“We relate to the virus, in some ways, as we relate to Trump. We yearn desperately to return to a time of imagined normalcy, before Trump and before the coronavirus. But we can heal only by looking forward—perhaps to a life that will be slower, more environmentally responsible and less materially comfortable, but also more clearly rooted in mutual aid and the understanding of our fundamental equality and interdependence. Now that the pandemic, aided by Trump, has stripped our politics and our society to the bare basics, the question facing Americans is, What do we want our future to look like? Will we, as we did after 9/11, sacrifice civil liberties and human rights? Will we, as we did in response to the financial crisis of 2008, create even greater wealth inequality? Will we, in other words, choose solutions that exacerbate the root problems? In 2020, that would mean forfeiting more freedoms, accepting ever greater inequality, and reelecting Trump. Or will we commit ourselves to reinvention?” –Surviving Autocracy, Masha Gessen
It’s difficult to sum up a year in which time felt as though it passed more quickly than it ever has while simultaneously dragging on interminably. It feels fitting then that the year has been punctuated by memorable books, both old and new, that remind and instruct about the value of questioning, the value of suffering, the importance of asking how we want to be a part of the world and what we want that world to look like. Especially when we are limited and constrained by circumstances.
I did less this year than in previous years but read even more than normal over the course of the year. Read on to find out what I found most compelling in 2020’s reading.
Previous book reports: 2020 – December, October, September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February, January. 2019 – December, November, October, September, May, April, March, February, January. 2018 – November, October, September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February and January.
Reading in 2020
In no particular order, I’ve listed the books that I valued most during the course of the year. I have never been great at describing why something resonated with me, or perhaps I am just lazy and prefer using the writer’s own words to explain what illuminates certain passages and books, elevating them above others. Here I condense my original write-ups from previous months’ readings.
“The uniqueness and singleness which distinguishes each individual and gives a meaning to his existence has a bearing on his creative work as much as it does on human love. When the impossibility of replacing a person is realized, it allows the responsibility which a man has for his existence and its continuance to appear in all its magnitude.”
My December 2020 re-reading of Man’s Search for Meaning felt significant and newly relevant. It always does, but in the unusual darkness of 2020, its prescriptions for finding meaning and understanding the near-unlimited capacity we may possess for endurance take on new importance.
“Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress. We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. And there were always choices to make.”
*The Zealot and the Emancipator: John Brown, Abraham Lincoln, and the Struggle for American Freedom – H.W. Brands
“The work wasn’t finished. The work of freedom never would be.”
Also read in December 2020, The Zealot and the Emancipator explored the routes abolitionist John Brown and US president Abraham Lincoln would take in trying to end America’s darkest, most heinous violation of human rights — slavery. Because of Brands’s gift for storytelling, history comes to life as the lives of two vastly different men are juxtaposed.
“THE QUESTION HAD BEEN: What does a good man do when his country commits a great evil? John Brown chose the path of violence, Lincoln of politics. Yet the two paths wound up leading to the same place: the most terrible war in American history. Brown aimed at slavery and shattered the Union; Lincoln defended the Union and destroyed slavery.”
We are once more reminded that the work of freedom is never done, and the democratic experience is fragile, dictated more by relying on good faith rather than law, and this is where some of 2020’s other great reads pick up.
“The difficulty with absorbing the news lies, in part, in the words we use, which have a way of rendering the outrageous ordinary.”
Confronted by egregious and shocking things we’d never seen in quite the way they’ve unfolded in the previous four years, we have not had the cognitive ability to process, using the language available to us, that we were surviving the nascent steps toward autocratic rule. Masha Gessen’s Surviving Autocracy, which I read twice in 2020, relies on the work of Bálint Magyar, who assigns three stages to the birth and development of autocracy: “the concept of autocratic transformation, which proceeds in three stages: autocratic attempt, autocratic breakthrough, and autocratic consolidation.”
