Introduction: Special Forum on Christianity and Human Rights

By Udi Greenberg (Dartmouth College) and Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins (Yale University)

We are delighted to bring you the Introduction to the Special Forum on Christianity and Human Rights that appears in the latest issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas, by kind permission of the Journal, the University of Pennsylvania Press, and Project MUSE. You can find the Project MUSE page for this introduction here, and the entirety of volume 79, number 3 here.

The intellectual roots of human rights have been a source of much debate, but Christianity’s role in shaping the language of universal equality has been especially controversial. Historians agree that prominent Catholic philosophers, such as Jacques Maritain, were crucial in crafting and popularizing theories of rights, and that Protestant activists, such as American Protestant Frederick Nolde, were instrumental in drafting the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Yet the lessons that scholars draw from this genealogy are diverse. For some, such as John Nurser, history reveals Christianity as the crucial engine of the modern era’s most celebrated concept. Christians may have engaged in countless brutalities over the centuries, but the Gospel’s universal aspirations also helped bolster peaceful endeavors. Others, such as Samuel Moyn and Joan Scott, have instead claimed that the marriage of Christianity and rights reflect how deeply the language of universal equality preserved traditional hierarchies. Human rights and religious freedom, they claim, were forged by Christian Western Europeans, and were meant to combat Marxists, feminists, Muslims, and anti-colonial activists. In this provocative narrative, the concept of rights was never an equalizing force. Rather, it helped—and still helps today—sustain political, gender, and social inequalities.

This recent debate has centered on the nature of rights, but the essays assembled in this forum seek to push the discussion in a new direction. The authors explore Christian engagement with the idea of rights to better understand the scope and evolution of Christian thought over the last two centuries. Indeed, if the project of mapping human rights’ origins and ascendancy may be now reaching its conclusion, scholars still have much to say on Christianity’s seminal role in shaping modern politics, ideologies, and culture. Having long stood on the margins of modern intellectual history, thinkers who self-identified foremost as Christian—theologians, philosophers, and social theorists—have received growing attention. Protestants and Catholics alike developed comprehensive visions of economic, social, and sexual relations, and repeatedly sought to explain the Gospel’s message regarding varied topics such as Judaism, racial tensions, marriage, and international politics. These projects—which often defied the secular categories of left and right—enjoyed considerable influence, especially in Europe and North America where Christianity remained dominant. They often resonated well beyond theological seminaries and churches, inspiring state laws and policies in a variety of regimes, in colonial, democratic, fascist, or authoritarian settings. Rights often figured prominently in these efforts, as thinkers sought to explain who has what rights and under what conditions. The concept of rights therefore provides a crucial window to an expansive and ongoing intellectual effort.

What is more, exploring the ways in which Christian thinkers grappled with rights helps chart the dramatic shifts that characterized Christianity in the modern era. While the nature and meaning of Christianity had never been stable and was always contested, the centuries that followed the French Revolution brought a new kind of turmoil. Protestants and Catholics confronted a proliferation of ideological projects rooted in non-religious and even atheist assumptions, such as utilitarian morality, racial science, and socialist revolution. For many Christians, secularism’s assumed corrosive impact necessitated a recalibration of Christian life. Many came to believe that if the Gospel were to triumph, the churches would have to rethink their approach to state institutions, foster new alliances with other Christian denominations, and even treat other religious groups (such as Jews or Confucians) as legitimate. Debating the scope and nature of rights stood at the heart of these efforts. Tracing the trajectories of these disputes helps shed light on the complex redrawing of Christianity’s content and borders.

The following essays uncover diverse Christian reflections on rights, from their first sustained appearance in the late eighteenth century until their zenith in the mid-twentieth century. They examine how a panoply of thinkers on both sides of the Atlantic, largely Catholic but also Protestant, utilized rights to rethink Christianity. Taken together, they offer new ways of understanding the transformations of Christian thought in one of its most dynamic and fascinating periods.

Udi Greenberg is an associate professor of European history at Dartmouth College. He is currently writing a book titled Religious Pluralism in the Age of Violence: Catholics and Protestants from Animosity to Peace, 1879-1970.
Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins is a lecturer at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. He is currently writing a book for Columbia University Press titled, The Neoconservative Moment in France: Raymond Aron and the United States

What We’re Reading: September, Part 1

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Here are some highlights from what our editors have been reading this month—with another installment next weekend. Let us know what you’ve been reading, or if one of your favorites is here.

Sarah

Elaine Mokhtefi moved to Paris from New York in 1951. She hoped that there she might ‘drink at the fountain of the past’ through immersion in the literary and cultural capital that had drawn so many revolutionary luminaries. As it happened, she became one of those revolutionaries herself, swept up in the anti-colonial movements of the 1950s. When she returned to New York in 1960, it was to work in the provisional headquarters of the unrecognised Algerian government. Two years later, after Algeria finally won its independence from France, Mokhtefi moved to Algiers to take part in building the new nation. Her memoir, Algiers, Third World Capital, is a testament to her time there. It is filled with tantalising recollections of Mokhtefi’s interactions with pivotal activists such as the psychologist and writer Frantz Fanon and the Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver. At the risk of sounding dictatorial, it is an unmissable read.

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Elaine Mokhtefi

I’ve been meaning to revisit Achille Mbembe’s Critique de la raison nègre since I finished my dissertation and this summer seemed the perfect time to do so. The work remains an indispensable guide to the genealogy of the historical category of blackness, bringing together both francophone and Anglophone postcolonial thinking. It has also just come out in English translation by Laurent Du Bois. I was particularly enamoured by Du Bois’ introductory lines to the book. They encapsulate both his philosophy of translation and the intellectual elegance of Mbembe’s work. I could do no better than to reproduce them here: ‘If a language is a kind of cartography, then to translate is to transform one map into another. It is a process of finding the right symbols, those that will allow new readers to navigate through a landscape. What Mbembe offers us here is a cartography in two senses: a map of a terrain sedimented by centuries of history, and an invitation to find ourselves within this terrain so that we might choose a path through it— and perhaps even beyond it’ (ix).

I’ll finish this month’s recommendations with another firm declaration: everyone should read Imaobong Umoren’s Race Women Internationalists. It came out in May this year and is a brilliant reconstruction of the lives and activism of three incredible women: the American Eslanda Robeson; the Martinican Paulette Nardal and the Jamaican Una Marson. From the 1920s through to the late 1960s, these three women traversed the globe and built activist alliances against racism, imperialism and fascism. Umoren’s meticulous scholarship not only enhances our understanding of these women but gives great insight into the dynamics of black internationalism in the mid-twentieth century.

Brendan

Just what on earth is natural for humans to do? Is it natural for us to tuck and barter? To dominate and kill? To cheat on our spouses? To marry at all? To be religious? To eat wheat and drink milk or almonds and bacon? To run barefoot? A big trend today is to search for a moral example in our primate past. You can see this in hip American in our paelo diets and barefoot running shoes. You also see it in the reactionary right’s fundamentalist appeals to strict gender norms and racial purity.

Most of these treatments promise that if we could just see the moment of our emergence as a species, then we could know what kind of society we should have today. It’s troubling that the picture that often emerges is, as Paul Seabright says, one of “a shy, murderous ape.” Our closest genetic relatives save the bonobo, the chimpanzee, have frequent male violence. Some reports from hunter gatherer societies show high murder rates. And most evolutionary psychology agrees. Men kill. They rape. They wage war. Is this our nature? There is a book called Demonic Males whose cover portrays a bestial chimera, horned, one-half snarling human, one-half snarling chimp.

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Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, Mothers and Others; The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011).

But in her recent book, Mothers and Others, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy presents a very different image of pristine humanity. We are not violent at all. In fact, the puzzle is how we came to be so peaceful. Consider the fact that we very rarely feel the urge to kill anyone on an airplane, even though people on airplanes regularly commit very killable offenses like eating blue cheese next to you, or stealing your arm rest. Chimps, or any other great ape, wouldn’t stand for that—they would be red in tooth and claw before the flight touched down in Pittsburgh. Why? Why are we able to cooperate so well?

