Saturday, January 9, 2010

Tigercity - Pretend Not To Love (EP, 2008)

While animal names have flourished in recent times – Grizzly Bear, Panda Bear, Wolf Eyes, Deerhoof, Fleet Foxes, Animal Collective, and, trending back a little further, Cat Power – and have been a marker of ‘alternative,’ not to say art-school experimental, musical sensibilities, the ‘tiger’ moniker has mostly been spared this trend – and, indeed, outside of these stylings, Tigercity aren’t the only band for whom I have a lot of time to have made use of the panthera tigris (who now, sadly, number among the world’s most endangered animals) – cf. Tiger Baby. Also, while we’re playing the name game, the animal-city construction (that’s animal, not anorak) bears fond memories of Louis Sachar’s delightful Pig City – contrary to received wisdom, is it the case that, in the zoology of musical fauna, all animals are equal but pigs are less equal than others?

But I digress… Tigercity’s EP is a sparkling work of synthesis, bearing synth-pop, light funk and eighties electro influences lightly on its sleeve. Names to be checked would include Hall and Oates, and early Prince (particularly in the falsetto, which however is never shrill, but silky smooth), as well as revivalist acts like the addictive Chromeo, but what we have here is a work which maintains the crystalline pop sensibility and romantic preoccupations of these artists, but adds more than a dash of mystery and artiness (in the best possible sense, for want of a better word) – apparently, before their current incarnation Tigercity were postpunk revivalists, and this is still apparent in the spiky guitar textures and riffs which make their way into the fabric of the songs, as well as in the lyrical crypticism. This is a delightful combination which forms an EP that is heartfelt but not clich├ęd, easy but never simple, a sonic pleasure.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Ellen Wood - East Lynne (1861)

Working through the darker recesses of Victorian fiction and the sensation novel, I’ve wended my way from Collins through early Hardy, Le Fanu and Braddon to Ellen Wood (Charles Reade, I’ve got my eye on you…) East Lynne, somewhat neglected but, unlike many of its sistren and brethren, still in print, is a work which justly takes its place in this canon. The story involves the vicissitudes of the tragic and immoral Lady Isabel, her doomed marriage to Archibald Carlyle, and the slowly-emerging circumstances of a long-ago murder. While it is not as deeply gothic as works such as Collins' The Woman In White or Le Fanu's Uncle Silas – we are not treated to the scenes of imprisonment and mounting dread which partly gave a name to the ‘sensation’ phenomenon – it is nonetheless sensational in the themes which it treats, including sexual infidelity, divorce (a common theme at the time, given the recently passed Matrimonial Causes Act), bigamy, and murder.

As Elisabeth Jay recounts in the excellent introduction to this edition, one of the shocking things about the sensation genre was that it took the dark concerns and grand guignol of the classical gothic novel, and set them in surroundings familiar to the reader, hence introducing aspects of social commentary and setting the trend for the now well-established 'suburban gothic.' At the same time, however, this left the works open to contemporary criticism of introducing concerns which had previously been those of the lower classes - the murders and scandals which had hereunto found their place in broadsheets and penny dreadfuls - to a non-working class audience - and hence the decadence, lack of taste and even immorality which was so often represented by the novel and the lending library even in fiction itself (putting aside for a moment the Byzantine politics of Victorian publishing trends).

The meeting of high and popular culture is particularly apparent in East Lynne, a somewhat ‘lower’ work than that of other 'classic' Victorian novels (and one often scorned by Wood's contemporaries), the slangy prose is a treat (my Oxford Classics edition apparently restores the prose from later formalization of the language), while Wood, like Trollope is given on occasion to break the fourth wall in interesting authorial asides. Regrettable, though, is an occasional anti-Semitism. Generalising from this point, the reader's sympathy will not always lie with those (presumed) of the author – for example, the individualistic but emotionally available present-day reader may not warm to the sympathetic Barbara Hare’s moral disregard for taking care of and spending time with her children, or with Archibald Carlyle’s failure to notice the impingement of his sister on his relationship with his wife. However, the characters here are interesting – for the most part (unlike, for example, many of those of Dickens), though not universally, they are not moral ciphers, but rather human creatures with good and bad qualities – and, as in Collins’ Armadale, even the wicked female lead is a tragic figure rather than one who is condemned out of hand. The Victorian approach to love and romance, so similar and yet so different to our own, is explored here - particularly apparent, and yet also problematised, is the way in which the Victorians expected that a proper lady would not fall in love until she was sure that the gentleman in question had already done so.