Trump-era madness embodied the autocratic attempt, and was at turns, successful. Could we say there was an autocratic breakthrough? Perhaps Trumpian successes have created “holes” in the veneer but haven’t entirely broken through. But his presidency has done enough damage and set a dangerous precedent that may make a breakthrough more likely and easier to accomplish somewhere down the line because it’s highly unlikely we are as a society learning the lessons of what this period has taught. Gessen insists that we disbelieve or ignore the signs and lessons as our peril, and I fear we did this long before Trump was a viable contender for president, and will continue to do so long after he is gone because we so long for the blindness and comfort of the status quo.
““You were right two years ago, but this isn’t going to be Nixon. This is American authoritarianism, and they are going to tell us ‘That’s not possible’ until nothing else is.””
None of what Kendzior has predicted (repeatedly) will seem unfamiliar in hindsight. Much of it may seem unbelievable when reflected upon, but we’ve been on the slippery slope, being primed for this nightmare for a long time.
Read alongside Gessen’s warnings, Sarah Kendzior has delivered a damning condemnation of Trump and Trumpism, and, as many others have pointed out, doesn’t just let us off the hook with a concluding paragraph about “here’s how we get out of this” or “here are some hopeful, if misleading and false, words”. On second reading, this book managed to bear its sharp teeth even more effectively. After all, how can it offer hope when the truth is… things have long looked hopeless?
“One of the most horrific realizations when your government is hijacked from the inside is that there is no official to whom you can turn—because it is rare to find an official who cannot be turned by a corrupt operator. Living for legacy, living for security, living for money—it makes no difference, they are not living for you. There had been a coup, and we were on our own.”
As I said when I originally read this, this is a must-read. This was always the case but maybe it is even more important now as we stand at the threshold of the end of Trump’s presidency and the beginning of what may be the most status-quo presidency ever. So caught up in cleaning up the Trump-era messes and the continuing pandemic, no one will be interested in real change, and that’s what the powers-that-be (both the incoming government as well as Trump’s cronies) count on.
Inevitably, these readings lead to the bigger philosophical and existential questions of what constitutes freedom — on a personal or societal level? How can we seize our own freedom? Aren’t there countless definitions? Some of these definitions colored my other best-of 2020 choices.
*And the Weak Suffer What They Must?: Europe’s Crisis and America’s Economic Future – Yanis Varoufakis
“Indeed, this book is about a paradox: European peoples, who had hitherto been uniting so splendidly, ended up increasingly divided by a common currency.”
I was on a Yanis Varoufakis kick in August, watching a number of his YouTube talks and interviews with other like-minded economists (there aren’t a lot of them because they have not drunk the standard endless-growth-is-good-possible-inevitable-at-all-costs KoolAid). When I feebly attempted to study economics, the field was dominated by blind praise for capitalism as a model, as the centerpiece around which other theories only existed as faded, failed ideas.
What reality shows us time and again, and which Varoufakis faithfully chronicles, is that people and the policies they enact, fail to enact or haphazardly enforce, often cause misery. It would be difficult to argue that unbridled capitalism has given true relief or prosperity to most people, even if it has done an exceptional job for the few who benefit from it.
To step outside the norm and the accepted (in anything, not just economic studies) requires not only an act of defiance but also raise your voice to tell the world that you think differently. This is where people like Varoufakis or Richard Wolff have walked a different path and have, at times, been “lightning rods” for daring to study, teach, lecture, and write about economic alternatives, which is akin to heresy for mainstream economists and capitalists. It’s also the unpopular direction economist Kate Raworth wanted her own economics studies to take, and she has discussed this in the introduction to her book,Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-century Economist. (Raworth’s book is another of my go-to 2020 reads; see below.) All focus on wanting to implement an economic system that serves goals that support human well-being rather than serving the rights and growth of capital. You wouldn’t think that would be so dangerous or controversial.
“ALEXIS DE TOCQUEVILLE once wrote that those who praise freedom only for the material benefits it offers have never kept it long.”
