Author: jhiblog

Why are all the Con Artists White?

by guest contributor Shane White
In the stage production of “The Sting” currently at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey, (and reviewed in the New York Times on April 9th) the African American actor, J. Harrison Ghee, plays Johnny Hooker. Back in 1974, in the film on which this musical is based, Robert Redford starred in the same role. 
This racial sleight of hand, according to the New York Times reviewer, is one of the stage production’s improvements to the original: casting an African American as one of the principal characters “sets up the con even more effectively, and the prejudice he faces, casual and otherwise, puts us on his side.”
For those unfamiliar with the finer details of the world of the confidence game, the defining feature of the con is that the victim is separated from his or her money by words and guile rather than violence or the threat of violence. A con man or woman deceives an unsuspecting stranger into simply handing over his or her cash or goods. Usually, but not always, the prospect of profiting by dishonest means tempts the mark into thinking he or she can get away with a dubious if not illegal transaction. The term “confidence man” was coined by James Gordon Bennett’s New York Herald back in 1849 to describe a William Thompson. But, of course, the confidence game, in its many varied guises, long predated this white man’s depredations in Lower Manhattan.
It may well be the case, in theatrical terms, that this new production of “The Sting” does set up the con more effectively by casting a black man in what had been a white man’s role. What is revealing though is that no one—neither those responsible for the musical nor the Times reviewer—seems to be aware that black confidence tricksters have a history. Catering to our views of the way the world should be, most particularly on the issue of race, may win over today’s theater audiences, but it plays havoc with the past. There have been times, for instance in the 1830s, when the occupation of con artist—though I like to think of it as more a profession—was integrated. By the mid-1930s, the period when “The Sting” is set, confidence tricksters were as Jim Crowed as a water bubbler in Montgomery, Alabama.
Mind you, the history of the black con artist has been forgotten. The classic and still razor-sharp ethnography, David Maurer’s The Big Con (1940), on which both the film and musical of “The Sting” are loosely based, does not mention African Americans. Other histories of confidence men skate over the last couple of centuries giving lurid accounts of the doings of such white men as Joseph “Yellow Kid” Weil, Victor “The Count” Lustig, or Ivan Kreuger, “The Match King,” and their ilk. The occasionally named African American merits only a line or two at best and is essentially an interloper in a white story. 
The reason why there is no history of black confidence men and women is not too difficult to fathom. On the very first page of text of Maurer’s The Big Con, he declared that “of all the grifters, the confidence man is the aristocrat”, and back in 1940 at least everyone knew aristocrats were white. Maurer went on to describe confidence men as “suave, slick, and capable,” with even their crimes being “very much on the genteel side.” For whites, Harlem was home to the razor and the gun, not the confidence man.
Contrary to what many of the white experts have assumed, the occupation of confidence man has a long and distinguished African American pedigree. From an early age, slaves learned that their survival depended on their ability to observe, deceive and to dissemble, to mask their feelings and thoughts from owners, overseers, and indeed any white person. What was demanded by the circumstances of slavery was further reinforced by the importance in African American culture of the “man of words”—a tradition, which can be traced back to Africa, of placing a high value on verbal facility. “Puttin’ on ole Massa,” was a way of life for blacks held in bondage. But if slavery was the school that honed these skills to a razor-sharp edge, it was freedom that revealed new vistas for their exploitation.
In New York City, there have been in fact two Golden Ages of the black confidence trickster. The first followed on from the end of slavery in 1827 and lasted for a little more than a decade in the 1830s and 1840s. The second, fractionally longer, took place almost a century later in the 1920s and 1930s. Not coincidentally, both were periods of dramatic and abrupt change in African American life, transitional times when new things disrupted older more settled ways. In the first, recently freed slaves established the lineaments of African American urban culture and in the latter their New York born descendants combined with a flood tide of immigrants from the South and the Caribbean to make Harlem the Negro Metropolis, black capital of the world. These were two of the liveliest and most exciting eras in the history of Black Manhattan. Not coincidentally, in both periods city streets were alive with African Americans living off their mother wit. Some were hustlers and con artists of the highest order.
Even as David Maurer was collecting material in the 1930s for his seminal The Big Con, there were innumerable confidence men and women roaming Harlem streets and avenues. Seemingly, their activities did not impinge on the linguist and ethnographer’s consciousness; if they did they certainly had no place in the book he wanted to write. His unwavering belief that con artists were white lingers on down to today. Perhaps the new musical version may begin to undermine the idea that “confidence man” simply means Paul Newman and Robert Redford in The Sting (1973). Perhaps.
Yet with all the talent and money invested in this new musical version of “The Sting,” it is hard not to conclude that an opportunity has slipped by. In today’s racial climate, is it enough merely to tinker with a familiar story, casting a black actor to play the same role previously allotted to a white actor?
Or, shouldn’t considering African Americans as active participants in history force us to reconceive a more inclusive story of the confidence trick? In much the same way that the makers of the film “The Sting” used Maurer’s The Big Con, couldn’t the history of black confidence tricksters have been exploited as a source to arrive at something new?
Who knows? Perhaps following the stupendous financial success of “Black Panther”, Broadway and Hollywood are ready for productions about an integrated gang of “burners” cruising the city streets in 1838 or Harlem’s “voodoo hidden gold swindle” of 1928. There remain an almost endless number of stories of the African American past awaiting their moment in the sun. All you have to do is ask an historian of African America—every one of them has at least one story she or he’d like to see on stage or screen.
Shane White is the Challis Professor of History at the University of Sydney and, coincidentally, finishing off writing a book on the two Golden Ages of the black confidence trick in New York City.

