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Books and Ideas

The Death of the Critic by Rónán McDonald
It is a sophisticated argument that recognises the relative autonomy of the critical, rather than treating it as a mere adjunct to the creative process or handmaiden to the market. Criticism is part of a cultural dialogue; a strong critical voice is crucial in a vibrant culture, with writer and critic in a tense but symbiotic relationship.
Michael Savage

Why Truth Matters by Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom
The battle lines have been drawn, armies marshalled and weapons assembled, welcome one and welcome all to the catch-all conflict of our times: Truth vs Postmodernism. Choose your side wisely or you’ll be lost in the crossfire...
Sarah Boyes

Philosophical Ridings: Motorcycles and the Meaning of Life by Craig Bourne
For once, Bourne’s judgement is unerring when he decides to dedicate a mere page to discussing Zen’s incoherent 'metaphysics of quality' (likening it to - you guessed it - existentialism). One can only hope that his own similarly ill-fated journey marks an end to philosophy’s two-wheeled adventures.
Paul Jump

Essay: The Sounds (and Politics) of Silence Music, silence and shared meaning
It would be worrying if ‘too much music’ or ‘too much talk’ were the be all and end of the problem, as the answer seems to lie instead in better structured discussion and more collective decision-making about what music is heard and where.
Sarah Boyes

The Myth of Mars and Venus: Do Men and Women Really Speak Different Languages? by Deborah Cameron
According to Cameron, it’s educated people who adhere most to the myth that men and women speak different languages, and this is because it’s among them that the greatest amount of change in socio-sexual roles has taken place over recent years, thus giving rise to unwanted uncertainties and the desire for some social stability.
Nicky Charlish

The Politics of Heaven: America in Fearful Times by Earl Shorris
Shorris is surely right to dismiss the ‘left-liberal’ thesis of people like Thomas Frank that people are simply voting against their own interests as tantamount to calling people stupid, an anti-democratic thesis. Yet his own view of the masses is scarcely better.
Lee Jones

From Anger to Apathy: the British experience since 1975 by Mark Garnett
Garnett shows that the British have adopted an attitude of ‘contemptuous subservience’ to their rulers over the past three decades. He rightly highlights the sense of powerlessness that grips people today because of the fact that neither party offers any real choice to the voters.
Nicky Charlish

A Farewell to Alms by Gregory Clark
The developing world has been failed by globalisation in the past, and more than a hundred years on much of the world is being failed still. But the problem isn’t unfair trade or the appropriation of wealth but a lack of productive activity in the world’s poor economies.
Stuart Simpson

Surviving New Labour as an artist Artistic independence and the pitfalls of state funding
Perhaps it’s high time to reassess this distinction between ‘fine’ artists and everyone else. After all, it’s only relatively recently that artists stopped being seen as useful, productive members of society and got stuck on pedestals, regarded as odd, gifted shamans in some remote ivory castle called ‘the art world’.
Jan Bowman

When Ways of Life Collide: Multiculturalism and Its Discontents in the Netherlands by Paul M Sniderman and Louk Hagendoorn
The result of multiculturalism is a divided society, uncomfortable with its commitment to tolerance. But ironically, the very conformism which makes people resent minority groups for being different also makes people reluctant to criticise multiculturalism, which is enforced ‘top-down’.
Munira Mirza

Public Emotions by Perri 6, Susannah Radstone, Corrine Squire, Amal Treacher (editors)
Today’s emotivist advocacy discourse takes for granted a very dispassionate and uncompromising consensus about individual responsibility for one’s health, which crucially means only ‘innocent victims’ are likely to be ‘included’ in the new social frame of entitlements.
Hugh Ortega Breton

The Time of the Rebels by Matthew Collin
Collin can’t explain why the uprisings in Belarus and Azerbaijan didn’t take off, whilst those in other countries did. The really important question – why did political and business elites, the police, and the armed forces switch sides to support the protestors in certain places and not others – is not addressed.
Robin Walsh

Detoxing Childhood: What Parents Need To Know To Raise Happy, Successful Children by Sue Palmer
Palmer literally gives hints on what parents can say to their children in the morning, at mealtimes, at bedtime, in the shop, in the kitchen, outdoors and in the car. What family has got itself into a situation where parents cannot talk to their children without having to read a book to find out what to say?
Jane Sandeman

