Category Archives: Books

Two Biographies of Jean-Luc Godard: Cinema’s Theoretical Analyst

Godard: A Portrait of the Artist at Seventy    Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard

Colin MacCabe, Godard: A Portrait of the Artist at Seventy (Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux 2004)

Richard Brody, Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard (Metropolitan Books 2008)

Two biographers have written substantial books on filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard.  Despite a common focus on the same biographical subject, and a shared belief that Godard is one of the most important filmmakers of his time or maybe ever, the two writers take markedly different approaches with equally different levels of success.

Godard, of course, was a Swiss-French filmmaker who transitioned from a circle of post World War II cinephiles to a leading director in the French nouvelle vague [new wave] movement in the late 1950s.  His cinematic style was revolutionary.  His ideas about the nature of cinema were inscribed into his works.  He broke all the rules of cinema, from editing to framing, in a kind of ongoing scientific analysis of the form itself that restated classic cinema with streaks of modernism.  Like many of his nouvelle vague compatriots he worked largely with low budgets, to preserve a degree of artistic freedom from producers.  He shot mostly on location and with scripts often devised during shooting.  After a series of critically lauded films through the mid-1960s, many starring his first wife Anna Karina and filmed by cameraman Raoul Coutard, Godard entered a militant period in which he rejected commercial cinema.  He made collaborative films with French Maoists, then turned to television and video projects in the mid 1970s.  He “returned” to commercial film in the late 1970s, and has remained a critically lauded outsider as he became an octogenarian.  His audiences had dwindled.  Yet he continued to provoke and expand the possibilities of his chosen medium with new projects.  Among his notable later works was a massive and sui generis video project on the history of cinema and the history of the 20th Century released in the late 1990s.  An irascible and sometimes misunderstood person, the recent biographies offer impossibly different accounts of the man behind the films.  Only one ultimately proves reliable though.

MacCabe brings a comprehensive classical education to bear on Godard’s work.  He places Godard in a deep fabric of artistic and political endeavors stretching back centuries.  Most fundamentally he provides an explicit analysis of the ideologies Godard adopted in his work, and relates them to his influences and the times and places in which he lived.  Personal details are provided only to an extent minimally necessary for an understanding of Godard’s attitudes and ideals.  Though perhaps a few possibly unflattering details are omitted.  MacCabe also proves an eloquent writer. Take his statement on the motivations of directors like the young Godard:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that the history of the cinema is the history of a plot by shy unprepossessing and sex-obsessed men to surround themselves with heartrendingly beautiful women.” (p. 123)

MacCabe elucidates the way Godard the film critic established the framework of his cinematic vision, one that is fundamentally an analysis of the nature of cinema.  He highlights Godard’s writing while at the journal Cahiers du Cinema that, in hindsight, posits the truth of Godard’s personality (TiNe) and worldview (gauchiste).  Discussing one such article, MacCabe probe’s Godard’s conception of cinema in relation to reality:

“What Godard emphasizes — a point that [André] Bazin makes in his almost exactly contemporaneous article on Stalin — is that the cinema is not just a representation of reality, but becomes part of the reality itself.” (p. 72)

This point tends to attract people like Godard.  It is a restatement of a point elaborated at length by Alfred Korzybski, who formulated the issue thusly:

“The map is not the territory; the map doesn’t cover all of the territory; and the map is self-reflexive (it becomes part of the territory).” Science and Sanity (1933)

Portions of the book on Godard’s formative experiences establishing new grounds for film criticism with staff of the journal Cahiers du Cinema and his engagement with Henri Langlois’s famous contextual juxtapositions through screenings by the film archive Cinémathèque Française simply crackle with energy.  One feels Godard’s excitement.  But this reveals also the concepts that his cohorts imparted to him and his work.  Crucial is a new view of authorship in cinema, which separated Godard not only from other filmmakers and critics but also made a unique contribution by cinema to the arts as a whole.  In it, the audience’s perspective steps forward.

“One locates one’s author not by ignoring the specificity of his artistic medium, but by emphasizing it. . . . Cahiers’s author theory is the only theory of the author which is formulated from the point of view of the audience, and indeed explicitly formulated as a method to move from the position of the audience to that of the artist.” (p. 75)

This concept returns later in the book, transitioning to the legal and political sphere where audience rights are not recognized.

