Why are all the Con Artists White?

by guest contributor Shane White
 
In the stage production of “The Sting” currently at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey, (and reviewed in the New York Times on April 9th) the African American actor, J. Harrison Ghee, plays Johnny Hooker. Back in 1974, in the film on which this musical is based, Robert Redford starred in the same role. 
 
This racial sleight of hand, according to the New York Times reviewer, is one of the stage production’s improvements to the original: casting an African American as one of the principal characters “sets up the con even more effectively, and the prejudice he faces, casual and otherwise, puts us on his side.”
 
For those unfamiliar with the finer details of the world of the confidence game, the defining feature of the con is that the victim is separated from his or her money by words and guile rather than violence or the threat of violence. A con man or woman deceives an unsuspecting stranger into simply handing over his or her cash or goods. Usually, but not always, the prospect of profiting by dishonest means tempts the mark into thinking he or she can get away with a dubious if not illegal transaction. The term “confidence man” was coined by James Gordon Bennett’s New York Herald back in 1849 to describe a William Thompson. But, of course, the confidence game, in its many varied guises, long predated this white man’s depredations in Lower Manhattan.
 
It may well be the case, in theatrical terms, that this new production of “The Sting” does set up the con more effectively by casting a black man in what had been a white man’s role. What is revealing though is that no one—neither those responsible for the musical nor the Times reviewer—seems to be aware that black confidence tricksters have a history. Catering to our views of the way the world should be, most particularly on the issue of race, may win over today’s theater audiences, but it plays havoc with the past. There have been times, for instance in the 1830s, when the occupation of con artist—though I like to think of it as more a profession—was integrated. By the mid-1930s, the period when “The Sting” is set, confidence tricksters were as Jim Crowed as a water bubbler in Montgomery, Alabama.
 
Mind you, the history of the black con artist has been forgotten. The classic and still razor-sharp ethnography, David Maurer’s The Big Con (1940), on which both the film and musical of “The Sting” are loosely based, does not mention African Americans. Other histories of confidence men skate over the last couple of centuries giving lurid accounts of the doings of such white men as Joseph “Yellow Kid” Weil, Victor “The Count” Lustig, or Ivan Kreuger, “The Match King,” and their ilk. The occasionally named African American merits only a line or two at best and is essentially an interloper in a white story. 
 
The reason why there is no history of black confidence men and women is not too difficult to fathom. On the very first page of text of Maurer’s The Big Con, he declared that “of all the grifters, the confidence man is the aristocrat”, and back in 1940 at least everyone knew aristocrats were white. Maurer went on to describe confidence men as “suave, slick, and capable,” with even their crimes being “very much on the genteel side.” For whites, Harlem was home to the razor and the gun, not the confidence man.
 
Contrary to what many of the white experts have assumed, the occupation of confidence man has a long and distinguished African American pedigree. From an early age, slaves learned that their survival depended on their ability to observe, deceive and to dissemble, to mask their feelings and thoughts from owners, overseers, and indeed any white person. What was demanded by the circumstances of slavery was further reinforced by the importance in African American culture of the “man of words”—a tradition, which can be traced back to Africa, of placing a high value on verbal facility. “Puttin’ on ole Massa,” was a way of life for blacks held in bondage. But if slavery was the school that honed these skills to a razor-sharp edge, it was freedom that revealed new vistas for their exploitation.
 
In New York City, there have been in fact two Golden Ages of the black confidence trickster. The first followed on from the end of slavery in 1827 and lasted for a little more than a decade in the 1830s and 1840s. The second, fractionally longer, took place almost a century later in the 1920s and 1930s. Not coincidentally, both were periods of dramatic and abrupt change in African American life, transitional times when new things disrupted older more settled ways. In the first, recently freed slaves established the lineaments of African American urban culture and in the latter their New York born descendants combined with a flood tide of immigrants from the South and the Caribbean to make Harlem the Negro Metropolis, black capital of the world. These were two of the liveliest and most exciting eras in the history of Black Manhattan. Not coincidentally, in both periods city streets were alive with African Americans living off their mother wit. Some were hustlers and con artists of the highest order.
 
Even as David Maurer was collecting material in the 1930s for his seminal The Big Con, there were innumerable confidence men and women roaming Harlem streets and avenues. Seemingly, their activities did not impinge on the linguist and ethnographer’s consciousness; if they did they certainly had no place in the book he wanted to write. His unwavering belief that con artists were white lingers on down to today. Perhaps the new musical version may begin to undermine the idea that “confidence man” simply means Paul Newman and Robert Redford in The Sting (1973). Perhaps.
 
Yet with all the talent and money invested in this new musical version of “The Sting,” it is hard not to conclude that an opportunity has slipped by. In today’s racial climate, is it enough merely to tinker with a familiar story, casting a black actor to play the same role previously allotted to a white actor?
 
Or, shouldn’t considering African Americans as active participants in history force us to reconceive a more inclusive story of the confidence trick? In much the same way that the makers of the film “The Sting” used Maurer’s The Big Con, couldn’t the history of black confidence tricksters have been exploited as a source to arrive at something new?
 
Who knows? Perhaps following the stupendous financial success of “Black Panther”, Broadway and Hollywood are ready for productions about an integrated gang of “burners” cruising the city streets in 1838 or Harlem’s “voodoo hidden gold swindle” of 1928. There remain an almost endless number of stories of the African American past awaiting their moment in the sun. All you have to do is ask an historian of African America—every one of them has at least one story she or he’d like to see on stage or screen.
 
Shane White is the Challis Professor of History at the University of Sydney and, coincidentally, finishing off writing a book on the two Golden Ages of the black confidence trick in New York City.

Bernini, Augustine, and what we’re reading

This week at the JHI Blog from our editorial team, “Bernini at the Borghese” by Cynthia Houng, and “Reading Saint Augustine in Toledo” from Spencer Weinreich. And some weekend reading from around the web.

Nuala

Giuseppe Bianco, The Misadventures of the “Problem in “Philosophy” from kant to deleuze. (Journal of the Theoretical Humanities)

Jennifer Doudna and Samuel Sternberg, A Crack in Creation: The New Power to Control Evolution (Bodley Head Publishers).

Marion Fourcade and Kieran Healy “Seeing Like a Market” (Socio-Economic Review)

Peter Godfrey-Smith. Other Minds. The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness. (MacMillan Publishers)

Louis Menand, Fat Man. Herman Kahn and the nuclear age (The New Yorker)

 

Sarah

Colin Burrow, “The End of the Epithet,” (LRB)

Adewale Maja-Pearce, “Where to Begin?” (LRB)

Amanda Petrusich, “The Cultural and Political Forces Behind Kendrick Lamar’s Pulitzer,” (New Yorker)

Fernanda Zamudio-Suaréz, “Historians Want to Be Cited in the Media, Here’s Why,” (The Chronicle)

 

Eric
Fanny Bugnon, “Aux armes (Else Dorlin, Se défendre)” (laviedesidee).

Ben Judah, “Non to Tocqueville!” (The American Interest) – but Jacob Hamburger says “Oui” (Tocqueville 21).

Jeff Weiss, “Dope Boy Dirges and Funky Funeral Music” (Liner Notes).