In terms of character and the ‘low’ nature of the novel (which nonetheless is written in a perfectly literary, if not poetic, style), given the morally shocking subject matter, it’s interesting to see characters who don’t often appear in other Victorian fiction, such as the man who has had two (legitimate) sexual relationships – adding an interesting depth to the proceedings (though, as with other mainstream Victorian novels turning on the nature of intimate relationships, one can’t help wondering, even if with a regrettably typical late modern sensibility, what light exploration of the characters’ sexual relationships and personae might cast on the plot). We are also treated to the typical coincidences, mistaken identity, and bizarreries of the sensation oeuvre – grotesque disguises and physical disfigurements, in particular – as well as the typical preoccupation with the dangers of class mingling.

Class-based insecurities bear an obvious relationship to the rise of capitalism, the bourgeoisie, and the new moneyed classes, but one wonders whether the question about individual identity is also related to incipient modernity, the growing and impersonal urban environments and the way in which they allowed switches in identity, in contrast to the small rural communities beloved of so many Victorian fiction writers (here we might think of Cranford as the paradigmatic case of the clash represented). This insecurity can be related to the aforementioned rise of 'new money' inasmuch as in such a circumstance identity was ascertained by appearance, and hence subject to manipulation.

Despite its conservative take on this subject, however, East Lynne is not a work which can be read either as a clear challenge to Victorian mores, or as a straightforward reproduction of hegemonic ideals - it is opaque in this sense, which, while it does not seem to be a conscious choice on the part of Wood, nonetheless contributes to the interest the work holds for the moder reader. One of the joys of Victorian fiction for me is that to read it is to see we English-speaking moderns ourselves, as it were, through a glass darkly - and East Lynne, with its classic sensation concerns of identity, crime, class, social mores, religion, and the way in which these intertwine with the human emotions, does not disappoint.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Donald Fagen - The Nightfly (1982)

I must confess that on first listening to I.G.Y. (named for the International Geophysical Year), the first track on The Nightfly and perhaps that which most encapsulates its themes and concerns, I was not taken – nice, I thought, but a little too commercial sounding. However, the sheen of polish, the feel that every note and lyric is a precisely-placed piece in a well-oiled machine, is one of the purposeful aspects of this album, production which is not only a vehicle but also an expression of its essence (and the album is one of the first fully digital recordings). Hence we can see this as a conscious choice in the same manner as Green Gartside’s abrupt and complete change of direction on Scritti Politti’s Cupid & Psyche 85 – and there’s also a resemblance in the synthetic funk and reggae which serve as shaping, yet low-key influences (while, unlike Gartside, for Fagen, jazz and, to a lesser extent, Sinatraesque swing and lounge are musical touchstones). Indeed, the subtle way in which this move is accomplished is a testament to Fagen’s intelligence and his painstaking approach to producing work with an effortless, yet highly mannered sensibility.

While ‘steampunk’ has come to be a common descriptive, we’re still lacking (at least as far as I’m aware) a phrase to describe the science fiction world envisaged between the 1940s and 60s, an art deco, Grecian (or, on the dark side, noirish) vision of the shining future – of the kind depicted in Alphaville, Forbidden Planet, innumerable pulp magazine stories and illustrations, and more recently the odd but interesting film Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow – a world perhaps best explored in William Gibson’s seminal short story The Gernsback Continuum, a perfect written accompaniment to Fagen’s album. Another point of reference might be the artificially-coloured past, hyper-real yet at the same time veiled in deceptive nostalgia, depicted in Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective – or, to take our references further back, to the soundstages of musicals like Singin’ In The Rain. In the context of the music of the 1980s, we might also think of the Suprematist and cubist Soviet stylings beloved of the early incarnations of bands like Depeche Mode and Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark among others. This is a space of ‘graphite and glitter,’ a best of all possible worlds in which, in contrast to contemporary society, utopian optimism about the future – and, in particular, the role of technology – remains general currency; but at the same time it is a digital version of a Waitsian or Hopperesque milieu in which romantic dramas take place against a vaguely sinister backdrop of dives and lowlives.

