A new podcast series, Talking Politics: History of Ideas, led by the Cambridge historian of political thought David Runciman, “explores some of the most important thinkers and prominent ideas lying behind modern politics—from Hobbes to Gandhi, from democracy to patriarchy, from revolution to lock down.” I also recommend the insightful episode of Ezra Klein’s podcast, “Why the coronavirus is so deadly for black Americans,” with David R. Williams, a professor of public health at Harvard and one of the most-cited social scientists in the world, on how racism and resource gaps adversely affected black health long before the shock of coronavirus made these disparities highly visible. Williams concludes with a passage from W. E. B. Du Bois’s The Philadelphia Negro (1899): “The most difficult social problem in the matter of Negro health is the peculiar attitude of the nation toward the well-being of the race. There have…been few other cases in the history of civilized peoples where human suffering has been viewed with such peculiar indifference.”
Corey Robin’s “This is the Time to Resurrect the Public University” in the New Yorker is an ode to the City University of New York, which used to be known as “the poor man’s Harvard” and was tuition-free until the 1970s. In the past few decades, the system has been defunded and fallen into disrepair. The CUNY system, which has been hard-hit by the Covid-19 crisis, exemplifies many broader realities of higher education in America: A majority of its students live at home or off campus, are poor, and are people of color. Robin rightly challenges a recent call by Brown University president Christina Paxson for universities to reopen in the fall—something that might be possible for a wealthy, residential, and unrepresentative institution like Brown, but is unlikely to be safe or possible at institutions like CUNY that already lacked basic resources even before the pandemic. Robin can’t even count on there being soap in the bathrooms. In the interview “The Coming Disruption” in New York Magazine, NYU Stern’s Scott Galloway makes surprising predictions about how such inequalities will play out in coming years, arguing that they will be accelerated by the budgetary crises and enrollment declines caused by the pandemic. He predicts that many colleges—at least in the hundreds—will close, while the top 20-ranked universities will ally themselves with tech companies in order to monetize their “brands” in online education ventures like “MIT@Google. iStanford. HarvardxFacebook.”
Samuel Moyn’s essay “The Trouble with Comparisons” offers a response to Peter E. Gordon’s “Why Historical Analogy Matters,” which was also published in the New York Review of Books a few months ago. Arguing for the importance of historical disanalogy alongside analogy, Moyn contends that “comparison, even when controlled by the ballast of contrast, is a political act to be judged successful or not.” Gordon’s essay centers on the so-called “concentration camp debate” launched by Democratic congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s denunciation of inhumane conditions in migrant detention centers on America’s southern border in the summer of 2019. Moyn returns to the earlier claim, starting around 2016, that Trump is in some respects fascist, from scholars such as Timothy Snyder, Jason Stanley, and Federico Finchelstein—a view that drew criticism from those further to the left including Moyn himself, Corey Robin, and Daniel Bessner and Udi Greenberg in their takedown of “The Weimar Analogy.” As Moyn articulates the left position: “Abnormalizing Trump disguises that he is quintessentially American, the expression of enduring and indigenous syndromes. A response to what he represents hardly requires a restoration of ‘normalcy’ but a questioning of the status quo ante Trump that produced him.” Because of their differing examples and political outlooks on the present, Moyn and Gordon’s essays ultimately talk past one another. Whereas Gordon identifies the power of careful comparison with darker times to draw moral urgency to present injustices and overcome complacency, Moyn thinks Trump’s critics should pour their energies into “building an alternative to the present,” not returning to normal: “Analogy and disanalogy with the past can assist in analyzing our present, but not if they allow indulging in a melodramatic righteousness, and luxuriating in our fears, all while preparing a terrifyingly normal future.”
Finally, two review essays in The Nation provide longue durée historical analysis useful for understanding contemporary “crises” of liberalism and leftist politics: “One Damn Thing After Another: The long roots of liberal democracy’s crisis,” by Jan-Werner Müller, and “Comrades: The inner life of American communism,” by Corey Robin.
