Author: jhiblog

What We’re Reading: May 14

Please welcome Yitzchak Schwartz, a new contributing editor who is joining us this month! You can read more about him on the Masthead page.


L.D. Burnett, On Lamentations for a Lost Canon (Chronicle)

Charlotte Higgins, Tudormania: why can’t we get over it? (Guardian)

Eamon Duffy, A Great, Ignored Transformation?, review of Joel Kaye’s new A History of Balance (NYRB)

The Early Music Show: Hampton Court and Edward VI (BBC Radio 3)

Diane Johnson, The Quest for Gay Pleasure (NYRB)
Alastair Gee, The Moving Revelations of Gay Home Movies (New Yorker)


Andrew Butterfield, “Botticelli: Love, Wisdom, Terror” (NYRB)

Michael Bulley, “There once was a writer called Lear…” (TLS Blog)

Tim Parks, “How Italy Improved my English” (NYRB)

Sheng Yun, “Little Emperors” (LRB)

Linda Greenhouse, “The Bittersweet Victories of Women” (NYRB)

This weekend I’ve been enjoying “Europe without Borders,” a conference to celebrate forty years of European cultural studies at Princeton.


Cara Giaimo, The Hidden Messages of Colonial Handwriting (Atlas Obscura)

Brian Droitcour, Coming Up Roses: Alex Da Corte at MASS MoCA (Art in America)

Charlotte Higgins, Tudormania: why can’t we get over it? (Guardian)


Garret Keizer, Solidarity and Survival (Lapham’s Quarterly)

Paul Dolan, The Social Construction of Stories: How Narratives Can Get in the Way of Being Happier (Edge)

Juliana Spahr, Richard So, Andrew Piper, Beyond Resistance: Towards a Future History of Digital Humanities (LARB)

Daniel Little, Hofstadter on the Progressive Historians (Understanding Society)

Josh Mitteldorf and Dorion Sagan, Why Aging Isn’t Inevitable (Nautilus)


Craid Fehrman, The qwerty history of the word processor (Boston Globe)

Michael Dirda, ‘Letters of a Dead Man’: a travel guide like no other (WaPo)

Sara Guaglione, ‘Forbes’ features print ad with video player (Publisher’s Weekly)

David Weinberger, Rethinking Knowledge in the Internet Age (LARB)

Max Weber and Carl Schmitt: Crossroads of Crisis

by guest contributor Pedro T. Magalhães

Ideas have unintended consequences. Max Weber, the founding father of German sociology, must have been keenly aware of this. In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904/05), he put forward the bold thesis that Protestant asceticism had unintentionally provided the spiritual conditions for the rise of modern capitalism. Ironically, one of Weber’s own political ideas—the notion of a plebiscitary leadership democracy, which he developed in the aftermath of World War I—would also end up being interpreted as having inadvertently paved the way to the rise of totalitarian dictatorship in Germany.

The first commentator to suggest that Weber’s vision of democracy had aroused the inclination of moderate, bürgerlich German minds to accept radical, authoritarian solutions to the predicaments of parliamentary democracy was the historian Wolfgang J. Mommsen. Mommsen argued, in the conclusion to his book, that Carl Schmitt’s theory of the plebiscitary legitimacy of the President of the Reich, astutely exploited in the early 1930s against the supposedly shallow legality of Weimar’s parliamentarianism, constituted a valid and coherent extension to Max Weber’s post-WWI demands. Carl Schmitt was a conservative Catholic legal scholar: drawn early to the political philosophies of the European counterrevolution, and flirting with Italian fascism throughout the 1920s before joining the Nazi ranks shortly after Hitler’s rise to power. It was therefore quite controversial when Jürgen Habermas suggested, in his final remarks at a Weber centenary conference (Heidelberg, 1964), that Schmitt was a “legitimate pupil”—perhaps even a “natural son”—of Max Weber’s.

