EssaysMedia/Publics

The Interruptive Society

A seismic shift in social behavior has occurred over the last decade that to the best of my knowledge was not forecasted by futurists.

While in the early 80s we wrote and read about telecommuting, the evolution of Arpanet, the workings and impact of smaller, less expensive, more mobile computers, the progeny of CB radio, the future of what was then known as videotex and teletext, and the commercial beginnings of satellite communication, no one forecast a radical change in Western social behavior.  The change has been dramatic.

We have become the Interruptive Society – interrupting and interrupted.

Elevators have become phone booths.  The preface to almost any public event, sacred or profane, is an announcement to shut down the beepers, pagers, and cell phones. …

READ MORE →
EssaysTheory & Practice

Humor and the Social Condition

In a series of posts, Jeff Goldfarb and I have been sketching an outline for the study of the social condition — the predictable dilemmas that haunt social life. We argue that one of the core intellectual missions of sociology is to account for the ways in which social patterns set up these dilemmas that actors experience as crucial for their lives and how they define themselves.

Social life, as anyone who is in the business of living knows, is riddled with ambiguities and contradictions. But these contradictions and dilemmas are not only the stuff tragedies and epics are made of. As importantly, they include materials from which comedy is crafted. If we attend to the structure of humor, we can see that jokes work precisely because they shine light on dilemmas that are built into the social fabric. Thus, one of the core insights of the study of the comic is that it depends on telling two stories at the same time (what Arthur Koestler called “bi-sociation”). …

READ MORE →
EssaysRace

Rolezinho: Politics in Brazil’s Shopping Malls?

Since last December, Brazilian shopping malls have become the stage for a new style of youth gathering: the rolezinho. Roughly translated as “little excursions” or outings, the rolezinhos can be characterized as planned meetings (via social network) of a large group of youth from poor neighborhoods, with the intent of seeing each other, flirting, eating and drinking at McDonald’s, taking pictures to post on facebook, and simply having fun. This can be considered a collective action with direct links to at least two different issues that characterize contemporary Brazilian society.

First, rolezinhos cannot be understood without taking into account the almost nonexistence of public spaces for leisure and enjoyment. Coupled with the historic negligence of the Brazilian state to the population’s right to recreation, …

READ MORE →
Essays

Making Sense of Place

Naming streets and stations in Berlin and beyond

When I was in primary school, there were two street names in my hometown that I always got wrong. My teacher looked at me with disbelief and worry when I called the street next to the school Wolgaster Straße.

My geography skills improved dramatically after 1989, when the street names finally caught up with me. I grew up in the German Democratic Republic; call it DDR, GDR, or East Germany. The street names my teachers insisted on were Wilhelm Pieck Allee (Allee means promenade) and Otto Grotewohl Allee, named after the first President and Prime Minister of my dear republic. At home, I had learned to refer to these streets as Wolgaster Straße (Straße means street) and Anklamer Straße. Wolgast and Anklam are nearby cities. If you go to Wolgast, you leave the city via Wolgaster Straße. These street names are neat mnemonic devices; they point to nearby places. My pre-1989 teacher was not worried about my lack of knowledge. …

READ MORE →
CapitalismEssaysRace

Top 10 List of Best American Historical Writing

Recently the net has seen various ten best lists of works in American history. I’d like to propose one of my own, but first I want to explain my rationale. American historical writing was transformed in the 1960s by two things: the realization that slavery and racism were the foundations of American history and the enormous achievements of such Marxist historians and social thinkers as Eric Hobsbawm, EP Thompson and Immanuel Wallerstein. Works produced during and after the sixties have given us a dramatically new picture of the country and my list reflects this. In addition, I choose works that look at American capitalism as a whole, not works that narrowly confine themselves to particular “fields,” like political history, economic history and so forth. Finally, I have chosen works that help us to see the United States in a global perspective even if the works are not themselves comparative or transnational. Here is my list: …

READ MORE →
EssaysTheory & Practice

Simmel and the Social Condition

Georg Simmel (1858 – 1918) had a very precise and original conception of the subject matter of sociology: the forms, but not the contents, of human interaction. Sociology as a distinct discipline of human inquiry, he maintained, is directly comparable to geometry. As geometry, by studying the forms of “physicochemical” contents “determines what the spatiality of things in space really is,” sociology studies the forms of human interaction of all sorts, what he called “sociation.” The study of sociation, Simmel maintained, is the specific subject matter of sociology, the way to understand what society really is.

