Wednesday, June 7, 2023

Review: The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand

There are no children in The Fountainhead, and this is because if this gap was visible all of Rand's argument comes tumbling down.

Rand's core argument is that man is naturally predisposed to selfishness, to wish only to fulfill his own wants, that any form of self-sacrifice or altruism is parasitic. Man's goal is to create skyscrapers and art.

I disagree, of course. Evolution found an optimum where our ability to think complexly came at the expensive of a very dependent childhood, and as a result humans evolved to be social creatures. Man is instead inherently predisposed to bond with others, to wish to see them to do well, to help them, to form loyalties and allegiances. We create skyscrapers and art not for the sake of these lifeless objects themselves, but because we want admiration, belonging, to communicate with others, to mark our place in the history of our people.

For this reason, I find Chernychevsky's take on rational egoism (the same philosophy Rand espouses) to be much more compelling. It feels good to help others, to accomplish something, to be admired, and so, selfishly, we act altruistically.

You see, my dear sir, O perspicacious reader, what schemers these noble people are, and how egoism plays in their souls? (...) They take their greatest satisfaction in having people whom they respect regard them as noble; to achieve this end, my dear sir, they work hard and devise all sorts of schemes no less diligently than you do in pursuit of your goals. Only your goals are different, and so the schemes you devise are not the same. You devise schemes that are worthless and harmful to others; they devise schemes that are honest and useful to others.

Rand's writing is tedious, the book is overly long, the rape is treated with startling dismissiveness, but I give her some credit for putting forth an argument rather than hiding her views in criticism of the status quo without putting forth a proposition for something she believes to be better.

Review: Ludicrous by Edward Niedermeyer

Tesla and Elon Musk have been newsfeed staples for a decade. I’d kept up with the general story arc and formed an opinion on how revolutionary/earth-saving their technology is (that is to say, not very). This work of investigative journalism does a great job filling in the gaps in my knowledge, and highlighting themes characteristic of Musk’s public relations style and Tesla’s decision-making. The book is well organized; each chapter is based around a topic (defect reporting, the announcement of the model X and the ensuing production woes, autonomous vehicle technology). This structure allows the common beats to shine through: Musk’s willingness to bend truths and skirt regulations, the emphasis of flash and style and status symbols over practical or environmental considerations, the disregard for hard-earned industry wisdom in favour of a silicon valley software engineering mentality.

The author is sharp in his criticism of Elon Musk, but does grant him some accomplishments. I was swayed by the author’s argument that car consumers did not really want (at least in the early to mid 2010s) electric vehicles like the Nissan Leaf but wanted a status symbol with the cutting-edge, naysayers-be-damned branding that Musk built for Tesla. Did Tesla help move the needle on increased demand for low-carbon emission vehicles, and spur its competitors to develop alternatives? This is an impossible counterfactual to answer. But I do think it’s clear that Tesla’s electric vehicles had a small, financially inefficient impact on reducing global emissions. It’s fascinating that this was written in 2019; Tesla’s valuation has increased by an order of magnitude since then without much more to show for it.

I also learned a lot more about car manufacturing than I expected: how manufacturing and design stay in close step and how company cultures are shaped around this, how post-market reporting of defects are reported and investigated, how business models and car designs are shaped around this high-capital investment and low-profit margin business.

Monday, June 5, 2023

Review: Love & Capital by Mary Gabriel

By her own accounts, Mary Gabriel set out to tell the story of Marx and Engels, not with the goal of examining their philosophical developments – which had already been dissected from all political angles – but with a focus on understanding their family. Gabriel discovers – chiefly through combing through decades of correspondence between the Marx and Engels households and their friends – a tightly knit, loving family of “brilliant, combative, exasperating, funny, passionate, and ultimately tragic figures.” But there are many brilliant, exasperating, passionate people in the world, and not all of them have biographies that could be pitched as “a story of one of the most influential thinkers in history, but this time, with a feminist angle.” What does Gabriel’s angle tell us about Marx?

