What We're Reading

April Reading Recommendations

This month: on the intellectual biographies of Said, Sahlins, and Marx; critiques of Keynesian economics; and the politics of water control.

Jonathon Catlin

Several reviews of Timothy Brennan’s Places of Mind: A Biography of Edward Said (FSG, 2021) explore the life and work of Edward Said (1935–2003). Pankaj Mishra, in The New Yorker, calls Said “simultaneously a literary theorist, a classical pianist, a music critic, arguably New York’s most famous public intellectual after Hannah Arendt and Susan Sontag, and America’s most prominent advocate for Palestinian rights.” Despite his celebrity status, Mishra chides Said as an upper-class dandy with “cramped political horizons” whose “critique of Eurocentrism was in fact curiously Eurocentric.” Most cynically, he writes, “For a posher kind of Oriental subject, denouncing the Orientalist West had become one way of finding a tenured job in it.” In The New Republic, historian Udi Greenberg views Said’s legacy rather more ambivalently. While Said “forever transformed the meaning of the word orientalist” through visionary works that made him rightly famous, his activism and direct involvement in Palestinian politics made him as many enemies as allies. As Thomas Meaney notes in his review in The New Statesman, “Visitors to [Said’s] apartment in Manhattan noted that along with his well-stocked shelves and formidable collection of classical music records, the…Professor in the Humanities kept a map with the current positions of the ­Israeli Defense Forces.” A Commentary headline from 1989 referred to Said as a “Professor of Terror.” A critic of Yasser Arafat’s authoritarianism, Said began to lose faith in the political cause after the 1993 first Oslo Accord, which he called “a Palestinian Versailles.” In his late years he became more resigned, even as he collaborated with artists reflecting on everyday experience in Israel-Palestine. In his 1993 Reith Lectures on “Representations of the Intellectual,” Said memorably characterized the intellectual as defined by exile, whether compelled or chosen, and being a perpetual “outsider” and “disturber of the status quo.” He certainly inhabited that role, but he did so in a singular way. As he characterized himself obliquely in a late interview in Haaretz in 2000: “I’m the last Jewish intellectual….The only true follower of Adorno. Let me put it this way: I’m a Jewish-Palestinian.”

The death of the University of Chicago cultural anthropologist Marshall Sahlins (1930–2021) in early April at age 90 led me to revisit his work. When Sahlins studied in France in 1967, he was introduced to the structuralism of Claude Lévi-Strauss. Perhaps his greatest contribution was to modify structuralism to better allow for historical contingency. As an activist since the 1960s, Sahlins organized a nationwide teach-in against the Vietnam War. His work emphasized the role of culture over deterministic theories rooted in biology or economics, challenging “the folklore of genetic determinism now so fashionable in America: a movement purporting to explain all manner of cultural forms by a universal ‘human nature’ of competitive self-interest….Of course we can recognize the classic bourgeois subject in this so-called human nature.” In certain native societies where other ethnographers projected violence and self-interest, Sahlins saw cooperative, collectivist, and nonviolent alternative forms of social organization. As he explained the upshot of this view in Dissent: “A huge ethnocentric and egocentric philosophy of human nature underlies the double imperialism of our sociobiological science and our global militarism.” Overcoming received views of human nature is also central to his last work, On Kings (2017), which he co-authored with his former doctoral student, the late anarchist thinker David Graeber.

Finally, a review in The Nation of Shlomo Avineri’s biography of Karl Marx for Yale University Press’s Jewish Lives series by Columbia English professor Bruce Robbins challenges the way Avineri “ushers us gently away from the revolutionary Marx to a more gradualist and social democratic Marx whose central vision of change is better adapted, in the author’s eyes, to today’s limited political horizons.” Robbins, by contrast, wonders whether in addition to pragmatic progressives shaping political conversations in the U.S. today, “we also need a more revolutionary voice, like Marx’s, which might inspire the kind of movements that can confront the vast problems of climate change, pandemics, and rising inequality without the polite tones that are preferred by today’s political elite. For that, and more, it’s good to know that the revolutionary Marx can still speak to us, rudely and ringingly and righteously.”

Simon Brown

If the historical specificity of “fascism” emerged as a point of contention since 2016, the new economic and political landscapes of 2020-2021 lift up “Keynesianism,” its history and its conditions as a salient question today. The titanic levels of public spending in the United States through the CARES Act could be continued through President Biden’s proposed infrastructure bill. There is little indication in political rhetoric or in economic counsel that this fiscal policy is contained to an emergency stimulus in the face of unprecedented catastrophe. The inauguration of these policies only twelve years after the Obama administration and its economic advisors warned of “belt tightening” as the financial crisis of 2008 unraveled presents a clear question for historians. Two recent essays have framed it through a lens of intellectual history.