“Godard precisely understands copyright as a crucial artistic and political issue.  Most legal discussions turn around differences between the French and the Anglo-Saxon systems, with the French being held to favour the author, while the Anglo-Saxon favours the owner of the copyright.  What differences there are pale into insignificance beside the fact that neither system allows the audience any rights whatsoever.” (p. 301)

Brody, writing with MacCabe’s book already published, focuses on factual detail.  While Brody did interview Godard (* read on), most of the contents of Everything Is Cinema come from archival research and a few new interviews, mostly of those who lived and worked around Godard.  His book therefore functions most effectively in cataloging existing materials on Godard, organized chronologically around Godard’s various professional projects.  There are chapters addressing each of Godard’s films.  Readers can locate relevant sections in relation to particular works, as they are viewed, and review the citations to find relevant materials.  This is quite unlike MacCabe’s approach, which unabashedly favors certain films with longer, more in-depth treatments, and mentions others only in passing.  Footnotes are minimal.  Another thing that Brody does is draw out (and embellish?) the more lurid details of Godard’s personal life, which MacCabe largely passes over.  There is something of a prudish tabloid quality to Brody’s treatment that MacCabe explicitly tried to avoid.  And Brody’s tone is like much other writing in The New Yorker magazine (where he is a film critic and editor), burdened with the same arrogant, self-satisfied, self-important conservatism masquerading as mildly left-of-center liberalism that is taken entirely for granted.

Brody’s presentation tries to extrapolate the larger meaning of Godard’s work from very selective factual detail of Godard’s private life.  In this way, Brody attempts to remove Godard’s own perspective from the analysis of Godard’s work.  MacCabe, in complete contrast, tends to see Godard’s private life as offering little directly useful information about his professional work (with a few notable exceptions for his pre-professional youth, at a high level, and certain later incidents where his public and private life merge), and instead directly engages the public side of Godard’s work on its own. To the extent that Brody draws conclusions, he draws them from the catalogued facts as filtered through his own ideological position.  He seems to make his case by drawing a conclusion first, picking only the facts that support that conclusion, and then drawing a “connection” from that subset of facts to the predetermined conclusions.  The reasons he draws his initial conclusions are not probed in any meaningful way.  Brody’s approach is overarchingly to try to associate Godard with disfavored groups.  Critic Adrian Martin wrote that Brody seems to have an axe to grind, and his research focuses only on supporting certain accusations (namely, alleged anti-semitism and misogyny) but not testing them against potentially contradictory facts (or recognizing a lack of factual support).  This is the central basis for the (many) claims by critics that Brody tries to smear Godard.

On the substantive analysis of Godard’s work, many have complained that Brody overextends himself in viewing all of Godard’s work as an expression of autobiographical fiction.  A damning review by Bill Crohn dismisses Brody’s biography as “cultural journalism”, and cites a New York Times letter to the editor that castigates Brody’s “ideological simplifications and biographical reductivism”.  Crohn also details a host of factual errors and blatant factual distortions, along the lines of Martin’s critique.  But the complaint about reductionism is at the heart of the matter.  Brody returns endlessly to his thesis that Godard’s films should be viewed as strictly autobiographical:

King Lear gathers in one film all of Godard’s preoccupations from this period, and does so in an extremely original, albeit elusive, form.  It . . . was centered on Godard’s self-mythologizing in and through cinema and his recuperation and redefinition of the grand tradition of art by way of the cinema.  As such, King Lear is something of a personal manifesto . . . .”  (p. 491-92)

This very much recalls the work of lesser biographers, like Terry Teachout with Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong (2009), which can be viewed as writing a biography as a book-length argument that jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong’s anachronistic later recordings like “Hello, Dolly!” are important, or Joseph Dofman’s Thorstein Veblen and His America (1934), which has been, somewhat belatedly, criticized for projecting the biographer’s own insecurities onto his biographical subject by extrapolating from dubiously selected facts from Veblen’s private personal life.  No one will doubt that there is an autobiographical element to Godard’s work.  Yet Brody’s one-dimensional, reductionist approach takes it as just about the only element that matters.  It seems like an excuse to justify Brody’s own taste amongst Godard’s works — a bit like Teachout with Armstrong, he seems to want to build up a reason why his personal favorite works are “really” Godard at his best.  Brody is entitled to his opinions, but opinions are like assholes, everyone has one.  Brody’s views fizzle on their own.  Alongside other views, the self-interested moralizing of Everything Is Cinema becomes much more clear.  The claims of anti-semitism are one such area.  Brody seems to have a difficult time separating anti-zionism (which is not anti-semitic) from anti-semitism.  This is Brody’s failing, not Godard’s (who has explicitly drawn this distinction).  People with personalities like Godard love to mock those they consider intellectual inferiors by forcing them to read between the lines with veiled insults.  To that end, when Brody visited Godard in Europe to interview him, Godard snubbed him, and sarcastically mocked his poor interviewing skills.  Reviewer Bill Crohn went so far as to say that Brody’s mean-spirited and distorted bio may have been framed as revenge against Godard for that incident.

