Seeing Through Places: Reflections on Geography and Identity
With startling honesty and perception, Mary Gordon has written a memoir of spaces—rooms, houses, churches, neighborhoods. More than two thirds of the book chronicles the places of Gordon’s childhood in a Long Island town, where she was the only child of an Irish Catholic mother and a father who converted to Catholicism from Judaism. The careful recollection of detailed childhood memories leads Gordon to insights about the intense connection between one’s self and one’s environment. In a description of her babysitter’s garden, she captures a child’s sense of profound inadequacy with an understated simile: "I wasn’t told not to pick the flowers, but I was never given scissors. There was general disappointment when I produced my stunted handful, graceless as damaged children, all distressing heads." This sense of not belonging, of gracelessness in an enigmatic, unforgiving adult world, sharpens Gordon’s sensory awareness of her surroundings, just as a child is sharply aware of the sensations of uncomfortable and restraining clothing. Gordon’s attunement to geography lingers throughout her adult years and impels her to reach some fine observations about the places of her adulthood: favorite spots in Rome, a rented summer home on Cape Cod, a Morningside Heights apartment. Through evocative description, this book presents a thoughtful analysis of the mysterious causes of identity and the places in the world where we end up.
Cute, Quaint, Hungry, and Romantic: The Aesthetics of Consumerism
Basic Books, $24
Current television ads for Internet companies spurn advertising tradition and sell innovation by featuring off-the-wall, barely relevant interactions between puppets, mascots, and office workers. Modern marketing campaigns hawk products by seeming not to hawk products at all, as they rely instead on a wink-wink acknowledgement of the public’s distrust of advertising. In Cute, Quaint, Hungry, and Romantic, Daniel Harris picks apart the various incarnations that consumer messages take and suggests that the undermining of popular trends is as powerful a selling force as the trend itself—witness the emergence of anti-glamorous fashion models, anti-sweet candies, and anti-cute cartoons like The Simpsons. In sometimes jerky prose, he deconstructs a staggering inventory of pop-cultural evidence. What emerges is less the "jeremiad against consumerism"that Harris bills his book as, and more an impression—an over-sized portrait of the warped reality of the consumer marketplace. That we feel overwhelmed by this mob of misshapen realities is precisely his point. Even as we realize that nothing in advertising is genuine, we can’t shake the feeling that Madison Avenue will always be one step ahead, ready to sell our enlightenment back to us.
The Sound Bite Society: Television and the American Mind
Four Walls Eight Windows, $23.95
Since the Kennedy-Nixon debates of 1960, television has become an increasingly important factor in this country’s political process; indeed, television is now the very framework within which that process occurs. At the same time, the options presented to the electorate have been drifting steadily rightward, a tendency now manifest in the centrism of the Gore presidential campaign and the leadership of the Democratic Party. These two trends are not unrelated, suggests Jeffrey Scheuer. For both structural and commercial reasons, television simplifies news events and political dialogue. The result is an emphasis on the immediate, the concrete, and the particular. And simplicity, Scheuer argues, abets conservatism because the values and visions that underlie conservatism are simpler than are those that underlie liberalism. Conservatism "demands less of individuals and offers less in return," and so is easier to sell in a sound bite. Indeed, in our current climate, "simplicity and complexity are the basic polar organizing principles of the political spectrum":regulation and redistribution are more complicated than a brute free market, rehabilitating prisoners more complicated than incarcerating them, and so on. Scheuer doesn’t prove his case conclusively, but then he doesn’t attempt to. A self-proclaimed complexitarian, he "aims to intrigue and provoke, not to settle any matters with finality," and he does the former on every page.
Law and Disagreement
Clarendon Press, $65
Jeremy Waldron’s excellent book presents a majoritarian concept of politics. His view is founded—unlike much political philosophy—on democratic confidence in the capacity of citizens to make reasonable decisions under conditions of profound disagreement about issues of political morality. Part One is about the authority of legislation. Rejecting the model of a unitary legislative will, Waldron argues that we owe allegiance to laws in virtue of their origins in large, representative, deliberative assemblies that arrive at determinate regulations despite the conflicting views of members (and those they represent). Waldron’s discussion might have been more attentive to the internal structure of legislatures (in particular, their reliance on committees) and the role of that structure in fostering intelligent (not merely authoritative) decisions. But it is an original and forceful treatment of an important problem. Part Two, about political disagreement, is less satisfying. The chapters—originally written as critical essays on the work of others—are individually interesting, but do not add up to a sustained account of disagreement. Part Three returns to form, and will be of great interest to general readers. Though committed to individual rights, Waldron is hostile to judicial review as a preferred institutional device for their protection. Citizens disagree, inter alia, about what rights we have, and in the face of that disagreement we ought to be reluctant to hand authority on such essential matters over to judges. Doesn’t that threaten our rights? That is an interesting empirical question, about which virtually nothing can be said with any confidence. Waldron does not pretend to answer it, but forcefully challenges the conventional wisdom about the virtues of judicial review.