I have been reading Leo Tolstoy’s Sevastopol Sketches this month among other works on humane war and humanitarianism. It is, admittedly, a weighty subject for summer, but it might suit as a cerebral beach read perhaps, it is at least, set by the sea. This book is a semi-autobiographical account of Tolstoy’s military service at the Siege of Sevastopol in the Crimean War (1853-1856) on the Russian Black Sea. It is essentially three rather discrete short stories. The first story “December” for me was probably the most powerful in terms of how it conveys the physical messiness of war. This disorder and even chaos is most visible when Tolstoy describes a field hospital and wounded soldiers crying. But there is also the emptiness of an otherwise bustling seaside town. In events entirely outside of their control, Sevastopol’s inhabitants become locked down and the buildings on the main street beyond the barricade are practically uninhabited. Tolstoy says of the “strange intermingling of camp and town life, handsome town and dirty bivouac.” The soldiers reside everywhere ruining any sense of tranquility they might have had. Bloodstained stretchers, stray cannonballs, and horses, a lot of horses replace the litter of civilian life. Sevastopol is empty of its everyday normality but at the same time is busy and loud with military sounds; gunfire, grunting, shouting, crying, and screaming. It is a physical kind of busyness that he writes of, one of ‘severe jolts’ from sudden noises.
The second and third stories flesh out characters more. There is a half-humorous half-sad story of a group of officers, some of which are really aristocratic, and others who are less aristocratic and trying a bit to hide it. At an officer’s drinks reception at a pavilion, officers meet and greet each other. And who shakes hands with who and bows at who matters a lot. Even with the chaos around them, feelings about status remain entirely solid. Two poorly dressed officers, captains Obzhogov and Suslikov greet Lieutenant-Captain Mikhailov when he enters which denotes their warmth for him as they serve in the same regiment but also because Mikhailov is an aristocrat in their eyes. To Mikhailov, however, Adjutant Kalugin is the real aristocrat, and he’s nervous to meet him and a circle of other aristocrats, Prince Galtsin, Lieutenant Colonel Neferdov, a ‘Moscow clubman,’ a cavalry captain Praskukhin and Baron Pest. Kalugin and Galtsin display their easy confidence in front of Mikhailov who cuts a slightly pathetic figure compared to these men. Tolstoy shows us that for these men confidence is easy, because they all think they are heroes after spending a few nights on the battlefield. Mikhailov doesn’t think of himself as a hero partly because he’s there so much. After a few drinks, the aristocrats tire of Mikhailov’s company and don’t meet his gaze in conversation and then eventually walk away from him. Mikhailov remembers how he was a popular dandy-like figure at home who could at least play at being rich, but now, as an infantry officer at Sevastopol he doesn’t even have well-heeled boots or a well stitched coat. He gets angry with his servant after the party about this. The fate of Russia is being fought out only miles away, and this mid-ranking officer’s main concern is about being accepted by people who probably won’t remember his name in the morning.
Tolstoy was a vegetarian Christian pacifist. Samuel Moyn’s Plough essay on Tolstoy’s ideas of humanity and morality of war is a valuable guide when reading it. The essay foreshadows Moyn’s Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War set to be released in September. Moyn picks up on Tolstoy’s radical point that making war or slavery humane postpones their abolition and continues its practice indefinitely. If we fight for humanity, we may never stop, and thus continue a cycle of violence. When we make animal abattoirs clean and humane with stun guns, we make meat eating more acceptable. Most nations now do not use chemical and biological warfare which have grizzly outcomes, think of Assad in Syria or Agent Orange in Vietnam. And yet we live with ‘forever wars.’ The biggest successes of the antiwar and neutrality movements in history have been to make war more humane and cleaner: Geneva Convention, landmine, and cluster bombs bans. But this has, in a sense, had the effect of well-regulated stun guns in abattoirs. States fight cleanly and discretely with drones and special forces. Humane warfare then is not a stop-gap to abolishing war, but an entity in itself with its own working logic.
