February Reading Recommendations, Part 1

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This month I’ve been re-reading Continental Divide: Heidegger, Cassirer, Davos, Peter E. Gordon’s brilliant intellectual-historical overview of the famous Cassirer- Heidegger disputation at the International Davos Conference in 1929. While writing my PhD thesis, I drew heavily on the book to educate me about the wider context of European intellectual life in the early twentieth century leading up to the disputation. By the time I started my PhD, I had read a considerable amount of Heidegger, but I had admittedly very little knowledge of the context out of which his thought emerged. Gordon’s book was a rigorous and balanced antidote. What emerged was Heidegger the human being, flaws and all, putting forward provocative ideas in the already fragmented intellectual and political climate of Weimar Germany.

This time around, beyond the depth of historical research and the clarity and precision with which Gordon deals with his subject matter, I’ve been struck by the nuance with which he treats Cassirer’s position. Not so long ago, I had viewed Cassirer’s position on the objectivity of symbolic forms and how these related to a normative definition of a human being, as a failed project. However, Gordon’s nuanced treatment of why Cassirer arrived at his position allows one to reassess key questions that have been abandoned or reshaped in the wake of the popularity of Heidegger’s philosophy. Gordon allows us to ask, are we happy with the answers that have been put forward? It is certainly clear while reading the book that Gordon has a deep understanding of Heidegger and a respect for his philosophy. But what is also clear is that despite the fact that the Davos disputation has gained almost mythical status as a recreation of the European philosophical world in Heidegger’s image, Heidegger did not necessarily always meet Cassirer’s questions  on their own terms.

Shortly after the books release, some reviews were critical of Gordon’s treatment of Cassirer’s position, including Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. However let us not forget that later philosophers, including Jürgen Habermas, have suggested that Cassirer was far more in tune to Heidegger’s position than Heidegger himself realised. What emerges then, from my re-reading of Continental Divide, is not a fully fledged conversion to Cassirer’s position. Rather, Gordon gives the reader the tools to reassess the questions posed and the suitability of the answers given in this key moment in Western philosophical history.



I used to tell my students that, before everything was on the internet, art history students at Berkeley prepared for exams by studying reproductions on paper.

They would prepare by descending into the basement of Moffitt Library, where photographic reproductions of various artworks–usually rendered in black and white, and not always with great clarity–had been pinned to bulletin boards, along with identifying captions. There, in the bowels of the library, with the flickering fluorescent lights and the strange musty basement smells, you were supposed to commit everything to memory. It was not a particularly relaxing situation. The room was crowded, especially in the final days before the exam. The library had limited hours. To save money, the reproductions were all uniform in size — 8.5 x 11 inches — and it was often impossible to see them well, unless one pushed to the front of the group. You might only see an image once, and never again — since it wasn’t illustrated in the textbook and there was no way of tracking the work down again.

Inevitably, a student would interrupt my self-pitying reverie to ask, But what did they do before photography?

Well. The short answer: They were very, very sad.

The longer answer: They looked at engravings, or sometimes at copies made after important works.

The not-so-pleasant answer: In the days before cheap (and ubiquitous) photographic reproduction, art history was an expensive proposition.

In many ways, art history is still an expensive proposition. One way or another, you have to eventually get yourself in front of the actual object. Photographs–or their flickering, digital emanations–are no substitute.

Digital images are no substitute for the real thing, but they are useful tools, and they open up access. Imagine the resources required to actually see an artist’s entire oeuvre, even one belonging to an artist like Vermeer, whose corpus is extremely small.

Now, anyone with an internet connection can view Vermeer’s entire oeuvre. Through the Closer to Van Eyck website, they can study Jan Van Eyck’s Ghent altarpiece or examine the entire van Eyck corpus. I mention early modern European artists only because they relate to my own field of expertise, and it is impossible for one person to know everything. For something that’s neither early modern nor European: visit the Souls Grown Deep Foundation site to explore “the contributions of artists from the African American South, and the cultural traditions in which they are rooted.”  Museums are starting to put entire collections online, often offering open access to the digital images themselves.