The Cultural Contradictions of Democracy: Political Thought Since September 11 by John Brenkman
Ultimately, Brenkman produces an incoherent and dangerously weak critique of the Iraq war. If the problem was the war's lack of legitimacy and inadequate attention to nation-building, then presumably a more competent, powerful US administration doing the same things legally would pose no problem whatsoever for Brenkman.
Lee Jones

Bad Men: Guantanamo Bay and the Secret Prisons by Clive Stafford Smith
It is one thing to hear an allegation of a crime and quite another to hear the testimony of the victim. Clive Stafford Smith is one of a band of lawyers representing the Guantanamo detainees and, with unique access to the incarcerated, he provides us with extended and comprehensive accounts of the crimes alleged.
Alistair John

Music: Healing the Rift by Ivan Hewett
As Hewett says, 19th century audiences listened with their hands as well as their ears to the same symphonic repertoire that struggles to find an audience today. Participation is absolutely necessary for classical forms to continue as living art rather than a passive and nostalgic pastime.
Cara Bleiman

War in Human Civilisation by Azar Gat
Although the historical detail is often interesting, Gat’s syncretistic approach yields a vague and indeterminate level of abstraction. Thus Gat’s sweep is broad enough to stimulate anyone by providing eclectic insights, but rarely deep enough to satisfy anyone with an in-depth knowledge of a particular field.
Philip Cunliffe

In Defence of Atheism by Michel Onfray
The closer Michel Onfray gets to elucidating a positive worldview of his own – based on a version of hedonism – the further he leaves behind other ‘atheists’ who don’t happen to share it. Indeed, atheism itself ought to be the least interesting thing about its advocates.
Dolan Cummings

Austerity Britain, 1945-1951 by David Kynaston
The introduction in 1947 of the New Look, with its long, voluminous skirts, was regarded as frippery by socialists (‘The ridiculous whim of idle people’ thundered Labour MP Bessie Braddock): by the end of the year, some 10 million women had or desired the New Look.
Nicky Charlish

Before Their Time: the World of Child Labor by David L Parker
It is difficult to know what conclusion you are supposed to draw when child labour is made to sit next to images of imminent child abuse. Its all the same apparently, an indictment of what adults do to children in Nicaragua, Sierra Leone, Nepal, Morocco, Mexico, India, Bolivia and Turkey – the world over.
David Clements

The Corruption of the Curriculum edited by Robert Whelan
Standish convincingly argues that global citizenship seeks to eradicate national government from the political consciousness of young people. Young people are literally taught to ‘think global, act local’ but not to engage in national politics.
Charlynne Pullen

The World of Beryl Cook by Jess Wilder and Jerome Sans
Fat ladies, saucy sailors, hen parties. Yes, we’re in the garish, giggly girly world of Beryl Cook. But there’s more to Cook than the art establishment view of an amateur painter who got lucky and captured the public imagination.
Nicky Charlish

Radical Thinkers II Pulling up the roots
Verso’s neat series brings together some of the best of the last century’s thinkers in a handy, heady package, aiming to popularise radical thought for a wider contemporary audience.
Various reviewers

Political Descartes: Reason, Ideology and the Bourgeois Project by Antonio Negri
Negri points to how Descartes' dualism retains an implicit awareness of the hegemony of the bourgeois form of social existence, and how this can be translated into an imposition on the state’s mode of producing and existing. The seeds of the revolution are sown.
Sarah Snider

A Russian Diary by Anna Politkovskaya
Politkovskaya’s entries on the Russian regime's abuse of the poor and powerless should be required reading for anyone who thinks the absence of independent media or the subversion of the rule of law only impinge on the rights of the intelligentsia.
Alistair John

Hezbollah: A Short History by Augustus Richard Norton
Norton carefully records how Hezbollah has come to accept the limitations of the politics of identity, and to celebrate them, discarding in the process any threat it might have paused to the Lebanese ‘system’ for which it once had so much disdain.
Karl Sharro

The Threat to Reason: How the Enlightenment was hijacked and how we can reclaim it by Dan Hind
‘Science, not theology, has become the arena in which we must fight for the victory of Enlightenment, since it is through their claims to rationality and scientific understanding that our guardians bind us in obedience to the established order.’ This is a brilliant insight, but sadly it is not followed through.
Dolan Cummings

Socrates in Love: Philosophy for a Passionate Heart by Christopher Phillips
Passion hasn’t historically meant the sort of gloss-thin enthusiasm it denotes today, and neither does it fit easily with the rational life. ‘Philosophy for a passionate heart’ should be more about a steam-rolling mania for knowledge than about a comfortable (albeit sort of interesting) pondering over love.
Sarah Boyes