Indeed this is at the heart of a functioning democracy, which has in recent years grown threadbare before our eyes. We don’t live in a democracy as much as a functioning plutocracy (and more frequently under leaders like Trump, kleptocracy). The average person knows very little about economics, and in fact, has been intimidated by and discouraged from understanding it. It serves the plutocrat class to keep people in the dark and only feed the dominant theory into the educational machine.
One is fooled into believing they are free when they are brainwashed into thinking this is so. Varoufakis’s warnings about inequality and how capitalism (one of the great engines of inequality creation) will devour democracy (hasn’t it already in the form of things like Citizens United?) parallel the underlying themes of works by the aforementioned Sarah Kendzior. Varoufakis writes:
“Leonard Schapiro, writing on Stalinism, warned us that “the true object of propaganda is neither to convince nor even to persuade. But to produce a uniform pattern of public utterances in which the first trace of unorthodox thought reveals itself as a jarring dissonance.”
…you cannot help but think of Kendzior’s own warnings about how Trump’s scandals are a form of smoke and mirrors that serve as a distraction from the actual criminal pursuits taking place just below the surface (well, not even out of the public eye — if anyone were paying attention or cared, we can all see the illegality). The spectacle, the propaganda machine, spits out new craziness on a daily basis. The perpetual fatigue and exhaustion, which Gessen also writes about, create conditions ripe for the exploitation and complete plowing under of democracy.
And in a fragile, flawed democracy based on capitalism, which is — if you didn’t realize — controlled by money, money talks… loudest and longest, and those without (which is most of us) have very little recourse.
“…whenever I hear someone praising the ‘free market’, I beg them to take me there because I’ve never seen it at work in any country that I have visited.”
Raworth describes exactly what is almost ineffably wrong about standard economics. When I took up the formal study of economics more than 20 years ago, I ran into walls – walls that have grown taller and thicker over time. Mostly this is because, when I started, I was more willing to accept, as Raworth describes it, economics’ “long-established theories”, rather than the more sensible and just “humanity’s long-term goals”. It did not occur to me until I was, as Raworth also describes, deep in the abyss of trying to understand accepted theory, that there might be another way.
“I was so busy getting to grips with the theory of demand and supply, so determined to get my head around the many definitions of money, that I did not spot the hidden values that had occupied the economic nest. Though claiming to be value-free, conventional economic theory cannot escape the fact that value is embedded at its heart: it is wrapped up with the idea of utility, which is defined as a person’s satisfaction or happiness gained from consuming a particular bundle of goods.”
The economic theories we were being sold were all about consumption and production and laden with its own (empty) values, which modern economists largely deny.
“It was only when I opted to study what was at the time an obscure topic—the economics of developing countries—that the question of goals popped up. The very first essay question that I was set confronted me head-on: What is the best way of assessing success in development? I was gripped and shocked. Two years into my economic education and the question of purpose had appeared for the first time. Worse, I hadn’t even realised that it had been missing. Twenty-five years later, I wondered if the teaching of economics had moved on by recognising the need to start with a discussion of what it is all for.”
How can future economists reclaim and reframe what economic success and progress look like, and espouse a way of “economic thinking that would enable us to achieve” and meet humanity’s needs and goals? Now more than ever, as unemployment numbers reach record territory, and when “full employment” doesn’t reflect the number of people in more than full-time employment who nevertheless live in poverty, how can we redefine economic prosperity to encompass human well-being instead of by impenetrable and meaningless GDP and stock market figures?
“And so, over half a century, GDP growth shifted from being a policy option to a political necessity and the de facto policy goal. To enquire whether further growth was always desirable, necessary, or indeed possible became irrelevant, or political suicide.”
This has been clear for a long time, but it takes extraordinary circumstances, such as the current COVID-19 pandemic to illustrate how exploitative, fragile and short-sighted the current system is. Whom does it serve? Who really enables it?