To explain this deep history of the pro-social emotions—what Hrdy calls our ‘emotional modernity’—Hrdy look at that other peculiarity of humans: our weird life histories. We have long and very helpless childhoods (a baby human needs perhaps a million calories to grow to an adult human), and long reproductively-useless old ages. The extended childhood of humans means that no single person—nor even a devoted couple—can conceivably care for a child on their own. We need help. And in our distant past, children were raised by whole communities, not by pairs of dutiful hunter-gatherer wives and husbands. Allo-parents (non-parent child-rearers who may or may not be related to the child in question) pick up children, take care of them, and often share food with them. In technical terms, humans are cooperative breeders. This also explains our extended non-reproductive dotages. Grandmothers and grandfathers are important allo-parents. But mostly grandmothers. In some hunter-gatherer societies, the presence of a grandmother can cut child mortality in half. Tellingly, a chimpanzee mother will not let even her own mother touch her child except in the direst circumstances. This makes sense, as a key cause of infant death are other chimpanzees. But human mothers are fine with friends, family members, and annoying uncles picking up their defenseless newborns from the very moment of birth.

A young human child raised by parents and friends and grandparents and aunts and uncles, needs to be able to read the emotions of the people around them, to know who will take care of them, and cutely manipulate allo-parents to parent them. At the root of human society, then, Hrdy puts not a snarling chimp, but a cooing child.

Pranav

Early modern sermons are some of the most important primary sources that I work with. While I tend to read them primarily to ascertain the intellectual commitments of the preachers, several scholars have now begun to study them within a wider cultural and commercial context. The results of some of these studies have been nothing short of fascinating.

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John Tillotson

Seventeenth and eighteenth-century clergymen, both Anglican and nonconformist, preached regularly and intensively. They wrote sermons on a wide variety of topics and constantly refined them to suit the occasion and the needs of their respective audiences. While many sermons remained in manuscript form, others were printed in folios or as individual pamphlets. They constituted one of the primary means of intervening in political and theological controversies. As such, their impact on early modern religious and political debate was immense. Especially towards the end of the seventeenth-century, sermons became some of the best-selling printed materials. In the eighteenth-century, the copyright for the sermons of John Tillotson, former Archbishop of Canterbury, was sold for an enormous sum of £2,500.

Amongst the many studies on preaching and sermons in recent years, two stand out. Arnold Hunt’s The Art of Hearing: English Preachers and their Audiences, 1590-1640 is an exceptionally detailed study of what was preached from Elizabethan and Jacobean pulpits and how it came to define the religious culture of the time. Hunt deftly analyzes a whole series of manuscript sermons to show how the laity actively engaged with the content of the sermons and how its responses often forced preachers to revise the content. His analysis provides a strong critique of Keith Thomas’s somewhat dismissive thesis that most early modern parishioners lacked the sophisticated of an educated schoolboy. The Oxford Handbook of the Early Modern Sermon can be read with great profit along with Hunt’s study. It contains a number of vivid chapters on various aspects of preaching. Rosemary Dixon’s wonderful essay on printed sermons from 1660-1720 explores the economy of sermon printing and distribution and offers insights into the more commercial aspects of preaching.

These studies, however, are only the start of what appears to be a very exciting engagement with the extremely prolific and, at times, contentious world of early modern preaching and sermons. I look forward to learning more about the subject in the coming years.

Nuala

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Octavia E. Butler

Queer Feminist Science Studies: A reader (edited by Cyd Cipolla, Kristina Gupta, David A. Rubin, and Angela Willey) begins with a transnational and trans-species approach to journey through a myriad of fascinating inquiries. Twenty essays probe into the intersectional nodes between science and technology studies and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies. The authors interventions are significant as their overall goal is to “get inside” categories and ideas that seem self-evident areas of science study. The collection argues that a queer feminist analysis offers a pathway into two main bodies of knowledge about the production, construction and transformation of sexual and gender norms: science and technology. This approach to reading science offers a novel insight into enduring questions such as: What exactly is sex? What ideas and practices need to be tamed to normalization to maintain these fictional hierarchies?  How do the categories of gender, sexuality and race interact to hold up these norms? For example, Sarah S. Richardson traces how the X chromosome became assigned as the “Female Chromosome” whilst Aimee Bahng’s treatment of slime molds and science-fiction writer Octavia E. Butler demonstrates how visions of the natural world created spaces for femi-queer conversations. This impressive volume seeks to queer not only the materiality of natural objects in science and technology that became elevated to ontological status but the discourse around such objects.

Spencer

Gilles Deleuze—not a name I am in the habit of citing—called Michel Foucault’s “The Lives of Infamous Men” (1977) a “masterpiece,” and for once I am in full agreement with the Abbot to Félix Guattari’s Costello. Foucault wrote this little essay as the introduction to “an anthology of existences” (76), a proposed volume of brief notices of criminals’ lives from the historical record, chosen because “in the shock of these words and these lives [are] born again for us a certain effect mixed with beauty and fright” (78). The first example he gives is worth quoting in full:

Mathurin Milan, sent to the hospital of Charenton, 31 August 1707: “his madness has always been to hide from his family, to lead an obscure life in the country, to have lawsuits, to lend usurriously and recklessly, to walk his poor spirit upon unknown paths, and to believe himself capable of the very greatest works.” (76)

Spellbinding as such a volume would have been, worthy of a Jorge Luis Borges or a Franz Kafka, this would-be introduction stands on its own merit, as Foucault reflects on his characteristic methods and on the ends of history. He writes that in order for these lives to become visible, “it was […] necessary that a beam of light should, at least for a moment, illuminate them” (79). This beam goes by the name of power: the peculiarities of each rogue in this gallery were recorded because each collided with authority in one way or another. Power, of course, has the same exhausting ubiquity in Foucault as does castration does in Freud or capital in Marx—it is the coin of his realm, the laws of his intellectual physics. And “Lives” contains a moment of charming self-awareness: Foucault writes, “It shall be said to me: that’s just like you, always with the same incapacity to cross the line, to pass over to the other side, to listen to and make heard the language which comes from elsewhere or from below…” (80). The essay goes on to run promiscuously through themes dear to Foucault’s heart: legal discipline, the state, modernity, public and private, sexuality, all channeled through the lettres de cachet, early modern French petitions to the king for the imprisonment of a putative malefactor. Though a collection drawn from this narrow compass was all that came of the project for “an anthology of existence,” even the dream of such a book offers a new window onto the work of calling to life the personages of the past.

Journal of the History of Ideas 79:3 Available

The latest issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas, volume 79, number 3 (July 2018), is now available in print, and online at Project Muse. In the coming weeks, we will be featuring companion pieces by many of the authors in this issue, as well as—by special arrangement with the University of Pennsylvania Press—Udi Greenberg and Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins’s introduction to the special forum on Christianity and human rights in full.

The table of contents is as follows:

Pasquale Terracciano, “The Origen of Pico’s Kabbalah: Esoteric Wisdom and the Dignity of Man,” 343–361.

Matthew Rukgaber, “Immaterial Spirits and the Reform of First Philosophy: The Compatibility of Kant’s pre-Critical Metaphysics with the Arguments in Dreams of a Spirit-Seer,” 363–383.

Fons Dewulf, “Revisiting Hempel’s 1942 Contribution to the Philosophy of History,” 385–406.

Udi Greenberg and Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins, “Introduction: Special Forum on Christianity and Human Rights,” 407–409.

Dan Edelstein, “Christian Human Rights in the French Revolution,” 411–426.

Gene Zubovich, “American Protestants and the Era of Anti-racist Human Rights,” 427–443.

Sarah Shortall, “Theology and the Politics of Christian Human Rights,” 445–460.

Udi Greenberg, “Catholics, Protestants, and the Tortured Path to Religious Liberty,” 461–479.

Paul Hanebrink, “An Anti-totalitarian Saint: The Canonization of Edith Stein,” 481–495.

Books Received,” 497–499.

Notices,” 501–503.

The Lives and Afterlives of Persianate Print: The Case of the Tuzuk-i Timuri and the Tuzuk-i Napoleon.

