Editors’ weekly readings


Portrait of a painter during the reign of Mehmet II (1451-1481)


Alexandra Alvergne and Vedrana Högqvist Tabor, “Is Female Health Cyclical? Evolutionary Perspectives on Menstruation,” (TREE)

Jen Banbury, “The Weird, Dangerous, Isolated Life of the Saturation Diver” (Atlas Obscura)

Jill Lapore, “The Right Way to Remember Rachel Carson”(New Yorker)

Jenna Tonn, The Handmaid’s Tale. Hulu. Season 1 (April–June 2017). Television (Journal of the History of Biology)



David Graver, Art Activist Liina Klauss’ Sculpture From 5,000 Salvaged Flip-Flops, (Cool Hunting)

Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh, “The rise, fall and rise of Anwar Ibrahim,” (The Straits Times)

Stephen M. Walt, “The Art of the Regime Change,” (Foreign Policy)


Brendan M

Lauren Michele Jackson, Shudu Gram Is a White Man’s Digital Projection of Real-Life Black Womanhood (New Yorker)

Daniel Immerwhar, We’re the Good Guys, Right? (N+1)

Alex de Vreis, Bitcoin’s Growing Energy Problem (Joule)

Ryan Avent, A Brief(ish) Review of Radical Markets (Medium)



Mary Beard, “New deal for old tyrant” (TLS)

Miles Burrows, “Conversation in Avalon” (TLS)

Karl Kirchwey, “Once I lived” (Atlantic)

Josephine Livingston, “Weird Fiction is Alive” (New Republic)



Emma Brockes, “Tom Wolfe and the Bonfire of Male Literary Reputations,” (Guardian)

Daniel Kalder, “Tradition and the Individual Tyrant,” (TLS)

Nathalie Olah (in conversation with Brett Easton Ellis), “Brett Easton Ellis and the Future of Fiction,” (TLS)

Sally Rooney, “An Irish Problem,” (LRB)

Giovanni Tiso, “Restoring the Future: On the Closure of Italy’s Asylums,” (Overland)



Michael Moorcock, “The Truth of Ray Bradbury’s Prophetic Vision” (Lithub)

Joseph Vogel, “The Forgotten Baldwin” (Boston Review)

Kate Cronin-Furman, “The Insistence of Memory” (LARB)

Journal of the History of Ideas, vol. 29, no. 2

The Spring 2018 edition of the Journal of the History of Ideas. JHI logo.jpg

When the Eyes Are Shut: The Strange Case of Girolamo Cardano’s Idolum in Somniorum Synesiorum Libri IIII (1562) by Anna Corrias

Pierre Bayle and the Secularization of Conscience by Michael W. Hickson

Volney and the French Revolution by Minchul Kim

“Writers Who Have Rendered Women Objects of Pity”: Mary Wollstonecraft’s Literary Criticism in the Analytical Review and A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Fiore Sireci

Family, Gender, and Progress: Sophie de Grouchy and Her Exclusion in the Publication of Condorcet’s Sketch of Human Progress by Sandrine Bergès

Marx and the Kabbalah: Aaron Shemuel Lieberman’s Materialist Interpretation of Jewish History by Eliyahu Stern

John Robert Seeley, Natural Religion, and the Victorian Conflict between Science and Religion by Ian Hesketh

What we’re reading this week

Picasso, reading at a table

Picasso, Girl Reading at a Table (1934)


Stephanie McCarter, “The Bad Wives: Misogyny’s Age-Old Roots in the Home” (Eidolon)

Sam Haselby, “These should be the end times for patriotism” (aeon)

Eric Posner and Glen Weyl, “How Economists Became Timid” (Chronicle of Higher Education)

Claire Messud, “Wilder and Wilder” (NYRB)

Doreen St. Felix, “The Carnage and Chaos of Childish Gambino’s ‘This if America’” (New Yorker)



Charles Arthur, Scientists discover why fungi have 36,000 sexes (Independent)

Patchen Barss, Meet Your Body’s Death Eaters. From brain to blood to bone, macrophages take out our cellular trash (Nautilus)

S.Lochlann Jain, Cancer butch. (Cultural anthropology)

Miles Klee, Dirty War. The personal frontlines of germ warfare(Lapham’s Quarterly)