MacCabe instead tries to convey Godard’s ideological position, and to contextualize it, and through that filter restricts the raw volume of historical facts presented.  There is never any feeling that more facts would alter MacCabe’s conclusions, because his perspective aligns with the basic course of Godard’s work and career.  This is what is most strikingly different in Brody’s account as compared to MacCabe’s.  Brody does not engage his own ideology explicitly.  In his relentless provision of “facts”, usually relating to the private sphere of his subject, he rarely if ever explains the nature of his own frame of reference.  In attempting to adopt a neutral and “objective” journalistic stance, he makes a play to impose his subjective position on the reader through an emphasis on lurid gossip of doubtful reliability.  This does not sit well.

MacCabe is prone to sweeping statements to elaborate ideological positions, conflicts, and milestones, in cinema and other arts.  For instance, his take on modernism as an element in Godard’s work and a factor that shapes the disposition of Godard and his place within the fabric of the artistic world, provides a unquestionably succinct summary:

“Modernism is most familiarly known as the turning of the focus on to the form and medium of art itself.  *** The paradox of modernism is thus that it offers a totally democratic view of art — the determination to turn every aspect of both world and self into matter for art — in forms which require a level of attention and commitment which limits the audience to a mere handful.”  (pp. 278-79).

But statements like these are explicit in MacCabe’s writing.  And they dazzle and delight with their wit and cutting insight.  He presents them in the context of ongoing debates.  The reader can agree or disagree, complete with some sense of where to look for contrasting viewpoints.

MacCabe is direct in stating that he is an unabashed Godard partisan.  He writes in the first person to explain his favorite films and to recount periodic interactions with Godard.  He thinks Godard’s best works are Passion (1982), Le Mépris [Contempt] (1963) and Histoire(s) du cinéma (1998), with a sentimental attachment to Made in U.S.A. (1966).  Brody states that he thinks Godard is among the best film directors, but clearly despises the man himself and spends most of his biography dredging up (if not fabricating outright) tabloid “dirt”.  He favors King Lear (1987) (having identified it as the very best in his list of the ten greatest films ever, while MacCabe says it fails to integrate some excellent constituent parts) and Eloge de l’amour [In Praise of Love] (2001) (which he rates as the best film of its decade).  Notice how MacCabe separates out his own views and sentimental attachments from an independent context of critical significance, while Brody posits that his personal views are what defines critical importance?  This is why MacCabe’s writing is superior.  In all, Brody’s book may serve as a useful chronological bibliography, but as an overview of Godard’s career it is unreliable and biased.  MacCabe has offered a very impressive biography, one that captures Godard’s life and work as well as any might.  Skip Brody’s tedious tome (I couldn’t even get through it cover to cover) and seek out MacCabe’s wonderful book.  Of course, among other writing on Godard, another crucial reference remains the collection Godard on Godard (1985).  Godard started as a film critic, and there is a tremendous amount of the filmmaker’s own writings available that shed much light on his manner of thinking and his cinematic work as such.

Michael Hudson – The Bubble and Beyond

The Bubble and Beyond: Fictitious Capital, Debt Deflation and the Global Crisis

Michael HudsonThe Bubble and Beyond: Fictitious Capital, Debt Deflation and the Global Crisis (ISLET 2012)