Bernini, Augustine, and what we’re reading

This week at the JHI Blog from our editorial team, “Bernini at the Borghese” by Cynthia Houng, and “Reading Saint Augustine in Toledo” from Spencer Weinreich. And some weekend reading from around the web.


Giuseppe Bianco, The Misadventures of the “Problem in “Philosophy” from kant to deleuze. (Journal of the Theoretical Humanities)

Jennifer Doudna and Samuel Sternberg, A Crack in Creation: The New Power to Control Evolution (Bodley Head Publishers).

Marion Fourcade and Kieran Healy “Seeing Like a Market” (Socio-Economic Review)

Peter Godfrey-Smith. Other Minds. The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness. (MacMillan Publishers)

Louis Menand, Fat Man. Herman Kahn and the nuclear age (The New Yorker)



Colin Burrow, “The End of the Epithet,” (LRB)

Adewale Maja-Pearce, “Where to Begin?” (LRB)

Amanda Petrusich, “The Cultural and Political Forces Behind Kendrick Lamar’s Pulitzer,” (New Yorker)

Fernanda Zamudio-Suaréz, “Historians Want to Be Cited in the Media, Here’s Why,” (The Chronicle)


Fanny Bugnon, “Aux armes (Else Dorlin, Se défendre)” (laviedesidee).

Ben Judah, “Non to Tocqueville!” (The American Interest) – but Jacob Hamburger says “Oui” (Tocqueville 21).

Jeff Weiss, “Dope Boy Dirges and Funky Funeral Music” (Liner Notes).



JL Schellenberg, “Philosophy’s First Steps” (aeon)

Clare Chambers, “Against Marriage” (aeon)

Kate Briggs, “How Do We Judge Translations? “(Lithub)

What we’re reading this week


Jonathan  Fuller,” Universal etiology, multifactorial diseases and the constitutive model of disease classification” (Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological & Biomedical Science).

Rachel Nuwer “ It’s the Latest in Conservation Tech.And It Wants to Suck Your Blood.”
(New York TImes)

Kate Sierzputowski” Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours: a Pre-Photographic Guide for Artists and Naturalists” (Colossal)

Quinn Slobodian Globalists. The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism.
(Harvard University Press)

Scott St. George,” Mississippi rising” (Nature)



Hilton Als, “‘Angels in America’: Brilliant, Maddening, and Necessary” (New Yorker)

Lynne Jones, “An aid industry labouring under colonial structures is no help” (Aeon)

Rajat Singh, “A Search for Piety in Pity” (Lapham’s Quarterly)



Lucy Hughes-Hallett, “Why dictators find the lure of writing books irresistible” (New Statesman)

Phoebe Cripps, “Winter kept us warm” (TLS)

Darryl Pinckney, “Black Pictures” (NYRB)

Jeremiah Jenne, “Cosmopolitan Colonialism” (LARB)



Junot Diaz, “The Silence: The Legacy of Childhood Trauma” (New Yorker)

Jacob Soll, “How Islam Shapes the Enlightenment” (New Republic)

Susan Watkins, “Which Feminisms?” (New Left Review)

William Kentridge, “Mine (1991)” (Not Everything is New)



Ed Pavlic, ““Baldwin’s Lonely Country” (Boston Review)

Shih-ying Yang and Robert Sternberg “Conceptions of Intelligence in Ancient Chinese Philosophy” (JTPP)

Tim Chamberlain, “Struggling with Empire” (Waymarks)

The trouble with Game Reviews

By Contributing Editor Brendan Mackie

I’m a 34-year-old white male. Like many of my position and generation, my childhood cursus honorum was marked by a progression of beige video game boxes: PC, NES, Genesis, and then finally a Sega CD. Games mark my adulthood, too: I have played on average over 200 hours a year since 2013, according to the game client Steam. Video games are important economically, of course: the US games industry makes more than 20 billion dollars a year. Video games become movies: movies become video games. Games gobble up our increasingly besieged attention. Witness the legions of people playing casual games on their phones in buses and airplanes and waiting rooms. Two thirds of American parents play video games with their children every week—compare that with the forty percent of adults who go to church in that time period. ‘Gamer’ has become an identity, a subculture, and a market segment.