Raworth writes extensively about the invisible and unpaid “core economy” – the labor of the household, of rearing children, etc. This labor has been removed from the equation. During times of crisis (like now), however, the veil is lifted and its supremacy as the foundation of all that becomes possible in the market is elevated – or at least obvious, even if briefly.
“…And since work in the core economy is unpaid, it is routinely undervalued and exploited, generating lifelong inequalities in social standing, job opportunities, income and power between women and men.”
“By largely ignoring the core economy, mainstream economics has also overlooked just how much the paid economy depends upon it. Without all that cooking, washing, nursing and sweeping, there would be no workers—today or in the future—who were healthy, well-fed and ready for work each morning. As the futurist Alvin Toffler liked to ask at smart gatherings of business executives, ‘How productive would your workforce be if it hadn’t been toilet trained?’”
How can we show that freedom is not about buying shit and that GDP and growth have very little to do with the people who power the economy — those who supply the labor — both paid and unpaid — to create the workforce on which all of society depends?
Defining freedom is culture specific. When I talk about freedom with Americans, they spout superficial ideas about freedom that are related to showy patriotism, supposedly low taxes, and the ability to “defend themselves” with guns. I don’t know exactly where these definitions come from, although I suspect, having been educated there, it’s full-scale indoctrination from an early age. Pledging allegiance to a flag and valuing symbols over other humans or cultures is something endemic to life in America and its school system. Perhaps, assigning a less value-judgment approach to this definition, I could say Americans are a “freedom to” culture more than a “freedom from” culture. This doesn’t capture the entire picture but strikes on the individualism and selfishness that characterizes most Americans and the culture they live in.
The Nordic Theory of Everything begins to tap into the two sides of the “freedom” debate (if you could call it a debate).
Re: America: “In this country you are at the mercy of your employer. You really don’t have any rights. Because of that you live in a constant state of worry.”
The book goes into incredible detail about the differences between the Finnish (and Nordic more generally) and American systems, finally landing on a key argument (italicized and emboldened emphasis mine):
“Yet the longer I lived in America as a Nordic immigrant, something became clear to me. Regardless of whether Finland was the “best” country in the world or not, most people in the United States, as well as many of my Nordic countrymen back home, did not fully realize that to leave Finland or any other Nordic country behind and settle in America at the beginning of the twenty-first century was to experience an extraordinary—and extraordinarily harsh—form of travel backward in time. As a Nordic immigrant to the United States, I noticed something else, too. Americans, and many others around the world, did not seem fully aware of how much better things could be.”
Instability is the name of the game in American life, and I so much wish I could impart to Americans about how they are sold a bill of goods that insists that they are free, but how free are you when everything is so complicated, opaque, and you are tied to your job, your employer-provided, but nevertheless not-comprehensive health insurance, your out-of-reach expensive day care, your student loans and exorbitant university fees, your complex and insane tax forms, an unfair system of taxation (which is not that much less than what many Nordic earners pay), which Nordic people are free from?
“The longer I lived in America, therefore, and the more places I visited and the more people I met—and the more American I myself became—the more puzzled I grew. For it was exactly those key benefits of modernity—freedom, personal independence, and opportunity—that seemed, from my outsider’s perspective, in a thousand small ways to be surprisingly missing from American life today.”
And ironically… in “free” America, neither employees nor employers are free. This may be one of the key points Partanen makes. While no one would accuse most US employers of being overly generous, they are still being saddled with many of the responsibilities that Nordic countries expect their taxes and good government to provide:
“By now I was used to hearing the Nordic countries dismissed as “socialist nanny states.” But ironically it was here in America that businesses trying to manufacture products and make a buck had somehow gotten saddled with the nanny’s job of taking care of their employees’ health. Surely, I thought, Milton Friedman, the great free-market economist, must be turning in his grave! From a Nordic perspective, it seemed ludicrous to burden for-profit companies with the responsibility of providing employees with such a fundamental, complicated, and expensive social service. People in the United States were aware of this contradiction, of course, and in discussions of the American business landscape, experts often pointed to the burdens that health-care obligations placed on companies, especially on small businesses. But no one seemed to be talking about the other side of the coin: the unhealthy dependence on employers that this creates among employees receiving, or hoping to receive, these benefits. It was an old-fashioned and oppressive sort of dependence, it seemed to me, completely at odds with the modern era of individual liberty and opportunity. I could see the consequences in the lives of everyone I knew.”