What does it mean to care for one another and for the world around us? What if caring for one another is not a vulnerability as neoliberal individualism would have us believe, but is actually a collective strength? What if caring is the only way we can build a better world? These are questions that The Care Manifesto answers in affirmative. Beginning with a scathing critique of neoliberal capitalism and its ‘care-lessness’ which furthers alienation under the garb of ‘self-care’, the Care collective in this manifesto asks us to recognise our interdependence. Building on that premise, in the following six sections it takes us on a journey where radical care shapes politics, kinships, communities, states, economics, and ultimately the world. If the languages of the political were framed, not with the alienating ‘friend-enemy’ distinction (as Schmitt would have us believe!), but with an universal recognition of interdependence, what would our world look like? Dean Spade’s pamphlet on Mutual Aid addresses this by mapping the ways in which we can effectively form solidarities which are anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, and ultimately nourishing for us and our worlds. The series of pamphlets published by Verso attempts to chart out a roadmap for making our world a better place. These works bridge age-old divisions in progressive politics between class and identity politics, between feminism and environmentalism, between Marxists and feminists, in an attempt to write new and nourishing languages of the political. They diagnose the maladies of our present, and uphold the vision of a better future. They provide indications of the ways in which we can liberate ourselves from the strangling grip of neoliberal capitalism’s invisible hand. These works spoke to the intellectual historian in me by reminding me that ideas have the power to change our world, and change it for the better.
The first work that I encountered in this series was ‘Feminism for the 99 percent: A Manifesto’ by Nancy Fraser, Tithi Bhattacharya, and Cinzia Arruzza. It begins with the premise that neoliberal feminism and its languages of empowerment has been exclusionary for the 99 percent, if not exploitative and downright fatal. By recentering emancipation of women, and linking it with an environmentalist and anti-imperialist agenda through the lens of social reproduction, the eight thesis of this manifesto calls for a radical rewriting of feminist politics. The authors argue that ours is a world suffering from a generalised crisis of reproducibility of all life forms and beings, and by prioritising care, we can start to move beyond capitalist exploitation, and build a life of greater wellbeing and nourishment. We can have our bread, and the roses!
During Pride month, I have been thinking a lot about the ways in which neoliberal capitalism merchandises love and sex through dating apps on one hand, and on the other hand it leaves conditions of homophobia and transphobia unchecked by valorising individual freedom and empowerment. Thesis 7 of the Feminist Manifesto acknowledges this paradox. When the entire political spectrum is liberal and capitalist (both the left wing progressivism and right wing authoritarianism), it leaves marginalised groups between a rock and a hard place. For women and LGBTQ+ groups the choice therefore comes down to religious patriarchy, or capitalist patriarchy. The way out is a refusal to play this game, and instead reinvigorate the radical spirit of 1969 Stonewall uprising in an attempt to liberate love from sexuality, and gender. The suggested readings curated on this list provide a great starting point for thinking about anti-capitalist queer liberation.
For Pride Month specifically I wanted to share a series of English language fiction and non-fiction books, all of which focus on trans and queer lives and experiences in the Global South, curated by my friend Anil Pradhan. Whilst many of these are chronicles of pain, exclusion, and marginalisation, some of them are stories of radical resistance, of surrender, of non-conforming desire, and radical hope. This series forms a crucial archive for documenting marginalised lives, and suppressed voices, by bringing to the forefront non-confirming and non-normative life worlds from South Asia.
Let me end this with a brief excerpt from a poem titled ‘To Hope’, written in 1815 by John Keats. It bridges these reading recommendations conceptually by celebrating hope and mutual interdependence, and is one of my favourite odes written in the early nineteenth century.
Whene’er the fate of those I hold most dear
Tells to my fearful breast a tale of sorrow,
O bright-eyed Hope, my morbid fancy cheer;
Let me awhile thy sweetest comforts borrow:
Thy heaven-born radiance around me shed,
And wave thy silver pinions o’er my head!