By guest contributor Tiraana Bains

Intellectual histories of India, particularly of the decades and centuries following the mid-eighteenth century, are often histories of Europe’s India: India as it was imagined and understood or misunderstood by Europeans. Representations, discourses, knowledge forms, and ideas, fundamentally and largely, remain subjects featuring European protagonists casting their gaze elsewhere. Both apologists and critics of empire, colonialism and racism have, in radically different ways, placed the ideas and presumptions of Europeans at the heart of their analysis. India’s Europe, on the other hand, as the brief concluding comment in Sanjay Subrahmanyam’s Europe’s India: Words, People, Empires 1500–1800 (Harvard University Press, 2017) reflects, remains all too shadowy and peripheral to the history of ideas and knowledge formation. Contrary to such historiographical tendencies, non-European actors living under the blaze of the British empire and colonial rule, regularly, and even mundanely, fashioned historiographies and crafted histories of both themselves and Europeans. What follows is merely a fragment.

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Cover of a bilingual edition of the Tuzuk-i Timuri published in Calcutta in 1785
Source: Eighteenth Century Collections Online

In the year 1890–1891, two editions of the Tuzuk-i Timuri, a venerable Persian text with a remarkable history spanning centuries and spaces as distant as Central Asia, Bengal, and Britain, appeared in the Bombay book market. Released by two different publishers and booksellers, the two lithographs were not quite the same. One of the two differed quite sharply from all preceding published and manuscript copies of the Tuzuk-i Timuri. Published by the Chitra Prabha Press, this text had appended to it another account: the Tuzuk-i Napoleon. In catalogues this curious text is variously listed as the Tuzuk-i Timuri wa Tuzuk-i Napoleon or merely the Tuzuk-i Timuri. Within a decade, the act of braiding together these two histories had been undone. The Tuzuk-i Napoleon had appeared once again, this time shorn of its ties to the history and exploits of Amir Timur or Tamerlane, as he was known in some early modern European accounts and, to an extent, still continues to be. Published in Kabul by the royal publishing house or chapkhana-i shahi and dedicated to the Amir of Afghanistan, Abd al-Rahman Khan, it appeared with the slightly more specific title of Tuzuk-i Napoleon-i Awwal or the Institutes of Napoleon the First.

 

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Title page of the Tuzuk-i Napoleon-i Awwal published in Kabul
Source: NYU Afghanistan Digital Library

The prominent Iranian émigré publisher, translator, author and bookseller Mirza Muhammad al-Kuttab Shirazi’s decision to juxtapose and literally bind together these two texts in 1891 undoubtedly offers an example of commercial flair in a bustling knowledge and print economy as well as yet another episode in a long and convoluted history of textual remaking and refashioning. The Tuzuk-i Timuri itself is an instantiation of an appendix, in all likelihood spurious and fabricated, gaining a longstanding significance of its own. An apparent Persian translation of a Turkish text, the Tuzuk-i Timuri or the “Institutes, Designs, and Enterprises” of Timur as it is often translated, seems to have first emerged in the seventeenth century, appended to the ostensible and equally fabricated autobiographical account of Timur’s life, the Malfuzat-i Timuri or Waq‘iat-i Timuri.  By the late eighteenth century, in Bengal and Britain, the Tuzuk-i Timuri had been refashioned yet again, reimagined as a constitutional text, deployed to debate governance and British imperium in the nominally Mughal provinces of Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa. While an English translation of the text accompanied by the Persian translation of an apparent Turkic original appeared in Calcutta, newspapers in London noted parliamentary controversy between Edmund Burke and Warren Hastings over the apparent foundational principals of Oriental governance contained in the Tuzuk. Not unlike the Tuzuk-i Timuri, the appended Tuzuk-i Napoleon from 1891 was also a translation, broadly drawn from a text known as The Military Maxims of Napoleon.

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Napoleon Bonaparte

Importantly, Shirazi’s decision to place an account of Napoleon’s military and political exploits alongside and in addition to the Tuzuk-i Timuri indicates a distinct conception of history. While this juxtaposition of a fourteenth century Turco-Mongol figure who established dominion over large chunks of the Perso-Islamic world and beyond, and an eighteenth-nineteenth century Corsican-French personage is certainly redolent of a romantic view of heroic conquerors across centuries, the fact of their textual company and shared Persianate rendering is also evidence of the imbrication and entanglement of diverse histories, regardless of nineteenth century narratives of divergent civilizational paradigms to the contrary. The textual meeting, translation and entanglement of Timur and Napoleon is replicated in the unfolding of this Persian translation of Napoleon’s maxims. More straightforward word-for-word translations of the conditions in which Napoleon mastered the conduct of war are interspersed with anecdotes and examples drawn from histories closer home – those of ancient Iran and India, and wars fought between Ottoman and Safavid armies. Such acts of conjoining and incorporating such histories were hardly new at the dawn of the 1890s.

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Shah Alam II

A large corpus of Persian and South Asian vernacular material points to the remaking of categories and contours of knowledge through the appropriation and incorporation of European histories and, in turn, the reworking of such histories. An intriguing example is that of the Tuzuk-i Walajahi, a Persian court chronicle produced under the aegis of the Nawab of Arcot, Muhammad Ali Khan Walajah, in the late-eighteenth century. The opening pages of the chronicle announce, unsurprisingly enough, the Nawab’s relation to the Mughal emperor Shah Alam II, whose deputy he was, nominally at least, meant to be. The invocation of the Mughal emperor was also, however, quickly followed by a declaration of the Nawab’s close ties to the British King George III, “a brother dear as life.” Moreover, deeper in the text one finds a detailed genealogical history not of the Timurid or Mughal dynasty but the kings and queens of England. The exposition concludes with a narrative of the reign of George III, an account that seems to have been a standard description in entirely different genres of Persian writing, including works of geography such as Bilgrami’s late eighteenth century Hadiqat al-Aqlim. In the nineteenth century, the assimilation of the Hanoverians and George III into a Persian textual corpus came to a head with the publication, in Bombay, of Firuz ibn Kavus’ Jarjnama or George-nama, an epic three-volume history in verse of the Hanoverians and the British conquest of India in the style of the Persian epic poem, the Shahnama.

The publication of the Tuzuk-i Napoleon-i Awwal in Kabul marks another chapter in this history of translation, transmission and textual remaking. While the core of the Kabul text is the same as that of the Bombay edition, the introductory and concluding notes emphatically demonstrate its status as a document of state, articulating the Afghan state’s commitment to muscular state-making. In Bombay, the valence of a text such as the Tuzuk-i Timuri wa Tuzuk-i Napoleon would have been entirely different – merely one text among many. Another Persian history of Amir Timur’s life and exploits drawn from the famous Habib al-Siyar was even featured on the syllabus for a Bachelor of Arts degree at Bombay University. Meanwhile other histories of Napoleon had appeared in vernacular languages like Gujarati – booksellers and publishers in Bombay published books in several languages including English, Urdu, Marathi, Kannada, Hindi and Sanskrit besides Persian and Gujarati. We are aware of the sheer range and diversity of texts printed in Bombay and elsewhere across British South Asia due to the legal requirement imposed by the British government that all publications be registered and catalogued (many of these government issued catalogues have been digitized by a team working at the British Library and constitute a rich historical source). The clear imprint of the hand of the British imperial state in the book business in Bombay notwithstanding, the stamp of the state is all the more pronounced in the case of books published in Kabul. This is partly due to the large number of books and pamphlets published by the royal publishing house that outlined the Amir Abd al-Rahman’s vision for Afghanistan as well as his achievements as sovereign. Amidst the heavy emphasis on a strong Afghan state, there are also clear indications of Kabul’s position in a broader nexus of Persianate circulation. As even a cursory search through NYU’s Afghanistan Digital Library shows, a range of texts originating in British India including agricultural treatises on the cultivation of tobacco and sericulture translated into Persian in Calcutta, circulated in Kabul.

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Photo of Carnac Road Bombay in 1881 by Lala Deen Dayal. Source: British Library.