Reading Jacqueline Wernimont’s “The Grim History of Counting the Dead During Plagues”, it becomes clear that the history of epidemics is intimately bound up with the history of mortality rates. Wernimont shows that examining this history illustrates demography’s exploitative approach to death and the entanglement of meticulously counting the dead with economic interests. John Graunt, nowadays often considered one of the founding fathers of vital statistics, actually began his professional career with an analysis of death counts before moving on the living—and as Wernimont makes clear, even in 17th-century London, those tallies worked like “a kind of civic algorithm that could help [contemporaries] program their shopping, travel, and business dealings while avoiding plague-stricken districts of the growing metropolis.” Yet, depending on the parameters applied, the data used for public information about mortality often proves deceptive despite its supposed authority, and Wernimont thus warns that we should be wary about “the uncertainty of our counting and classifying practices.”
A different kind of deconstruction is pursued by Mischa Meier in his German-language article “Die ‘Völkerwanderung’ kennt keine Völker”, which approximately if somewhat awkwardly translates to “There are no Barbarians in the ‘Barbarian Invasions’.” The argument behind it, though, certainly bridges national historical debates as Meier is keen on debunking a myth that has arisen around the role migration played in the fall of the Roman Empire and led more than one contemporary commentator to compare the 2015 European “migration crisis” to the doom Imperial Rome faced from “barbarian” Germanic invaders. Apart from the fact that he obviously deems this argument historical misappropriation, Meier is quick to point out that the entire concept of a “Völkerwanderung” is a misnomer in ancient history. Not only was there no coherent, unified “people” replacing another—which, he points out, is a romantic reading of the past that emerged in the 19th and 20th century around the cult of the Volk—but the act of migration itself was not even perceived as a threat or transgression within its proper historical context. In antiquity, mobility and not sedentary life was the norm, even within the Roman Empire, so using this historical episode as a way to understand the current reveals itself to be doubly misguided.
A longer, but certainly rewarding read is the new themed issue of Humanity on “technologies of stateness” in an age of internationalism. Focusing on a wide range of 20th-century case studies and operating with a broad and permissive definition of “international organization,” the contributions to this issue ask: how did supra-state bodies like the League, the UN, the World Bank, or a temporary international round table influence the making and continuous reform of nation-states? What techniques of governance were passed on from such organizations to existing and prospective states? In what ways did they influence the self-perception of these states and what each regarded as their primary interests? And how, if at all, were these “technologies of stateness” different from the tenets of colonial rule?
In between giggling at sad animals cartoons (I am a botanist, what can I say!) I am reading
Northscapes : History, Technology, and the Making of Northern Environments edited by Dolly Jørgensen and Sverker Sörlin. The Northscapes — the circumpolar regions of Iceland, Finland, Sweden, Russia, the Pacific Northwest, and Canada– enter into the historical imagination as places of desolation, survival, and ancient “tribes”. In recent years these landscapes have drawn the attention of climate change scientists, indigenous cultures over their territorial rights, oil and gas companies, new shipping routes, and heroism of bygone days ( with advice on surviving social distancing). This collection examines this view of a distinctive “northscape” across eleven chapters from A.E. Nordenskiöld’s passion for fossils, Viking-Norse settlements to the Klondike Gold Rush. The book presents diverse viewpoints–historians, anthropologists, and one natural scientist — to reconsider the North as both a physical environment shaped by natural processes and its global interconnectedness. The editors provide four themes—Exploring, Colonialism, Working, and Imagining–(which makes the book very useful pedagogically) to organize the changing visions of the North. This ambitious collection argues that a set of locations found in the north can be understood together, across temporal and geographical space (CE 800 to the year 2000), across shared physical and material conditions but also through human interactions and responses to these environments over time. This book also demonstrates how scholarly collaboration across fields can produce a richer and more meaningful understanding of “peripheral” spaces.
Perhaps I was drawn to Testosterone: An Unauthorized Biography after indulging in heroic male survival stories in the Arctic or quite simply I suffer from penis envy (perhaps writing about eels in the next paragraph was not a good idea), or both. Anyways. Rebecca Jordan-Young and Katrina Karkazis present a richly sourced argument challenging the perception that testosterone is merely a biological steroidal molecule zooming around men’s bodies controlling their strength, power, and sexual desire. By hybridizing the biological and the social the authors offer a more nuanced understanding of how the physiological and the environmental affects levels of the hormone and its effects. The authors show how hormone researchers–then and now, design experiments and interpret data not only with blinkers on but infused with their own social constructions of “maleness” traits, such as, aggression, strength, violence. Karkazis and Jordan-Young highlight how the desire to fit models and data into prevailing theories of the”male hormone”, such as the connection between testosterone to violence, remains dubious and very tenuous. They are not debunking the science, per se, but warn against simple one-to-one correlations, such as the prevailing notion that testosterone derives violence. They argue that by focussing on this small molecule it draws attention away from the broader and more significant social inequality. Indeed, in a similar fashion to Northscapes they argue that scientists and science studies scholars should work together. I would highly recommend reading this book alongside Erika Milam’s Creatures of Cain; The Hunt for Human Nature on COld War America and Looking for a Few good males: Female Choice in Evolutionary Biology.