We live in increasingly challenging times with a heightened level of uncertainty and constant reminders of the unpredictability of what might be lurking around the corner, be it financial crisis, catastrophic climate events, a global pandemic, or even a bad cup of coffee. One of the prescribed remedies for
for dealing with such a state of instability or flux which has gained significant currency in the scholarly and political arena is ‘resilience’. Resilience has toppled the use of ‘sustainability’ as the latest buzzword. Yet delving into the literature reveals that it is not quite clear what resilience means beyond the simple assumption that it is good to be resilient.
In nineteenth-century physics, resilience denoted the material property of elasticity. In the latter half of the twentieth century, resilience entered systems thinking and spread to entirely new entities such as the human personality as an affect-processing system and nature as a crisis-processing and self-optimizing ecosystem. This lack of clarity has enabled ‘resilience’ to be used everywhere and has become a buzzword of our time. Key Concepts for Critical Infrastructure Research (2018) (ed. Engels) is a really great start into the discussion of critical infrastructures which is dominated by the use of interlinked concepts “criticality”, “vulnerability”, “resilience”, and “preparedness and prevention”. In public discourse and in scientific debates these terms are so capacious yet seem so obvious in outcome. They are often voiced simultaneously in a normative as well as in a descriptive way. The series of essays, written from multiple fields perspectives (for example, history, spatial planning, political science, philosophy) examines each concept systematically and critically to give an excellent overview for the reader to grasp the politically-laden terms. The book highlights the political and normative implications of translating resilience from ecological to social domain, and offer a critique of how a highly selective
interpretation of resilience has been deployed in the neoliberal governmentality of unknowns. If you are short on time, Simon Davoudi’s essay “Resilience and governmentality of unknowns” in Governmentality after Neoliberalism (Bevir, ed, Routledge, 2018), along with Davoudi’s “Resilience: A bridging concept or a dead end?” (Planning Theory & Practice, 2012) will cover some of the broad sweeps to get you started.
To look specifically at popular discourses and images of a resilient (or on the contrary, vulnerable, or contradictorily both) nature, I recommend watching and critically analysing the nature documentaries of David Attenborough. It is really fascinating to map over time how nature is characterized, from eco-entertainment in the 1960s and 1970s to edu-entertainment in the 80s and 90s, into contemporary times where the heavy-handed and dramatic staging of nature becomes a moral imperative. Important in thinking about how resilience is parcelled to the public is Episode 8: “Forests” and the famous Walrus Scene from Episode 2: “Frozen World”. The interesting ‘Making Of’ of the same scene (“Behind the Scenes“). Additionally, watching “A Life on Our Planet” (2020, by Alastair Fothergill and Keith Scholey),offers a really provocative approach to understanding the Chernobyl exclusion zone and how we talk about the natural world catastrophic post-disasters. Documenting the World Film, Photography, and the Scientific Record (2016 ) (edS. Mittman and Wilder) is a wonderfully researched series of essays about the social and material life of photographs and film made in the scientific quest to document the world. In a similar vein to Key Concepts for Critical Infrastructure Research the book draws on scholars from diverse fields, including visual anthropology, and science and technology studies. Each chapter explores how this documentation has entered and altered our lives, our ways of understanding and knowing the world, and our social and economic relationships. Dip into this at will. Each chapter brings the reader on a glorious journey about how integral and transformative part of the world they seek to show us. Speaking of the earth, Sabine Höhler’s Spaceship Earth in the Environmental Age, 1960–1990 (2015) is an engrossing book on the idea of the earth as a vessel in space. Höhler maps how this idea came of age in the Cold War period and the dreams of space travel and domination using STS methodologies. The book maps how various actors—environmentalists, cultural historians, writers of science fiction and politicians—envision the earth within the politically hot space-race. For a rather thought-provoking essay, look to Greg Bankoff “Remaking the world in our own image: vulnerability, resilience and adaptation as historical discourses”(Disasters, 2018) . Bankoff offers a rich overview of examining ‘vulnerability’, ‘resilience’, and ‘adaptation’, and the ways these key concepts have dominated disaster studies since the end of the Second World War.
