Archives For Social Criticism

 

A Brief Review of
In the Basement of The Ivory Tower:
Confessions of an Accidental Academic
.
Professor X.
Hardback: Viking Books, 2011.
Buy now:
[ Amazon – Hardback ]
[ Amazon – Kindle ]

Reviewed by Chris Smith.

I picked up In the Basement of the Ivory Tower by the mysterious Professor X because I’m a sucker for social criticism.  I had read the professor’s essay of the same title that was published in The Atlantic in 2008, and deeply appreciated the questions he asked there about whether college should be for everyone.  In the book, Professor X expounds upon the problem introduced in the essay, painting a rich Dickensian picture of the sad life of an adjunct professor, and he alludes to the complexity surrounding this problem.  However, he doesn’t offer much insight about it might begin to be resolved, and instead spends entirely too much time whining about his own situation.   Soon after the turn of the millennium, he and his wife bought a home that they, by his own admission, “really couldn’t afford.”  As the floor dropped out of the economy over the course of the decade, they found themselves struggling to keep up with the payments, which drove him to take on two adjunct professor positions (by day, he works at a modest government job) and also soured his marriage.  If Professor X was, say, a professor of business (or any other sort of professor other than an English one), this book would have been completely unreadable.  His writing style is compelling, even funny at times, but the overarching tone of the book’s bellyaching – about his house, his marriage, but most of all about his students and their lack of competency – grew old rather quickly.  Part of me wanted to dish out some “tough love,” Dr. Phil-style, telling the professor to simplify his life, sell the house, quit adjuncting, save his marriage and enjoy life.

Yes, I agree with the Professor that Western culture needs a significant amount of reform in the area of higher education, as well as in economic and societal expectations around higher education. However, the new book In the Basement of the Ivory Tower does not carry the conversation much beyond the questions posed in the original essay of the same name.  I think the original essay could have been expanded into a challenging book, however, Professor X’s new volume is unfortunately not that book.

 

“The Wealth of Embedded Urban Knowledge

A review of

The Trouble with City Planning:
What New Orleans Can Teach Us.

By Kristina Ford.

Review by Brent Aldrich.


THE TROUBLE WITH CITY PLANNING - Kristina FordThe Trouble with City Planning:
What New Orleans Can Teach Us.

Kristina Ford.
Hardback: Yale UP, 2010.
Buy now: [ Amazon – Hardback ]
[ Amazon – Kindle ]

In community development work and neighborhood meetings that I’ve been a part of, it’s sometimes baffling when a neighbor asks, “when will they (fill in the blank: fix these abandoned houses, build our light-rail line, build a Wal-Mart, whatever)?” Presumably this is the same they who are always saying things (they say…), and if they would just get to work instead, all would be right with the world. Of course, this is not how our city or any other works, but rather through dynamic daily interactions of neighbors, businesses, city officials, and planners. Furthermore, in a neighborhood such as ours in Indianapolis, neighbors have established regular practices of planning and working together for the good of the whole – so questions as to when they will do anything often suggests a level of disconnect on the part of the asker, as that they is usually us.

Part of the difficulty of parsing this idea about how cities work is the similar assumption that city plans are created and implemented far away from the average neighbor. The idea that city planners operate on a level above the concerns of residents, those on the ground, is entrenched is American cities, often in practice, as any student of Jane Jacobs can cite. Kristina Ford’s new book The Trouble with City Planning: What New Orleans Can Teach Us takes a comprehensive look at how exactly city planners work, and why their practices have become often inaccessible to anyone beyond planners themselves. For anyone invested in urban places, this book is a valuable resource.

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The Deep Wisdom of the Cross
and the People of God

A review of
Right Here, Right Now:
Everyday Mission for Everyday People
.
By Alan Hirsch and Lance Ford.

Reviewed by Chris Smith.

Right Here, Right Now:
Everyday Mission for Everyday People
.
Alan Hirsch and Lance Ford.

Paperback: Baker Books, 2011.

Buy now: [ ChristianBook.com ]

[ Read an Excerpt from this book… ]

RIGHT HERE, RIGHT NOW - Alan Hirsch and Lance Ford.What Alan Hirsch and Lance Ford have offered us in their new book Right Here, Right Now: Everyday Mission for Everyday People is a sort of handbook for being part of a missional church.  Most of the books to date on “the missional church” require a fair amount of theological background, and as such, have been aimed primarily at church leaders (pastors, church planters, etc.)  This book, however, is not that sort of book.  Generally, as I read a book that I know I will be reviewing, I’m thinking about what I will say in the review, and the thought was running through my head as I was reading is that Right Here, Right Now was for both clergy and laity.  However, I arrived at Alan Hirsch’s final chapter in which he makes the passing comment that he rejects the clergy/laity distinction, and I realized that, of course, he was right, and it is better to speak of this book as being for all members of the church.  The book is structured to provide a good mix of basic missional church theology, which comes primarily in the form of Alan Hirsch’s introductory and concluding chapters which frame the book, and discussion of the practicalities of how this theology is embodied in church contexts – in the intervening chapters by Lance Ford.  Although a good deal of the book will be beneficial for churches in any setting, I should be clear up front that the chapters on praxis are targeted primarily at suburban readers (and maybe upper-/middle-class urban folks as well).

