LSTS Books of the year
Every year the researchers of the Law, Science, Technology and Society (LSTS) Research Group of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) review some of the books that have influenced the most their (academic) lives.
Here are our best reads of 2018, listed in strict alphabetical order.
Psychology must have a term to describe the condition of secretly hoping that an artist whose autobiographical work you enjoy is permanently confronted with all sorts of problems, so they keep producing exactly the same kind of books, songs or films you like – even if, simultaneously, you only wish them the best. It is a feeling grounded in the irrational fear that if your favourite artists let you down you might even miss them, which is surely plain nonsense as, in reality, there are new interesting artists popping up continously literally from anywhere, just like, let’s say, the Cult Party, who were for me the best band of 2018, and, incidentally, surely deserve a stronger following (not only in light of their name).
Viv Albertine has no link at all with the Cult Party, as far as I can tell. She used to play in the feminist punk group the Slits, then first wrote the brilliant Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys (which I reviewed last year here), and then this To Throw Away Unopened, a second autobiographical delivery, which is just as politically enlightening, albeit a bit darker, and great fun once more.
Gloria González Fuster
The mere fact of buying and reading this book is a political act that needs consciousness and bravery. Consciousness about how hard it is reading a novel which is not a novel but the true living and current story of a man imprisoned on absurd kafkaesque charges by Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s oppressive regime. Bravery; because every evening, when I took and read this book I knew that exactly in that very moment the narrator/writer/self-biographer was still there, in a cell four meters long, experiencing the same pain as in the moment he was writing and putting the same expectations on the reader, me, his only light of hope. The reader, who is absorbed in such claustrophobic memoir, becomes thus aware of her own responsibility and mission soon: writing was the reason why Altan was arrested in Turkey (‘subliminal messages against the regime on popular journals’), writing is the only chance Altan can have for saving his mind (from mental illness caused by unfair detention and terrible life conditions in a small cell), and his life (hoping that his story is known and becomes and international affair). Thus, the reader is not a mere observer, but a loyal cellmate, while at the same time somebody deprived of their friend, and an overestimated messenger of freedom.
This autobiographical novel is a must-read for every person defending human rights and democracy in her job, research, daily life. But it is also a vivid documentary on life conditions in (not-only-Turkish) jails. It influenced my research, making me feel – as a loyal cellmate – the desperation of human rights violations (in particular fair trial, freedom of expression, mental integrity and privacy). It influenced my life, making me responsible – as an overestimated messenger – of telling his story and hoping for a solution, even through this review here, abusing of this lines on the web.
Giving an account of oneself (cf. Judith Butler) is called for when one is addressed by another who requires explanations and justifications. This is the kind of accountability that computational systems will face since ‘(…) stored-program computers broke the distinction between numbers that mean things and numbers that do things. Numbers that do things now rule the world’ (George Dyson). I could have chosen Primavera de Filippi and Aaron Wrigth’s Blockchain and the Law (2018) to substantiate this further, but I will leave that kind of inquiry for my academic publications.
Giving an account of oneself is also prompted when one is amputated by the loss of a loved one. Whether parent, child or partner. In the first part of the book, Lisa Appignanesi offers a piercing account of the shrill pains of bereavement and the unspeakable anger that disrupted her inner life after the death of her husband (philosopher of science and historian John Forrester). In the second part, Appignanesi situates her loss in the broader social and political context, and whereas this may seem unconvincing or even irrelevant, it demonstrates the extent to which personal loss and societal upheaval can mirror and reinforce each other, resulting in an even more existential loss of one’s sense of place. The author saliently quotes Winnie-the-Pooh: ‘I’m not lost for I know where I am. But however, where I am may be lost’. The third and final part offers a redemption that solves nothing but reconciles the author with a new sense of her own, bringing back the joys of everyday in an altogether new way. This reconciliation is brought about by a grandson whose state of wonder and innocuous curiosity offer a time-out from the state of mourning, and whose violent jealousy upon the birth of a brother somehow contributes to deflecting the author’s own anger.
My own 2018 was a disruptive confrontation with the fragility of individual life. Reading Appignanesi struggling observations soothed my soul. On top of that, the author’s apt depiction of the complexities of human emotion also warns against assuming that affective computing or synthetic computational emotions can ever be anything but reductive simulations. What interests me is how such reductions will reconfigure our inner world, which is deeply relational and will thus be co-determined by the machines we play around with – i.e. by the machines that ‘play us’.
Although The Handmaid’s Tale is certainly the most known work of the Canadian author, I have found this trilogy much more intriguing and captivating. Since I am a great reader of Octavia Butler, this actually does not come as a surprise: the ingredients of the Maddadam trilogy are precisely what drew me to her work as well.
The trilogy takes place after the ‘Waterless flood’ has killed large chunks of humanity through a viral plague released by corporate scientists. The pre-catastrophic world, which is described retrospectively, in the ruins of which the story unfolds, is nightmarish and dystopian: states do not longer seem to exist or play a role, corporations rule arbitrarily both with omnipresent surveillance and a powerful army (the ‘CorpSeCorps’), protecting production and the elites in corporate ‘gated communities’ which are interlinked with exclusive transport means. Say: the protected world of the moguls. The rest of the world, the ‘pleeblands’ are left to violence, decay, rape, hunger, cannibalism, and so on. Quite some technological wonders were also developed and released, such as transgenic new animal races, lab meat (for the pleeblanders), sex-improving drugs… and even newly made good humanoids, the ‘Crakers’.
