News and Events

Intellectual History News and Events

With the proliferation of online lectures, working groups and all manner of events, we at the JHI Blog thought it would be a good idea to consolidate news and opportunities relevant to our colleagues working in intellectual history. We will publish these roundups of public lectures, conferences, calls for papers, working groups and new journal issues every other Saturday.

We encourage our readers to send us information and updates about any news or events that fits within this scope. You can use this form to let us know about something you’d like us to publicize.

Discussion: “Who Needs a Worldview? Raymond Geuss in Conversation”

Brooklyn Institute for Social Research faculty Ajay Singh Chaudhary, Michael Stevenson, and Rebecca Ariel Porte will welcome world-renowned philosopher Raymond Geuss for a wide-ranging discussion of Geuss’s most recent book Who Needs a Worldview? (Harvard).

The event is free to attend and will stream live to the BISR Facebook page.

February 28, 2:00pm EST. Sign up.


Panel: “Health, Disease, and Early American Environments”

This panel discussion brings together the histories of health, disease, and the environment to cast new light on key sites of Colonial American history. With authors Molly Nebiolo (Northeastern University) and Camden Elliott (Harvard University), commentary by Thomas Wickman (Trinity College). Part of the Pauline Maier Early American History Seminar.

March 2, 5:15 – 6:30pm EST. Register.


Lecture: “Microhistory and Global History,” with Carlo Ginzburg

The Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies has invited internationally renowned historian Carlo Ginzburg to reflect on his pioneering research in conversation with historian Francesca Trivellato of Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study. The discussion will touch on the relationship between micro-history and global history, the relevance of Ginzburg’s work for the study of the Jews and marginalized others, the intersections between his life and his work, and the nature of the historian’s craft, among other topics that have been illumined by Ginzburg’s fecund and capacious intellect.

March 2, 12:00 – 1:30pm EST. Register.


Book Launch: Adorno and the Ban on Images, by Sebastian Truskolaski (KCL)

Virtual launch of a new monograph exploring the recurrence of the Old Testament interdiction against image-making in Adorno’s writings, recently published by Bloomsbury Academic. The author will be in conversation with Dr Cat Moir (Germanic Studies, Sydney). Part of KCL’s Comparative Literature research seminar series. 

March 3, 5:30pm UTC+01. Register.


Presentation: “The Dark Green: FIRE,” by Heather Sullivan (Trinity University)

The “dark green” project focuses on narratives revealing plant-human relationships that enable and cultivate human cultures but also the darkly petroleum-fueled industrialization, mass species extinctions, and strange new ecosystems in the Anthropocene allowed by rotted plants in the form of oil, coal, and methane gas. In this talk based on the “FIRE” chapter of the book, the author focuses on literary and scientific explorations of plant-based energy forms as well the many meanings of fire broadly for human culture particularly in the Anthropocene, or the era since the industrial revolution.

Hosted by the Centre for Culture and Ecology, Durham University.

March 4, 7:00pm UTC+01. Register.


Talk: “Sovversivismo: Gramsci on Reactionary Insurrections,” Roberto Dainotto

Can a popular insurrection “from below,” passionately fought again constituted power, be the expression of the most reactionary of politics? That was the question that the “fascist revolution” had posed for Antonio Gramsci. The presentation examines Gramsci’s changing attitudes towards sovversivismo, or “subversiveness.” Hosted by the Franklin Humanities Institute, Duke University.

March 5, 9:30 – 1:00am EST. Register.


Film Screening: “I’m No Longer Here” (dir. Fernando Frias)

Join the Spring 2021 Lang Philosophy Film Club series. Everyone with an interest in philosophy, film, and/or convivial conversation about the meaning of what we experience is invited. Each screening will begin and conclude with a discussion facilitated by a member of the NSSR Philosophy Department.

March 5, 7:00 – 10:00pm EST. Register.

Featured Image: Juan Gris, “Fruit Bowl, Book and Newspaper.”

What We're Reading

February Reading Recommendations

Jonathon Catlin

I was fascinated by a short piece for Public Seminar by William E. Scheuerman, a scholar of Carl Schmitt and his Frankfurt School critics, which reflects on the paradox that in Schmitt’s view, “Democracy’s realization can legitimately take authoritarian forms,” such as plebiscites and sham elections. As Scheuerman explains, Schmitt argued that democracy (narrowly conceived as homogeneous political identity) and liberalism (narrowly conceived as preserving individual liberties) are not only different but fundamentally antagonistic. This view has returned from the dustbin of historical ideas in Hungarian leader Victor Orbán’s proud affirmation of “illiberal democracy”—a notion Jan-Werner Müller has argued is self-contradictory. Eschewing the “fascism debate,” Scheuerman argues that Trump remained—disturbingly—within the realm of democratic practice, however exclusionary and illiberal his actions may have been: “Authoritarian populists such as Trump hollow out democracy while mimicking its language and sometimes its forms. They practice staged or phantom democracy.”

The historian Robert Gerwarth similarly argues in his piece “Weimar’s Lessons for Biden’s America” that while direct analogies between Trumpism and fascism do not stand up to scrutiny, if Weimar offers one lesson it “is that it is fatal for conservatives to think that they can play with the fire of right-wing extremism without getting burned. Trump is no Hitler, but his deliberate mobilization of the far-right has made the Republican Party dependent on voters who include militant nationalists, Holocaust deniers, white supremacists, and conspiracy theorists—in short, people who want more than just a different government.”

