What we’re reading this spring

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Simon

Commentators in contemporary British politics evoke “The Welfare State” so often that you’d think everyone knew what it meant. Today its use often accompanies a story of decline, a lament for the dismantling of the Welfare State, or a defense of the remnants of the Welfare State. The Welfare State was not, however, a natural part of a now fallen landscape, and a historical account of how it’s many associated and sometimes contradictory institutions were imagined, fought for and enacted over centuries offers helpful clarity to guide a response to that decline. Chris Renwick traces just such a narrative in Bread for All: The Origins of the Welfare State (Allen Lane, 2017). He begins with a brief overview of the long reach of the Elizabethan “Old” Poor Law system, focuses on the period of liberal reform and liberal decline in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, and ends with the expansion of secondary education and the establishment of the National Health Service in 1948, the institution that most often stands in for “The Welfare State” writ large. Throughout he follows the ideas about national improvement, social justice and human nature that, he argues, lie as the uneven sediments on which the system has been built over centuries.

In writing an intellectual history of the welfare state, Renwick succeeds in avoiding a story of powerful politicians and public intellectuals enacting their own visionary ideals. He accounts for how concessions and compromises made in fear of popular agitation, whether from veterans of the First World War returning to squalid homes or dockworkers marching in Trafalgar Square against unemployment  drove reform. Still, most of the ideas in the book belong to those serving on select committees or editing important periodicals. The most surprising and illuminating sections recount the ideas of those outside of government, like the journalist, eugenicist and anti-immigrant campaigner Arnold White who helped popularize the concept of “degeneration” that combined long-held concerns over the morality of the poor with modern pop-genetics. Attention to figures like these reveals how versions of the welfare state relied on ideas articulated outside of the halls of power. These stories reinforce how “The” welfare state was always contested between different accounts of the deserving and undeserving. White’s in particular reminds us that the anti-immigrant sentiment resurgent today is one more way to redraw that division as austerity puts more and more pressure to distinguish populations by it.

Disha

The Dash — The Other Side of Absolute Knowing, Rebecca Comay and Frank Ruda

I had the chance to see Rebecca Comay speak about this book last week, and I was struck first by the fact that I laughed out loud at lines in a work on Hegel and punctuation: “Craziness, hypochondria, missed deadlines, publisher’s hassles, promises, more promises, bad postal service, no document backup, money problems, job insecurity—the usual academic nightmare—plus a dose of history: the Napoleonic horseman of the apocalypse, Jena under siege: Hegel’s lawyer finally reassures him that, contractually speaking, acts of war do indeed count as extenuating circumstances.” Second, I was moved by the incredibly clear-eyed invocations of politics and practice in Comay’s treatment of the relationship between the Phenomenology of Spirit and the Science of Logic as contained in the dash that ends the first work and begins the second. In this breathless, stuttering moment, Comay and her co-author Frank Ruda find the “unspooling” of the pairs of entities in dialectics.

Political Survivors: The Resistance, the Cold War, and the Fight Against Concentration Camps After 1945 , Emma Kuby

I was also lucky to hear Emma Kuby speak about this book this past weekend, at a phenomenal and provocative conference at Yale. She insisted that this was a work of French intellectual history, even as (and perhaps because) it grapples with some of the most embedded, violent, and material fixtures of twentieth century global life — the concentration camp, the Holocaust, the Cold War, and imperial violence. It is at once a history of an organization called the International Commission Against the Concentration Camp Regime and the intellectuals who participated in it, including its founder David Rousset, and a wider unsettling of narratives of the Nazi camp, the Soviet gulag, torture and colonial wars, and the intellectual and political fault lines of identity, political acts, and the long shadow of the mid-century moment.

Luna

Peter Coates, A Story of Six Rivers: History, Culture and Ecology (Reaktion Books, 2013).

Since I started working with water and rivers, I look for waterways wherever I go. I am increasingly surprised to meet so many people who are interested in their local waterscape and who passionately speak about local stories of coexistence. From the Trinity River in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex to Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River or the Mithi River in Mumbai, after being forgotten for several decades, urban rivers are slowly becoming the center of a growing interest as objects of history and community engagement but also of urban development and policy. And this is why I want to recommend Peter Coates’ A Story of Six Rivers.

Coates focuses on the stories of six rivers -the Danube, the Spree, the Po, the Mersey, the Yukon, and the Los Angeles- thus accounting for changes that each river experienced as the consequence of interactions with the urban communities along its course. As the title suggests, the book emphasizes how the tension between singularity and plurality constitutes a crucial issue in our contemporary way of relating to rivers. On one hand, a river is just a river, wherever it is located, because technically we are prone to see it as “the law of gravity applied to water, a downward flow of liquid particles carrying dissolved mineral and organic substances, returning to the sea the moisture that it gave to the land through the mechanisms of clouds” (253). On the other, each river has its own composite biography, both material and symbolic. The Po, with its low-lying bottomlands, its slow flow and le mondine (seasonal rice paddy women workers), can’t be said to be the same as the Yukon, just as “the topographic splendours” (137) of the Danube have little to do with the present-day, cement-encased Los Angeles (although someone might argue that the Los Angeles is no longer a river).

In spite of such discontinuity and difference, Coates argues that “the tendency of human activity over the centuries has been to simplify diversity of fluvial form and function” (255). A Story of Six Rivers works exactly against this process of simplification by showing how each of the six rivers has its own characteristics that contribute to the history of local communities in different ways. Even if many might object to Coates’ statement that rivers “help us make the history that we and they co-produce” (24), it is unquestionable that rivers are “good to think with” (7). And, effectively, by tracing the different yet similar stories of the six rivers, Coates’ tells us a story that exposes some of the theoretical assumptions that lurk behind overarching patterns characterizing each river’s biography. What should we say about the struggle to identify a source, a mouth, a course while maintaining a constant flow that characterizes much of the modern interactions with rivers?

Coates’ book presents readers with a vivid view from the river to show how the unruly movement of rivers – what we call ‘flooding’- is not inherently destructive and “it all depends on what we place in its path and how we manage risk” (241). In an era of river rediscovery and reconstruction, this is a compelling thought.

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