On corporate culture, the quantum universe and a book with feelings
Storytelling: Bewitching the Modern Mind
by Christian Salmon, translated by David Macey (Verso, £14.99)
What does literary theory have to do with 21st-century corporate culture, marketing and election campaigns? Rather a lot, according to this book, which details how management theorists and political advisers in the 1990s explicitly took ideas from Barthes, Debord, Bakhtin and Propp in order to usher us into the “Age of the Narrative”. French writer Salmon here treats us to the useful spectacle of a relentless polemic against a ubiquitous idea widely held to provoke only positive feelings. As used by branders or politicians, “storytelling” is, on his argument, a sedative, suppressing the desire for truth in favour of satisfying narrative form.
The book ranges from ideologies of incessant corporate revolution at Nike to the fake American identities adopted by Indian call-centre workers (“The frontier crosses them”), and from Enron (the corporate apotheosis of story over truth) to the involvement of Disney set-designers in triumphalist appearances by George W Bush. Don DeLillo’s 1977 novel Players is celebrated as a prophetic satire; and Barack Obama’s election, it is suggested, was the result of “a competition between narrative genres”: the “epic” won. Salmon occasionally exaggerates the potency of his enemies, but anyone who can suggest that Fox News is responding to a cultural critique by Walter Benjamin is having fun of a serious kind.
Decoding Reality: The Universe as Quantum Information
by Vlatko Vedral (Oxford, £16.99)
With French-theory antennae primed, one thinks of Ferdinand de Saussure on reading this: “[T]he information content of anything does not reside in the object itself, but is a relational property of the object in connection with the rest of the Universe.” Vedral himself takes pleasure in speculative connections between his own work in quantum-information theory and other realms – the book opens with a story from Italo Calvino, and takes in Nietzsche and the “negative theology” of the Cappadocian Fathers, as the author puts a computational twist on discussions of DNA, dieting and stock-market investing, as well as explaining entropy and quantum computing or teleportation.
It’s all about “information” in the end, and also in the beginning. Every age, of course, describes the universe according to its own predominant technological metaphor, and some problems arise here when it seems as if a mathematical description is being taken for a cause (the claim, for instance, that “wealth distribution” in society “is an outcome of simple information theory” looks highly dubious). But the author evinces great enthusiasm and curiosity throughout, and deserves an extra tip of the hat for having cheerfully calculated the informational redundancy of his own book. Lower, I guess, than most.
This Book Has Feelings
by Neil Scott and Sandi Mann (Continuum, £12.99)
One doesn’t like to hurt a book’s feelings, but the pastel-coloured pages and handwritten-style headline font create a horrid first impression. Perhaps it’s a clever trick to smuggle some science into the wasteland of bookshops’ “mind body spirit” sections. But steel yourself to the emetic design and fragmentation (no section is longer than two pages) and you find much of interest on the contemporary science and philosophy of emotions, plus potted biographies of scientists such as Paul Ekman. Did you know that people who squeeze a tennis ball in their right hands for a couple of minutes feel happier than people who squeeze it in their left hands? I was left unsure what this means for the respective wellbeing of John McEnroe and Roger Federer.