Yet there’s something disappointing and superficial about how we talk about video games. Take the game review. Indeed, the problem of the game review has become a subgenre of think-piece in its own right. Review websites give games unfairly favorable coverage in exchange for access and advertising from the big games companies; reviewers write under deadlines so tight they can’t fully understand the games they review. But these complaints miss the point. Game reviews today usually seek little more than to rate how good or bad a game is, they are merely points that add up to some future Metacritic score.

Is this lack of high game criticism really a problem? Media scholar Alexander R. Galloway finds it useful. It allows one to “approach video games today as a type of beautifully undisturbed processing of contemporary life, as yet unmarred by bourgeois exegeses of the format.” Because video games have not yet been endlessly criticized, theorized, and institutionalized, they can serve as an un-self-conscious mirror of the culture at large. There has been a fair share of games criticism, of course. It’s just that gaming culture seems heroically resistant to it, reveling in an unreformed cultural adolescence of guns, muscles, masculinity, and explosions.



TheTroubleWithGameReviews Duncan Barton

By Duncan Barton


The problem is that ‘we’—gamers, game critics, the cultural public, whatever—have misunderstood what kind of art video games are. We take for granted what makes video games fun and engaging, when the question should be the start of our inquiries. Before we answer it, our criticism is going to fall flat, because it’s going to be criticizing the wrong thing.

The big difference is that games, unlike movies or books, are not self-contained experiences. Instead they are interactions between players and complicated algorithmic systems. A particular game looks different, plays different, takes different amounts of time, is harder or easier, is familiar or unfamiliar, or is more or less fun or boring, depending on the player, the system they are playing on, and the situation they are playing in. (I am not discounting the importance of the viewing subject in other art forms, of course—instead I’m insisting that the interactive nature of video games makes the experience radically different for different people.) The search for an objective rating of a game is flawed, then, because it assumes that there is just one kind of way to play the game that can be summed up by a single rating. Sites like Metacritic implicitly operate on a kind of convergence theory of aesthetics. Although individual reviews may get ratings wrong, the wisdom of the crowd will get ratings right. But to assess the quality of a game is to assess a relationship—a relationship that varies widely between players. For example, when a game gets a bad review, its boosters will often complain that the reviewer just didn’t understand the genre. The problem wasn’t the algorithmic system, but the operator.

Similarly, criticism that looks only at the content of games while ignoring the play of games misses the point. In the Practice of Everyday Life, French philosopher Michel de Certeau made much of how individuals subvert the grid-like certainty of the planned, modern city by beating desire paths through lawns and day-dreaming while staring at ads on the subway. Modern consumers remix modern life, becoming “poets of their own acts, silent discoverers of their own paths in the jungle of functionalist rationality.” The pleasure of gaming foregrounds this pleasure. To enjoy the game, a gamer relies on (as de Certeau calls them) the “clever tricks, knowing how to get away with things ‘hunter’s cunning’, maneuvers, polymorphic simulations, joyful discoveries, poetic as well as warlike.” But criticism of content mostly looks at the grid, the background decorations that the player plays against—and so criticism of content can be too easily dismissed.

Take the Civilization series, an example of the 4X genre (“eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate”.) In Civilization, the player takes control of a real-world historical civilization (Romans, Aztecs, Dutch). You settle cities, research technology, and wage war against other civilizations in a quest to conquer the world or escape from it on a mission to Mars. The content of the Civilization series has been the subject of frequent criticism—it trades in racist, imperialist tropes; it presents an inflexible stadial view of history; it relishes too much in war. And while this criticism is appropriate, it is hard to see what it seeks to accomplish. People play the game only in part for the content—much more, they play the game for the game itself: the development and slow unfurling of grand plans that are constantly hemmed in by the more powerful computer player; the pleasure of tending to your cities and people; the slow unrolling of new abilities and challenges; players play the game seeking a stage on which to display their own ‘hunter’s cunning.’ A criticism of the content of these games in other words is akin to criticizing the cartoon characters branding a Las Vegas slot machine.

We need to develop a new kind of high games criticism that directly confronts the play of the game, which is often more than a little rotten. On a personal note, every game I have ever loved has inspired in me an equal and opposite hatred. Over hours that have felt like minutes my beloved games have sunk me into bright well-ordered worlds with quests, objectives, enemies, allies, abilities, progression trees, and choices. In those games that have come to compel me, my actions have mattered in solid predictable ways—but my actions at the same time have been inconsequential and weightless. I look back on those 200 hours a year I have spent gaming as empty, if not really wasted. Why have I spent so much time in front of these enthralling glowing rectangles? Criticism of games needs to confront this pleasure that compels so desperately, this pleasure that is not so much entertaining as it is endlessly repeatable. Take the example of the proletariat of global gaming culture: the gold farmer, people in poor countries who make money by generating in-game currency, items, and characters to sell to people in rich countries. After working ten, twelve hour shifts, many of these gold farmers unwind—by playing video games. It is as if the power loom worker lets off steam by sitting down again at the power loom.