 

Derek

JL Schellenberg, “Philosophy’s First Steps” (aeon)

Clare Chambers, “Against Marriage” (aeon)

Kate Briggs, “How Do We Judge Translations? “(Lithub)

Reading Saint Augustine in Toledo

By Editor Spencer J. Weinreich

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Antonio Rodríguez, Saint Augustine

In his magisterial history of the Reformation, Diarmaid MacCulloch wrote, “from one perspective, a century or more of turmoil in the Western Church from 1517 was a debate in the mind of long-dead Augustine.” MacCulloch riffs on B. B. Warfield’s pronouncement that “[t]he Reformation, inwardly considered, was just the ultimate triumph of Augustine’s doctrine of grace over Augustine’s doctrine of the Church” (111). There can be no denying the centrality to the Reformation of Thagaste’s most famous son. But Warfield’s “triumph” is only half the story—forgivably so, from the last of the great Princeton theologians. Catholics, too, laid claim to Augustine’s mantle. Not least among them was a Toledan Jesuit by the name of Pedro de Ribadeneyra, whose particular brand of personal Augustinianism offers a useful tonic to the theological and polemical Augustine.

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Pedro de Ribadeneyra

To quote Eusebio Rey, “I do not believe there were many religious writers of the Siglo de Oro who internalized certain ascetical aspects of Saint Augustine to a greater degree than Ribadeneyra” (xciii). Ribadeneyra translated the Confessions, the Soliloquies, and the Enchiridion, as well as the pseudo-Augustinian Meditations. His own works of history, biography, theology, and political theory are filled with citations, quotations, and allusions to the saint’s oeuvre, including such recondite texts as the Contra Cresconium and the Answer to an Enemy of the Laws and the Prophets. In short, like so many of his contemporaries, Ribadeneyra invoked Augustine as a commanding authority on doctrinal and philosophical issues. But there is another component to Ribadeneyra’s Augustinianism: his spiritual memoir, the Confesiones.

Composed just before his death in September 1611, Ribadeneyra’s Confesiones may be the first memoir to borrow Augustine’s title directly (Pabel 456). Yet, a title does not a book make. How Augustinian are the Confesiones?

Pierre Courcelle, the great scholar of the afterlives of Augustine’s Confessions, declared that “the Confesiones of the Jesuit Ribadeneyra seem to have taken nothing from Augustine save the form of a prayer of praise” (379). Of this commonality there can be no doubt: Ribadeneyra effuses with gratitude to a degree that rivals Augustine. “These mercies I especially acknowledge from your blessed hand, and I praise and glorify you, and implore all the courtiers of heaven that they praise and forever thank you for them” (21). Like the Confessions, the Confesiones are written as “an on-going conversation with God to which […] readers were deliberately made a party” (Pabel 462). That said, reading the two side-by-side reveals deeper connections, as the Jesuit borrows from Augustine’s life story in narrating his own.

Though Ribadeneyra could not recount flirtations with Manicheanism or astrology, he could follow Augustine in subjecting his childhood to unsparing critique. His early years furnished—whose do not?—sufficient petty rebellions to merit Augustinian laments for “the passions and awfulness of my wayward nature” (5–6). In one such incident, Pedro stubbornly demands milk as a snack; enraged by his mother’s refusal, he runs from the house and begins roughhousing with his friends, resulting in a broken leg. Sin inspired by a desire for dairy sets up an echo of Augustine’s rebuke of

the jealousy of a small child: he could not even speak, yet he glared with livid fury at his fellow-nursling. […] Is this to be regarded as innocence, this refusal to tolerate a rival for a richly abundant fountain of milk, at a time when the other child stands in greatest need of it and depends for its very life on this food alone? (I.7,11)

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Luis Tristán, Santa Monica

Ribadeneyra’s mother, Catalina de Villalobos, unsurprisingly plays the role of Monica, the guarantor of his Catholic future (while pregnant, Catalina vows that her son will become a cleric). She was not the only premodern woman to be thus canonized by her son: Jean Gerson tells us that his mother, Élisabeth de la Charenière, was “another Monica” (400n10).

Leaving Toledo, Pedro comes to Rome, which was cast as one of Augustine’s perilous earthly cities. Hilmar Pabel points out that the Jesuit’s description of the city as “Babylonia” imitates Augustine’s jeremiad against Thagaste as “Babylon” (474). Like its North African predecessor, this Italian Babylon threatens the soul of its young visitor. Foremost among these perils are teachers: in terms practically borrowed from the Confessions, Ribadeneyra decries “those who ought to be masters, [who] are seated in the throne of pestilence and teach a pestilent doctrine, and not only do not punish the evil they see in their vassals and followers, but instead favor and encourage them by their authority” (7–8).

After Ribadeneyra left for Italy, Catalina’s duties as Monica passed to Ignatius of Loyola, who combined them with those of Ambrose of Milan—the father-figure and guide encountered far from home . Like Ambrose, Ignatius acts como padre, one whose piety is the standard that can never be met, who combines affection with correction.

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A young Ignatius of Loyola

The narrative climax of the Confessions is Augustine’s tortured struggle culminating in his embrace of Christianity. No such conversion could be forthcoming for Ribadeneyra, its place taken by tentacion, an umbrella term encapsulating emotional upheavals, doubts over his vocation, the fantasy of returning to Spain, and resentment of Ignatius. Famously, Augustine agonizes until he hears a voice that seems to instruct him, tolle lege (VIII.29). Ribadeneyra structures the resolution of his own crises in analogous fashion, his anxieties dissolved by a single utterance of Ignatius’s: “I beg of you, Pedro, do not be ungrateful to one who has shown you so many kindnesses, as God our Lord.” “These words,” Ribadeneyra tells us, “were as powerful as if an angel come from heaven had spoken them,” his tentacion forever banished (37).

I am not suggesting Ribadeneyra fabricated these incidents in order to claim an Augustinian mantle. But the choices of what to include and how to narrate his Confesiones were shaped, consciously and unconsciously, by Augustine’s example.

Ribadeneyra’s story also diverges from its Late Antique model, and at times the contrast is such as to favor the Jesuit, however implicitly. Ribadeneyra professes an unmistakably early modern Marian piety that has no equivalent in Augustine. Where Monica is reassured by a vision of “a young man of radiant aspect” (III.11,19), Catalina de Villalobos makes her vow to vuestra sanctíssima Madre y Señora nuestra (3). Augustine addresses his gratitude to “my God, my God and my Lord” (I.2, 2), while Ribadeneyra, who mentions his travels to Marian shrines like Loreto, is more likely to add the Virgin to his exclamations: “and in particular I implored your most glorious virgin-mother, my exquisite lady, the Virgin Mary” (11). The Confessions mention Mary only twice, solely as the conduit for the Incarnation (IV.12, 19; V.10, 20). Furthermore, Ribadeneyra’s early conquest of his tentaciones produces a much smoother path than Augustine’s erratic embrace of Christianity; thus the Jesuit declares, “I never had any inclination for a way of life other than that I have” (6). His rhapsodic praise of chastity—“when could I praise you enough for having bound me with a vow to flee the filthiness of the flesh and to consecrate my body and soul to you in a clean and sweet sacrifice” (46)—is far cry from the infamous “Make me chaste, Lord, but not yet” (VIII.17)

When Ribadeneyra translated Augustine’s Confessions into Spanish in 1596, his paratexts lauded Augustine as the luz de la Iglesia and God’s signal gift to the Church. There is no hint—anything else would have been highly inappropriate—of equating himself with Augustine, whose ingenio was “either the greatest or one of the greatest and most excellent there has ever been in the world.” As a last word, however, Ribadeneyra mentions the previous Spanish version, published in 1554 by Sebastián Toscano. Toscano was not a native speaker, “and art can never equal nature, and so his style could not match the dignity and elegance of our language.” It falls to Ribadeneyra, in other words, to provide the Hispanophone world with the proper text of the Confessions; without ever saying so, he positions himself as a privileged interpreter of Augustine.

