On Sept 2, the anthropologist David Graeber passed away. The New York Review of Books has collected powerful statements of his academic colleagues and activist comrades which show the sheer range of his intellectual pursuits, the vigor with which he threw himself into political struggle — and just how heavy weighs the loss of this man who was for so many of us the very model of a scholar-activist. As one obituary had it, Graeber “a cosmic mind, worked on the very largest scale. He was interrupted mid-flight [Graeber, cosmique, faisait les choses en grand. Il a été interrompu en plein vol.].” His erudition of cosmic expanse combined with his signature blend of humor, care, clarity, and curiosity to make Graeber a consummate essayist. His article on Bullshit Jobs, later expanded into a book, has become a classic. Not as well known, though they should be, are these two essays. What’s the Point if We Can’t Have Fun? argues for the centrality of play in every attempt to understand the human condition. Boldly stepping onto philosophy’s turf, it is a dazzling tour-de-force touching on everything from the nature of consciousness to competing accounts of what makes an explanation scientific to metaphysical speculations about the mindedness of matter to, finally, an ancient Chinese anecdote, which he interprets with masterful delicacy. Closer to intellectual history is his short introduction to one his own heroes, the French anthropologist Marcel Mauss and the Mouvement Anti-Utilitariste dans les Sciences Sociales, MAUSS for short, that took inspiration of his work and which has unjustly been neglected in the English-speaking world in favor of mainstream French postmodernism. May his memory be a blessing.
Not to be missed is UC Berkeley historian Stefan-Ludwig Hoffman’s beautiful essay in Aeon on the German conceptual historian Reinhart Koselleck, focusing on his relationship to the British communist historian Eric Hobsbawm, who taught the young Koselleck in a British “reeducation” center for former Nazis in occupied Germany. Hoffman centers on Koselleck’s Historik, or theory of possible histories, a kind of anti-philosophy of history that provides a basic framework within which contingent historical events occur: “As we find ourselves again in a world of global convulsions and crises, in which events have surprised many, Koselleck reminds us to sort out what repeats in a moment of rupture.” Recent pieces on the Blog have addressed Koselleck’s writings on memorials, crisis, and images.
A number of recent articles and discussions have also considered the “new normal” of American higher education in light of the pandemic as a state of permanent crisis. Jacobin’s podcast The Dig, hosted a discussion on “Higher Education in Crisis” that featured faculty and graduate students from a range of public and private institutions: historian Tithi Bhattacharya on how austerity and profit motives at her institution, Purdue University, have cut programs focused on diversity and social justice while recklessly enrolling record numbers of students for in-person classes to bolster tuition revenues; University of Washington professor Daniel Bessner on his piece “House of Cards: Can the American university be saved?” which highlights the fact that nearly 75 percent of college instructors in the U.S. are contingent, non-tenure-track, or graduate students, many of whom are paid poverty wages and were the first to be fired when budgets and enrollments plunged after the pandemic hit; and Yale graduate student Simon Torracinta on his May 2020 piece “Extinction Event” on how the pandemic challenged the viability of existing university models: “The joke about the Ivies is that they are nonprofit hedge funds with schools attached. Most schools are closer to sprawling conglomerates: an equity fund, a real estate empire, a private hospital, a football team, an apparel company, a brand licensing agency, and an event space, with a little teaching on the side.” He concludes by asking, “What if the torrents of federal money that will be needed to relieve the system required union neutrality, living wages, endowment spending ratios, or more egalitarian admissions?” Daniel Lemons, president of CUNY’s Lehman College, wrote earlier this month, this crisis of higher education is really “a tale of two cities”: media focus (especially from the political Right) on elite colleges conducting instruction remotely through “glorified Skype,” providing students with luxurious and unnecessary amenities, and then leaving them with massive debts, hardly reflects the reality of the more than half of American students who attend public institutions, many of which remain relatively affordable and provide significant social mobility. Astra Taylor’s piece, “The End of the University,” sets the fiscal shock of the pandemic in a longer-term trajectory of public disinvestment, surging student debts, and racial wealth and borrowing gaps: “The coronavirus pandemic did not cause the current crisis like an unexpected blow to an otherwise healthy patient; it has exposed and exacerbated an array of preexisting conditions, revealing structural inequalities that go back not just decades but centuries….One of many ironies of contemporary higher education is the fact millions of students are mortgaging their futures to pay for classes taught by people who may not make minimum wage.”
