Monday, June 25, 2007

Strange Weather

Poster for 1939 World's Fair.

Title: Strange Weather: Culture, Science, and Technology in the Age of Limits (London: Verso, 1991)

Andrew Ross, of NYU's American Studies department (but called a "professor of social and cultural analysis"). Areas of interest are "labor and work; urban and suburban studies; intellectual history; social and political theory; science; ecology and technology; cultural studies." Lately, he seems most interested in labor and globalization. Ross' other books are multitudinous: No Respect: Intellectuals and Popular Culture (Routledge, 1989); the awesomely-titled The Chicago Gangster Theory of Life: Nature's Debt to Society (Verso, 1994); The Celebration Chronicles: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Property Value in Disney's New Town (Ballantine, 1999); Fast Boat to China: Corporate Flight and the Consequences of Free Trade-Lessons from Shanghai (Pantheon, 2006; Vintage, 2007). Many of his books are published or co-published by non-scholarly presses.

After reading a couple of reviews of this book, I was happy to find out that I wasn't the only one who had a hard time discerning the overall argument. In general, it's something about the inherent contingency and mutability of Science and Technology. Also, "isn't it interesting when Science/Technology hit the public sphere?" I think that's basically it. The book's chapters also succinctly illustrate - at least, to me - the dangers of choosing extremely contemporary topics for academic study. Some of these are fairly dated now.

One: New Age—A Kinder, Gentler Science?:
New Age philosophies (of 1991 - see comment above) are antiscientific, in that they reject many of the accepted tenets of "Western" medicine, etc. However, they use Western scientific discourse in the way they present their ideas, showing that they still believe in the legitimacy of the inherent form. There is also a split within New Age between those who believe in the use of machines for New Age ends (like machines that re-calibrate brain waves, and the like) and those who believe only in the "body's energy". Also, new advances in physics, which bring the field closer to metaphysics, have narrowed the gap between New Age and "straight" science. Ross attends a New Age conference, and reads their magazines, but doesn't do any ethnography.

Two: Hacking Away at the Counterculture: There're people called hackers, and while they're nominally anti-establishment or maverick, they are actually usually white men who fit into a profile of the postmodern Protestant success story: "hacker culture celebrates high productivity, maverick forms of creative work energy, and an obsessive identification wtih online endurance (and endorphin highs)—all qualities that are valorized by the entrepreneurial code of silicon futurism" (90). Ross wants to open up the concept of "hacking" to include any form of technoliteracy (or literacy of other stripes) that challenges existing systems of rationality.

Three: Getting Out of the Gernsback Continuum: This chapter would be the most valuable to me, because it's historical, examining the convictions of Hugo Gernsback, "the father of science fiction" who believed that SF's role was to explain features of the fantastic new science and technology of the era to the public, and to recruit new scientists. Ross uses Gernsback as a touchstone to describe interwar faith in engineering and technology and the culture that sprang up around that faith, including describing the debates within science fiction fandom around the issue of scientific legitimacy. (Here is the discussion of the 1939 World's Fair and its futuristic idealism, as well.)

Cover of a Gernsback magazine.

Four: Cyberpunk in Boystown:
White male folklore of the 1980s, Ross argues, is embodied in novels by cyberpunk writers such as William Gibson (Neuromancer). He writes that these imaginings of radical urban decay, often penned by suburbanites, took the place of the frontier fantasies we all know and love so well. Here, the body has disintegrated into a machine or a system, which Ross juxtaposes to other 80s masculine pinups like Arnie and Stallone.

Neuromancer fan art.

Boy, was I confused by this Keanu Reeves movie, when I rented it at a sleepover in middle school.

Five: Getting the Future We Deserve:
This is a chapter about imaginations of the future, with brief histories of the interest groups who have parlayed futurology in the twentieth century. Departing from the technocratic ideals he discussed in the third chapter, Ross describes how futurism moved from being the business of those who would imagine socialist technological utopias, and into the hands of corporate or governmental interests, who would like to perpetuate the status quo.

Six: The Drought This Time: Another chapter that would be useful to me, about the effect of globalism on thinking about weather (though, once again, in light of events in the past fifteen years, this reads more like a primary source than a secondary one). Here's an overview of the previous theory of global cooling, and its effect on thinking about global warming, as well as short historical sections on previous populist weather observers, like James Pollard Espy. These briefly gloss changes in weather observation in the history of the United States, making brief contingent points about the history of nationalism (cue Anderson's Imagined Communities). The Weather Channel: Nationalizing, but corporatizing, weather information.

In Technology and Culture, Rosalind Williams opined that the book lacks a coherent development of argument but says that a more serious objection is that Ross wants to interdisciplinize to the point of mishmosh ("instead of any meaty research or analysis, we are served a salad of secondary references dressed with quotations from Marx, Foucault, Geertz and other usual suspects"). She also wrote that the book is political without offering any concrete solutions, and that it has no clear audience, besides other cultural critics. Howard Segal, in the Journal of American History, wrote that Ross, while refreshingly non-technophobic, for an academic, fell into the dreaded technological-determinist trap, seeing technologies as drivers of culture, rather than products of it.

Vocab words:
"negentropic" ("causing or accompanied by a decrease in entropy or an increase in order [sometimes with the implication that the second law of thermodynamics is being contravened]"); "mensuration" ("the action, process, or art of measuring; measurement").

More 1939 World's Fair publicity.

Things to look up:
Technocracy (see references). Joe Egressia, "blind eight year old who discovered the telephone company's signal tone while whistling" (84). US government attempts to waterlog the Ho Chi Minh trail during the Vietnam War (203).

Books to follow up on: Primary:
Scifi mags from the 1920s/1930s: Frank Reade Weekly Magazine (cited in Michael Ashley, ed., The History of the Science Fiction Magazine, Part One); Science and Invention; Radio News.

Secondary: William Akin, Technocracy and the American Dream: The Technocrat Movement, 1900-1941 (1977); Stanley Aronowitz, Science as Power (1988); Henry Elsner, Jr, The Technocrats: Prophets of Automation (1967); Helen A. Harrison, Dawn of a New Day: The New York World's Fair, 1939/40 (1980); Raymond Williams, The Year 2000 (1983) and "Ideas of Nature", in Problems in Materialism and Culture (1980) ; Arthur Wrobel, ed., Pseudo-Science and Society in Nineteenth Century American Culture (1987).

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