Finally, in Jacobin, historian Matt Karp argues that the present “American political situation portends much scattered violence, but nothing that resembles either civil war or fascist coup.” Rather, he argues that the best historical analogy for understanding the present moment is the Gilded Age, which similarly locked American politics in identity-based partisanship and prefigured the present “class dealignment” of political parties that became strikingly clear in the results of the 2020 election: upper-middle-class suburban whites flocked to the Democratic Party to remove Trump from office, but on the same ballots voted against substantive policies like progressive taxation. In the reverse direction, Karp notes, one working-class county in Florida voted overwhelmingly both to raise the minimum wage to $15 and to reelect Trump. While all three authors argue that removing Trump from office hardly ensures the security of American democracy in the years to come, Karp notes that the democratic process is thriving in at least one sense: “More than two-thirds of eligible voters cast a ballot this fall, making 2020 the highest-turnout election since 1900.”

Max Norman

I have been sampling from A Dictionary of Symbols, by the Spanish artist, aesthete, and latter-day humanist Juan Eduardo Cirlot, recently reprinted by New York Review Books. Cirlot took to symbology in order to understand the ancient roots of the symbols that animated the twentieth-century avant garde: the crosses, hourglasses, skeletons and the like that modern artists took from the tradition like so much ancient spolia. Weaving together Jungian psychoanalysis and 20th century Geistesgeschichte, Cirlot writes a kind of encyclopedia of the tradition, with miniature essays on topics from ‘abandonment’ to the Zodiac. It’s a work whose grandeur and fascination approaches that of Benjamin’s Arcades Project and Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas. Caveat lector: reading before bed may cause Surrealist dreams.

Simon Brown

Earlier this week, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who published and publicized and represented his Beat generation of poets, died in San Francisco. He helped to found City Lights, the bookstore and printing house that was sued for obscenity when it published Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems. It is an icon and fixture of the Bay Area literary world. It also represented the San Francisco that I imagined before I moved to the East Bay in 2015. If you live in Berkeley or Oakland or elsewhere across the Bay, you spend a lot of time—usually unintentionally —looking over at San Francisco and, by extension, thinking about it. On one hand, it makes sense to think about its successive migrations—of Chinese workers, Queer runaways, and now tech workers—since the early twentieth century. There is also the implacable view that Ferlinghetti himself gave in his poem (“The Changing Light,” 2005), of a place recognizable by its natural light: 

    The light of San Francisco

                                                    is a sea light

                                                                          an island light

    And the light of fog

                                        blanketing the hills

                            drifting in at night

                                        through the Golden Gate

                                                              to lie on the city at dawn

Nathan Heller, writing recently for The New Yorker, described “the Northern California style of intellection,” in which writers like Joan Didion have “pinned their ideas to details of landscape,” to escape endless abstraction. The light of San Francisco attracts that style, and makes it hard to look elsewhere. Ferlinghetti captured that and much more of the city.  

Featured Image: Don Quixote Reading. Honore Daumier, c. 1865 – 1870.

Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

Sven Reichardt on Fascism as a Process-Concept

Sven Reichardt is Professor of Contemporary History at the University of Konstanz. He works on the history of global fascism, on social movements, and civil societies in the 20th century as well as on the history of war, civil war, and terrorism. For issue 82.1 of the Journal of the History of Ideas, he contributed an article titled “Fascism’s Stages: Imperial Violence, Entanglement, and Processualization,” which describes the radicalizing practice of the Italian, German, and Japanese regimes in the 1930s and conceptualizes fascism as a global phenomenon.

Contributing editor Jonas Knatz interviewed Reichardt about the interpretation of fascism as a political process-concept and the relevance of such a concept for contemporary debates about fascism as historical analogy.


Jonas Knatz: In your article, you argue that fascism “cannot be defined as a static entity or a catalogue of ideas” but “must be understood as a political process-concept.” (88) With reference to scholarship on National Socialism as an empire and by analyzing fascist warfare and imperial settler policies, the essay shows fascism as a radicalizing process in which the Italian, German, and Japanese regimes of the 1930s engaged in both inter-imperial collaboration and competition that successively radicalized the ideas of a “grand-area imperialism.” Additionally, in line with Anson Rabinbach, you conceptualize fascism as a “political Haltung” (ethos), a commitment to subscribe to an often-incoherent worldview characterized by a “conglomerate of nationalist, racist, anti-socialist, right-wing populist, anti-feminist or male chauvinist, and imperialist” ideas. (89) What is the connection between this political Haltung and the process of radicalization? And what are the advantages of understanding fascism as a political process-concept?

Sven Reichardt: Fascism has often been defined as something static. Whether with the help of a list of characteristics or one-sentence definitions: again and again, this made auxiliary constructions such as “para-fascist,” “proto-fascist,” or “semi-fascist” necessary. In the long run, this is a tiring game of deciding between “not yet,” “almost” and “already fascist,” but it can be overcome or at least mitigated by using a process-term. Fascism as a movement, acting within a democratic system, should be understood as fundamentally different from a state carrying out a genocide in the exceptional situation of the Second World War. Moreover, a process-concept can better capture the inherent radicalization dynamics of fascism, because fascism had a tendency to dissolve boundaries through its polycratic power structures. This is true at both the national and the global level, as both competition within national parties and among fascist regimes led to the violent dissolution of fascism’s boundaries. This tendency to transgress boundaries can be better understood as a habitus or Haltung than as an ideology—even though these two notions cannot, of course, be neatly separated.