If you have time for just one economist today, Michael Hudson would make an excellent choice. The central premise of The Bubble and Beyond is that “the miracle of compound interest” has for all time tended to exceed growth of the “real” economy, which invariably leads to excessive credit claims that cannot be paid. He cites Richard Price‘s famous example of how a penny invested at 0 BC with 5% compound interest would have by Price’s time (1772) become a solid sphere of gold reaching to the orbit of Saturn — obviously unpayable!  Part of the problem today lies with the self-serving tendency of mainstream economics to exclude analysis of finance (particularly the closely-related finance, insurance and real-estate or “FIRE” sectors) from the analysis, which Hudson attempts to incorporate into a more inclusive model. All past economies (excepting ancient Rome) burst such financial bubbles to wipe out bad debts. But Hudson has shown that the ongoing financial bubble organized by the Washington Consensus (Alan Greenspan being the most recognizable face of the phenomenon) has resisted debt write-downs by fueling further debt pyramiding (paying debts with more debt). Building on his landmark book Super Imperialism (a must-read), he shows how the Washington Consensus has adopted tactics not unlike those of a suicide bomber, threatening to destroy countless economies if demands (from the USA, the world’s largest debtor) are not met. But further, he does not shy away from illustrating how countries that do not toe the line are routinely invaded by military forces or subject to “color revolutions”. Hudson is spot on in his analyses, in a way that is refreshingly accessible, reasonable and reliable. He provides summaries of the history of economics that demonstrate how many of the concepts he is now restating have been known — if marginalized — for centuries. Yet many past writers could not have anticipated the sheer magnitude of the present bubble economy, or the ways in which vested interests would successfully stave off reasonable solutions. Much of the problems revolve around tax policy, in Hudson’s view, with a clear need for a more progressive income tax, especially with higher rates for “capital gains”. Oh, and there is a need to deal with financial fraud too, by sending criminal banksters to prison. But those policy prescriptions have a successful history in modern Western states that debt write-offs do not enjoy. It is there that Hudson goes the extra step. He says bankers need to take a loss on bad loans, and he backs up that claim with historical examples that go back to earliest recorded history in Mesopotamia.  This historical grounding demonstrates that current tactics are fundamentally inadequate, from the historical perspective.  There lies his most important contribution.  He provides context for the way dominant think today deviates from accepted wisdom of the past.  This allows the reader to step outside the economic paradigm of the present to envisage another, more stable and equitable one.

This is a good book, and an important one. But due to the importance of the topic, it is worth pointing out a few areas where the book is lacking — or simply where a second edition could make some simple improvements. First, as many other reviewers have noted, this book is basically a self-published collection of materials from pre-existing articles. As always follows in such cases, the editing and proofreading is abominable, with typos, duplicate paragraphs, and tedious repetition endemic throughout the book (particularly where disparate articles were making the same or very similar points). This man deserves a good editor!! Second, there is a general lack of adequate citations. Hudson spouts off numbers without revealing where they come from, and talks about things like the ancient Roman economy while only mentioning historians like Plutarch in passing near the end, many chapters later. Of course, there are portions of the book that include a rich set of citations, and those wonderful efforts cast somewhat of a pall on the chapters that lack them. Moreover, he talks about things like bank “keyboard credit” without adequately explaining his use of such terms (Norbert Häring and Niall Douglas’ Economists and the Powerful does a superior job explaining that point, for instance). Third, Hudson gets bogged down in a bit of a “sour grapes” tone when deriding mainstream economics, particularly the “Chicago School Monetarists” like Milton Friedman. Hudson is absolutely right that those mainstream schools of economic thought are really no more than lobbying efforts on the part of financial interests, not objective “science” or anything approaching it. But the endless repetition of the accusations does get tiresome, and what would have had quite an impact in a single chapter gets dulled somewhat when revisited over a dozen or more. It also would have been interesting if Hudson elaborated on the ways ignored economists like Frederick Soddy and Thorstein Veblen wrote about many of these exact same topics 80-125 years ago (he occasionally refers to his other books when discussing Simon Patten, but few besides Patten get adequate treatment in these pages). Moreover, while Hudson laments how the economics discipline has been hijacked by hacks shilling for Wall Street, he doesn’t really explain why a sociologist like the late Pierre Bourdieu could write a microeconomics book like The Social Structures of the Economy that dovetails well with Hudson’s macroeonomics. Why continue to think in terms of the narrow confines of provincial, silo-ed academic specialties, thereby reinforcing them?

Minor flaws aside, this is the sort of work that better deserves the attention lavished on Thomas Piketty‘s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. At the least, readers should investigate some of Hudson’s articles for Harper’s Magazine (incorporated into the book), which provide some important general summaries, or read up on the citation-rich chapters showing how Karl Marx repeated claims by protestant reformer Martin Luther that are even omitted from anthologies of Luther’s works! There’s a host of valuable material here and the world would be a better place the more widely its concepts were known.