My last stop here is to think about Eels. Yes. Eels. Yesterday I read the New Yorker essay about the just published The Book of Eels. Our Enduring Fascination with the Most Mysterious Creature in the Natural World. My book is on its way, however, Brooke Jarvis entices the reader with the anecdotes about this mysterious organism, for example, Sigmund Freud, “elbow-deep in slime, he hoped to be the first person to find what men of science had been seeking for thousands of years: the testicles of an eel.” The question the book poses is quite simply one that has puzzled so many men of science, where do eels actually come from? Jarvis lays out the scope of the book as she explains how scientists are racing to find them—leaving this author wondering about the legacy of “firsts” and the sheer magnetism of the mysteries of the natural world. If the eel is an Endling; could we not just leave them to be eels?
Recently I started wondering how “ethics of care” might play a role in shaping research methods and styles of writing in intellectual history. Thus, I approached María Puig de la Bellacasa’s Matters of Care: Speculative Ethics in More Than Human Worlds which provides a good sense of the historical development of the idea of care while expanding its possible role in significance and ontology. The academic journal ISLE presents the book as being of particular interest to practitioners of science and technology studies, feminist care ethics, and posthumanism. Different conceptual declinations of care have in fact become increasingly important parameters in a wide range of inquiries, but particularly in feminist theory, environmental humanities, and philosophy of science. Born from the unease with “critique of critique” as it emerges throughout the work of scholars such as Bruno Latour and Donna Haraway, thinking with matters of care aims to encourage a new ethos (and possibly a new method) for engaging with knowledge and research. In proposing the notion of “matters of care” María Puig de la Bellacasa continues the shifting in knowledge politics that began with Latour’s move from “matters of fact” into “matters of concern”, with the aim to “affect the lively life of things” by bringing care into the picture (53). While Part I explores the relevance of care in opening new ways to approach ethico-political questions in the context of the tradition of Western modern thought, the chapters in Part II provide helpful examples of research journeys informed by thinking about and with care. Although at times challenging, such new parameters of research, which are informed by the notion of care rather than those of fact or concern, offer potential for developing new ways for conducting ethically engaged inquiry and research.
These past few months, my life has orbited around the same small Manhattan apartment. The experience is like being adrift on an island. Bittersweet, at once insular and insulated, but not so insulated that I could truly escape the world. During the worst weeks of April, I heard the ambulances below, screaming past, far too frequent. I thought, at times, of Madeleine Miller’s Circe, how Aiaia was both dreamtime and prison.
If you, like me, have found these days grinding, full of sorrow and anxiety, and if you have also been surprised, as I have, that in the midst of it all, you’ve noticed spring descending again, the air softening and the trees greening—then you might find something in Miller’s words.
In this suspended dreamtime, I often asked myself the same question as Marilynne Robinson: “What kind of country do we want?”
Such a question can feel like too much. Too broad. A long time ago, in another life, I learned that success in project management depended on the manager’s ability to break each project down to its constituent parts. “What kind of country do we want?” is not a question that submits easily to the project management approach.
I’ll leave you, instead, with Circe’s words: “For a hundred generations, I had walked the world drowsy and dull, idle and at my ease. I left no prints. I did no deeds. Even those who had loved me a little did not care to stay.
“Then I learned I could bend the world to my will, as a bow is bent for an arrow. I would have done that toil a thousand times to keep such power in my hands.”
If “MOOC” was the unpleasant acronym that inspired hope from cost-cutting administrators and derision from concerned educators about a decade ago, another abbreviation has found new prominence in the midst of Covid, and to the same effect. “Edtech” is not intuitive to pronounce, and it’s not clear what falls within its scope as “educational technology.” It certainly includes Zoom, MOOCs and other software that allows normal teaching to happen virtually. But what about technology that lets us learn in our spare time, not in lieu of our work in-person as students and teachers? What about podcasts, which so many of us would play while we’re cooking or commuting before the move to remote instruction, and even more often during it?