JK: The presidency of Donald Trump sparked a wide-ranging debate about the applicability of the label of fascism to cotemporary politics in general and the US in particular, which gained even more steam after the Capitol riots on January 6. Michael Wildt tweeted that one could see “modern fascism” on this day, while Robert Paxton overcame his previous hesitation to call Trump a fascist and argued that “the label now seems not just acceptable but necessary.”  Previously, others had been more reluctant about the precision of the term fascism, seeing the fascism debate as a distraction from a debate about the structural causes that paved Trump’s way into office or reflecting more generally on the political consequences of historical analogies. How can understanding fascism as a “political process-concept” contribute to these debates?

SR: Most historians emphasize the differences between Trumpism and interwar fascism. The constitutional structure of the United States is more stable than that of young democracies during the interwar period. Economically, the contemporary United States has been in a much better position (at least before the Corona crisis) than the Weimar Republic ever was. In foreign policy, the US is also less isolated; it is still well-integrated and internationally respected. Left- and right-wing extremism lead a primarily extra-parliamentary existence. In one respect in particular, today’s right-wing populism differs (at least quantitatively) from the anti-system protest of the interwar period: despite the storming of the Capitol, it is not a primarily violent movement, unlike the interwar fascist movements that were shaped by World War I and the bloody street battles with socialists. Undoubtedly, there are numerous instances of violence in the present; consider the hundreds of right-wing extremists, neo-Nazis, and Ku Klux Klan supporters who converged on the small college town of Charlottesville, VA in August 2017 and turned violent on a massive scale. In the US, the propagators of violence among “white supremacists,” such as former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke and alt-right ideologue Richard B. Spencer, have had a significant boost since Trump’s election. But brutality and militancy were far more widespread in the interwar period, and the legacy of World War I continued to operate in the virulent interwar paramilitarism. Murder rates, anger, and the general acceptance of violence were also significantly greater in the interwar period.

I do see parallels between the past and the present in how society has become divided, marked by hatred and attitudes of “unconditionality” (Unbedingtheit) that, in the case of the Weimar Republic, destroyed democracy. In the US, we have witnessed the formation of antagonistic camps. This is at least true of racism and the political-cultural divide between the metropole and the provinces. In the present, there is a renewed upsurge of nationalism and populism in international politics, from de-tabooed political language to the rise of targeted assassinations of individual politicians by right-wing extremists, or the emergence of a heavy-handed police state.

Presumably, liberal democracy will be further weakened by the Covid-19 crisis, because well before 2020, liberalism, prosperity, freedom of movement, the standing of democratic parties, consensus politics, and social justice had already come under massive pressure from a new authoritarianism. Jürgen Habermas‘ thesis that right-wing populism forms the “breeding group for a new fascism” is worth considering. The Viennese historian of Eastern Europe Philipp Ther prophesies in Der Spiegel that “existential crises like the current pandemic have strengthened xenophobic nationalists and right-wing radicals” several times in history. As is well known, there are no simple, automatic repetitions in history. However, a “Fortress Europe” already seems to manifest itself against asylum seekers. Non-European migrations to Europe will continue to be limited in the future. It is an entirely open question whether crisis-ridden Europe, in the face of tendencies toward re-nationalization since the 2010s, the recently adopted entry barriers by individual nations, and the massive prospects for over-indebtedness and recession, will continue to hold together.

Jonas Knatz is a PhD Candidate at New York University’s History Department. He works on a conceptual history of the automation of work and Modern European Intellectual History more generally.

Featured Image: Luigi Russolo, La Rivolta, 1911

Dispatches from the Archives

Why Emerson Admired Bentham But Rejected His Utilitarianism

By Christopher Porzenheim

While it’s become increasingly common since 1970 for scholars to study Ralph Waldo Emerson as a philosopher and evaluate his relationship to canonical philosophers, no one has thoroughly analyzed Emerson’s numerous remarks upon Jeremy Bentham, the founder of utilitarianism, which is now one of the most influential contemporary schools of moral philosophy. This is odd. Emerson says at least as much, if not more, about Bentham than he does about Immanuel Kant, yet a vast amount of attention has been devoted to Kant’s influence on Emerson while very little ink has been spilled on Emerson’s relationship to Bentham. Indeed, so far as I know, Neal Dolan and Bhiku C. Parekh are the only scholars who have published anything on this subject.

Ultimately, I believe an analysis of Emerson’s remarks confirms Dolan and Parekh’s claim that Emerson rejected Benthamite utilitarianism, but also reveals something new—why he rejected his ethics. Understanding why Emerson disagreed with Bentham’s ethics matters because it will help anyone who wishes to compare John Stuart Mill and Emerson, characterize the nature of Emerson’s own moral philosophy or determine where he fits in the philosophical canon. As we shall see, Emerson was likely hostile towards Bentham’s “stinking” and “vulgar” utilitarianism because of the important role virtue and character plays in Emerson’s ethics.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, although quite accurately, Emerson recognized Bentham as one among many of the reformers making “accusations of society” in the 19th century (W 1: 228) whose proposed reforms focused on the subject of “Civil Law.” (EL 3: 225-26)

In addition, Emerson had some unambiguously complimentary things to say about Bentham. For example, Emerson is grateful Bentham coined words like maximize, minimize and “international.” (J 7: 69-70) Emerson also believes we should mimic one of Bentham’s habits. According to Emerson, if we wish to have excellent friendships we should primarily spend one on one—rather than group—time with our closest friends, just like how Bentham would only admit one person at a time into his study. (EL 2: 289) More generally, Emerson admires Bentham as a man of ideas (J 8: 465) unseduced by “too fanciful refinements” (EL 2: 289) who loved the truth (J 2: 501-502) and prophetically saw the need to advocate for “systematic Moral Education” in response to the “dark times” of his era. (J 3: 348, EL 2: 97) The rest of Emerson’s praise for Bentham is more ambivalent in its tone.