Fagen, in the detached tone which is apparent throughout the work itself, describes the album (in the liner notes) as 'certain fantasies' that might be entertained 'during the late fifties and early sixties' by 'a young man ... of my general height, weight and build,' and there is a sense here of the mingling of possibility and melancholy, a nostalgia for a world that never was (perhaps not unconnected is the long period of creative barrenness he experienced after The Nightfly’s release). At the same time, there is a sense of an ultimate accommodation which is not without its pleasure, epitomised in the almost-showtune final track, Walk Between Raindrops. An album made for late-night driving, The Nightfly (and here we see the emerging possibilities which would continue to be explored in synthesized music) is a triumph of an artificiality which nonetheless contains space for affect – indeed, in which the very quality of artificiality reveals affect as a construct, but one which is entirely experienced and hence never less than real – or, perhaps, never less than concrete.

Jonathan Safran Foer - Eating Animals (2009)

For those who have seen the spread of vegetarianism as reaching its zenith, it’s interesting that the major contribution of meat-eating to global warming is providing a new impetus to vegetarianism, one based on self-interest rather than compassion for others (and therefore, one might assume, providing an argument more likely to be accepted and acted upon). Despite this, many of those who are happy to go on anti-warming marches or install solar panels remain resistant to a basic, and easy, change which might be one of the most significant possible for an individual to take in terms of acting on climate change. I would put this down to what might be termed ‘identity protest’ – a willingness to endorse an identity as a protester (to which, heaven knows, we’re all liable) as long as it doesn’t actually demand any meaningful change in our own lives – in other words, the incorporation of protest as a purchased identity in the context of capitalist social structure. But all this is by the by. From this vantage point, Jonathan Safran Foer’s new work on the meat industry is timely and important, and most important in that it is likely to reach a new audience who have been dismissive of earlier central works such as Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation.

The most successful parts of Foer’s book are the beginning and the end, dealing with his personal experiences with food, bringing in cultural theory from Benjamin to Derrida, and touching on interesting issues such as the continuing sociocultural importance of eating (or refusing to eat) with another, the community and emotional aspects of food practices. The central part of the book, in which he presents the case against factory ‘farming’ both in terms of cruelty and in terms of health consequences for humans in the natural environment and the nature of food produced by industrial methods, will not present factually new information to anyone familiar with the hideous cruelty and the gruesome and disgusting aspects of industrialized animal ‘husbandry,’ but are still shocking even for those who do have such familiarity.

So far, so good. However, to use an appropriate metaphor, there are a number of elephants in Foer’s room. The first of these is capitalism. Foer spends a great deal of time with non-factory farmers, for whom he evidently has a great deal of admiration – and although he acknowledges that even in this context killing is problematic, and that any argument for meat-eating supports the factory system, what is most in evidence here is a characteristically American desire for a pre-capitalist system of community agriculture which contains an inherent ethic of care – and while there is certainly some truth to this evaluative comparison of past and present, in terms of human health impact as well as cruelty, one wonders whether this basically conservative-nostalgic perspective is somewhat overstated (indeed, a deep and peculiarly American nostalgia, whether for old-fashioned farming communities or for the family circle and celebrations such as Thanksgiving – according to Foer, despite the crimes of the past, ‘the holday that encompasses all others,’ one about which ‘there is nothing specifically American’ as a celebration of American ideals). Essentially, the reason for the existence of factory ‘farming’ (and, incidentally, a contribution to the cruelty practiced in factory farms and slaugherhouses due to the dehumanisation and exploitation of workers) is the social system of industrialized capitalism and bureaucratic management, and while Foer recognizes this in terms of the problems in the industry, he does not address the question of whether a better system (if that is indeed to be the goal) is possible within that structure. Indeed, in demonstrating the way in which labels like ‘cage-free’ are false, and in documenting the takeover of Niman meats, Foer points to this conclusion.