Besides its obvious curiosity, what the publication of Tuzuk-i Napoleon and its companion text do demonstrate, not unlike the many other texts discussed in Nile Green’s seminal Bombay Islam, is the persistent vitality of Persian and Persianate literacy well past official British disavowals of the language and in spite of Thomas Babington Macaulay’s “Minute upon Indian Education” in the first half of the nineteenth century. The movement and translation of such texts also reveals geographies partly underpinned by institutions of colonial governance but hardly exhausted by the contours of political maps. Finally, they gesture to the work that still needs to be done to excavate, and take the ideas and practices of non-Europeans seriously. Examining how people with an allegedly limited sense of history chose to think about and even refashion and market histories of persons and spaces both far and near is an obvious place from which to continue this work.

Tiraana Bains is a doctoral candidate in history at Yale University. 

2017 Morris D. Forkosch Prize: Eli Cook’s The Pricing of Progress

Every year, the Journal of the History of Ideas awards the Morris D. Forkosch Prize for the best first book in intellectual history. The winner of the 2017 Forkosch Prize has been is Eli Cook, for The Pricing of Progress: Economic Indicators and the Capitalization of American Life (Harvard University Press, 2017). The judging committee writes:

The 2017 Forkosch Prize for the best first book in intellectual history goes to Eli Cook’s The Pricing of Progress: Economic Indicators and the Capitalization of American Life. As beautifully written as it is thought-provoking, this study illuminates the emergence of the idea that society is something to be invested in, to be capitalized, something, therefore, whose health can be evaluated statistically whether through measures of the cost of alcoholism or of worker productivity. Displaying impressive historical breadth, Cook moves from William Petty’s formative essay “Verbum sapienti and the Value of People” of 1665 to the adoption of the GDP as the standard measure of national health during the Great Depression, bringing to bear a vast range of thinkers—church ministers, business people, economists, politicians, bureaucrats, and social reformers—along the way. Meticulously and innovatively merging the history of economics and economic thought with intellectual and cultural history, The Pricing of Progress is essential reading for anyone interested in the ubiquity of the notions of capitalization and monetization in contemporary American society and politics.

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Prof. Eli Cook (University of Haifa)

Eli Cook is assistant professor of history at the University of Haifa in Israel. The Pricing of Progress, lauded by reviewers as “groundbreaking” and “boldly original and compelling,” also received the 2018 S-USIH Book Award from the Society for US Intellectual History.

 

The entire JHIBlog team extends its heartiest congratulations to Prof. Cook and looks forward to learning more about his research.

Functional Promiscuity: The Choreography and Architecture of the Zinc Gang

By Contributing Editor Nuala F. Caomhánach

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Zinc Finger DNA Complex, image by Thomas Splettstoesser

 

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Andreas Sigismund Marggraf

The tale about gag knuckles, taz-two, hairpin, ribbons, and treble clef is quite elusive.  Although they sound more like nicknames of a 1920’s bootlegging gang (at least to me) they are the formal nomenclature of a biochemical classification system, known commonly as zinc fingers (ZnF). The taxonomy of zinc fingers describes the morphological motif that the element creates when interacting with various molecules. Macromolecules, such as proteins and DNA, have developed numerous ways to bind to other molecules and zinc fingers are one such molecular scaffold. Zinc, an essential element for biological cell proliferation and differentiation, was first isolated in 1746 by the German chemist Andreas Marggraf (1709-–1782). Zinc fingers were important in the development of genome editing, and while CRISPR remains king, zinc is making a comeback.

 

Strings of amino acids fold and pleat into complex secondary and tertiary structures (for an overview, see this video from Khan Academy).

 

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Fig. 1: The folding funnel

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Fig. 2: The energy landscape

Proteins with zinc finger domains—meganucleases—act as molecular DNA scissors, always ready to snip and organize genetic material. The return of these biochemical bootleggers, an older generation of genome editing tools, is due to the problem of exploring the invisible molecular world of the cell. In this age of genomic editing, biologists are debating the concept of protein stability and trying to elucidate the mechanism of protein dynamics within complex signalling pathways. Structural biologists imagine this process through two intermingled metaphors, the folding funnel (fig. 1) and the energy landscape (fig. 2). The energy landscape theory is a statistical description of a protein’s potential surface, and the folding funnel is a theoretical construct, a visual aid for scientists. These two metaphors get scientists out of Levinthal’s Paradox, which argues that finding the native or stable 3-dimensional folded state of a protein, that is, the point at which it becomes biologically functional, by a random search among all possible configurations, can take anywhere from years to decades. Proteins can fold in seconds or less, therefore, biologists assert that it cannot be random. Patterns surely may be discovered. Proteins, however, no longer seem to follow a unique or prescribed folding pathway, but move in different positions, in cellular time and space, in an energy landscape resembling a funnel of irregular shape and size. Capturing the choreography of these activities is the crusade of many types of scientists, from biochemists to molecular biologists.

 

Within this deluge of scientific terminology is the zinc atom of this story.  With an atomic number of 30, Zinc wanders in and out of the cell with two valence electrons (Zn2+). If Zinc could speak it might tell us that it wishes to dispose, trade, and vehemently rid-itself of these electrons for its own atomic stability. It leads with these electrons, recalling a zombie with outstretched arms. It is attracted to molecules and other elements as it moves around the cytoplasm and equally repelled upon being cornered by others. Whilst not as reactionary as the free radical Hydrogen Peroxide (H2O2), it certainly trawls its valency net in the hope of catching a break to atomic stasis, at least temporarily. In this world of unseen molecular movements a ritual occurs as Zinc finds the right partner to anchor itself to. Zinc trades the two electrons to form bonds making bridges, links, ties and connections which slowly reconfigure long strings of amino or nucleic acids into megamolecules with specific functions. All of this occurs beneath the phospholipid bilayer of the cell, unseen and unheard by biologists.

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Model of a Zinc atom

The cell itself is an actor in this performance by behaving like a state security system, as it monitors Zn2+ closely. If the concentration gets too high, it will quarantine the element in cordoned-off areas called zincosomes. By arranging chains of amino acids, such as cysteine and histidine, close to each other, the zinc ion is drawn into a protein trap, and held in place to create a solid, stable structure. They connect to each other via a hydrogen atom, with hydrogen’s single electron being heavily pulled on by Carbon as if curtailing a wild animal on a leash. In the 1990s, when the crystal structures of zinc finger complexes were solved, they revealed the canonical tapestry of interactions. It was notable that unlike many other proteins that bind to DNA through the 2-fold symmetry of the double helix, zinc fingers are connected linearly to link sequences of varying lengths, creating the fingers of its namesake. Elaborate architectural forms are created.

Like a dance, one needs hairpins, or rather beta-hairpins, two strands of amino acids that form a long slender loop, just like a hairpin. To do the gag knuckle one needs two short beta-strands then a turn (the knuckle), followed by a short helix or loop. Want to be daring, do the retroviral gag knuckle. Add one-turn alpha-helix followed by the beta hairpin. The tref clef finger looks like a musical treble clef if you squint really hard. First, assemble around a zinc ion, then do a knuckle turn, loop, beta-hairpin and top it off with an alpha-helix. The less-complex zinc ribbon is more for beginners: two knuckle turns, throw in a hairpin and a couple of zinc ions. Never witnessed, biologists interpret this dance using x-ray crystallography, data that looks like redacted government documents, and computer simulated images.

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X-ray crystallography of a Zinc Finger Protein, image from Liu et al., “Two C3H Type Zinc Finger Protein Genes, CpCZF1 and CpCZF2, from Chimonanthus praecox Affect Stamen Development in Arabidopsis,” Genes 8 (2017).

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Aaron Klug

In the 1980s, zinc fingers were first described in a study of transcription of an RNA sequence by the biochemist Aaron Klug. Since then a number of types have been delimited, each with a unique three-dimensional architecture. Klug used a model of the molecular world that required stasis in structure.The pathway towards this universal static theoretical framework of protein functional landscapes was tortuous. In 1904, Christian Bohr (1855–1911), Karl Albert Hasselbalch (1874-1962), and August Krogh (1874-1949) carried out a simple experiment. A blood sample of known partial oxygen pressure was saturated with oxygen to determine the amount of oxygen uptake. The biologists added the same amount of CO2 and the measurement repeated under the same partial oxygen pressure. They described how one molecule (CO2) interferes with the binding affinity of another molecule (O2) to the blood proteins, haemoglobin. The “Bohr effect” described the curious and busy interactions of how molecules bind to proteins.