The internet offers a marvelous–and somewhat overwhelming–profusion of information. It also opens the doors to so much more: more scholarship, more creativity, more drawing and writing and thinking.


Over the last month I have been doing a lot of reading on flooding. While I came across several works that deal with flood from a theoretical point of view and that try to define what flood means, particularly in terms of the separation it implies between dry land and bodies of water, this month I would like to recommend Gregory Aldrete’s Floods of the Tiber in Ancient Rome. Published in 2007 by The Johns Hopkins University Press, this work in fact approaches the topic from a historical perspective and investigates flooding in the ancient city of Rome, thus revealing how “from the earliest stages of Roman urban history, efforts to build an artificial environment were constrained by the challenges of dealing with unwanted water” (9).

Rather than focusing on developing a conceptual understanding of flooding which could be applied to different contexts, Gregory Aldrete, who is professor of history and humanistic studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, identifies as ‘floods’ those specific situations that were recorded as such in sources of the time. Thus, references in historical and literary texts by Roman authors are used to draw a road map of occurrences that Romans themselves viewed as instances of flooding. This set of information surveyed and analyzed in the first chapter is compared with data from other fields, particularly architecture, archeology, and hydrology, in order to determine when floods occurred (Chapter 1), why they occurred (Chapter 2), what effects they caused (Chapters 3 and 4), and how the local community reacted to such events (Chapters 5 and 6).

Although it might be objected that by intersecting ancient records with contemporary data, this book traces just the occurrence of those events that would be considered as floods according to both ancient and modern standards, this interdisciplinary method is effective in allowing the author to produce a fascinating history of flooding in the city of Rome under the reign of the first emperor Augustus. Moreover, the chapters include a  number of topographic maps which visually render conclusions drawn from the analyzed data. Thanks to the methodological innovations and the incredible amount of information it includes, this book is an invaluable resource for anyone interested in addressing the question of the relation between humans and water. In fact, while most literature on the Roman culture of water tends to celebrate their technological power and thus their achievements in hydraulic engineering, Aldrete’s research creates a more complex picture and leads him to conclude that “while the Romans had both the technology and the resources to safeguard the city against flooding, they chose not to do so” (231). Certainly, such conclusion has incredible relevance for historical investigations addressing water cultures and water management. However, it also raises a crucial question on the role of technology in the human effort to engineer their surroundings. History seems to suggest in fact that the answer to flooding might come from setting limits to such an effort rather than from pursuing an ideal status of stabilized environmental conditions.


I’ve been reading Circe, by Madeline Miller, a charming story of the Greek Witch made famous by turning Odysseus’ shipmates (temporarily) into pigs. (She’s also the aunt of Medea and the Minotaur–a storied side-character.) Circe is a self-consciously modern retelling, with this once-marginal, mysterious woman given a full first-person treatment. Circe grows from immaturity, survives sexual harassment, does good and bad things, and becomes a successful single mother after battling postpartum depression. The pace is brisk, the writing decent, and the events full of drama and interest. But there’s something unsatisfying about the book. And I think it’s the Gods.

The Gods in Circe are honestly disappointing. More Marvel superhero than deity. Sure, Circe’s dad Helios can light people on fire with a furrowed brow, but in personality he is just another scheming C-suite executive, waiting for the opportunity to stage some tawdry boardroom coup against CEO Zeus. The depiction of the Titans’ boozy drinking halls is more like a bad departmental party than a divine realm. The skeezy Titans feel up the scheming nymphs, everyone except for the very top of the powerful men only pretending to have fun. The characters are familiar, the types easily identifiable, and the motivations of everyone decidedly clear.