There is, I believe, something more shocking in the assertion that the ideas of a mainstream liberal thinker—even if of a gloomy, late-modern variety—were “logically,” “legitimately,” or “naturally” taken to unanticipated extremes by a radical colleague than in the numerous instances of des extrêmes qui se touchent in the history of political thought (e. g. the “dangerous liaisons” between Carl Schmitt and the neo-Marxist Walter Benjamin). Extremes frequently meet because they oppose the same status quo—even if for utterly different reasons, or because they share methods, ways of thinking, or a fascination with limit cases. The circular movement of opposites that meet is less disquieting than the drift from the center to the fringes, from moderation to radicalism, because the latter entails a reconfiguration of the political space as a whole, a redefinition of the frontiers of what is politically tenable.

As regards the affinity between the political ideas of Weber and Schmitt, some commentators have tried to relativize the whole controversy. Leading Weber scholars (Lawrence A. Scaff, Joachim Radkau) have claimed that Weber’s politics is a particularly unsuitable key for considering the author’s main intellectual concerns. Others still have sought to defend him from the charge of being a forerunner of Weimar political radicalism, arguing that the supposed similarities between Weber’s ideas and those of notorious radicals—particularly the reactionary Schmitt, but also the Marxist György Lukács, who was a protégé of Weber’s in Heidelberg before joining the cause of Leninist revolution—are outweighed by much more significant dissimilarities (Dana Villa). Indeed, one must agree that the notion of a “natural” intellectual paternity is much too rigid. If one looks at the multiple sources of political ideas in each author’s fundamental theoretical positions and personal motivations, crucial differences surely prevail over the more disturbing points of continuity. But these cannot be explained away that easily. They are interesting and revealing in their own right.

Weber was one of the first observers to recognize that the structural change of modern mass politics threatened the basic tenets of nineteenth-century liberal parliamentarianism. Old liberal principles and beliefs seemed helpless to deal with the new political challenges of mass parties and interest groups in an increasingly rationalized world. To this crisis of liberalism he formulated risky answers, which were later developed in a radical, resolutely anti-liberal direction by Carl Schmitt. Retrospectively, this story became tied, as a paradigmatic instance, to the broader narrative of the collapse of mainstream German liberalism, of its ultimately tragic dislocation to the radical right.

Contexts of crisis are marked by a shifting political center—the space of acceptable political solutions and practices—whose standard answers to the challenges of the day have been exhausted. Carl Schmitt’s escalation of Max Weber’s idea of leadership democracy is a fateful example of the fluidity of such critical contexts. After years of relative stability in Western Europe, the ground of the political center has started to shake again, at least since the dawn of the great recession in 2008. In France, a populist right-wing party conquers relevant shares of the vote election after election. In Greece, a coalition of radical leftists and nationalists tries, with little success, to contest the austerity measures imposed upon the country by foreign creditors. More recently, large-scale migration to the continent from Africa and the Middle East seems to have reawakened dormant culturalist fears, as high walls and barbed-wire fences rise again in some European borders. Every answer to the present political quandaries in Europe is inherently risky, since it can help shift the shaky political center in unforeseeable, and possibly undesired, directions. The story of Weber and Schmitt recommends precaution, but it cannot justify immobility. Ideas have unintended consequences, because the future is uncertain.

Pedro T. Magalhães is a graduate student at NOVA University of Lisbon. His article “A Contingent Affinity: Max Weber, Carl Schmitt, and the Challenge of Modern Politics” appears in the April 2016 issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas.

What We’re Reading: May 7

Missed yesterday’s Lovejoy Lecture? Check out our Storify summary of the proceedings.