While Emerson admires Bentham’s aims and intellect, he is also unsettled by the idea that Bentham’s philosophy will be idolized. Emerson thought that Bentham, just like Charles Fourier or Emanuel Swedenborg, was a reformer armed with “a mind of uncommon activity and power” which would allow him to easily impose his philosophical “system” and “classification[s] on other men”. Therefore those with “unbalanced minds” will likely idolize Bentham’s philosophical system and mistakenly think of it as an “end” rather than “a speedily exhaustible means” of reforming society. (W 2: 79-80, EL 3: 140-141, LL 1: 356)

Why is Emerson worried about Bentham becoming idolized? There are at least two reasons. The first is that, as a rule, Emerson believed uncritical hero worship was vicious, whether for writers and poets like Shakespeare or Goethe, philosophers like Plato or Aristotle, or religious figures like Jesus. (W 1: 88, 130-131, 4: 18). The other reason Emerson was uneasy with Bentham is more unique to Bentham. Emerson was always suspicious of very systematic theoreticians like Fourier, Swedenborg, or Bentham: “The more coherent and elaborate the system, the less I like it.” (W 4: 135) This dislike follows from the first reason. Emerson believed that the more comprehensive a theoretical system was, the more likely it would be uncritically worshipped by intellectually complacent pupils. (W 2: 79, EL 3: 140)

Despite Emerson’s concerns there is little evidence that Bentham had anything like a cult following. As Bhikhu C. Parekh relevantly observed in his reception history of Bentham: “If one surveys the controversial writings and the systematic political treatises of the first six or seven decades of the nineteenth century, one finds that the leaders of thought [in America] were untouched by or were unfriendly to Benthamism.” Thus, it seems Emerson’s worry Bentham’s philosophy would be idolized by many of his American contemporaries was unwarranted.

Perhaps the safest general characterization of Emerson’s estimate of Bentham was that he saw him as a positive and negative role model. For, on the one hand, Emerson appears like he may have wished to emulate what he perceived to be Bentham’s life-long focus popularizing one idea. In a journal passage, Emerson asked himself “what do you exist to say?” after approvingly noting that Bentham existed to say one thing “The greatest good of the greatest number”. (J 8: 422) This passage, alongside others, suggests Emerson may have believed he should, like Bentham, focus on popularizing one idea. (JMN 4: 348-349) But, on the other hand, Emerson seems uncomfortable with what he perceives to be Bentham’s monomaniacal focus. As Emerson thought Bentham was “insane on one side” and simply as “crazy” as the popularizer of phrenology Johann Spurzheim for being so eager to repeat one idea over and over again (J 3: 505, EL 3: 140); Bentham “pound[s] on one string till the whole world knows that.” (J 7: 186)

Yet, while Emerson was of mixed minds about Bentham himself, he had no love for his moral philosophy. Emerson’s earliest judgments of Bentham’s philosophy occur in his prize winning Essay on the Present State of Ethical Philosophy. In this youthful scholastic essay, the 18 year old Emerson is dismissive of Benthamite consequentialism, but not openly hostile. Emerson claims that those looking to advance the “science” of ethics should ignore Bentham’s utilitarianism because his “moral arithmetic” is not “necessary” for the “science” of ethics to discover the proper moral “precepts”.

Later, when the mature Emerson judges Bentham’s moral philosophy in his private journals and public lectures his judgements become harsher. Emerson’s outright contempt for Benthamite utilitarianism is well summarized by Bhikhu C. Parekh

in 1831 he [Emerson] wrote in his journal: ‘The stinking philosophy of the utilitarian! Nihil magnificum, nihil generosum sapit, as Cicero said of that of Epicurus.’ [J 2: 455] Two years later, however (a year after Bentham’s death), he [Emerson] wrote to his brother from London: ‘I have been to see Dr. Bowring, who was very courteous. He carried me to Bentham’s house and showed me with great veneration the garden walk, the sitting room, and the bed chamber of the philosopher. He also gave me a lock of his gray hair, and an autograph.… He is anxious that Bentham should be admired and loved in America.’ [L 1: 392] Emerson contributed nothing to that end. He rejected utilitarianism with the same contempt as did his friend Carlyle, by whose views on this subject he was greatly influenced. In 1836, he [Emerson] wrote: ‘I had rather not understand in God’s world than understand thro’ and thro’ in Bentham’s. [L 1: 450]’

This passage from Parekh makes clear that Emerson considered Bentham’s philosophy stinking, ignoble and ungodly, but not so clear why. Some philosophical context can help clarify.