But do we want to understand our gods? Maybe not. I’m no expert in the Classics—but for me, part of the pleasure about reading myths is that the Gods’ clear personalities occlude the motivation for their powerful actions. The Gods are fire, thunder, healing, death—they don’t dissemble, because what they are does not change, and cannot be disguised. (Unless we’re talking about some kind of trickster god, but then in those cases dissembling is very on-brand.) When the Gods are angry, they are very angry. And when they are good, they are very good. But they are Gods because we don’t know why they are angry or good at any given moment.

I can’t help comparing the depiction of the Gods in Circe with another modern-day portrayal of Greek myth: the Wire. David Simon, the Wire’s showrunner, has explained that the show is self-consciously modeled on Greek tragedy, only with the irresistible power of the Gods replaced by the irresistible power of the institutions of the modern city. “It’s Baltimore, gentlemen. The Gods will not save you,” Deputy Commissioner Burrell says to a doomed hero. It will not be the Gods who actually dole out the Doom, of course, but the System—the invisible rules that all the players in the game need to follow. The System turns the understandable and often good-willed actions of individuals into the inscrutable tragic outcomes of the crooked world. Individuals may try to make their will on the world—they may try to disobey the Gods—but they usually fail.  In the gap between the mystery of how the System works and the immanence of the System’s power there’s a very real and familiar terror. Without that gap, Circe’s gods are just like us—mortals dressed only in the clothing of the Gods, but without their terrifying power.


As my enthusiastic weekend tweets on the subject probably indicate, I’ve just finished Stefanos Geroulanos and Todd Meyers’ new book The Human Body in the Age of Catastrophe: Brittleness, Integration, Science and the Great WarIt is a history of the emergence of thinking about homeostasis and the fragile nature of the human body during the human catastrophe of the First World War. Drawing together the work of thinkers from from the psychologist W. H. R. Rivers, the neurologist Kurt Goldstein and physiologist Walter Cannon through to the founding father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, and anthropologists Marcel Mauss and Claude Lévi-Strauss, Geroulanos and Meyers have written a groundbreaking example of the possibilities of intellectual history which combines penetrating critical analysis with compelling prose. In my own writing, I spend a lot of time thinking about the relationship between structure and ideas and I was really drawn by the way that Geroulanos and Meyers build their arguments as the book unfolds throughout its three sections. The first part examines the way in which ‘[b]attle provided a ready-made experimental situation in which research and physiological experimentation came under the heading of care, therapy, and rehabilitation.’ (37) In the second, the reader is carefully guided through the multiple approaches to the concept of integration by neurological, psychiatric and ethnographic researchers. Here integration refers to three things: ‘the integration of the nervous system’; ‘the integration understood, both a contrario and experientially, as the instance of health right before and after the collapse caused or precipitated by brain injury’; and the ‘concept of integration and disintegration that took over after a traumatic even.’ (113). These first two sections are carefully framed in terms of the relationship between physiological conceptions of bodily disintegration and psychoanalytical analyses of shell shock. In this way, Geroulanos and Meyers pave the way for the tour de force of the third and final section which persuasively traces the legacies of this thinking about bodily integrity for myriad thinkers and disciplines concerned with concepts as far ranging as psychiatry and psychoanalysis, cybernetics, taboos and magic, as well as international politics and anthropology.

I’ve also been reading the sociologist Jean Beaman’s, Citizen Outsider: Children of North African Immigrants in France which came out with the University of California Press in 2017. It is a fascinating inquiry into the tension between French Republican values and the reality of the lived experience of minority groups within French citizenry. Beaman focuses her study on those children of maghrebin immigrants who have, for all intents and purposes, successfully ‘become French.’ All of her subjects are middle-class professionals with university education. They are all men and women who identify as French and are yet not quite fully included by virtue of their ‘minority’ identity. Despite being a contemporary study, the issues Beaman identifies resonate closely with the conversations about Republican belonging and exclusion that my own research maps out in Third and Fourth Republic France. Plus ça change!

My final recommendation for this month is Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky With Exit Wounds. I am far behind the curve ball with this one, as it came out in 2016 and has received a slew of prizes since, but it is honestly one of the most beautiful collections of poetry I’ve read in the last few years.

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