Monday, October 19, 2009

A History of the Future.

By Donna Goodman.

New York: The Monacelli Press, November 2008. Cloth: ISBN-13: 978-1580932073, $45. 280 pages.

Review by Yves Laberge, Laval University, Quebec

How did artists, writers, filmmakers and architects from previous centuries imagine and represent their idea of times to come? Now that we more or less live in what could be called their future, can we verify how precise and accurate were their visions and predictions? Did things actually evolve as planned by visionaries from the past? Were architects and artists imagining the past right in their intuitions? In other words, did we follow their plans as we built “the future”? In order to explore these questions, this richly illustrated book explains the many facets of futuristic aesthetics through the past centuries.

Scholars and students in American Studies will find here an exhaustive investigation that also works of the imagination but also real projects that were achieved in real life: for example, Harvey Wiley Corbett's vision of New York in the future, with many skyscrapers and multilevel highways, as illustrated here with early-twentieth-century color postcards and excerpts from Scientific American (38). We find as well countless representations of modernity and visions of utopian future in various feature films, from Fritz Lang's classic Metropolis (1927) to Busby Berkeley's beautifully designed musicals, and William Cameron Menzies's Things To Come (1936), adapted from H.G. Wells's novel.

The first section is dedicated to Europe, with many accurate references to Renaissance thought, philosopher Thomas More (who wrote the first "classic" book about utopia), but also Le Corbusier in France, Futurism in Italy, Expressionism and the Bauhaus movements in Germany. But most of the seven chapters focus on the USA during the twentieth century, especially in chapters 2-5, the "Machine Age," the "Automobile Age," and the "Space Age.” In a way, one could argue that the future has always been a part of our lives. For example, public events like World Fairs were immensely popular and depicted many forecasts of the future, as demonstrated here with the New York City case and the famous 1967 Montréal Man and His World Fair, which is commented upon and is shown on the book's cover.

Chapter 6 centred on the media age also mixes various elements and mottos which characterized the post-World War II era, from Marshall McLuhan's famous predictions about the role of television in our daily lives, to the utopian visions of the Disneyland park (that incidentally included a street named "Tomorrowland"), which was then nicknamed "the happiest place on Earth" (203).

The book's final chapter focuses on "The Environmental Age," which began with Rachel Carson's famous book Silent Spring in 1962. In this case, explaining how environmental thought evolved during the recent decades is done through numerous examples taken from architectural projects featuring nature-friendly aspects. The explanation takes into account the role of ideologies, often pessimistic, about the new challenges (and the appropriate solutions, like eco-tourism) for the near future, from overpopulation to global warming. In that sense, the author succeeds in bringing many accurate examples and a strong theoretical framework, which comprises recent trends like deconstruction and postmodernism (212). In other words, this thought-provoking book is not just a collection of fascinating images, but rather an invitation to reading and exploring other salient works. However, the conclusion remains open, as there is no final chapter or recapitulation about what we could tentatively name "the evolution of the idea of the future.”

Many interesting ideas emerge from all these chapters. First, the idea of the future has been present in many cultures and countries, in all facets of arts and culture, from novels to movies, from architecture to fine arts, and in urban planning as well. Second, we realize that the idea of the future and the projects that can illustrate the years to come do not often become a tangible reality; furthermore, these "old images of the future" tend to become obsolete and sometimes look naïve afterwards — but not at the moment when they are being made or released. This phenomenon can demonstrate the fundamental distinction between something new (that is never been seen) and something futuristic ("that announces what is likely to happen sooner or later"). Nonetheless, some examples remind us of the important links between fiction and reality: for example, the U.S. military "Star Wars" defense system, named after a popular movie series (192). From what I learned here, I concluded that studying the many representations of the future can serve as an examination of the contemporary ideas and mentalities of a given moment, and therefore, inform us indirectly about the beliefs, values, fears, and hopes of the past.

In sum, because this excellent book tells us more about the past than the future, A History of the Future is already an essential book for historians in many fields (culture, ideas, literature, science, and technology), as well as a very stimulating study of modernity itself. I would define that concept of modernity as the capacity to show how things are changing at a particular moment, focusing precisely on the change in itself. In this case, modernity should not be confused with modernism, another twentieth-century concept that is presented here, as is the reaction against it that occurred during the 1960s (196). Perhaps the only major artist missing in this book is French filmmaker Marcel L'Herbier (1888-1979), who directed a modern masterpiece, L'Inhumaine, in 1924, which remains difficult to find nowadays.

