Sunday, January 4, 2009

Violence or Flirting with Disaster

Violence (Big Ideas/Small Books)

Author: Slavoj Zizek

Philosopher, cultural critic, and agent provocateur Slavoj Žižek constructs a fascinating new framework to look at the forces of violence in our world.

Using history, philosophy, books, movies, Lacanian psychiatry, and jokes, Slavoj Žižek examines the ways we perceive and misperceive violence. Drawing from his unique cultural vision, Žižek brings new light to the Paris riots of 2005; he questions the permissiveness of violence in philanthropy; in daring terms, he reflects on the powerful image and determination of contemporary terrorists.

Violence, Žižek states, takes three forms--subjective (crime, terror), objective (racism, hate-speech, discrimination), and systemic (the catastrophic effects of economic and political systems)--and often one form of violence blunts our ability to see the others, raising complicated questions.

Does the advent of capitalism and, indeed, civilization cause more violence than it prevents? Is there violence in the simple idea of "the neighbour"? And could the appropriate form of action against violence today simply be to contemplate, to think?

Beginning with these and other equally contemplative questions, Žižek discusses the inherent violence of globalization, capitalism, fundamentalism, and language, in a work that will confirm his standing as one of our most erudite and incendiary modern thinkers.

Publishers Weekly

In this provocative and brilliantly argued work, philosopher Zizek takes readers on an intellectual and artistic tour-drawing upon Picassoa's Guernica, Alfred Hitchcock and M. Night Shyamalana's films, Michel Houellebecqa's novels, jokes, Lacanian psychology and a Kantian analysis of Hurricane Katrina-to demonstrate how societies understand, obscure and deny the sources of violence. His is not an examination of offenses but an argument that violence can perhaps be best defined by the bystanders and not by its perpetrators or victims. Zizek enumerates the varieties of violence (subjective, objective, systemic) and how it inheres in language, economics and religion, urging readers to discern the "violence that sustains our very efforts to fight violence and to promote tolerance." In meditations on the events of 9/11, the Abu Ghraib scandal and the 2005 Paris riots, the book turns numerous familiar arguments on their ear (he proposes that the guards at Abu Ghraib represent the true underside of American society). His unrelenting scrutiny and host of cultural and literary references dazzle, and this bracing and rewarding read will challenge anyone unwilling to recognize his or her complicity in systems of institutional and interpersonal violence. (Aug.)

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Francisca Goldsmith - Library Journal

Zizek, (Inst. of Sociology, Univ. of Ljubljana, Slovenia) brings his hallmark erudition, acerbic wit, and compelling use of pop culture to a focused discussion of what amounts to the human will to violence. In half a dozen movements arranged like formal music, he discusses by turns the stripped-down realities of liberalism, fascism, and true fundamentalism (such as that of the Amish); the role of Israel's identity on the world political stage; the Paris riots of 1968; the concept of neighbor as ultimate Other; and so on. Reaching back politically only to the Nazi era and philosophically to Kant, this discussion is grounded in the present and directs readers to consider the counterposed violences of doing evil and doing nothing. Zizek's interests and writing style offer easy enough intellectual access for a wide audience of undergraduates and college-educated lay readers; his book could become an essential campus read, but his theories go beyond the academic and should be brought to the attention of anyone concerned with converting social relations policies from any core of violence. [This title and Steven Lukes's Moral Relativism are the first volumes in Picador's new "Big Ideas/Small Books" series.-Ed.]

Kirkus Reviews

The Slovene philosopher (In Defense of Lost Causes, 2008, etc.) defines the many facets of violence in the postmodern era. He argues that violence can be categorized in three forms: subjective (crime, terror), objective (racism, discrimination) and systemic (the catastrophic effects of political and economic systems). Too often, the author believes, subjective and objective violence distract discussion from the systemic. He offers as an example a wealthy entrepreneur whose fortune was the result of ruthless capitalist pursuit, perhaps marked by outsourcing production to a developing country. When this entrepreneur enjoys a favorable public reputation for donating annually to charities benefiting these same impoverished nations, avers the author, it proves that capitalism relies on charity to sustain its social feasibility. This kind of "philanthropy" masks economic exploitation, he posits; systemic violence here is cloaked by the gesture of writing a check. "The same structure-the thing itself is the remedy against the threat it poses-is widely visible in today's ideological landscape," the author writes. He gives examples from Abu Ghraib to fundamentalist Islam to the Catholic Church to make his point: When high authority is both the enforcing entity and the criminal, systemic violence is enabled and pervasive. The author also argues that language is violently misused when a vague term like intolerance replaces specific, factual words such as inequality, exploitation or injustice. He ponders whether the concept of free will is paradoxical, or even oppressive, citing examples from social politeness to suicide bombers. It seems no subject escapes his omnivorous dissection, and allsomehow support his central theme: The violence most discussed is not the most damaging to humankind, but simply the most obvious. The author's familiar kaleidoscope of cultural allusions seems almost anachronistic within his dense intellectual prose and Lacanian-Hegelian-Freudian dialectic, yet this may well be the philosophy of the future. Compelling and provocative philosophical work.