Lydia Robert, “Not in Someone Else’s Footsteps” (LARB)

David W. Blight, “The Silent Type” (NYRB)

The First Reviews of Every Toni Morrison Novel” (LitHub)

Rosebud Ben-Oni, “A Future for a Handful of Hours” (Marginalia)

Katherine Harvey, “Iconology of a Cardinal” (Public Domain Review)



Nils Gilman, “Human Rights and Neoliberalism,” (LARB)

Nanor Kebranian, “Genocide Recognition Without Human Rights?” (Humanity J Blog)

David Runciman, “Why Replacing Politicians with Experts is a Reckless Idea,” (Guardian)

Stuart Schrader, “Henri LeFebvre, Mao Zedong and the Global Urban Concept,” (Global Urban History)

Robert Zaretsky, “The Welcoming Labyrinth: What We Gain And Lose As Libraries Change,” (The Chronicle of Higher Education)

What Does it Mean to “Speak”? Postcoloniality, Imperial Exhibitions, and the Martial Arts

By Contributing Editor AJ Hawks

I first started studying taekwondo when I was in high school, partially because of the movies (“Can he really do that?!”) and partially to please my Korean grandmother who had handed me a flier about Korean weaponry that was a tad on the intimidating side. My studio occasionally hosted seminars on a weaponry martial art called Modern Arnis, which I eventually decided to pursue. Serendipitously, Modern Arnis, an indigenous Filipino art, would unexpectedly intersect with my academic study of Muslim minority groups via the Moro Muslims in the Southern Philippines.

The academic study of the history of martial arts is underdeveloped. This is surprising if only because of martial arts’ deep cultural roots in a wide variety of societies around the globe. Here I want to specifically suggest that Modern Arnis offers a unique and critical framework by which to consider postcolonial theory.

“Arnis” refers to a variety of styles of martial arts that deal with the use of two rattan wood sticks called “escrima” as well as a variety of Southeast Asian machetes. It formed as a blend of “systems from all over the world: Thailand, China, Spain, Indonesia, Japan and India [that] reached the islands as the people of the Philippines interacted, traded and fought with these diverse nations” (Horwitz).


When the Spanish occupied the Philippines, they banned the study of these martial arts (then called Kali among other things) with one exception. They allowed fights between Filipino Moros for Spanish entertainment and dressed fighters in ceremonial Spanish armor (the old Spanish word for armor being “Arnes”) (Wiley). Before the Spanish, Arnis was largely practiced by peasants (a divide further underscored by its association with the Muslims of the Philippines).

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Katipuneros, members of Katipunan, an anti-Spanish revolutionary society in the Philippines

The tradition of stage fights among Moros were continued under American occupation with less emphasis on the “clash of religions”, instead intended to shore up a distinct American vision of the Moros. Indeed, Hawkins has argued persuasively in his work “Making Moros” that the present significance of the term was actually forged under American occupation of the Philippines after the Spanish-American War.

The Americans were committed relatively early to two things: (1) They wanted a unified Filipino government that eventually could manage independence and (2) they wanted to incorporate the highly resistant “Moros” into Western civilization. The American government, like the Spaniards before them, put great effort into suppressing Moro attempts at rebellion- much of which has been glossed over in the popular memory (Gowing, 325). Oddly enough, however, the US also displayed an almost romantic affinity for the rebellious Moros (Hawkins, 125). As such, they put great efforts into romanticizing Moro wildness which they saw as analogous to the untamed West. Americans created exhibitions similar to the exhibitions under the Spanish without the explicitly religious flavor. They were intended to showcase “Moro culture” and in particular their status as “brave and ferocious fighters… Most Filipino Muslims gladly accepted opportunities to reaffirm narratives of Moro gallantry and autonomous ethno-religious identities” (Hawkins, 47). And what was being used for this purpose? Yet again, the martial art broadly described by the term Arnis.

Early on, then, this singular population began to embrace their place in American narratives. They also held highly publicized carnivalesque shows intended to establish a particular narrative about the US-Moro relationship, central to this being the United States’ preeminence and Moro potential. Hawkins spends time discussing at length Moro efforts to “reorient and appropriate discourses and symbols of imperial control” (incidentally, this offers an interesting parallel with Catholics in the North resisting the Spanish) (Hawkins, 71). Thus, long before any particular social movement organization came onto the scene, there were conscious efforts by local leaders to develop a particular narrative about the Moro people and their aims, efforts which continued to include the practice and performance of Arnis.