Jim Collins – Good to Great

Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap...And Others Don't

Jim CollinsGood to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don’t (Random House Business 2001)

Read The Halo Effect by Phil Rosenzweig for an absolutely devastating debunking of Good to Great (or the “peer review” by Matthew Anderson). I won’t repeat what is readily available in Rosenzweig‘s book, or elsewhere, but will say that Rosenzweig systematically picks apart how Collins seems to have no understanding how to conduct proper research and how many of Collins’ theories don’t hold up to scrutiny. Much of Good to Great sounds maddeningly like the kind of “science” relied upon by climate change/global warming deniers. In fact, if you read the collection of Albert Einstein‘s writings Ideas and Opinions, in numerous places he states that science cannot involve deducing theory from evidence, which happens to be precisely what Collins claims he has done with Good to Great and Collins calls it the physics of business/management. Everything you need to know about Jim Collins and his ilk can be summed up by recognizing that probably no union has ever organized workers to demand that management gurus like him be brought in. This is not neutral stuff.  It is partisan rhetoric used to consolidate power with a management class, and strip it from ordinary workers.  In more concrete terms it is about selling feel-good myths to top corporate management, to justify shake-ups and layoffs, and the pay-for-performance regime in executive compensation, for example. There are a few good points in here, but mostly they are reworkings of existing concepts assigned useless new buzzwords by Collins. As many others have made clear, it is sort of amusing to see how many of the companies that Collins trumpets have since gone under (Circuit City), been involved in massive fraud (Fannie Mae, Wells Fargo), or are just plain slimy and corrosive to public well-being (Philip Morris). He seems to defend this in a crude way, simply implying that businesspeople should be sociopaths… Anyway, the bottom-line myth behind this is the idea that MANAGEMENT holds the key to the success or failure or a business. Read Confronting Managerialism by Robert Locke and JC Spender for a useful (and quite different) historical perspective on that. Indeed, the late sociologist Pierre Bourdieu said, “‘Management Theory’, a literature produced by business schools for business schools, fulfills a function identical to that of the writings of the European jurists of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries who, in the guise of describing the state, contributed to building it: being directed at current or potential managers, that theory oscillates continually between the positive and the normative, and depends fundamentally on an overestimation of the degree to which conscious strategies play a role in business, as opposed to the structural constraints upon, and the dispositions of, managers.” (The Social Structures of the Economy).

Graeme Thomson – Willie Nelson: The Outlaw

Willie Nelson: The Outlaw

Graeme ThomsonWillie Nelson: The Outlaw (Virgin Books 2006)

A good biography on Willie Nelson from Thomson. It seems well-researched, and avoids the rank hagiography so prevalent in these sorts of music bios. The author doesn’t shy from questioning Nelson’s motivations and worst behavior. He also does an excellent job articulating the crazy fine line Nelson walked between positive-thinking new age guru and lazy bum coasting on a reputation without continued hard work as a songwriter and performer. Yet, at the same time, the book doesn’t dwell on tabloid gossip. As for the book’s weaknesses, Thomson falls prey to a few misplaced British anachronisms, like comments about a “football pitch” when he means to say “(American) football field” — there is no way that Nelson was playing soccer in his youth deep in the heart of Texas! Then, too, Thomson stumbles are a pure music critic. He often criticizes some of Nelson’s best work (like The Sound in Your Mind) and praises marginal efforts (particularly early stuff and Nelson’s biggest commercial successes of the 80s). He certainly doesn’t seem to go back and revive some of Nelson most overlooked material (like The Words Don’t Fit the Picture) or necessarily place Nelson in a broader continuum. But, those flaws are fairly easily ignored in a generally fine book.

Chris Argyris – Flawed Advice and the Management Trap

Flawed Advice and the Management Trap: How Managers Can Know When They're Getting Good Advice and When They're Not

Chris ArgyrisFlawed Advice and the Management Trap: How Managers Can Know When They’re Getting Good Advice and When They’re Not(Oxford University Press 2000)