To justify his specific criticism of Bentham’s “stinking philosophy” Emerson appears to be invoking one of Cicero’s arguments from De Finibus; a dialogue written by Cicero in which an Epicurean and Stoic spokesperson defend their ideas about virtue. One of Cicero’s many criticisms of the Epicurean position is that he thinks the Epicureans are mistaken for only valuing virtue instrumentally as a means of securing pleasure, rather than for its own sake. (Cicero. DeFinibus. Bk2.69-73) By invoking Cicero on this point, Emerson implies that this same Ciceronian criticism can be applied to Benthamite utilitarianism. Emerson is right to think so. Like the Epicureans, Bentham’s ethics does not value virtue intrinsically. Bentham’s utilitarianism values actions and things instrumentally insofar as they are conducive to utility (i.e the greatest happiness principle.) Thus, as the Epicureans only value virtue for the sake of pleasure, Bentham can only value virtue for the sake of utility. In contrast, as Jonathan Bishop has noted, Emerson believes that virtue is valuable for its own sake. (W 2: 94-95, 102-103, 121-123, 255) Therefore, Emerson seems to reject Bentham’s ethics because it necessarily denies virtue has intrinsic value (i.e. that virtue is its own reward.) 

Emerson also offers what seems to be a different but related criticism of Bentham’s ethics, namely that it fails to show enough interest in cultivating our character (i.e. in cultivating virtues like temperance, courage, justice, or wisdom.) As Emerson puts it, Bentham is an advocate of a “vulgar utilitarianism” which aims merely at “political or external freedom” and neglects an appropriate concern for “inward freedom also”. (EL 2: 67) Now, it’s undeniable Emerson is objecting to what he perceives to be Bentham’s ethical vulgarity, but not necessarily why. A quick conceptual detour can clarify Emerson’s ire.

Emerson’s critique of Bentham assumes a distinction between what contemporary philosophers sometimes call “positive liberty” and “negative liberty.” Put plainly, I lack some positive liberty if I am an alcoholic, because I cannot freely choose among courses of action; an alcoholic has an intemperate (hence vicious) desire to get drunk all the time which shapes all their decisions. Whereas, I lack some negative liberty if the government imprisons me for drunk driving, because it has interfered with my ability to freely choose among courses of action; I am now constrained to one location.

Because Emerson derides Bentham’s utilitarianism as “vulgar” for focusing its concern on our “political or external freedom” (negative liberties) and not also our “inward freedom” (positive liberties) this suggests that Emerson thinks that ethics should be concerned with helping us cultivate the kind of intellectual or moral virtues that allows us to exercise “inward freedom”. Therefore, Emerson seems irked by Bentham’s utilitarianism because he thinks it neglects an appropriate ethical concern for cultivating a virtuous character. 

We can now safely say a few things about Emerson’s remarks on Bentham. There are at least three patterns. One, Emerson tends to be slightly more kind to Bentham in public lectures and essays, and slightly less in his private letters and journals. Two, Emerson admires and criticizes Bentham for the same quality: a monomaniacal, systematic, and lifelong focus popularizing one idea. Three, while Emerson somewhat admired Bentham as a person, he had no admiration for his consequentialist ethics, which he saw as unnecessary moral arithmetic at best, and ignoble and ungodly at worst.

Ultimately, Emerson appears to have been hostile towards Bentham’s “stinking” and “vulgar” utilitarianism because he believed it considered cultivating character relatively inconsequential and subordinated virtue to utility, rather than valuing virtue as its own reward. Thus, it seems as if the important role virtue and character plays in Emerson’s ethics is driving most of his hostility toward Bentham’s consequentialist moral philosophy.

Christopher Porzenheim is a writer, scholar, and masters student in the philosophy program at Georgia State University. Chris is interested in researching the legacy of Greco-Roman and Classical Chinese philosophy, in particular, how Ralph Waldo Emerson wielded Stoicism and Confucianism to create his philosophy of Self-Reliance—with which he supported the abolitionist and women’s rights movements. When in doubt, Chris usually opens up a copy of the Confucian Analects or Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations for guidance.

Featured Image: Abacus Patent Application filed by Andrew F. Schott. 1964. US Patent Office, US110564A.

Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

Dagmar Herzog & Stefanos Geroulanos on the Afterli(v)es of Fascisms

Dagmar Herzog is Distinguished Professor of History and the Daniel Rose Faculty Scholar at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. She has published extensively on the histories of sexuality and gender, psychoanalysis, theology and religion, Jewish-Christian relations and Holocaust memory, and she has edited anthologies on sexuality in the Third Reich, sexuality in twentieth-century Austria, and the Holocaust. Her most recent books include Unlearning Eugenics. Sexuality, Reproduction, and Disability in Post-Nazi Europe, and Cold War Freud: Psychoanalysis in an Age of Catastrophes. With Chelsea Schields, she has coedited The Routledge Companion to Sexuality and Colonialism, forthcoming 2021. For issue 82.1 of the Journal of the History of Ideas, she has served as guest editor of a cluster of articles on ‘Fascisms and Their Afterli(v)es’.

Stefanos Geroulanos is Professor of History at New York University and a Co-Executive Editor of the Journal of the History of Ideas. He is working on a book on conceptions of human prehistory since 1800 and a shorter book on Napoleon and the institution of the Civil Code in France. His most recent books include The Human Body in the Age of Catastrophe (with Todd Meyers) and Power and Time (edited with Natasha Wheatley and Dan Edelstein). With Herzog, he recently co-edited and introduced the important collection of essays by Anson Rabinbach, Staging the Third Reich.