Mary Beard, BBC Latin (A Don’s Life)

David Tennant et al., Look Back in Anger; Tennant Looks Back at Osborne (BBC Radio 4)

Eleanor Parker, May Miscellany (A Clerk of Oxford)

Adam S. Cohen, Harvard’s Eugenics Era (Harvard Magazine)

Rahul Rao, On Statues (The Disorder of Things)

Jacqueline Rose, Who do you think you are? Trans Narratives (LRB)

Jacqueline Woodson, Why James Baldwin Still Matters (Vanity Fair)

Kevin M. Kruse, The Religious Right and the Politics of Sexuality: An Interview with Neil J. Young (Notches)

Christopher Benfey, A Wonderfully Ephemeral College (NYRB)

Mallory Ortberg, Texts from Samuel Coleridge (The Toast)


Ingrid D. Rowland, “Wonders in the Met’s New Box” (NYRB)

L. D. Burnett, “Digital Humanities and the Neoliberal Takeover of the University: A Response” (USIH Blog)

Karl Steel, “Animals, Gesture, and Communication Despite it All” (In the Middle)

Anka Muhlstein, “Degas Invents a New World” (NYRB)


Jean-Baptiste Amadieu, « Dialogue avec des censeurs » (La vie des idées)

Luisa Bertollni, “Che colori vedevano i greci?” (Doppiozerio)

Michal Choptiany, “On card catalogues” (Chronologia Universalis)

Vanessa Cook, “Eighty Years Since Bread and Wine: Ignazio Silone’s Christian Socialism” (Dissent)

Anthony Gottlieb, “Who Was David Hume?” (New York Review of Books)

Thomas Grillot, “The Ancestor Seeker: An Interview with Michel Brunet” (Books and Ideas)

Ina Hartwig, »Kult um das Jetzt« (Die Zeit)

Ilko-Sascha Kowalczuk, »Die Aufarbeitung ist gescheitert« (TAZ)

Grégoire Leménager, « On a lu le tout premier roman de Georges Perec » (Nouvel observateur)

Marnin Young, “Photography and the Philosophy of Time: Gustave Le Gray’s Great Wave, Sète” (

And finally, a new French edition of Reinhart Koselleck’s Le futur passé (EHESS, 2016) with a preface by Sabina Loriga


Elisa Gabbert, The Point of Tangency (Smart Set)

Marco Grassi, Van Dyck Portraits at the Frick (New Criterion)

Todd Landon Barnes, Shakespeare in 2016 (Public Books)

Matthew Clair, Black Intellectuals and White Audiences (Public Books)

Daniel Little, Large structures and social change (Understanding Society)


Nathalie Goedert, Les Univers Juridiques de Star Trek (IMAJ)

Charles West, Will the Real Roman Emperor Please Stand Up? (Turbulent Priests)

Kera Bolonik, Down the Research Rabbit Hole: A Conversation with Alexander Chee (JSTOR Daily)

Ruins of Ancient Air Conditioning Found in Kuwait (The History Blog)

Shame, Memory, and the Politics of the Archive

by guest contributor Nicole Longpré

During a research trip to the University of Leeds in the spring of 2014, I requested access to a selection of files from the papers of former Labour MP Merlyn Rees which are held by the university library’s special collections facility. Staff at the facility were unsure what to do: it was possible that these files were included in the part of the collection that was closed to the public. They would have to check. I asked again the next day, and again the next: the staff were still uncertain, so I would not be able to view the files. At the Conservative Party Archive in Oxford, things were clearer: the Conservative Party staffer responsible for granting special access said it would not be possible to view the selection of files I had requested. They were not open to any member of the public.

Historians of the twentieth century in particular are frequently confronted with the barrier of the closed file: information that archivists, politicians, or others have deemed too sensitive to be read by the general public. But what do we mean by “sensitive”? “Sensitive” for whom? The files that I was requesting to view in these cases all dealt in some way with immigration to the United Kingdom in the second half of the twentieth century. More specifically, they dealt with anti-immigrationism: opposition to immigrants who arrived in the UK from the Caribbean and South Asia in substantial numbers from 1948 through the 1970s. The material in these files almost certainly would not have included references to individual immigrants, so the files were not closed out of concern for those people’s wellbeing. Rather, they were closed because they might reveal that some individual, prominent or otherwise, who was involved with politics during the second half of the twentieth century opposed immigration, and may have done so in a way that was shameful.