The Confessions is a profoundly personal text, perhaps the seminal expression of Christian subjectivity—told in a searingly intense first-person. Ribadeneyra himself writes that in the Confessions “is depicted, as in a masterful portrait painted from life, the heavenly spirit of Saint Augustine, in all its colors and shades.” Without wandering into the trackless wastes of psychohistory, it must have been a heady experience for so devoted a reader of Augustine to compose—all translation being composition—the life and thought of the great bishop.

Ribadeneyra was of course one of many Augustinians in early modern Europe, part of an ongoing Catholic effort to reclaim the Doctor from the Protestants, but we will misunderstand his dedication if we regard the saint as no more than a prime piece of symbolic real estate. For scholars of early modern Augustinianism have rooted the Church Father in philosophical schools and the cut-and-thrust of confessional conflict. To MacCulloch and Warfield we might add Meredith J. Gill, Alister McGrath, Arnoud Visser, and William J. Bouwsma, for whom early modern thought was fundamentally shaped by the tidal pulls of two edifices, Augustinianism and Stoicism.

There can be no doubt that Ribadeneyra was convinced of Augustine’s unimpeachable Catholicism and opposition to heresy—categories he had no hesitation in mapping onto Reformation-era confessions. Equally, Augustine profoundly influenced his own theology. But beyond and beneath these affinities lay a personal bond. Augustine, who bared his soul to a degree unmatched among the Fathers, was an inspiration, in the most immediate sense, to early modern believers. Like Ignatius, the bishop of Hippo offered Ribadeneyra a model for living.

That early modern individuals took inspiration from classical, biblical, and late antique forebears is nothing new. Bruce Gordon writes that, influenced by humanist notions of emulation, “through intensive study, prayer and conduct [John] Calvin sought to become Paul” (110). Mutatis mutandis, the sentiment applies to Ribadeneyra and Augustine. Curiously, Stephen Greenblatt’s seminal Renaissance Self-Fashioning does not much engage with emulation, concerning itself with self-fashioning as creation ad nihilum—that is to say, a new self, not geared toward an existing model (Greenblatt notes in passing, and in contrast, the tradition of imitatio Christi). Ribadeneyra, in reading, translating, interpreting, citing, and imitating Augustine, was fashioning a self after another’s image. As his Catholicized Confesiones indicate, this was not a slavish and literal-minded adherence to each detail. He recognized the great gap of time that separated him from his hero, changes that demanded creativity and alteration in the fashioning of a self. This need not be a thought-out or even conscious plan, but simply the cumulative effect of a lifetime of admiration and inspiration. Without denying Ribadeneyra’s formidable mind or his fervent Catholicism, there is something to be gained from taking emotional significance as our starting point, from which to understand all the intellectual and personal work the Jesuit, and others of his time, could accomplish through a hero.

Bernini at the Borghese

By Contributing Editor Cynthia Houng

In Rome, Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) is nearly unavoidable. Walk down the center of the Piazza S. Pietro and look up. All along the great curving wings of the Piazza’s colonnades stand Bernini’s saints–carved and executed by other sculptors, but envisioned by Bernini. There he is in Piazza Navona, with the Fontana dei Fiumi, or Fountain of the Four Rivers. Those are his angels on the Ponte Sant’Angelo. That playful little elephant bearing an obelisk in front of Santa Maria sopra Minerva? That belongs to him, too. Only by leaving the historic city center can one escape him. Much like Michelangelo, another sculptor turned architect and impresario, Bernini transformed himself from a maker of precious objects to a maestro whose vision re-shaped the city. If Bernini is synonymous with the Baroque, it is due to his success working on this grand scale, shaping and molding the fabric of Rome to suit the dreams and needs of the Church and its princes.

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In the fall of 2017, a monographic exhibition on Bernini opened at the Galleria Borghese, curated by Anna Coliva (also director of the Borghese) and Andrea Bacchi (director of the Fondazione Federico Zeri in Bologna). By the curators’ own admission, there has been no shortage of Bernini-related exhibitions in the past decade. So why mount another one? Their rationale is deceptively simple: “We have attempted for the first time to cover Bernini’s whole career,” with the exception, of course, of those site-specific works (fountains, altars, the baldachin in St. Peter’s) that cannot be moved. What this means, in reality, is that the curators have collected an extraordinary range of freestanding works by Bernini and his workshop. The exhibition also includes Bernini’s paintings (seldom exhibited en masse), sculptures by Bernini’s father, Pietro, and preparatory works for monumental commissions like the Four Rivers Fountain.

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Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Apollo and Daphne, Galleria Borghese. All photographs by Cynthia Houng

So much has been written on Bernini in recent years that it seems impossible to propose anything new. But the experience of encountering Bernini’s work is always new. Each encounter is a dance, a performance that requires the beholder’s participation. There are no passive audiences here. Bernini’s orchestration of the pilgrim’s approach to St. Peter’s exemplifies the performative, relational nature of his work. As a series of impressions leading the pilgrim out of the quotidian world and into another world altogether, the work is, to use the language of another time, site specific and performative, requiring activation by a participant in order to be complete. The power of the encounter, and the effect of the performance on the participant-beholder–Bernini’s partner, really, in the work–is ecstatic. In Rudolf Wittkower’s evocative description, the performance of approaching St. Peter’s cathedral via the Piazza transports the viewer “beyond the narrow limits of his own existence and be entranced with the causality of an enchanted world.” In St. Peter’s, “the beholder finds himself in a world which he shares with saints and angels, and he is therefore submitted to an extraordinarily powerful experience. A mystery has been given visual shape, and its comprehension rests on an act of emotional participation rather than one of rational interpretation.”

“The challenge that Bernini set himself in his religious architecture,” Fabio Barry argued, “was always to create visions whose credibility depended upon them being experientially fleeting but permanent in the mind. God had created a heaven, but because its unveiling at the end of time was eternally distant yet perpetually imminent, Bernini must create a heaven just for us.” And who wouldn’t want to experience heaven again and again, each time anew? And so both scholars and laypersons find themselves drawn back to Bernini, each return an attempt to parse their own experiences of Bernini’s art.

The Borghese show makes full use of the relational, performative aspects of Bernini’s work. It is an object-oriented show in the fullest sense, all of its arguments and propositions originate in the objects gathered for the exhibition, in the relationships formed between them, and in the possibilities of close observation and comparison. It invites the visitor to participate in a hermeneutics of looking.