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Modern Arnis was developed by the now world-famous Grand Master Remy Presas. Presas was trained in a local variety of Arnis by his father Jose Presas. According to his interview with Black Belt Magazine, “Presas refined and blended the important aspects of tjakele, arnis de mano, karatejujitsu and dumog into the art he named modern arnis” (Horwitz). Presas indicated that he wanted to unify these arts to help the “diverse systems of [his] country… feel the connection” (Horwitz). He also explicitly chose the term “arnis” over others such as “kali”, arguing that with other terms, “not many people in the Philippines will know what you are talking about. Arnis best reflects the Philippine culture because it is a Tagalog word” (Horwitz). His efforts in the Philippines were immensely successful, and in 1975 he was sent on a “good-will tour sponsored by [the Filipino] government to spread information about modern arnis techniques around the globe” (Horwitz). Thus, at each of these stages of development in Arnis history, we see an intentionality by practitioners to take advantage of Western interest and preserve their sense of local identity. It’s also worth noting that much of the history of Arnis is recited orally in the martial arts studio. Like other martial arts, the sense of cultural belonging and history is considered an important part of becoming a practitioner and eventually a master.

pilipinas 4

As the United States was following the Spanish imperial tradition of hosting Moro cultural demonstrations, something similar was happening on the other side of the world: the French imperial exhibitions. Zeynep Çelik and Leila Kinney offer a probing look at the mechanisms behind the “enactment of the eroticized mystique of the Orient, the belly dance… a myth of Islamic culture” (Celik and Kinney, 286). They argue that the expositions’ planning principles were designed to demonstrate French material superiority and  “enhance supremacy through representation” (Celik and Kinney, 290). Moreover, these displays interacted with French class relations in the press and “elaborated and promoted fantasies about working-class women” (Celik and Kinney, 300). In short, the French constructed exhibitions to create the image of a coherent “orient”, one that underscored French superiority and interacted with the local French cultural context to reinforce class distinctions. In sustaining this imagined oriental other, imperialism was justified.

It seems logical, then, to consider martial arts in a way similar to imperial exhibitions. And yet, the study of these exhibitions has not substantially been connected to the history of martial arts. This is likely tied to the simple facts that many East Asian societies (highly associated with martial arts) did not experience formal colonialism and because orientalism proper has a strong geographical referent (Burke and Prochaska, 42). Nonetheless the general mode of approaching “othering” discourses has been shown by scholars to be helpful in understanding cultural representation in East Asia (Dirlik). And more critically, the Philippines did experience formal colonialism.

Thinking about the history of the Filipino martial arts, and Arnis specifically, in this way suggests two things. First, it situates the Western consumption of martial arts in a broader imperial cultural framework, much like belly dancing. Unlike belly dancing, as already pointed out, many cultural groups that are considered originators of martial arts never experienced colonization to any degree remotely similar to other parts of the world. Thus, it might make more sense to see the cultural imperialism of the martial arts as an incomplete project. Martial arts’ widely known multiplicity of origin sources and broad acceptance in a variety of social and class contexts made it far more resistant to simplified appropriation.

Second, Arnis illustrates a case where the colonized voice broke through. While it is true that the Spanish (and eventually Americans) tried to utilize Arnis in their imperial narratives, it is also true that Filipinos were willing and able to use this platform to protect a substantial portion of indigenous culture under the guise of preparing for exhibitions. Eventually they, knowingly or otherwise, were able to tap into Western exoticism to continue to propagate traditions, oral histories, and a sense of self not directly beholden to imperial narratives.

In the context of critical theory and subaltern studies, Spivak posed a now famous epistemic question:

Let us now move to consider the margins of the circuit marked out by this epistemic violence, men and women among the illiterate peasantry, the tribals, the lowest strata of the urban subproletariat… We must now confront the following question: on the other side of the international division of labor from socialized capital, inside and outside the circuit of the epistemic violence of imperialist law and education supplementing an earlier economic text, can the subaltern speak?