Leading historians of varying political stripes have weighed in on the ongoing “fascism debate” about the contemporary United States and historical analogies. Historian of Italian fascism Victoria de Grazia grew up as a leftist using “fascist” as a political buzzword for everything from McCarthyism, to police brutality against African Americans in the civil rights era, to the war in Vietnam, but writes that today “we face not fascism, but rather a crisis of a kind that historic fascism invented itself to address.” Niall Ferguson provides six historical reasons the “Weimerica” analogy fails, writing that Trump’s “worldview and political style are so much closer to vintage American nativism and populism that I have the utmost difficulty understanding why any educated person would liken him to Hitler.” Finally, David Bell reminds us that history provides plenty of threats to democracy besides the contentious f-word: Trump is “racist demagogue,” Bell argues, but the broader category of “charismatic authoritarianism,” exemplified by figures like Napoleon Bonaparte, provides more accurate historical analogies than interwar fascism.
The first chapter of Jenny Sharpe’s recent work, Immaterial Archives: An African Diaspora Poetics of Loss, begins with lines from poet M. NourbeSe Philip’s Looking for Livingstone (1991):
in the beginning was
and a future rampart
A book intent on centering African diaspora cultures’ understandings of the relationship between past and present, Immaterial Archives explores artistic works which confront loss and fragment as means toward a salvaged, sacred future. In Sharpe’s reading, the artwork of Haitian American Edouard Duval-Carrié submerges images of colonial-era European books during the Haitian Revolution within a vast landscape of Vodou cosmology. Barbadian poet and historian Kamau Brathwaite and Jamaican writer and historian Erna Brodber recover silences in black history through the audibility of oral histories, the interface between technology and black diasporic memory, and the intrusion of the spiritual upon anthropological study. With careful attention to form, futurity, and story, Sharpe traces presence in absence and sight in the unseen. Allowing the immaterial of the works she explores to surface untouched, she reveals “where words sit on top of large holes leading to a parallel world of spirits, and [where] the gossamer of dreams paradoxically returns us to the repositories of material archives.”
At 792 pages, Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD is Peter Brown’s longest book. The length is justified by the sheer scope and audacity of the subject matter. Brown’s purpose, as he explains, is no less than to account for notions of wealth in the later Roman world and their relationship with the rise and transformation of Christianity. He does so through a combination of sweeping overviews of vast subjects and highly detailed portraits of individual thinkers, clerics, and politicians. While the book does not have a single argument that holds it together, the general narrative explains how early Christians struggled to come to terms with the vast wealth of the Roman empire. Next, it shows how the fall and eventual dissolution of the western half of the empire created conditions under which individual Christian churches amassed great wealth. At the core of this story, he explains, is Christianity’s deeply fraught but ultimately successful attempt to sacralize wealth and connect it with the afterlife.
It goes without saying that this is quite simply an astonishing work of scholarship. Brown brings the full force of his erudition to bear upon the subject and moves effortlessly from Rome to Gaul to Spain to North Africa and back again. Individual thinkers are treated with great attention and he repeatedly shows how seemingly banal and obvious ideas about wealth were, in fact, extremely radical in their various contexts. However, at least for me, the best aspect of the book is the generosity with which he acknowledges his debt to the work of his fellow scholars. On almost every page, there is mention of the incredible amount of new scholarship on late antiquity and how it has transformed our understanding of the period. Most importantly, though, Brown never relishes in pointing out the flaws in the work of other scholars. While he clearly states their positions and his disagreement with them, his next step is almost always to speak in the first person plural and explain how “we like to imagine” or “we like to think.” The onus of the mistaken interpretation is almost always shifted from the individual writers on to the scholarly community as a whole. Some might disagree with this practice. However, to me, it stands out as an important reminder of how scholarly successes and failures have broad origins and are not always the result of individual triumph or disaster. As Brown wrote in 2003,
…scholars need to become, from time to time, historians of themselves in order learn a measure of intellectual humility. A little history puts one firmly back in one’s place. It counters the amiable tendency of learned persons to think of themselves as if they were hang-gliders, hovering silently and with Olympian ease above their field, as it has come to spread out beneath them over the years. But real life, one knows, has not been like this. We are not hang-gliders. We are in no way different from the historical figures whom we study in the distant past: we are embodied human beings caught in the unrelenting particularity of space and time.
Featured Image: F. Luis Mora, “Subway Riders, New York City, 1914.” Courtesy of The New York Public Library.