Monday, July 21, 2008

Bookstore Surveillance

Last Christmas, on this blog, I posted a list of books that one should NOT give as gifts because, I speculated, the recipient is likely to misinterpret the meaning behind the gift. You were all very helpful in filling out that list, providing your own examples of the oft-embarrassing dissonance between the intended meaning of a gifted book and the received meaning of that gift. Of course, such miscommunication is a possibility with all gifts, I suppose, but books seem especially prone to this danger. Why? Because we do judge books by their covers, or their titles, or their reputations... or a host of things other than what exists between the preface and the postscript.

I am reminded of that now, as I am in the process of finalizing my textbook orders for the fall semester. Because of the sorts of courses that I teach, I regularly fret over the books that I assign for my courses, many of which have provocative titles and/or cover art (not to mention actual ideas!). I have a recurring nightmare in which one of my students' mom or dad is visiting during Parents Weekend, strolling through the college bookstore and, upon seeing what books I have assigned, decides to speed-dial David Horowitz on the cell-phone to report me in violation of the Academic Bill of Rights.

[Insert frightened shiver here.]

So, as another public service-- because what's a blog for, after all, if not to help the people?-- here are some of the books that I have considered adopting (or actually dared to adopt) that may be more trouble than they're worth. (But probably not.) I'll do this the same way we did before, that is, I'll give you the "intended meaning" behind the adoption of the text first, followed by the possible thoughts of the Putative Defenders of Academic Freedom.

We'll start with the obvious:

The History of Sexuality, Volume 1 by Michel Foucault

WHAT I INTENDED: Foucault is one of the most important philosophers of the 20th C., and this is an eminently accessible introduction to his work. Students who have no theoretical basis for thinking about "power" or "discourse" can get their feet wet here, as well as learn a thing or two about the history of our socially-constructed categories of sexuality. Also, as an added bonus, The History of Sexuality serves as a kind of primer for psychoanalysis, gender studies, queer theory, and feminism-- some of the major "alternative" movements in contemporary philosophy.

WHAT THEY THINK: Everyone knows that teaching sex in schools leads to promiscuity among students. What's next? Is she going to hand out condoms on the first day instead of a syllabus?! (And, Mother, did she just use both "queer" AND "theory" in the same sentence?)

The Anti-Christ by Friedrich Nietzsche

WHAT I INTENDED: Although this is not one of my favorite texts by Nietzsche, I think it is an important one to look at in order to have some point of comparison between Nietzsche's more rigorously philosophical works (like Genealogy of Morals) and the largely polemical texts like this one. Despite his polemics, however, there are several points in The Anti-Christ where we can see Nietzsche's abiding and complicated, even if reluctant, respect for the figure of Jesus and some of the values of Christianity.

WHAT THEY THINK: Clearly our child is headed directly to hell.

Hatred of Democracy by Jacques Ranciere

WHAT I INTENDED: We've heard a lot recently about how our enemies "hate" democracy, even as we commit ourselves ever more forcefully to imposing that form of government on them. Ranciere's short text gives an interesting twist on the phenomenon of "hatred for democracy" by showing us that it is not the purported enemies of democracy that really hate "government by all, " but rather the ruling class within democracies. There are few things in this day and age that are more important to think about, philosophically, than the meaning of democracy.

WHAT THEY THINK: Who hates democracy? Oh, the guy is French. Shoulda known. What do the French know from democracy, anyway?

Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, The Cold War and the Roots of Terror by Mahmood Mamdani

WHAT I INTENDED: This is the first book that everyone should have read after 9/11. Mamdani offers the clearest and most convincing counter-discourse to the (Samuel) Huntington-esque "clash of civilizations" story that has unfortunately appealed to so many people in power. By carefully tracing the U.S. Cold War and post-Cold-War policy of engaging in "proxy wars," Mamdani shows not only how terrorism came to be what it is now, but also how we are all implicated in that development.

WHAT THEY THINK: Who ever heard of a "good" muslim?