For students in architecture, design, and Cultural Studies, this comprehensive History of the Future will be a delight. The author's style is jargon-free, with short paragraphs that are always easy to follow; her lavish book should be ranked in the category "history of ideas.” It could be appreciated by undergraduates and non-scholars as well; in my eyes, this History of the Future seems to be essential for public libraries and universities as well. Once again, this gorgeous publication reconfirms the reputation of Monacelli Press as a high-class publisher of art books.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Speaking from the Body: Latinas on Health and Culture
Edited by Angie Chabram-Dernersesian and Adela de la Torre. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, December 2008. Paper: ISBN 978-0-8165-2664-2, $24.95. 264 pages.
Review by Donna Shelton, Northeastern State University
Among Latinos of Mexican and Central American descent, plática is a colloquialism for a conversation between friends or family members. However, the literal meaning of the word does not convey its profound significance for female participants in a culture that highly values interpersonal relationships. Reading the narratives of Speaking from the Body: Latinas on Health and Culture is like pulling up a chair at the kitchen table and listening as your sister, mother, and best friend share their personal struggles with illness and healing. The coeditors, Adela de la Torre and Angie Chabram-Dernersesian, are professors in the Chicana/o studies program at the University of California at Davis. Chabram-Dernersesian specializes in cultural studies and Chicana feminism, and she is the editor of The Chicana/o Cultural Studies Reader (2006). De la Torre is a health-policy researcher who directs both the Chicana/o studies program at Davis and the Center of Public Policy, Race, Ethnicity, and Gender. De la Torre and Chabram-Dernersesian created this anthology to address a need that became apparent during the course of their own conversations about the health of their aging mothers.
As noted in Chabram-Dernersesian’s introduction, the anthology attempts to bridge the seemingly disparate disciplines of Latina/o culture and health care in order to liberate Latina narratives of illness from the restrictions of established medical discourse. The twelve chapters that follow the introduction were contributed by Latinas who have experienced illness in their own lives or in the lives of female friends and family members. They share stories of dementia, arthritis, hyper/hypothyroidism, obesity, lupus, Parkinson’s disease, hypertension, and diabetes, and they expose the effect illness has on their ability to meet their professional and family obligations, on their emotional wellbeing, and on their concept of self. They describe seeking Western medical care as well as traditional Latina forms of solace and healing such as the plática. The narratives themselves are the public counterparts of these intimate conversations and are another form of the therapeutic speech that the editors see as an essential healing strategy in Latina/o culture (163). Following the narratives are not one but two conclusions. The first, on which the coeditors collaborated, clearly identifies and analyzes the common themes of the narratives, dedicating sections to the relationship between illness and work, genetic predispositions to disease, conventional and alternative treatment options, the importance of community, and identity formation. In the second conclusion, de la Torre provides a well-structured overview of the major medical problems faced by Latinas based on data from government sources and academic and medical studies, and she also examines Latina access to health care.
The anthology’s greatest strengths are its transdisciplinary format and the emotional power of the narratives. De la Torre and Chabram-Dernersesian describe medical discourse in the US as emphasizing very controlled forms of communication between the health care practitioner and the individual patient and also between the practitioner and the medical community as a whole (11). This discourse focuses on the physical aspects of illness only and disregards its impact on relationships and identity. The narratives give voice to the Latina’s full experience of illness, treatment, and healing, and they express emotions that range from anguish to rebellion to dark humor. At the same time, the volume also provides the empirical data necessary for an objective understanding of the health care issues of Latinas living in the US.
The reader should be aware of certain, perhaps unavoidable, limitations of perspective that arise from the identity of the narrators of the volume’s chapters. Chabram-Dernersesian and de la Torre do not describe how they chose the contributors to the anthology; the introduction mentions only that they invited Latinas going through an illness experience to write without specific guidelines or censorship from the editors (7). The volume includes professional profiles of all of the contributors who did not write anonymously. Of the twelve narratives, ten (including one by de la Torre herself) were written by academics or medical professionals, some of whom work in the California university system that employs the editors. De la Torre and Chabram-Dernersesian point out that most of the contributors are from working-class backgrounds and are immigrants or first- or second-generation residents of the US (10). The narratives demonstrate that the women do indeed seek out the systems of care available to them through Latina/o culture as healing strategies. However, their evident level of education and their socioeconomic status imply an enhanced ability to navigate the healthcare system and act as their own advocates compared to that of Latinas without these advantages, which suggests that their illness experiences may not be representative of the experiences of all Latinas.
Another consideration is the use of the term Latina. As Chabram-Dernersesian comments in the introduction: “We adopt the designation Latinas as a way to highlight pan-ethnic solidarity—here, meaning a strategic set of health alliances among underrepresented Latinas” (12). The adjectives Latino and Latina are generally used to refer to individuals of Latin American background, without specifying a particular country of origin. However, in this anthology, with one exception, all the contributors are Mexican-American or Mexican (12). Latinas from other Spanish-speaking countries do not necessarily perceive illness and health in the same manner as Mexican-Americans.
These limitations do not detract from the deeply moving voices of the Latinas who speak to the reader through the extended plática of these narratives. Speaking from the Body is an anthology of considerable significance for anyone interested in Latina/o or Chicana/o studies or gender studies and for health care practitioners or social service personnel who want to communicate and provide treatment in a culturally sensitive manner.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Power Struggles: Scientific Authority and the Creation of Practical Electricity Before Edison