Gabriel reflects, “as rich as the Marx family story is, I found it also shed light on the development of Marx’s ideas.” I don’t fully disagree: the grueling poverty Marx and his family lived through, the tumultuousness of the politics of the mid-19th century, these are all things I was broadly aware of but reading it in minute detail through their letters, all laid out carefully in chronological order, certainly helped me better understand the emotion and hope behind Marx and Engels’ writing. But it feels, nevertheless, like a partial portrait. The story of their intellectual development is told briefly, perfunctorily, and I was left with many questions. Who were they reading? How did it shape them? Did they exchange silly quotes from Adam Smith and Malthus or were Marx’s searing critiques of these philosophers put on paper only in Capital? Hegel is barely mentioned. I would have gladly read several pages on their reaction to Darwin. Instead, we get pages of salaciously delivered, poorly sourced gossip about mistresses and other soap opera dramas. Perhaps it is unfair of me to judge this biography on this account: Gabriel explicitly set out not to examine philosophical developments and wound up only including more of Marx’s theory because it seemed timely in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. In that case, I cast judgment based on its goal: these are figures we know because of their philosophy, to attempt to tell their stories without really engaging with their contributions feels empty.

But to be charitable, what if I look at this biography of Marx based on the goal Gabriel sets for herself: an emphasis on the women in Marx’s life? These women played a more important role than I previously appreciated: his wife and daughters handled some of his correspondence, translated his works, and acted as his research assistants. This isn’t unusual for writers of the time: Lenin’s wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, and Tolstoy’s wife, Sophia Tolstoy, played similar roles for their husbands (although Gabriel does not provide this context). Marx’s daughter, Eleanor (unnecessarily called “Tussy” throughout Gabriel’s oeuvre while family nicknames are inconsistently applied to the other figures) played an active role in the labour movement in the 1870s-1890s, and to a lesser extent, her sisters did too.

Despite the extra screen time these women received compared to a more ‘traditional’ biography of Marx, I felt like there was a complete absence of effort to understand who these women were. This tendency was most egregious for Marx’s wife Jenny von Westphalen, who is presented as gentle woman who loves simple luxuries, and who is deprived of her birthright to a comfortable living because of a lousy husband who won’t get a real job but thoughtlessly involves himself in political movements that go nowhere. This portrait is painted without specific evidence penned by Jenny herself, and Gabriel does not seriously engage with the counterfactual: that Jenny loved Marx, believed in the socialist cause, and that her trust in Marx’s contributions to socialism arose from her capacity for rational thought bestowed unto her by her aristocratic and bookish upbringing. All this despite Gabriel highlighting over and over again the tireless work Jenny did to support Marx, such as sending messages to their acquaintances requesting financial support and running a household that overflowed with visiting socialist organizers. Instead of respecting Jenny’s choices and intellect, Gabriel accuses Jenny of “parroting Marx’s ideas.” It reads profoundly unfeminist despite its emphasis on the women of the story.

I found myself instead wondering about the emotional pain the author brought from herself to the story. Who is this woman who had so many tears to shed about an 18th century woman pawning her jewelry and clothes, but so few tears for the poor living in London slums (who Gabriel likened to rats)? My google searches turned up sparse details about her life, but her outsized indignation at Marx's life choices had me trying to fill in the blanks. When she suggests Marx's economic work and organizing efforts were selfish choices with "so devastating an impact" on his children, is she thinking about an absent parent, too busy with committee meetings and conferences to provide her with the attention she deserved? Does she see in her own career a certain virtuousness in having done her dues for two decades as an editor at Reuters before taking time off to write books — if only Marx had put off writing Capital a little longer, Jenny might have been able to keep her von Westphalen family silverware! When she fails to consider the relationship between Jenny and Marx as one of partnership of two well-studied individuals both intent on bringing about socialism, is it because of a shallowness in her own romantic relationships? Has she never loved someone and the cause they believed in?

Still, the work Gabriel clearly did in reading the correspondence assembled in the Marx and Engels Collected Works and other archives shines through the gossipy muck. The book is peppered with fun anecdotes that make the characters and the period feel very alive. Combined with the historical and political context woven throughout the narrative, this book is an informative if infuriating read.

Friday, June 2, 2023

Review: A Doll's House by Henrik Ibsen

A Doll’s House is a tightly plotted play about the limited agency and opportunities for fulfillment that women had during marriage. It must have been explosive, cathartic, to see performed when it first came out in 1879. But even reading it in 2023, I was pleasantly caught off-guard by the bold confrontation between vivacious Nora and her superficially doting husband. Building to the climax, I grimaced continuously at how he kept calling her his little bird, his little dove, his little squirrel, his flattery of her looks, his opinions on how embroidery was a much more attractive hobby than knitting, his pressing himself on her despite her protestations, his calling her childlike. “It was the nineteenth century, maybe it was normal” I told myself. To have Nora come to the recognition that his infantilizing, objectifying attitude was the problem in their marriage, that he cared not for her as a person but for her as a decoration in his home, oh it felt so satisfying.