Herzog and Geroulanos spoke with contributing editor Nuala P. Caomhánach about “Fascisms and Their Afterli(v)es: An Introduction,” the introduction to the cluster of articles on fascism in the current issue of the JHI


Nuala P. Caomhánach: In your introduction, you refer to the opportunism of fascism to take advantage of the slipperiness and unstable status of truth. If fascism is a process moving between ideas, actions, and truths that mutate in unexpected ways, becoming redundant, deniable, and recycled, are you suggesting that the plasticity of historical “facts” destabilizes the field of intellectual history and is forcing it to move outside of conservative methodologies? Put another way, is this a reckoning for the field of intellectual history with fascisms’ amorphous and plastic ability to absorb and disregard ideas? Indeed, does the discomfort and “peculiar resistance to thinking [about] fascism together with ideas” reflect on the limitation of intellectual history (and the disciple of history itself) to integrate fascism, as opposed to anomalize it as a deviation from the centre, all the while up until today, it is still a viable alternative vision of modernity for ordinary people “on the ground”? 

Dagmar Herzog & Stefanos Geroulanos: Yes. There is a conventional way of interpreting fascism as this stable body of racialist, statist, tyrannical, and hierarchical ideas. It has sustained intellectual history with endlessly replicable and important-sounding questions like “was Heidegger a Nazi? Discuss!” (now updated to “is Trump a fascist? Discuss!”) and with attention to the obvious anti-democratic ethos of fascism, the Führerprinzip and so on. Intellectual historians have also often sustained it, not so much by anomalizing fascism but by replicating the conventional approach in a pedagogy that focuses on particular thinkers, big concepts, rigid ideologies, and historical overviews. 

Part of our purpose was to foreground process-ideas and translations of ideas that do not allow for such comforting discretions and do not simply identify fascism with 1930s Italy, Germany, and some other “maybes.” Scholars of fascist culture have long shown the complexity, contradictoriness, and syntheses generated by fascist ideas, the ways these ideas clothe everything from dull everydayness to management rhetoric to international competition to regeneration plans. To look at this in intellectual history means we need a better understanding of what ideas are, how they do not reside high up in some clouds, to be observed at a distance from the rest of some “reality,” how they are woven into everything from self-justification to fantasy. The recognition that ideas are meshed in such a way as to mangle and “regenerate” what fascists understand as life—this should help intellectual history more broadly, as truth isn’t something that simply exists and falls as fascism’s first casualty; this is a good place to start. 

NPC: Wilhelm Reich and Hannah Arendt set the stage for the reader to your thought-provoking challenge to scholars, “[I]f ideas mattered, how did they matter?” Reich and Arendt seem to offer an evolutionary argument over whether fascism is innate human nature or inherent nurture.  What advantage does reframing “ideology and form of rule” within a global context offer when analyzing fascism to move beyond this type of nature/nurture argument? How would a global context provide a more stable footing on which to think about fascism “across the 1945 line” when by its very nature fascism is unstable?

DH & SG: Just as one cannot simply end fascism’s history in 1945—Elisabeth Åsbrink shows well how fascist networks mutated fascist ideas afterward, to the point of treating overt racism as uncouth in order to better perpetuate it—one really cannot begin with a checklist that starts from famous tenets. That’s just virtuous self-distancing from evil. So if instead you are looking at the pleasures fascisms offer their followers, the construction of enemies internal and external, the practices and disavowals of violence (see here Matías Grinchpun’s study of Holocaust revisionism and its influence in Argentina), the (mendacious but always again seductive) promises of racial and social regeneration and war—all these are shared, albeit not with the same gusto or in the same ways. This is part of our point: there’s no prototype and copies, rather, there are particular ways in which the general dispositions that fascisms learn from one another (and from their stumbles) serve them to pursue highly similar projects. So it matters to look at the global dimension, and also to think of fascism as a dynamic potentiality and forcefield rather than persisting via any simple replication or “survival.” 

NPC: I was struck by the cluster of essays moving between the macro- and micro-scales adding richness and depth to our understanding and analysis of fascism. You offer an entry way into the kinds of actions undertaken, the processes set in motion by these said actions, and “what institutional and legal structures are created, what truths are devised.” In what ways will these approaches offer a way to move beyond “the ambiguous fit between the contents of those ideas and their most devastating effects,” particularly when thinking about institutional gaslighting, legal and governmental corruption and white-washing?

DH & SG: As you say, essays move from the micro (Elissa Mailänder on a Nazi chemistry professor’s bigamous home life) to the macro (Sven Reichardt’s study links ideas, movements, imperial processes, and annihilationism in the intertwined development of Italian, Japanese, and German state practices). We think that intellectual history can make its mark by considering fascist thought as it belongs in the in-between these two—between the structural, broad levels and the everyday behaviors. If we look at ideas as mutable, lived, at times theorized, as ambiguously perched, at times less than effective, at others as guiding lights, we can begin to explain regimes, practices, worldviews, and behaviors that have eluded historians. 

After the Second World War, ideologies were blamed in order to absolve individuals, including large groups who did more than simply participate and even did so enthusiastically. Our intent is to go the opposite direction—not to let liberals use a limited notion of ideology to proclaim themselves safe from it, and not to let historians turn that same limited notion into a generalized failure to account for all sorts of problems ranging from “everyday life” to violent enthusiasm, or even the diverse particulars of fascist intellectuals. Instead, we think of ideas as the connective tissue between these different levels or orders, and—leaving aside the frame specific to fascism—between power, violence, justification, and behavior. 