The Assault on Reason by Al Gore

WHAT I INTENDED: After reading Gore's text, I now believe that he really missed his calling. This is a sober, informed, well-argued and intelligent treatment of the dangers to any political body that gives up on the power of a "well-informed citizenry." It's hard to imagine that there are many people alive today who have had more of an inside and up-front perspective on the changes in our country (and our world) over the last three decades than Al Gore. For cynics, this text will inspire hope again. For dreamers, this text is a healthy dose of realism. But for everyone, Gore's text will serve as a reminder that rational deliberation is one of the first virtues of civic responsibility.

WHAT THEY THINK: Jeez. He's still around? If the profs here are determined to assign a book by a Nobel Peace Prize winner, they should pick somebody good... like de Klerk.

The Al Qaeda Reader by Raymond Ibrahim (Ed.)

WHAT I INTENDED: If Al Qaeda is really our "enemy," then engaged intellectuals should acknowledge that the enemy you know is better than the enemy you don't know. Most of us know very little about Al Qaeda outside of the things we hear on television, so reading this book will be an exercise in becoming (what Gore called) a "well-informed citizenry." Students will be surprised when they read some of the actual texts of Islamic "extremism," which are not totally irrational (as we are often told) and many of which are grounded (however shakily) in sources of traditional Islamic theology. Most importantly, these texts give us a glimpse into the power of persuasive political rhetoric, the cornerstone of mass movements throughout history.

WHAT THEY THINK: It's time to heighten the DEFCON status! Alert the extraordinary rendition brigade! Get Horowitz on the phone! NOW!

As before, I welcome your contributions to this list. And as before, please provide your own renderings of the "what I intended" and "what they think" categories.


melanie said...

Second Treatise of Government by John Locke

What I intended: Before we move on to sexier things, it's very important that we understand the theoretical foundations of liberalism in general, and our own American system in particular. This accessible text by John Locke will help us to do that. It shouldn't take too long--a couple of weeks ought to do it. I sincerely hope that you will all laugh out loud, as I always do, in Book V when he talks about giving your nuts for a piece of metal.

What they think: Honey, maybe you can drop that elitist, soft-on-terror, atheist Dr. J's class and get into Dr. Shepherd's class. Thank God someone at this university still has the wisdom and integrity to teach the real classics.

DOCTOR J said...

Ouch, Dr. Shephard. Ouch!

You have hereby confirmed my worst nightmare.

christophresh said...

A question, Leigh:
Do you teach just the introduction of Foucault? Or how far do you go into it? Also, is this in Intro, or in a higher-level class? I am writing my dissertation of Foucault and Spinoza, but would be skeptical about teaching either in an Intro class (or at least in VU's compulsory Intro, filled to the brim with students who do not care). Obviously I would like to, but don't want to bludgeon the students with MY incomprehensible baggage.

jd said...

Pimps Up, Ho's Down, by T. Sharpley-Whiting.

Intended: yes, it is time to take hip-hop seriously from many theoretical perspectives. Let's see what Sharpley-Whiting has to say...she's smart and analytical.

What they think: cue Curtis Mayfield's greatest hits. Expect unhappy older white women and general church goers. Also expect an awkward Soul Brother Handshakes (see from white boys, or the occasional terrorist fist jabs.

Will peruse recent purchases shortly...

theorymyculture said...

Seeing Through God, by John Llewelyn

Intended: Llewelyn was an intensely influential teacher of mine, a real hero, and here I am forgetting for years to buy his book.

What they think: the same haters who eye-rolled your ass when you bought Sharpley-Whiting are inviting you for brunch at Blue Plate after church goin' on Sunday!

Ethics at a Standstill, by Asher Horowitz

Intended: I saw my name in the index! Fuck yeah! I'm buying it NOW!

What they think: huh, here's a real intellectual buying a real scholarly book. He must be particularly detached and analytical. (Whew...for once, this game works for me!)


melanie said...