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Jacques Monod and François Jacob, image by Agence France-Presse

In 1961, Jacques Monod and Francois Jacob extended Bohr’s research. The word ‘allosteric’ was introduced by Monod in the conclusion of the Cold Spring Harbor Symposium of 1961. It distinguished simultaneously the differences in the structure of molecules and the consequent necessary existence of different sites across the molecule for substrates and allosteric regulators. Monod introduced the “induced-fit” model (proposed earlier by Daniel Koshland in 1958). This model states that the attachment of a particular substrate to an enzyme causes a change in the shape of the enzyme so as to enhance or inhibit its activity. Suddenly, allostery erupted into a chaotic landscape of multiple meanings that affected contemporary understanding of the choreography of zinc as an architectural maker. Zinc returned as the bootlegger of the cellular underworld.

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The “induced-fit” model

Around 2000, many biologists were discussing new views on proteins, how they fold, allosteric regulation and catalysis. One major shift in the debate was the view that the evolutionary history of proteins could explain their characteristics. This was brought about by the new imaginings of the space around the molecules as a funnel in an energy landscape. When James and Tawfik (2003) argued that proteins, from antibodies to enzymes, seem to be functionally promiscuous, they pulled organismal natural selection and sexual selection theory into the cellular world. They argued that promiscuity is of considerable physiological importance. Bonding of atoms is more temporal and more susceptible to change than thought of before. Whilst they recognized that the mechanism behind promiscuity and the relationship between specific and promiscuous activities were unknown they opened the door to a level of fluidity earlier models could not contain. Zinc fingers, thus, played an important role in being a “freer” elements with the ability to change its “mind”.

These ideas were not new. Linus Pauling proposed a similar hypothesis, eventually discarded as incorrect, to explain the extraordinary capacity for certain proteins (antibodies) to bind to any chemical molecule. This new wave of thinking meant that perhaps extinct proteins were more promiscuous than extant ones, or there was a spectrum of promiscuity, with selection progressively sifting proteins for more and more specificity. In 2007, Dean and Thornton, reconstructed ancestral proteins in vitro and supported this hypothesis.  If the term promiscuity as it has been placed on these macromolecules sticks, what exactly does it mean?  If promiscuity is defined as indiscriminate mingling with a number of partners on a casual basis, is zinc an enabler? A true bootlegger? This type of language has piqued the interest of biologists who see the importance of this term in evolution and the potential doors it opens in biotechnology today. Promiscuity makes molecular biology sexy.

To state that a protein, or any molecule, is not rigid or puritanical in nature but behaves dynamically is not the equivalent of stating that the origin of its catalytic potential and functional properties has to be looked for in its intrinsic dynamics, and that the latter emerged from the evolutionary history of these macromolecules.  The union of structural studies of proteins and evolutionary studies means biologists have not only (re)discovered their dynamics but also highlights the way that these properties have emerged in evolution. Today, evolutionary biologists consider that natural selection sieves the result, not necessarily the ways by which the result was reached: there are many different ways of increasing fitness and adaptation. In the case of protein folding with zinc fingers, what is sieved is a rapid, and efficient folding choreography. These new debates suggest that what has been selected was not a unique pathway but an ensemble of different pathways, a reticulating network of single-events, with a different order of bond formation.

If the complex signalling pathways inside of a cell begins with a single interaction, zinc plays a star role. Zinc, along with other elements such as Iron, are the underbelly of the molecular world. Until captured and tied down, the new view of proteins offers to bond mechanistic and evolutionary interpretations into a novel field.  This novelty is a crucial nuance to explain the functions and architecture of molecular biology. As the comeback king, zinc fingers are used in a myriad of ways. As a lookout, biologists infected cells with with DNA engineered to produce zinc fingers only in the presence of specific molecules. Zinc reports back as biologist looks for the presence of a molecule, such as a toxin, by looking for the surface zinc fingers rather than the toxin itself. Zinc fingers are obstructionists. In 1994 an artificially-constructed three-finger protein blocked the expression of an oncogene in a mouse cell line. As informants, they capture specific cells.  Scientists have experimented by creating a mixture of labeled and unlabeled cells and incubated them with magnetic beads covered in target DNA strands. The cells expressing zinc fingers were still attached to the beads. They introduce outsiders into the cell, such as delivering foreign DNA into cells in viral research. In tracking these bootleggers, scientists have pushed the limits of their own theories and molecular landscapes, but have landed on promiscuity, a culturally laden, inherently gendered word.

Graduate Forum: Excesses of the Eye and Histories of Pedagogy

This is the fourth in a series of commentaries in our Graduate Forum on Pathways in Intellectual History, which is running this summer. The first piece was by Andrew Klumpp, the second by Cynthia Houng, and the third by Robert Greene II.

This fourth piece is by guest contributor Gloria Yu.

Whether a man is wise can be gathered from his eyes. So thought the Anglican bishop Joseph Hall in his 1608 two-volume collection of character sketches, Characters of Vertues and Vices. The wise man, Hall advised, “is eager to learn or to recognize everything but especially to know his strengths and weaknesses…His eyes never stay together, instead one stays at home and gazes upon himself and the other is directed towards the world…and whatever new things there are to see in it” (quoted in Whitmer, The Halle Orphanage, 77). The wise man’s eyes are the entry points of both self-knowledge and worldly knowledge, and their divergent gaze betrays his catholic curiosity (fig. 1).

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Figure 1. Joseph Hall might find the eyes, more than the books, to be the prominent ‘accessory’ in Bronzino’s Portrait of a Young Man with a Book (1530s). While the left eye is directed outward, ‘towards the world’, the gaze of the right eye (our left) seems unfocused on what is directly before it. It is not a look that invites sustained eye contact with the viewer; rather, an apparent disinterestedness suggests that the man’s attention is elsewhere. The aimless stare is a marker of a gaze turned inward. Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

The eye plays a central role in two recent snapshots from the history of Western pedagogy that find it productive to ground the historical construction of norms for knowing in educational contexts. Kelly Joan Whitmer’s The Halle Orphanage as Scientific Community: Observation, Eclecticism, and Pietism in the Early Enlightenment (Chicago, 2015) examines the scientific ethos that permeated and vitalized the premier experimental Pietist educational enterprise of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Orit Halpern’s Beautiful Data: A History of Vision and Reason since 1945 (Duke, 2015) offers a genealogy of contemporary obsessions with “data visualization,” their ontological and epistemological consequences, and the pedagogies that spurred them. Both works centralize the eye as the object of training and discipline. Both accounts trace the pedagogical principles behind the ways in which seeing must be learned, extending the functions of the visual apparatus beyond the role of passive reception into an active mode of evaluating and constructing. Seeing, in these histories, is imbued with cognitive powers so as to be near congruent with knowing itself. Considering these two works together prepares us to use the recurring motif of the trained eye as an opportunity for gauging future directions for histories of pedagogy.

Whitmer informs us that descriptions like the one above of the ‘character of the wise man’ were regularly incorporated into the curriculum at the Halle Orphanage’s schools for the purpose of training a particular way of seeing. The Orphanage’s founder, August Hermann Francke, believed these character sketches could “awaken” in children a love of virtue so that they might emulate the figures depicted. The end goal was the cultivation of an “inner eye,” or “the eye in people,” which Francke equated with prudent knowledge [Klugheit] and pious desires. Indeed, a pedagogy of seeing permeated Francke’s administration of the Orphanage. The training of the inner eye was based on the honing of an array of observational practices that engaged senses beyond just the visual. On one level, visual aids such as scientific instruments (e.g. the camera obscura, air pumps), wooden models, and color-coded maps cultivated tactile, spatial, and relational knowledge. In Francke’s correspondence with the mathematician Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus, the microscope figures as a particularly apt tool for lessons in seeing since it enhanced understanding of the configuration of parts and wholes while also providing the opportunity to reflect on the faculty of seeing itself. Through observing how minute changes in light transformed one’s image of an object, one could discern the possibilities and limits of human perception. On another level, visual aids, like the models of the geocentric and heliocentric heavenly spheres specially commissioned for the Orphanage, enhanced cognition and yielded spiritual benefits by teaching students how to behold incompatible representations of the world and to reconcile them. The Orphanage taught a manner of “seeing all at once,” wherein the eye was considered a “conciliatory medium” that could aid in transcending interconfessional disagreements.