Nuala P. Caomhánach is a doctoral student in the Department of History at New York University and evolutionary biologist at the American Museum of Natural History. Her research focuses on the concept, meaning, and construction of biological Time and Space across three bodies of scientific knowledge—Ecological, Malagasy, and Phylogenetic– as applied to conservation ideology and policy from the late nineteenth century to present day. In short, her dissertation aims to understand how Madagascar became the botanical museum to save all of nature (and thus, humankind).

Featured Image: The City Rises, Umberto Boccioni, 1910.


Depicting Extraterritoriality: An Interview with Matthew Hart

To many viewers of the must-see blockbuster film of 2020, Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, the seemingly dreary Oslo Freeport upstaged every exotic locale. The Freeport is a type of warehouse, usually adjacent to an airport, where oligarchs and antique dealers can store their art beyond the scrutiny of the tax inspector and expert appraiser. But beholden to no state authority, and armed with its own private military, its neon lit rooms also constitute a jurisdictional black hole that Nolan employs to great allegorical effect (in Tenet, the villain is storing a futuristic machine that can usurp the very rules of time). Innocuous yet secretive, sensible but violent, the Freeport is a gripping backdrop because it represents a type of space that we feel intimately familiar with, yet rarely tend to think much about. This is changing.

Freeports and Special Economic Zones, Embassies and Consulates, International Airport Terminals and Liquified Natural Gas Transshipment Centers, Refugee Camps and foreign Military Bases—extraterritorial spaces have taken on a new urgency for understanding our world today. With this resurgent topicality, a growing community of scholars are searching for extraterritoriality in new places and attempting to pin down an extremely slippery concept in the process.

Art critics Hito Steyerl and Stefan Heidenreich declare a new artistic epoch of “Freeportism”; journalist Atossa Araxia Abrahamian identifies a ‘mutant sovereignty’ lurking between the privatization of the sea and outer space; and numerous historians have sought to unearth forgotten genealogies and individual responses buried in police reports and diplomatic cables. Microhistories have proven particularly good at showing the imbrication of law, diplomacy and finance, like Alison Frank Johnson’s brilliant exposé of the “enabling fiction” behind human trafficking aboard a flagged steamship of the genteel fin de siècle Habsburg Empire.

Credit: Wynono & Co.

Matthew Hart, a scholar of contemporary British literature at Columbia, makes a compelling case for how literature constitutes an important place to look. In doing so, Hart also pushes us to think harder about how fiction can contribute to new histories of the state.

The extraterritorial, whether materialized in a social practice or spun into metaphor by artists and writers, gives the lie to zero-sum accounts of how humans, and the things they make, move across, under, through or above borders…The extraterritorial is more than a heuristic…It’s a speculative resource, which in its oscillation between the one and the many, the coerced and the free, has enabled some of the most brilliant artists of our young century to reimagine where we have come from, where we are, and where, in world weird and familiar, we might yet go.

First intrigued by stumbling across several uses of the word ‘extraterritorial’ in W. G. Sebald’s oeuvre, Hart found a persistent theme in the writing of J. G. Ballard, China Miéville, Margaret Atwood, Amitav Ghosh, Hilary Mantel and Kazuo Ishiguro. From speculative and post-apocalyptical fiction to historical novels, these diverse writers pushed against the Westphalian gospel of state sovereignty and seemed to weave alternative political geographies into their work. Extraterritorial: A Political Geography of Contemporary Fiction has a big and bold argument: that academics, artists, and critics have gotten extraterritoriality extremely wrong in understanding it as an exception or deviation from this Westphalian norm of modern power. In fact, “extraterritorial fracturing is one of globalization’s conditions of possibility.”. Alex Langstaff spoke with Hart about his exciting new book.


Alex Langstaff: You start the book by sketching out your own “historical theory” of extraterritoriality, a kind of critical crash course in the literature. How did you go about preparing this?

Matthew Hart: I wish I had an exciting answer! It was the result of several years reading and talking, systematic and desultory. I’d do the usual database searches and keyword dives— and I’d raid other peoples’ bibliographies, so that a week that began with me reading about Hugo Grotius might end up with research into the Ottoman capitulations. I also took some graduate coursework in the Department of History and the Department of East Asian Languages and Culture at Columbia, filling in gaps in my knowledge about political history and international relations. Finally, as colleagues and students got to hear about the project, they would recommend new things for me to read. That’s one of the things I miss now, having been working from home for months: the intellectual sociability that’s an irreplaceable part of hanging around a university.

AL: Italian thinker Giorgio Agamben has become synonymous in recent years with the study of extraterritorial spaces. Refreshingly, you’re skeptical about this. Why?

MH: Agamben’s work is extremely useful if you want to understand the abstract topology of extraterritorial spaces, which often follow what he calls the logic of the “inclusive exclusion.” Despite that, I’m unconvinced by the formalist aspects of decisionist political theories that identify sovereignty with, as Carl Schmitt puts it, “he who decides upon the exception.”

What such theories gain in theoretical clarity they lose in descriptive power. They don’t require us to say anything about the substantive content of laws and executive orders. What’s more, that formalism goes along with a thin historical understanding of how both states and extraterritorial geographies work. As I show in the book, extraterritorial spaces aren’t just sites in which states exert violent authority; they’re also spaces in which they relinquish, pool, or disaggregate sovereign power.