In a review and profile for the London Review of Books, Adam Tooze traces the influential and popular economist Paul Krugman’s intellectual trajectory alongside Krugman’s own autobiography. Krugman’s analysis, raised in the New Keynesian school of the 1970s and 1980s, has shifted in important ways since his defenses of economic globalization in the 1990s. Tooze narrates Krugman’s turn toward a further left critique of “actually existing neoliberalism,” which his kind of economics had tried to describe and define, as a growing skepticism toward the standards of orthodoxy in the economics profession itself. Krugman recognized after the 2008 financial crisis that the austere response would undercut political coalitions that could keep up the macroeconomic intervention necessary. His historical attention to inequality led him to identify “class” struggle, not just frictionless economic calculation, driving policy. This has led Krugman to a newfound appreciation for the Marxist critique of the conditions that make Keynesian macroeconomics possible that had been articulated by the midcentury Polish economist Michał Kalecki. If questions about the historical conditions that enabled Keynesian policies in the 1930s and 1940s are once again salient, contemporary critics like Kalecki are too.

New policies are not always the result of new ideas, as Krugman’s own work attests. In Jacobin, Tim Barker argues that it is neither intellectual innovation nor ascendant class interests alone that explain the sustained public spending in the US. “Somewhere between ideas and interests,” Barker maintains “a political learning process seems to have taken place.” That learning process partly accounts for why someone like Krugman came to recognize after the response to 2008 that fiscal austerity and deficit guarding do no swell the coalitions for liberal political parties. But economically too, consistently stagnant wages and limited union density have kept the dangerous prospects of inflation at bay. Janet Yellen, now Treasury Secretary, articulated the perspective succinctly when she expressed sympathy to the view that “the world might have changed” since the 1970s.

Luna Sarti

Mid-spring in Northern Texas means sudden, abundant rains. As warnings for flash floods and tornadoes pop up on my phone, I think about the nearby creek and the streams that run unseen, enclosed underground in cement pipes. I mentally run over the course of the creek reflecting on the measures taken by the city of Fort Worth to slow the speed of the waters and on the artificial bends that should facilitate controlled overflows. Water control intersects the history of modernity, industrialization, and the technocratization of the state in complex and fascinating ways. 

Flooding episodes—and unstable water/land relationships in general—are usually perceived negatively throughout Western modernity. Certainly, the shift from dry to wet land undermines much of the assets on which contemporary cities and economies are built. Several histories exist that unravel how the efforts on the side of rulers to create controlled, ordered landscapes constitute a way to assert power while alienating claims that other institutions could have on either water or land—or even on both. In The Conquest of Nature David Blackbourn discusses the peculiar ways in which race, land reclamation and genocide were intertwined in the history of modern Germany by looking at the conquest of waterlogged swamplands and rivers as an asset in the formation of German identity and imagination over almost three centuries.

Looking at a different time and place, in the Politics of Water in the Art and Festivals of Medici Florence, Felicia Else elucidates the importance of water control for the establishment of power through performance in  Florence between the 16th and the 17th century. Else extensively analyzes the implications of water-themed spectacles sponsored by the Medici grand dukes, especially as articulated in public sculptures, festivals, and paintings, thus concluding that “the introduction of new water-themed iconography reflected Cosimo’s political ambitions and the family’s ongoing quest to control waters”. (1) A rich literature exists investigating the concern displayed by the Medici, particularly beginning with Cosimo I, in “hydraulics and landscape engineering”, often with an understandable sense of fascination for such an interdisciplinary “interest in knowledge” on the side of a ruler. Among the enterprises sponsored by the Medici, and by other European elites in general, hydraulic projects involving channeling waters, managing rivers and the drying up of marshes, are usually viewed positively, often as a sign of enlightened policies advancing public health, economic production, and the public good in general. However, as Blackbourn highlights, achieving the mastering of water—by draining a marsh or redirecting a river—often constitutes a strategy for power centralization at the expense of other institutional powers. Such machinations of rulership “often wiped out human communities, and with them valuable forms of knowledge,” particularly those developed through “carefully calibrated ways of living with and from the water.” (10) Thankfully, those ways of living with and from the water might survive to the present day outside of large, urban centers, particularly in areas where the articulation of urban-rural economies allowed for discontinuities in memory making. Maldifiume (River-sickness) by Simona Baldanzi—for now only in Italian—voices the diverse ways of experiencing the waters of the Arno river as they survived in “peripheral” areas of Tuscany. By collecting the stories of fish farmers, bird watchers, millers, and boat builders, Baldanzi demonstrates that ways of experiencing the river as a moody, yet trustworthy companion for work and life survived in Tuscany at least until 1966. In 1966, in fact, a major flooding occurrence allowed centralized powers to decide what deserved investment (art and industry) and what was doomed to stay in the past (aquatic life and craftsmanship). 

Floods continue to be scary given the articulation of life in an American suburb as much as in a city like Florence. However, while usual narratives—such as Franco Zeffirelli’s documentary Days of Destruction—present unruly, torrential rivers as “monsters,” it’s a relief to think with Blackbourn and Baldanzi, and perhaps one starts to wonder whether such a monstrosity has to be found somewhere else.

Featured Image: Edouard Manet, Woman Writing. c.1863.

Leave a Reply