What More Philosophers Think by Julian Baggini and Jeremy Stangroom
It seems that our intellectual positions arise largely out of our individual temperaments, experiences and aspirations, rather than, as people like to think, out of pure reason. (This is why even the most rigorous debate almost never results in anyone changing their mind.)
Paul Jump

Personalised politics How 'personalisation' devalues education and diminishes citizenship
The personal in ‘personalised public services’ has more than one meaning. As well as promising greater flexibility in the provision of services, it also means the citizen taking 'personal' responsibility for them, and consequently that the state becomes involved in the personal life of the individual, helping to ‘shape the self’.

Michele Ledda

Regulating Aversion: Tolerance in the Age of Identity and Empire by Wendy Brown
The state’s call to tolerate other people’s deviant or minority culture is a way of affirming the neutrality or ‘culture-less’ character of liberal society. We are outside culture, whilst the sub-group we tolerate is unable to achieve the same level of transcendence.
Munira Mirza

Late Marxism: Adorno or the persistence of the dialectic by Fredric Jameson
The problem with using Adorno to reveal the alienating praxes at work within capitalist social relations, is that it’s not really capitalism that’s the problem for Adorno. The ‘reification’ discerned under capitalism is ultimately absorbed back into what Adorno perceives as a far longer history of reification per se.
Tim Black

Politics and History: Montesquieu, Rousseau, Marx by Louis Althusser
Whether one subscribes to the now-deceased Althusser’s now-deceased project or not, his attempt to identify what makes a thinker radical deserves serious consideration; and the book is indeed ultimately worthy of inclusion in this Verso series.
Alex Hochuli

Censoring Culture: Contemporary threats to free expression by Robert Atkins and Svetlana Mintcheva (editors)
In contemporary society, censorship is rarely recognised as such. And rather than shielding children from the evils of violent and sexual art, ‘being sensitive’ by banning often serves to create a comfort zone for adults, where difficult questions never arise and important issues are never addressed.
Sarah Boyes

The Politics Without Sovereignty: A critique of contemporary international relations by Christopher J Bickerton, Philip Cunliffe, Alex Gourevitch (editors)
There is much to admire in the way the book tries to situate the loss of confidence in the merits of democratic accountability, and expose how new developments in international relations theory and practice represent a degradation of human agency from the high point represented by Enlightenment ideals.
Ravi Bali

The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools and Society by Scott E Page
This is an economist’s take on diversity. As such, those looking for a tract on fairness and tackling cultural conflicts should look elsewhere. Such issues are dealt with merely by implication and inference, if at all. Rather, the ‘better society’ of the title is a society that can better solve its practical problems.
Alistair John

What's left of Christianity? The politics of belief in 2007 AD
Just as the demise of the political left forces us to rethink what is at stake in politics, and how we might seek to shape the future, the transformation of religious thinking raises important questions about the meaning of truth and morality, the nature of authority, and indeed what it means to be humane.
Dolan Cummings

Imaginary Futures: From Thinking Machines to the Global Village by Richard Barbrook
Barbrook asks why he is still being offered the same version of the future he was forty years ago. The answer is that technology, while presenting itself widely to military and civilian consumers, has very rarely and for only short periods of time acted to temper unequal production and distribution processes.
Sarah Snider

Made in Brighton by Julie Burchill and Daniel Raven
With its long-standing status as a home to gangsters, gays and showbiz types, Brighton is a sort of Soho-on-Sea, making it look glitzily unpromising as a source for many nationally applicable norms. But the couple are able to mine plenty of national truths from their seaside home.
Nicky Charlish

Inventing Human Rights: A History by Lynn Hunt
Human rights is a concept that only came to prominence during the eighteenth century. The central questions Lynn Hunt seeks to address are how human rights were invented, and why this invention – and its self-evidence – occurred in when it did.
George Hoare

The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt
Haidt mentions in passing what it took this former moral philosophy student six years of study to see clearly: that the crucial point about human behaviour is not so much that we very rarely act purely rationally, but that rationality has no meaning without desire.
Paul Jump

Yo, Blair! by Geoffrey Wheatcroft
Although Blair was not the sharpest tool in the box (you don’t have to be an Aquinas or Ayer to spot the philosophical flaw in his declaration, ‘I only know what I believe’), he was considered to be the man who could fulfil what it was felt that Middle England wanted, that is ‘market economics powdered with caring rhetoric’...
Nicky Charlish