Spivak’s answer was no. But in considering martial arts as a sort of historical knowledge, I wonder if the answer should be a highly qualified “yes” or at least “in part”. While it is true that imperial power used martial arts to their own ends, it is also true that practitioners were able to take advantage of this and preserve at least some of their artistic integrity and frame their historic experience through oral and physical training in a way that is still passed on today. Moreover, many if not most of the practitioners throughout Spanish and American rule in the Philippines were in fact of the “peasantry, the tribals, the lowest strata of the urban subproletariat”. Perhaps ironically, one of the few voices that were protected in this colonial context were the subaltern. Sadly, adequately addressing the history of women in the martial arts will have to wait for another article.

What we’re reading this week

Sundry readings from our editorial team this week:

Kunisada 1823-5

Utagawa Kunisada,
Woman Reading Libretto (1823-5)


Alina Cohen, “The Legendary Bars Where Famous Artists Drank, Debated, and Made Art History” (Artsy)

Lungisile Ntsebeza, “This Land is Our Land” (Foreign Policy)

Ronald Brownstein, “American Higher Education Hits a Dangerous Milestone” (The Atlantic)

Shaun Manning, “The White House Correspondents’ Dinner’s Controversial Jokes… in Action Comics Special #1”(Comic Book Resource)



Minsoo Kang, Catapunk: Toward a Medieval Aesthetic of Science Fiction. (Boydell & Brewer)

Hanna Kokko, Give one species the task to come up with a theory that spans them all: what good can come out of that? (Proceedings of the Royal Society B)

James Alexander Wearn, Seeds of Change — Polemobotany in the Study of War and Culture. (Journal of War and Culture Studies)

Vinciane Despret, What Would Animals Say if We Asked Them the Right Questions? (University of Minnesota Press)



Frieze NY is on. Art fair openings always feel, at least to me, a bit like the first day of school. The air is bubbly. Are you in or are you out? These days, a spate of articles denouncing the art fair heralds the arrival of each art fair. They rehearse a litany of (legitimate) criticisms: The fairs are too big. They are too expensive (according to Jerry Saltz, “A large booth costs $125,000. A gallery can sometimes pay another $15,000 to $18,000 to build out the booth. On-site handling costs can run another $5,000). Only the blue-chip galleries make any money. Of course, most of the critiques revolve around art-as-business. It’s all fun and games until the realization hits: art is made by artists. And artists are flesh-and-blood human beings, not manifestations of cultural capital or the cultural economy or the superstructure, or whatever theoretical construct we find most apt for our argument.

Are you in or are you out? Being on the inside, having access to all that capital and all those connections, can mean the difference between surviving (i.e., paying the bills, eating, having a place to sleep), or not. The mainstream press loves to focus on the artists who command stratospheric prices, but most artists are not superstars and do not travel with retinues of celebrities. A recent NYT article asked if artists with day jobs make better art, as if day jobs somehow complement and elevate the practice of art. Well, let me assure you that most artists do not take day jobs because they believe in complementary practices. Most artists have day jobs because they need them. Day job or not, artists need to get past the gatekeepers in order to get on the inside. And if there’s one thing history has taught me, it’s this–”Don’t trust the gatekeepers.”

Aruna D’Souza’s thoughtful review of “Outliers and American Vanguard Art” (at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.) argues that one of Lynn Cooke’s goals, as the curator of this exhibition, was to “signal another way through the American visual landscape of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries,” by proposing a historical narrative that acknowledges, and incorporates “makers, ideas, and practices that modernism has long resisted, or only accepted begrudgingly: craft processes, regional idioms, traditional “women’s work” such as textile arts and beading, the work of black and Chicano artists long ignored by mainstream art history, the role of religion and spirituality in American visual culture, the artistic value of utilitarian objects, the unironic, artists making installations in their backyards, and so on.” What would such a history of American art look like?

