Read any good books lately?

So, herewith is a recap of my summer (and now fall) reading history.

The first book I’m discussing is Too Dumb for Democracy? Why We Make Bad Political Decisions and How We Can Make Better Ones by David Moscrop, a Canadian former political scientist and current op-ed columnist. It’s about the psychological short hand that people in Western democracies use to vote and the tricks that political parties and governments use to try to guide those same voters to preferred outcomes. The book is actually quite easy to read and replete with personal anecdotes and examples from psychological studies to demonstrate the principles being talked about, as well real world examples drawn from US, British, and Canadian politics. However, I can tell that I actually know more than the author about the psychological side of things (or he’s content to keep things at an introductory level for his audience), whereas I’m also something of a news junkie and a poli sci nerd and so am already familiar with what he’s talking about on that end. So the book is a good introduction on these topics but not really something I personally found educational.

The second book is one I really enjoyed reading, which is Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States by James C. Scott. Scott is also a political scientist, but in addition he trained in anthropology and specializes in comparative politics, especially with regard to peasants and agriculture. The book itself is about the historical transition from hunting and gathering to state societies, as well as the people who refused to join the state (a.k.a. the barbarians). The whole thing is completely my jam. Scott is an anarchist, so he’s of course got a low opinion of the state, but his description of how human misery increased once people took up agriculture is old news among anthropology circles (and probably familiar to anyone who read Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel).

However, Scott goes quite a lot into the comparative details and argues that the state is inherently an unstable formation that requires incredible amounts of resources to keep going, but which is also doomed to fail thanks to the unsustainable demands it makes on the environment, the punishing taxes and labour it demands of its people (usually to fund wars to capture more territory where workers live which in turn demands more wars to capture even more workers in an endless race) which drive the citizens to escape into the hinterlands or revolt, and the regular return of lethal epidemics that are cooked up thanks to all the animals that agriculturalists live with and the cities and trade networks of a complex state society that concentrate and spread pathogens. Scott even argues that the collapse of a civilization might be better termed a reconfiguring, since it’s basically the people of a territory reorganizing themselves into a less precarious status quo.

Of course, preying on the states are the infamous barbarians, which Scott points out weren’t necessarily just alien societies robbing from the civilized. In fact, when the workers of historical states – the peasants, serfs, slaves, and everyone else who’s not an elite at the top of the social pyramid – get fed up with forever being drafted into wars and literally breaking their backs working the fields, they always had the option of joining the barbarians. Why bust your ass when you can have someone else do it and then take their stuff? In turn, a state had the option of repelling the barbarians or paying them off, but either way, it was another state expense. So a state inevitably had its barbarian “dark twin” (more than one sometimes) which grew when the state flourished and disappeared when the state did.

But alas for the barbarians, technological progress ended their viability, since you can’t exactly build Maxim guns out on the great plains, otherwise the Navajo might have forced the early US to cough up protection money like for example how the Uyghurs did to the Chinese or the Celts did to the Romans (though the Chinese usually called this tribute “gifts” and pretended that it was all from the emperor’s munificence).

Anyway, my one criticism of this book is that it just abruptly ends. It goes into the barbarian thing and then that’s it, no closing chapter, no summary, no discussion of the argument that was presented. But otherwise I’d say this is my favourite book of 2021.

Finally, the last book I’m covering is actually the first three books of the Giants series by James P. Hogan: Inherit the Stars, The Gentle Giants of Ganymede, and Giants’ Star. I actually read the manga adaptation first and wanted to know how the original compared. Well, you can tell that these books were written in the 1970s because of the incredible amount of sexual harassment in them. I’ve read lots of Asimov and Heinlein and others of that generation – who all came before Hogan – and I don’t remember these other authors having this much sexual harassment in their works. I wasn’t tracking it, but I think every female character in the story is sexually harassed at least once, whether it’s the gals in the stenography pool being seduced by the married physicist, or the telephone operator being pestered for a date, or the secretary whose incredible ass the protagonist admires as she bends forward to look at a computer monitor.

There’s also a lot of smoking and drinking, which especially stood out in the scene where the protagonists are smoking some after-dinner cigars on a spaceship with presumably limited supplies of oxygen (and this is set in the near-future, not some Star Trek utopia with limitless energy and whatnot). So yeah, it feels very Mad Men. But whatever, I remember when smoking indoors was a thing, I can get past that. It really is the sexual harassment that’s the most notable thing about this series to me.

The story itself is about a mummified astronaut being discovered on the moon, the scientists investigating this mystery, and the interplanetary journey to find the truth behind all of the secrets hidden in the past. Anyway, the books are clearly from a certain old school style of science fiction writing because the characters have barely any personality and mostly just jabber about science at each other. Which is mainly why I kept reading, because sometimes I just want to read about nerds arguing over theories of human evolution.

But this paper-thin characterization explains the sexual harassment, which quite frankly feels jarring when it’s inserted into the story, because it’s a clumsy attempt to humanize the male characters. Yes, this was how Hogan thought he could bring his characters to life: by giving his readers something they could relate to. Obviously, he took it for granted that his readers were all men.