But this issue points to a deeper problem – the status of animals with regard to humans. Why should we consider that, as long as animals have had an acceptably comfortable life and a sudden death, it is acceptable to kill them for the unnecessary pleasure of our palates (this issue – the pleasure of palate as a concern overriding morality – is one Foer does raise)? In numerous places Foer cautions that we should not think of animals as (morally) equal or equivalent to humans – but if not, why not? I would argue that it is thinking of animals as somehow lesser or inferior, morally or otherwise, which gives moral license to use them instrumentally, and that while this view persists we - or rather, they - have no chance of decent treatment. The old canard is also brought out that we are ‘unable to avoid violence and therefore should do it more humanely, ’ but again, it is not explained why this is so, or, if indeed it is so, why this would legitimize any killing we choose to do. Given Foer’s extensive research, it would have been nice to see at least a little more consideration of ethics as a subject in regard to these issues (a topic on which much has been written) – and in terms of Foer’s interesting but somewhat facile engagement with theorists such as Derrida and Benjamin, I would have been interested to see his approach to these issues. On the philosophical note, the issue of gender is also one which could be more closely examined, given the connection, on the one hand, between meat-eating and masculinity and on the other, in practice toward animals (females as machines for re/production, males for slaughter).

Another central issue, and one which has sometimes been neglected, is brought into focus here (though being the scholarly type I am I would have liked to see further historico-social exploration rather than Foer’s meandering approach) – the social nature of eating, even in our society in which this centrality, and eating as an act of community and social bonding, has been gradually elided and fetishised as a boutique activity for special occasions. It is still difficult to reject the food another offers you, to refuse to partake in the community of the table, and such refusal is often experienced as a hurtful rejection and an insult. This is a deeper question than that of social conformity to custom, although that is one which also plays a significant role (imagine the response to meat-eating which might arise in someone brought up in a veg/etari/an society – somewhat like most people’s presently to murderous cannibalism, I would imagine). The abovementioned nostalgia expressed by Foer dovetails with this aspect of food practice as one which still plays a greater role in social relations than we might assume. Nonetheless, as the conclusion points out, it is the social aspect of eating, the way in which our own choices influence others, which makes a change of diet an act which has effects beyond those of an individual boycott.

A final unconsidered question is the milk and dairy industry, and the issue of pets – Foer relates the complexities of his relationship with his own dog, but there is no exploration of the cruelties of milk, egg and honey production (or wool, silk and leather), or the perspective that the relationship between humanely farmed animals and their 'owners,' or between pets and their 'owners,' is in a best-case scenario one of benign slavery and dependence. And why go vegetarian if one is to feed meat to a cat or dog? Indeed, for this reader at least, slavery is a theme which often comes to mind while reading this work, from the too-convenient ‘knowledge’ of inequality which justifies turning a being into a thing, to the widespread invisibility of the moral aspect of the problem, and the issue of kindness or humane practice as one which invisible-ises the problem rather than resolves it (despite issues of pragmatism). This similarity, indeed, has been extensively explored by Marjorie Spiegel - while the fact of the connection between killing animals and killing humans has likewise had proponents such as Charles Patterson and David Sztybel, in particular his paper 'Can the Treatment of Animals Be Compared to the Holocaust?'. Unlike the case of slavery, however, short of technology which today is unimaginable it seems unlikely that animals will ever be given the opportunity to voice their sufferings in the way that slaves could – for the ‘humanely farmed’ but slaughtered turkey to talk back to the farmer.