Amongst the survivors, indeed, there are the horrible egocentric warriors-survivalists that take it all without any moral or other brake or obstacle, but some others join hands and not only with other still human humans but also with the transgenic ‘Pigoons’ and the ‘Crakers’ in order to live in the ruins and resist the lethal attacks of the white trash-rapers-murderers. These are the Gardeners and the Maddadamites, clandestinely organized and well-informed networks, that share knowledge and practices far beyond the generalization of the sacralization of the survival of the strongest, euphemistically called free competition today.
Surviving in dignity requires not only to take seriously the relations that are woven by the situations as they construct themselves, here and now, and which set the possibilities to produce food and resources in new circumstances, but also constrains the living to many solidarities and complementarities that make the knowledge base of the survivors stronger. Commoning is probably a good word to characterize such interdependent way of doing of the Gardeners and the Maddamites, actually. This probably sounds very naïve too many readers, but in the real world, where the ruins conquer still more territories and lives, the alternatives are scarce. What might seem naïve, utopian and radical, actually, just rimes with hope.
In The Coal Miner, an episode of New York Times podcast series The Daily, Michael Barbaro, the show’s host, interviews Mark Gray, a Kentucky coal miner. New York-based Michael wants to understand climate change through the eyes of the coal miner. They talk about Mark’s life and history, his political opinions, and why he wants back a job that was so bad for his health, even killing many people around him. At some point in the conversation, Mark asks Michael: Have you ever been to a coal mine? … a long silence follows, after which the tone of the conversation shifts. Michael replies: ‘I haven’t experienced the things that you are quite rightly asking me…‘.
Much of the research that we do at LSTS is interdisciplinary and aims to understand phenomena from an ‘on the ground’ perspective. To me this means we should engage ourselves with the daily experiences of those people that are affected by the laws we study. When we conduct interviews, or apply more involved ethnographic methods, we still carry with us many implicit assumptions about the way the world works. In this regard, academic research shares with investigative journalism a need to combine an inquisitive analytical attitude with an openness which allows us to approach the experience of the other.
Many episodes of The Daily, and this one in particular, give me an opportunity to step into the worlds of others. By keeping a gentle approach with his guests, Michael tackles challenging issues and provides powerful insights. From the journalistic methods applied in this podcast-series we can learn a lot, both as political beings and as academics.
This book is a wake up call to citizens about the intensive use of the internet and the impact it is having in society. The author fears that democracy becomes a governance system under extinction. He provides 20 useful ideas to save democracy.
I strongly recommend its reading.
This collection of short stories is actually a sort of autobiography of the author, who had a varied life. Her stories deal with addiction, poverty and class struggles, but also with the meaning of family and love. Some stories are funny, some tragic, some very thoughtful. Through switching the narrative perspective and jumping through fictional and real, the autobiographical part becomes more real, and shows that one person can combine contradictory stories and aspects.
From a research perspective, it shows that identity is not a logically coherent concept, but much more complex and beyond predictability.
Nothing makes me feel more foolish than to put off reading a book that has been acclaimed as a ‘classic’ in the fear that it may prove to be a bore, only to find out that it is even better than one heard. Such is the case with the autobiography of one of the greatest musical revolutionaries in history, who, incredibly, turns out to be just as thrilling a writer as he is a composer. The book immediately grabs the reader by the throat with what must be the most arresting opening to any autobiography (‘During the months which preceded my birth my mother never dreamed, as Virgil’s did, that she was about to bring forth a laurel branch‘), and never lets up from there.
Berlioz’s writing is gripping and often hilariously funny, and he evokes awe both for his unflinching struggle against the ultraconservative music establishment of mid-19th century Paris, and for the iron will that led him to follow his artistic vision in the face of omnipresent philistinism.
On my 2018 reading list, traditionally, there had to be some dystopian fiction about the shape of things to come. To burn books has been a longstanding feature of totalitarianism. Here, firemen are to set fire and not to put it out, in order to burn all the books, which are to be replaced by mindless entertainment. (Explanation is provided for all these developments). A spoiler: as ‘manuscripts don’t burn’ (Voland in Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita), exiled bibliophiles memorise book by book, waiting for better times.
In short, another timeless story of its kind. (Its second film adaptation, after the 1966 one, appeared this year; also, some see parallels between Kurt Wimmer’s movie ‘Equilibrium’ (2002) and Bradbury’s novel).
A book/encyclopaedia/album for anybody who just cannot get enough of the television series ‘Black Mirror’. It is a conversation: its authors talk about their inspirations, choices and the making of the films thus far, among others, and they explain them.
In the foreword, Charlie Brooker, executive producer, wonders whether he is ‘well equipped‘ to cope with the ‘dystopian present‘ (italics mine) as ‘Black Mirrorstories slowly manifest themselves in the real world‘.
A novella that recently gained much popularity thanks to its 2016 cinema adaptation ‘Arrival’, directed by Denis Villeneuve. Some other beings land on this planet, showing no hostility, and a problem emerges how to understand each other. A respectable linguist, a human being, is asked to, at least, decode the language(s) of the other beings. Once she learns a new language, her perception of the world changes. Many see this tale as a contemplation on determinism and free will, the latter challenged by the possession of knowledge about the future. Yet, what caught more of my attention was a reflection on the importance and beauty of communication and languages.