Derrick Adams takes on the precarious status of the outsider from a very different perspective in his exhibition,“Sanctuary” (Museum of Arts and Design). “Sanctuary” grew out of Adams’s meditations on The Green Book, “a series of AAA-like guides for black travelers published from 1936 through 1966 […] Widely used at a time when African-Americans were navigating physical and social mobility through the swamp of Jim Crow laws and attitudes in the mid-20th century, the Green Books, as they came to be known, listed businesses from gas, food and lodging to nightclubs and haberdasheries that welcomed African-Americans when many did not.” Segregation meant that African-American travelers were excluded from a wide range of establishments, and had to be mindful of “sundown towns,”  where African-American travelers were not welcome after dark. The Green Books, Adams noted, “enabled African-Americans to travel like Americans and to feel American,” despite the legal and institutional structures that kept African Americans on the outside, unable to fully inhabit the American Dream.



Stefan Collini, “Diary: Why Have They Done This?” (LRB)

William Davies, “The Windrush Scandal,” (LRB)

Anna Russell, “Sketching the M.T.A. with a Subway Archaeologist,” (New Yorker)

Jacob Hamburger, “Tocqueville, soixante-huitard?” (Tocqueville21)

Peter Hessler, “Cairo: A Type of Love Story,” (New Yorker)



Robert Greene II, “Misremembering 1968” (Religion and Politics)

Errol Morris, “Is there such a thing as truth?” (Boston Review)

David Wallace, “Fred Wallace’s Radical Critique of the Present” (New Yorker)

Marcus Rediker, “The forgotten prophet” (aeon)

The Philosopher’s Pages

By Contributing Writer Flaminia Incecchi

The only existing memorial to the once-famous philosopher Giovanni Gentile is in his native city Castelvetrano, a modest country town in the Sicilian province of Trapani. The memorial was made by a local artist in 2007, and it is entitled ‘Le Pagine del Filosofo’, literally, “The Philosopher’s Pages”. It is located in the small city center, in a tranquil square adorned with emerald green ficus trees, in the vicinity of a school and a museum. The square is traditionally Sicilian: tuff stone buildings of different heights, vibrant green trees trimmed to perfection. The sculpture is impressive, stark, but oddly enough, hidden at the piazza’s edge. It is a stately bronze page engraved with passages from Gentile’s philosophical texts. But a slash runs through the page, thus leaving the reader unable to continue Gentile’s thought. The memorial portrays an interrupted thought, a voice silenced mid-sentence.

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Giovanni Gentile remains to this day one of Italy’s most illustrious, prolific, lucid and problematic thinkers. Born in 1875, Gentile received a prestigious scholarship to study in Italy’s most renowned institution, the Normale, in Pisa. His intellectual career lasted almost 50 years, during which he authored several volumes on the history of Italian philosophy and cultural and political history, translated texts of Immanuel Kant, constructed a highly sophisticated philosophical system called actual idealism, and penned commentaries to several philosophical texts. Gentile’s corpus amounts to almost 60 volumes. It challenges disciplinary boundaries, ranging from philosophy to history, to political articles, to texts on philosophy of education, to commentaries on Ancient Greek philosophers; and essays of the most varied content, from the concept of love, to the meaning of decorative arts, to the aesthetics of cinema, as well as nostalgic papers re-evoking Italy’s Unification period. His philosophical system is an entirely original encounter of an Idealist philosophy stemming out of Hegelianism with Italian philosophical thought. The crux of Gentile’s philosophy is the idea that the human spirit is the creator of all reality, in other words, that there is nothing which is not created by the human subject through thought. This makes the human subject the very center of all there is, conferring it absolute freedom. Gentile’s philosophy is a system, which is to say an apparatus stemming from a metaphysical core and branching out in several directions, such as history, ethics, and aesthetics. The nature of Gentile’s philosophical elaborations is to this day highly original and has much to offer to students and scholars of the humanities. So why does Gentile lie in oblivion?

Despite the profoundly theoretical character of Gentile’s elaborations, Gentile became a strong advocate of Italy’s participation in the First World War, on the grounds that only war was capable of molding the Italians into a nation. Gentile had lamented that despite the spirit of the Risorgimento (the period of Italian unification), the Italians still thought of themselves as citizens of a particular city or province, not of a nation. In his eyes, the propulsive force of the Risorgimento could only be renewed by a conflict, for conflict alone is capable of merging individual interests in a universal will. Gentile welcomed the war, not because he wanted to eradicate a particular enemy, but because only the struggle of war could create an internal friendship between individual Italians, and thus unify a fragmented people.