The show is both ambitious and ravishing. It makes full use of the Villa Borghese’s fabulous setting, occupying both the ground floor galleries (where Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne has resided since its creation), and the smaller, more intimate rooms on the second floor. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 2012 exhibition, “Bernini: Sculpting in Clay,” was a marvel, but the show was installed in the antiseptic Lehman wing. The Met did not have the benefit of the Borghese’s setting, with its sumptuous ornamentation and rich installations of Old Master paintings and Classical sculptures. Though the Borghese was largely redone in the eighteenth century (by the architect Antonio Asprucci, under the patronage of Prince Marcantonio Borghese IV), it had always served as a site for the display of art. These eighteenth-century renovations codified the building’s role as a site for the display of art. In her study of Asprucci’s renovation of the Galleria Borghese, Carole Paul noted that “Asprucci coordinated the decoration of each room to form a sumptuous ensemble unified in form and content, including the statuary.” Asprucci took everything–from the marble floors to the carved cornices–into consideration, creating new juxtapositions between the paintings, sculptures, and their environments. He also shifted Bernini’s statues, David (1623) and Apollo and Daphne (1622-25), from their original seventeenth-century locations. Today, neither sculpture can be viewed as Bernini intended. Though one can no longer see Bernini’s sculptures in their seventeenth-century settings, the richness and intensity of the Borghese’s environment is closer to how these works were meant to be seen than the clean, white galleries of the modern museum. More importantly, the placement of Bernini’s sculptures in the Borghese maintains their connection to the painting of his time, a connection that is particularly important to the argument of the Borghese’s “Bernini” show, which dedicated an entire section to Bernini’s own practice of painting.

Due to its constraints, “Bernini” is more heavily weighted towards the artist’s production for private patrons. However, Bernini’s greatest patron was the Church. As Wittkower noted in his 1955 study of Bernini (the first English-language study of Bernini intended for a broad audience): “it was Bernini’s tremendous achievement in the area of the Vatican that secured his reputation as the first artist of Europe.”

Appropriately, for our secular age, the major patrons of the Bernini exhibition at Villa Borghese were a bank and a fashion house–Intesa Sanpaolo and Fendi. And this is no accident. If, in Bernini’s time, the Church was the greatest orchestrator of spectacle, then commerce must be the Church’s contemporary analogue. We have grown comfortable with the imbrication of aesthetics and capital. We have even come to expect it. When I saw that Fendi sponsored the Borghese’s Bernini show, my first reaction was, “Of course.” Fendi has been funding various cultural initiatives around Rome, where the house has its headquarters, as part of the house’s mandate to invest in the city’s cultural capital. (Fendi also sponsored the restoration of the Trevi Fountain.) My second reaction was to note the exceptionally spectacular quality of the exhibition’s presentation–the display cases, the lighting, the installations, the quality of the fixtures–which matched the quality and finish of those intended for luxury boutiques.

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Installation View, Sculptures by Gian Lorenzo and Pietro Bernini, Galleria Borghese

The Borghese’s “Bernini” exhibition presents a narrative weighted towards the earlier stages of Bernini’s long career. This emphasis was dictated, in part, by the show’s constraints: it could rely only on freestanding, movable works to make its arguments, and much of Bernini’s later output can be characterized as site-specific installation work, literally inseparable from its architectural setting. (The Cornaro Chapel is not going anywhere.) Walking through the show, visitors witness how Bernini became Bernini. The show presents some of his earliest works–including collaborations with his father, Pietro as well as early independent works. Pietro Bernini’s sculptures are also part of the Borghese presentation, and through the younger Bernini’s sculptures we witness Gian Lorenzo’s talent unfurling.

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Model for the Four Rivers Fountain, Galleria Borghese

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Installation view of bozzetti and modelli, Galleria Borghese

More interesting–and startling–is the development of Bernini’s aesthetic, the emergence of a strong and powerful stylistic vision, though again the show references Bernini’s mature works largely through proxies–through sketches and models for large-scale projects such as the Four Rivers Fountain, Cathedra Petri, and Ponte Sant’Angelo. And for almost all of Bernini’s works–even the bozzetti and modelli–there is always the question of authorship, of hands and facture. (The Met show addressed this problem of the “hands” in remarkable, technical detail.) The Borghese show is less interested in these questions. The curators take it as givens that Bernini operated a large workshop, and that he often outsourced work to other sculptors. As Bacchi and Colivo note in the introductory essay, the show aimed for “a direct dialogue with the works,” and many of the objects are on display together for the first time. The two monumental crucifixes have never been gathered in the same space before.

The show also invites viewers to consider different facets of Bernini’s practice in relation to each other. At the Borghese, visitors can view Bernini’s early putti in relation to his classically-inspired sculpture, The Goat Amalthea (an early work dated before 1615, probably made when Bernini was about 16), in relation to his restoration of ancient Roman sculptures–such as his restoration work on the famous Hermaphrodite sculpture, and to the angels and putti that he imagined for the Ponte Sant’Angelo and the Baldachin and Cathedra Petri projects in St. Peter’s cathedral.

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A room full of bozzetti, Galleria Borghese

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Installation View, Portrait busts and paintings, Galleria Borghese

The portrait busts and paintings, displayed together in one long gallery, form an interesting dialogue. Bernini is not often thought of as a painter. The paintings gathered for this exhibition will probably not elevate him to the pantheon of great painters, but they are very interesting as windows into his creative practice. They also provide us with clues to his relationship with the painting of his time. And the Borghese, with its impressive collection of Old Master paintings–though several of the Borghese’s most important Caravaggio paintings were on loan to the Getty during this show–provided an apt location to think about Bernini’s style and aesthetic in relation to the painting of his time.

Tightly focused on Bernini, this show was both an investigation and a celebration. It is a testament to Bernini’s magnetism as a subject that the wider world seems to pull in and collapse around him. The Roman Baroque narrows down to the Age of Bernini. The show is both spectacular and ravishing, and it reminds us of how far we can go–how much we can do–with an intense focus on the works themselves. It is their world that we wish to enter. And once there, we linger in pleasure.

At the same time, the Borghese show does not present the full breadth of Bernini, the man, or Bernini, the artist. It is a highly specific vision, one that presents him as a great genius, on par with the other “giants” of Italian sculpture named by the show’s curators in their introduction: Donatello, Michelangelo, Canova. Bernini had another side, one not revealed in this show. As Alexander Nagel once pointed out, “Just about everyone who knew him hated him.” He was domineering, violent, and ruthless. He slashed his mistress’s face in anger. One didn’t have to have to know Bernini to loathe him. In his biography of Bernini, Franco Mormando quotes anonymous pasquinades directed at Bernini, critiques affixed by unhappy Romans to the statue of Pasquino in the Piazza di Parione. The expensive transformation of the Piazza Navona by the Pamphilj family–which included the construction of Bernini’s spectacular Four Rivers Fountain (completed in 1651)–elicited such pasquinades as “Dic ut lapides isti panes fiant [Turn these stones into bread]!” Ordinary Romans, tired of poverty and hunger, railed against the Church’s immense expenditures on projects that did not benefit the populace.

Mormando quotes an impressive kaleidoscope of criticisms, describing Bernini as selfish and avaricious, and accusing him of robbing the papal treasury to enrich himself. Mormando cites an avviso from August 30, 1670, blasting Bernini as “the one who instigates popes into useless expenditures in these calamitous times.” By this time, Bernini was a wealthy man. (Pietro da Cortona was one of his few contemporaries who achieved comparable levels of wealth, and Cortona was, by all measures, also not a very nice man.) The construction of the Piazza San Pietro, with its colonnades and statues, cost 1 million scudi, roughly half of the Church’s yearly revenue. For Bernini’s critics, whether or not ordinary Romans enjoyed the aesthetic experiences of encountering the Four Rivers Fountain or progressing through the Piazza San Pietro was beside the point. Aesthetic pleasure provided no relief from poverty:  “We don’t want obelisks and fountains; it’s bread we want!”

