10 Books, Fall 2006

  1. George Ochoa, Jennifer Hoffman, and Tina Tin, Climate
    Does anybody know what the ten million people of Lima, Peru will do when the Quelccaya Ice Cap, an Andean ice sheet that is the city's source of fresh water, completely melts away, as it is now expected to in the next few decades?

    This lush and terrible book makes one thing perfectly clear in its opening third: from the perspective of geologic time scales 'climate change' is a redundant term. Climate is always changing. The issue is not whether climate change happens, but how fast, and what happens when it does. In Earth's climatological past, mass extinctions definitely happened, and most of them were very likely ushered in by speeded-up climate change. It is estimated that in the grandaddy of all mass extinctions, the Permian-Triassic extinction event, 95% of all species became extinct. It finished off the hundreds-of-millions-of-years tenure of the trilobites, the poplulations of which at that time were possibly already declining due to the preying of the early jawed predators. That seems to be the mechanism of climate change-induced extinction: a population is already somehow stressed and a relatively quick warming or cooling sends that population into a no-recovery spiral.

    The last two-thirds of the book focus on the planet's present climate change, detailing the melting glaciers, the disrupted ocean currents, the changing precipitation patterns, the rising waters, the drought, the threatened species with nowhere to go as their cold weather habitats get warmer and wetter. What is made clear in these later pages is that climate change is not an even phenomenon. All places are affected, but differently. The authors virtually guarantee that climate change will bring greater frequency and severity of social disruption. As I read this I could not help thinking that because the most immediate effects of climate change will be primarily experienced as local and regional, provincial interests, including (and especially) those motivated by profit-making, will vie ferociously for advantage. Socioeconomic and military competition is already ugly now, and will get uglier when critical effects of climate change become an added political factor. Without even getting into the politics of it, the authors--two scientists and a science writer--help bring into view the sheer chaos that always and inevitably accompanies rapid climate change events.

    A comparison with An Inconvenient Truth is inevitable. I will say it right now--this book is far more detailed, both in the explanations of the geophysical forces at work and in its overwhelming litany of local and regional trends somehow caused or related to rapid climate change. As such, it offers solutions but strikes a less sanguine tenor, and follows the scientific knowledge to wherever it goes, no matter how scary. Al Gore's book is visually rich, but even there I'd say the pictures and graphics in Climate are more useful. Get this book and you won't need Gore's.

  2. Retort, Afflicted Powers
    For progressives trying to make sense of the post-9/11 world order, I would say that this is required reading. I have not read a more insightful leftist analysis of the crisis brought on by the opening of the so-called War on Terror. With impressive clarity, the authors address the contradictory trajectories and intersections of the main elements: conservative Western power hell-bent on capital accumulation, its militant Islamist opponents, the media environment, the contest for oil, and the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. An early text that later was expanded into the book was first distributed by Retort as a broadsheet at Bay Area anti-war events, so the intended readership was from the beginning fellow leftist activists.

  3. Jan Tschichold, The New Typography
    This book is a manifesto by reputation and though it does have that tone in places it is so much more than that. Most notably, the second half of the book is a practical lesson in functional design that dispenses with needless ornament and confusing decoration, explained through reproduced examples both positive and negative. (The good and bad examples of graphic layouts are sometimes taken from the very same job, with derisive commentary on clients who had selected the poorer choice!) The convincing and well-illustrated argument is that printed matter ends up looking much better when cheap effects are abandoned.

    The book came out first in 1928, but, in the age of desktop suitcases holding five thousand uselessly indulgent digital fonts and clip art up the butt, feels SO very relevant. The historical and theoretical argument forms the first section, and gives us a clear window into the thought process typical of the European modernist avant-garde: these people took risks and broke with long-entrenched traditions, but never once ignored the duty to defend their positions, and therein lies another lesson for our time. The translation presents some awkward phrasing in placesÉaccording to the translator's introduction Tschischold was in the process of comprehensively revising the book at the time of his death, but these revisions were not incorporated because the intent was to give English readers an accurate document of the original edition's historical moment.