Saturday, May 20, 2023

Review: Pandora's Jar by Natalie Haynes

Pandora’s Jar examines some of the women of Greek mythology – from Pandora to Penelope, highlighting the agency (or lack thereof) women have in the narrative, how they are objectified by the narrative voice, or how their failures or successes are rewarded or punished by the narrative compared to that of similar male characters. This kind of critique is the mainstay of feminist media critique, and Pandora’s Jar does it compellingly and with humour. 

This kind of critique of older media sometimes elicits angry retorts (always from men) about how it was a different time, and we cannot apply the standards of our present to the great works of masterful (male) writers from back then. Where I think Pandora’s Jar is particularly interesting is that the author points out over and over again how contemporary versions of these mythological women were often far more egalitarian in their depictions than some of the more modern versions we have come to know. As an example, ancient Greek depictions of Pandora emphasized not the “unleashing of evil/chaos” that we know her for now, but instead portray her role as the first woman, showered with gifts from the gods — an Eve without the apple scene. The play that underpins most of our conceptions of Oedipus, Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, gives barely 150 lines to Jocasta and very little space to her emotional journey, despite being by all accounts an innocent victim in a tragic story. Just a few years after this play’s first performance, Euripides gives us The Phoenician Women, where Oedipus barely features while Jocasta flexes her political muscles brokering a peace between her warring sons and braves a battlefield. Euripedes is hardly an outlier; the poets Stesichorus and Statius also produced works that centered Jocasta more. 

Why is it that these more feminist angles didn’t survive the millennia to occupy the same role in our pop culture? Haynes offers a few suggestions, emphasizing mostly taste or cultural currents: “As we change, so these characters have also changed as if to match us.” For example, Greek plays were often performed at nightclubs, where men might bring their mistresses, and these same men might not have been too fond of versions of Clytemnestra’s story that paint her murdering her cheating (and filicidal) husband as anything too sympathetic. During the twentieth century, changes in religious attitudes may have been why Anouilh’s 1944 adaptation of Oedipus switched the birth order of two siblings: what was first “appropriate if excessive religious fervor in an older sibling” became the “behavior of a rebellious younger sibling.” Under-emphasized is the explanation highlighted by Parenti in The Assassination of Julius Caesar: classic history is mostly written and interpreted by wealthy white men. I would have liked to see Haynes engage with this lens more.

The bias in these stories — and all stories we pass on — matters. The first versions we encounter become what is seen as “standard”, even when they’ve been toned down or distorted from some “authentic” version. Other versions we encounter become “re-tellings”, and their deviations from the expected script can take on a political, status quo-questioning quality.

But because we read them as children, we don’t always consider them critically: we tend to see them as a neutral, authoritative version from which other versions deviate. And – like all books – they reflect the values of their time. So while I don’t want to dissuade you from reading these stories to children, I would urge you to counterbalance the quiet prejudice which lurks within them.

Saturday, May 6, 2023

Review: Villette by Charlotte Brontë

Well-mannered and bright woman from an impoverished aristocratic family undergoes character development and is rewarded for it by a prosperous marriage. Sound familiar? It’s the plot for novels ranging from Jane Austen to Jane Eyre, and it is, in my reading at least, completely, amusingly, subverted in Charlotte Brontë's 1853 novel Villette. Maybe other girls have marriage as their reward; Villette is about the aristocracy learning to become bourgeois, about a young woman learning how to run a business.

Our impoverished aristocratic heroine is one Lucy Snowe, a highborn girl who we first meet spending a few months with her rich godmother, Mrs Bretton. In her early adulthood, Lucy loses her family and her fortune. The circumstances of this sudden loss of wealth are never clearly explained. Lucy is an unreliable narrator; she keeps the identity of a character secret for several chapters, until it is most dramatic to reveal she had known all along (information asymmetry is after all highly exploitable for profit) and she often mocks the reader for making assumptions or wanting to know particular details or her innermost longings. All we know of Lucy’s impoverishment is that it somehow involves a shipwreck. Perhaps she could turn to her wealthy godmother for support? No: it is the early 1800s, the aristocracy faces financial precarity in a world upset by capitalism, subject to the whims of unpredictable market bubbles. Mrs Bretton's property, “which had been chiefly invested in some joint-stock undertaking, had melted, it was said, to a fraction of its original amount.”

