Princeton’s Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor has written penetrating analysis of the ongoing global uprisings against racism and police violence. A scholar of racist lending and housing policies and racial wealth gaps, Taylor stresses the historical backdrop of racial capitalism and acute economic pain that set the stage for the present rebellion: what often gets called neoliberalism, neatly captured by the neat image of centrist Democratic politicians in the early 1990s, including Bill Clinton and Joe Biden, trying to win white voters by swapping out social welfare programs for beefed-up police and prisons. For Taylor, this is the historic mistake and injustice defunding police can help reverse today. She writes: “Riots are not only the voice of the unheard, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., famously said; they are the rowdy entry of the oppressed into the political realm. They become a stage of political theatre where joy, revulsion, sadness, anger, and excitement clash wildly in a cathartic dance. They are a festival of the oppressed.” And then there is the radical King, whose targeting by the FBI we would be remiss to forget. As UCLA’s Robin D. G. Kelley argues in a recent piece, on the question “Why are they looting?”: “Our country was built on looting — the looting of Indigenous lands and African labor. African-Americans, in fact, have much more experience being looted than looting….Our bodies were loot….We can speak of the looting of black property through redlining, slum clearance and more recently predatory lending.” “What to do?” he asks in conclusion. “Dr. King was unequivocal: full employment and decent housing, paid for by defunding the war in Vietnam.”
A series of short reflections on the coronavirus crisis by a diverse constellation of over thirty thinkers I co-curated with Benjamin Davis for Public Seminar over the past few weeks (including familiar names to the JHI such as Martin Jay, Enzo Traverso, Audrey Borowski, and Benjamin Bernard) is now published as “Sentencing the Present: An Archive of a Crisis” alongside our Adornian post-mortem on the project, “Field Notes on ‘Sentencing the Present’: Diagnosing what is false without ceding what is beautiful.” This archive offers a lesson in the complex intersection of crises, as the pain of Covid-19 gave way to an unprecedented anti-racism movement. Offered the possibility of continuing this series with a pivot toward racial justice, we decided we had said enough and passed on the mic to other voices. The pendulum had also swung from theory to praxis, and we joined many of our contributors in the streets. “Our final week’s theses reflect that the outbreak of Covid-19, the ensuing economic crisis, and the myriad racialized state murders serve as ‘flash points of trouble’ that reveal deeper intersecting ‘nodes of crisis’ (Nancy Fraser) — unpaid debts and crimes not atoned for, all related to long histories of racial domination and imperialist expropriation, conflicts of capitalism and care work.”
On the theme of intersecting crises, the Swedish thinker Andreas Malm recently spoke with Jacobin and also with the German critical theorist Rahel Jaeggi, about his forthcoming Verso book on “chronic emergency” and the relationship between coronavirus and capitalism, bat germs and deforestation. “The problem with social democracy,” he says, “is that it has no concept of catastrophe.” Malm offers an urgent reminder that the climate clock is still ticking.
Finally, some wise words from the British historian of Nazi Germany Richard J. Evans, who offers yet another case of “learning from the Germans” when it comes to legacies of racial violence and contested memorial culture: “Pulling down statues has nothing to do with history, and everything to do with memory. Statues are about the present, not the past: they are about the values we want to celebrate through the people we regard as having represented them.”
I live in Rhode Island, a state that is currently undergoing a name change to remove its association with plantation-based slavery. As we watch protestors topple statues dedicated to historical racists, it’s a reminder that we commemorate violent actions not only with images, but also with language.
In the past few weeks, GitHub, probably the most prominent version control system currently in use, officially changed its language for referring to main code branches and subsidiary ones, choosing to finally eschew the “master” and “slave” metaphor. Reading full stack engineer Alexis Moody’s call and instructions for the replacement of this language seemed incredibly important for this time. This language has been identified as problematic for a long time, however, and I’ve found Ron Eglash’s “Broken Metaphor: The Master-Slave Analogy in Technical Literature” provides a good overview of where this racist language came from and why engineers continued to use it.
On May 30, SpaceX launched the spacecraft Endeavour from Kennedy Space Center, containing the astronauts Douglas G. Hurley and Robert L. Behnken. The fact that both were white cis men was not lost on much of the viewing public, nor was the fact that news agencies kept referring to the spaceflight as “manned.” The Planetary Society’s Emily Lakdawalla has a great write-up of alternatives to this gendered language, a piece that was shared consistently during SpaceX’s flight as people reliably returned to the outdated terminology. Reflecting on the language of spaceflight also allowed me to return to one of my favorite pieces on this subject, Michael P. Oman-Reagan’s “Unmanning Space Language.” He invites us to consider how gendered language like “manned missions” and “mankind” reinforces sexism, as well as false ideas of a gender binary, but also how it contributes colonialist ideals like manifest destiny.