Gentile’s advocacy for war came to be known to the Fasci, the group headed by Mussolini that would later become the Fascist party. In 1923, Gentile became the Minister of Education for the Fascist Regime. During his tenure, he initiated a complete overhaul of the Italian education system. Schools were completely state-centralized, and education profoundly oriented towards the humanities and the formation of the future ruling classes. Mussolini praised the new school system as “the most Fascist of Reforms”. In 1925, Gentile penned The Manifesto of Fascist Intellectuals, singed by the Italian intelligentsia that pledged allegiance to the Regime and endorsed its credo. In 1929, Gentile ghostwrote the philosophy (or metaphysical backbone, as it is often called) of Fascism, the Origins and Doctrine of Fascism, published under Mussolini’s name. During the Ventennio Fascista, Gentile initiated a number of cultural enterprises geared at the systematization of Italy’s cultural capital, among these, founding the Italian Encyclopaedia, along with several cultural centers.

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Gentile was killed in 1944, aged 68, by a GAP (Gruppo Azione Patriottica) cell. The circumstances of his death are still mysterious.

After the demise of the Fascist Regime, students of philosophy moved beyond the Idealist ‘hegemony’ that had characterized the Italian intellectual panorama for almost fifty years. Intellectuals were keen to explore alternative philosophical avenues and re-join the debates outside the country. As a result of this desire to move beyond the ‘domestic’ intellectual landscape, as well as the intention to embrace a new dawn after fascism, Gentile was largely forgotten. The question for today, is how to remember a philosopher, whose thought might be rigorous, impeccable even, and whose pen was decisive in the writing of Italian history in an unprecedented manner, but whose political actions, allegiances and beliefs, have turned out to be disastrous.

Until a few years ago, the few people who published on Gentile were largely ideological, and their work read more like a denouncement of Gentile’s actions, with the aim of ascertaining whether he was actually a Fascist. These works by and large, tried to establish a continuity between Gentile’s philosophy and the metaphysical backbone of Fascism, in other words, to what extent his philosophy was congruent with Fascism, or Fascism with his philosophy. There were few genuine investigations of his intellectual work. Today there are hints of a germinal interest in Gentile, suggesting that we are moving beyond the epoch of ideologically-driven investigation, and perhaps entering a landscape of unprejudiced intellectual inquiry, but Gentile remains under-read considering his importance.

Moving outside academic circles, there have been a few initiatives sponsored by the Italian government to commemorate the death of the philosopher, particularly that of 1994, which saw the emission of a stamp with Gentile’s portrait. More recently, in 2004, the Senate of the Republic organized a conference on Gentile, involving Italy’s most high-profile experts on his thought.

Gentile’s memorial in Castelvetrano is of great interest because of its unproblematic nature, which is largely determined by its location, the initiators of the remembering, and what the sculpture symbolises. Situated in his birth city, it is a commemoration of the most illustrious citizen of a modest rural town in one of Italy’s most disadvantaged provinces. There is nothing political, partisan, or controversial about it. It is a local memory of a prestigious – if not the most prestigious – local. The monument is free of the problematiques that an institutional statue would comport: it is a local initiative, entirely independent from commissions of the Italian government. Regardless of the sedimentation of the ashes of history, The Philosopher’s Pages has, I believe, a radically different spirit compared to institutional acts of remembering. It is a town, remembering one of their own, within their walls, for the intellectual stature he reached, a stature by all means infrequent. The local flavor, essence, and position of the memorial is what makes it unpolitical and free of polemic. In this sense, even the location within the location is worth noting: the memorial is not situated in the center of the piazza, but on the side, almost hidden or sheltered by the ficus trees. The lack of partisanship and the local aura of the memorial is highlighted by the silence surrounding it: national newspapers have not reported the issue; no commentators or intellectuals have discussed the monument. The absence of discourse exorcises worries related to a reactionary memory of the thinker. The Philosopher’s Pages is a peculiar fusion of memories: the philosophical and the personal.