Edward Gibbon published the first volume of his prolific Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in 1776. The same year that Adam Smith put out his Wealth of Nations and American revolutionaries declared their independence from the British parliament in which Gibbon himself sat. While Smith accounted for the steady increase in material prosperity from the heart of the British empire, Gibbon recounted in granular detail the total decline of Roman civic virtue and martial power under the weight of territorial expansion and material luxury. The Decline and Fall is sometimes described as a “philosophical history” for the ambition of its scope, ranges across economic conditions, religious revivals and intellectual movements. In a recent article in Modern Intellectual History, Anton Matytsin traces how Gibbon embraced a school of historical scholarship that combined the evidentiary detail of antiquarian erudition with a general view on recurring transformations in religion and culture. Gibbon’s prose, distributing sharp aphorisms throughout dense chronicles, remains surprisingly compelling. When he introduces his reexamination of the early Christian movement, which he steers away from the long tradition of Christian ecclesiastical history throughout the volumes, Gibbon describes the work of the historian of religion in terms that still resonate with me today: “The theologian may indulge the pleasing task of describing Religion as she descended from Heaven, arrayed in her native purity. A more melancholy duty is imposed on the historian. He must discover the inevitable mixture of error and corruption which she contracted in a long residence upon earth, among a weak and degenerate race of beings.” (XV, 238)
Gibbon took a total view of the conditions of decline. A renewed attention to one version of that decline story in the present, framed as “decadence,” invites comparisons with Gibbon’s pioneering work. The conservative journalist Ross Douthat published a recent book, The Decadent Society, analyzing the stagnation of the “Western world.” The new journal American Affairs, that claims to transcend “conventional partisan platforms,” publishes essays that abound with “decadence” as a description of everything from neoliberalism to the contemporary novel. In an essay that extends the analysis of his book, Douthat focuses on “Decadence and the Intellectuals.” He laments the surrender of public intellectual life to journalists and the retreat of scholars and theologians from positions of popular prominence. Douthat points to the radical severance from traditional canons of influence and excellence that he associates with artists and intellectuals who spoke for the “revolutions of the 60s.” This contrasts sharply from Gibbon’s assessment of the derivative literary culture of the later Roman empire. Gibbon instead argues that the imposition of Latin standards of literary excellence stunted the artistic production of Rome’s subject peoples. Gibbon looks to the political conditions of imperial subjugation and its reverberations in the metropole to explain the cultural erosion he identifies. Rather than seeing cultural and intellectual forces as sufficient explanations for the cultural and intellectual decline associated with decadence.
The Fourth of July is just around the bend. Between 2020 and 2021, it has been a long and exhausting journey. I’ve spent a good chunk of that time thinking about America and what it means to be American, what it means to be part of American society. These questions took on an intensely personal valence this winter, when anti-Asian violence surged in New York City and around the country. Around the world, even (which brings up the question of who gets to be included in the circle of humanity). For a while, every walk down the street was tense. I walked with one hand on the dog’s leash and the other on my phone. In January, we moved downtown, close to Chinatown, and I went from being a minority (my old neighborhood was over 80 percent white) to being part of a thriving Asian community. Only, this winter, it was a community under siege. As the attacks continued, I couldn’t shake the thought, This, again.
Not much happened to me. A few epithets, here and there, and one time, I heard an older man yell, “You people are always sneaking around!” I looked around to see who he might be addressing, and realized that “you people” was meant for me. Another time, a man stared at me for an uncomfortably long time on the subway, and when I got to my stop, I sprinted out of the car without looking back. Just in case.