This tale reminded me of Wittgenstein and his initial idea that ‘the limits of my language mean the limits of my world‘. Besides, some parallels with the law-language relationship can be drawn.
Described as a ‘kind of self-portrait’, this book basically consists of car photographs taken from car manufacturers’ brochures found via online searches, corresponding to car models the author listed in a notebook as a child, somewhere in the 1970s, from the backseat of her parents’ automobile. I hate cars, but I am completely fascinated by these pictures. They perfectly fit my internal image of a car. They are the very idea of a car to me, and thus beauty as such, as Plato could have said, except, of course, he never saw one.
I personally spent half of my childhood sitting in backseats of cars. My parents drove us around, my brother and me, every single day of the year, and drove us even further, for even longer hours, and for totally unclear reasons, during weekends and holidays. I remember I did occasionally complain about being bored to death.
Amazingly, it just never occurred to me that in other cars there might be other little girls, trapped in parallel realities which could not be fully disconnected from the cars they were in, cars which perfectly mirrored the cars in our own heads, and which would equally chase them forever. This excellent book brought this gently to my attention. Later, reading Andreas Broeckmann’s Machine Art in the Twentieth Century, I couldn’t stop thinking about the lineages he puts forward between the automobile and what he calls ‘the aesthetic of the machine‘, which might have roots in Marinetti’s car veering into a ditch in order to avoid two cyclists in 1908, but surely also has many gaps and perspectives still to be explored. Ah, I additionally strongly recommend Daniela Comani’s It was me, on the impossible authorship of history, and Sunsets, on how we watched televisions when we watched television.
Gloria González Fuster
With rising inequality almost everywhere, social justice became a trending topic in the digitization discourse, too. Other authors may be comfortable with reiterating resentments towards Silicon Valley’s superstar firms or leading ideological broad-brush attacks against capitalism as a whole. Political science professor Virginia Eubanks, on the other hand, dares to face the complex realities of data-driven inequality in person.
Her brillant book Automating Inequality oscillates between political science and investigative journalism. It is mainly built on interviews with different stakeholders surrounding data-driven inequality. For example, it includes the uncanny story of welfare-recipient Dorothy Allen, who unveils to Eubanks how her caseworker routinely takes a look at the digitized purchase records of her food stamp card. By doing so, the state employee in fact just catches up with Amazon, but, of course, it is even more problematic if the state has this kind of knowledge. Further field research takes Eubanks to the US heartland, where she investigates the devastating effect of automatized decision making on Indiana’s welfare system, also from the perspective of outsourced caseworkers.
The theory part, which builds on a lengthy genealogy of the ‘digital poorhouse’ reaching back to the early 19th century, clearly isn’t the book’s strength. But overall it is a great reminder of how data-driven policies that may seem reasonable and efficient from the perspective of well-off policy makers produce a significant degree of damage on the other side of the social spectrum. Europe still seems far away from these dynamics. However, with digitization threatening especially untrained work, the efficient management of poverty is a growing sector everywhere in the developed world. And, ironically enough, it will take increasing digitization in order to manage this side effect of digitization.
‘As it was, we all acted alone, we were caught alone, and every one of us will have to die alone. But that doesn’t mean that we are alone’. Last spring, the pathway next to the Town Hall of the district of Berlin Wedding was renamed Elise and Otto Hampel. Passing often from there to my way to the local library, I soon became curious about the choice. A quick search brought me to Fallada’s novel Jeder stirbt für sich allein, which in British English was interestingly translated as Alone in Berlin – the Greek editor seems to have adopted the same approach. Fallada’s swansong, inspired by the true story of Elise Hampel and her husband Otto (in the book, represented by the fictional characters Anna and Otto Quangel) who used to live just a few meters away from that pathway now called after them, is a brutal tale about life under Nazis in the war-torn Berlin and an ode to the resistance of the small, ordinary, unseen person.
Without big words, loudly dramatic peaks and emotional dead ends but with strong, realistic descriptions and self-realisations, Fallada depicts the microcosm of a Berlin block of flats and its ordinary residents in the 1940s, the rhythm of their daily lives and the different paths they unavoidably choose, moved by distinct motives: power, money, social recognition, survival, fear or resistance. The author follows the two protagonists while unfolding from noiseless working-class personalities almost indifferent towards the Reich to exemplars of citizen resistance and endurance, ready to throw themselves into the fight against the oppressors and the war absurdity armed only with their determination and their hand-written postcards. Although the first part of the book sketches vividly the tempora, the next sections emphasise on the more and move in a fast and thrilling pace. The reader would never guess that the manuscript was written in less than 30 days.
Klont is the latest novel of the Dutch columnist, lawyer and philosopher Maxim Februari. The Klont is the motor of the narrative. Finding out what it really is drives many of the plot strands. The Klont consists of data, and it has a huge impact on our lives. Governments try to deal with it, experts debate it.
This book contains many inspiring reflections on how our societies deal with new technologies and especially on the hype to use data for anything. One of the main characters proclaims that Artificial Intelligence (AI) will be the end of politics, and of novels. Another of the main characters sends a suicide note by mail to his colleagues, and then changes his mind.