We can see the beginnings of this kind of criticism about video game pleasure in the game livestream. The genre is surprisingly popular. PewDiePie, who with over 61 million subscribers is the biggest YouTuber on earth, makes much of his content doing game livestreams. When popular rapper Drake livestreamed the game Fortnite this March, he was watched by over 635,000 people. The livestreaming service Twitch has about 600 million viewers annually. The genre seems like it would be difficult to get into for anyone except self-described gamers—but I encourage readers, even those who are completely unfamiliar with videogames, to watch a live-stream while they fold laundry or do something else mindless—it is an easy entertainment. (I recommend the videos by the team at Polygon.)

Good livestreamers exude an easy affability. Their pace is slow, trundling back over itself again and again the same way an idle conversation unfolds over breakfast—punctuated by panic, of course, by struggle, by explosions and kill screens, by bursts of explicative—but over time the struggle becomes generic and familiar, even comforting, as it slots into the predictable pattern of the game. The very best livestreamers offer examples of how to enjoy the games that they play. A number of games, like the Binding of Isaac, owe their popularity to streamers whose play demonstrated novel ways of having fun in the game. In foregrounding this subjective pleasure of the game, livestreamers open up the possibility to critique the relationship the gamer has with the system—to talk about the paths people walk in games, rather than the grid.

But this possibility has not by and large been taken. Video game writing can take a page from these livestreamers and begin to confront the subjective experience of gaming—instead of engaging in the vain search for some kind of objective game review, or some kind of politically potent content criticism. This might go some way of putting games where they belong, alongside movies, music, and all art—not as objects worthy of slavish veneration or puritanical denunciation—but as objects of power and danger.

What we’re reading, week of April 2nd

Here are a few interesting articles and pieces we found around the web this week. If you come across something that other intellectual historians might enjoy, please let us know in the comments section.


Taylor M. Wilcox, Michael K. Schwartz, Winsor H. Lowe, Evolutionary Community Ecology: Time to Think Outside the (Taxonomic) Box. (TREE)

Joshua Rothman, Are We Already Living in Virtual Reality? (New Yorker)

Christiane Weirauch, Randall T. Schuh,  Gerasimos Cassis and Ward C. Wheeler. Revisiting habitat and lifestyle transitions in Heteroptera (Insecta: Hemiptera): insights from a combined morphological and molecular phylogeny. (Cladistics)

David Reich, Social Inequality Leaves a Genetic Mark. (Nautilus)



Lewis Gordon, Black Issues in Philosophy: A Conversation on Get Out (Blog of the APA)

Louis Hanson, The Importance of Women in a Queer Man’s Life (Out Magazine)

Michael Sandel, Robert B. Reich’s Recipe for a Just Society (The New York Times Book Review)



Nimmi Crenshaw, interview with Kimberlé Crenshaw (Guernica)

David Peace, “There’d Be Dragons” (TLS)

Natalie Lawrence, “Fallen Angels” (Public Domain Review)

Emily Temple, “When Marguerite Duras got kicked out of the Communist Party” (LitHub)



Rana Dasgupta, “The Demise of the Nation State,” (Guardian)

Rosemary Hill, “What Does She Think She Looks Like?,” (LRB)

Alexis Okeowo, “An Activist Filmmaker Tackles Patriarchy in Pakistan,” (New Yorker)

“The Awakening: Women and Power in the Academy,” (The Chronicle)

Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins, “Le tournant néoconservateur en France,” (Lava)



This Art Newspaper story on the gender imbalance in TEFAF’s upper ranks reminded me that our experiences of art are always deeply personal and subjective. For me, questions of gender balance and representation are not questions of identity politics. Rather, they are entwined with my own personal desire to encounter a breadth of subjectivities in writing and scholarship–and through that, come to know, and contemplate, a range of possible experiences, thoughts, and judgments quite unlike my own.

Today, we take it mostly for granted that everyone has the faculties–and therefore the right–to pass judgment on art. It was not always a given that everyone had the faculties to judge art. Connoisseurship developed, over the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, into a rarefied pursuit, open only to experts. Bernard Berenson represents the ur-connoisseur. Berenson came as close as a human possibly could to the platonic ideal of the connoisseur. But it was his assistant and protege, Kenneth Clark, who bridged the gap between the compressed world of the expert and a broader, more workaday world, introducing the mysteries of his discipline to a general audience. Clark’s 1969 BBC series “Civilization: A Personal View by Kenneth Clark” attracted millions of viewers on both sides of the Atlantic. In his review of James Stourton’s biography of Clark, Richard Dorment noted that today, Clark’s BBC series “is largely forgotten.”
Dorment argues that Clark was forgotten because his approach was eclipsed by the rise of “theory-based art history.” Perhaps. Or perhaps it is because we no longer live in a time where we require men “in tweed suits with bad teeth and an upper-crust accent” to explain art to us. Entry into art history no longer requires some combination of wealth, connections, and personal charm (Berenson had two of the three, and Clark had it all). At least, I like to think this is true. And this shift has also changed the tenor of the scholarship.

