What We're Reading

From our editors: What we’re reading this month (2/2)

Picasso, Femme Couchee lisant (1960)


Beyond Settler Time: Temporal Sovereignty and Indigenous Self-Determination by Mark Rifkin is a work of political and literary theory that re-interprets the axes and language of past and present as experienced by settlers and Native peoples in the Americas. Writing outside of a binary that forces a choice between casting indigenous peoples as keepers of the past or as necessarily co-eval with Europeans, Rifkin draws from philosophy, queer theory, and postcolonial theory to interpret texts and the experiences they bring to bear on a notion of “settler time”, a concept with he uses to draw out the stakes of thinking time along with politics, namely sovereignty and the temporal and spatial aspects of self-determination. I’m starting to work through this text as part of my foraging for helpful interpretations of political freedom, and it stands as another affirmation of the complicated relationship intellectual histories have to texts, which are so differently deployed in adjacent disciplines. (Rifkin is the Director of the Women’s and Gender Studies Program and Professor of English at  the University of North Carolina, Greensboro.)

A Specter Haunting Europe: The Myth of Judeo-Bolshevism by Paul Hanebrink details the rise of a paranoia at the beginning of the twentieth century that crystallized into one facet of a deadly ideology, and remained grafted onto each vision of white supremacy that came afterwards — including the one that persists today in Europe and North America. The myth that Jewish masterminds cooked up Communism to ruin Europe and take control of the world began, in Hanebrick’s telling, in the counterrevolutionary currents of the interwar period. He draws a line through the myth’s Cold War adaptation to today’s racist hand-wringing over Islam’s so-called global designs that often co-exists with its anti-Semitic ancestor. After a string of white supremacist attacks in the past weeks, and the direct line drawn by the Pittsburgh shooter from his hatred of Jewish people to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, intellectual histories that connect the century-long entanglements of such strands seem like necessary (if also incredibly grim) reading.

On a lighter note, as I wind down my bi-annual re-read of Barbara Pym’s 1952 novel Excellent Women to the tune of some not insignificant fines from the local library, I’d also like to recommend it here. It details the life of a single woman in her thirties living in a London parish after the Second World War, and her chagrined and slightly titillated forays into the personal lives of her new neighbours, including an ex-Naval officer, a clergyman’s attractive widow, and a woman anthropologist (!). As the days become shorter and the impulse to eat dinner comes earlier and earlier during the workday, the attention to the small joys and indignities of being a person in Pym’s novels remains a welcome dose of comedy. Daniel Ortberg observes as such in his compilation of the most emotionally muted meals that appear in Excellent Women. Highly recommend. Please let’s talk about it. I’m going to have the Princeton Public Library’s copy out for another week, tops.



Certain objects seem to perform a kind of magic upon the beholder–time doubles back on itself, and past and present somehow fold into one. The most famous example, of course, is the Proustian madeleine. In The Remembrance of Things Past, a whole host of objects play this role–of both signalling a specific moment in history, and blurring the boundaries of the beholder’s present, so that multiple temporalities crowd together and become one. Fashion, for Proust, is capable of casting that particular magic. In the final volume of Remembrance, “Time Regained,” the narrator yokes the year 1916 to this specific image: “As if by the germination of a tiny quantity of yeast, apparently of spontaneous generation, young women now went about all day with tall cylindrical turbans on their heads, as a contemporary of Mme. Tallien’s might have done, and from a sense of patriotic duty wore Egyptian tunics, straight and dark and very ‘war,’ over very short skirts; they wore thonged footwear recalling the buskin as worn by Talma, or else long gaiters recalling those of our dear boys at the front…” The passage continues for a while, describing the vogue for “rings or bracelets made out of fragments of exploded shells or copper bands from 75 millimetre ammunition,” and the decision to wear bonnets of “white English crepe” in lieu of traditional mourning attire. But the narrator is not writing this in 1916. The fashion of 1916, so current in 1916, now serves also to distance the narrator’s own moment from the one where young women wore tall cylindrical turbans and spoke of “our dear boys at the front.” The clarity of the memory, the exactness of each detail,  serves to confirm the pastness of the past.


Lately, I’ve been thinking about this magical quality of fashion while scrolling through the artist Guadalupe Rosales’s two intertwined projects, Veteranas and Rucas and Map Pointz. Rosales describes these projects as “digital archives found on Instagram.” Veteranas and Rucas came first, in 2015. The New York Times described the Veteranas and Rucas digital archive as “an Instagram feed dedicated to Latina youth culture in Southern California, mainly from the ’80s and ’90s, but sometimes dating back much earlier.” Map Pointz, dedicated to the SoCal “90s party crew and rave scene,” came a little bit later, in 2016. Both archives are largely crowdsourced. These two intertwined archives serve as both autobiography and history. “I was born in California in 1980, daughter of two Mexican parents,” writes Rosales, “I grew up on Los Angeles’ Eastside and lived in a house that faced Whittier Blvd. That is when I realized how rich my culture was and was not what we see in movies or in the television.  From the age of 14-17, I was part of the party crew scene- a subculture organized by and for the youth in a time when many of my friends and relatives were in gangs. The gatherings occurred on the weekends and some weekdays in residential backyards and industrial warehouses throughout Los Angeles. Like most youth subcultures, music played a key role – we listened Techno, House and New Wave. Then on Sundays we cruised down the boulevard while bumping some oldies and freestyle. The Boulevard was a place where boys and girls met and exchanged telephone numbers.

