Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, July 2021
conservation notice: I have no taste, and no qualifications to opine
on culture-bound syndromes and contagious hysterias, the history and
economics of socialist planning, economic inequality, or Islamic theology.
Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Culture (Columbia University Press, 1997)
- Showalter's theory is, roughly, as follows. Modern life produces lots of
seriously unhappy, even traumatized, people. Some, at least, of those people
are apt act out their unhappiness in various bodily symptoms and
behaviors. This acting out is more or less unconscious, usually more rather
than less. There is a certain amount of random flailing around (as it were)
when it comes to these symptoms, but people tend to be attracted to patterns of
behavior which have some sort of authoritative imprimatur among those around
them as reflecting real distress. There is thus a symbiosis between clinicians
who recognize syndromes-of-distress and patients who enact those syndromes.
Showalter calls the syndromes forms of "hysteria", and the associated
narratives "hystories". To really make the symbiosis work, however, one needs
a mass medium to widely disseminate the scripts or schemata for the syndrome,
perhaps as elements in popular fiction.
- Showalter applies this theory to the original "classical hysteria" of
Charcot et al. in the late 1800s, and, in the 1980s and 1990s when she was
writing, to alien abduction, chronic fatigue syndrome, Satanic ritual abuse,
recovered memory, Gulf War syndrome, and multiple personality disorder. The
late-20th-century cases are distinguished from the late-19th-century ones by
the fact that they all involve conspiracy theories; Showalter is very firm, and
correct, about this development, but doesn't really try to explain it. (It's
not as though the 19th century had any shortage of conspiracy theories, and
it'd need little more than search-and-replace to
turn The Awful
Disclosures of Maria Monk into a tale of Satanic ritual abuse.) I
want to single out the chapters on recovered memory, multiple personality
disorder, Satanic ritual abuse and alien abduction for how carefully, and
convincingly, Showalter shows they follow her model.
- A quarter-century later, some of these syndromes have all but vanished, but
there's no shortage of replacements. (Listing them is left as an exercise for
the reader.) Why we should be so productive of "hystories" is not
really something Showalter adequately explains, beyond gesturing at millennial
anxiety and/or modern telecommunications.
- At this point I'd like to make one complaint, two anthropological
connections, and one mathematical aside.
- Showalter does not give enough weight to the possibility that something
which looks like a hysteria with physical symptoms might in fact be a
conventional illness. (That is, she doesn't consider how to distinguish social
from biological contagion*.) I think in many ways this would have been a much
stronger book if it had had a chapter on Lyme disease (which we now know is a
bacterial illness transmitted by ticks) and the supposed chronic Lyme disease
(which fits Showalter's ideas to a T). It wouldn't surprise me
if some of the people who suffer from chronic fatigue syndrome are in
fact dealing with currently-unrecognized organic conditions; it would surprise
me very much if alien abductees were. (Cf. this contemporary review from
- A lot of Showalter's ideas are close to those put forward by the
anthropologist I. M. Lewis
Religion: A Study of Shamanism and Spirit Possession (first ed.
1971). What might be distinctly modern about Showalter's syndromes, as opposed
to Lewis's, is the role of mass media in their spread and institutionalization.
- Dan Sperber would
have a field day with this. In particular, Showalter's ideas seem
extremely compatible with Sperber's about how the "epidemiology of
representations" needs to combine transmission and "attraction".
- I'm tempted to model the growth of "hystories" using the classic Simon (1955) process: with
some probability each unhappy person spawns a new form of hysteria,
otherwise they attach themselves to an existing one with a probability
proportional to its current size. (That is, preferential attachment to
hysterias.) This will, of course, lead to a heavy-tailed distribution of
hysterias. The flaw here is that this model wouldn't explain the
disappearance of forms of hysteria; there might need to be some sort
of recency effect.
- I was alerted to this book, but put off from reading it, by a
in Nature; it now seems to me that the reviewer was unfair
about the quality of Showalter's writing. (Perhaps my taste has been degraded
by a quarter century of reading academic prose.) There are ways in which I'd
re-write this book (it's still too Freudian, and in places too cutesy [e.g.,
the coinage "hystories" itself]), and, inevitably, parts are dated. I
would really like to read Showalter giving the same treatment to
the last quarter century, but,
given her experiences after
publishing this, I understand why she'd decline, to the public's loss. I
urge the book on any reader with a serious interest in social contagion, or in
the weirder reaches of modern culture.
