Brenton J. Malin, Feeling Mediated: A History of Media Technology and Emotion in America: Over the decades, academics have embraced numerous technologies that they thought they could use to identify the physical basis of emotion, and then related technologies could be deployed to influence people for commercial or other purposes; or technologies could then be regulated precisely because of their proven power—which was proven not because people said they reacted, since self-reports were now considered unreliable, but because a machine could measure it. The late nineteenth/early twentieth century switch from celebrating publicly performed feelings (oratory) to celebrating emotional control had predictable class/gender/race effects; “elite discussions create a set of dominant cultural expectations against which our own emotional and technological displays are likely to be judged.” A related important point: “Listeners do not need to be passive consumers or brainwashed drones to experience the limiting effects of the culture industry; they feel them every time they look for a media product that is not available to them.” I was also interested in the struggles of psychology and sociology to align themselves with sciences and distance themselves from social work; use of technology such as the measurement of sound and its physiological effects helped that endeavor. They were then able to declare “scientifically” that the best radio speakers were middle-class men displaying control over their emotional tone. These scientific insights were easily adaptable to marketing purposes, in part because they made “communication” seem like an exchange in which the sender does X and the receiver responds Y, and where there is exchange there can be markets. Worthwhile for anyone interested in the history of media and technology.
Julie Lythcott-Harris, How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success: Free LibraryThing Early Reviewer book. Wealthy parents, especially mothers, are spending way too much time and energy trying to make sure their children are perfect and go to Stanford, Yale, or Harvard. They do homework for their kids; they get their kids ADHD diagnoses; they intervene in personal disputes to smooth the way. This strategy paradoxically backfires and leaves the children stressed, possibly abusing drugs, ungrounded and uninterested in learning, and unable to accomplish ordinary life tasks for themselves. I was struck when reading the book how much the practices described synced up with the anti-vaccination movement: they both come from a place of mistrust. Mistrust of other people to treat your child right; mistrust of institutions like schools, universities, even the military. And mistrust of any outreach to others that isn’t paid coaching, as if relations outside the family can only be monetary exchanges. This turning inward is an effect and a cause of growing inequality. It’s a very sad picture. And I’m certainly vulnerable to these pressures; I too would like my kids to go to a top college and avoid severe suffering. When people a few miles away got child welfare called on them for letting their kids walk a mile alone, it’s hard to relax about letting your kids be independent. The advice to individual parents is sensible enough, given the problem: get your own life, let your kid make mistakes, let them find the path that’s right for them even though that path probably does not lead to Stanford, Yale, or Harvard.
David Zweig, Invisibles: A book looking in various amounts of depth at different professions not ordinarily seen as glamorous, but requiring high skill. Zweig argues that the people who are both best at their jobs and most satisfied by them are often leery of the spotlight (though he understates the extent to which recognition within a field is often important, I think), passionate about details, and committed to excellence. The people he talks to include the structural engineer on a huge Chinese skyscraper, a piano tuner for a major orchestra, the guy who looks after the guitars for Radiohead, a simultaneous translator at the UN, and some other people who do background jobs that are quite difficult and necessary to make big projects function, but rarely noticed as such. I found the book disjointed; sure, these are all important jobs, but why these ones?
J. Richard Stevens, Captain America, Masculinity, and Violence: Free review copy. Academics are often trained to distrust a very clear political viewpoint, at least when reading texts: it’s often enough to identify racial, gender, or other messages in a text, with the condemnation of discriminatory attitudes left implicit, especially when the texts are historical and the political orientation of the commenter presentist. This book, by contrast, wears its politics very much on its red-white-and-blue sleeve, condemning Cap’s storylines when they’re racist or militaristic and approving of them when they get more progressive. I enjoyed it and found it insightful, but don’t expect the kind of critical depth you get from Will Booker’s Batman Unmasked. Still, there’s lots of fun stuff (did you know that Cap is the Kevin Bacon of the MCU, with an average distance from other characters of 1.7—more than any other character?). Stevens identifies a number of distinct periods in Cap’s comic history—anti-Nazi jingoistic crusader; (failed) Commie-puncher; liberal crusader (teaming up with the Falcon); consumerist/superficial icon; conflicted agent of the war on terror; civil liberties advocate (Civil War); and most recently conflicted symbol of optimism struggling to find a way in a chaotic new world order.
Stevens argues that, like any long-standing comics survivor, Cap’s story is regularly updated in meaning while the official narrative is that nothing has really changed—he offers a particularly compelling illustration of this by tracking Cap’s willingness to kill, among other things noting the numerous changes in how deliberate Cap was in causing the death of the Nazi agent who disrupted the supersoldier experiment. He argues—drawing on existing scholarship—that comic heroes, because of their continuity and change, are good measures of both American social values and how American society reconciles its current values with its account of the past. Cap, in particular, is a symbol of our culture because he’s an alien in it, ever since the frozen storyline took place in the 60s.
One other thing that leapt out of me was that in the original series, Cap constantly saved his young sidekick Bucky, not Peggy Carter (or Betty Carver)—that is, the Cap stories that were airing during the actual time period Agent Carter is set in didn’t regularly feature damsels in distress. The fact that they do in the TV show reflects our current issues—exactly as you’d expect. (See also: Bucky’s current arc versus the 1950s stories that have Cap resisting attempted brainwashing because “REAL AMERICANS NEVER TURN RED!”) When he was revived in the 1960s, Cap’s story for the first time included guilt over causing Bucky’s death, but also presented him as “a source of wisdom from a golden era, trapped in a politically charged culture.”
Stevens suggests that comic books have a changed place in modern culture, not just because they’re now raw material for the more popular movies but because they used to be a “uniquely exaggerated and absurdist expression of adolescent concerns and sensibilities,” and now the rest of popular culture has the same features. (I think of this as The Onion problem: satirical headlines are harder and harder to distinguish from reality.) In response, Cap became a more complicated character, rejecting easy answers—including jingoistic responses to 9/11—and rejecting the anonymity that kept him isolated from the larger culture. Anonymous action, Cap’s current position suggests, is an abdication of responsibility. He fights concentrated power by using examples from history. But he also has little faith in the public, not using his charisma to sway public opinion.
Ana Grilo & Thea James, Speculative Fiction 2013: The Best Online Reviews, Essays and Commentary: A collection of articles/blog posts reviewing some of the most important works of the year (books, movies, etc.) and/or discussing broader trends, mainly around diversity, representation, or the lack thereof. I’d read a fair number of them before, but the collection was interesting for painting a picture of a genre (or genres!) in transition and a fair amount of turmoil, but in a hopeful way.