* * *

In 2017, Fendi initiated a three-year partnership with the Galleria Borghese, providing support for the establishment of a Caravaggio Research Institute. This description of the partnership between Fendi and the Borghese comes from the press release for the “Caravaggio” exhibition at the Getty Museum: “The partnership between the Galleria Borghese and FENDI is part of a patronage begun by the luxury goods House in 2015, and is based on the company’s belief that beauty must be shared and spread, and that the incomparable richness of the Galleria Borghese, a reflection of the Eternal City, is a powerful, cosmopolitan pathway to promote a refined cultural sensitivity, both contemporary and universal, in the same way that FENDI pursues in its collections a true example of aesthetic research and the absolute sign of ‘Made in Italy.’”

In our time, commerce has replaced the church as art’s great patron. Private sponsorship of public patrimony raises difficult questions–of appropriation, commodification, profit, and control. It pulls the public patrimony into a process where values inherent in the cultural ‘patrimony’ or ‘heritage’–sometimes called ‘heritage values’–are captured, accumulated, and commodified by private entities. The process is widespread enough to merit its own neologism,“heritagization.” And it is almost always twinned with commodification. Salvatore Settis has written and lectured extensively–and passionately–on this subject, arguing that the transformation of cities rich in cultural heritage–such as Venice and Rome–is almost always accompanied by ossification and decline, as the city ceases to be a city for the living and transforms into a museum city, a set piece for the delectation and consumption of tourists. And yet the profits from the heritagization process flow, not to the public, but to the private entities who sponsored–capitalized, really–the process. As Pablo Alonso Gonzalez noted in his study of the heritagization process in Maragateria, Spain, the process can alienate the community from its heritage or patrimony, eliciting resistance and even fury from community members.

The relationship of the past to the present is always tricky, but perhaps exceptionally so in a place like Italy, where the past is all pervasive, where there is so much value to be extracted from the past (via industries like tourism), and where the past weighs heavily upon the present. History can feel, at times, like a straitjacket upon the present, as the city ossifies into an open-air museum. There is the Rome for the past–but where is the Rome for the living?

Fendi is not the only Italian luxury house to invest in Italy’s cultural heritage, in order to capture and accumulate “heritage values.” Tod’s sponsored the restoration of the Colosseum. Bulgari chose to restore the Spanish Steps. Telecom Italia (also known as TIM) is sponsoring the “re-launch” (the verb employed in the press release announcing the project) of the Augustus Mausoleum through its Fondazione TIM. But investment in Italian cultural heritage is not limited to Italian entities. In a 2014 interview with the New York Times, the minister of culture, Dario Franceschini, said, “Our doors are wide open for all the philanthropists and donors who want to tie their name to an Italian monument. We have a long list, as our heritage offers endless options, from small countryside churches to the Colosseum. Just pick.”

Sponsorship isn’t the only mode of privatization. In a 2007 article, Roland Benedikter noted that a set of laws, introduced in 2002, allowed the Italian government to sell objects and monuments “to international investment firms and private investors for amounts that many Italian experts consider well below the median market price.” Benedikter noted that, since 2002, the privatization of Italian cultural heritage has been “the subject of heated public debate [for it] concerns the limits of privatisation, and could lead to a broad new anti‐capitalism movement.” Settis, too, frames his argument in terms of opposition not only to commodification but also to neoliberalism.

One might argue that Bernini would have understood this process–that, perhaps, he would have encouraged and embraced it. After all, only a hair’s breadth separates the tourist from the pilgrim, and Rome made a mint off pilgrims. (Rome continues to make a mint off pilgrims. The 2000 Jubilee drew 35 million visitors to Rome.) But one might also argue that we live in different times, with different ethics and ideals–and the society we wish to live in looks nothing like the one Bernini knew.

Our wishes, though, are not always consonant with our realities. Neoliberalism, globalization, and capitalism have all incited resistance and fury from the people of Rome. I am no expert on the intricacies of Roman or Italian politics, but it would not be an exaggeration to say, given the recent elections, that Italy is in a difficult place. And– Bernini would also have been familiar with this–the fury of the people is neither predictable nor easily channeled. We don’t want obelisks and fountains; it’s bread we want.

Or perhaps more pointedly: We don’t want to live among the patrimony of the past. Nor do we want to alienate our heritage to enrich certain select private coffers (does this sound familiar, again?). We want to be able to create a patrimony that we can call our own.

Bernini was on view at the Galleria Borghese in Rome from Nov. 1, 2017 – Feb. 4, 2018. The exhibition was accompanied by a catalogue (available in Italian or English).

 

 

What we’re reading this week

Nuala:

Jonathan  Fuller,” Universal etiology, multifactorial diseases and the constitutive model of disease classification” (Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological & Biomedical Science).

Rachel Nuwer “ It’s the Latest in Conservation Tech.And It Wants to Suck Your Blood.”
(New York TImes)

Kate Sierzputowski” Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours: a Pre-Photographic Guide for Artists and Naturalists” (Colossal)

Quinn Slobodian Globalists. The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism.
(Harvard University Press)

Scott St. George,” Mississippi rising” (Nature)

 

Derek:

Hilton Als, “‘Angels in America’: Brilliant, Maddening, and Necessary” (New Yorker)

Lynne Jones, “An aid industry labouring under colonial structures is no help” (Aeon)

Rajat Singh, “A Search for Piety in Pity” (Lapham’s Quarterly)

 

Spencer:

Lucy Hughes-Hallett, “Why dictators find the lure of writing books irresistible” (New Statesman)

Phoebe Cripps, “Winter kept us warm” (TLS)

Darryl Pinckney, “Black Pictures” (NYRB)

Jeremiah Jenne, “Cosmopolitan Colonialism” (LARB)

 

Eric:

Junot Diaz, “The Silence: The Legacy of Childhood Trauma” (New Yorker)

Jacob Soll, “How Islam Shapes the Enlightenment” (New Republic)

Susan Watkins, “Which Feminisms?” (New Left Review)

William Kentridge, “Mine (1991)” (Not Everything is New)

 

Kristin:

Ed Pavlic, ““Baldwin’s Lonely Country” (Boston Review)

Shih-ying Yang and Robert Sternberg “Conceptions of Intelligence in Ancient Chinese Philosophy” (JTPP)

Tim Chamberlain, “Struggling with Empire” (Waymarks)

The trouble with Game Reviews

By Contributing Editor Brendan Mackie

I’m a 34-year-old white male. Like many of my position and generation, my childhood cursus honorum was marked by a progression of beige video game boxes: PC, NES, Genesis, and then finally a Sega CD. Games mark my adulthood, too: I have played on average over 200 hours a year since 2013, according to the game client Steam. Video games are important economically, of course: the US games industry makes more than 20 billion dollars a year. Video games become movies: movies become video games. Games gobble up our increasingly besieged attention. Witness the legions of people playing casual games on their phones in buses and airplanes and waiting rooms. Two thirds of American parents play video games with their children every week—compare that with the forty percent of adults who go to church in that time period. ‘Gamer’ has become an identity, a subculture, and a market segment.