By Michael Brian Schiffer. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, September 2008. Cloth: ISBN 978-0-262-19582-9, $38. 440 pages.

Review by Yves Laberge, Université Laval, Québec City, Canada

Officially, in most history books, we read that electricity as we know it was "invented" in 1882, in New York City. However, in his book Power Struggles: Scientific Authority and the Creation of Practical Electricity Before Edison, anthropologist Michael Brian Schiffer (from the University of Arizona) reminds us that the invention of electricity is the culminating step of many technologies, and not just one finding by a sole person, namely Thomas Edison. In fact, "the first age of electricity awaited neither Thomas Edison's genius and perspiration nor J. Pierpont Morgan's largess" (11). The truth is: the first electrical devices were created by Benjamin Franklin during the eighteenth century, but "he did not patent anything," as Schiffer indicates (11). However, Power Struggles is not just a book for historians of science about the pre-Edison electrical technologies or a technical guide about electricity works; it is also a timely reflection regarding the construction of a "scientific authority," understood here as "a person represented as having pertinent expertise in science or engineering science" (8). The author is somehow skeptical towards science as a pure ideal; he rather argues that "scientific authorities could become embroiled in heated controversies and power struggles" (9).
There are 22 chapters in this book. The first half is a detailed overview of the evolution of science, technology, and electricity during the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, covering important innovations such as Claude Chappe's electrostatic telegraph (41), Faraday's galvanometer (50), Ampère, Morse (146), Davenport's patented motor from 1837 (70), and many others. Even though there are no new scientific or historical facts in these sections, we follow Michael Schiffer through his anthropological reasoning whenever revisiting this history of science during the nineteenth century. For example, the author describes in many cases the role of media in the public's awareness, representations, and expectations for new discoveries: "Because newspapers often reprinted each others' articles, the exciting prospects of electric motors — the safe and supposedly inexpensive power of the future — eventually made their way to the far corners of America" (109). From a methodological point of view, Schiffer often focuses on the public understanding of science and technology, referring to numerous articles published in American magazines about science during the nineteenth century, especially Scientific American (see 182-84, 197, and note 27 on 319). Another example of Schiffer's anthropological thinking is the comparison he makes between nations and governments in terms of their strategies for research and public involvement. He shows that priorities in term of research were not the same in the USA and Western Europe during the nineteenth century: "When European nations again took an interest in the technology, experiments were almost always initiated by governments, sometimes in secret. However, that was not the case in the United States" (121). Schiffer considers as well the dynamics and social impact of institutions and private guilds like Trinity House in England, which was granted control of all lighthouses by the British Parliament in 1836 (207). In other words, seeing how science was perceived by political leaders in other countries makes the reader realize how peculiarly inventors were sometimes treated in the United States, either by the government, by the media, by other inventors, or in public opinion — and that is part of what an anthropological reading is about.
The book's second half brings more insight and thoughts, certainly relevant today, about current issues in science and technology. The author mainly concentrates on four countries: the USA, England, France, and (to a lesser degree) Germany. One impressive aspect of Power Struggles is the number and quality of the endnotes, which are very instructive (317-383). Some elements discussed in the endnotes could even have been included in the core text: for example, a timely remark by Schiffer about how Mechanical Magazine seemed to reject the essential contribution of French inventor Joule in 1858 (note 70 on 350). The author's style is vivid; the b/w tables and figures are always clear. The only notable drawback is the book's last chapter, which is not really a conclusion, but a discussion about Edison's last inventions and his famous stubbornness. A more anthropological conclusion would have been welcome, because the author brought so many interesting insights to the previous chapters. Although there are "little conclusions" at the end of most chapters, there are no general conclusions at the end of the book. But despite of this minor quibble, Power Struggles should be seen as an interesting piece in domains such as the anthropology of science, the sociology of technological innovation, American Studies, and the history of technologies. The author's discussion about the constitution of a "scientific authority" in the USA and elsewhere should not be seen as exclusive to the late nineteenth century, as this concept of scientific authority — plus some related concepts like the public understanding of science and technology — are still used nowadays in order to study (and criticize) how science is made, understood, praised and challenged in the twenty-first century. In that sense, Schiffer's theoretical framework remains accurate or adaptable for other topics and related researches.