James D. Watson wrote in 1992 that ‘the brain is the last and grandest biological frontier, the most complex thing we have yet discovered in our universe’. In his book, Kurzweil explores the most important science project since the human genome: reverse-engineering the brain to understand precisely how it works, then applying that knowledge to create vastly intelligent machines. For the lay reader the elaboration on his theory (the pattern recognition theory of mind (PRTM) which ‘describes the basic algorithm of the neocortex (the region of the brain responsible for perception, memory, and critical thinking)’ as a pattern recognition system) suggests that a breakthrough in brain research is sooner than one would think.
Indirectly, the book implies that dependence on contemporary technologies (in particular on search engines) is a harbinger of a future where the mapped human brain and its functioning is directly complemented instead of being outsourced. Although the ability to understand the human mind would facilitate the creation of machines with humanlike consciousness and identity, humans, in particular their forum internum, would become exposed.
This dystopic volume is fascinatingly not ‘interested in the engineering of intelligent machines; but (…) in the engineering of unintelligent humans‘. Bringing a pragmatic view of how humans learn from machines or from their induced experienced, it is an incomplete manifesto of human manipulability in the algorithmic era. Connecting the dots between fitness trackers, fake news, autonomous cars, smart contracts, social media platforms and robotic companions, the two authors try to imagine new frameworks, testing borderline case studies and showing amazing mental experiments.
This powerful analysis should be read by anyone interested in understanding exactly how technology threatens the future of our most precious good, mental freedom, and what we should do now to avoid that such dystopic novel becomes an unsurprising reality.
Where do old books go to die? Certainly not to the Internet Archive, which is an unbelievable resource containing millions of out-of-copyright publications, in all imaginable languages, available for free download. There are forgotten treasures here without end that are just waiting to be rediscovered. My pick is the most evocative book I have yet found about pre-revolutionary Russian culture, written by one of the great prima ballerinas of the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, the creator of leading roles in The Firebird and Petrouchka, and the artistic partner and muse of Nijinsky, Picasso, Debussy, and Diaghilev.
Unlike the author of most theatre autobiographies, Karsavina impresses as a gracious and humble presence who is more interested in her art than in self-aggrandizement. She also has wonderful stories to tell, both about the artistic geniuses she worked with, and about how the Russian love for culture could transcend even the catastrophes of the early 20th century (such as when her brother was released from a KGB jail by a ballet-loving officer upon realizing that his prisoner’s sister was the famous dancer he had idolized in his youth).
For all PhD students (me included!) to remember how courageous, disciplined and self-controlled people can be and to see their PhD journey, not as a survival path, but rather as intellectual growth and positive learning together with their peers.
This is a charming book, delicately designed, with a smooth cover, and full images which will captivate anyone with some aesthetical sympathy for black and white industrial pictures of vintage keywords, mathematical diagrams, and obscure emulators. It is about the historical materiality of technologies, and about the genealogy of the immaterial procedures that sustain them, connecting Turing, Hegel, Baudrillard and Llull with machine-generated love letters and radars.
It is, actually, a puzzling cabinet de curiosités algorithmiques, somehow less interested in whatever artefacts could tell us about human activity, if anything, than about the recreation of artefacts. It is also, in my view, slightly too partial to engineering and pure mathematics to accurately perceive the forests of information hiding behind numbers, switches, and electric cables. I do love it when it gets kind of tragic, entering into the problem of the fragile survival, and built-in decay, of algorithmic machines, programmes, and ideas – reminding us that all new and future technologies are also dying apparatuses.
Gloria González Fuster
This is an optimistic book. A must. A must. Yes, I wrote it twice. Not a book about the depressing history that has led to a dramatic current situation, neither a book proposing big schemes for alternative futures, but a book observing and noticing the ‘promises’ of living in the ruins of capitalism. A book that joyfully stays with the trouble, as Donna Harraway writes.
Taking the Matsutake mushroom, so wanted by the Japanese taste, as the central protagonist or ‘actant’ for her book, Tsing brings us to different corners of the world (from Oregon, over Finland and China, to the Japanese markets), has us meeting so many others human and non-human protagonists, awakens the anthropologists, historians, ecologists and all-round-amateurs in us and tirelessly notices and shows the precarity and historicity of the entanglements that hold things together and viable, so far.
Beyond big oppositions, heavy concepts and massive categories (like subject and objects, humans and non-humans, mind and matter, nature and culture, …) Tsing observes a world, even a world turning into ruins, wherein life and generativity yield from sometimes trajectories of encounters, contingencies, twists, opportunities, coincidences and unexpected consequences they generate. This book is a powerful boost for the resurgence of imagination!
For a dedicated and trained reader of scientific journals, it is always strange to identify books that marked a year that has passed. There is a lot of unfair competition there, since books stick better to the memory, compared to all the controlled and framed contributions to journals that we only tend to consult when needed. I love professional journals! All of them. In the past times of printed journals, I specialized in reading whatever was thrown away by colleagues. I still recall that colleague that, in 2004, dumped about 30 volumes of the Harvard Law Review. Shortly after that mountain of wisdom was moved to my office, for slow consumption.
Even better are journals abandoned by colleagues with other disciplinary backgrounds. I am now reading a Dutch political science journal Beleid en Maatschappij. One of the contributions is from Fabian Dekker, ‘Robots and employment: technological determinism revisited?’, a conventional shaped study on the impact of robots on employment. How do I like convention! No surprises, a transparent title and introduction, a simple hypothesis and conclusions that allow not to read the full article but incite. How good science is and should be. Of course, my interest is not only in the medium (‘the journal’), but also in what is getting published and about what things are published. Dekker went to check in several firms how they decide about introducing robots and whether profit-making and competition are the main triggers. His analysis, based on 23 in-depth interviews in two sectors of the Dutch economy, shows that the use of robotics at the workplace is far more limited than could be anticipated and largely depended on a series of factors other than competitiveness and profit-making. None of the interviewed people saw technology at the workplace as the inevitable consequence of market pressure. Stated differently: It is not all the Economy, stupid! People have a choice (or in Dekker’s terms ‘technology is shaped by social agency’).