For the record, my attempt at a funny wasn't supposed to be especially harsh. I was just imagining some Horowitz-y parents in the bookstore seeing their hero John Locke after looking at your string of titles. :)

anotherpanacea said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
anotherpanacea said...

Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word by Randall Kennedy

What I intend: If we're to investigate the relationship between law and culture, we should have an object lesson. Kennedy gives good legal anecdotes, covers a lot of ground quickly, and is surprisingly readable for a law professor. Plus, he serves as a counterpoint to MacKinnon and Cornell so I can claim syllabus viewpoint neutrality. Wierdly, students seem to really focus on free speech/hate speech problems in this text, and once they've read this, they're willing to follow me through Butler's Excitable Speech without complaint. Score!

What they think: *Unconsciously* Taboo words are fun. I like transgressing cultural norms! I'll take this class. *Consciously* How racist. How's the professor going to justify this one? Still, I might learn something. I'll take this class. *Occasionally* Finally a chance to quote Tarantino scripts and rail against the injustice of a word African-Americans can say but whites can't!

DOCTOR J said...

I think one could teach the whole text of HoS-1 to undergraduates. Of course, it would work better in a course that is slightly higher than "Intro," but I think you could do it in intro, as well. (I should say, however, that at my school "Intro to Phil" is not a required course, so we don't have students who are in there by necessity.) This fall, I'm teaching a course on "Power" and we're obviously reading Foucault... only we're reading some of the essays in the anthology Power and then the whole text of Society Must Be Defended. I think the trick with teaching Foucault is just to realize ahead of time that most of the explicative work will fall on your shoulders-- but once they have the concepts, I find that students know what to do with them.

DOCTOR J said...

melanie: it WAS funny. and harsh. and partially true.

Brunson said...

Second Treatise of Government may get a pass, but Utilitarianism is one of the 10 Books that Screwed Up the World!

christophresh said...

DrJ: I believe you, that once you set up F, that his concepts are not too hard to (effectively, ahem) employ. You have now emboldened me to teach it; blame or praise shall be forthcoming, and they will fall upon your shoulders.

AnPan: There was just an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer about how the hip-hop great Nas was going to title his album "Ni**er", without the stars, and yes, with the -er not -a ending (he eventually called it "Nas", but without this new title anywhere on the cover, and with a picture of a huge N carved into his back- by whips, obviously). You already know what points got touched on- history, who can say it and who can't, why white people get a thrill hearing/saying it, racism and its disavowal-as-avoidance, etc.
Of course, I am reading in these points somewhat; it wasn't that good of an article! Slightly related to your post... But still, deals with DrJ's original idea of intended VS. received meanings.

The Detective said...

Look Out Whitey! Black Power's Gonna Get Your Mama!
By Julius Lester

I'd like to assign this book just to see the looks on people's faces when they have to buy it, read it in the library, and report back to mom and dad on the question "so bobby, what are you reading in that history class you're taking?"

Let the misinterpretation begin!

jon said...

On the Justice of Roosting Chickens: reflections on the consequences of U.S. imperial arrogance and criminality by Ward Churchill

What I intended: Are WE THE PEOPLE in reality war criminals by proxy, i.e., by the actions of the people we elect to represent our interests? This book brings to light some of the horrors WE have wrought on other people (well…kinda like people. They are darker than us, yes?) so WE can maintain OUR lifestyles and OUR superiority by protecting OUR oil that is under their desert. And it explains why some of these people are really pissed at us because of it.

What they think: Why should we read this garbage? Wasn’t Churchill fired for writing it? Melanie was right!

KHG said...

Wow, you all have a great list going here-- I'm surprised my contribution hasn't already been noted

Anything by Freud (but especially Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality)

What I intended: Freud changed the world by popularizing the unconscious and by treating sexuality as a concept, not just an unspeakable act. Reading him still gives us tools for understanding both thought and also who we are better.

What they think: You are going to turn our child into a sex freak and blame us for it? No thanks. I heard Freud did coke, anyway.

Plus, my kid's psychology professor already proved that Freud was wrong about everything.