Book Reviews

On the commodity trailby Susan Marie Martin 

On the Commodity Trail: The Journey of a Bargain Store Product from East to West. Alison Hulme. Bloomsbury. February 2015.

‘Euro shop’, ‘pound shop’, ‘dollar store’. The name varies but the premise is the same: commodities sold at low prices. For many the relationship with the ‘bargain’ shop is fraught by love and loathing.  Loathing is prompted by the cheap nonessentials, and the thought of the sweatshop labour that produced them. Love comes from the pursuit of a bargain, and the smug feeling that we have not been exploited.

In boom times discounters seem reserved for the terminally cheap, or those whom prosperity has overlooked. But what of their place in an era of austerity? Historically, according to Alison Hulme, times of decline were not like the present: saving back then meant not spending. However, she tells us on the first page of On the Commodity Trail, this current ‘age of austerity’ is not like its predecessors.  Now cheap and plentiful helps maintain levels of consumption seen during the boom, and cements individual mantras of “consumption is good”. For the businesses involved this means “chasing growth through smaller and smaller profits”.

If our age is “characterized by the desire for immediate gratification, disposability, the fragmentation of old systems and the rise of China” then, she asserts, the commodity chain of bargain store products “is a classic trail of our times”. Hulme subsequently takes the reader on a journey across the life cycle of eight bargain store commodities: a pet gravestone, a pregnancy test, a garden gnome, a plastic bonsai, a model Buddha, plastic flowers, a Chinoiserie vase, and a ship-in-a-bottle. Hulme’s inspiration was the early twentieth century work of the German philosopher and cultural critic, Walter Benjamin, and his Arcades Project. However, unlike Benjamin’s focus on the “bijou objects of bourgeois Paris”, she opted to create an ‘Arcades Project’ of the pound shop.

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Jerry A. Jacobs.


In Defense of Disciplines: Interdisciplinarity and Specialization in the Research University.

Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Interdisciplinarity has become an increasingly powerful current in US universities and colleges. The virtues of promoting interaction among researchers from diverse fields and building bridges across academic units are taken for granted by many observers and university administrators. But the longer I investigated the matter, the more I became convinced that disciplines are an indispensable component of a dynamic university system. At the very least, any viable interdisciplinary arrangement will need to stand on a firm disciplinary foundation. A stronger version of the argument holds that interdisciplinary arrangements are much more specialized and transitional than most analysts have recognized.

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Steve Early. Save Our Unions: Dispatches from a Movement in Distress. Monthly Review Press. February 2014.

Book review by Melanie Simms

Steve Early is a well-known commentator on the complex world of US trade unionism. His analyses are often provocative and always well-informed as he has worked in and around the US labor movement for more than 40 years. This is his third book since he retired from the Communication Workers of America (CWA) union. Evidently he is a man who intends to use the freedom of retirement to stir up debate.

As the subtitle suggests, the book brings together a series of previous pieces he has written for a range of audiences. Typically, they are from the journals, newspapers and websites that cover US labor issues: Labor Notes, Huffington Post, Working In These Times etc. And the tone of the dispatches taken as a whole is distressing. The reader is undoubtedly left with a strong view that the US labor movement is in very deep trouble and that strategies to plot a future course have been ill-fated

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