Returning to the question about books and the favorite books of last year. I have been reading a lot of Karl Marx lately, taking advantage of the bicentennial festivities and media attention around Marx’s birth 200 years ago in the city of Trier. To visit Trier and to drown myself in a stream of some 150,000 Chinese tourists wanting to see the birthplace of the communism’s founder was not the best idea. Reading Marx’ books is perhaps not a much better idea (badly framed, heavy language without love for style, transparency of the arguments made less clear through multiple use of arrogant and condescending expressions, uncontrolled desire to display deep knowledge of subject matter), but it is still far superior, as an idea and time occupation, then reading all the secondary Marxist literature that I have been reading in the past 40 years of intellectual activity. The 1848 Communist Manifesto (co-written with Friedrich Engels), of course, remains a strong must read with its intriguing portrait of the bourgeoisie as a revolutionary class that has succeeded in subverting all values and human relationships and dependencies to the benefit of profit and market competition. No human agency in Marx, who, a misfit himself, should have realized that generations of lazy economists and other determinists would come after lacking his critical intellectual skills. The parts in the Manifesto inviting the reader not to see communists as rash devils that will put an end to all liberty, all property and all family life (but only to bourgeois liberty, bourgeois property and bourgeois family models) elicit questions about the practical details of the communist revolution (that is, Marx claims, inevitable, because of the self-destructive behavior of the bourgeoisie and the impact of market and technology).
More fundamentally, Marx summons us to reflect about what philosophy is. With this practically oriented philosopher, the philosophy only comes after climbing several mountains of rhetorical political arguments, economical insights or historical facts. Perhaps that is OK. I have learned a lot from The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon written by Marx in great haste in 1852. The ‘topic’ is about Louis Bonaparte (Napoleon’s nephew) who in December 1851 seized power, dismantled the Parliament, and proclaimed himself Emperor Napoleon III the year after. The book might disappoint the reader, as it did me: six chapters of facts on French politics not always presented in the ideal way, followed by a contemplative seventh chapter on class struggle and the false hopes of the French small farmers in Napoleon III as ‘their’ strong man. In his 1869 foreword to the second edition of the Brumaire, Marx, with his usual modesty, explains why his 1952 work does not merit any additional work and why his book on the third Napoleon is better than Victor Hugo’s and Proudhon’s book on the same era and main character (resp. Napoléon le Petit and Coup d’état). In Marx’ opinion both books misrepresent the course of history by focusing on the individual, while this Napoleon, as much as the first Napoleon and all other Bismarcks and Trumps, are no other than interchangeable, shadow dancers in the ‘inevitable’ narrative of modern class struggle. Marx’ rejection, in particular of Proudhon’s book, ‘falling into the error of the so-called objective historians’ might not be the only reason to read his Brumaire. The long description of successful tricks and deceptive maneuvers of Napoleon’s nephew in all the chapters of the book might lack philosophical sérieux, but they help us putting in context the post-Obama rise of loud social media addicted leaders. It is not all the Economy, stupid! It is our Emotions.
Paul De Hert
After Ghana Must Go from Taye Selasi and Americanah from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, my appetite for contemporary African novels has grown only greater. With Kintu I was served a perfect meal, transporting me from West-Africa to Uganda, which again opened up a new world of perceptions and stories. And again, the novel shows how poor and biased our understanding of life in the (post)colonized continent is, and how much need and urgency there is for voices that retell and reclaim the numerous stories and voices that, instead of remaining buried under the many layers of history written by the victorious, tirelessly resurge after their silencing and eradication. That is much larger a problem than a debate about the Congo Museum in Tervuren, since the biases are molded in our mindset.
Kintu is the story of a cursed family that starts in the 18th and ends in the 21st century. The different generations are vividly unfolded against the background of a fine and subtle browsing of the history of Uganda. The novel is extremely rich and takes the reader by the hand in a varied and surprising journey, with colorful and endearing characters, taking aboard political, anthropologic, cultural and, last but not least, religious dimensions. Makumbi is not afraid to write herself into edgy issues, such as religious fanaticism, patriarchy, race and belonging, and the myriad of difficulties and challenges that affect relations, in multilayered and dynamic contexts, full of tensions and contradictions. That is probably why the reader will not find big and heavy digressions and diatribes against colonialism or the reign of Amin Dada in this book. No, this is a book of stories that helps us redrawing the biased and perverse mental landscape we, liberal and ‘humanist’ westerners, too easily upload when we speak about Africa and its peoples. The ‘success’ of the West is and remains a tributary of a history of slavery, racism and plunder, even if it is aseptically and silently externalized by (indeed) our version of history.
The Country Girlscaused a scandal when published and it was even banned, so, naturally, I was intrigued to read it. It consists actually of three short novels describing the life of two Irish countryside girls after the 2nd World War. It uniquely captures how a person develops and grows out of childhood into a kind of maturity through different experiences, but also ideas encountered.