  4. Wu Hung, Remaking Beijing
    This treatment of Tiananmen, the Gate and the Square, as a space and as an image, makes for a terrific account of the political psychology of the modern Chinese state. Of particular note are the sections covering the formative period of the present space, which occurred over about the first decade of Communist government rule, and the section on the public observance of time and its relation to the Square. The attention to representational complexities, the deployment of an array of intriguing images throughout, and an insider's sensitivity to the political implications of the analysis are all standard for Wu Hung's writing, though I've not seen the elements more seamlessly interwoven than in this very readable book.

    What really sets this volume apart from his other scholarship are the sidebar interludes, in which he recounts some personal experience of or in the square, having grown up in Beijing in revolutionary China. These vignettes illustrate his ideas with a kind of poignancy usually found only in that body of literature known as post-Cultural Revolution memoir, though thankfully without the self-serving, self-congratulatory individual triumphalism that almost always sinks titles belonging to that particular sub-genre. How often does one get to enjoy the reminiscences of a youth and an era past, but with the lived and cultivated detachment of a global scholar who understands the urgencies bequeathed upon us by that past? Not often!

  5. Alain Badiou, Ethics
    Ethical discourse based on upholding so-called human rights was proven beyond all doubt a failure, or, more accurately, an almost completely ineffective regulator on the commission of atrocities, by Europe's response to the Balkan Wars. In this book, supposedly written in response to that inglorious chapter of European history, we have an alternative to the discourse of ethics as the respect for human rights. Instead, Badiou argues for fidelity as the measure for what is good and what is evil--specifically, fidelity to an event. The good or evil that follows, may be discerned in his well-known four arenas of love, art, science, and politics. The main problem is that Badiou withholds articulation of just what an 'event' might be (revolution?), and hints around at romantic and/or messianic possibilities. But in the process he completely demolishes the privileging of 'difference' in liberal rights-based systems of justice and morality--i.e. the basis for 'tolerance'--and even identifies it as one of the openings through which evil enters. It is hard to disagree when a 'respect for cultural difference' has been presented as a reason to not intervene in known genocides.

  6. David Harvey, The New Imperialism
    The chapters making up this book were given as lectures over the first week of February in the year 2003, just as the Iraq War was about to open in the face of worldwide opposition. They take as their subject a comparatively plain-spoken description of the raw dynamics of global capital, with special attention paid to the motivations for and historical context of the war-making orientation of the Bush regime. Harvey lives up to his reputation as a 'spatial' Marxist, giving the discussion a valuable grounding in the geophysical realities of What is Where. For me, the last chapter's concise explanation of the interrelated nature of the two main logics of power, territorial and capitalistic, was particularly useful. The book is not quite as sophisticated and incisive as Afflicted Powers, but for a quick read it delivers.

  7. Martin Grief, Depression Modern: The Thirties Style in America
    This book makes it clear, and in photographs: American modernist design of the Thirties is NOT 'Deco.' Excuse me for having been confused, and not knowing it. According the author's introduction, I'm not the only one.

  8. Maria Hsia Chang, Falun Gong: The End of Days
    This is a straightforward, mostly theory-free account of the Falun Gong religious sect--its history, tenets, prophecies, organizational structure, relation to the state. Chang's most valuable contribution is placing Falun Gong in the context of China's long history of millenarian movements and secret societies. They have been around forever, starting as local mutual aid societies, and then finding highly organized, militant and politically volatile expression in groups like the White Lotus Society and the Taipings. With this history in mind, the Chinese government's fear of Falun Gong should be considered reasonable, if not well-founded.

    I had a dissatisfying qi gong experience while living in China for a few months in 1993-4. It was an encounter that left me skeptical of the practice and vaguely suspicious of the self-styled qigong master I worked with. This book helps sort out the modern-day qi gong movement, which back then was first exploding into public view, as several thousand groups formed around different versions of the updated traditional health and exercise practice. It was a genuine social phenomenon, apparently apolitical (very important in the deep freeze wake of the Tiananmen massacre), and very grassroots. Falun Gong emerged as the most prominent of the thousands of varieties, and hence attracted the most attention from the Bureau of Public Security. The author sees little of value in Falun Gong's actual beliefs, which is a hodge-podge of classical Chinese philosophical terminology mixed with bizarre sci-fi/outer space futurism, all taken literally. Her account gives the reader the impression that beyond some very basic commonsensical theories about health and exercise not much of contemporary qigong 'philosophy' holds together as a coherent system of concepts. Based on my experience I must agree with her analysis. Nonetheless, she warns that Falun Gong may yet present an ever more profound challenge to Chinese state authority for as long as the group and its adherents are so mercilessly persecuted. And that conclusion, given the historical patterns, is not altogether surprising, either.

