From the Mixed-Up Bookshelves of Professor Timothy J. Burke

I’ve promised (threatened?) to do something like this before, but I’m really committed now. I’ve been meaning to sit down with my bookshelves and go through them very seriously, to re-examine books I’ve read in the past and read newer books that I haven’t read or have read cursorily. I’m going to combine this with cataloging my shelves in the office and at home with Readerware, and finally alphabetizing my shelves. (This will doubtless disappoint a generation of students who’ve gotten used to me looking distractedly for a book I’ve recommended by trying to remember where I last saw its distinctive spine.)

These aren’t going to be book reviews, more like book notes, commentaries, short observations.

Edward Tenner, Why Things Bite Back

Useful, accessible discussion of the problem of “unintended consequences” in the history of technology, but he’s less interested in what he calls “reverse revenge” effects, when the unintended consequences of new technological systems are largely positive or beneficial. In many ways, the target here is not technologies per se, but high modernist ideologies of technopolitical change, the hubristic belief that it is possible to comprehensively understand and manage all the consequences of technological change in advance of undertaking such change. (A useful book for some research projects in my History of the Future course.) A bit lightweight when it comes to questions of causality, of the character of systems and networks. Might make a good introduction to a course that was then going to go deeper into that sort of territory.

Paul Nugent, Smugglers, Secessionists and Loyal Citizens on the Ghana-Togo Frontier

I may complain about the dominance of the monograph from time to time, but this is the kind of book that makes you appreciate just how important a function the monograph serves in scholarly communities. Some monographs are plodding and obvious, but this book is full of original insights and important data within the context of 20th Century African history. Its benefits are most obvious within the context of specialized scholarly inquiry, but it might even be a surprisingly engaging read for a more generalist audience with an interest in African history and some knowledge of the standard or received wisdom about colonial and postcolonial African history. The title is misleading in that it makes the book sound like an exceptionally narrow account of a very particular subject, but in a way, what Nugent is offering is a comprehensive history of the colonial era outside of the three dominant historiographical paradigms. Frequently Africanists do histories that are defined either by nations, ethnic groups or a single major social category: a history of Ghana, a history of the Ewe, a history of workers or women. Occasionally we write instead about institutions. What Nugent’s done here is write about places, practices, institutions, but in ways that subtly (and occasionally not-so-subtly) reorder the way people in my field talk about nations, ethnicities, social groups or institutions with implications for our understanding of the overall history of European colonialism in Africa.

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6 Responses to From the Mixed-Up Bookshelves of Professor Timothy J. Burke

  1. Are you familiar with “Library Thing”?

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    Heard of it, hadn’t tried it. I’ve just created an account and I’m uploading my first Readerware list now.

  3. joeo says:

    “Why Things Bite Back” was pretty dissapointing. He had a hard time finding any examples of things actually “biting back”. It was more like “why things are somewhat less valuable than you would think at first”.

    I did like his comparison of the greater control professional golf has over improvments in sports technology than professional tennis. Improvements to rackets have made men’s tennis much less watchable, while golf has greater control over equipment and course layouts to keep fans interested. That doesn’t count as bitting back though. Better tennis rackets are better tennis rackets.

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    Yeah, he’s way too obsessed with a kind of skeptical hook, rather than just arguing that technological histories reveal a profound kind of unpredictability that high modernist managerialism was totally blind to (or blithe about).

  5. Doug says:

    Tenner’s writing for a general rather than scholarly audience. Does that make a difference? It’s been nearly a decade since I read the book, but I remember it as clever and surprising; maybe not the greatest thing since sliced bread, but still quite worth the time.

  6. Timothy Burke says:

    Yes: I think a revelation for many readers, including me when I first read it. He does help to kickstart a new way of thinking about a lot of issues.

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