After reading also the author’s excellent autobiography (Edna O’Brien Country Girl), it surfaces both works show the complexity of human minds.
In his book, Mark O’Connell aims to explore and understand the transhumanist movement: the philosophical and scientific context, along with key actors and a wide margin of possible futures. O’Connel elaborates on questions like ‘Would you pay to freeze your head upon death? Do you long to free your mind from the “meat” that hosts it? Is ageing a disease? And what would you tell your son if he was saving himself for a “sexbot”?’ Transhumanists aim to induce evolution by technological means, making thus such questions timely and relevant.
Every day the faith in the power of technology is growing. The areas, discovered in the book, imply that existing and (yet) non-existent technologies can serve as the engine of human progress. While the topics and the interviewees show endless optimism, a sceptical reader (as well as the author himself) raises doubt concerning the necessity of such evolution which might affect the rationale and moral pillars of existence.
Amos Oz died on December 28, 2018, but this is not the reason why I am adding his last fiction book, Judas, in the LSTS list of books for 2018. If it were for his best book I would surely have inserted A Tale of Love and Darkness, which I wholeheartedly recommend to anybody coming to terms with his writing for the first time. No, Judas is not his best or even his second-best book for me however I feel I need to make a note of it for two reasons: First, because of the originality of its approach to the story of Judas, and second because of the choice of topic: Traitors. Originality of approach, a fresh look, a challenge of conventional wisdom are all highly regarded characteristics to professionals working on the regulation of technology. As regards the choice of topic, living in Europe these days one more than frequently hears the ‘traitor’ accusation been thrown against politicians and academics from all sides of the political spectrum. While such high volume alone would normally be enough to mutually void all these accusations, still a number of countries are faced these days with critical questions as to their identity, their culture (and whether it is worth keeping), their relationship with religion and their future course in history.
Amos Oz’s book is far from a soothing call for reconciliation and introspection in this regard. Instead, it is a brutal reminder that in radical times voices asking for a compromise may be marginalised and vilified, and that labels stick even if what they preached may finally come to happen. Overall, then a tale for alertness and vigilance rather than an uplifting and hopeful one, but to me this is perfectly aligned to our turbulent times.
Probably the best and most forceful book I have read about the origins and mechanisms of contemporary capitalism. After reading this book, there is no doubt that the Anthropocene is a falsely aseptic and misleading denomination for the catastrophic situation of our material, social and psychological ecologies. The right word is indeed: Capitalocene.
How capitalism seizes any occasion to turn things into markets and make profit and how it always indebts the future, is very directly, vividly and clearly described with the help of the mechanism of ‘cheapisation’. Making things cheap requires the vulgar externalization of so many issues and values that should so evidently be an integral object of precautious care and concern, that one wonders how the heck we have been brought to accept cheap energy, cheap food, cheap transport, cheap resources, cheap work force, cheap money, cheap lives not to name cheap politics and cheap ethics. The book shows capitalism’s colonial, racist and sexist origins, its blunt negation of slavery and domestic and ‘care’ work (mostly done by women), its division of the world in ‘us’ (humans) the masters and possessors of the world, and all the rest, freely disposable and up for grabs… and so on, ad infinitum, ad nauseam.
The antidote does indeed not lie in Musk’s, Branson’s and Trump’s selfish little plans to escape the worst behind their walls in their castle-bunkers, or, even more laughable, in their private interstellar space-jets towards new markets and profits on the dark side of the moon. Looking for new embedded and forward-looking ways of life instead? I would warmly advise David Bollier’s Thinking Like a Commoner (New Society Publishers, Gabriola Island, 2014) as a vigorous inspirational guide for the invention of practices to survive in self-respect and to reclaim our self-respect and dignity as earthlings and humans. Or try The Zad and NoTAV. Territorial Struggles and the Making of a New Political Intelligence by Mauvaise Troupe (original in French, Editions de Éclat, English translation by Kristin Ross, Verso Publications).
Identity is not given, it has to be reinvented over and again, often against the tide. Identity is not about ‘being’ but about ‘becoming’, and in desperate circumstances such becoming becomes the art of not falling apart. Nevertheless, this book is not about postmodern relativism, it is not celebrating a neoliberal self trying to overcome bourgeois boredom (so well described by Alberto Moravia in The Time of Indifference of 1929). It is about existential failure to provide for oneself in a world that couldn’t care less, about losing loved ones, suffering trauma, being fired. It is about successive failures to build a life, and about the contrast with one’s competitive peers, and about the inability to match the success of one’s loving parents.
After being fired as a journalist, the author decided to begin a series of interviews with people who failed, faltered, and suffered, hoping to hear how they nevertheless survived. No recipes, general advice or false promises. Just a cheerful voice willing to sound the bell against a society built on a predatory ‘ethics’ (Ayn Rand comes to mind), ready to blame the victim and move on. Though the chapters spell sadness and anxiety, they offer humour and solace. Maybe the more generic version of this rather personal account can be found in Ali Smith’s Autumn and Winter (Spring is expected in the Spring of 2019), a literary trove of post-Brexit spleen.
Reading a well-written and thoughtfully presented story in your mother-tongue is always delightful. The book was a page-turner that helped me to understand my position on the role of gender in (Lithuanian) society in a more nuanced way. The book (among more general reflections on gender) includes a very insightful chapter focusing on the history of the women’s rights movement in Lithuania. Interestingly while the timeline of this movement is similar to the suffrage movements that took place in the UK and Germany (and many other places), it is unique as it was closely related to the independence movement from the Russian Empire. However, the independence movement at its defining moment put women aside – only men singed under the independence act. Outraged by the ignorance of their significant contribution, 20000 women signed a petition requesting equal rights, including the right to vote. Women got the right to vote in 1919; in 1926, among the four candidates for a president, two were women.