Despite these flaws (not to mention the perpetuation of the thoroughly exploded myth of Hitler as a vegetarian), this is an important book and one which brings out some important and under-considered points. While many of these originate with other thinkers, in weaving them together Foer nevertheless does the reader a service. He takes to task ‘humane omnivores’ such as Michael Pollan, quoting B. R. Myers on a common, but little-noted, intellectual sleight-of-hand when discussing eating animals: 'One debates the other side in a rational manner until pushed into a corner. Then one simply drops the argument and slips away, pretending that one has not fallen short of reason but instead transcended it. The irreconcilability of one’s belief with reason is then held up as a great mystery, the humble readiness to live with which puts one above lesser minds and their cheap certainties.' On a similar note, the argument that it is (more) acceptable to eat animals when one has demonstrated oneself capable of hunting and killing them personally is also characterized as a ‘forgetting,’ one which is greater than that undertaken by everyday consumer meat-eating because it pretends to have addressed the question.

As one who has done a fair amount of reading and thinking on this issue, I am not the book’s intended audience. Without obviating the seriousness of the problems I raise above, it may nonetheless be, if not necessary, at least pragmatic, to avoid philosophical complexity and ethical consistency in the name of reaching out to a larger audience, and in putting thought-experiments (like a meatless Thanksgiving) which may reach where logical argument cannot. Indeed, where pragmatism should end is a highly vexed question in the case of meat-eating – is it more positive, for example, to encourage one meat-free day a week with the aim of reaching more people, rather than encouraging a more ethically acceptable vegetarianism which is also more alienating and easily dismissed? The case of the vegan who builds slaughterhouses, which Foer presents here, exemplifies these difficulties, although for me they are not so 'difficult' as it is convenient to make them appear – one asks oneself how one would behave if one was advocating for humans. Nonetheless, Foer’s enthusiasm is apparent throughout, and for all its shortcomings this is a highly accessible book, and as enjoyable as a work detailing the gruesome treatment of animals ever can be, one which will reach a wider audience than other works on animal rights or animal ethics, and one which will change behaviour – and as such, it is an important contribution.

Monday, January 4, 2010

...while the moon is on the sea...

The Vanduras - In The Dark (2002)
The Blue Hawaiians - Savage Night (1999)
The Aqua Velvets - Guitar Noir (1997)

While some surf music epitomizes the visceral pleasures of brute physicality, of the heat of the sun, the cold of the ocean, the rolling epic thunder of the waves, there are also shadowy corners of surf, places where the instrumental guitar takes us into more sinister and exotic locales, without losing the crystalline clarity and echoing sense of atmosphere which characterize much surf music. The laid-back approach, the re-envisioning of the wave ride as a night cruise in a finned car, has its fruits, as these albums demonstrate.

Each is atmospheric - serving as excellent background music for late-night activities from cocktail parties to back alley transactions, while at the same time rewarding more detailed listening which reveals the beauty and skill at work in putting these pieces together. On that note, the Vanduras’ unlikely cover of Stereolab’s 'Cybele’s Reverie' would have to be one of my favourite covers of the year, setting the gorgeous melody in such a way that it takes wing – or perhaps wave. Indeed, choice of covers is also a strength for The Blue Hawaiians in the dark, excellent versions of 'A Cheat' and, particularly impressive, a slowed-down, spinetingling yet still somehow deeply funky 'Shakin’ All Over' – as well as a somewhat less successful version of Tom Waits’ 'Jockey Full of Bourbon,' which nonetheless is a choice demonstrating impeccable taste. The vocals, reminiscent of Chris Isaak, work perfectly in this context, and the few vocal songs weave in and out of the mix in a way which creates an integrated whole. There are touches of lounge swing and exotica to be found here and on Guitar Noir, which are mostly well chosen but occasionally mood-breakers; overall, however, these albums, taking instrumental surf guitar as a starting point, each create a moody atmosphere which traverses themes and styles of the forties, fifties and sixties. For something a little darker and more elegant – the Shag cocktail party, perhaps, thrown after a hard day at the waveface, after the last of the sand has been rinsed and the lava lamp lit – here is the perfect soundtrack.