Medicine’s Moving Pictures: Medicine, Health, and Bodies in American Film and Television

Edited by Leslie J. Reagan, Nancy Tomes, and Paula A. Treichler. Rochester: University of Rochester Press, reprinted December 2008. Paper: ISBN 978-1580463065, $34.95. 343 pages.

Review by Cara Kinzelman, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities

Medicine’s Moving Pictures is an interdisciplinary compilation of essays concerned with the relationship between medicine, mass media, and American culture. The American public embarked on a century-long love affair with media representations of medicine and its practices as early as 1905, when the first movie theater opened its doors in the United States. Over the next twenty years, over one thousand medical films were produced for mainstream consumption and quickly became one of the most popular box office genres. As the century progressed, the American appetite for medical-themed media expanded to include educational films, documentaries, and television series.
It is fair to suggest that a large percentage of Americans experience medicine through its portrayals in the media. Popular understandings of diseased conditions and perceptions of health-care providers are formed and reshaped by media representations. The manner in which health issues are depicted in the media and their impact on the viewing audience offers important glimpses into the evolution of disease-awareness programs, the changing cultural authority of the medical profession, and public-health controversies. The ability of media to contextualize the socio-cultural development of modern American medicine is staggering, yet it is an avenue of exploration previously ignored by scholars. Medicine’s Moving Pictures is simultaneously an attempt to illustrate the value of this scholarship and a plea for other scholars to engage in similar work.
The book is arranged in three sections. The first and shortest section is concerned with the emergence of medicine as a media genre. Martin Pernick focuses on an assortment of popular and educational films from the 1910s and 1920s to demonstrate that from their inception health films “sought not just to illustrate, but to shape history” by commenting on the causes (and blame) for disease contraction and the limits of professional power, and by categorizing disease into two classes: fit for public discussion, and banned for reasons of aesthetic censorship (for example, venereal disease and eugenics). These early categorizations helped to create new conventions regarding venue, audience, and topics that would remain unchallenged and unaltered until the 1960s.
The second section considers the duality of medicine’s role in the media to at once entertain and inform an audience. Paula Treichler presents an interesting commentary on the role of the soap opera General Hospital in transforming the perception of HIV/AIDS from a disease exclusive to the gay male to an equal opportunity disease with far-reaching effects in a small community, through the guise of an ill-fated love affair. Lisa Cartwright offers a similar methodological approach in her analysis of deafness and the 1952 film Mandy.
The final section explores the nature of accuracy in medical-themed media by exploring the veracity of popular representations of physicians and medical research. Vanessa Northington Gamble offers a compelling essay on the dissonance between the immediate post-World War Two Hollywood representation of black physicians and the reality of their roles and positions within the (still largely white) medical profession. Black physicians were presented as either passive or passing characters. Indeed, their representation is more accurately a depiction of how whites viewed African Americans than an accurate dramatization of their professional lives, which increasingly centered on agitating for professional equality and desegregating sites of medical training and healing. In a related essay, Naomi Rogers highlights the negotiations between the reality of Sister Kenny’s fight against polio and RKO Studio’s construction of her story that attempted to place Kenny more firmly within accepted gender and medical norms for their 1946 biopic. The essays in this section demonstrate well that accuracy in medical-themed media is a fluid term meant to imply either accuracy of popular perception or accuracy regarding the event, person, or technique portrayed, but seldom both.
Tasked with beginning a scholarly conversation, Medicine’s Moving Pictures offers a rich overview of the promise of such scholarship for highlighting the intricate relationship between popular culture, media, and medicine in the twentieth century and beyond. The essays are a prelude to what will surely become a burgeoning and exciting field of work in upcoming years.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Modern Age: Turn-of-the-Century American Culture and the Invention of Adolescence
By Kent Baxter. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, October 2008. Cloth: ISBN 978-0817316266, $39.95. 232 pages.
Review by Stephen Gennaro, York University, Toronto, Canada