Apart from this great start and many proud moments, there have been many push backs. The debate on gender goes beyond formal recognition of rights and is to be continued in Lithuania (as well as elsewhere). While a woman can be anything in this country – even a prime minister or a president – many issues remain unresolved. The issue of domestic violence is a very illustrative example put forward by the author. An excerpt of a 1911 feminist newspaper argued against violence against women and children. Taking into account reoccurring cases of domestic violence acts, it seems that the debate on this issue, pointed out more than 100 years ago, is yet to take place. I had not considered the current state of women’s rights to be as fragile before reading this book. But I tend to agree with the author that our choices shape our society and gender perception every single day.
I first read this in 2014, and again in 2018. This book is a collection of essays, written in 11 different European Cities in 9 Member States. It shaped my life as a student of European Affairs, because it filled the studies of law, economics, institutions and history with life. This book addresses past and current challenges for Europe in context by going to different settings where these challenges become visible. The topics include the European youth, colonialism, populism, migration, defense policy, solidarity, how citizens can make an impact and many other important aspects.
To me, this book amounts to a motivation to contribute to the European project.
The Financial Times has dubbed this ‘the great American eco-novel’, and luckily it is so much more, even if no less. The reader is treated to rich musings on the fertility if not natality of trees, framing them as our contemporary predecessors. This is combined with a thoroughly researched science on what some would call the ‘assemblage’ of living and dead trees that operate as a breathing mobile ecosystem (where ‘assemblage’ is the mainstream but crooked translation of Deleuze’s ‘agencement’). And, of course, we are forced to face the commodification of trees by a ruthless belief in old-school economic progress (read Lina Khan’s ‘The ideological roots of America’s market power problem’ in the Yale Law Journal; US ‘law & economics’ scholarship is finally moving beyond rational choice theory and behavioural economics).
Powers is never boring. Without pontificating, he entices the reader by telling the tales of seemingly unrelated individual persons whose lives become entwined with one or many trees, and with each other, from activists to scientists to a paraplegic game developer who once fell from a tree to resume his life in the virtual reality of a world of his own making (while also making exorbitant amounts of money). I don’t like science fiction, unless Powers wrote it -;). He seduced me with Galateo 2.0 on the ‘life’ of a neural net. I wrote about this, regarding the interaction between human and artificial agency. The Overstory actually demands that we engage with the agency or ‘agencement’ of trees. I remain enchanted – don’t miss his magnificent Orfeo, published in 2014, on both music and the surveillance society.
The fantasy novel La Belle Sauvage, which is a follow-up pre-quel to the popular His Dark Materials Trilogy from the 1990s, tells the story of the protagonist Malcolm, who finds himself caught up in a mystery that involves the infant Lyra, who is under the protection of an order of nuns at a nearby priory. After finding a secret message lost by a stranger, Malcolm is quickly drawn into a world of political and religious espionage. He joins a group of rebel scholars, which is dedicated to challenging the Magisterium. When a catastrophic flood of biblical proportions hits Oxford, Malcolm is forced to take upon himself the role of Lyra’s protector, trying to navigating her to safety in his canoe, La Belle Sauvage.
La Belle Sauvage is concerned with the dehumanising consequences of surveillance and conformity and the resistance against it. Surveillance in the book is part of the strategies of power of the Magisterium. For instance, the Consistorial Court of Discipline and its offshoots impose the League of St Alexander in schools, which is a spying unit, created to ensure that both teachers and students are not saying anything that contradicts Christian doctrine and forces the children to spy on their teachers and parents and denounce them for failing to conform. Also, the ways in which the Office of Child Protection functions, which is looking for baby Lyra, shows the modalities of control that are used by repressive governments to instill fear and discipline on their populations.
Apart from themes of surveillance, power and control, what makes the book especially interesting are themes of philosophy, science and technology running through the story including the mysteries of Dust with its quantum possibilities, the alethiometer, which is a truth-telling instrument that operates by the alignment of layers of images superimposed on each other, like a kind of mechanical tarot pack, and the nature of dæmons, the spiritual/animal alter ego that accompanies each person in this alternative reality. The book shows in an ingenious manner the ways in which power works and exerts itself, whereby many parallels can be recognised with the world today.
Rosamunde van Brakel
Legal scholarship builds so heavily on what has gone before that it is rare to find a book that is truly original and explores issues that in retrospect seem obvious but have not yet been examined. The fact that Martti Koskenniemi wrote the foreword to Roberts’ book should alert one to it being something extraordinary, and so it proves. Challenging the universalist assumptions of international law, the author demonstrates compellingly, both through theoretical analysis and empirical research, how factors such as educational profiles, links between academia and practice, the use of English as the lingua franca of the field, and the textbooks used in university courses colour our understanding of what is “international” about public international law.
In light of the spread of data protection law around the world and the growing view that it is becoming recognised as a universal human right, this book also made me realize that there is a need for a similar one that would go beyond the common EU-US comparisons to explore on a global basis how what we regard as ‘universal’ about data protection can actually reflect assumptions and structures that derive from our legal, cultural, and social backgrounds.