With no family relations to support her, Lucy becomes a caregiver for a wealthy elderly woman. The woman soon dies, and Lucy falls into despair as she tries to identify how she will be able to support herself. Like many propertyless individuals of the nineteenth century who struggled to find employment, Lucy sets out to a foreign land: a fictional continental European country called Labassecour. Though in the same dire straits as the working class, Lucy retains the tastes and obliviousness as to the financial values of things of the aristocracy. A wiser Lucy, later in the novel, will remark upon awareness of the material worth of objects as a bourgeois characteristic: “Ginevra ever stuck to the substantial; I always thought there was a good trading element in her composition, much as she scorned the ‘bourgeoise.’” But for now, our hapless heroine spends far too much money — “three times that afternoon I had given crowns where I should have given shillings” — and loses every one of her paltry possessions on the journey, finding herself purely by Providence in the drawing room of a Madame Beck, a well-off mistress of a private school for girls.

In this tense scene, Lucy is faced with the “perils of darkness and the street” if she is not able to secure employment with Madame Beck. In desperation, she pleads, successfully:

Be assured, madame, that by instantly securing my services, your interests will be served and not injured: you will find me one who will wish to give, in her labour, a full equivalent for her wages.

Thrust into this new life, Lucy is very aware of class differences, nationality differences, and wealth differences. Madame Beck, dressed in impeccable French tailoring, “looked well, though a little bourgeoise; as bourgeoise, indeed, she was." The educational institution features girls from both the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie, and Lucy finds that it is the lower class that possesses more admirable virtues:

At the desks of Madame Beck’s establishment the young countess and the young bourgeoise sat side by side. Nor could you always by outward indications decide which was noble and which plebeian; except that, indeed, the latter had often franker and more courteous manners, while the former bore away the bell for a delicately-balanced combination of insolence and deceit. In the former there was often quick French blood mixed with the marsh-phlegm: I regret to say that the effect of this vivacious fluid chiefly appeared in the oilier glibness with which flattery and fiction ran from the tongue, and in a manner lighter and livelier, but quite heartless and insincere.

Lucy adjusts to her new life as a waged worker and as an immigrant — but not easily. She struggles with loneliness and depression. Eventually, she becomes so distraught that she swoons in a church yard, and is nursed to health by her godmother and her son, Dr. John Graham Brretton, after a surprise reunion. Lucy falls in love with Dr. John, however her affections are not returned. Dr. John is instead besotted with Lucy’s companion and student, Ginevra.

Let’s pause for a moment here and examine the trope of marriage as a reward for well-behaved young women. There are three single, aristocratic women in this novel (all British, incidentally): Ginevra, Paulina, and our heroine, Lucy. Ginevra, poor but gently born, is beautiful, unstudious, unreligious, materialistic and toys with men's affections. Paulina, a countess, is highly accomplished, sweet, chaste, witty, and thoughtful towards her loving if overly controlling father. Lucy falls somewhere in between the two: pious, gracious, restrained, poor at mathematics and lowbrow in her artistic tastes.

Following the conventional marriage tropes of the era, we would expect some embarrassing scandal of an elopement resulting in abject poverty or misery for Ginevra. Instead — having burned bridges with Dr. John for taking too much advantage of his heart and purse — we get an embarrassing scandal of an elopement resulting in Ginevra becoming a countess, living relatively comfortably, and (through a little of her own cunning) “suffering as little as any human being I have ever known.” For Paulina we would expect a happy, fruitful, and prosperous marriage. And it certainly is happy and fruitful — but her prize husband is Dr. John, who has little wealth and works for his living, and who is scorned repeatedly as “bourgeois”. Moreover, although Lucy expresses happiness that her friend marries the man they both love, there is also a sense of loss. Paulina drops suddenly out of the narrative, rarely to be seen again, and in her happy marriage, she seems to become fully subsumed within her husband:

Graham Bretton and Paulina de Bassompierre were married, and such an agent did Dr. Bretton prove. He did not with time degenerate; his faults decayed, his virtues ripened; he rose in intellectual refinement, he won in moral profit: all dregs filtered away, the clear wine settled bright and tranquil. Bright, too, was the destiny of his sweet wife. She kept her husband’s love, she aided in his progress—of his happiness she was the corner stone. 