See also: Don Tiki, The Tikiyaki Orchestra, Psycho Beach Party

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Lou Reed - Coney Island Baby (1975)

Reed’s Berlin and Transformer have long been favourites of mine, and the justifiedly mythical status of the Velvet Underground goes without saying. So how is it that it has taken me so unforgivably long to listen to Coney Island Baby? This is a compelling album which combines the joy and humour of Transformer with the darkness of Berlin – all set in Reed’s familiar undercultural milieu, and veering between the personal and the narrative. The first track and the last are standouts, bookending the album with moments of – sweetness seems an inappropriate word, but there is a low-key, unsentimental beauty and here which is the best of everything that word represents, one which re-emerges in evocative later works like Bowie’s Bring me the Disco King, or even Gary Wilson’s more romantic and less stalkeresque moments – while the addictive A Gift (unlike the Velvet Underground’s earlier manslaughterous take on that theme) is a slow-motion epitome of the uncomplicated guilty pleasure of sexual egotism. Meanwhile, we move into more disturbing – and experimental – territory with Kicks, a low-key thrill killers’ tale which reveals itself on repeated listens, replete with chilling rushes and sharp bites of sound. While some tracks are just a tad too close to other works – in particular 'Charley's Girl,' which is essentially a re-run of 'Walk On the Wild Side' – this is an album which easily stands with Reed’s finest work, a piece which, like Hubert Selby Jr’s Last Exit To Brooklyn, takes us on a journey through the tragic and sleazy beauty of the decadent and decaying American sixties and seventies underground, where tragedy and redemption become virtually indistinguishable but remain leavened with humour, and, despite the world-weariness and self-destructive tendencies, with a fundamental lust for life.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Barbara Ehrenreich - Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America & The World (2009)

Place your hand on your heart and say…
‘I admire rich people!’
‘I bless rich people!’
‘I love rich people!’
‘And I’m going to be one of those rich people too!’


If you find this a chilling statement, you’re not alone. In her new work, Barbara Ehrenreich’s target is ‘positive thinking’ in the United States (although the situations she describes will be familiar, though in some cases somewhat less extreme, to those in other societies). In eviscerating this ideology she traces its inception from a rejection of Calvinist roots in the New Thought of the nineteenth century (here we might think particularly of Transcendentalism and Christian Science) – the first flower of American ‘alternative culture’ – simultaneously arguing that the Calvinist 'predestination' model in which failure is a demonstration of blameworthy unworthiness, and the psyche must be continually examined for signs of ‘sin’ (now under the guise of ‘negativity’) remains the basic form of this discourse. In the present day, positive thinking has become manifest in ‘self-help,’ motivational literature and speaking (both personal and economic), psychology, life coaching, and in relation to physical and mental health and wellbeing. Each of these are evaluated in turn – and, while Susan Sontag’s writing is more high-brow and more spare, the way in which she evaluated a particular ideology across a number of different spheres, pursuing ideas from one intellectual stratum to the next, is a good point of comparison for Ehrenreich’s work here.

Ehrenreich’s starting point is the application of ‘positive thinking’ to illness, and, particularly, cancer – her own experience with breast cancer leads her to question both an ideology which, while seeming helpful or at the least innocuous, in fact leads to the placing of a huge burden on the subject as well as a blame-the-victim mentality (on the part both of fellow subjects – in this case cancer-patients – and non-subjects, each in denial about their ultimate lack of power and control). She also takes this as a starting point to debunk the science of ‘positive thinking’ and demonstrate the way in which dodgy evidence has been spun into the present-day equivalent of unquestionable folk wisdom: ‘research demonstrates.’

But Ehrenreich is not content to leave the issue here. Her next target is the economic sphere, to the individualism of this discourse on the terms of which the poor may be blamed for their poverty (conveniently dovetailing with the Horatio Alger myth), in which circumstance and context are discounted as factors influencing outcomes, in which recklessness is encouraged (optimism can be dangerous, if it leads to underestimation of risk) and which means that, in the post-industrial age of downsizing and the super-CEO, the way to manage a mistreated, unmotivated workforce is not to improve their conditions, but to insist on ‘positivity’ as a necessary aspect of work, no matter how unjust the treatment dished out from above. Meanwhile, the spiritually-framed anti-intellectualism of this discourse (and here again the crossover with New Ageism is apparent) means that celebrity CEOs are encouraged to act, not think, with disastrous consequences for others – and a groupthink mentality is created in which the rule is to shoot the messenger, leading to unforeseen crises from the response of Iraqis to the invasion of their country, to the credit crisis. The capitalist, and, now, neo-liberal ideology of perpetual growth ties in neatly with the ‘positive’ maxim that one should never be satisfied with one’s present circumstances.