Finding it hard to believe the absurdity of Trumpist politics, and condemning the hate speech that became acceptable language of broader politics and rippled throughout the globe, I could not stop wondering about the role of women in politics. Was gender the determining factor of these election results that went against all the odds? The polls and the forecasts were blind to a mere possibility of a defeat of a more capable and qualified candidate. Driven by curiosity over the view of Hillary Clinton herself on this story, I started reading her account on the 2016 US election campaign in the book titled What Happened.
Having in mind that this will be a one-sided story, I found the story of this book stimulating and inspiring. I learned not only more details about the US election system and politics but also about Hillary herself and the women’s rights movement. Even knowing that the book has been hugely criticized, I am happy it landed in my hands. It has encouraged me to explore the roots of feminism in Lithuania.
A book of entwined, parallel stories linked to the city of Lviv (or Lwów, Lvov, Lemberg) and its surroundings. Philippe Sands, an erudite, first tells the story of the concept of the crimes against humanity and that of genocide. Second, the story of two men who brought these two concepts into life, and into international criminal justice and international law: Hersch Lauterpacht and Raphael (or Rafał) Lemkin, respectively; both had read law at the University of Lviv. Third, Sands tells the story of his family throughout the 20th century; his grandfather was born in Lviv.
There is plenty of other fascinating stories, shorter or longer ones (e.g. of Hans Frank and his son or the Nuremberg trial), yet I read the entire book, first and foremost, as a captivating chronicle of how the individual human being has begun to be progressively respected as the “ultimate unit” of (international) law (Lauterpacht). (Graham Greenleaf has kindly recommended this book to me).
The best description of White Teeth is that it is a novel about families from very diverse backgrounds living in London. The unfolding story, which involves the development of a genetic immortal mouse and what that means for society, is told from different perspectives, each of which feels like a person you have met or could even be.
The author really knows how to talk and think like people, and London features in sort of a role itself. It is a very smart, funny and real book, which will read itself until its unexpected ending.
Timothy Snyder’s The Road to Unfreedom left me sort of unsettled. First of all —and please feel free to understand this as a caveat— I really do not know how seriously this book should be taken. Snyder is a Professor of History at Yale, and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. But he is also an extremely apt author, who knows how to write and persuade a large international readership. This means he is a priori not to trust.
In his book, he pulls off a somewhat shady trick of intellectual history that one could call ‘unearthing the unknown source that really explains everything‘. He insists on the fact that the central inspiration for Putin’s politics are the writings of Ivan Ilyin (1883-1954), who was a (literally, not meant as a mere slur) fascist political theorist and whose name you probably never have heard before (neither had I). Snyder underpins this kind of one-dimensional claim with an impressive number of endnotes pointing to all parts of Ilyin’s rather scattered oeuvre, originally written in German and Russian. According to Snyder’s reconstruction of Putin’s intentions, he is heading for nothing less than the destruction of the global liberal order in favor of an irrational-mythical fascist ideal that Snyder dubs the ‘politics of eternity’: Facts count for nothing, and neither does the law. Grotesquely irrational caricatures of nation state and empire are above everything.
Connecting the events in the Ukraine, the US presidential election and Brexit, Snyder sketches Putin’s geopolitical strategy and its considerable success so far. This cannot fail to leave the reader frightened and also reeks of fear mongering. It can be safely assumed that Snyder probably overestimates the impact of almost century-old ideas on Putin and underestimates the moderating impact of purely materialist interests. Great book, nevertheless.
In 2016, France enacted a law that criminalized the ‘regular consultation of terrorist content online‘. This law was highly controversial, and the Constitutional Council later repealed it. During the proceedings, François Sureau intervened with an extraordinary defence of the freedom of thought (video available here).
This led me to discover his autobiographical essay Le chemin des morts, in which he tells the story of one of his first judgments in the 1980s. After 20 years in exile, a former Basque militant asks for asylum in France, claiming that he risks assassination in Spain. Granting him asylum would mean that the French judiciary is questioning the rule of law in Spain. Refusing would be turning a blind eye to previous assassinations of former opponents of the Franco-regime. Sureau, an inexperienced lawyer at that time, has to decide.
In her book La Propriété de la Terre (The Property of Land), Sarah Vanuxem elaborates an original legal theory according to which what is generally seen as an asymmetrical relation between property and the commons becomes shifted. Drawing on Roman, Medieval and Modern legal theories on land and property, the French jurist shows why the latter cannot be considered as an ‘absolute’ and ‘exclusive’ power of the individual, but rather as an entitlement that is always ‘limited’. All the members of a community have ‘a place’ in it. In particular, land cannot be understood as a dead or immutable thing and there is a way to look at it as an inhabited ‘milieu’: ‘la communauté séjourne au sein des choses’. With the term ‘community’ she ‘embraces’ both humans and non-humans, the latter being: natural elements, plants and animals. She maintains that it is possible to look at non-humans as legal ‘personae’ holding entitlements to life.
These articulated ideas build slowly but surely in the book through accurate references to sources from the Western legal tradition and revolutionise the very notion of property, land and rights of use vis à vis of nature in law. The book allows conceiving the property of land as ultimately ‘belonging to land’ itself, in a relation of reciprocity and interdependence among humans and non-humans, a concept well expressed in the sentence: ‘s’approprier une terre revient à se l’attribuer comme à se rendre propre à elle’