Review Essay: After Piketty, Sutch, Scheidel, and the new study of inequality

By Guest Contributor Trevor Jackson

The Piketty phenomenon needs no introduction: Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2014) remains the best-selling book ever published by Harvard University Press, and since it appeared in English in 2014, Thomas Piketty and his small group of frequent collaborators have turned up everywhere. There is Piketty, writing a column in Le Monde, or anatomizing the rise of private capital in China, or charting the emergence of Russian oligarchs.  This ubiquity is unprecedented: with the exceptions of Branko Milanovic and the late Anthony Atkinson, the study of inequality had languished during the latter half of the twentieth century.  The crisis of 2008 certainly catalyzed a popular and scholarly interest in questions of distribution, corruption, and financialization;  many economists (re)turned to the history of the Great Depression, and in 2013 the New York Times famously announced the arrival of the “history of capitalism.” But inequality continued to be the preoccupation mostly of development economists who were interested in poverty reduction.  Capital in the Twenty-First Century was heralded as a kind of “unified field theory” of inequality, finally producing a single model that would be of use to historians, policymakers, and economists alike.  Nothing about inequality has changed since 2014, except that everything has gotten worse, and every day it has become a bit more obvious that the central unifying characteristic of our contemporary moment is the experience of some form of inequality.  Since Piketty’s book, we have had the rare opportunity of watching a discipline in the process of self-formation.  Who will write and teach about inequality, and who will be their audience?  What kinds of evidence will be admissible, intelligible, and valuable?  What will be the accepted practices of this new field, and what will be its central animating questions?  After Piketty, a new volume of essays, provides one possible answer, while Walter Scheidel’s new book The Great Leveler points in a very different direction.

Piketty’s influence is due in part to how easy his 685-page argument is to understand, and to communicate.  Inequality is the result of two variables: g, the overall rate of economic growth, and r, the rate of return on capital.  If r is greater than g, the owners of capital will be receiving income faster than the overall economy is growing, meaning they will get richer faster than everyone else, and inequality will increase.  By Piketty’s estimation, throughout most of human history, r hovered around 5%, while g was negligible.  The result was persistent inequality, and since wealth tends to be patrimonial, a closed elite passed down their unequal position generation to generation across centuries.  The sole exception was 1945-1970, when a tremendous amount of elite wealth had been destroyed by the world wars and the Great Depression, and when global economic growth was abnormally high.  Then, and only then, did the world become more equal.  That period also coincided with the professionalization of economics and history, creating a foundational cohort of scholars and policymakers who believed that increasing equality was the norm rather than the aberration.  Since the 1970s the return to free international capital flows has brought instability and reduced wage growth, dragging down g, while producing high rates of capital income, driving up r, and returning the world to the pre-1914 norm of patrimonial inequality.  He builds this case through pioneering work in creating datasets for top incomes and wealth ownership, mostly in Britain, France, and the United States since about 1800.  He supports his data with examples from literary sources like Balzac and Jane Austen, and that exquisite footnote in Ch. 11 to a plot twist in Season 4 of Desperate Housewives (Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, 621, n. 52).

Piketty consciously made both a substantive and a methodological intervention, and his last lines are something between a gentle scold and a call to arms:

To be sure, the principle of specialization is sound and surely makes it legitimate for some scholars to do research that does not depend on statistical series…Yet it seems to me that all social scientists, all journalists and commentators, all activists in the unions and in politics of whatever stripe, and especially all citizens should take a serious interest in money, its measurement, the facts surrounding it, and its history.  Those who have a lot of it never fail to defend their interests.  Refusing to deal with numbers rarely serves the interest of the least well-off (Piketty, Capital, 577).

Economists are certainly interested in money and its measurement, and three of them edited a collection entitled After Piketty, which contains some 22 essays by 25 people.  One is by Piketty’s translator and one is a response by Piketty himself.  One author is a historian, one an urban geographer, and one a political scientist.  The rest are economists from academia, the Federal Reserve, the World Bank, think tanks, and Moody’s financial services company.  Three of the economists are Nobel laureates; another is a PhD candidate.  This set of contributors is a reasonable synecdoche of Piketty’s impact: the discussion of inequality, both as a historical phenomenon and a contemporary policy problem, is dominated by economists of various specialties and career stages.