In this vein, it is important to note that the passages engraved on the statue come only from Gentile’s philosophical works. This suggests that it is only Gentile, as philosopher, that is being remembered. It symbolizes the ruptured life of an intellectual – thus a page that has been ripped – a voice that has been muted. The flavor would, of course, have been quite different had the memorial included passages from other, more controversial works. In addition, the location – Castelvetrano – suggests a memory of a personal nature, the local dimension. Here the Gentile being remembered is also the person, not in the political sense, but in a purely local sense of provenance. Thus, The Philosopher’s Pages presents a serendipitous encounter of local, intimate and personal remembrance, with a testament to the heights of intellectual speculation, that results in an unproblematic and serene memory of a complex figure whose posthumous fate is still undecided.

The case of Gentile is only but a particular manifestation of a more general trait – intellectual life, with all that it comports, does not extinguish itself with death, but rather, takes unpredictable turns and follows new plots, just like an ever-evolving fractal in the memory of the living.

Flaminia Incecchi is a PhD candidate in International Relations at the University of St
Andrews. She is working under the supervision of Gabriella Slomp and Vassilios Paipais on a dissertation entitled “The Aesthetics of War in the Thought of Giovanni Gentile and Carl Schmitt”. Her research aims at shedding light on the controversial figure of Gentile, and aims at establishing a conversation between Gentile and Schmitt. In doing so, she relies on several disciplines: history of ideas, aesthetics, political thought, and philosophy. She can be reached at: fi7@st-andrews.ac.uk.

Weekly reading (and listening)

At the blog this week, don’t miss Professor Shane White on the classic musical and film “The Sting,” and the African American history of the confidence man. And in the third of our occasional podcast series, contributing writer John Handel hosts a roundtable discussion about the fascinating recent books on the history of quantification with Dan Bouk, William Beringer, and Jamie Pietruska.

quidor rip

John Quidor, “Rip van Winkle” (1839)

And from our editorial team this week:


George Orwell. The Road to Wigan Pier. (Penguin  Classics)

Lewis H. Lapham. Due Process. (Lapham’s Quarterly)

Ashley Dawson. Extinction- A Radical Conservation. (OR Books)

Ann Vileisis. Are Tomatoes Natural? (University of Virginia Press)

Helen Anne Curry, Evolution made to order : plant breeding and technological innovation in twentieth-century America. (University of Chicago Press)

Antoinette J. Piaggio,Gernot Segelbacher, Philip J. Seddon,Luke Alphey,Elizabeth L. Bennett,Robert H. Carlson,Robert M. Friedman, Dona Kanavy, Ryan Phelan,Kent H. Redford,Marina Rosales, Lydia Slobodian,and Keith Wheeler.
Is It Time for Synthetic Biodiversity Conservation? (TREE)



Julie Belcove, “Growing Up In A Black-History Archive,” (New Yorker)

Samuel Moyn, “Economic Rights Are Human Rights,” (Foreign Policy Blog)

David Olusoga, “The Windrush story was not a rosy one even before the ship arrived,” (Guardian)

Ori Preuss, “No Need to Go to Paris Anymore: Brazilians visits to Buenos Aires around 1900,” (Global Urban History)



Campbell Robertson, “A Lynching Memorial Is Opening” (New York Times)

Wendy Brown and Jo Littler, “Where the fires are” (Eurozine)

Skye C Cleary and Massimo Pigliucci, “Human Nature Matters” (Aeon)



Mike Dash, “The Demonization of Empress Wu” (Smithsonian)

Krista Langlois, “When Whales and Humans Talk” (Hakai)

Rekjong, “Does Sex Kill Language?” (Rekjong’s zam-bu-ling)

Roundtable podcast on the History of Quantification

By Contributing Writer John Handel

with Dan Bouk, How Our Days Became Numbered: Risk and the Rise of the Statistical Individual (UChicago, 2015);

William Deringer, Calculated Values: Finance, Politics, and the Quantitative Age (HUP, 2018);

and Jamie Pietruska, Looking Forward: Prediction and Uncertainty in Modern America
(UChicago, 2017);


In his landmark 1990 book The Taming of Chance, Ian Hacking attempted to make sense of the “avalanche of printed numbers,” that appeared across Europe during the 19th century. (46) Ironically,  Hacking himself was participating in an avalanche of work on the history of numbers that proliferated during the 1980s and 1990s.These studies of numbers and the history of quantification ranged widely from the history of double-entry bookkeeping (Poovey, History of the Modern Fact), probability theory (Daston, Classical Probability), and insurance, statistics (Porter, Rise of Statistical Thinking) to economics (Tooze, Statistics and the German State). While the studies were often diverse in the empirical cases they addressed, they all asked common questions about when, where, and why numbers and quantification had become so important to the structuring of everyday life and to the operations of the state.