Anxiety levels among my American friends are almost insanely high — but they don’t know otherwise. Making personal choices, like leaving jobs in which they are unhappy, or starting businesses, or taking a year off to have a child, isn’t fraught with anxiety levels in the Nordic countries because the government, held accountable by the people who elected it, anticipate these changes and needs. This seems like true freedom to me.
“When I look at my Nordic friends now, they seem so free to me. They work and have children, they engage in hobbies, they travel the world, and they never seem to worry about really going broke. They have health care, day care, and pensions. They can study whatever they want, and they don’t have to risk their financial future to do so.”
The freedom of personal choice, self-definition, self-determination and identity
The majority of books I read in 2020 are bound by this loose thread of defining “freedom”, defining oneself and one’s own identity, and finding meaning as well as, as Viktor Frankl wrote about, the self-determining nature of humans and humanity.
There are traits about ourselves that we can’t change, but there are also many aspects of our personal identities that we can change and choose for ourselves. Many of these books reflect the ways we make these choices and determinations.
The much-deserved 2020 Booker Prize winner, a heartbreaking work with a clear sense of language, culture, class and place (Glasgow). The titular protagonist, despite poverty, suffering and loss, is deeply human, as are all the rich and imperfect characters populating the story.
“Politics, in support or suppression, are central to the fate of languages. Yet political support at a given time is not in itself enough to guarantee a language’s survival if the historical process which has eroded it has been unrelenting over centuries and has pushed the language to a geographical and psychological periphery in the nation’s consciousness. That is certainly the case with Irish and until recently was certainly the case with Gaelic. The principal reason why Welsh is in a much stronger position than Scottish Gaelic today is that the Welsh had not posed a political threat to the British state for hundreds of years, while Gaelic was the language of the Jacobite forces which almost overthrew the state in the rebellions of the eighteenth century.”
In self-determination, language is a powerful key toward definition and retention. This book chronicles how essential the diverse Scots language is to the linguistic, national and cultural history of Scotland. Historical and linguistic hostility at its persistent use and existence continues — but the language itself has become a subject of vivid study and much-needed focus.
“If using your first language is classed as the equivalent of sticking your tongue out at the teacher, there is little ground for fruitful dialogue. Educationalists often refer to the ‘inarticulate Scot’ as if it were a hereditary disease, instead of the effect of shackling people to one language when they are much more articulate in another. The omnipotent standard of having one correct way of speaking colours our society’s attitude and results in false value judgements about people. These value judgements are made in every sector of society, not just in education.”
This is particularly important as Scotland itself struggles toward self-determination in a post-Brexit, post-Covid-shambles world.
“One of the most debilitating phenomena of Scottish society is the false notion that to get on you have to get out. English hegemony is so all pervasive in our society that a sign of success and sophistication among some is to attempt to erase signs of Scottishness from their public persona. The implications of such an attitude for Scottish culture are drastic, not to mention wrong-headed. The linguistic tension is often not resolved at one particular time and can be an ongoing choice throughout one’s life.”
A person may choose to retain and (defiantly) use a language, such as Scots, and it becomes a part of their identity — or more a part of the identity. While you may not choose your native, first language, you can make the choice to continue using it even when it’s a minority language and often ridiculed… not only is it a part of the identity, it is a statement.
“The gentrification mentality is rooted in the belief that obedience to consumer identity over recognition of lived experience is actually normal, neutral, and value free.”