Emancipation(s) by Ernesto Laclau
The real disappointment for this reader is not the rarefied language, but the fact that Laclau rejects the possibility of formulating the Enlightenment notion of a totalising universal identity, and with it washes down the drain any project of uniting the world under a single banner of rationality.
Sarah Boyes

Politics of Modernism: Against the New Conformists by Raymond Williams
Williams' critique of cultural pessimism remains relevant given the still current trend to disavow the future and its alternative potential, and to categorise new technologies alternately as both determinants of social change and threats to established artistic, now 'classicalised', forms.
Hugh Ortega Breton

Imagined London by Anna Quindlen
Having come to terms with British English, Quindlen was relieved. 'I had purchased an adaptor! I could convert the current!' The attraction and the power of this writer is this directness and lack of guile, which renders what to an American may seem a weakness on her part, into a strength.
Peter Inson

Containment: Rebuilding a Strategy Against Global Terror by Ian Shapiro
While Shapiro argues that containment aimed to defend 'diversity', was an 'anti-imperial stance' and is essentially 'to refuse to be bullied, while at the same time declining to become a bully', its actual record is precisely the opposite. The very problem Shapiro confronts is itself a product of that policy.
Lee Jones

Fragments by Jean Baudrillard
It is always tempting to imagine Jean Baudrillard preparing to write a book by sharpening an axe, swinging it into his computer monitor, then gluing the shattered pieces to a celluloid film reel, projecting it to a crowded room full of admirers and absolutely forbidding them to take it seriously.
Sam Haddow

Stalking by Bran Nicol
How can a phenomenon so ingrained in our consciousness be so recent an occurrence? This is the question driving Bran Nicol's survey of the subject. Throughout the book, Nicol asserts that stalking is both an old and new phenomenon.
Alistair John

Leonard Woolf: A Life by Victoria Glendinning
This is the story that Glendinning tells: Viriginia as demanding genius, Leonard as selfless husband. And though she convinces quite thoroughly that Leonard was undoubtedly an unselfish, kind, good person, one if left wondering whether this goodness meant that his own potential was unfulfilled.
James Topham

The Trap: What Happened to our Dream of Freedom? BBC2
The conclusion of Adam Curtis' new three-part BBC series is that liberal democracies have diminished our humanity, not by deliberately setting out as the Communists did to make a perfect society, but simply by organising around an impoverished notion of freedom.
Dolan Cummings

Welcome to Everytown: a Journey into the English Mind by Julian Baggini
Julian Baggini is off to discover what people really think about politics, food, aesthetics, holidays, immigration, metaphysics, youth, gender and the good life, in short, to find out what the English folk philosophy is. Which means he's actually off to Rotherham: statistically the most average place in England.
Sarah Boyes

Rough Guides to Climate Change and Ethical Living by Duncan Clark and Robert Henson
The second of these titles is an entire book dedicated to small scale self-flagellation - without the first's interesting titbits of climate science. It is more along the lines of the traditional Rough Guides - a handbook to dip into, rather than a textbook - if, God help you, you felt compelled to live by it.
Robin Walsh

American Vertigo: On the Road from Newport to Guantanamo by Bernard Henri-Levy
'America' has supplanted 'the city' as the focus of fear and loathing in the centuries-old critique, described so well by Ian Buruma as 'Occidentalism', of modernism, of soulless rationality, commerce and rootless cosmopolitanism.
Martin Summers

Modern Liberty and the Limits of Government by Charles Fried
Fried argues that our liberties must be pre-political rather than created by the state, and that liberty cannot be based on what freedoms the government of the day decides to grant us, but the question of where the rights of the individual and the interests of the majority collide is never entirely resolved.
Clarissa Woodberry

Estates: an Intimate History by Lynsey Hanley
Hanley describes how Minister for Housing in Wilson's 1964 government, Richard Crossman, 'set about the task of rehousing the slum dwellers of the major cities with a pragmatic zeal that would have made him a star of future Labour administrations'. Well not this one, with its 'sustainable housing' agenda.
Dave Clements

D'you wanna be in my gang, my gang, my gang? The audience new music needs
What matters is not simply bums on seats, but the engagement of a particular audience. Before any artform can be universal, it has to be particular. It is particular scenes or artistic milieux that give birth to new ideas, and also keep a tradition alive; without them, tradition quickly degenerates into heritage.
Dolan Cummings