And what of Lucy? Bottling up her emotions, she manages to get over Dr. John, and grows fond of Monsieur Paul, a teacher at Madame Beck’s school. M. Paul encourages Lucy in reading, arithmetic and various other self-improvement projects (going so far as to lock her in an attic so she would study her lines — is it a Charlotte Brontë novel without a woman locked in an attic?). When Lucy expresses an interest in running her own school — she wishes to be independent, not working for wages — M. Paul uses his wealth to make this dream come true. 

And here we discover the true reward: emancipation from poverty and familial control comes not through a fortunate marriage (which leaves one subsumed within one’s husband) but through financial independence via capital investment. M. Paul is immediately whisked away on business travel for three years. Lucy reacts thusly:

Reader, they were the three happiest years of my life. Do you scout the paradox? Listen. I commenced my school; I worked—I worked hard. I deemed myself the steward of his property, and determined, God willing, to render a good account. Pupils came—burghers at first—a higher class ere long.

Lucy finds happiness not through marriage, but from growing her business. After some time, yet another windfall of capital comes her way. A distant relative dies, and on his deathbed, bequeaths her a large sum, out of guilt for not having supported her more earlier:

How far his conscience had been sinned against, I never inquired. I asked no questions, but took the cash and made it useful.
Our heroine, who once spent crowns where she should have spent shillings on useless consumption like carriage rides, has learned the bourgeois art of making money with money.

The ending of the novel is ambiguous, but, mirrors the mysterious circumstances surrounding the loss of Lucy’s hereditary wealth: it is implied M. Paul dies in a shipwreck. While Lucy is presumably emotionally devastated by this loss, there is the suggestion that she otherwise continues to be successful in her enterprise. Although Lucy refuses to inform the reader as to her own welfare, the final line in the novel notes that the other independent school proprietress, Madame Beck, “prospered all the days of her life.”

Tuesday, May 2, 2023

Conspectus: Hegel and the Freedom of Moderns by Domenico Losurdo

Twentieth century history unfolded from battles in nineteenth century philosophy, which itself was a reaction to the French Revolution. One path of nineteenth century philosophy and twentieth century history objected to the French Revolution’s upsetting of the natural order of things (are all men really equal?). In this path, we find the liberals Burke and Toqueville, neoliberals like Hayek, and the philosophers of fascism. The other path developed a philosophical expression (and eventually, political implementation) of the values that sparked the French Revolution: all men are equal, and political rights are meaningless without economic rights. This path follows Kant, Fichte, and Hegel, and from there continues to Marx and Engels, to Lenin and leaders of socialist movements world-wide. Given the crucial role Hegel played in this second path, it’s worth understanding his philosophy in some depth, and Losurdo’s book delivers beautifully.

Losurdo starts by asking, “is Hegel a liberal or a conservative?” (I suppose I am a little jealous that these are the arguments in which Losurdo feels he must intervene; the misunderstandings I see of Hegel revolve around a sort of “that guy loves kings…. and Spirit??”) The answer is that neither binary fits Hegel well, and in fact presupposes the rather peachy view of liberalism that liberalism views to be self-evident about itself. A better axis on which to situate Hegel would be “Patrician or plebeian?” On this axis, liberals and conservatives alike end up in the former camp, while Hegel is clearly situated in the latter (for all his approval of kings!). Hegel’s political positions are complex, and, Losurdo argues, must be understood in the context of the historical events and debates of the time. Losurdo leads us through these battlefields, examining Hegel’s perspectives on revolution, the sovereign, education and the rights of the child, and the role of the state in addressing poverty.

The one gap I felt was missing from this book was an examination of Hegel's racist statements about other civilizations. These statements also have roots in his philosophy (nothing in history is eternal, the actual is rational, and so why did Europeans become the dominant force in the 19th century?), and I think they could have fit within the argument of the book.

I feel so much more confident in the philosophical and historical issues of the nineteenth century having read this work. It's surprising (even disappointing?) how current discussions tread the same ground as discussions from two hundred years ago. Or perhaps it is instead Losurdo's skill at picking out the most relevant conflicts to our times, and presenting these clashes in ways that feel fresh but familiar. Regardless, it's a valuable book to read for understanding both the past and the present, and I strongly recommend it. However, it was a little dense, so as both a guide for myself and for other apprehensive would-be readers, I summarized the main arguments of each chapter. 

 Chapter I: A Liberal, Secret Hegel?