One of the few books that made me cry in 2020, Schulman’s account of a 1980s world governed by callous gentrification and a brainwashing of the entire culture to become willing cogs in the “Nasdaq value system” wheel hurts. And it hurts even more against its bigger backdrop: the loss of vast parts of an entire generation of young people, many of whom were artists, to AIDS, the dehumanization of the communities it primarily affected, and the heartlessness and unwillingness to act that kept the disease from being front-page news or a public health crisis of the proportion it should have been.
“The announcer is discussing events that I know intimately, organically, that have seared the emotional foundation of my adult life. And yet there is a strangely mellow tone to the story. It’s been slightly banalized, homogenized. This is the first time I’ve heard AIDS being historicized, and there is something clean-cut about this telling, something wrong. Something…gentrified. “At first America had trouble with People with AIDS,” the announcer says in that falsely conversational tone, intended to be reassuring about apocalyptic things. “But then, they came around.” I almost crash the car.”
Thus I comprehend her bewildered reaction: “But then, they came around“?!
When did “they” ever come around? Had, as Schulman pondered, her community – what remained of it – failed to show exactly how much they had suffered, how much they had lost? What the world, in fact, lost, to this epidemic, the lack of response to which was “caused by governmental and familial neglect”?
Schulman’s words echo the same words and experiences as highlighted in other books I’ve selected as important here, especially regarding the devaluing of humanity, experience, education and the prioritization, at any and all costs, of money and material wealth.
“Gentrified happiness is often available to us in return for collusion with injustice. We go along with it, usually, because of the privilege of dominance, which is the privilege not to notice how our way of living affects less powerful people. Sometimes we do know that certain happiness exists at the expense of other human beings, but because we’re not as smart as we think we are, we decide that this is the only way we can survive. Stupidity or cruelty become the choice, but it doesn’t always have to be that way. After all, people and institutions act on and transform each other. So, it’s not happiness at the expense of the weaker versus nothing, right? And yet we are led to feel this way.”
Schulman is writing from her own experience and taking back the narrative that homogenizes the AIDS crisis, but her theses are widely applicable in terms of discussing gentrification, privatization, privilege and — of course — the commodification of humanity and individual identities. Everything about this book commands attention and compels… action. Action toward empathy, compassion and intervention.
“Gentrification culture was a twentieth-century, fin de siècle rendition of bourgeois values. It defined truth telling as antisocial instead of as a requirement for decency. The action of making people accountable was decontextualized as inappropriate. When there is no context for justice, freedom-seeking behavior is seen as annoying. Or futile. Or a drag. Or oppressive. And dismissed and dismissed and dismissed and dismissed until that behavior is finally just not seen. Every historical moment passes.”
While a book about abortion isn’t so much about identity, it is a complex and controversial issue defined by choice and anti-choice, ethical considerations, the legal system and personal and medical privacy. Public rhetoric about abortion, at least in the United States, treats it as less a personal medical issue and more a moral and religious one. And the mismatch between what is true (actions) versus what is said (ideas, beliefs) is stark.
Framing of the issue always comes into play, with the public discourse insisting that “abortion is always a tragedy” and that choosing abortion is or always must be “a difficult decision”. And this flies in the face of what I’d call freedom and identity (bold italics mine).
“But people who don’t struggle with an abortion decision are not necessarily less morally serious than those who do—they’re just less undecided. Someone who is clear about who she is, what she values, and what she wants is not casual. She is confident. Yet there are few examples of this type of counter-narrative. Bringing a child into the world is of great moral consequence, yet we don’t frame the decision to have a child as a difficult decision people always struggle with. So why wouldn’t some abortion decisions feel similarly obvious?”
And once more… the language and words we use matter.
“How we think shapes how we talk, and how we talk shapes how we think. That’s why terminology is contested ground in the abortion conversation. But all of our under- and over-inclusive words for embryos and fetuses make me wonder: Is it really that helpful to have seventeen words for snow? Or is the point rather that when you talk about something complex and important you need a range of words to describe it, each of which captures an important element, because none of them can encompass it all?“
And what of the choice not to bear children? What value does that convey about the one making this choice? Society has many opinions, but in the end, it is only the potential mother who must live with it.