Some good ideas here, but ultimately Argyris falls a bit short. His basic goal is to highlight how many business consulting programs are flawed. He does in fact offer some useful insights and is quite adept at describing some of the “real” problems that businesses face. His strength lies in taking a very psychological approach — it has echoes of the noted French psychiatrist Jaques Lacan. He emphasizes how much behavior of managers is motivated by defensive reactions to avoid embarrassment (what might psychologically be more generally termed “hurt”). Often this produces autocratic responses from managers who seek to impose unilateral control in a counterproductive way and the suppress meaningful discourse on critical topics (often permitting discussion only on what is irrelevant). Argyris’ descriptions fit situations I have witnessed firsthand. Unfortunately, much of this discussion gets mired in unnecessary jargon that is endlessly repeated but never adequately delineated (a glossary or reference table for key terms would help a lot). He does occasionally refer to his past books, but requiring a reader to obtain and read numerous other books in order to understand the current one is not really an acceptable way to write. Moreover, some of his jargon seems to consist of little more than re-labeling of existing concepts (for instance, much of his “theory in use” discussion seems a lot like Alfred Korzybski’s “the map is not the territory” dictum, or sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s concepts of “habitus” and “a knowledge of the real world that contributes to its reality”). The book makes its key point in saying that other management advice tends to not be actionable or testable. A lot of that “other advice” is well-intentioned and perhaps necessary in the abstract — who can argue with injunctions to be accountable, have courage, and produce results? But, according to Argyris, many of these programs lack the detail to rigorously test unstated assumptions. This is a lot like saying those are necessary but not sufficient factors for success. It’s a more ideological attack on Tom Peters/Jim Collins/Stephen Covey nonsense than books like Phil Rosenzweig’s methodological critique in The Halo Effect (which is actually a much better book overall). Where this book falls very flat is that once he has torn down other approaches, Argyris puts little in its place. Argyris’ examples (often in the form of a transcript with annotations) are often esoteric, leaving the reader wondering about the context for the unexplained titles and roles of the characters, and are most often presented as if self-explanatory while lacking any actionable analysis (the very same flaw he points to in other programs). He discusses a lot of role-playing situations, but never clearly establishes that role-playing is an effective tool (one gets the impression that useful information is withheld from this book in order to encourage companies to instead simply hire the author as a consultant). But it also bears mentioning that Argyris is a strong influence on the bogus “fifth discipline” organizational learning crowd, and so must be viewed with a skeptical eye.

In short, this book highlights some extremely frustrating aspects of corporate and business culture, particularly some of the insufferable lies perpetrated by management seeking to assert (or reassert) unilateral control while feigning to engage in “collaboration” or “teamwork” (the real core of the Peters/Collins/Covey-style programs) that only applies to the lower rungs of a business. He offers useful clues to spotting those flaws. But other than that, this book doesn’t put much on the table as an alternative, so don’t come expecting to find it here. In the end this seems like a rather lightweight overview of a topic that deserves better treatment.

For a critique that offers an entirely different perspective (more academic, less practical — and with a few equally stupid recommendations), try Robert Locke and JC Spender’s Confronting Managerialism which offers a historical perspective on US management contrasted to German and Japanese styles and concludes that much of the problems have to do with balance of power (especially the influence of finance), pay inequality, differences between guilt and shame cultures, and the very concept of “professional management”. For instance, they show how Japanese-style programs (re)imported to the USA are often perversely brought over without some of the necessary foundational elements (like meaningful bottom-up employee empowerment). What I like about Locke and Spender is that they recognize that there is no substitute for intelligence and knowledge of the inner workings of a business and only certain organizational structures (the relatively flat ones like in Silicon Valley) can really make use of that talent, whereas others, it would seem Argyris among them, think (I would say wrongly) that good management can be “learned” in any organization independent from organizational structure. Spender and Locke also make compelling arguments that management, particularly the “MBA culture”, brings a typically unspoken agenda to the table and they do a good job elucidating that hidden agenda (de-skill white collar workers, engage in labor arbitrage, and generally substitute financial for engineering standards). Of course, those guys are not without their own flaws, as they seem to endorse German “christian capitalism” as some kind of solution to something, rather than simply taking a psychological approach and saying that US businesses tend to select and reward sociopathic behavior for ideological reasons. Even Rosabeth Moss Kanter might be another person who has offered better overviews of corporate culture at a high level.