The contributors to After Piketty critique his mathematical modeling, his variable specifications, his assumptions about human behavior, and the real-world policy implications of his work.  Their approach is to accept his basic intuition that capitalism contains an inherent tendency towards inequality.  Since capitalism is a multidimensional social system that is embedded in different times and places, specialists should therefore refine his models and investigate the local policies, politics, and institutions that constitute particular variants of capitalism.  Some of these essays are ferociously technical: the reader will not get through Divesh Raval’s essay on what is wrong with Piketty’s model without taking the occasional derivative of a natural logarithm, and perhaps half the essays contain regression output tables.  Historians are likely to be nonplussed by sentences like this one:

Here  captures historically determined institutions for group G,  is average wealth for group G in period t and thus represents endowments,  is the wealth of individual i in group G in time period s, and  is the idiosyncratic shock to i’s wealth in group G in time period s, where the shock has a mean zero with variance”(Derenoncourt, “Historical Origins of Global Inequality,” in After Piketty, 495).

But if historians are serious about producing new approaches to inequality, the difficulty is no excuse.  These economists have ensured that the new study of inequality is predicated on a common language.  It is mostly unintelligible to outsiders, with its strange mathematical declensions and its statistical conjugations, but it means that the field is predicated on evaluating, critiquing, and replicating each other’s work across specialties, which is appropriate for a phenomenon as universal as inequality.  Perhaps the salience of inequality justifies learning to read, if not to speak, this language.

I am not the only historian to think so: Patrick Manning devoted his presidential address at the 2017 AHA meeting to the need for new ways of studying the history of inequality.  So far his call seems to have been as unheeded as Barbara Weinstein’s 2007 presidential address to the AHA on “Developing Inequality” because the 2018 AHA meeting had only one panel on inequality.  This has been a surprising turn of events.  I, for one, was convinced in 2014 that the new study of inequality would be dominated by historians, using Piketty’s easily understood model and adding their deep contextual knowledge to his test cases of France, the UK, and the US.  After decades of writing histories of the ordering, quantifying, discourse-producing, population-governing state, it seemed time for historians to turn their attention to the practices, discourses, and powers of the global 1%.  That mostly has not happened.

Instead of historians applying Piketty’s model, economists have continued to search for empirical refinement.  Going a step further than the authors of After Piketty, Richard Sutch has tried to replicate Piketty’s results with different data.  Not data from a different place or a different context to try to generalize Piketty’s work away from rich countries in the North Atlantic, but rather a direct attempt at the scientific act of greater precision through repeating the same experiment.  Sutch has his own set of top income data for the United States from 1810 to 2010, which he believes is more reliable than Piketty’s data and paints a different picture.  Many of Piketty’s most striking claims are the result of patching together different sources of data, based on a series of (reasonable) assumptions about how households divide wealth and whether decadal averages are appropriate for smoothing out noisy data.  Sutch finds that the result of Piketty’s splicing and interpolating is an inflation of the top 10% wealth share in 1870-1970, and an extrapolation of the 19th-century 1% wealth share from a single antebellum data point.  He ends on a striking note, urging economists to emulate historians and not take historical statistics as given (Sutch, “One Percent Across Two Centuries,” 604).

It is striking that a historian did not produce the most ambitious history of inequality written since 2014.  Walter Scheidel is a Professor of Classics and a Fellow in Human Biology at Stanford and has been a prolific writer of books that mostly focus on the demography of ancient Rome.  His new book The Great Leveler also builds on Piketty’s work, but in a very different way than the economist-heavy discussions of After Piketty.  The subtitle is Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century, and Scheidel absolutely means it.  He traces trends in inequality in different societies across all recorded history in an effort to prove a simple but terrifying thesis: the natural tendency for human society is that inequality will steadily and inexorably increase through the process of economic growth, and only total violent catastrophe like world wars, wholesale social revolutions, or galloping pandemics have ever reduced inequality.  Piketty alluded to this possibility (Piketty, Capital, 146-50 and 275), but did not much dwell on it, so Scheidel is attempting to complete Piketty’s work by providing a historical answer to the question everyone asks after reading Piketty: what should we do?

The reader of The Great Leveler will find evidence drawn from, inter alia, the Akkadians of 24th century BCE (Scheidel, Great Leveler, 56-7) and the Sokoto caliphate of 19th century Nigeria (ibid, 61), changes in house sizes in ancient Rome (ibid, 267-9), the impact of the American Civil War on Southern landed wealth (ibid, 174-7), and the zaibatsu of postwar Japan (ibid, 120-5).  The core of the book is four sections on what Scheidel calls the “four horsemen” of leveling: total war (meaning only the First and Second World Wars), totalizing social revolutions (meaning communism), state collapse (here featuring a comparison of Tang China and Rome), and plague (with the Black Death of course taking the lead).  Only these mechanisms have ever reduced inequality, and even then, only in their most extreme forms: Scheidel reckons that the American Civil War and the French Revolution, for instance, probably either had no effect or actually increased inequality.  Final chapters discuss and dismiss education, democracy, land reform, and economic growth as potential engines for reducing inequality.  There is no wiggle room: “Causation is as clear as it can be,” he writes in his chapter on communism: “No violence, no leveling.”  (Scheidel, Great Leveler, 223).