One of the unique qualities inherent to Childhood Studies is the discipline’s ability to draw the interest of scholars from a variety of subject areas. In fact, with the increased focus on re-examining the roles of children in history, the last ten years have borne witness to a significant number of cultural histories of youth, childhood, and adolescence. From Paula Fass and Colin Heywood to James Kincaid and Allison James, the repositioning of children in history and the unpacking of their representation has become en vogue and an area of interest to scholars of all fields. The recent publication of Kent Baxter’s The Modern Age fits nicely into this continuum of scholarship. Baxter, a Professor in English at California State University, Northridge, tries his hand at history in The Modern Age. In his cultural history of the developmental stage of adolescence, Baxter walks the reader through the emergence of adolescence as a social category in the fields of law, medicine, leisure, education, and literature at the end of the eighteenth century. Underpinning Baxter’s cultural history is an argument that adolescence emerged at the end of the eighteenth century as a response to rising tensions, fears, and anxieties at the fin de siecle.
Often, in cultural histories, authors spend the first chapter(s) providing the historical backdrop for their subject matter. However, Baxter retells the story of the invention of adolescence through multiple case studies. What is impressive about Baxter’s writing is how he manages to write each of his six chapters as a stand-alone case study, where the emergence of adolescence at the turn of the century is explained in the context of the subject matter of that particular chapter. And while the book reads very smoothly, presenting little difficulty in following the argument from chapter to chapter (even as the subject matter changes), the breadth of this work also serves to detract from its overall argument, since at times, Baxter appears to glance over key ideas. For example, the first chapter looks at the structural invention of adolescence found in legal and educational reform in the late 1800s and early 1900s. However, the book could have benefited from splitting this chapter into at least two chapters to more clearly set up the social, cultural, and political context of this history. Each of these areas could have been given greater treatment, where more primary documents were explored and with archival research above and beyond newspapers, periodicals, and census data of the period.
The real limitations of Baxter’s work are found in chapter two in his discussion of the construction of adolescence as a developmental stage in the field of psychology. Baxter does provide an excellent summary of G. Stanley Hall’s seminal work on adolescence; unfortunately, the work of Sigmund Freud does not receive the same attention. Furthermore, the chapter is almost completely void of the contributions of John B. Watson, the father of behaviorism, and one of the most influential psychologists in the creation of adolescent psychology in the early part of the twentieth century. In fact, it could be argued that Watson’s 1928 piece, Psychological Care of Infant and Child, was the single most influential text on adolescence in the first half of the twentieth century. It was the What to Expect when You Are Expecting of its time, and the text to which Dr. Spock responded to when he began to write his baby-rearing texts in the 1940s. Instead, Baxter focuses the chapter on the roles of G. Stanley Hall and Margaret Mead in the invention of adolescence. Arguably, there is a connection between Mead’s work and the discussion of Indian Reform in chapter three. Likewise, the careers of Hall and Mead are connected, since Meads’ work in Samoa called into question the arguments that Hall (and Freud) made about adolescence as a period of sturm und drang (storm and stress) being universally experienced. However, the choice of Hall and Mead as the two key figures to review is questionable, especially since Mead’s work comes almost a quarter of a century after Hall and nowhere near the turn of the century, where the heart of Baxter’s argument takes place. At best, Mead is the fourth most influential psychologist in the development of adolescent psychology and construction of adolescence in the early twentieth century, behind Hall, Freud, and Watson.
The middle two chapters of the book examine a secondary argument of Baxter’s work, that the invention of adolescence and the discourse surrounding it paralleled the discourse and practice of the Indian Reform Movement. This is perhaps the greatest contribution of The Modern Age to current scholarship. In his discussion of Indian Reform and adolescence, Baxter provides historical credence and new insight into previously under-explored areas of study in Childhood Studies. First, in exploring the similarities in the “treatment” of adolescents and “Indians,” Baxter’s work demonstrates how there is an historical antecedent to viewing children as social “others.” In fact, Baxter argues that adolescence itself was created precisely for this reason. The implications of this point in scholarship is that it reinforces current work that suggests children have their own indigenous culture and that researching children’s lives, histories, and culture should be done in a respectful and culturally sensitive fashion.
Baxter is a gifted writer whose prose is easy to follow and enjoyable to read. However, his scholarship gives somewhat short shrift to recent work in the field. A significant portion of his sources cited on childhood “as a construct” are from the 1990s and earlier. Without discrediting early contributions to the field of Childhood Studies, the work done over the last half-decade in areas such as the history, geography, and sociology of childhood has moved the discussion away from the question of whether age is a social variable of distinction and discrimination like race, class, or gender, to more productive discussions, such as who benefits from these representations of the child as “other.” In his discussion of the adolescent as “other,” Baxter’s work is a welcome addition to the field.