Phil Rosenzweig – The Halo Effect

The Halo Effect: ... and the Eight Other Business Delusions That Deceive Managers

Phil RosenzweigThe Halo Effect: … and the Eight Other Business Delusions That Deceive Managers (Free Press 2007)

If you’ve ever had to suffer through business management books by Jim Collins, Tom Peters, et al., this is a welcomed counterpoint. Rosenzweig spares you from having to make all the usual arguments debunking the junk science behind the outrageous claims in many of those other business management books. He does acknowledge that the cheerleading component of business management gurus can have a place. But most importantly he actually engages some of the serious academic research out there on business management, he weighs the different methodologies, and he ultimately concludes that there is no silver bullet, miracle diet or other simple formula or set of steps that inexorably leads to lasting success. Rosenzweig is not without his own blind spots. Anyone who relies as heavily on Joseph Schumpeter as he does naturally would. He also makes ad hominem attacks on W. Edwards Deming that seem odd. The only metric that ultimate matters to Rosenzweig’s analysis is stock price. If you recognize that the speculative nature of stock trading can deviate sharply and nearly independently from company performance (i.e., that the “efficient-market hypothesis” is unsound, as empirical data confirms), you won’t find a comparable recognition here. If you have moral qualms about the human toll incurred through profit at any cost, you’ll also have to look elsewhere for those critiques.

Alex Ross – The Rest Is Noise

The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century

Alex RossThe Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2007)

Ross brings a lot of enthusiasm to the subject of 20th Century classical composition in The Rest Is Noise. Unfortunately, that is one of the few highlights here. The book’s problems are many. It is probably a little too dense and heavy on music theory for many casual readers, but also too light and uncritical to make waves in a scholarly sense. Books of that sort tend to only succeed when the writing is taut and engaging. But this is too long by at least a third (a whole chapter on Britten, really?). Ross is also in desperate need of a fact-checker (he apparently doesn’t know what “stochastic” means, nor does he know why Angus MacLise left The Velvet Underground). Most fatally, though, Ross lacks an understanding of 20th Century socio-political and socio-economic circumstances, and so his attempts to reference music against those contexts range from the superficial to the very misguided. He comes across as to beholden to nationalistic, cold-war era paranoia. This makes the middle chapters on the periods around World War II a great chore. For example, no mater what Ross or anyone else thinks of him, Lenin was certainly not a prototype dictator of the 20th Century — Iran’s Shah would fit that description much better. When discussing Soviet music, he also seems fundamentally unable to distinguish the Stalin era from the Lenin one. It all makes sense in way, because Ross is merely trying to portray Shostakovitch as something other than a hack, and that helps Ross’ narrative. Another big flaw is the occidental outlook of everything. Although he name-drops a few non-Western and women composers towards the end, one can’t help but wonder why those names weren’t featured more substantively in the book. I wanted to like this but couldn’t help getting tired of it as I plodded through.

Peter Van Buren – We Meant Well

We Meant Well

Peter Van BurenWe Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the War for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People (Metropolitan Books 2011)

The United States invaded and conquered Iraq in 2003.  Then, “resonstruction” began under the U.S. occupation that followed.  Supposedly.  Peter Van Buren was a long-time U.S. State Department bureaucrat gently coerced into a year-long sting on a State Dept. reconstruction team in 2009-2010.  He wrote this memoir about the experience — doing so, naturally, caused the U.S. government to initiate legal proceedings and various other forms of harassment against him to suppress what he had to say and intimidate others who might also try, but with the intervention of civil rights group that merely his departure from the State Dept. with retirement benefits intact.  That puts him somewhere on the spectrum of contemporary whistleblowers that includes the likes of Thomas Drake, Edward Snowden, Jeffrey Scudder, and others (see The United States of Secrets on PBS’s Frontline for an excellent overview of the war on whistleblowers).  But the book is out, and it’s a refreshingly independent-minded view of the war, the reconstruction, and what it meant to be a foreigner on the ground in Iraq in 2009-2010.  Van Buren has taken cues from Vietnam War-era reporter Michael Herr‘s book Dispatches.

Van Buren clearly takes the view that the highest levels of political leaders during the Iraq occupation and reconstruction were at best incompetent fools, and at worst malevolent fiends, mostly interested in fabrication illusions of “great accomplishments” with absolutely no regard for reality or collateral damage.  Just below them, the upper crust of military and State Dept. leadership are portrayed as largely gutless hacks most interested in self-promotion and careerist advancement up the chain of command.  Then there are the lower levels.  The civilian grunt workers are mostly a ragtag batch of borderline con artists and unqualified imbeciles gathered up for the job in a rush who often mean well but in a vacuum of real leadership lack any mechanism to accomplish anything truly “good” for the people of Iraq.  Lower level managers like Van Buren are stuck between appeasing the upper echelons of the government staff (some trying to move up that ladder) and genuinely trying to do good work alongside the grunts (what Van Buren sees himself doing).

