Since leaving the day job to focus on research and writing, I’ve been nose-deep in readings of one kind or another, and thoroughly enjoying the experience. Some recent reads that are worth your time:
Metaphors We Live By. Illuminating, but infuriatingly limiting. This classic from Berkeley cognitive linguist and Democratic party framing guru George Lakoff (along with co-author and much less feted Mark Johson) was the first of a long reading list I’m exploring on analogical reasoning. Its emphasis on textual analysis strikes me as both culturally contingent and missing some key insights from the realm of material culture on artefact transfer and physical metaphor. Still, an absolutely essential read. It left me wondering, too, about Lakoff’s involvement in politics. He spent a career developing theories of metaphor, but became a guru on framing – which is a distinct realm of thought, albeit as multidisciplinary as that of metaphor. Did Lakoff reframe himself to better appeal to an audience? A cynical thought. I’m not yet sufficiently familiar with the corpus of Lakoff writing to detail whether his work on framing pre-dates his public persona as the political go-to guy on the subject – or indeed, whether he ever bridged his thinking on metaphor with frame analysis, implicitly or explicitly. I’m looking forward to finding out.
The Edifice Complex. One of the angles I’ve been pursuing in my research deals with the interface between architecture and conflict. This book is an excellent primer. Deyan Sudjic, former architecture critic for The Observer newspaper, ranges widely on the creepy flirtation between architectural practice and the political and financial context that shapes its output. The prose is accessible, frequently witty and acerbic, and the text is thick with historical color. Anyone who’s followed recent debates in American academia on the relationship between social sciences and the military will also appreciate Sudjic’s text: its privileged glimpse into the world of disciplinary hubris and rampaging ego makes anthropologists in Iraq and Afghanistan look like a pretty modest bunch by comparison.
The Forever War. NYT’s foreign correspondent Dexter Filkins‘ memoir of almost four years in Baghdad, from the 2003 invasion through the height of Iraq’s insurgency, is one of the most compelling war diaries I’ve ever read. Filkins claims to have been careful in how he went about his business, taking measures to mitigate the dangers he exposed himself to, but you wouldn’t know it from the quality of his reporting. Whether embedded with Marines in the battle of Faluja or going for solitary runs along the banks of the Tigris River to maintain his sanity, Filkins repeatedly frames his experience as a prolonged exercise in psychic alienation. Architectural metaphors abound: his characterizations of the Green Zone, as well as the NYT’s own increasingly fortified compound, are similarly hard reminders of the difficulties involved in knowledge formation in crisis zones.
The Forever War. I originally read Filkins’ The Forever War because I wanted to know whether his text was meant to be a tribute to Joe Haldeman’s post-Vietnam science fiction classic, first published in the late 1970s. This is the original Forever War, about a military campaign that takes a 1000 years to fight. Force projection in this tale requires jumps of hundreds of light years, and due to the dynamics of relativity, the few soldiers who survive their missions only age by a handspan of years while the rest of humanity has leapt forward by centuries. The cultural disconnects and social alienation experienced by veterans, inspired by Haldeman’s own experiences in Southeast Asia, are amplified and extended: English has become an archaic language maintained only for communication with returning troops, humanity develops into a cloned hive-mind, and veterans settle on an isolated planet where they can be among their own kind. The book was contentious when it was first published, and an entire section on the revolt of the post-war settler-veterans was initially left out – so if you get a chance, read the later omnibus edition, which includes the full story. (Note: apparently, Ridley Scott will be using the film technology James Cameron developed for Avatar to adapt this classic to the big screen. One to watch.).