Zachary Davis, the president and founder of the educational audio platform Lyceum, discussed that question and the apprehensions about grouping podcasts among these other media with Maximillian Alvarez at the Chronicle Review. In a time of acute vulnerability for university education, exacerbated by decades of diminished state funding and adjunctification of the teaching force, praises for the pedagogical potential of podcasts can sound like the opening of a consultant’s presentation on classroom cost reduction. But Davis recounts his own experience with MOOCs to resist the association between educational audio and the encroachment on classroom teaching. New platforms like Lyceum can continue the project of public education rather than replace it, especially for audiences that fall outside of the age and income brackets that are most overrepresented in universities. Rather than detract they could, in Alvarez’s words, preserve what is “sacred” in the classroom.
I have often felt that apprehension about the potentially corrosive effects of the proliferation of educational podcasts at a moment of retrenchment for classroom instruction, particularly in the humanities. I can’t imagine how our own podcast could distract from new scholarship rather than popularize it, but in other cases that line might be fine. That description of the “sacred” quality that we fear losing helped me understand why that concern — misplaced though it might be — persists. It made me think of another account of a contested sacred soundscape that I read recently in our own Journal of the History of Ideas. In the April issue, Fayçal Falaky explores how the rhythm of church bells (cloches) provoked anticlerical and sometimes antireligious arguments from French commentators of the eighteenth century. Even mainstream writers complained of their disruption to the commercial life of the city and the working and waking hours of shopkeepers. They were a sonic testament to the uneasy compatibility between traditional religion and the business of increasingly commercial cities and towns.
The critics, it seems, were insisting that public bells should ring only according to the convenience of the working day. After the restoration of the French monarchy brought the restoration of the bells, they became associated in literature with the pastoral escape from the city’s bustle. Podcasts that you can play at any time, on your way to work or after you’ve come home, are defined by their convenience. You can listen as you do whatever else you need to do. That’s empowering, especially for working people, and as Davis and Alvarez discuss, it should make us excited about their educational potential. The fear that one more moment of education is compressed and reduced for convenience — especially the convenience of the market — might explain that lingering apprehension.
Recently nominated for the prestigious Wolfson Prize, Prashant Kidambi’s Cricket Country is a fascinating look at the entanglement of sports, race, and politics in the British Empire. Its main subject is the first “All India” cricket team that toured Britain and Ireland in the Coronation summer of 1911. Unlike in England, Kidambi argues, cricket in the subcontinent had decidedly urban origins and was pursued by middle class-youth “because it represented the allure of the colonial modern.” Playing cricket offered middle class men a way of re-asserting their masculinity on the playing field. Ultimately, he suggests, the cricket field emerged as an important venue for the increasingly fertile Indian national imagination.
The book begins by tracing the popularity of cricket in Bombay’s Parsi community and examines the successful early effort to send a Parsi cricket team to England in 1887. Alongside the growth of cricket across different religious communities, it also looks at the spectacular success of Ranjitsinhji, the prince of Nawanagar, who went on to become the first global cricketing celebrity and the effect his renown had on perceptions of cricket in both India and England. Having set the stage, Kidambi then looks at the almost successful venture to send a team consisting of Hindu, Muslim, and Parsi cricketers to England in 1903. Despite a great deal of support, the team never set sail for England. However, 8 years later, the effort bore fruit and an “All India” team finally toured England, Scotland, and Ireland in 1911 and played a total of 36 matches. Despite heavy losses in the initial matches, the team eventually found its way and went on to win a number of games later in the tour.
In line with CLR James’s question “what do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” Kidambi does a fantastic job of offering broader context for each and every episode he discusses. To explain how the young Maharaja of Patiala came to captain the 1911 squad, he tells the incredible story of tensions between the prince and the imperial administration. We also learn a great deal about anti-colonial violence in the English capital and Kidambi is keen to emphasize that the cricketers were not the only Indian athletes touring England that summer and their efforts are to be understood along with those of the multiple wrestlers, weightlifters, and entertainers who came to seize the imagination of the British public that summer. His greatest contribution, however, is to offer a comprehensive account of the life and career of Palwankar Baloo, the Dalit cricketer who regularly fought caste prejudice and was arguably the most successful Indian cricketer on the tour.
Featured Image: Jacob Lawrence, The Library, 1960. Smithsonian American Art Museum