In Breasts and Eggs, the protagonist is a writer who is considering having a child, and her reflections dive into the losses and consequences of having versus not having.
“It’s really simple, I promise. Why is it that people think this is okay? Why do people see no harm in having children? They do it with smiles on their faces, as if it’s not an act of violence. You force this other being into the world, this other being that never asked to be born.”
“Once you have children, you can’t unhave them,” she laughed. “I know how this sounds. You think I sound extreme, or detached from reality. Nothing could be further from the truth. This is real life. That’s what I’m talking about—the pain that comes with reality. Not that anyone ever sees it.”
Much of what I’ve focused on is the chosen identity. The self-determination that we can influence and drive for ourselves. But what of trauma and its influence on our bodies?
“Being able to feel safe with other people is probably the single most important aspect of mental health; safe connections are fundamental to meaningful and satisfying lives.”
Trauma appears to never disappear and the traumatic event (or events) live on, triggered for decades after (and epigenetics indicates that trauma lives on in the genes)… but an understanding of this, while continually emerging, is incomplete.
“The body keeps the score: If the memory of trauma is encoded in the viscera, in heartbreaking and gut-wrenching emotions, in autoimmune disorders and skeletal/muscular problems, and if mind/brain/visceral communication is the royal road to emotion regulation, this demands a radical shift in our therapeutic assumptions.”
Freedom to explore, understand and interpret identity
*Gods of Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century – Charles King
“…no society, including our own, is the endpoint of human social evolution. We aren’t even a distinct stage in human development. History moves in loops and circles, not in straight lines, and toward no particular end. Our own vices and blind spots are as readily apparent as those of any society anywhere.”
The development of anthropology as a discipline isn’t something I gave a great deal of thought to until I started studying communication for development, which focuses on the so-called “developing world” (and queries whether it should even be called “developing world”). Later my psychology and theology studies crossed into anthropological territory, but it still never occurred to me to look more carefully at its theoretical and historical origins.
An anthropological quest crosses multiple disciplines: linguistics, sociology, psychology, theology, among others, and like most fields of academic inquiry, its methodology, its merit, its subjects have shifted alongside the specialists within the field and the cultures to which they belong.
At its core, according to its founding proponents, such as Franz Boas, cultural anthropology required acknowledging one’s own ignorance and one’s own worldview and preconceived ideas, placing oneself in unfamiliar surroundings and observing in as scientific and objective a way as possible. It provided, as anthropology pioneer Ruth Benedict put it, “illumination that comes of envisaging very different possible ways of handling invariable problems” and demanded the realization that nothing about culture is universal, i.e. cultural relativity.
Do we understand freedom, identity and self-determination without a context in which to place these concepts? Anthropology is one rich contextual lens through which to see and try to interpret in some limited way.
I greatly enjoyed this book, and could endlessly ramble about it — but won’t. It’s worth reading, and in particular its discussion on Zora Neale Hurston’s anthropological work shines a light on her journey as a folklorist and writer in a new context; she is the most fascinating among the book’s “characters” and, while not orthodox or organized in her methodology and data collection, she captured the most living, breathing, startling accounts and observations in her anthropological work, such as in Haiti.
“Magical thinking was as close to a human universal as you could imagine, and it existed in modern societies, too. Gambling, the stock market, even the concept of private property—the belief that I can expand my sense of self to include an inanimate object, the loss of which would induce deep displeasure and anxiety—all depend to a degree on magical belief systems. They are ways of summoning the unlikely and the invisible in order to control the tangible world.”
For more detail on more of the things I read in 2020 (and before), here are the previous years’ reports: 2020 – December, October, September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February, January. 2019 – December, November, October, September, May, April, March, February, January. 2018 – November, October, September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February and January.