Yet there’s something disappointing and superficial about how we talk about video games. Take the game review. Indeed, the problem of the game review has become a subgenre of think-piece in its own right. Review websites give games unfairly favorable coverage in exchange for access and advertising from the big games companies; reviewers write under deadlines so tight they can’t fully understand the games they review. But these complaints miss the point. Game reviews today usually seek little more than to rate how good or bad a game is, they are merely points that add up to some future Metacritic score.

Is this lack of high game criticism really a problem? Media scholar Alexander R. Galloway finds it useful. It allows one to “approach video games today as a type of beautifully undisturbed processing of contemporary life, as yet unmarred by bourgeois exegeses of the format.” Because video games have not yet been endlessly criticized, theorized, and institutionalized, they can serve as an un-self-conscious mirror of the culture at large. There has been a fair share of games criticism, of course. It’s just that gaming culture seems heroically resistant to it, reveling in an unreformed cultural adolescence of guns, muscles, masculinity, and explosions.

 

 

TheTroubleWithGameReviews Duncan Barton

By Duncan Barton

 

The problem is that ‘we’—gamers, game critics, the cultural public, whatever—have misunderstood what kind of art video games are. We take for granted what makes video games fun and engaging, when the question should be the start of our inquiries. Before we answer it, our criticism is going to fall flat, because it’s going to be criticizing the wrong thing.

The big difference is that games, unlike movies or books, are not self-contained experiences. Instead they are interactions between players and complicated algorithmic systems. A particular game looks different, plays different, takes different amounts of time, is harder or easier, is familiar or unfamiliar, or is more or less fun or boring, depending on the player, the system they are playing on, and the situation they are playing in. (I am not discounting the importance of the viewing subject in other art forms, of course—instead I’m insisting that the interactive nature of video games makes the experience radically different for different people.) The search for an objective rating of a game is flawed, then, because it assumes that there is just one kind of way to play the game that can be summed up by a single rating. Sites like Metacritic implicitly operate on a kind of convergence theory of aesthetics. Although individual reviews may get ratings wrong, the wisdom of the crowd will get ratings right. But to assess the quality of a game is to assess a relationship—a relationship that varies widely between players. For example, when a game gets a bad review, its boosters will often complain that the reviewer just didn’t understand the genre. The problem wasn’t the algorithmic system, but the operator.

Similarly, criticism that looks only at the content of games while ignoring the play of games misses the point. In the Practice of Everyday Life, French philosopher Michel de Certeau made much of how individuals subvert the grid-like certainty of the planned, modern city by beating desire paths through lawns and day-dreaming while staring at ads on the subway. Modern consumers remix modern life, becoming “poets of their own acts, silent discoverers of their own paths in the jungle of functionalist rationality.” The pleasure of gaming foregrounds this pleasure. To enjoy the game, a gamer relies on (as de Certeau calls them) the “clever tricks, knowing how to get away with things ‘hunter’s cunning’, maneuvers, polymorphic simulations, joyful discoveries, poetic as well as warlike.” But criticism of content mostly looks at the grid, the background decorations that the player plays against—and so criticism of content can be too easily dismissed.

Take the Civilization series, an example of the 4X genre (“eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate”.) In Civilization, the player takes control of a real-world historical civilization (Romans, Aztecs, Dutch). You settle cities, research technology, and wage war against other civilizations in a quest to conquer the world or escape from it on a mission to Mars. The content of the Civilization series has been the subject of frequent criticism—it trades in racist, imperialist tropes; it presents an inflexible stadial view of history; it relishes too much in war. And while this criticism is appropriate, it is hard to see what it seeks to accomplish. People play the game only in part for the content—much more, they play the game for the game itself: the development and slow unfurling of grand plans that are constantly hemmed in by the more powerful computer player; the pleasure of tending to your cities and people; the slow unrolling of new abilities and challenges; players play the game seeking a stage on which to display their own ‘hunter’s cunning.’ A criticism of the content of these games in other words is akin to criticizing the cartoon characters branding a Las Vegas slot machine.

We need to develop a new kind of high games criticism that directly confronts the play of the game, which is often more than a little rotten. On a personal note, every game I have ever loved has inspired in me an equal and opposite hatred. Over hours that have felt like minutes my beloved games have sunk me into bright well-ordered worlds with quests, objectives, enemies, allies, abilities, progression trees, and choices. In those games that have come to compel me, my actions have mattered in solid predictable ways—but my actions at the same time have been inconsequential and weightless. I look back on those 200 hours a year I have spent gaming as empty, if not really wasted. Why have I spent so much time in front of these enthralling glowing rectangles? Criticism of games needs to confront this pleasure that compels so desperately, this pleasure that is not so much entertaining as it is endlessly repeatable. Take the example of the proletariat of global gaming culture: the gold farmer, people in poor countries who make money by generating in-game currency, items, and characters to sell to people in rich countries. After working ten, twelve hour shifts, many of these gold farmers unwind—by playing video games. It is as if the power loom worker lets off steam by sitting down again at the power loom.

We can see the beginnings of this kind of criticism about video game pleasure in the game livestream. The genre is surprisingly popular. PewDiePie, who with over 61 million subscribers is the biggest YouTuber on earth, makes much of his content doing game livestreams. When popular rapper Drake livestreamed the game Fortnite this March, he was watched by over 635,000 people. The livestreaming service Twitch has about 600 million viewers annually. The genre seems like it would be difficult to get into for anyone except self-described gamers—but I encourage readers, even those who are completely unfamiliar with videogames, to watch a live-stream while they fold laundry or do something else mindless—it is an easy entertainment. (I recommend the videos by the team at Polygon.)

Good livestreamers exude an easy affability. Their pace is slow, trundling back over itself again and again the same way an idle conversation unfolds over breakfast—punctuated by panic, of course, by struggle, by explosions and kill screens, by bursts of explicative—but over time the struggle becomes generic and familiar, even comforting, as it slots into the predictable pattern of the game. The very best livestreamers offer examples of how to enjoy the games that they play. A number of games, like the Binding of Isaac, owe their popularity to streamers whose play demonstrated novel ways of having fun in the game. In foregrounding this subjective pleasure of the game, livestreamers open up the possibility to critique the relationship the gamer has with the system—to talk about the paths people walk in games, rather than the grid.

But this possibility has not by and large been taken. Video game writing can take a page from these livestreamers and begin to confront the subjective experience of gaming—instead of engaging in the vain search for some kind of objective game review, or some kind of politically potent content criticism. This might go some way of putting games where they belong, alongside movies, music, and all art—not as objects worthy of slavish veneration or puritanical denunciation—but as objects of power and danger.

What we’re reading, week of April 2nd

Here are a few interesting articles and pieces we found around the web this week. If you come across something that other intellectual historians might enjoy, please let us know in the comments section.

Nuala

Taylor M. Wilcox, Michael K. Schwartz, Winsor H. Lowe, Evolutionary Community Ecology: Time to Think Outside the (Taxonomic) Box. (TREE)

Joshua Rothman, Are We Already Living in Virtual Reality? (New Yorker)

Christiane Weirauch, Randall T. Schuh,  Gerasimos Cassis and Ward C. Wheeler. Revisiting habitat and lifestyle transitions in Heteroptera (Insecta: Hemiptera): insights from a combined morphological and molecular phylogeny. (Cladistics)

David Reich, Social Inequality Leaves a Genetic Mark. (Nautilus)

 

A.J.