On the Shores of Politics by Jacques Rancière
Rancière's aim is to criticise the post-political consensus that has replaced yesterday's battles. Some genuinely winning and original insights come through, but beneath the arch-theorising, Rancière's vision of politics amounts to little more than a tired fantasy of liberal pluralism.
Philip Cunliffe

Strategy of Deception by Paul Virilio
There is no consistent argument in any article, let alone any broader theme developed across the collection as a whole. Instead, it is a jumble of categories and neologisms ('globalitarian') with no analytical heft, mixed in with portentous quasi-mystical rambling about technology.
Philip Cunliffe

Retro: The Culture of Revival by Elizabeth Guffey
For Guffey, retro isn't simply nostalgia. She argues that the rise of retro amounted to ambivalence about modernity. She doesn't consider that people may have rejected Modernism in the plastic arts not because of any dislike of modernity as such, but because it's boring and unattractive.
Nicky Charlish

Politics: Cutting Through the Crap by Bali Rai
This is a book that depicts political life as acne, not aspiration. It takes as its premise the unsophisticated assumption that the only way to engage young people is to adopt their view that politics and politicians are full of crap. Never once is political activity shown to be exciting or laden with potential.
Amol Rajan

Is Democracy Possible Here? by Ronald Dworkin
Dworkin seems to be clutching at straws when he starts making concrete suggestions about how to improve things politically. No matter how much legislation is introduced to try to 'wise up' political debate on television, it unlikely to happen unless the substance is there in the first place.
Patrick Hayes

Three cheers for selection: how grammar schools help the poor by Norman Blackwell
Most supporters of comprehensive education see the relevance and need for some streaming (or setting, banding etc.) within a mixed-ability school, but are completely averse to the idea of selective education, because fundamentally it does mean something different.
Charlynne Pullen

The f word Reflections on post-feminism
The embrace of what you might call 'girliness' marks a retreat from the traditional feminist urge to underplay physical and psychological differences between men and women. Indeed, there almost seems to be a cultural pressure these days towards the exaggeration of gender differences.
Paul Jump

A Culture of Corruption: Everyday Deception and Popular Discontent in Nigeria by Daniel Jordan Smith
Just as occult practices are sometimes blamed for all manner of problems and injustices in Nigeria, this book shows how corruption has become detached from any description of actual events and has instead become a mystical explanation for anything and everything bad that happens in Africa.
Stuart Simpson

Time to Emigrate? by George Walden
It is disappointing that another anti-immigration polemic is drowned not in rational argument but in a despairing voice and that ubiquitous tone of disillusionment, alienation, and weakness in the face of destructive power that seems to define political language today.
Amol Rajan

The Thought Box Very Short Introductions to 19th century philosophy, by various authors
Sometimes short introductions serve as intellectual polyfilla, simply plugging a gap in one's knowledge, but the overriding impression here is of a century of thinkers peddling the practical import of philosophy. And the distinction between thinking and acting is not always straightforward, and needs teasing out.
Sarah Boyes

Donald Cammell: A Life on the Wild Side by Rebecca and Sam Umland
The tortured artist is a regular fixture of the cultural scene. But is he a product of nurture, nature, or a combination of both? To answer this question is as difficult as resolving the nature/nurture debate itself. How good a job does this biography of an artist who indeed walked on the wild side do?
Nicky Charlish

Why Heidegger? How to Read Heidegger, by Mark Wrathall; Being and Time, by Martin Heidegger
Heidegger's critique of modernity, interpreting a particular social experience as an ontological predicament, actually presupposes and perpetuates alienation. Severed from a collective political project, Heidegger's portrait of the senseless rationality at work in the social world touches the alienated nerve.
Tim Black

Welcome to the Desert of the Real by Slavoj Zizek
The prospect that terrifies our leaders is that we might recognise mere survival as a fate worse than death. How convenient, then, to use the most irrational form of self-sacrifice to tar the very possibility of political alternatives in general.
Alex Gourevitch

The Pathology of Democracy by Jacques-Alain Miller
The pathology in question, it seems, is the desire of the state to regulate psychotherapy - to intervene in that intimate relationship between therapist and what is called, for want of a better word, 'client'. Here is Miller's reply on behalf of all psychoanalysts and psychotherapists in France.
Ro
b Weatherill

 

 
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