only read the intro. so far but she is definitely looking at the intersection between neoliberalism, digital technologies, racism, and sexism.

  4. Rebecca CH says:

    Diversity-as-profit is a framing that POC came up with. It’s one of many efforts at trying to cooperatively change the status quo. As it is written here, it comes off like you are not aware of that, and are kind of shoehorning the complex racial issues into a more simplified capitalistic narrative, which removes the history of who developed these ideas.

    I am sorry to hear that you are so cynical and suspicious of academic diversity initiatives. Yes, leadership is gonna leadership, but in many cases, these programs were designed due to outside pressures (and/or the efforts of students who represent a minority demographic). The sign of an institution that operates in good faith (vs. one that wants to settle for a tokenistic, band-aid approach) is how much they deliberately rely on the expertise of outsiders and form relationships with community organizations (who best know how to do the work of increasing representation).

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