Hello world! I'd like to be posting more, but I'm actually doing a lot of nonfiction writing (and trying to figure out my SPN-XMAS story) so it's not all lost.
Walter Kiechel, The Lords of Strategy: Intellectual history of management consulting and the development of “strategy,” the idea of positioning one’s business based on factors such as costs, comparative advantages over competitors, and speed of cost reductions. Takes for granted that this was all a positive thing, even though as Kiechel points out the rise of strategy/management consulting corresponded with the decline of American industry, not to mention the immiseration of increasing segments of the population.
Paul Johnson, Churchill: Very short biography—a lot of telling rather than showing—but Churchill is interesting enough that telling can be punchy. Not only was Churchill a master of words, he inspired others, e.g., one comment on his history of World War I was that “Winston has written an enormous book about himself and called it The World Crisis.” Churchill had a vast energy and an ability to come back from defeats that would impress anyone. He changed parties six times, but was perfectly faithful to his wife, which in my mind is the right way to go about it. When the voters kicked him out immediately after WWII ended, his wife commented that it might be a blessing in disguise (because he’d been working himself to death), but Churchill responded “It appears to be very effectively disguised.”
Samantha Barbas, Laws of Image: Privacy and Publicity in America: A history of the growing American obsession with one’s personal image, both visually and as metaphor for value (as opposed to one’s character), and how that played out in legal protections for privacy and, ultimately, against commercializing a person’s image without her consent. It took until the late 19th century, for example, for mirrors to become common among the middle class, so people could check their images before leaving the house. Barbas identifies an unresolved tension between the ability to construct and control one’s own image and the ability to construct a self by learning about other people. Interestingly, in the early decades of the 20th century, the claims that a right of privacy awarded too much weight to emotional harms that weren’t in fact measurable in market terms weren’t persuasive, when similar ideas about what constitutes “real” harm were used during the very same period to eliminate older “heartbalm” torts such as breach of promise to marry. Instead of not considering emotional harm “real,” then, policymakers were really deciding what kinds of emotional harm would be recognized by law.
There was even a tort of “institutional insult”—a tort that could be committed by the employees of a railroad or other public service facility by disrespecting the plaintiff, usually a middle-class white woman. Meanwhile, tort law rarely recognized a need to compensate those same workers when they were physically harmed on the job. Barbas suggests that Southerners, in particular, resented railroad workers, who were perceived as Northern whether they were or not. The law of the personal image, then, is accident law’s “unexplored corollary” in the transition to modernity.
By midcentury, there was a more frank acceptance of the unstable and manufactured nature of the self among theorists. At the same time, there was an explosion of libel suits, often “strike suits” filed against successful creative works, including Gone with the Wind—numerous plaintiffs argued that various characters must have been based on them, and even if the portrayal wasn’t negative, it was embarrassing to be exposed to the national public. Again, skepticism developed among commentators that the people suing were truly harmed or truly felt injured (similar to current disputes about so called ‘callout culture’). The privacy tort, separate from libel, came into its own in the 1950s, part of an explosion of tort litigation more generally. Privacy suits were more easily won when brought by women, for whom modesty was more of a social priority. Barbas identifies a growing “claims consciousness” around images—even though most people didn’t sue over most insults, they began to perceive images as generating rights and justifying claims on others. By the 1970s, many once-private matters (marital violence, etc.) had become legalized, and a legal right to be compensated for image-related harms was part of that.
Nick Sousanis, Unflattening: Visuals and text work together in this volume to illustrate Sousanis’ argument that multiple perspectives are necessary for true understanding, and that perspectives do have to be understood in visual as well as textual form. Beautifully drawn, though maybe I’m already so convinced of the importance of the visual that I didn’t find myself in need of further persuasion.
The Luxury Economy and Intellectual Property: Critical Reflections, ed. Haochen Sun, Barton Beebe, & Madhavi Sunder: Mostly trademark scholars writing mostly about luxury brands (in fact, as Susan Scafidi’s chapter points out, really about fashion brands) and trademark law. Mario Biagioli, Anupam Chander, and Madhavi Sunder, for example, write about the performative nature of brands—trademark law thinks about objects, but branding is a matter of signalling and therefore relational, like other ways of signalling and establishing social status. Yi Qian presents empirical evidence that counterfeits in China improve sales of legitimate high-quality brands, but take market share away from lower-quality brands—in the former case, counterfeits seem to serve as advertising for the high-quality brands. Scafidi’s chapter is the most challenging, as she argues that trademark academics don’t like fashion brands because they’re envious of the status conferred by—it’s not quite clear—either designing creatively or dressing creatively (and expensively). Our criticisms of intellectual property protection for fashion, then, come not from a place of logical reasoning but from our feeling of inferiority (even though, I’d note, we do say the same thing about how IP isn’t necessary for roller derby names, tattoos, jokes, magic tricks, and a number of other fields—though I guess it could all be envy). Sonia Katyal ends the volume by arguing that trademark cosmopolitanism has spread similar issues worldwide; social critics now target corporations (Nadia Plesner’s satire of LV in her attempt to raise awareness of the Darfur crisis) where earlier artists targeted governments (Picasso’s Guernica).
Kathryn J. Edin & H. Luke Shaefer, $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America: This is a brutal book tracking several families, in urban and suburban settings, who go through periods of living on $2 or less in cash per person per day, often going hungry, sometimes homeless, almost always jobless despite the adults’ near desperation for work and willingness to do hard work. Some of the most awful moments for the adults are when their family ties hold them back instead of helping, like when a woman who’s been getting “Cashier of the Month” awards at Wal-Mart gets in her truck and finds out that her uncle has driven it dry, even though she gave him money for gas; when she calls Wal-Mart, they tell her not to bother coming in at all if she can’t come on time. The elimination of welfare, the authors argue, created incredibly deep poverty for a segment of Americans. Though many such people pass through periods of $2-a-day poverty, the effects last because the radical instability of those periods has effects on their health, their children, their relationships, and their general capacity to plan a future. The people the authors track are largely industrious and creative, but in ways devoted only to survival, like the woman who sells her plasma as often as she can and is therefore listless and anemic. There are other people in these stories who don’t work as hard, though with very few jobs available it’s relatively easy to see reasons why. And of course, there are children, loved and shielded as much as possible—which is not very much, as when one mother’s attempts to keep a roof over their heads leads them to stay with a family member who molests her daughter.
Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Move: Putting America’s Infrastructure Back in the Lead: My experience was probably tainted by my spouse’s notes jotted in the margins, which at one point brutally but accurately describes the book as Dilbert (occasionally Dilbert’s boss) writing about infrastructure. A lot of generalities mixed with a lot of facts (rail transit is important for goods!) that aren’t fit into any useful structure. Yes, we need a lot of investment in infrastructure, and yes, almost everyone will be better off in the long run, but there’s a reason that we nonetheless are letting the country fall apart around us. Kanter says this isn’t an ideological issue (meaning that we should all easily agree on the need to shore up bridges that are about to fall down, and get more people riding bikes), but it isn’t anything but ideological. She wants more public-private partnerships, magically taking the public orientation of government and the efficiency—stated rather than shown with evidence—of private profit-oriented firms, even as she writes about some notable privatization failures. Frustrating, though overall not as frustrating as the disinvestment it describes.