It feels uncomfortable to be seen–dangerous, even–and it feels uncomfortable not to be seen. I want to be seen as a friend, a neighbor, a member of the community, an American. I want to be seen with love, held in a warm regard. I want to be seen as a person, a human, a dog lover, a writer… I do not want to be seen like this. Or like this. But, then, how should I be seen? What image do I want to project? Do I have a choice over how I am seen?
In her essay for Aperture, “Why We Must See Asian Americans in US History,” Stephanie H. Tung discussed a daguerreotype of an anonymous Chinese woman. Tung writes, “We do not know who she is. We do not know her name. It is not often that an Asian woman—an immigrant, a worker, perhaps a mother—is pictured, or even rendered visible, especially in nineteenth-century America. What makes this image extraordinary is that it’s most likely from 1850s California: it tells the story of Chinese immigrants who came to America during the California Gold Rush (1848–65).” Curiously, the anonymous woman in this daguerreotype is cradling another daguerreotype, a portrait of another seated subject.
“The only other daguerreotypes of Chinese women I have encountered,” Tung notes, “are the photographs of Miss Pwan Ye-Koo and Lum-Akum, part of P.T. Barnum’s “Living Chinese Family,” at the Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology at Harvard University. Made by Lorenzo G. Chase between 1844 and 1856, they were discovered over a century later in the same attic trunk as the Zealy daguerreotypes of enslaved people of African descent. The images were presumably part of the same Louis Agassiz project that used photography to support pseudo-scientific theories of race.”
Barnum billed Pwan Ye-Koo as a “true Chinese lady,” and the “the first Chinese lady that had yet visited Christendom.” In her article, “Daguerreotypes and Humbugs: Pwan-Ye-Koo, Racial Science, and the Circulation of Ethnographic Images around 1850,” Michelle Smilley notes that whether onstage or in Chase’s images, Pwan Ye-Koo was always visible, but never truly seen as herself: “In 1850, Pwan-Ye-Koo stood ambiguously between the categories of ethnographic specimen and celebrity, traveling among the spheres of pseudoscience and spectacle, as Barnum staged her body as one component among the inorganic trappings of Orientalism, clothed as she was in silk and gold. Curiously, as in the images of Lum-Akum and Soo-Chune, Pwan-Ye-Koo’s ornamental coverings probably also partially defeated the purposes of Agassiz’s archive of racial difference, just as the ornamentations of commercial Orientalism physically obscure many of the morphological features of her skull and body. Where Agassiz sought to use the double daguerreotype view as a means to more exhaustively catalogue a subject’s appearance, Pwan-Ye-Koo’s doubling only adds to the hall of mirrors effects of her traveling performances. In Pwan-Ye-Koo’s case, the pictorial evidence ultimately proves as fragile as the daguerreotype, a type of object that was frequently cracked and destroyed in the mail. In her multiple Daguerreian images, this young woman is made to bridge the shores of Canton and the port of New York. As her body sits wrapped in the costume drama demanded by Barnum’s racialized spectacle, it resists Agassiz’s archival impulse via the very trappings of commercial Orientalism that led her to [Chase’s] studio in the first place.”
Regardless of my desires, I will always be regarded by others as an Asian woman, or, more uncomfortably, a yellow woman. A phrase that I, like Anne Anlin Cheng, have long shied away from saying out loud. As Cheng said, in an interview with Shivani Radhakrishnan, “The phrase yellow woman is one I have not been able to say for many, many years. It’s an ugly phrase. But then I thought why is the term painful, and why is it not in use? We speak of Black women, white women, Brown women, but not yellow women. Why not?”
Maybe what I need to do is follow Cheng’s lead. In the same interview, she notes that it was precisely her discomfort with this concept of the yellow woman that led her to sit with it and write Ornamentalism. Or, as she put it, “These moments, when my mind shrinks in pain from something, are when I think I need to take a closer look.”
Featured Image: Still Life with a Book. Paul Signac, 1883.