Yet, if these studies encompassed a diverse set of quantified subjects, covering high mathematical theory to the history of the lottery, they tended to share the same methodological and critical concerns. Written during the ascendance and peak of cultural history, most of these works tended to see the authority of numbers as concomitant with the rise of state power and governmentality. Following Foucault, these authors stressed how numbers made increasingly diverse and numerous populations, as well as multiple spheres of life (the social,  political, and economic), able to be abstracted and made legible to the state and its “expert” managers. Encapsulating this trend was Theodore Porter’s monumental work, Trust in Numbers: The Pursuit of Objectivity in Science and Public Life. Porter showed how expert communities such as scientists, engineers, and government bureaucrats used numbers as a technology of trust that asserted their power over broader public communities. According to these histories, quantification was the language of the modern state, and numbers’ power of abstraction, aggregation, and statistical measurement became the state’s chief tools of domination and governmentality. Modernity had created a quantified world, and all we could do was live in it.

But as Dan Bouk suggests in today’s podcast, perhaps the title of Porter’s book was too good–its argument about authoritative power wielded by numbers too easy and seductive. Indeed, the last decade could be categorized as a massive crisis of faith in the ability and power of the technocratic state that Porter et al. so vigorously critiqued in the 1980s and 90s. From the inability of mainstream economists and technocrats to predict the massive 2008 financial collapse (as in Tooze, Crashed), to Donald Trump’s utter disregard for and distrust in numbers, whether they be negative polling numbers, government produced unemployment statistics, or the most basic instrument of quantitative governmentality: the census (link, Gilman, “Dictatorships and Data Standards”).

Instead of explaining how numbers became authoritative and powerful, then, the new work discussed in this podcast radically departs from earlier approaches by showing the long history of numbers’ fragility. As William Deringer argues in his book, Calculated Values: Finance, Politics, and the Quantitative Age, increasingly complex and highly quantified calculations emerged not as an authoritative tool of control, but as an aggressive mode of political argument and combativeness during a period of financial and political revolution in England between 1688-1720. In response to Deringer, Bouk  has argued that this is not just an origin story or singular fluke about how quantification works, but rather something that can help us reframe the longer narrative of quantification and its relationship to politics. Attending to both the deeper origins of quantification’s use in political debates, as well as the current skepticism towards numbers’ authority, the view of quantification as an abstract and objective tool of state power seems less like a totalizing endpoint, and more like a particularly contingent configuration of the way numbers came to be representative of certain types of political argumentation.

Further provincializing this view of quantification from the 80s and 90s, both Jamie Pietruska’s, Looking Forward: Prediction and Uncertainty in Modern America, and Bouk’s, How Our Days Became Numbered: Risk and the Rise of the Statistical Individual  aim to recover what Pietruska calls the “everyday epistemology” of quantification. Pietruska shows how, in late 19th-century America, certain scientific and governmental schemes to regulate the prediction of uncertain events like crop yields or weather forecasts created uncertainty as a legible category itself. Yet, far from exerting expert power over the masses, the creation of uncertainty as a legitimate category of analysis actually allowed for the long policed and oppressed minority communities of fortune tellers and palm readers to win legal battles against the state. Similarly in late 19th -century America, Bouk tracks how insurance companies created new categories of risk and went about pricing and quantifying them. These new categories of risk encouraged insurance companies not just to have a better knowledge over the people they were insuring, but also to reach more invasively into their lives and instruct them on how to live in such a way as to be less of a risk. Yet these new categories too were turned against insurance companies, as African Americans, who had been discriminated against by insurers, won court cases ending discriminatory practices. Predictably, in response, insurance companies began to go out of their way to not insure African Americans at all.

In the final section of the podcast, the authors reflect on the methodological commitments that came with their rethinking of the 1980s and 1990s consensus around the history of quantification. They point to how a renewed focus on science and technology studies, along with deep dives into social history, can help write new histories of numbers more readily able to understand and rethink the current political moment, in which as numbers proliferate, they seem less and less trustworthy.

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.