But Scheidel is not advocating the dictatorship of the proletariat: he seldom refers to communists without an introductory adjective like “raving” or “mass-murdering.”  The chapter on communism is a standard list of the crimes of Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot, demonstrating that violence not only reduces inequality through destroying elites and their wealth, but that only the continued unremitting application of violence prevents the otherwise natural return of inequality.  For Scheidel, increases in inequality are brought about through peaceable market mechanisms, like technology and globalization rather than, say, plunder or empire or expropriation.  If indeed it makes sense to ascribe, as Scheidel does, one hundred million deaths to the leveling ambitions of communism, one wonders whether slavery, imperialism, and all manner of elite violence and dispossession from the Herero genocide to the Bengal famine were coincidental with or an integral part of maintaining the apparently normal persistence of inequality.  This strange blindness to what surely is the historical norm of continual elite violence, when paired with the absence of gentler communist success stories in places like Kerala or West Bengal, creates a sort of dissonance: erudition in cutting-edge economics research paired with some historiographical positions from the late Cold War.

For all its ambition and the enthusiasm of its reception, The Great Leveler probably does not show us the future of studying inequality, and not only because Scheidel’s erudition would be difficult to emulate.  Unrepeatable and unexpandable, The Great Leveler seems to allow for no further development, nowhere left to go.  But, even further, the study of inequality is animated by a moral imperative: that inequality represents a real threat to the achievements of human society, and something—anything—can and must be done to fix it.  In today’s world, Scheidel writes, the Four Horsemen have dismounted (Scheidel, Great Leveler, 436), and their return is neither possible nor desirable.  If Scheidel is right, then the new study of inequality will become like cosmology: interesting but descriptive.  If After Piketty and Sutch are right, there is a lot of work to do, but it will be done by and for economists inside and outside of academia.  Neither option seems to be what Piketty had in mind.

Trevor Jackson received his PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, where he has taught the history of inequality.  He researches the history of financial crisis and economic impunity in early modern Europe.

A Conversation with Professor Stefanos Geroulanos: From Our Occasional Podcast Series

In today’s podcast, our Editor Sarah Dunstan speaks with Professor Stefanos Geroulanos about his latest book Transparency in Postwar France: A Critical History of the Present (Stanford University Press, 2017).


A note on the music in this podcast: 

The music from this podcast comes from the song Fallen composed by the American film director and composer, John Carpenter. It is from his Lost Themes album which was released in 2015 by the Sacred Bones record.

What We’re Reading: Week of 26th March

Here are a few interesting articles and pieces we found around the web this week. If you come across something that other intellectual historians might enjoy, please let us know in the comments section.



Cecilia D’Anastasio, Dungeons And Dragons Wouldn’t Be What It Is Today Without These Women (Kotaku)

Jia Tolentino, The Very Unnerving Existence of Teen Boss, A Magazine for Girls (New Yorker)

Tanya Basu, Meet the Interstitum (Daily Beast)

Niko Maragos, The Body In Painlessness (New Inquiry)



Asad Haider, “A New Practice of Politics: Althusser and Marxist Philosophy” (Verso)

Erica Johnson, “White Creole Identity on Trial: The Haitian Revolution and Refugees in Louisiana” (Age of Revolutions)

Ben Reynolds “Some Problems in the Theory of Imperialism” (Fragments)

Priya Satia, “The Whitesplaining of History is Over” (Chronicle), which is relevant to explaining this.



Benjamin E. Park, “The Revolutionary Roots of America’s Religious Nationalism” (Politics and Religion)

Walter Johnson, “Guns in the Family” (Boston Review)

Jenna Tonn, “Women’s Work in Natural History Museums” (Lady Science)



Zach Dorfman, “The Disappeared” (Foreign Policy)

Margaret Renkl, “Easter Is Calling Me Back to the Church” (The New York Times)

Luc Sante, “The Kinks: Something Else” (Pitchfork)

Michael Taylor, “Living in limbo: Indonesia’s refugees face uncertain future” (Reuters)



Edward Cavanough, “The Mountains: TImor Leste’s Blessing and Curse” (The Diplomat)

Sarah Zhang, “Scientists Still Don’t Know Exactly Why Knuckles Crack” (The Atlantic)

Krzysztof Iwanek, “How Marvel Failed to Promote Seoul and Busan” (The Diplomat)



Max Rodenbeck, “A Mighty Wind” (NYRB)

Michael Prodger, “Why 1932 was Picasso’s year of erotic torment” (New Statesman)

Kate Webb, “Angela Carter and Wilson Harris” (TLS)

Jennifer Wilson, “Floating in the Air” (The Nation)

Dispatches from Princeton’s History of Science Colloquium: Jutta Schickore’s “Contributions to a History of Experimental Controls”