Towards the end of the book he sums up the situation — accurately and astutely it would seem.  The government apparatus lumbered onward based on a childish set of metrics built around effort alone (as in “an ‘A’ for effort”), with no regard for objective assessments of results.  Throughout the book, his tone is bitingly sarcastic.  He knows real success from the false projection of it.  He has a talent for analogies.  He explains all the jargon and acronyms.  And he admirably explains all the esoteric cultural norms that are the hidden focus of the book.  The Iraq reconstruction was officially about rebuilding the civilian infrastructure destroyed by the war and giving the country “democracy.”  Without preaching about it, Van Buren chronicles how the reconstruction effort was really about the U.S. government’s attempt to displace corrupt, traditional Iraqi tribalism with corrupt, Western “free-market” tribalism.  Like a covert amateur anthropologist, he describes the many way that the cultures clash.  A recurring theme is to profile the depressingly misguided attempts by the State Dept. to promote “small businesses.”  Perhaps genuinely oblivious to how the Western emphasis on “small businesses” is basically a wedge-issue sort of distraction promoted by politicians and mass media, the State Dept. just kept trying to graft it on to an Iraqi economy that lacked foundational infrastructure (reliable electricity, water and sewage treatment, etc.) that was a prerequisite for a host of things that business (small or otherwise) require.  Those foundational issues were simply too long-term for the State Dept. and military careerists driving the bus on reconstruction, and upper leadership seemed to not really care so long as a supply of other photo ops were available.  Of course, not every project was a bust.  He does explain how a few small-scale projects that worked with rather than against local customs worked out — with no support from State Dept. leadership.

This little memoir may not paint any sort of comprehensive view of the Iraq war or its aftermath, but it does provide a trove of honest descriptions of the daily realities surrounding the United States’ Iraq reconstruction project.  For that, it should prove a valuable resource to everyone except those in power, who will continue to ignore this sort of wisdom and continue to try to suppress it and punish those who speak it.

Having been forced out of the State Dept., Van Buren continues to write (his next book was a novel inspired by John Steinbeck and Occupy Wall Street) and maintains a blog.

Samuel Beckett – Watt


Samuel BeckettWatt (Olympia Press 1953)

Good Beckett, though I view this as sort of a warm-up for his classics Malloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable. I say that because substantively this is a little less dense that those later works, but, in form, this is a breakthrough. All the unmistakable traits of Beckett’s writing are firmly in place here. He writes of the human condition in terms of distance, using declarative sentences repeated through every possible permutation in order to emphasize a total lack of common ground or common assumptions. But then, this is Beckett, so he makes all that seem quite absurd. This book would be horrifying if it wasn’t so damn funny.

Tyler Cowen – The Great Stagnation

The Great Stagnation

Tyler CowenThe Great Stagnation: How America Ate All the Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History, Got Sick, and Will (Eventually) Feel Better (Dutton Adult 2011)

Terrible. That’s about all I can say. Cowen is often described as “apolitical” because he doesn’t explicitly endorses Republican or Democratic policies, but that misses the point entirely. His view — more or less shared by all Republicans and Democrats — is that neoliberal growth-focus is basically “correct” but he breaks bipartisan rank to say that proponents of neoliberalism have made some tactical errors. Anyway, this slim volume is plagued by shoddy research and continual logical flaws. I came to this initially because Cowen discusses patent activity being greatest in the early 20th Century, and I wanted to investigate his research. It would be overly generous to credit Cowen with any “research” in this area, however. He essentially did none. His support was a single (!) article by a person seemingly unfamiliar with patents, who did a cursory electronic search of patent office records that would have taken no more than a few minutes and drew wildly unsupported conclusions (the basic premise of the cited article has been refuted by Robert Post’s “‘Liberalizers’ vs. ‘Scientific Men'” article, among others). And the rest of this book proceeds in a similar fashion. Much like Morris Berman‘s books, he’s clearly backfilling flimsy citations for ideas he’s already formulated and has no intention of rigorously testing — like pawning off the research to an assistant who doesn’t understand the arguments and whose research is correspondingly poor. As to the logical flaws, Cowen’s main thesis seems to be Marx‘s idea that profits tend to decline over time, but Cowen resists that theory…for indiscernible reasons — it isn’t even brought up explicitly. So, we’re back to him being a neoliberal apologist with no interesting arguments whatsoever to counter alternative theories. A great big “pass” on this book.