These two digital archives came into being because Rosales was hungry for a way to connect to her history, her past: “I focused my research on the Los Angeles youth cultures in hopes of finding a deeper identity. If I Google searched my experiences as a teenager, what would I look for and how would I describe myself and those experiences? Someone who lived in Los Angeles and in the midst of gang violence, the Los Angeles riots and numerous protests. I wanted to read and look at images the brown youth on the dance floor and backyard parties, cruising the boulevard or anything that had documented the (sub)culture that existed in the midst of violence, unfortunately I wasn’t finding anything. With very little success, I started an Instagram feed, titled Veteranas and Rucas and posted photos from my own personal collection as reference. Within a week of my initial posting, people began to submit their own photos through email and messaging them through Instagram.”


The rise of material culture studies in the 1980s and 1990s helped shift our concepts of archives. Suddenly historians wanted to write about posters, or embroidery samplers, or military parkas. Any set of objects could be an archive.

The Internet opened up the archive further–more users, more stories, more material, more access, more of everything. In some ways, the internet itself is one vast archive. The power of Rosales’s crowdsourced Instagram archives lies in their ability to evoke–and capture–emotion. And they are not cordoned off from everyday life. For the moment, Instagram is a platform that is fully integrated into the fabric of quotidian life. Which also means that I cannot easily “forget” these faces, these histories. They show up on my phone screen, they speak to me, intimate as family, their images and stories cradled in my palm.



Though reading about Isaac Newton’s theological views is not exactly my idea of a good time, I recently found myself digging deep into the subject. I am working as a teaching fellow at the Yale divinity school this semester and had to give a lecture to my class on the ‘scientific revolution.’ To better explain some of the historiographical problems associated with early modern science, I was on the lookout for a case study which I could introduce towards the end of the lecture as a way of summing up some of my main arguments. While preparing the lecture, Newton came to mind. I suspected that, while the students would know quite a bit about Newton’s work on calculus and optics, his theological views, especially his ardent anti-trinitarianism, may come as a surprise.

To get a better grasp of some of Newton’s basic theological positions, I picked up Rob Iliffe’s new book Priest of Nature: The Religious Worlds of Isaac Newton and it was nothing short of a revelation. Iliffe, who currently holds a chair in the history of science at Oxford, has been working on Newton’s religious views for over three decades now and the book clearly shows his impressive learning and incisive thinking on the topic (Iliffe is also the co-editor of the Newton papers project which has compiled and transcribed an astonishing number of Newton’s manuscripts which are scattered in collections across the UK and Israel).

Iliffe’s claim is simple: Newton, he argues, was a deeply devout man who took his religious thinking and theological research as seriously as his ‘scientific’ work. Though this may hardly count as a path-breaking insight on his own, it is Iliffe’s relentless quest to painstakingly document the evolution of Newton’s theological views and their impact on his scientific work that makes his book one of the most exciting that I have read in a while. In particular, I was fascinated by the chapter “Methodizing the apocalypse” which examines Newton’s obsession with prophetic images in the bible. It looks at his deep interest in eschatological thinking and explains how Newton drew upon the ideas of older thinkers such as Joseph Mede and some contemporaries such as Henry More. Iliffe is especially good at using Newton as a lens for thinking about some of the bigger issues in the history of science. For anyone interested in early modern science and theology, this book is a must read.



In the first half of the twentieth century, a handful of scholars writing mostly in England attempted to understand how capitalism worked to produce the kind of isolated and self-interested people that its defenders associated with the natural human condition. These critics included R.H Tawney, the labor activist, education reformer and early modern historian whose research on the intellectual and social history of capitalism in the seventeenth century left such a deep imprint on my own field that the period of English history he studied came to be known as “Tawney’s Century.” Tawney and the intellectuals he helped inspire are the subjects of Tim Rogan’s rich and incisive book The Moral Economists: R.H. Tawney Karl Polanyi, E.P. Thompson, and the Critique of Capitalism (PUP, 2017).

Rogan traces the development over half a century of the distinctly historical critique of a capitalist system that these three scholars saw as insufficient for human flourishing. While the three scholars were familiar with each other’s work, Rogan groups them together not because they identified each other with a common mission but rather because they shared some conception of a “moral economy” that had been suppressed over time, to varying degrees, by laissez-faire capitalism and the theologies and philosophies that had served as its handmaiden through history, whether puritanism, liberalism or utilitarianism. Rogan’s close attention to the continuities and the subtle differences in these thinkers’ narratives of history and accounts of human flourishing leads him to convincingly demonstrate how they were all talking about moral economy in distinct ways, even before Thompson popularized the term itself in a famous article from 1971. This rigorous reconstruction of the logic of their arguments also allows Rogan to end with an evaluation of those accounts which he believes offer promising paths to guide political thinking today. Rogan sees Polanyi’s framework in particular as potentially fruitful for the present. Polanyi unmoored his own critique from the specifically Christian theological conception of human nature that Tawney had expounded before him. This transition leads me to wonder whether it’s valuable to think about such a shift as a kind of “secularization” between Tawney and Polanyi, and how that rejection of theology as a guide for their politics might lead Polanyi, his contemporaries and successors to attribute a different kind of significance to theology within the histories they write.

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