By Guest Contributor Alison McManus


Prof. Jutta Schickore

Princeton’s History of Science Colloquium series recently welcomed Jutta Schickore, professor of History and Philosophy of Science at Indiana University, to present a talk titled, “Contributions to a History of Experimental Controls.” In addition to her position at Indiana University, Schickore is a member of Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study for the 2017–18 academic year. As I listened to her talk earlier this month, I found myself fully immersed in uncharted territory. Experimental controls are themselves an under-studied problem, but Schickore’s attention to the practice of experimental controls rendered her project a truly novel intervention. Though her project remains in its early stages of development, it no doubt pinpoints the need to historicize the “controlled experiment,” and it lays further claim to the established strategy of examining experimenters’ practical concerns prior to grand scientific theories.




John Stuart Mill

Schickore’s scholarship is better defined by theme than by scientific discipline. Her previous monographs examine the long history of the microscope (2007) and a yet longer history of snake venom research from the seventeenth to the twentieth century (2017). Both monographs emphasize debates about scientific method, and the latter is particularly attentive to nonlinear, contingent methodological developments, which stem from the intricacies of experimental work rather than unified theory. Schickore’s current project extends this approach to new territory. Despite their manifest importance to scientific work, experimental controls have rarely been a topic of inquiry for historians and philosophers of science. The unique exception is Edward Boring’s 1954 paper in the American Journal of Psychology, in which he distinguished between colloquial and scientifically rigorous uses of the term “control.” In a further move, he identified John Stuart Mill’s “method of difference” as the first notion of a controlled experiment, a concept that Mill outlined in A System of Logic (1843). Boring’s identification of a theoretical rather than experimental origin of “control” reflects the state of the field prior to the “material turn” of the 1990s, and the time has come to integrate the controlled experiment into studies of scientific practice.


Even with a precise definition of the term, any effort to identify the first controlled experiment will likely end in failure. Probing the origins of the term’s modern popularity is a far more productive exercise. A preliminary Google search indicates that the term rose to prominence in late nineteenth-century scientific scholarship, and the same is true of its German counterpart (Kontrollversuch/Controllversuch). In order to identify the roots of its popularity, Schickore selects case studies from ostensibly marginal German agricultural field trials nearly one century before the “controlled experiment” took a prominent position in the scientific literature.


Wilhelm August Lampadius

The German pharmacists Sigismund Friedrich Hermbstädt and Wilhelm August Lampadius both sought to apply their chemical expertise toward agricultural production in the early nineteenth century. Both men had engaged with Lavoisier’s chemistry in their work, albeit to differing degrees. Whereas Lampadius was a staunch advocate of Lavoisier’s theory, Hermbstädt remained closer to the German chemical tradition, despite having published translations of Lavoisier’s work. Hermbstädt and Lampadius conducted near-contemporaneous field trials on fertilizer, both seeking to minimize product loss and thereby improve Germany’s economic position. However, theirs and others’ experiments reveal an inconsistent, multivalent use of the term “control.” Schickore notes that “control” occasionally served its now-familiar function as an unmanipulated unit of comparison, as in the case of Hermbstädt’s comparative category of “infertile land.” Yet Hermbstädt and Lampadius also used the concept in conjunction with other management terms. A third notion of control emerged as improved apparatuses for organic analysis began to circulate in the mid-nineteenth century. In addition to making Lavoisier’s approach less costly for agricultural scientists, these novel instruments enabled scientists to perform repeat analyses and apply different analytic methods to the same problem.




Sigismund Friedrich Hermbstädt. Line engraving by G. A. Lehmann, 1808 (Wellcome Collection).

To add to this already complex terrain of meanings, Schickore notes that even in its most familiar scientific usage, the controlled experiment poses an implicit epistemological problem. When designing an experiment, each researcher must select which features shall remain unmanipulated, according to their own worldview. In the case of Hermbstädt’s experiments, his aforementioned category of “infertile land” meant land devoid of organic matter—a reflection of his vitalist notion of plant nutrition. Schickore’s observations identify a dire need to historicize both the text and the subtext of experimental controls.


The experience of my young career has led me to approach historical questions with a sort of inverse Occam’s razor, which holds that the more nuanced and heterogeneous causal accounts are the better ones. By turning away from theorists’ concerns and engaging instead with experimenters’ array of pragmatic preoccupations, the historian of science vastly expands her sites of methodological and conceptual production. Given Hermbstädt’s and Lampadius’s keen sensitivity to economic exigencies and technological innovation, I imagine that the larger field of nineteenth-century European agricultural science also developed its methods in conjunction with site-specific economic and instrumental circumstances. Schickore’s approach promises to extract a fruitful bounty of experimental practices from this uneven terrain of pragmatic concerns.

Alison McManus is a Ph.D. student in History of Science at Princeton University, where she studies twentieth-century chemical sciences. She is particularly interested in the development and deployment of chemical weapons technologies.