Come visit the Los Angeles Review of Books at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books! You can find us this weekend at our booth, number 26, located in the Trousdale Parkway on the USC campus. This is your chance to not only meet the staff that makes the Review possible, but to pick up a copy of our beautiful new print edition magazine: a selection of our best interviews and author questionnaires. Bring your friends, and we hope to see you there.
Eric Hayot discusses anachronism, elderly resentment, and Claude Levi-Strauss in Japan:
Time makes us all anachronisms to ourselves. As we get older, we are all left behind by a history we had once been sure we were making. We struggle, in our aging bodies, to recall the embodied force of fitter, sharper selves. The problem is worse, presumably, if you live to be 100, like the late anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss (born in 1908, he finally passed away in October 2009). By then, you may have lived long enough, as Lévi-Strauss did, to see your upstart theories kill their most visible father (Jean-Paul Sartre), dominate the village for decades, produce a litter of influential children (Althusser, Foucault, Bourdieu), and gradually fade into respectability, granting you the privileged gestures of institutional and governmental recognition — Nicolas Sarkozy visiting you at home on your birthday, for instance — that we use to bury something while praising it.
by Tong Lam (photo © Tong Lam)
A lot has been said on the rise of China’s soft power in the international arena. What is less often discussed is the rise of police soft power in urban China in recent years. Indeed, although policing has always been a central component of the government’s penetrating apparatus of social control, Chinese police forces have recently begun to adopt a softer image in certain contexts. For example, residents of Chongqing still vividly recall the young, heavily made-up female traffic cops introduced by the former local party chief Bo Xilai. Similarly, when Bo was the mayor of the city of Dalian in the 1990s, he also instituted the idea of having young and good-looking female police officers patrolling the city center on horseback, a practice that has apparently outlasted Bo’s political career.
Indeed, while many observers have associated the use of young female police officers with Bo’s peculiar populist policies, the idea of cultivating a benign image for the police has become routine in Chinese cities. Generally, the emergence of a neoliberal economy since the 1990s has resulted in a fundamental restructuring of China’s social and economic landscape. In urban areas, this involves the growing disparity between middle class residents and migrant workers who do physical labor and perform service functions. Meanwhile, the gentrification of city neighborhoods has also led to the creation of new urban spaces dedicated to leisure and consumption.
Yet, these newly created public spaces (or, more accurately, these privatized public spaces) are never really designed for the masses in the broad sense. On the contrary, the highly visible presence of security guards, police officers, and various forms of surveillance apparatuses, such as closed-circuit television cameras, in these spaces is part of the neoliberal regime of social inclusion and exclusion, of the sort described so famously, with reference to California’s biggest metropolis, in the Mike Davis classic City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles. In this context, the urban poor and “undesirables,” such as migrant workers, are made to feel unwelcome in what are purportedly “public” spaces. At the same time, the constant presence of the panoptic gaze does not just reassure the rich elites and middle class citizens of their safety, it also helps to instill a sense of fear and insecurity among them, making them appreciate the role of the state in maintaining law and order.
The rise of cute-looking police surveillance apparatuses is therefore part and parcel of contemporary China’s strategy of constructing a “socialist harmonic society” in an increasingly tension-ridden society. And while comparable cute-looking surveillance apparatuses can be found in other East Asian societies such as Singapore, Taiwan, and Japan, they should also be seen as part of a larger global trend of masking the ever penetrating state power with softer and more benign images.
Guilty of Indigence: The Urban Poor in China, 1900-1953 by Janet Y. Chen (Princeton University Press, 2012): a study of how the Chinese urban poor were managed by the government in the first half of the twentieth century.
Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution by David Harvey (Verso 2012): a critique of the historical relationship between global capitalism and the city, and a discussion of how to create alternatives to the current system.
Image: Rossums Universal Robots, Karel Capek, 1920.
