Summer Roundup: Book Reviews

In this last roundup of our summer posts, we draw your attention to the many insightful book reviews published on Somatosphere during the hazy days of summer, just in time to fill out your winter holiday reading lists.


Irina Sirotkina

Michael Gordin reviews Irina Sirotkina’s Shestoe chuvstvo avangarda: Tanets, dvizhenie, kinesteziia v zhizni poetov i khudozhnikov

“The central argument of this book, however, is not just that dance mattered, and mattered much more widely than has perhaps been sufficiently recognized. Rather, Sirotkina’s intention is to use dance as a window toward a reinterpretation of the avant-garde, as the first line of the book states clearly: ‘The avant-garde is not only an artistic project, but an anthropological one, a project in the re-cognition of the person, a renovation of his sensitivity.’ ‘Anthropological’ is meant here in the Kantian sense of the late Enlightenment, as the (philosophical) science of understanding the nature of humanity. Reflect on the title of this book and you will see Sirotkina’s strategy: dance is central because bodily movement, ‘muscular feeling,’ was considered by some members of the avant-garde as a sixth sense (in contradistinction to other sixth senses across the centuries, such as sexual appetite or telepathy); the senses are the privileged entry points for an empiricist epistemology; therefore, we can use the explicit theorizing and actual artwork of the avant-garde to trace what kind of knowledge this additional sense brought to bear.”



Jonathan Sadowsky reviews Elizabeth Lunbeck’s The Americanization of Narcissism

“Historians have not handled psychoanalysis very well. The clumsy reductionism of much of the psychohistory movement is usually Exhibit A, though historians such as Dominick LaCapra and Joan Scott have been developing more nuanced ways of using psychoanalytic ideas for History. But the historiography of psychoanalysis has also had some glaring weaknesses. One of them has been a tendency to focus too much on Freud and his early followers…The development of psychoanalysis since Freud’s death in 1939 is only beginning to get the attention it deserves from historians. In The Americanization of Narcissism, Elizabeth Lunbeck gives us one of the best accounts, one that shows keen mastery of subtle theoretical distinctions, and is loaded with insightful readings of major figures.”


Paxson Life of Cheese

James Babbitt reviews Heather Paxson’s The Life of Cheese: Crafting Food and Value in America

“Microbiopolitics refers to ‘governmental and grassroots efforts to recognize and manage human encounters with the organic agencies of bacteria, yeasts, fungi and viruses.’ Pasteurian microbiopolitics as practiced by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sees raw milk as a dangerous biohazard, while post-pasteurian microbiopolitics as practiced by producers and consumers of raw milk and raw milk cheeses see it as a natural, traditional, healthy, probiotic food. Pasteurian microbiopolitics perceives the microbial world–and nature more generally–as an unruly, dangerous, and chaotic place. For the FDA, milk is only safe after it has been pasteurized and tamed by technoscience. Post-pasteurian microbiopolitics sees human culture as part of a multispecies assemblage in which human-microbe and human-animal relationships are in constant negotiation. Post-pasteurian artisans do not see raw milk as inherently dangerous but potentially harmful due to human error, which Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) and best practices can mitigate.”


aids doesn't show its face

Darja Djordjevic reviews Daniel Jordan Smith’s AIDS Doesn’t Show Its Face: Inequality, Morality, and Social Change in Nigeria

“Given the wide reach and immense power of Pentecostal movements across sub-Saharan Africa these days, Smith’s skillful summary of that church’s effects in Nigeria is an excellent contribution to our field. In sum, he contends that ‘Pentecostal Christianity’s appeal in Nigeria is so strong precisely because it speaks to modern desires for wealth, consumption, and freedom from the obligations of kinship even as it condemns many of the social ills that Nigerians associate with these very transitions.’ Indeed Pentecostal pastors promise that if one becomes born again and follows the word of God, he will be rewarded with economic prosperity, but simultaneously protest (against?) selfishness, greed, and corruption. Smith notes that unfortunately, by labeling AIDS as a moral failing and the result of sinful behavior (which one can overcome by repenting and becoming born again), Pentecostal churches perpetuate the shame and stigma that lead Nigerians to conceal their HIV status and eschew condoms, putting their partners and loved ones at constant risk. He also depicts the exaggerated and ostentatious wealth of many leading Pentecostal pastors, giving us a more vivid sense of the contradictions, ironies, and complexities that abound in the movement in an age of increasing inequality and poverty.”



Perig Pitrou reviews Tim Ingold and Gisli Palsson’s edited volume, Biosocial Becomings: Integrating Social and Biological Anthropology

“The editors of Biosocial Becomings…state that their intentions are to integrate cultural phenomena into the biological study of human populations. However, it is my view that such a disciplinary rapprochement raises certain methodological and deontological problems. Although one cannot but agree in theory with the desire to bring together as many elements as possible in order to understand human phenomena in all their depth, one must not forget the intrusive and objectivizing aspects of biological data collection. How can an ethnographer using participant-observation gather information for understanding processes as complex as those explored by epigenetics? Saying that anthropologists should work in teams does not solve the problem—wouldn’t such a division of labor risk reintroducing the dualism that was supposed to have been left behind?”



Saiba Varma reviews Sarah Pinto’s Daughters of Parvati: Women and Madness in Contemporary India

“In this moment and many others in the book, Pinto’s life and work threaten to collapse into each other. This was, for me, one of the reasons why this work has such resonance. Pinto demonstrates a rare generosity of spirit in the way she allows her readers to ‘know’ her undoing, and in the process, shows us how knowledge is sometimes a process of unraveling, just as much as it is about collecting and gathering. At the same time, we see how these undoings (always) seem to come, not only with kinship, but also with fieldwork and anthropological relations. There are so many doings and undoings during fieldwork that so many, including myself, have experienced, and yet, no one talks about. That Pinto masterfully controls the leaking of theory and methodology not only serves the book, but it is also a significant contribution to ethnographic writing and feminist anthropology. This book is important, not just for medical and psychiatric anthropology courses, or courses in South Asian studies, but for all graduate students readying themselves for fieldwork.”



Cinzia Greco reviews Alberto Prunetti’s Amianto. Una storia operaia

Amianto can be read as a structural story – one in which the relations between the phenomena described are revealed in a way that goes beyond the specific context and allows the reader to understand the structural dimension. The work, which can also be read as an ethnographic account of the health and labour of factory workers, clearly shows the connections between the exploitation of the body in capitalism and the way in which this exploitation is hidden and justified. An analysis of bureaucratic language highlights this last aspect: ‘‘Exposed’ is a nice verb, it is a passive past participle, it does not imply an active action, a responsibility. ‘Workers are exposed…’ Nice phrase. It sounds cleaner than ‘the bosses have killed the workers’’. This passage, from the debate that follows the original text, reminds us that the deterioration of bodily capital, to use Wacquant’s concept, is located in an economic system in which profits are based on such deterioration and the burden of costs is borne by the collectivity. Physical deterioration, risk, illness and death are not generic traits of the human experience, but are strictly linked to one’s class.”