The Mouse Machine: Disney and Technology
J. P. Telotte. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, June 2008. Cloth: ISBN 9780252033278, $60.00; paper: ISBN 9780252075407, $20.00. 232 pages.
Review by A. Bowdoin Van Riper, Southern Polytechnic State University, Georgia
Complex machines are rarely evident in the imagined worlds of Walt Disney films. Disney productions are more likely to be set in the past than the present, more likely to take place in the countryside than in the city, and more likely to have the look and feel of the backward-looking Old World rather than the forward-looking New World. From early feature-film triumphs like Pinocchio (1940) and Bambi (1942) through The Jungle Book (1967; the last Disney film supervised by Walt himself) through the renaissance that produced Beauty and the Beast (1991) and The Lion King (1994), Disney’s feature films have lacked strong technological elements. Other Disney projects—the Mickey Mouse Club, made-for-television films like Davy Crockett, theatrical shorts like the True-Life Adventures, and most sections of the theme parks—reinforce the idea that Disney’s vision is rooted in a non-technological, or at least minimally technological, world. At the Magic Kingdom theme parks, the artificial past of Fantasyland, Frontierland and Main Street USA overshadow Tomorrowland, and the high-tech pavilions at the front of EPCOT are balanced by the traditionalist national displays at the rear.
Disney’s elaborate simulations of idealized low-tech worlds are facilitated, however, by sophisticated technologies deployed behind the camera and behind the scenes. Disney has been at the forefront of innovations in sound, in photography, in robotics, in computer animation, and in the use of new media such as broadcast television, cable television, and the worldwide web. It is that story—the story of the Disney’s fascination with and astute deployment of technology—that J. P. Telotte sets out to tell in The Mouse Machine.The structure of the book is one of essentially self-contained chapters, loosely but coherently harnessed together in the service of the argument that Disney has consistently exploited cutting-edge technology in crafting and marketing its entertainments. The first three chapters convincingly show that the studio was, from its inception, an “early adopter” of new technologies like synchronized sound (in early Mickey Mouse shorts), stereophonic surround sound (in Fantasia), three-strip Technicolor film (in cartoon shorts in the Silly Symphonies series, and later Snow White), and the multi-plane camera, which permitted the illusion of depth in animated movies. Three subsequent chapters treat Disney’s adoption of Cinemascope in the 1950s and its early involvement with television and theme parks. Each of these chapters is a mosaic of business history, film analysis, and exploration of the uses of technology in the business of filmmaking, with discussions of the history of animation added for context. The final substantive chapter explores Disney’s acquisition of pioneering computer-animation company Pixar in the late 1990s. It is a testament to the power of Telotte’s argument that, upon reaching that final chapter, the reader is prepared to see the Pixar deal not as a radical break with Disney traditions but as a natural extension of them.
At 189 pages, plus notes and a comprehensive bibliography, this is a slender volume with a single, clearly defined purpose of advancing its thesis. Readers who come to it expecting an exhaustively detailed narrative will likely leave disappointed. Telotte’s discussion of how technology is depicted in Disney productions is limited to in-depth analyses of a few projects: notably the “Man in Space” trilogy of episodes (1955-57) from the Disneyland television series, and the feature films 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), The Black Hole (1979), and Tron (1982). There is little or nothing (for example) about the long string of techno-comedies that began with The Absent-Minded Professor (1961), little about Victory Through Air Power (1943) or Our Friend the Atom (1957), and little about Disney’s ongoing commentary on the automobile (carried on in shorts such as “Motormania” [1948], features such as The Love Bug [1968], and quasi-documentaries such as Dad, Can I Borrow the Car? [1970]). There is also relatively little about specific uses of technology within the theme parks: the evolution of Disney’s trademark animatronic figures, the extent to which thrill rides like the Matterhorn Bobsleds and Space Mountain led or lagged behind contemporary rollercoaster design, and the role of the parks as demonstration venues for “futuristic” technologies like the Monorail, People Mover, and House of Tomorrow.
The idea of Walt Disney Studios as a technological pioneer is not wholly new. Disney’s early use of Technicolor and development of the multi-plane camera have been noted, and lauded, by film historians before. Disney biographers such as Stephen Watts and Neal Gabler have traced the studio’s enthusiastic colonization of new media, and other Disney scholars have analyzed the theme parks’ use of technology to create illusion. What is new—and important—in The Mouse Machine is Telotte’s meticulously developed picture of Walt Disney Studios as a consistently innovative organization: a serial early adopter of cutting edge technologies. Argument-driven and written in dense, complex academic prose, it’s not the kind of Disney book one would read for fun. It demands close attention rather than casual skimming, but it will also reward such attention—not only from Disney specialists, but from all scholars interested in the history of technological innovation in the entertainment business.