For Whitmer, seeing and the eye operate as metaphors for perception, understanding, and cognition writ large, at times even as the privileged site for accessing divine truths. Notable is her use of the singular. If it is through seeing in a broad sense (materially, affectively, cognitively) that we encounter the world and acquire knowledge of it, it is the eye that mediates this encounter. From the ancient origins of the evil eye, to Avicenna’s comparison of the eye to a mirror, to the early modern possibility that a wrong stare could compel an accusation of witchcraft, the eye—and not only in the Western tradition—has perhaps always been overdetermined. Its activity always transcends the physiological processes behind mere visual perception. It was after all in tempting Eve to take from the tree of knowledge that the serpent said, “For God knows that in the day you eat of it, your eyes will be opened” (Genesis 3:5).

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Orit Halpern, Beautiful Data: A History of Vision and Reason Since 1945 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015).

“Vision,” as Halpern notes, “is thus a term that multiples—visualization, visuality, visibilities” (24). Dexterity in handling the conceptual differences of this plurality allows Halpern to explain how, since the end of World War II, we have come to bestow such a capacious range of talents to our ocular organs. In the context of increasing computational and data scientific approaches in information management, architecture and design, and the cognitive sciences, Halpern argues, vision has taken on a highly technicized form, meditated by screens, data sets, and algorithms that fundamentally expand the epistemological prowess of perception. In particular, postwar cybernetics and design and urban planning curricula had a hand in transforming the ontology of vision. Cybernetics’s preoccupation with prediction, control, and crisis management foregrounded information storage and retrieval and, thus, transformed the eye into a filter and translator of sorts, selecting relevant information for storage within a constant flow based on algorithms for pattern recognition. Whereas the eye at the Halle Orphanage dwelled on contradictory images, the eye of twentieth-century cybernetics constantly made choices.

The works of these authors suggest the advantages of approaching questions central to intellectual history—concerning the transmission, unity, and cultural impact of ideas—from the perspective of histories of pedagogies. Analyzing pedagogy allows Halpern to trace how philosophical ideas were transformed into teachable principles and how a certain paradigm of vision was promulgated through the materiality of our media environments. In her narrative, industrial designers, drawing from cybernetics, developed an “education of vision” grounded in “algorithmic seeing” (93). Here, vision mimicked the activity of a pattern generator: rather than representing the world, this ‘new’ vision captured the multitude of ways something could possibly be seen. Vision was about scale and quantity, about producing as many representations and recombinations of the visual field as possible. No longer could any pedestrian see the world; one had to learn through credentialed training to be considered an “expert” in vision (94). The screen-filled “smart” city of Songdo, South Korea is an embodiment of this paradigm, where older ways of seeing lose out to a vision continually registering and ordering human and environmental metrics toward the goal of “perfect management and logistical organization of populations, services, and resources” (2, see fig. 2).

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Figure 2. The “smart” city Songdo, South Korea in the Incheon Free Economic Zone features “computers and sensors placed in every building and along roads to evaluate and adjust energy consumption.” Photo and description courtesy of Condé Nast Traveler.

Furthermore, histories of pedagogy, whether central to a project (as in Whitmer’s case) or part of a larger investigation measuring the scale of cultural transformation (as in Halpern’s), can answer questions that animate the intersection of history of knowledge, history of science, and historical epistemology. These fields have offered a robust vocabulary for interrogating the historical contingency of observation and objectivity; the historical, social, and cultural criteria for knowledge; and the methodological goals and tactics involved in fortifying scientific persona. Beside the fact that pedagogy is a science and set of practices specifically concerned with communicating knowledge, Whitmer and Halpern show that, in addition to articulating what it means to learn in certain moments and institutional contexts, pedagogical theories can contain latent or overt temporalities, subjectivities, and modes of vision that deepen our understanding of what in the past has made knowledge count as knowledge.

Yet, histories of pedagogies have even more fruits to bear. If earlier histories focused on matriculation rates, student body demographics, and the longevity of institutions, these two works prove future research capable of taking on the relationship between science and religion, the convergence and divergence of intellectual traditions, the crests and troughs in the history of humanism, and episodes in the centuries long contemplation of what it means to be human. Future research would follow precedent histories of pedagogy, not least the scholarship of our discussant, in treating sensitively the gaps between ideals of education and their execution, the slips between the social and political aims of education and their imperfect applications (Anthony Grafton and Lisa Jardine, From Humanism to the Humanities: Education and the Liberal Arts in Fifteenth- and Sixteenth-Century Europe). That pedagogy is a tradition embedded in text, reliant on practices, and crucial to the scaffolding of intellectual traditions places the excavation of its pasts well within the purview of intellectual historians.

One last note on the eye. Mention of training the eye calls to mind the familiar narrative that forms of discipline often get inscribed on bodies. While this may be true, that there are multiple histories of pedagogy suggests the probability that we are trained in numerous contexts, at different times in our lives, and in potentially incompatible ways in how to see and how to know. It is possible, then, to become at once wise and childish, to become discerning in one way and docile in another. As to whether we are overwhelmingly determined by systems of power and whether there are multiple systems at play, I answer with an optimistic agnosticism that leaves open the question of the place of freedom. I rely on the vagueness of the term freedom here to underscore that the day-to-day exercises in learning may fail to yield desired results or, even when they do, may be useful in ways other than intended. For the researcher willing to question the Foucaultian schema that binds discipline with docility, the histories of pedagogy—of pedagogies with a range of reaches, in quiet pockets of Europe or in grander governmental programs—can be treated as an approach capable of accommodating histories of discipline that remains sensitive to the rough trajectories of learning. If the Panopticon’s surveilling gaze, both omnipresent and invisible, inspires the self-policing of behavior, how does the prisoner see when he looks back?

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Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon

Gloria Yu is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, Berkeley. Her research focuses on the history of psychology and the concept of the will in nineteenth-century Europe. She thanks David Delano, Elena Kempf, and Thomas White for their incisive comments on earlier drafts.

Systems of water – Histories of a cycle that never was

By guest contributor Luna Sarti

Water is today a matter of growing concern. If in certain parts of the globe there is less and less water, other parts seem to have just too much. Extreme weather events, sudden floods and intense drought continually orient our attention toward the shifting ecologies of water and land. Rising sea levels and dropping water tables highlight how labile such distinction is, thus troubling our sense of the appropriate place and behaviors we expect from water. Furthermore, stories of flooding and contamination unsettle our classification of water into good and bad waters while revealing our expectation for ‘pristine water’. But how do we come to develop such distinctions and expectations? How do representations of water contribute to developing specific conceptions of what water is or should be?

If scientists and hydrologists are now attempting to elaborate new models for understanding water movements and for protecting fresh water, anthropologists, philosophers and historians increasingly criticize such models. Scholars such as Ivan Illich and Christopher Hamlin stress how Western modern accounts of water movements have systematically erased those biological interactions that continuously re-make watery matters.  The scholar Jamie Linton captures the implications of such practice in his book What is water (2010):

As the dominant epistemological mode of Western culture, scientific practice has produced a distinctive way of understanding and representing water that makes it appear timeless, natural, and unaffected by the contingencies of human history. (74)

That our models for water are informed by conceptions of “unaffected nature” as much as by those of order and balance is quite evident. Most diagrams which are used in education and public outreach continue to provide contemporary readers with pictures like the following:

Western thought has a long-standing history of such ways of understanding water movements and has struggled in the attempt to produce a timeless, regular, and pure model for waters, which erases most of its interactions with histories of hydrology, including (1970), seem to agree in identifying Aristotle’s Metereologica as a crucial text for the development of modern hydrology and of the water cycle tradition in Western culture. In the Meteorologica, Aristotle provides an overview of how different bodies of water are connected as well as why they are different, thus developing a model accounting for such classification as well as for the movements of water. which shape Aristotle’s chain of events causing the continuous water movements between springs, rivers and the can be assimilated to the modern conceptions of evaporation and gravity.