I did appreciate how much better the 2011 Yukinobu Hoshino manga adaptation was, not least for removing the sexual harassment, but also adding the worthwhile female and non-white characters into the story that a white British engineer from the 70s would never have done. It even fixed up some of the science stuff that the original books messed up and moved stuff around so the plot was more engaging.

So yeah, the Giants series. That was a thing.

Really, Dresden?

Maybe this was a male-female translation problem. I read an article once that said that when women have a conversation, they’re communicating on five levels. They follow the conversation that they’re actually having, the conversation that is specifically being avoided, the tone being applied to the overt conversation, the buried conversation that is being covered only in subtext, and finally the other person’s body language.

That is, on many levels, astounding to me. I mean, that’s like having a freaking superpower. When I, and most other people with a Y chromosome, have a conversation, we’re having a conversation. Singular. We’re paying attention to what is being said, considering that, and replying to it. All these other conversations that have apparently been going on for the last several thousand years? I didn’t even know that they existed until I read that stupid article, and I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one.

I felt somewhat skeptical about the article’s grounding. There were probably a lot of women who didn’t communicate on multiple wavelengths at once. There were probably men who could handle that many just fine. I just wasn’t one of them.

So, ladies, if you ever have some conversation with your boyfriend or husband or brother or male friend, and you are telling him something perfectly obvious, and he comes away from it utterly clueless? I know it’s tempting to think to yourself, “The man can’t possibly be that stupid!”

But yes. Yes, he can.

Our innate strengths just aren’t the same. We are the mighty hunters, who are good at focusing on one thing at a time. For crying out loud, we have to turn down the radio in the car if we suspect we’re lost and need to figure out how to get where we’re going. That’s how impaired we are. I’m telling you, we have only the one conversation. Maybe some kind of relationship veteran like Michael Carpenter can do two, but that’s pushing the envelope. Five simultaneous conversations? Five?

Shah. That just isn’t going to happen. At least, not for me.

– From Cold Days by Jim Butcher

If you’ve ever wondered what it sounds like when someone’s talking out of their ass, well, here you go. There’s the vague appeal to an unspecified scholarly source (“this one article my cousin’s roommate read”), the Just So story grounded in the “Men are from Mars and Women are Screeching Harpies” school of pop evolutionary psychology, and the whole mealy-mouthed “I’m not a sexist but scientifically speaking women are fuckpuppets for men” defensive tone that permeates the entire passage. It’s been so long since the last Dresden Files book that I’d forgotten how tiresome the sexism could get.

Alternate prehistory

I just finished reading Stone Spring by Stephen Baxter. It’s an alternate prehistory novel set in 7300 BC in the former land bridge that connected Britain to the continent, before the water from the melting glaciers raised sea levels and turned perfidious Albion into an island nation. Against this backdrop of climactic change occurs the story of the Etxelur people and how they come to build great dikes to keep out the sea and thereby changed the face of the earth itself. The book is first and foremost a novel, so the story focuses mainly on the relationships and petty struggles between the various individuals and factions and not on the admittedly dry and boring geological details.

After a small tsunami wipes out half of her tribe, Ana organizes her people and their neighbours into a labour force that works on the dikes during the abundance of the summer. Her obsession with preventing the sea from claiming more lives and land eventually leads her to buy stone and slaves from another tribe.

Essentially, this part of Stone Spring depicts the hydraulic theory of state formation in action, which proposes that states formed because people needed to organize themselves in order to build and maintain complex irrigation systems, otherwise they’d have starved to death.

I didn’t like this part of the book because it felt unrealistic from an anthropological point of view.

Continue reading “Alternate prehistory”

On realizing one is a pedantic shit

I was rooting around in my computer when I spied a text file from 2005 that I apparently wrote for an online debate about prehistoric agriculture in New Guinea. Googling an entire paragraph verbatim reveals that it was for a message board discussion of Jared Diamond’s book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. The mini-essay was fairly well-reasoned, made reference to some current scientific knowledge, and synthesized information gleaned from several academic sources not easily accessible to the layperson. It was mostly ignored except by one person who clearly based his objections on self-taught stuff gleaned mostly from the Internet. The “debate” quickly petered out after I made my contribution and the message board thread sank out of sight into the archives.

Jesus, why did I even bother? Looking at the date, it appears that I wrote the mini-essay in my first semester of graduate school. I suspect that I was trying to distract myself from the fact that at the time I was living in a tiny, crappy apartment where I could hear the slapping sounds of my neighbour having sex with his girlfriend. That and I was probably trying to fill the loneliness of moving to a new city. Yes, I hung out with my grad school cohort but we all had our own shit to shovel, our own rows to hoe, so to speak, and the alienation of the modern city can get pretty acute when you’re living by yourself and you don’t know anyone living nearby well enough to call friend.

