Category Archives: Reviews

Jonathan Franzen at the End of Postmodernism

Burn, Stephen. Jonathan Franzen at the End of Postmodernism. London: Continuum, 2008.

Jonathan Franzen’s position in the contemporary American literary landscape is a curious one. His two latest novels – The Corrections (2001) and Freedom (2010) – have been more or less universally lauded by literary critics. Freedom was thus proclaimed a “masterpiece of American fiction” on the front cover of the New York Times Book Review, and in the Guardian it was hailed as nothing less than “the novel of the century.” And last fall The Corrections was chosen as the best novel of the past decade in a widely publicized poll involving several prominent authors and literary critics. Despite this lavish praise, Franzen’s novels have been largely neglected by literary scholars, at least compared to contemporaries like David Foster Wallace and Richard Powers, who have both had entire books and special issues of journals devoted to their work.

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Out of the Blue: September 11 & the Novel

Versluys, Kristiaan. Out of the Blue: September 11 and the Novel. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009.

Three months after the attacks of September 11, 2001, Don DeLillo wrote in an essay titled, “In the Ruins of the Future”: “The writer wants to understand what this day has done to us. Is it too soon? We seem pressed for time, all of us. Time is scarcer now. There is a sense of compression, plans made hurriedly, time forced and distorted…The writer begins in the towers, trying to imagine the moment, desperately.”[1] DeLillo asks, as many have and continue to do in the time since that awful day, whether it is possible for literature to reconstruct what happened, to provide a medium for making meaning, and thus move beyond the traumatic. Kristiaan Versluys, in his critical examination of “9/11 fiction,” argues that while the great September 11 novel has not been written and maybe never will, there have been genuine attempts made to “affirm and counteract the impact of trauma” (13).

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Review: Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything.

Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams.

New York: Penguin, 2007.

The Amazon Mechanical Turk is an online platform on which employers can post ‘Human Intelligence Tasks’ (HITs) that are searched by prosumers looking for paid employment who select and perform these knowledge tasks with the help of their computers, submit the results, and then get paid. ‘Developers use the Amazon Mechanical Turk web service to submit tasks to the Amazon Mechanical Turk website, approve completed tasks, and incorporate the answers into their software applications. To the application, the transaction looks very much like any remote procedure call: the application sends the request, and the service returns the results. Behind the scenes, a network of humans fuels this artificial intelligence by coming to the web site, searching for and completing tasks, and receiving payment for their work’ ( FAQs, accessed on November 23, 2007). The reward per task ranges between zero, a few cents (in most cases), and some dollars. One example of an HIT assignment is to determine the presence of opinion in a text article and submit the result, e.g., ‘Your task is to read the news article or blog post below and determine whether it is editorial in nature or is an expression of opinion, and whether it is positive, negative, or neutral’ (, accessed on November 23, 2007). Multiple users will input their results which will be used by the task assigner who aggregates and sells the results as a commodity. The example is characteristic for what Tapscott and Williams celebrate as Wikinomics – an online economy based on networking, peering, and collaboration.

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Review: Screened Out. Playing Gay in Hollywood from Edison to Stonewall.

Richard Barrios

London: Routledge, 2003.

At the time Richard Barrios published Screened Out in 2003, the cinema going audience had not yet met with Ennis and Jack, the two ‘gay cowboys’ from Brokeback Mountain (2005). At the point of writing this review, we still have to wait for the theatrical release of Milk, Focus Features’ next ‘big’ gay film. Just like Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, Milk is directed by a well-respected director (Gus van Sant) and has major stars as its gay protagonists. Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger were praised for their acting, and it is likely that the same will happen for Sean Penn who plays the San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected for such a substantial political office. What makes both these films outstanding is their singularity. Major films that feature gay and lesbian characters as main protagonists remain rare in mainstream cinema. One still has to turn to smaller art houses for independent queer film productions. Homosexuality is often used as a source for stereotypical parody, and although a slight sense of subversion should be encouraged, one could wonder if popular mainstream comedies such as I now pronounce you Chuck and Larry (2007) can make a difference in representing the queer community. Independent film production, world cinema and certainly television production do dare to politically and socially challenge contemporary society’s presumptions on sexuality and identity. But ever-present Hollywood is staying behind in relation to the rest of Western society, portraying a reality where on-screen queer sexualities are often lacking. Of course, some dramedies such as My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997) and The Object of my Affection (1998) had a ‘gay best friend’, but major adventure and action films did not yet feature a queer lead.

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Review: Better Living through Reality TV

Self-governing through Reality TV.

Better Living through Reality TV. Television and Post-Welfare Citizenship.

Laurie Ouellette and James Hay.

Malden/Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2008.