- *: My former
student Dena Asta wrote
did some nice research, back in 2012--2013, based on the idea that
a social contagion will spread
or "modules" defined by the social network, while a biological
contagion will need physical proximity. To the extent that network modularity
and geographic propinquity cut across each other, we can get some handle on
what form of contagion we're dealing with, assuming it's
contagion at all. This, however, is taking us very far from
- Michael Ellman, Socialist Planning (3rd edition, 2014)
- This is a very complete revision of a book whose first (1979)
edition I reviewed earlier. The
revision brings the story up to the early 2010s (in the case of China), and
makes extensive use of sources and studies which have only become available
since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
- Geographically, coverage remains focused on the Soviet Union, but there are
also extensive discussions of the Chinese experience, and a great deal more
than I remember from the first edition about Yugoslavia, Poland, Hungary, and
East Germany. Other eastern-European countries and Vietnam are mentioned
sporadically, Cuba even less often, North Korea just a few times in passing.
There is extensive information about how plans were drawn up, how the
authorities attempted to implement them, what actually happened instead, etc.
Coverage of the military sector, and the way preparation for another WWII-style
conflict influenced every aspect of Soviet economic planning, is drastically
expanded. (According to Ellman, much of the output of the aluminum and
fertilizer industries was simply wasted year after year, because factories ran
at levels suitable for producing vast numbers of warplanes and munitions, not
actual needs.) The general tone is of trying to describe, and evaluate, a
phenomenon which has passed and will never recur. To sum up Ellman's judgment: socialist planning was an attempt at modernization from above, driven by the imperative of being militarily competitive with industrialized European powers.
In that goal, it succeeded, at least up through the 1950s. As a
fulfillment of the ethical aims of socialism, it failed and was doomed to fail.
- I find it hard to imagine that a better overview of socialist planning, as
it actually existed, will be available any time soon.
- Michele Alacevich and Anna Soci, Inequality: A Short History [JSTOR]
- This isn't so much a history of inequality as of economists'
ideas about inequality. Indeed, much of it takes the form of rehashing
famous recent work. (E.g., chapter 4, "Inequality and Globalization", is
largely about Branko Milanovic's Global Inequality. [It's a good
book.]) They do make the interesting point that both classical and
neo-classical economics focused on the distribution of income across factors of
production, rather than the distribution of income (or wealth) across persons
or households. But the point is somewhat undercut by the fact that the
statistical study of income and wealth distributions owes so much to Pareto,
who was also one of the founders of neo-classical economics! I found some of
the history in ch. 3, "The Statistical Drift of Inequality Studies", to be
interesting, though I think a bit unfair to Pareto (regular readers will
understand what such a statement costs me). I also found Alacevich and Soci's
repeated slagging on economists for merely doing empirical studies of
income distribution a bit unfortunate --- surely before coming up with a
theoretical explanation, it's important to know what the phenomena to be
explained actually are!
- Over-all, if you have read any two of Milanovic, Piketty and Bartels, you
will not find much new here. I might assign some of the history-of-statistics
portions in my class.
- Karin Slaughter, The Last Widow and The Silent Wife
- Mind candy, mystery/thriller division. Umpteenth volumes in Slaughter's
long-running series, which I enjoy very much.
The Last Widow is a 2019 publication which involves (not to spoil
anything) biological terrorism, the CDC, and a right-wing attack on a seat of
government. Looking back from mid-2021, therefore, I am very relieved that
The Silent Wife is merely about personal betrayal and
serial killing. Both are very well-written and enjoyable, if full of squicky
- (I think it is, however, a defect in construction that the dramatic,
newsworthy, and emotionally-scarring events of Last Widow are
basically not mentioned in Silent Wife, despite its taking place a
mere six weeks later. It's also atypical of Slaughter, since one of the things
I enjoy about her series is that there are consequences.)
- John Renard (ed.), Islamic Theological Themes: A Primary Source Reader
- Does what it says. I'm impressed by the range of texts --- ideologically,
geographically, chronologically --- but utterly incompetent to evaluate it.
- S. A. Chakraborty, The Kingdom of Copper
- Mind candy fantasy: sequel
to City of Brass. I
found the continuing story enjoyable, but the language is, to borrow a phrase
from Le Guin, very much that of Poughkeepsie rather than Elfland, despite being
almost entirely set in Elfland (or, more precisely, Jinnistan). Still, I
immediately got the sequel after finishing this.
- Anna Lee Huber, A Wicked Conceit
- Mind candy mystery. I think it's probably just as good as the earlier
books, but that series fatigue has set in for me after nine volumes. They
will, however, loose little from being read out of order.
Update, 28 August 2021: Fixed an editing fragment that turned a
sentence about Alacevich and Soci into mush.
Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur;
Islam and Islamic Civilization;
Writing for Antiquity;
Pleasures of Detection, Portraits of Crime;
The Dismal Science;
The Progressive Forces;
Minds, Brains, and Neurons;
Actually, "Dr. Internet" Is the Name of the Monster's Creator
Posted at July 31, 2021 23:59 | permanent link