This cycle of changes reflects the sun’s annual movement: for the moisture rises and falls as the sun moves in the ecliptic. One should think of it as a river with a circular course, which rises and falls and is composed of a mixture of water and air. For when the sun is near the stream of vapour rises, when it recedes it falls again. And in this order the cycle continues indefinitely. And if there is any hidden meaning in the ‘river of Ocean’ of the ancients, they may well have meant this river which flows in a circle round the earth. (347 a 1-8, Translated by H. D. P. Lee)

In following Aristotle, natural philosophers and theologians continued to struggle to produce all-inclusive models that would accommodate the movement and nature of water in representations while respecting principles of order and linear causality.  Yi-Fu Tuan, the geographer known for his contribution to the development of the concept of place, considered Aristotle’s analysis the first instance of the process that has led to the construction of hydrological models since. In his The Hydrologic Cycle and the Wisdom of God (1968), Tuan describes how there were in the West two major competing paradigms of water circulation throughout the Middle Ages and the modern era.  Both these paradigms rely on the concept of a balanced system of flow that connects rain, rivers, and the sea while identifying respectively the sea or rainfall as the origin of rivers and springs. While one view corresponds to our modern understanding, the other, which he named the “reversed cycle”, explained springs and rivers as being the output of underground channels that are connected to the sea. Both these views are mentioned by Aristotle and the reversed cycle continued to be popular well into the eighteenth century. Although responding to different origin points and dealing with increasing levels of complexity, all of the models identified in these histories of the water cycle conform to similar parameters in producing knowledge by reducing a variety of phenomena to an exhaustive view. Despite their attempt to be all-inclusive, these models are constructed on the assumption of human non-interaction with water.

Today, some scientists work on and with hydrological models that do not strive for the order and linear causality that informed the history of hydrology. In his recent article, published on WIREs Water, Christopher J. Duffy, Professor of Civil Engineering at Penn State, states that “the hydrological cycle is hardly a cycle at all”, but rather “a complex system with many interacting states, mostly unmeasured.” One might question what the role of humans in this picture is.

Histories of hydrology are in fact often the histories of how humans thought water would move had there been no humans at all. Dams, industries, breweries, agricultural systems, urban waters, farms: they never figure into those models, although humans as well as all animal and vegetal earthlings extract water from hydrological systems.  In these models, human extraction is limited to primary physiological processes such as drinking and transpiration, which shape the relationship between living beings and water. Interestingly, while animals or flora and fauna have made their way into diagrams produced by the USGS for both children (fig.2) and adults (fig. 3), human social interactions with water are not included in visual renderings.

Even if there is the awareness of the role played by humans in the system of earthling waters, such role continues to be marginalized and hidden. interactive version (fig. 4) designed for advanced students includes animals in the picture, and there one finds a short note on humans, part of which states: “There is one creature on Earth that does have a very large impact on the water cycle—human beings. The natural water cycle changed once people came on the scene. People have adapted and remade parts of the world to make use of water, such as draining wetlands, pulling massive amounts of water out of the ground, damming rivers to create reservoirs, and using significant amounts of water from rivers for human use.”

Fig 4. Navigable.

Fig. 4 USGC. The Water Cycle for Schools and Students: Advanced students. Interactive version.

“A very large impact” which is confined to a small note in educational discourse.

Today the question of water, which for so long troubled natural philosophers, poets and artists, emerges again as one of the most puzzling aspects of terrestrial life. On one side, anthropologists point to the co-construction of natural catastrophes by stressing the human role in the water cycle and thus in the interactions that lead to water scarcity or excess. On the other, while scientists struggle to include humans and society as one of the ‘states’ in the system, media and education material still feature diagrams and models that provide a sense of water as being separate from humans and within the realm of pristine nature.

We could ask how our present might be different had we followed epistemological models incorporating not only notions of complexity and disorder, but also biota, including humans. What would our present waters look like had the systems of water on earth never been reduced into orderly representations and ideas of pristine nature? How would we interpret and relate to water had we been aware that each and every one of our actions complicates and resets the system of earthly waters?

Luna Sarti is a fourth-year doctoral student in the Italian Studies program at the
University of Pennsylvania. She is interested in exploring how histories of rivers
and humans intersect. Her current research focuses on the shifting cultures and
practices of water that bound the Arno river in Tuscany, thus shaping not only the
Tuscan landscape but also its history. This summer, as a Mellon PPEH Graduate
Fellows, she worked on developing research strategies to assess and describe
the entangled flowing of river waters. Luna earned an MA in Israeli Studies from
the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London and a Ph.D in
Comparative Literatures from the University of Florence.

The strange peregrination of a Latin noun: tribus from Italy to India

By guest contributor Professor Sumit Guha

This essay addresses the shifting connection between signifier and signified, word and thing, by looking at the history of an important and yet so protean sociological term: ‘tribe’. My argument is that  ‘tribe’ is a ‘fossil word’ whose content has been replaced through centuries, just as a fossil’s soft tissue has been replaced by mineral compounds. In the process, it has changed to conform with the soil where it has lain. It is these shifts and their underlying discourses that I want to present in this post. In South Asia, the term was also in recent centuries permeated by traits based on the race theories of imperial-age Europe. It has therefore acquired a different connotation in the Republic of India than it has anywhere else. I begin however with its renewed presence in American public discourse now.

Tribes are in vogue (and even in Vogue) nowadays.  Their primordial existence is invoked by journalists and academics to explain mass behavior today. This is of course not new: in the age of modernization theory (after World War II) ‘tribalism’ was frequently invoked to explain the political behavior of ‘not yet modern’ (read non-Western) peoples. Modernization would dissolve all that. John Locke wrote that in the beginning, all was as America: Francis Fukuyama that in the end all would be. History has proved more complex, and back in the USA, ‘tribalism’ is the word of the day. Nations disintegrate and states fail, but ‘Tribalism’ has frequently invoked ever since the U.S. election of 2016 to explain political behavior.

I will show how the same word has come to have distinct referents within and outside the modern Republic of India. As an exercise in the history of ideas, I will look at how and why this came about by bringing to light the racial theories in which the Indian understanding originated.

is well known, tribus is an old Latin noun, originally applied to the divisions of the people by the ancient Romans. It has been suggested that it was originally a compound meaning ‘the three peoples’ or ‘three orders’, though the number of Roman tribes later increased to over thirty. The word entered many European languages during the medieval period. In English we find it in a 1752 thesaurus, and it was used (from Hebrew) as a name for the twelve divisions of the people of Israel as described in Exodus and elsewhere.

After 1510, the Portuguese controlled all sea-borne European access to the Indian Ocean  for almost a century. Asian ships largely sailed under stringent conditions that came with Portuguese permits. The Portuguese arrived at the beginning of the print revolution in the West. Western knowledge of Asia was mediated through Portuguese (and for the learned, Latin). Portuguese became a lingua franca around the littoral. The British commander Robert Clive addressed his Indian soldiery in that language in 1757.  The social category of tribe (tribus) was however, little used by the Portuguese despite their Latin heritage. Other than ‘casta’ – a sociological term common to both Portuguese and Spanish empires–communities were usually called. Both terms referred to ‘people’ in the loosest sense of the term.

But the word ‘tribe’ was early employed by the major South Asian colonial power: Britain. That usage likely came from literate Protestants’ familiarity with the English Bible. But it was still loosely used to mean an ethno-political  grouping. We therefore find great nomenclatural confusion in early English documents. The English East India Company took over the formerly Portuguese-ruled island of Bombay in 1665 and a few years later the governor wrote to his superiors that there were several different ‘nations’ (also described as ‘orders or tribes’) inhabiting the . (I have modernized his orthography by expanding abbreviations; all emphases added.)