Rob Horning reviews Illah Reza Nourbakhsh’s study of the role of robots in popular culture, Robot Futures:
In Robot Futures, Illah Reza Nourbakhsh, a professor of robotics at Carnegie Mellon University, tries to complicate our ideas about our robot helpers. As robotic technology develops and insinuates itself further into everyday life, what counts as a robot is becoming more slippery, drifting further away from the C-3POs and the Twikis and the other box-of-bolts robot buddies of science fiction. Is a garage-door opener a robot? Do they have to be self-propelling? (A Roomba seems far more robotic than a laptop, but a laptop is far more useful.) Must a robot think “for itself,” as if it actually has a “self”? Do they even have to be machines at all? Do I become a robot when I use my smartphone?
“Synthetic biology is not just a new tool for creating the Anthropocene; it is also a new tool for art.”
- David Biello, “The Art of Life in the Anthropocene”
Photo: Eduardo Kac, “Natural History of the Enigma.” Courtesy Black Box Gallery, Copenhagen.
Image: Deinococcus radiodurans, Michael J. Daly, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences.
Every microbe was once a poem. David Biello continues his series on the Anthropocene with The Art of Life:
The microbe itself emits a red glow, completing the uncanny effect. Spawned by word reaching Bök of scientists transcribing the lyrics of “It’s a Small World (After All)” into another living bacterium’s genetic code, “The Xenotext” represents a story written for humans in the medium of life.
Synthetic biology is not just a new tool for creating the Anthropocene; it is also a new tool for art. The question is: does everything become art in some sense when the whole world becomes an artifact of human effort, from sprawling cityscapes to the weather?
Photo: Dandelion circle on blue bells; Brough, Cumbria; 4 June 1985; © Andy Goldsworthy.
Liam Heneghan on his acquaintance with ecologist and author William R. Jordan III and The Sunflower Forest:
When I first brought a group of my undergraduate students to meet William Jordan III at Cafe Mozart in Evanston, Illinois, he told them that each year we should ritualistically destroy a small plot of virgin prairie, of which there is virtually none left in this state, in order to dramatize its importance to us. I assured them that he did not mean this sacrifice literally; he assured them that he did.
by Green Apple’s Kevin Ryan
Lots of retail stores can boast that they offer items for sale in a broad price range, say from $999 all the way down to $.99. But at Green Apple, we can do better than that, not only because we usually have at least a few rare books priced at $2000 and up, but because our lowest-priced books are free. And the selection is usually pretty good. The Free Box has been a part of Green Apple, and a fixture on Clement Street, since we first opened our doors in 1967. Here’s how it works.
We have the busiest used-book buy counter in the Bay Area. Every day, dozens of folks bring in their boxes and bags of books to sell. Because we have limited space, we have to keep control of our used book inventory, which means turning down a lot of good books. Yes, that copy of Madame Bovary is in nice shape, but it’s the third one we’ve seen today. Sorry, but when that Stephen King book came out in paperback, we are no longer able to sell the hardback. Once folks have gone to the trouble of hauling their books in to sell, they’ve often made that emotional break with them, and aren’t interested in lugging the rejects home or around to other stores. And that is where the free box comes in.
The fact is, many books that go into the free box are sellable, just not at Green Apple. For the entrepreneurial sort, willing to collect the books to try and sell at other stores, or to list on eBay, there is profit to be made. This has occasionally led to conflict. Over the years, there have been an assortment of characters who seemed to be making a minor living out of our free box. In the ecosystem of Green Apple, these folks are the bark beetles, breaking down the final remains of the fallen tree and returning the parts back into the cycle. But mostly we consider the free box a community asset. The ideal consumer is the casual passer-by, who spots a book by a favored author, but maybe a bit dog-eared or with a torn cover, and snatches it up.
For more on LARB’s Naked Bookseller program, go here.