See also: Wilderness Chef or Gourmet Vegetarian Feasts

Flirting with Disaster: Why Accidents are Rarely Accidental

Author: Marc S Gerstein

Chernobyl and Katrina.  Challenger and ColumbiaBP and Vioxx. The Iraq War.  Were these unavoidable misfortunes that no one could possibly have imagined?  Hardly. All of them were disasters that could have been prevented, or whose damaging repercussions could have been mitigated.

            Despite warnings of impending disaster, preemptive action is rarely taken by those who have the ability to do so.  How do smart, high-powered people, leaders of global corporations, national institutions, even nations, often get it so wrong? While most investigations focus on the technical causes of disaster, Flirting With Disaster examines the psychological, social, and cultural impediments to whistle-blowing, showing what we can do to reduce the possibility of disasters happening at all.

            Analyzing such phenomena as bystander behavior and the butterfly effect, amid a series of instructive case studies—not only the aforementioned shuttle crashes, natural disasters, and industrial accidents, but also Arthur Andersen’s shady accounting at Enron; the 1994 Mexican peso crisis that nearly caused an international monetary meltdown; and the American sub-prime lending crisis that emerged in August 2007, revealing the country’s unhealthy dependence on consumer credit—Marc Gerstein, an organizational psychologist, urges a re-evaluation of the timidity, distorted thinking, errors of judgment and self-serving conduct that result in disasters from the boardroom to the halls of academe to theOval Office. Daniel Ellsberg, renowned and respected for releasing the Pentagon Papers, offers a foreword and a powerful afterword addressing what happens “When Leaders are the Problem.”

            Flirting With Disaster is a must-read for those who want to foster truth-telling in their organizations, and head off disasters in the making.  At once alarming, entertaining and hopeful, this is a book that offers very real and practical lessons for everyday life.

Dr. Shaywitz - Wall Street Journal

Mr. Gerstein is passionately interested in people and is profoundly disappointed when they behave badly; he is especially critical of bystanders - workers who know enough to speak out but who decide not to do so or who stop short of preventing a bad thing from happening. For Mr. Gerstein the question isn't just why NASA pushed for a Challenger launch over the objections of its engineers; he also wants to understand why the engineers relented despite their obvious concerns. Similarly, he is frustrated by employees at Arthur Andersen who reported gross irregularities to their managers but simply gave up when their complaints were ignored.
Mr. Gerstein concludes that there are too many disincentives to speaking up; he would like to see more whistleblowers. He would also like us to pay more attention to warnings from experts. An important question raised by "Flirting With Disaster," though, is whether unheeded expert warnings are either as significant or as potentially useful as he implies. It seems probable that there is an element of selection bias here: Such warnings may be extremely common, especially in high-risk activities such as space flight or options trading - we just notice them when they happen to be both ignored and right.
Moreover, the distinction between good ideas and dangerous ones - or between good leaders and bad - is seldom as clear as Mr. Gerstein would have it. Decisions must often be made with imperfect information. Clearly, a balancing act must be performed each time a rocket is set to launch, each time a new drug or medical device is introduced, and, for that matter, each time a decision is made. There is always a trade-off between action and reflection. Evenif we could address every conceivable concern, disasters would still occur (after all, we can't think of everything) - only they would be accompanied, in the long run, by considerably less innovation and progress.
As Mr. Gerstein urges, though, we could all do more - in our personal and professional lives - to reduce error, learn from mistakes and resist the passive acceptance of a flawed status quo. The question is whether we're rational enough to respond to the challenge.

Table of Contents:
Foreword: Learning from Past Disasters, Preventing Future Ones   Daniel Ellsberg     vii
Introduction     1
The Bystanders Among Us     11
Human Biases and Distortions     23
Understanding Uncertainty: Why Did So Many People Bet Against Katrina?     50
Space Shuttle Challenger: Cold, Warm, and Hot Causes of Disasters     66
Chernobyl, Faulty Design, and the Interplay of Humans and Technology     92
The Vioxx Disaster and BP: The Seduction of Profits     126
When All the Backups Failed: How American F-15s Accidentally Shot Down Two U.S. Army Black Hawks     146
Butterfly Wings and Stone Heads: How Complexity Influences Catastrophe in Policy Decisions     170
The Collapse of Arthur Andersen: The Role of Organizational Culture     192
When Countries Go Bankrupt: The Prisoner's Dilemma Writ Large     207
What Have We Learned? What Can We Do?     240
Advice for Leaders     270
Afterword: When the Leaders Are the Problem   Daniel Ellsberg     285
Acknowledgments     295
Notes     299
Sources     313
About the Authors     329
Index     331

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