Things I’ve been reading recently #3

Pressed for Time: The Acceleration of Life in Digital Capitalism is a masterful contribution to the acceleration literature. In fact Judy Wajcman’s new book rivals Harmut Rosa’s Social Acceleration as the best thing I’ve read on the topic. It’s an accessible overview of a multifaceted literature which uses a well thought-out layout to walk the reader through an impressive array of topics within a surprisingly short book. Wajcman’s concern throughout is to reintroduce micro-sociology to debates about acceleration in order to correct the neglect of agency and situational dynamics which cuts through so much of the existing work on this topic. In doing so, she stresses the “multiple temporal landscapes” which the social uptake of digital devices brings into being, suggesting that the overly-schematic work on acceleration undertaken by (male) theorists like Rosa tends to overlook this situational variability. This approach helps get beyond the often crude cultural politics which can be found within the acceleration literature, instead exploring the multifaceted ways in which new technologies can be taken up and the role of human purposes in shaping these patterns of diffusion. I particularly like this because it gets beyond the polarisation which I’ve found in my own thinking about these topics e.g. it seems to me that smart phones both increase autonomy and allow for greater social control. Wajcman’s approach helps us overcome a tendency to see this as a theoretical problem and instead recognise it as the empirical variability produced by technology being taken up in a diverse array of contexts.

The Tyranny of Choice by Renata Salecl is an immensely readable reflection on the psychodynamics of choice within contemporary capitalism. Her analysis has a lot in common with Ian Craib’s ideas in The Importance of Disappointment. She’s also the only person other than Craib I’ve encountered who can write about Lacan’s ideas in a clear way. Her concern is with the latent terror in each moment of choice: the hopes we invest in the face of possibilities we know will close down through nothing other than the exercise of our own will. As she puts it, “decisions become ever harder to make when one is perceived as being the master of one’s fate, of one’s own well-being and the well-being of those close to us”. Salecl is interested in the ways in which we “seek the creation of new limits” in order to manage the anxiety which the expansion of choice poses for us. There is a fantasistic investment in the hope of completion which can be seen in our consumption choices in particular. We hope that the next item will make us feel ok, revelling in the momentary euphoria which consumption can provoke but soon becoming disenchanted with the object of consumption and moving on to something else.

The Shift: The Future of Work Is Already Here is an awful business book which I almost gave up on after 50 pages. It gets better as it goes along though and I’ll likely blog about it properly at some later point in time. One interesting thing that struck me was how Lynda Gratton is apparently a hugely respected figure at London Business School and yet cites Giddens of the 1990s as if he were a masterful thinker who had the last word on the question of what it is like to be a person in late modernity. So too with her reliance on people like Richard Florida and Malcolm Gladwell. Nonetheless, it’s actually got a lot of interesting ideas, presented engagingly through vignettes of fictional characters in the ‘crafted future’ and the ‘default future’ which structure the layout of the book.

Mad Men & Bad Men: What Happened When British Politics Met Advertising is an entertaining history of political advertising in the UK. I wasn’t convinced by much of the argument but it was a fascinating tour through the professionalisation of political communication in the UK. This is a topic I think is hugely important and which is often overlooked as a factor in how we got to where we now are. The inclusion of famous posters from past general elections was particularly welcome. I thought I knew a lot about this topic but much of this material was new to me. That’s because so much of it was about the people involved, as opposed to the general trends.

Heroes: Mass Murder and Suicide is a remarkably depressing book by Franco Berarid. It’s a study of contemporary mass murder & what it suggests about contemporary capitalism. His provocative conclusion is that these mass murders constitute a form of ‘winning for the moment’: a response to the increasingly brutal ‘meritocracy’ by those for whom “the border between reality and imagination are blurred, indistinct, distorted”. Through fame comes reliable affirmation and through gruesome murder comes fame. His analysis is impressionistic and points in the book irritated me but I think there’s something to his thesis that there’s a perverse impulse towards heroism underlying some of these mass murders.

Happiness by Design: Finding Pleasure and Purpose in Everyday Life is an engaging overview of the behavioural science literature on happiness written as a self-help book for people who don’t like self-help books. I’ll definitely blog about this properly at a later point in time. The ‘design’ invoked in the title intrigues me: Dolan’s point is that we should design our environments to be conducive to pleasure & purpose rather than deliberatively striving for these things.

The Firm: The Story of McKinsey and Its Secret Influence is a book I was reading because of a vague curiosity I’d had about management consultancy firms for some time. It’s a well-written and extensively researched book that answered every question about management consultancy I’d ever had and offered a detailed & balanced history of McKinsey that belies the slightly conspiratorial tone of the title.

Graphic Novels I’ve read recently;

  • Uber Volume 3 – this is fast turning into my favourite series ever.
  • The Harbinger – entertaining and I think completely ripped off by Heroes
  • Axix: Carnage & Hobgoblin is mildly funny in parts but another instance of something making me wonder if there’s any reason other than sheer habit that I continue to buy things produced by Marvel.
  • Criminal by Brian Michael Bendis is a fabulous noir that makes me wonder why he writes such shit when doing superhero comics
  • Fade Out by Ed Brubaker is another fabulous noir.