Finally, and this is where I know some of my friends on the left part company with me, I’m committed to a version of social democratic politics in which the state retains a legitimate redistributive and egalitarian function. Agamben’s political philosophy is basically hostile to all kinds of constituted power. That’s something I find politically disabling, as well as empirically and theoretically unconvincing.

AL: By idolizing the Westphalian ‘sovereignty-territorial ideal’, you say, we have misunderstood globalization as a crisis for the nation state: transnational practices are actually much more of a continuity, often initiated by the state. Why do you suppose novelists have often been better at registering this misunderstanding than many cultural critics and scholars?

MH: Well, I should first say that lots of scholars have also avoided that problem. There’s a long list of scholars—most notably, Keller Easterling, Eyal Weizman, and Giovanni Arrighi—whose work I depended on in developing Extraterritorial’s analysis of state and globalization.

But I do think novels can provide surprising insights into political geography. Sometimes, that’s because they’re working in speculative genres that begin by imagining a whole new secondary world, which gives an innovative writer a chance to reimagine the whole set of relations between political power and its spatial expression. Sometimes it’s because, as with Hilary Mantel’s historical fictions, they take us back to a world before the modern state system took shape. And sometimes it’s because the novel allows us to think about political power in ways that, as in Amitav Ghosh’s oceanic Ibis trilogy, exceed any single state or empire. Novelists aren’t obliged to respect the norms of international relations theory.

AL: Discussing the speculative fiction of China Miéville, and then the post-apocalypticism of Emily St. John Mandel and Margaret Atwood, you notice that “extraterritorial settings” can function as “a literary technology for making the world differently while acting like that difference is ordinary”. This banalization of radical change, of course, is also what makes extraterritorial zones so attractive to the powerful. Do you think the writers you consider are conscious of this parallel in technics between their craft, and statecraft? Does it irk them?

MH: I think some of them are conscious of that parallel: Miéville, for instance, and Atwood, both of whom have their own analyses of the ideological functions of art and culture. But my deeper instinct is to say that these are different kinds of banalization.

Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood, 2003

Speculative fiction often asks us to submit to what Miéville calls “the weird of genre”—to enter into worlds that are both strange and systematic, which differ from ours, but which nevertheless follow their own norms. Extraterritorial spaces such as the “pleeblands” in Atwood’s Oryx & Crake are great at manifesting that literary effect and playing with the tension between the routine and the extraordinary. But that’s different, morally and technically, from how states obfuscate the operations of power within an extraterritorial zone such as the immigration control area of an airport.

AL: The work of artists like Mark Wallinger, or Ruti Sela and Mayaan Amir, are threaded through the book. What do artworks allow you to say about extraterritoriality that other sources don’t?

MH: I think they help me do two things. They suggest that the patterns I’ve observed in contemporary fiction also have implications for other media. In that sense, they represent a small wager on the generality of my book’s conclusions about how aesthetic objects mediate geographic experience.

More narrowly, some of those very directly illustrate problems in political geography—which is to say, they illustrate it without recourse to allegory or metaphor. An installation like Wallinger’s State Britain, which he staged right on the edge of the protest exclusion zone that extends 1km outwards from Parliament Square, really helps clarify the spatial disaggregation of criminal law within states such as the United Kingdom.

Mark Wallinger, State Britain, 2010, The Tate

AL: I was struck by how many of the writers you examine have experienced extraterritoriality, and want to communicate this: Ballard in the Shanghai International Settlement, Sebald in postwar exile, or Mantel and Ghosh in their feverishly researched archives. Did you want to get at this ambient, ‘lived’ quality behind formalist readings of their prose?

MH: One of the central premises of the book is that extraterritoriality isn’t just a geographic phenomenon; it’s just as much a property of persons. It was important, for that reason, for me to spend time with novels that bring out that personal aspect, showing how an author or character’s experience of, say, time or national identity might be changed by living in an extraterritorial space or bearing the privilege of extraterritorial immunity from local laws. That’s why, for me, if the book has a tutelary spirit, then it’s Ballard, who lived the first few years of his life in the semi-colonial playhouse of the International Settlement, then endured the dark side of that history in a Japanese detention camp, and finally experienced his adult life in England as a species of exile from his own supposed homeland.

The Tudor-style Ballard family home in Shanghai in 2007, now a luxury restaurant. Credit: Andy Best.

AL: What is your next project? Does it continue any of this?

MH: I’ve just finished an essay that develops some of Extraterritorial’s arguments about the proliferation of enclave zones within 21st-century cities, this time taking on the racist myth of the Muslim “no-go zone” in Britain and France. And I’ll eventually finish a long-delayed article on Trevor Paglen, an artist and experimental geographer whose various projects raise really provocative questions about the relationship between extraterritoriality, state secrecy, and liberal democracy. But my next book is probably going to be totally different. It’s a work of family history, as much as cultural criticism or theory, about the Kellino family of performers and film-makers, to whom I’m related through my mother and whose careers bridge the transition from vaudeville to cinema. I can’t get going with it, though, until this pandemic ends and I can bury myself in various archives in London and Los Angeles.

Matthew Hart is Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. His other publications include Nations of Nothing But Poetry (Oxford U. P., 2010/2013). He is Founding Co-Editor of the Columbia University Press book series, Literature Now and the past President of the Modernist Studies Association.

Alex Langstaff is a PhD candidate in modern history at NYU.

Featured Image: The Oslo Freeport in Tenet, Warner Brothers Pictures 2020.