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An excerpt from

American Plastic: Boob Jobs, Credit Cards, and the Quest for Perfection.
Laurie Essig.
Hardback: Beacon Press, 2011.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]

Watch for a review soon in the ERB…

 

A Brief Reflection on
Slavoj  Žižek’s use of John Howard Yoder
In his New Book:

Living in the End Times.
Hardback: Verso Books, 2010.
Buy Now:  [ Amazon ]

By Chris Smith

[ Watch a video of Žižek talking about this new book… ]

This will not be a full review, as I am taking my time working through Slavoj Žižek’s new book Living in the End Times; I’m only about a third of the way through the book and savoring every word as I go.  However, since the book has been out for a few months, I thought that a reflection on Žižek’s brief reference to the work of John Howard Yoder in this new volume might fit well with the content of the current issue.   Before I get to Yoder, however, allow me first to summarize the project that Žižek is undertaking here.   Starting with the premise that global capitalism is in the last days before its collapse (a premise based on the evidence of ecological crisis, widening social and economic divides and the biogenetic revolution), Žižek makes a pointed and convincing case that humankind’s collective response to the reality of the imminent collapse of capitalism parallels the traditional five stages of grief: denial, anger, depression, withdrawal and finally, acceptance.  His work here demonstrates as clearly as any of his previous works that he is – as I have argues before in these pages – one of the keenest critics of global capitalism, to whom the Church must lend an ear as we seek to discern the signs of the times.

Žižek uses Yoder to critique some of the “anger” response to the collapsing of capitalism, the (very) basic line of his argument is that such anger is rooted in despair, but he offers Yoder’s work as a counter-example of hope that a different non-capitalist form of society is possible:  i.e., the Church.  He offers a sympathetic reading of Yoder, saying:

Yoder did not reject Constantinianism on behalf of an ascetic withdrawal of believers from social life:  aware of the limitations of democracy, he understood “being Christian” as involving a non-reconciled political standpoint.  The primary responsibility of Christians is not to take over society and impose their convictions and values on people who do not share their faith, but to “be the church.”  By refusing to repay evil with evil, by living in peace and sharing goods, the church bears witness to the fact that there is an alternative to a society based on violence or the threat of violence (129).

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“The Gospel of the Land”

A review of
Consulting the Genius of the Place:
An Ecological Approach to the New Agriculture
.
By Wes Jackson.

Reviewed by Chris Smith.

Consulting the Genius of the Place:
An Ecological Approach to the New Agriculture
.
By Wes Jackson.

Hardback: Counterpoint, 2010.

Buy now: [ Amazon ]

CONSULTING THE GENIUS OF THE PLACE - Wes JacksonWes Jackson, founder of The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, has been of the leading voices of the agrarian movement over the last four decades.  And yet, his books are relatively unknown.  This fate, however, is perhaps about to change, with the recent release of what is perhaps his finest work, Consulting the Genius of the Place: An Ecological Approach to the New Agriculture.   The themes of place, biodiversity and the virtues of perennial plants that have abounded in Jackson’s previous books converge in Jackson’s thorough argument for a new approach to agriculture that is dictated not by market economies or agribusiness but rather by the land and ecology of a given place.  Jackson’s argument is fairly simple: humanity needs to learn to shift our agricultural efforts away from large-scale monoculture operations which contribute to the catastrophic effects of erosion and of the chemicals in the fertilizers and pesticides that such monocultures demand.  Instead, he argues, we should return to diverse plantings that include perennial crops and that fit with the land, climate and other ecological features of our particular places.  He says in the book’s preface:  “As our minds sweep over the past and back to the present, I want them to center on the natural ecosystems still with us as our primary teachers.  They are our source of hope.  Reduced in number and limited in scale, they still hold answers to countless questions we have not yet learned to ask” (xi).  The primary natural ecosystem, of course, that Jackson and others at The Land Institute have trained their focus – given their home base in Kansas – is that of the prairie.

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A Review ofNew Covenant Bound.
T(ony) Crunk.
Paperback: UP of Kentucky, 2010.
Buy now:  [ Amazon ]

Reviewed by Thomas Turner.

The young poet T. Crunk’s latest work is a mixture of poetry and prose that tells the epic story of a family adversely affected by progress and the longing for an agrarian past. The words form a tangle of longing and the haunting of an old way of life that peruses the depths of Kentucky’s soul.

Crunk navigates the rising waters of a Tennessee Valley Authority project that displays scores of families with dam building, all for the sake of “progress.” Juxtaposed in the text are the old ways and new ways of living for a family that has lived the same way since they first touched Kentucky soil, and their inability to sail safely through the waters of progress and change are the focus of Crunk’s keen sense of place and time.

The sense of place is Crunk’s most dramatic arc, as the family must move from their old town to New Covenant. Bound for this new town, the family wrestles with the loss of a farm that served as their whole identity: when you are born and buried in the same place you live and work, place and identity have a way of becoming the same thing. The family’s hard life of farming seems cursed, and their curse doubles as their whole existence will soon be placed under billions of gallons of water:

Our only sin was being born where we were. And not giving up on
a land that often spited us.