[I]n order to preserve the Govern[ment] in constant regular method, free from that confusion which a body composed of so many nations will be subject to, it were requisite [that] [the] severall nations at pres[ent] inhabiting or hereafter to inhabit on the Island of Bombay be reduced or modelled into so many orders or tribes, & that each nation may have a Cheif (sic) or Consull of the same nation appointed over them by the Gover[nor] and Councell…

The distinctive twentieth-century anthropological use of ‘tribe’ and ‘caste’ was still absent as late as the 1820s. For example, in 1823, Thomas Marshall reporting to the Government of Bombay, wrote of one district: ‘the Weavers are either of the tribe of Lingayut [a religious community] or of another Kanaree tribe called Hutgur …’ (p.18). Today both of these would be classified as ‘castes’. He went on ‘the tribe of Bunyas [ a generic term for all Hindu and Jain merchant castes] educated to reading and accompts being unknown here ..’ (p.24).

To add to the confusion, any descent group could also be labeled ‘race’ – so Marshall writes that ‘a respectable Mahratta [today both an ethnonym and a caste-name] (to which race the institution is confined) …’ (p.83). From North India in the same period we find two Muslim communities self-classified as Sheikh [Arabic ‘chief’; used in India by many Muslims as a status label and Sayyad [descendant of the Prophet] referred to as races: ‘The village is divided into two [sections], corresponding with the two races (sic) by which it is occupied …’ This ethnographic looseness had however little administrative effect. (I have discussed English nineteenth century usage of ‘race’ elsewhere.)  Its practical unimportance is why it was allowed to persist. But some officials realized that tribal organization could frame political life in some parts of Southern Asia. Once social categories became administrative ones it became necessary to label clearly and describe exactly.

Mountstuart Elphinstone, one of Marshall’s superior officers in Bombay (later Governor there) and realized the sociopolitical importance of sociological clarity during his visit to the then Eastern Afghanistan in 1808-10. (Shah Shuja refused him permission to go further than Peshawar but he indefatigably interviewed travelers, merchants, Afghan immigrants into India and others when compiling his account.  I have discussed Elphinstone in a recent publication.)  He noted the centrality of ‘tribal’ organization to the political life of the region and this led him to try and label it accurately. So he wrote (all emphases added):

I beg my readers to remark, that hereafter, when I speak of the great divisions of the Afghauns, I shall call them tribes ; and when the component parts of a tribe are mentioned with reference to the tribe, I shall call the first divisions clans : those which compose a clan, Khails, &c, as above. But when I am treating of one of those divisions as an independent body, I shall call it Oolooss, and its component parts clans, khails, &c, according to the relation they bear to the Oolooss, as if the latter were a tribe. Khail is a corruption of the Arabic word Khyle, a band or assemblage ; and Zye, so often affixed to the names of tribes, clans, and families, means son, and is added as Mac is prefixed by the [Scots]Highlanders.

(Oolooss/ulus was a term popularized across the 13th century Mongol Empire to refer to an aggregate of tribe and their grazing domain.)

Elphinstone wrote of the founder-king, King Ahmed Shah Durrani (ruled 1747-1772), that he had been wise enough to know that it would need less exertion to conquer all the neighboring countries (i.e. Elphinstone’s ‘great divisions’) of Afghanistan. Ahmed Shah founded a state that, while designated a monarchy, functioned as a confederation of tribes and chiefdoms (khanates) held together by the Shah’s redistribution of tribute and plunder from the region extending from western Uttar Pradesh to the Khyber Pass. In the nineteenth century, British and Russian arms and subsidies enabled the kings to acquire more authority. But that broke down with the overthrow of the monarchy and then of all settled government in the late 1970s and 1980s.

Over much of the world therefore, “tribe” has generally referred to strong organizations, often possessing much latent military power. Nor should we view this as a situation confined to specific regions of West Asia or North Africa. Decades ago, Owen Lattimore provocatively suggested that from their beginnings, civilizations gave birth to the barbarian tribes that they then sought to subdue or to exclude, and by whom they were periodically conquered. Tribes (he argued) emerged out of simple bands of foragers or farmers because emerging empires preyed upon small unorganized communities for slaves, encroached on their territories, or sought to incorporate them as servile peasants.

afridi tribesmen

Afridi tribesmen, 1878, from Wikimedia Commons

Tribes might also take shape out of conquering war-bands. The area northeast of Delhi, for example (now known as Rohilkhand), lost its medieval name (Katehar) in the eighteenth century as warrior-bands called Rohilla displaced the local Katehriya Rajput gentry that had tenaciously resisted the power of Delhi from the thirteenth century. The Rohillas in turn, maintained the local tradition of resistance to central power well into the British colonial period. But there was no original Rohilla tribe in Afghanistan. As Jos Gommans has demonstrated in his contribution to the volume for D.H.A. Kolff, the early Indian Rohillas had themselves assembled a ‘tribal’ community out of various Afghan war bands and miscellaneous local slaves drawn into the following of Daud Khan, a horse-trader turned soldier of fortune turned tribal chieftain.

‘Tribe’ is an important category in modern South Asia, especially in the Republic of India. Nandini Sundar, an important Indian academic recently published a valuable edited volume on the 100 million-plus people classed as members of ‘Scheduled Tribes’ in India. This part of the post only looks at the origins of this term and the evolution of its unusual usage in the India, one so distinct from that in other parts of the Old World.

The Republic has followed a late colonial classification, one that began by defining ‘tribes’ as This strain of thought originated in late colonial times and derived from the now abandoned effort to apply geological models of stratification to contemporary social organization. We find it exemplified in the work of the missionary ethnographer John Wilson. It was transferred to the hilly forests of Central India by the British official Charles Grant who also incorporated the emerging “Nordic” and “Aryan race” theory.

The rise of nationalism and its critiques of colonial rule increasingly irked the British imperial government. One of the ideological responses was to argue that various Indian communities needed the benevolent protection of the Empire against the oppressions of other Indians, especially those critical of the Empire. This discourse naturally gravitated to the communities already declared to be . By the early twentieth century that led to special protection for such peoples and thus began the movement towards a conception of tribes as composed of simple, timid and primitive peoples whose special traits made them deserving of protection by the British government of India. As I have written elsewhere, the government wanted to counter nationalist agitations by presenting itself as the protector of the simple aborigines against oppression by their fellow-Indians. One effect of this was the creation of ‘excluded areas’ beyond the inner frontiers, where ordinary law and civil process did not operate and the executive had wide powers. The separate existence of such areas was gradually terminated after Indian independence, but special measures of affirmative action were enshrined in the new Constitution (1950).

However, the defining traits of ‘tribal’ communities were taken from colonial ethnography. Thus India’s tribes are defined and have been officially defined since at least the 1960s in ways detailed in Sundar’s Introduction to her book. Megan Moodie recently pointed out that “shyness” was an important identifying trait. This has had real-world consequences for communities seeking inclusion in this category. For example, the failure of the Gurjar or Gujar community of northern India to display the necessary traits led a judicial commission appointed by the Government of Rajasthan to deny them entry into the list of Scheduled Tribes for that state.  That commission reiterated the conclusions of an earlier report submitted to the government on 20 August 1981, which had said of them: “They are fairly well-off and suffer from no shyness of contact with people of other castes. Also, they do not have any primitive traits (for them) to be considered for inclusion in [Scheduled Tribe] ”.

Thus the same sociological term has radically different meanings. A few hundred miles west of the Indian border, adjoining Afghanistan, lies what was (until recently) known as  Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA). Its residents have never been known for shyness or timidity: indeed, quite the opposite. It is here that we find the direct descendants of the ‘tribes’ that Elphinstone observed in 1810. Two hundred years later, they are still political and military communities that play a major part in the public life of Afghanistan and, to a lesser degree of Pakistan.

Sumit Guha is Professor of History at The University of Texas at Austin. He is indebted to Derek O’Leary for two careful readings and many good suggestions.