In their book, Laurie Ouellette and James Hay draw on Michel Foucault’s and Nikolas Rose’s writings on liberalism and governmentality to situate the increase of popular non-fiction on television within strategies of liberal governance. They use the concept of liberalism as a ‘governmental rationality’ to refer to a form of governing through freedom, in which – on the one hand – rulers should minimize any intervention in the affairs of both the free market and individuals, and – on the other hand – individuals are expected to govern themselves, by choosing order over chaos and good behavior over deviance. In these continuous processes of self-governing, people rely on diverse social and cultural technologies, including television. The need for self-governing has become different and more urgent in today’s advanced or neoliberal societies (or ‘post-welfare States’ as Ouellette and Hay call them). For in these neoliberal societies, where the rationality of the ‘free’ market has expanded (resulting in a greater reliance on the privatization and personalization of welfare), citizens are increasingly obliged ‘to actualize and “maximize” themselves not through “society” or collectively, but through their choices in the privatized spheres of lifestyle, domesticity, and consumption’ (12)[1]. Ouellette and Hay argue that one has to understand (and question) the surge and popularity of reality TV from within this larger analysis of contemporary post-welfare States. The starting point of this book is the idea that reality TV has become a quintessential technology of this neoliberal citizenship, since it aligns TV viewers with a burgeoning supply of techniques for shaping and guiding themselves and their private associations with others. ‘At a time when privatization, personal responsibility, and consumer choice are promoted as the best way to govern liberal capitalist democracies, reality TV shows us how to conduct and “empower” ourselves as enterprising citizens’ (2).

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Review: The International Handbook of Children, Media and Culture.

Kirsten Drotner and Sonia Livingstone.

London: Sage, 2008.

Children’s media culture has been assuming a central position in public debates regarding cultural values, social norms and future expectations, but often these debates are media-oriented and ignore what has been researched on children’s cultures. This handbook, edited by two of the most prominent European researchers on Audience Studies, fills this void as it aims ‘ to map out the diversities and the commonalities in children’s media culture around the world as they are positioned in relation to particular sites, at particular times and within particular social relations’, as the authors say (4[1]).

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Review: Magic in the Air. Mobile communication and the transformation of social life

James E. Katz

New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2006.

Information and communication technologies are becoming more prominent everywhere, especially in their mobile form. The increasing variety of mobile communication devices is affecting people’s lives dramatically, directly and on a vast scale. As for the mobile phone itself, no technology has ever been adopted so quickly by so many people in so many different parts of the world.

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Review: Past for the Eyes: East European Representations of Communism in Cinema and Museums after 1989.

Oksana Sarkisova and Péter Apor (Eds.)

Budapest, New York: CEU Press, 2008.

In 2009, it will be the 20th anniversary of ‘the fall of the wall’, which triggered the transformation of the sociopolitical systems of the former Soviet bloc and which was – in Claus Offe´s words – ‘an unprecedented, special case of rapid social change’ (Offe, 1999; quoted by Jakubowicz, 2001: 60). Not surprisingly, the jubilee has revived the debates on the course of the transformation in these Central and Eastern European (CEE) societies. As to the communication processes concerned, the debate has – since the beginning of the 90s – focused almost exclusively on the structural characteristics of the CEE media systems (Dobek-Ostrowska & Glowacki, 2008). It is notable that media cultures – unlike the lavishly covered media systems – have hardly ever been analyzed as a fully-fledged dimension of the transformation processes. This is regrettable because when we ask questions about the processes of social and political change, cultural processes (including the new transactions between uncensored media articulations and associated multiple realities constructed by audiences) should not be dismissed. Support for this line of thinking can be found in the concept of cultural citizenship, which highlights the ways communities are cultivated through reading practices (Hermes, 2005: 10). The process of cementing the polis by public meaning transactions, often attached to widely used popular (social and cultural) texts, has to be included. The transformation of the authoritarian past is not complete, if it resists the inclusion of ‘soft’ elements like meaning production and collective/public memory maintenance. For this reason, books on the CEE transformations that deal with media and popular cultures should be welcomed. Past for the Eyes: East European Representations of Communism in Cinema and Museums after 1989, a reader with chapters written by scholars connected to the CEU Budapest/New York, belongs to this extraordinary breed. The importance of the role of meaning generation procedures in the transformation process is emphasized, for instance by Zsolt K. Horváth in his chapter. He writes: ‘… the image of the socialist past has been re-shaped as a result of various social, political and cultural developments. It will be argued that this process should be understood as a predominantly symbolic struggle for the ability to define the meaning of the history of the socialist period’ (249-250)[1].

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Review: Discipline and liberty. Television and governance.

Gareth Palmer

Manchester University Press: Manchester/New York, 2003.

Gareth Palmer’s main focus is on how television documentary shapes or aims to shape our conduct, lives and identities. Discipline and Liberty is about the processes of governance set in motion through television. Departing from a Foucauldian understanding of governance/government, and the work of governmentality studies scholars like Nikolas Rose, Mitchell Dean and Graham Burchell, governance is defined as ‘concerned […] with the calculated direction of conduct to shape behavior to certain ends.’ (3[1])

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Review: Citizenship and Consumption.

Kate Soper and Frank Trentmann (Eds.)

Hampshire, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

‘Save the Climate! Go Vegan!'[1] One of the questions Citizenship and Consumption addresses is whether this slogan represents a contemporary way to express political engagement and participation. The anthology, edited by Kate Soper and Frank Trentmann, addresses the notion of consumer citizenship from different disciplines and generates a broader discussion around two key signifiers in current political discourse: citizenship and consumption.

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