Following this path he studied a diverse range of formal subjects: domination, conflict, exchange and “sociability” (sociation as an end in itself, as in a cocktail party) built around considerations of the spacing and timing of social relations. Yet his most extraordinary work combined this formal sociology with the study of the forms and contents of culture: …

READ MORE →
EssaysLiberal Democracy in Question

Ariel Sharon (1928 – 2014)

Reflecting on the myth of a Zionist martyr and the reportage in Israel and beyond

Ariel Sharon was perhaps the last Israeli soldier-statesman whose life was framed with the Zionist myth of martyrology. Although there surely is no shortage of commanders who are mythical figures and became politicians in contemporary Israel, Sharon joins an exclusive club of those mythic figures of men in the history of Zionism whose lives ended mysteriously, untimely, not in war, and/or whose death stories were contested and ambiguous. Theodore Herzl, who died young, and is rumored to have suffered from syphilis. Joseph Trumpeldor who died protecting Tel Chai in 1920 and, as the myth holds (Yael Zerubavel provides a detailed account), said before dying “never mind, it is good to die for our country.” Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in 1995 by a national-religious law student. Yasser Arafat, whom Israel tried and in the end probably succeeded to poison or otherwise kill during his long career (2004). Rafael Eitan, a former chief of staff and politician: a wave pulled him into the sea in the Ashdod harbor in which he was a project manager (2004), and Sharon, who was in coma for eight years starting in January 2006. His social death was blurred, extended even beyond the span of “the king’s two bodies.” Shortly after his stroke, streets and institutions were already named after him. …

READ MORE →
EssaysPsyche

It’s All in the Mind – Or is It?

The power of the placebo

A recent New York Times article reports that a new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that patients receiving one of the most commonly performed forms of knee surgery (arthroscopic surgery to repair a torn meniscus) did no better than those receiving a placebo treatment. In the study, patients with meniscus tears were randomly assigned either to the standard surgical procedure, or a sham surgical procedure, which involved making an incision without touching the meniscus. One year following treatment, the majority of patients in both genuine surgical and placebo conditions reported feeling better. Moreover, the majority of patients in both conditions said that they would undergo the same treatment again. The authors of the study conclude that their findings (taken together similar findings from previous studies) raise important questions regarding best practice standards of care for the treatment of knee problems.

From my perspective, the finding that the majority of patients in the placebo condition experienced the procedure as helpful, is just as important and perhaps more conceptually intriguing. …

READ MORE →
Arts & DesignEssays

Film and Myth

Analyzing Gravity and All is Lost with some Captain Phillips

Two films frequently cited together on the best films lists for 2013 were Gravity and All is Lost. As many reviewers noted, the films featured isolated individuals up against the cold, impersonal forces of the universe — the dark void of outer space for Sandra Bullock in Gravity and the dark depths of the Indian Ocean for Robert Redford in All is Lost. Less noted was a crucial difference between the two films: Sandra Bullock survives and Robert Redford dies. Intrinsically connected to these outcomes is another difference: Gravity is the story of a woman; All is Lost is the story of a man. Through examining this difference we can learn how contemporary film achieves its effects through mobilizing unconscious mythic and archetypal images, especially those concerning gender.

In both films the main character is faced with the ultimate existential crisis: imminent death. In both films the characters are resourceful and draw on considerable inner resources in their struggle to survive. In both films the essence of the struggle lies in the characters’ efforts to connect with other human beings. …

READ MORE →
EssaysMedia/PublicsReligion

The Once and Future Pope

How an imaginary 3rd Vatican Council report sparked public debate

Tears were welling up in my eyes as I finished reading the story. One of my old friends said he almost fell out of his breakfast nook from shock. Posts about the story have 10k+ shares on Facebook. People everywhere are either “liking” it or condemning it as an affront to their faith. So what generated this public outpouring? I’m referring to an article about the 3rd Vatican Council, which has Pope Francis really stirring things up with an earth-shattering pronouncement. Here’s an excerpt:

“The Third Vatican Council concluded today with Pope Francis announcing that Catholicism is now a ‘modern and reasonable religion, which has undergone evolutionary changes. The time has come to abandon all intolerance. We must recognize that religious truth evolves and changes. Truth is not absolute or set in stone.’… In a speech that shocked many, the Pope claimed ‘All religions are true, because they are true in the hearts of all those who believe in them. What other kind of truth is there? In the past, the church has been harsh on those it deemed morally wrong or sinful.” …

READ MORE →