The Naked Bookseller Returns: Stephen Sparks Unpeels the Green Apple
1. Green Apple Books sits on the periphery of San Francisco. Although a couple of miles separate 6th Avenue and Clement from the mighty Pacific, for many our neighborhood marks the edge of the city proper. So it sometimes happens that when I tell people where I work, they respond by saying “I don’t make it out there as often as I should.”
What is a bookstore, though, other than a place you don’t get to as often as you’d like? And what better location for a bookstore in this tech-obsessed city than on its edge, a reminder of another San Francisco, one that appeals to those with a fondness for creaky floors, dusty alcoves, and organic growth?
2. Sometimes I imagine Green Apple as being composed geologically, of strata.
We have new books, which we diligently inventory and keep track of in our database, and we have used books, of which we see so many in a day that it would be nearly impossible to keep track of them all. This creates an interesting dynamic for customers and employees alike. It makes every book search an adventure. In an age of instant gratification and instant results, the fact that we send people off to find a book that may or may not be on the shelf seems suicidal. Yet it somehow works. Not for everyone, not all the time (even for those adventurous souls who enjoy the challenge), but often enough that it has become, for me at least, a justification of our continued relevance.
Part of what makes a place like Green Apple charming are the opportunities it presents to venture into the unknown. In a way, I think this characteristic best reflects the store’s contents. What else is a book but an unknown?
3. I’m writing this at work. I sat down at a desk on the sales floor and as I attempted to compose my thoughts on bookselling into even the vaguest shape, I was approached by four customers. I was initially a little frustrated by this, but reason prevailed. I’m here to answer questions, to lead customers to sections, to recommend, suggest, offer whatever wisdom I can.
Bookselling is a balancing act sometimes. As the pivot between the silence of the printed page—where, naturally, most of us tend to spend our free time—and the public clamoring to get to that silent space, we can occasionally feel torn.
4. Anyone who works even tangentially in the publishing industry has heard a lot lately about so-called discoverability, an awkward term for an awkward problem. Publishers, whose insecurity over being a step behind has always astonished me—if anything, a great virtue of publishing is that it is by its very nature a step behind—are desperately scrambling for the next big thing. This next big thing has taken many forms over the years; it currently manifests itself in algorithms and data aggregation.
While great strides have been made in the technology enabling publishers and retailers to launch these forays into the next step of bookselling, what I think Green Apple and other brick and mortar bookstores offer is something more authentic: true discoverability. Our booksellers’ knowledge will serve a reader well if she is asking for a book similar to Wolf Hall, but it’s the deeper, human knowledge and curiosity about the world that will lead that same reader to something completely new. To find the unknown: isn’t that discovery? In an interview with The Paris Review, Roberto Calasso remarked that “in looking for a book, you may discover that you were in fact looking for the book next to it.”
This is what we offer: the next book over.
5. A longtime bookseller once said to me, “You know, bookstores offer the best education.”
At the time, I took this as being insight about the objects on the shelves, but have since come to realize it’s as much a reflection on my fellow booksellers as anything bound between two covers. Our staff consists of writers, musicians, djs, burlesque dancers, surfers, poets, cooks, hikers, filmmakers, journalists, cineastes, and some of the most curious people I have ever had the good fortune to meet. By trade, we’re required to know a lot and I think this characteristic of the job rubs off on the rest of our lives.
6. How much does what we do reflect who we are? Do we assume characteristics of the places where we spend our time? I wonder about how working at Green Apple has altered me—not the opportunities seized, the boats missed, the physical toll of lugging boxes around, but on a subtler level. How have the uneven floorboards, the sometimes haunting presence of so many books, the occasionally slanted shelves, the bookshelf-blocked windows affected me? Am I more or less concerned with precision now? Do I think differently about the relationship between poetry and business because those sections are adjacent to each other? Has my life been enriched because the phrase “three doors down” conjures up a building full of used novels and not a band? (I can answer that one definitively: yes.)
I can’t answer all of these questions, which is part of the reason I love working here so much.