Lewis Gordon, Black Issues in Philosophy: A Conversation on Get Out (Blog of the APA)

Louis Hanson, The Importance of Women in a Queer Man’s Life (Out Magazine)

Michael Sandel, Robert B. Reich’s Recipe for a Just Society (The New York Times Book Review)

 

Spencer

Nimmi Crenshaw, interview with Kimberlé Crenshaw (Guernica)

David Peace, “There’d Be Dragons” (TLS)

Natalie Lawrence, “Fallen Angels” (Public Domain Review)

Emily Temple, “When Marguerite Duras got kicked out of the Communist Party” (LitHub)

 

Sarah

Rana Dasgupta, “The Demise of the Nation State,” (Guardian)

Rosemary Hill, “What Does She Think She Looks Like?,” (LRB)

Alexis Okeowo, “An Activist Filmmaker Tackles Patriarchy in Pakistan,” (New Yorker)

“The Awakening: Women and Power in the Academy,” (The Chronicle)

Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins, “Le tournant néoconservateur en France,” (Lava)

 

Cynthia

This Art Newspaper story on the gender imbalance in TEFAF’s upper ranks reminded me that our experiences of art are always deeply personal and subjective. For me, questions of gender balance and representation are not questions of identity politics. Rather, they are entwined with my own personal desire to encounter a breadth of subjectivities in writing and scholarship–and through that, come to know, and contemplate, a range of possible experiences, thoughts, and judgments quite unlike my own.

Today, we take it mostly for granted that everyone has the faculties–and therefore the right–to pass judgment on art. It was not always a given that everyone had the faculties to judge art. Connoisseurship developed, over the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, into a rarefied pursuit, open only to experts. Bernard Berenson represents the ur-connoisseur. Berenson came as close as a human possibly could to the platonic ideal of the connoisseur. But it was his assistant and protege, Kenneth Clark, who bridged the gap between the compressed world of the expert and a broader, more workaday world, introducing the mysteries of his discipline to a general audience. Clark’s 1969 BBC series “Civilization: A Personal View by Kenneth Clark” attracted millions of viewers on both sides of the Atlantic. In his review of James Stourton’s biography of Clark, Richard Dorment noted that today, Clark’s BBC series “is largely forgotten.”
Dorment argues that Clark was forgotten because his approach was eclipsed by the rise of “theory-based art history.” Perhaps. Or perhaps it is because we no longer live in a time where we require men “in tweed suits with bad teeth and an upper-crust accent” to explain art to us. Entry into art history no longer requires some combination of wealth, connections, and personal charm (Berenson had two of the three, and Clark had it all). At least, I like to think this is true. And this shift has also changed the tenor of the scholarship.

Review Essay: After Piketty, Sutch, Scheidel, and the new study of inequality

By Guest Contributor Trevor Jackson

The Piketty phenomenon needs no introduction: Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2014) remains the best-selling book ever published by Harvard University Press, and since it appeared in English in 2014, Thomas Piketty and his small group of frequent collaborators have turned up everywhere. There is Piketty, writing a column in Le Monde, or anatomizing the rise of private capital in China, or charting the emergence of Russian oligarchs.  This ubiquity is unprecedented: with the exceptions of Branko Milanovic and the late Anthony Atkinson, the study of inequality had languished during the latter half of the twentieth century.  The crisis of 2008 certainly catalyzed a popular and scholarly interest in questions of distribution, corruption, and financialization;  many economists (re)turned to the history of the Great Depression, and in 2013 the New York Times famously announced the arrival of the “history of capitalism.” But inequality continued to be the preoccupation mostly of development economists who were interested in poverty reduction.  Capital in the Twenty-First Century was heralded as a kind of “unified field theory” of inequality, finally producing a single model that would be of use to historians, policymakers, and economists alike.  Nothing about inequality has changed since 2014, except that everything has gotten worse, and every day it has become a bit more obvious that the central unifying characteristic of our contemporary moment is the experience of some form of inequality.  Since Piketty’s book, we have had the rare opportunity of watching a discipline in the process of self-formation.  Who will write and teach about inequality, and who will be their audience?  What kinds of evidence will be admissible, intelligible, and valuable?  What will be the accepted practices of this new field, and what will be its central animating questions?  After Piketty, a new volume of essays, provides one possible answer, while Walter Scheidel’s new book The Great Leveler points in a very different direction.

Piketty’s influence is due in part to how easy his 685-page argument is to understand, and to communicate.  Inequality is the result of two variables: g, the overall rate of economic growth, and r, the rate of return on capital.  If r is greater than g, the owners of capital will be receiving income faster than the overall economy is growing, meaning they will get richer faster than everyone else, and inequality will increase.  By Piketty’s estimation, throughout most of human history, r hovered around 5%, while g was negligible.  The result was persistent inequality, and since wealth tends to be patrimonial, a closed elite passed down their unequal position generation to generation across centuries.  The sole exception was 1945-1970, when a tremendous amount of elite wealth had been destroyed by the world wars and the Great Depression, and when global economic growth was abnormally high.  Then, and only then, did the world become more equal.  That period also coincided with the professionalization of economics and history, creating a foundational cohort of scholars and policymakers who believed that increasing equality was the norm rather than the aberration.  Since the 1970s the return to free international capital flows has brought instability and reduced wage growth, dragging down g, while producing high rates of capital income, driving up r, and returning the world to the pre-1914 norm of patrimonial inequality.  He builds this case through pioneering work in creating datasets for top incomes and wealth ownership, mostly in Britain, France, and the United States since about 1800.  He supports his data with examples from literary sources like Balzac and Jane Austen, and that exquisite footnote in Ch. 11 to a plot twist in Season 4 of Desperate Housewives (Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, 621, n. 52).

Piketty consciously made both a substantive and a methodological intervention, and his last lines are something between a gentle scold and a call to arms:

To be sure, the principle of specialization is sound and surely makes it legitimate for some scholars to do research that does not depend on statistical series…Yet it seems to me that all social scientists, all journalists and commentators, all activists in the unions and in politics of whatever stripe, and especially all citizens should take a serious interest in money, its measurement, the facts surrounding it, and its history.  Those who have a lot of it never fail to defend their interests.  Refusing to deal with numbers rarely serves the interest of the least well-off (Piketty, Capital, 577).

Economists are certainly interested in money and its measurement, and three of them edited a collection entitled After Piketty, which contains some 22 essays by 25 people.  One is by Piketty’s translator and one is a response by Piketty himself.  One author is a historian, one an urban geographer, and one a political scientist.  The rest are economists from academia, the Federal Reserve, the World Bank, think tanks, and Moody’s financial services company.  Three of the economists are Nobel laureates; another is a PhD candidate.  This set of contributors is a reasonable synecdoche of Piketty’s impact: the discussion of inequality, both as a historical phenomenon and a contemporary policy problem, is dominated by economists of various specialties and career stages.

