November 7th, 2017

cass, can you not

Books! (Books and Wars Edition)

Information and Communication in Venice: Rethinking Early Modern Politics (Filippo de Vivo, 2017/#81): A look at how the Venetian (well, patrician) model of politics was based on not only political, but also informational exclusion — to the degree that even the Senate was kept on the dark about whatever the Council of Ten (or rather, the Collegio) wanted — not so much, or entirely, due to what we'd call operational secrecy, but rather because it fostered an image of rational, calm unanimity, devoid of internal conflict; it was, after all, the Serenissima. In practice, of course, this wasn't quite true: pretty much all political maneuvering between patricians took place by definition by discussing information they shouldn't have, and the physical closeness of the city meant that, literally and metaphorically, everybody overheard pretty much everything (one way in which we underestimate the impact of non-printed written material is how we've forgotten the way manuscripts could be copied fast and distributed widely very quickly, as well as the practice of communal reading, which make pretty much everybody, regardless of literacy, accessible by the written word). Venice was one of the pioneers in what we call journalism, although it was mostly in the form of paid subscriptions to manuscript avvisi, something closer to the private newsletters of experts than to public news. The fact that apothecaries and barbershops doubled as places of sociability where news were discussed, and in fact sometimes kept avvisi lying around for people to read, feels quite modern, and predates the usual coffee shop model of a public sphere; noting, though, that it was an heterogeneous "public" devoid of any political power; most "news", graffiti, etc, were created by informational specialists for and directed to patricians and other politically enabled people, not what we'd call the public. This broke down, temporarily and hilariously, during the Interdict of 1606-1607. You see, part of the legal tradition of the age was that a law, to be valid, had to be properly communicated to everybody (unilateral commands from above being the primary meaning of comunicazione)(we still do that, although the process is taken as a matter of course), and people was used to pretending not to have heard of new laws. Well, when — for the usual reasons of fights over overlapping spheres of authority — the Pope went ahead and interdicted the Republic, forbidding priest from preaching and giving sacraments. As the dispute had been kept relatively secret all along — diplomacy not being the damn plebeians' business — the Republic's counter-move was to (a) announce that, whatever crazy rumour had been going around about the Pope doing something, it was (a1) false, and (a2) invalid, because nobody had heard of it (the first direct intervention from Paolo Sarpi, consultant), (b) censor letters (and oral communication whenever possible) to prevent mentions of the interdict, and (c) threaten priests with immediate death if they complied with this thing they hadn't heard about and didn't exist. Lawyers. And in fact it did make sense contextually: the Church also played by those rules, and the immediate threat of death was considered a valid reason for priests to ignore something that wasn't a direct order from the Pope. Hence, for the first (and, in Venice, the last for a long while) time, they went public with a war of pamphlets; not directly aimed at the populace, but mostly at the priests and each others' elite, but of course echoing everywhere in a way most elite observers found quite outre (washerwomen discussing theology(!?!?)). It was all both worrisome (the Spanish not disinclined to put troops into play) and rather ridiculous for everybody (a theologico/political horde of stampeding elephants in a very small and crowded room). Anyway, when the thing threatened to go out of control in terms of people talking about things they shouldn't talk about, both Rome and Venice made peace: Venice gave the jailed priests that had been the excuse for everything to the French, who them gave them to the Pope, Rome lifted the Interdict, Venice pretended nothing had been lifted, everybody agreed that sub rosa was the best way to do this kind of thing, and it was seldom if ever mentioned in official histories afterward. Recommended, it goes without saying.

Forensic Architecture: Violence at the Threshold of Detectability (Eyal Weizman, 2017/#82): A fascinating, powerful, painstaking research and rhetorical method — putting together buildings, satellites, historical pictures and text, witnesses, geology, etc into a single representation (as coherent as the data is, but no more) — to recreate events taking places at multiple scales of space, time, and politics. The events described in the book as application cases, though, are very difficult to process at a number of levels. It wasn't an easy book to read, but definitely a worthwhile one.

Infinity Wars (Ed. Jonathan Strahan, 2017/#83): A collection of SF stories with a military (but not militaristic) bent. Unsurprisingly but disquietingly, the background of most of the is a Jackpot-ing planet (to use Gibson's term), which might be the contemporary version of what the nuclear apocalypse was up until the 80s. None of them really bad, most of them good-ish.

Memories and Studies (William James, 2017/#84): Notes from reviews, talks about other people, etc, rather than technical ones, so it's less argumentative than, at times, well, celebratory (or mourning). Still, not uninteresting, and I do enjoy James general point of view (although in issues like spiritualism he's unsettingly unsettled, and, even if a pacifist, his ideas about the "military type" as an inherently good addition to any society is, to say the least, suspect).

Sherlock Holmes in Orbit (Eds. Mike Resnick, Martin H. Greenberg, 2017/#85): Non-canon holmesiana in sci-fi contexts, as you'd imagine. A few duds, but some of the ones in the past are quite good — the contemporary and future ones tend more to the sort of ironic or humorous pastiche that's not really my cup of tea.

Bound in Venice: The Serene Republic and the Dawn of the Book (Alessandro Marzo Magno, 2017/#86): A bit hagiographical of both Manutius and Venice, and the writing is a bit hurried, but it's interesting enough, with lots of tidbits and interesting people completely new to me.