  9. Martin Jay, The Dialectical Imagination
    I finally got around to picking up this book, the standard history of the Frankfurt School, but not so much for the history of ideas contained within as for the first chapter, titled 'The Creation of the Institut fur Sozialforschung.' For me, most of the works of theory I have read that are covered under the Frankfurt School label remain highly relevant. People interested in or curious about that stuff should read the primary texts either before or alongside this book. But anybody with an interest in independently produced critical analysis, or for that matter, independently produced thought, research, or knowledge of any progressive stripe, need to read the first chapter.

    How in actuality did the institute come together? Where did the funds come from, and how was the organization administered? In what kind of a building did they perform their work, and how were tasks divided? How was the early institute, beginning with nothing but a group of intellectuals, given some kind of shape and personality? Given the dearth of resources and experience available, these kinds of practical considerations remain important for present-day activists and cultural producers committed to independent production. Because of the concrete consequences, they may be even more urgent than the theoretical problems we face. One time, at least, and in the face of an unimaginably hostile political climate, these practical problems were solved for long enough to provide a group of thinkers with enough stability to do creative intellectual work beholden to nobody--work we still find instructive and inspiring, 75 years later.

  10. Ted Fishman, China, Inc.
    Beginning with the dawn of the Industrial Revolution and lasting for a good half-century, Britain was known as the 'workshop of the world.' That is, until Germany, and a little later the U.S., ripped off and then improved British manufacturing technology and began to out-manufacture the original innovators. Soon British-made goods were displaced by German-made stuff that was both better quality and cheaper. That was probably 150 years ago. The story today is similar--only the roles and protagonists are different. That, and the scales of production--the manufacturing capacity of China brings a whole new meaning to that phrase 'workshop of the world.' Ted Fishman has written the opening chapter to the biggest economic story set to unfold over the next few decades.

    What I did not realize before reading this book is just how competitive the manufacturing sector has become within China. In the U.S. we tend to think of Chinese manufacturing as a monolith, and fail to differentiate between Chinese companies. It is a misperception that does no service for our understanding of how China has become the world's factory, producing the majority of a stunning range of consumer goods--everything from socks and down jackets to hard drives and surgical tools. Fishman demystifies the success with simple explanations: a product, whether that is a garment, a light bulb, or a flat screen monitor, are made cheaper in China because there are a number of big and very hungry companies in China, all using the latest technology for which they paid the minimum (including sometimes stealing it), competing against one another. It is not just one company in a given market, but many. The domestic business climate is so competitive that the rest of the world's consumers benefit from it, just as the world's producers are hurt. It is a time-honored pattern. The question for American manufacturers is, will they be able to adjust.

    In one chapter Fishman profiles a small Illinois company called Excel Foundry and Machine, a maker of ultra-high grade cast machine parts, as it negotiates the incursion of Chinese companies into the global metal foundry industry. Excel has been moving toward ever more specialized niche markets, and outsources anything that can be produced easily in China. Maintaining an edge in innovative design and superior product is Excel's path to survival, not unlike the surviving European companies that were forced into the premium and specialty product markets as American (and then Japanese) manufacturing took over the general markets in the twentieth century. Fishman sees some hope in the strategy taken by Excel. One difference is that the European states continued to invest in the population at the level of basic services and primary and secondary education, thus ensuring an educated populace out of which high-quality workers could emerge--the kind of workers and thinkers needed for designing and producing premium goods. That's not happening in the U.S. Quite the opposite, actually. So Excel may prove to be the exception--most American companies will look for what they think is the easy solution: advertise their way out of the crisis. Don't improve the product, just do a better job of marketing. That is what the auto companies thought when the Japanese cars first started coming over. No need to design better cars, just tell everyone to 'buy American' and slap a $500 rebate on a piss-poor pick-up. It didn't work then and it won't work now.

    Fishman's basic view is that the Chinese companies are well-positioned to take competitive advantage of any slip in American quality and innovation, and to use what innovations may come, without having had to put in the same kind of risky investment. It is difficult to see how American business can win.


Happy reading!

- Dan S. Wang