The contributors to After Piketty critique his mathematical modeling, his variable specifications, his assumptions about human behavior, and the real-world policy implications of his work.  Their approach is to accept his basic intuition that capitalism contains an inherent tendency towards inequality.  Since capitalism is a multidimensional social system that is embedded in different times and places, specialists should therefore refine his models and investigate the local policies, politics, and institutions that constitute particular variants of capitalism.  Some of these essays are ferociously technical: the reader will not get through Divesh Raval’s essay on what is wrong with Piketty’s model without taking the occasional derivative of a natural logarithm, and perhaps half the essays contain regression output tables.  Historians are likely to be nonplussed by sentences like this one:

Here  captures historically determined institutions for group G,  is average wealth for group G in period t and thus represents endowments,  is the wealth of individual i in group G in time period s, and  is the idiosyncratic shock to i’s wealth in group G in time period s, where the shock has a mean zero with variance”(Derenoncourt, “Historical Origins of Global Inequality,” in After Piketty, 495).

But if historians are serious about producing new approaches to inequality, the difficulty is no excuse.  These economists have ensured that the new study of inequality is predicated on a common language.  It is mostly unintelligible to outsiders, with its strange mathematical declensions and its statistical conjugations, but it means that the field is predicated on evaluating, critiquing, and replicating each other’s work across specialties, which is appropriate for a phenomenon as universal as inequality.  Perhaps the salience of inequality justifies learning to read, if not to speak, this language.

I am not the only historian to think so: Patrick Manning devoted his presidential address at the 2017 AHA meeting to the need for new ways of studying the history of inequality.  So far his call seems to have been as unheeded as Barbara Weinstein’s 2007 presidential address to the AHA on “Developing Inequality” because the 2018 AHA meeting had only one panel on inequality.  This has been a surprising turn of events.  I, for one, was convinced in 2014 that the new study of inequality would be dominated by historians, using Piketty’s easily understood model and adding their deep contextual knowledge to his test cases of France, the UK, and the US.  After decades of writing histories of the ordering, quantifying, discourse-producing, population-governing state, it seemed time for historians to turn their attention to the practices, discourses, and powers of the global 1%.  That mostly has not happened.

Instead of historians applying Piketty’s model, economists have continued to search for empirical refinement.  Going a step further than the authors of After Piketty, Richard Sutch has tried to replicate Piketty’s results with different data.  Not data from a different place or a different context to try to generalize Piketty’s work away from rich countries in the North Atlantic, but rather a direct attempt at the scientific act of greater precision through repeating the same experiment.  Sutch has his own set of top income data for the United States from 1810 to 2010, which he believes is more reliable than Piketty’s data and paints a different picture.  Many of Piketty’s most striking claims are the result of patching together different sources of data, based on a series of (reasonable) assumptions about how households divide wealth and whether decadal averages are appropriate for smoothing out noisy data.  Sutch finds that the result of Piketty’s splicing and interpolating is an inflation of the top 10% wealth share in 1870-1970, and an extrapolation of the 19th-century 1% wealth share from a single antebellum data point.  He ends on a striking note, urging economists to emulate historians and not take historical statistics as given (Sutch, “One Percent Across Two Centuries,” 604).

It is striking that a historian did not produce the most ambitious history of inequality written since 2014.  Walter Scheidel is a Professor of Classics and a Fellow in Human Biology at Stanford and has been a prolific writer of books that mostly focus on the demography of ancient Rome.  His new book The Great Leveler also builds on Piketty’s work, but in a very different way than the economist-heavy discussions of After Piketty.  The subtitle is Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century, and Scheidel absolutely means it.  He traces trends in inequality in different societies across all recorded history in an effort to prove a simple but terrifying thesis: the natural tendency for human society is that inequality will steadily and inexorably increase through the process of economic growth, and only total violent catastrophe like world wars, wholesale social revolutions, or galloping pandemics have ever reduced inequality.  Piketty alluded to this possibility (Piketty, Capital, 146-50 and 275), but did not much dwell on it, so Scheidel is attempting to complete Piketty’s work by providing a historical answer to the question everyone asks after reading Piketty: what should we do?

The reader of The Great Leveler will find evidence drawn from, inter alia, the Akkadians of 24th century BCE (Scheidel, Great Leveler, 56-7) and the Sokoto caliphate of 19th century Nigeria (ibid, 61), changes in house sizes in ancient Rome (ibid, 267-9), the impact of the American Civil War on Southern landed wealth (ibid, 174-7), and the zaibatsu of postwar Japan (ibid, 120-5).  The core of the book is four sections on what Scheidel calls the “four horsemen” of leveling: total war (meaning only the First and Second World Wars), totalizing social revolutions (meaning communism), state collapse (here featuring a comparison of Tang China and Rome), and plague (with the Black Death of course taking the lead).  Only these mechanisms have ever reduced inequality, and even then, only in their most extreme forms: Scheidel reckons that the American Civil War and the French Revolution, for instance, probably either had no effect or actually increased inequality.  Final chapters discuss and dismiss education, democracy, land reform, and economic growth as potential engines for reducing inequality.  There is no wiggle room: “Causation is as clear as it can be,” he writes in his chapter on communism: “No violence, no leveling.”  (Scheidel, Great Leveler, 223).

But Scheidel is not advocating the dictatorship of the proletariat: he seldom refers to communists without an introductory adjective like “raving” or “mass-murdering.”  The chapter on communism is a standard list of the crimes of Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot, demonstrating that violence not only reduces inequality through destroying elites and their wealth, but that only the continued unremitting application of violence prevents the otherwise natural return of inequality.  For Scheidel, increases in inequality are brought about through peaceable market mechanisms, like technology and globalization rather than, say, plunder or empire or expropriation.  If indeed it makes sense to ascribe, as Scheidel does, one hundred million deaths to the leveling ambitions of communism, one wonders whether slavery, imperialism, and all manner of elite violence and dispossession from the Herero genocide to the Bengal famine were coincidental with or an integral part of maintaining the apparently normal persistence of inequality.  This strange blindness to what surely is the historical norm of continual elite violence, when paired with the absence of gentler communist success stories in places like Kerala or West Bengal, creates a sort of dissonance: erudition in cutting-edge economics research paired with some historiographical positions from the late Cold War.

For all its ambition and the enthusiasm of its reception, The Great Leveler probably does not show us the future of studying inequality, and not only because Scheidel’s erudition would be difficult to emulate.  Unrepeatable and unexpandable, The Great Leveler seems to allow for no further development, nowhere left to go.  But, even further, the study of inequality is animated by a moral imperative: that inequality represents a real threat to the achievements of human society, and something—anything—can and must be done to fix it.  In today’s world, Scheidel writes, the Four Horsemen have dismounted (Scheidel, Great Leveler, 436), and their return is neither possible nor desirable.  If Scheidel is right, then the new study of inequality will become like cosmology: interesting but descriptive.  If After Piketty and Sutch are right, there is a lot of work to do, but it will be done by and for economists inside and outside of academia.  Neither option seems to be what Piketty had in mind.

Trevor Jackson received his PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, where he has taught the history of inequality.  He researches the history of financial crisis and economic impunity in early modern Europe.

A Conversation with Professor Stefanos Geroulanos: From Our Occasional Podcast Series

In today’s podcast, our Editor Sarah Dunstan speaks with Professor Stefanos Geroulanos about his latest book Transparency in Postwar France: A Critical History of the Present (Stanford University Press, 2017).

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A note on the music in this podcast: 

The music from this podcast comes from the song Fallen composed by the American film director and composer, John Carpenter. It is from his Lost Themes album which was released in 2015 by the Sacred Bones record.