Science Talk: Changing Notions of Science in American Culture
By Daniel Patrick Thurs. Cloth: ISBN 978-0813540733, $44.95; paper: ISBN 978-0813544205, $27.95. Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press, September 2007 (hardback), September 2008 (paperback). 237 pages.
Review by Amy L. Thompson, Austin Peay State University
In Science Talk: Changing Notions of Science in American Culture, Daniel Patrick Thurs explores how the American perception of science has been and continues to be shaped by popular and often controversial scientific topics. Thurs argues that these debatable issues have forced Americans to formulate their own idea and beliefs about science, often leading them to question the ideas and beliefs of others. Thurs suggests that although many Americans avoid science talk, nevertheless, a fascination with some science-related issues (medicine, astronomy, technology, new research) continues to occur, although the term “science” is not used to describe them. The author suggests that while the general population appreciates the importance of science, most people do not engage in “Science Talk” and seem to blindly accept scientific knowledge given to them. This underlying paradox between popular perception and the desire to understand and engage in “Science Talk” is a theme entwined throughout this work. Thurs concludes by bringing in modern-day examples, such as the debate over intelligent design, and makes suggestions for improving “Science Talk” among the non-science public.
Thurs relies on extensive resources to follow the evolution of science talk as outlined in his notes section, although he includes no separate bibliography. The use of these sources is evidenced throughout the book, with each chapter presenting a complete history of a topic including prominent figures of the time, their beliefs and ideas, and the ever-changing opinion of society as a whole. Although this book covers topics that the general public might be familiar with, it is not a work for the non-scientific, general reader. Each topic is presented as if the reader already has extensive knowledge of the subject with little to no background given regarding what terms such as phrenology (the study of bumps and grooves on the head) or relativity (physics theories proposed by Einstein dealing with space and time) actually mean. Also, the work is heavy in dates, people, and ideas. While this provides a complete treatment of the topic, it does not lend itself well to the leisurely reader. Fact after fact is presented in a mix of think pieces that require active engagement and attention.
There are numerous works that present single controversial aspects of science, including global warming, evolution, science and religion, and stem cell research; and several works provide a collection of discussions or debates that argue for or against various scientific ideas. Few exist, however, that tackle the concept of the perception of science and how it influences and has been influenced by American culture. Interestingly, a card game about science also called “Science Talk” encourages children to learn about and discuss different aspects of science, perhaps leading to a new revolution among young citizens. This academic treatment of “Science Talk” is a valuable tool for anyone interested in gaining an understanding of how scientific perception has changed throughout American culture.