I’m reminded of this New York Times article about what Internet trolls are like offline. Who could have known – from the content I’d written on the message board – of the specific personal circumstances that fueled my frustration at dealing with the ignorant and the misinformed who’d dared misconstrue the knowledge of my chosen field of study. I was especially annoyed because the message board is the adjunct to a newspaper trivia column that specifically bills itself as “Fighting Ignorance Since 1973”, when in my experience the board was and is a bastion of white privilege and anti-feminist “common sense”. I finally had to quite the message board when I saw how often the same topics came up over and over. I’m kind of back now, but I decided not to read any topics that involved race, gender or American politics in an attempt to prevent my demise from apoplexy.

Anyway, I’m embarrassed at having spent so much time and effort on what was in the end an inconsequential matter, though I suppose helping to correct popular misconceptions is a decent hobby for an aspiring anthropologist (god knows a lot of anthropological knowledge directly contradicts mainstream ideas about human nature). Still, there are only so many hours in a day and only so much energy in one person. Better to do things that one actually likes.

The border and the bourgeois

I’m in the middle of reading a roundtable discussion between a bunch of anthropologists of Europe talking about the New Right in European politics.  It’s from 2003, so some of their stuff is out of date, but it’s still mostly spot on.  In the middle of their discussion, the panelists start talking about the hybridity and border-crossing stuff that’s been popular recently.  They discuss two discourses on the issues.  The first speaks of border-crossing in terms of leakiness, where miscegenation–whether cultural, biological, or economic–is threatening, while the second celebrates the hybridity and cultural enrichment found from mixing different cultures.

As Jonathan Friedman asserts, though, the discourse of fear is produced by people at the bottom and middle of a society, while the discourse of celebration comes mostly from the top:


I have it very clearly. Look, I’ve never found a working-class hybrid who celebrated his mixture. I’ve never found even an example of it in ethnographies. It’s always by interpretation. There is one very, very strong kind of discourse of hybrid that’s being produced at the top. And I have hundreds of examples of it. What I’m interested in is saying, ‘Okay, these things are located, they’re positioned. They’re interested discourses in the sense that there are interests behind them’. I’m not sure exactly what interests they are, but I think they’re pretty clear. And these have nothing to do with Left and Right. The people at the top are producing hybridity: I don’t want to classify them as Left or Right. But there is a long history of colonial hybrid discourse being reproduced at the top. I don’t want to be stuck in how I represent that. I don’t want to have to represent that saying that ‘this is good, and the other is bad’.


But I’d like to challenge that, Jonathan. You’re probably right, that the people who celebrate hybridity are, as it were, middle class, I mean, members of the chattering classes, basically. The Salman Rushdies and so on. But those are the people who always open their mouths about anything, so that’s neither here nor there. Christopher Lasch belongs to the same class himself, now doesn’t he? But if you look at the people who are uncomfortable, and who present the kind of leakage that Sarah mentioned, and who are anomalies, and who don’t fit in and so on, a lot of them would belong to the lower ranks of society. I mean, all the illegal immigrants who make New York go ’round, who New York is completely dependent on in order to survive as a city. And the Pakistanis in Norway who spend three months a year in Pakistan, and who, you know, bring women back and who have this traffic in marriage and so on.


Yes, but what does this have to do with hybridities? You compare Gloria Anzaldúa, of border crossing ideology. She’s an author, and then there are hundreds of people who write about her, it’s an industry. It’s an industry of border crossing and of hybridity. But then in Lund we have people who have worked on illegal immigrants in California. Those immigrants are scared shitless of the border. There’s no celebration of hybridity, they haven’t got time for that. They’re not into those kinds of problems at all. They’re into very different kinds of issues. They’re trying to survive. Hybridity is a leisure issue.


Well, take that Appadurai.  I already had bunches of stuff critiquing cosmopolitanism, but this roundtable discussion is certainly easier to read.  After this part the panelists went back to discussing the New Right in Europe.  Anyway, it’s certainly food for thought.


”Anthropologists are talking’ about the new right in Europe’,
Ethnos, 68:4, 554 – 572

Treasures of the past

The Eternals

I have a dorky hobby.  Actually, I have several, but the one relevant to today is my hobby involving anthropology.  You see, for the last few years I’ve been compiling a list of all works of fiction where anthropologists appear as characters.  I’ve got almost three hundred books, movies, and tv shows, as well as a handful of comic books and video games and one play.  I plan on eventually putting them all on a wiki so that anyone can contribute, but for now, I want to highlight a forty year old comic book from this list: The Eternals, volume 1, issue 6, from sometime in the sixties.  I tried not to make fun of the campiness of the comic since it’s pretty much shooting fish in a barrell, but I couldn’t contain myself in a few places.

Thena of the Eternals

Anyway, there are apparently three different species of humans — regular Homo sapiens sapiens, plus the Eternals and the Deviants, antediluvian superhuman peoples living in hiding for millenia.  Which is nice and all, but apparently the space gods are coming, and, well . . .





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