Ideas are shaped by language, but language is also shaped by ideas. As we work to confront institutionalized racism and our own internalized biases, we must also confront our language and excise outdated, racist, and sexist terms and metaphors from our lexica. Because some of these statues that must be felled aren’t built from stone.
Should historians read novels? What about graduate students? In 1998, John Demos, now Emeritus Professor of American History at Yale University, addressed the question with his In Search of Reasons for Historians to Read Novels for the Forum: Histories and Historical Fictions in The American Historical Review. I too, as a graduate student in 2020 (70 years after Demos’ experience in graduate school), read novels “only occasionally, and furtively, and with a somewhat guilty conscience.” Demos’ article explores both the methodological issues and the benefits that emerge when frequenting history and historical fiction, and how the two modes of history writing can inform each other. More recently, Carlos Noreña, Associate Professor in Ancient History and Mediterranean Archaeology at Berkeley, discussed how “reading fiction can serve as a wake-up call—a safeguard against interpretive myopia”, and historian Carl Abbot suggested that alternative history as practiced in speculative fiction can be beneficial for training the historian’s imagination. While I used to have a preference for historical fiction, I am also increasingly fond of speculative fiction set in imagined futures, with realistic claims. Today, more than ever, there is a growing consensus on the importance of unravelling the past as a condition for guaranteeing just and equitable futures. While I strongly believe that unravelling long histories of violence and inequity will help us envision the future, I also wonder what the imaginary scenarios of futurity in speculative fiction can do to help mobilize the present by reshaping the sense of what constitutes methods of history. Recently, I read Niccolò Ammaniti’s Anna, a novel published in 2015 and set in 2020 which depicts a world devoid of grownups upon the global spread of a respiratory virus which affects everyone on the verge of adulthood. Often compared to William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Anna troubles senses of linear history as Ammaniti’s descriptions of his fictive 2020 pandemic coincidentally overlap with occurrences of the ongoing current pandemic. For once, I must admit I read a novel because it prompted reflections on the historical development of linear conceptions of time. Given its coincidental overlapping with future history, Anna invites readers to consider the possibilities encountered through futurability.
It’s not uncommon for writers, scholars and scientists to talk about “inspiration” animating their work, especially in surprising moments and late hours. It’s much less common to hear them cite “divine inspiration” as the spark for their creativity. We don’t think that writers have any less right to claim the work as their own because they felt some rush of motivation in a moment, as if struck by something outside, that propelled them forward. But what if that something from outside was a divine presence, at least as they perceived it. Does the author own their work then? This is the deeply layered question that Andrew Ventimiglia explores in a recent article published in KNOW: A Journal on the Formation of Knowledge, “The Sermon’s Copy: Pulpit Plagiarism and the Ownership of Divine Knowledge.” Ventimiglia tracks through theological treatises and legal cases to show how the missionary imperative to spread true religion bedeviled efforts by popular preachers to fit sermons into otherwise profane intellectual property protections. It was not only the mission but also the source that made them an inconvenient genre to conform to secular copyright. Was it really the work of the preacher, or was it the work of the Holy Spirit? If it wasn’t the person behind the pulpit, could they really claim it was their own intellectual work?
That question did not just pose problems for contemporary jurisprudence and the modern expectations of copyright. It also provoked forceful responses from Christian reformers like Martin Luther in the early sixteenth century, as Ventimiglia illustrates. It was not just the sacred matters of the Reformation but also the mundane realities of publishing that raised questions about the relation among labor, learning and authorship in the period. In an excerpt that was published in Lapham’s Quarterly from his recent book, Inky Fingers: The Making of Books in Early Modern Europe (Harvard University Press, 2020), Anthony Grafton reconstructs the messy, scholarly work of the correctors, castigators and lectors in early modern printing houses. He cites account books and literary references to shows how these workers and thinkers occupied a liminal and sometimes contested space between learned men and manual workers. That ambiguous status rendered their editorial interventions suspect at times, at least in the eyes of their reluctant authors. It was not just divine inspiration that had an outside hand in writing some of the most influential theological works of the era. The mundane worker could disturb that pretense to authorial integrity as easily as sacred intervention.
Featured Image: Scuola di Atene/The School of Athens (detail). Musei Vaticani. File source: Wikimedia Commons.