According to this hegemonic ideology, criticism of massive and growing economic inequality can be suppressed not externally but internally, as the individual comes to believe that such a view is damaging to their own success – and their optimism leads them to politically reject brakes on conspicuous wealth accumulation as they envisage themselves as the rich-in-waiting. In other words, positive thinking creates a false consciousness (though Ehrenreich doesn’t use the term) which demands the cheerful acceptance of economic subjugation, justifies inequality both for those who enact it and those who are subjected to it, and stymies any recognition of, and hence resistance to, this process.

Christianity, too – at least in some forms – is deeply implicated in this mess. The present-day mega-churches, founded on market principles of determining what the customer wants (not to be lectured about morality or punishment) have jettisoned Biblical theology in favour of a prosperity gospel which sees individual material rewards – right down to praying for a table to be free at a restaurant – as the inevitable outcome of a positive attitude. The connection between religion and commerce is clear here inasmuch as, on the one hand, mega-rich televangelists preach material success as the reward of faith, rather than any otherworldly salvation, while their churches provide ever-growing tithes – while worshippers are encouraged to reject plans for negative outcomes (plans such as saving), and to see gains which might otherwise be recognised as unwarranted or risky (such as loans on little credit) as the God-given result of their positive faith. Furthermore – and here Ehrenreich reveals an interesting divide within US Christianity on the part of those who oppose this popular style of religiosity - ‘God’ becomes a cipher figure whose role is to reward positivity, whereas the primary power to alter reality is put in the hands of the human individual – and although Ehrenreich doesn’t extrapolate this far, here we see a discourse in which the individual in fact becomes their own God, the centre of a universe which they materially alter to suit their own needs (The Secret is a particularly egregious example of this kind of thought, one which Ehrenreich rips into). The question of whether one’s own material success may necessarily be incompatible with another’s is one which does not arise.

Ehrenreich recognises that this discourse cuts across the political spectrum, but it would have been nice to see more connections drawn between positive thinking and the hippie beliefs of the 1960s and ‘70s, ideals which shaped many of the present generation of those in charge, even when they have rejected their political content. The belief in mentality as shaping reality, and in purposeful positivity and optimism as ends in themselves, seem deeply indebted to that era. Another cavil is that for all her debunking of the ‘science’ of positive thinking – junk new-ageism which is pushed by people including Martin Seligman as head of the American Psychological Association (and indeed research into ‘happiness’ and ‘positivity’ is demonstrated as perhaps the major growth area for the lucrative interface between psychologists and corporations, leading Ehrenreich to question as to the difference between a ‘life coach’ or ‘motivational speaker’ and a qualified psychologist) – Ehrenreich fails to address the question of how we actually define ‘happiness’ (or is it ‘success’?) and the concomitant question, vital for scientific empiricism, of whether we can regard experiments in which participants self-report their own ‘happiness’ as reliable, or whether holding ‘positive thinking’ as an ideology in itself means that subjects are unable or unwilling to admit to a lack of happiness, either to themselves or to others.

Throughout, Ehrenreich’s dry writing is a pleasure to read, and this book is one to be devoured over a day or two rather than one to plough through – but she also exercises a cutting insight and a finely honed intellect – more so, I think, than in her earlier works for which she’s best-known, Nickel and Dimed and Bait and Switch. Lack of positivity, she argues, need not mean pessimism and despair – rather, in the best Enlightenment tradition (and this is a work deeply premised on the exercise of reason in the ascertainment of empirical truth, a position with which I’m not always one hundred percent in sympathy, but which is absolutely appropriate as an heuristic here) she suggests that the best approach to life is a realism based on the gathering of knowledge and on critical thinking, one which recognises and plans for both best- and worst-case scenarios. Like her earlier works, Smile Or Die (released in the US as Bright-Sided) is both an expose in the finest American muckraking tradition, and a wake up call.