Books March 2010

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Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture
Alice Echols
Norton

Frothy double entendres, four-on-the-floor beats, heterogeneous hedonisms—disco music and culture was, for a brief time in the late ’70s, a genuine dialectic of sorts, revered and reviled in equal measure. Quaint and risible as they now seem, Do you wanna dance? and Disco sucks! were actually apt polemics—or at least useful shorthands—for a Me-Decade America roiled by gas lines, stagflation, industrial collapse, hapless presi­dents, and culture-war polymorphism. Making easy sense of this fraught fray is Echols, the author, Rutgers professor, and onetime disco DJ whose new social history interpretively and ingeniously eschews revisionism and declensionism. It’s a neat trick, turned chiefly by the author’s lucid prose, pop-culture smarts, and unfussy understanding of the period’s pluralistic flux—a “combustible time” of hegemonic challenges that included the newfound upward mobility of blacks, women, and gays. Echols wisely spends as much time critiquing the actual sounds of disco, which “entailed nothing short of an assault on the rules of rock music” by refusing to “trade on ‘realness,’ preferring instead to revel in the pleasures of the artificial, what Walter Benjamin called ‘the sex appeal of the inorganic.’ ” Dry as that bit may sound, the greater thesis is anything but. Rather, it’s a clear-eyed encapsulation of what made this seemingly facile music so complex, compelling, and prescient: “Promiscuous and omnivorous, disco absorbed sounds and styles from all over, and in the process accelerated the transnational flow of musical ideas and idioms,” thus paving the way for rap, techno, and trance. It all adds up to a thumping good read.

Elephants on the Edge: What Animals Teach Us About Humanity
G. A. Bradshaw
Yale

An existentialist’s tract wrapped in a naturalist’s treatise, this unusual volume explores a mighty species from the inside out. Elephants worldwide have been devastated by culling, poaching, and habitat loss. The remaining pachyderm populations, argues the ecologist Bradshaw in an amalgamation of history, neuroscience, and animal-behavior studies, are as shaken by trauma as are human survivors of war, genocide, and severe child abuse—the ancient, soulful species is therefore informed by pathological dysfunction. Whether Bradshaw succeeds in defining the psychological state of a species is debatable. What isn’t: the eye-opening urgency, intelligence, and thoroughness of this chronicle—a reasoned appeal to morality that’s as heartwarming as it is heartbreaking.

The Frankfurt School in Exile
Thomas Wheatland
Minnesota

Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse, Erich Fromm—the gang’s all here, just transposed to a new setting and sphere of influence. The famed Institute for Social Research, Wheatland contends, was not merely a pre- and postwar European phenomenon; it was also a direct and profound player in the intellectual life of Depression-era America. After fleeing the Third Reich in 1933, the fathers of Critical Theory—dissident Jewish neo-Marxists whose core philosophical, sociological, and psychoanalytical tenets were born of the doomed Weimar Republic—found a haven at Columbia University. There they warily circled counterparts like the New York Intellectuals and gained the patronage of the American Jewish Committee (which led to the landmark Studies in Prejudice and redounded to the benefit of both parties); later they played a prominent role in postwar sociology and engaged in a thorny relationship with the American New Left. Cleverly applying a modified Marxism of his own to his analysis—explaining how the Frankfurt School’s ideology was informed by its own economy, for instance, and why Columbia initially welcomed the eminent émigrés for curiously pragmatic reasons—Wheatland has produced a worthy successor to Martin Jay’s The Dialectical Imagination and Rolf Wiggershaus’s The Frankfurt School.

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