Our only sin was not having what they thought was enough. And
being forced to take what they call help. (52)

What the government called help was diversion to an internment camp and not much else. What seemed like an opportunity for a fresh start for hundreds of subsistence farmers in Appalachia soon turned into a cynical view of government, progress and the value of life and land. Some move away to cities. Some commit suicide. Others stick around as close to their homeland as possible, hoping that they can re-create their life, but it is all for naught. The narrative of human flourishing and living on the land has been drowned like their farms, and the light of hope which once carried them through hardship and hunger has faded to the point that darkness can now overcome it.

Crunk’s poetry shapes the ethos of an age that is so different but so very much like our own, when progress is supposed to go about unobstructed and unopposed for the sake of the people, for our own good. But Crunk forces us to reflect on our history of unrelenting progress, that under every reservoir there might well be the hopes and dreams of people cast asunder to on our collective journey toward a “brighter” future.

Brief Review: NEW COVENANT BOUND by Tony Crunk [Vol. 3, #42]

 

“Reimagining
Poverty and Development”

A review of
Relationality

By Claudio Oliver.

Reviewed by Chris Smith.

Relationality
Claudio Oliver.
Pamphlet: Relational Tithe, 2010.

Buy now: [ Relational Tithe ]

Claudio Oliver- RELATIONALITYClaudio Oliver, a pastor and community developer from Curitiba, Brazil stands in a rich tradition of recent Christian social critics that includes Ivan Illich, John McKnight and Jacques Ellul.  Indeed, my very first exposure to Claudio’s work was stumbling upon an online video of him defending his graduate thesis on Ivan Illich, Leo Tolstoy and Paulo Freire (HERE, but be forewarned, it’s in Portuguese).  Oliver’s first English publication, a pamphlet entitled Relationality, has recently been published by Relational Tithe.  This little gem of a pamphlet follows Ivan Illich’s and John McKnight’s critiques of poverty and development (especially Illich’s Toward a History of Needs; read an essay that basically summarizes the book here), but does so in a clear and narrative style that is simple to read and thoroughly engaging.  One of Oliver’s main points here is that “[Poverty] is not fundamentally not the lack of things or of stuff, but rather the lack of friends.  To be poor is to have no friends” (14).

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A Brief Review

SPRAWL: A Novel.
Danielle Dutton.
Paperback: Siglio Press, 2010.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]

Reviewed by Thomas Turner.

The suburbs have been the subject of ire for many years now, but recently the recession has turned up the heat on the cynical yet attractive institution. The recession has led to what many see as the slow death of the suburbs. Rows of foreclosed homes in the Sun Belt, bastions of wealth and status symbols now boarded up or secretly lived in by squatters, these are the new suburbs.

There has been a flurry of art and critique about these places of limbo between city and country. GOOD Magazine published their Neighborhoods issue which tackled issues ranging from neighborliness to how to stop building developments around golf courses and start building them around farms. The Arcade Fire came out with a blisteringly cynical album entitled, most appropriately, The Suburbs, complete with an interactive isolation-inducing music video to go along with it. Channeling the zeitgeist, Danielle Dutton’s new novel Sprawl chronicles every waking thought of a suburban woman.

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“Our complicity in the age
of ‘Cheap’ Oil and Hypermobility

A Review of

Interstate 69:
The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway
.

By Matt Dellinger.

Reviewed by Brent Aldrich.


Interstate 69:
The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway
.

By Matt Dellinger.

Hardback: Scribner, 2010.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]

Interstate 69 - DellingerDriving back home to Indianapolis from Evansville one night last year, a city in the southwestern most tip of the state, which I’ve only been through this once, I pulled out my Indiana road map to figure out how to get home. It was late, and so I started along the route that looked quickest – not a common choice for me, but there I was. And after just a couple of miles, signs began to appear to tell me that the Interstate was ending. I checked my map, and sure enough, a thick red line stretched all the way to Indianapolis, but it wasn’t here. I realized my mistake, as this was only, as my state-produced map indicated in its margin, the I-69 CORRIDOR, which I knew about only vaguely at the time, mostly from its huge opposition. And so, I took state roads back to Bloomington and on to home, much as I normally would.

I relate this incident because it seems now, as it did then, to indicate the power of an image – in this case a line drawn on a map – as representing a complex set of desires and hopes, beliefs, fears, and narratives about how the world works (or should work). The dream of Interstate 69, reaching from Canada to Mexico, via this route through Indiana, and down through Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Texas, has been in the air for multiple decades now, and its history tells the story of transportation in the States. Matt Dellinger’s Interstate 69: The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway starts down in Evansville, and winds down the path of the proposed I-69, meeting its advocates and adversaries all along the way; tracing the routes of rivers, trains, and state roads that all predated the Interstate system; and telling the stories of cities – large and small – that stand to feel the effect if I-69 ever reaches them: what the effect will be is the driving motivation behind anyone interested in the I-69 project, and is telling of broader beliefs about cities, economies, and communities; read this book with an atlas in your other hand.

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