Tony Kushner argues that “There persists a strong tendency to deny racism and exclusion—past and present—and therefore a need still to study its impact and importance in British society and culture, especially on the minorities concerned” (13). But it is not enough, I don’t think, just to study the impact of exclusion. Exclusion is not some miasma floating about in the air: it requires agency, and unless we acknowledge the role of human action in creating and maintaining exclusionary practices, we have only half the story. Kushner further argues that “Official proclamations from politicians of all hues from the late twentieth century onwards emphasise that ‘The UK has a long standing tradition of giving shelter to those fleeing persecution in other parts of the world’. A contrary tradition of animosity has been less easily accepted in self-mythology.” (12) And since animosity is challenging to incorporate into the national narrative, evidence of its existence is suppressed, or ignored—certainly not encouraged.

Shame does not only manifest in the closure of existing archival files; it also results in the non-existence of archives themselves. There is, at present, no archive of anti-immigrationism. No repository includes among its collection the complete papers of any single-issue anti-immigrationist group, or any individual whose primary or exclusive contribution to politics and society was their anti-immigrationist activism. All of the collections which hold anti-immigrationist materials are those of mainstream political parties, MPs, or even left-leaning groups who surveyed anti-immigrationists for the purposes of information-gathering. That is, all the documentary evidence that exists on the topic of anti-immigrationism was deposited, and collected, by someone else, or because the person who possessed or created those documents did other things which were more important—or at least more acceptable. This trend reveals certain tantalizing details that might otherwise have been lost: for instance, that the Labour Party and National Front ran a series of infiltrations of each other’s organizations in which young working-class men posed as members for the purposes of obtaining information about their opponents’ tactics. But it conceals other, equally important information. For instance, what was the nature of internal organizational debates about how, and why, to oppose immigration legislation, or discussions about which tactics were best suited to challenging the political status quo? How did anti-immigrationists think about themselves, and how did they speak to each other? It is not clear whether members of anti-immigrationist groups ever offered to deposit their papers with any repository; if they had, it is similarly uncertain whether any repository would have accepted them. In both cases, shame operates to suppress the collection of data and information that might otherwise be used to construct a compelling, and complete, vision of the past. If we think it is important to preserve the papers of the National Council of Civil Liberties, presently held at the Hull History Centre, why not those of the Birmingham Immigration Control Association?

Typically when a group of individuals have not been responsible for depositing their own papers, we assume that this is because they have been in some way disempowered or disenfranchised—that they were among the oppressed and thus not granted their own voice. Anti-immigrationists in the twentieth century, by contrast, were typically citizens of the United Kingdom who were more or less uniformly entitled to a full package of civil, political, and social rights. However, the effect, and perhaps the intent, of an official disinterest in the anti-immigrationist past is to send a clear message not only to the anti-immigrationists and their successors, but also to any members of the public who may be paying attention: as anti-immigrationists you were always marginal, never mainstream, and the record will reflect this.

Assessing the complicated legacy of white supremacy in America, Ta-Nehisi Coates has written that “’Hope’ struck me as an overrated force in human history. ‘Fear’ did not.” Coates argues that white supremacy is likely an indelible feature of American society, and that the best remedy that can be achieved is a diminution of its impact. He means this stance not to be unnecessarily alarmist or pessimistic, but rather to militate “against justice and righteousness as twin inevitable victors in history.” Evidence of this (problematic) commitment to a positive spin on the trajectory of British history abounds in present-day commentary on the anti-immigrationist rhetoric of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) in particular. UKIP leader Nigel Farage is routinely mocked, chastised, and condemned by members of the political establishment; yet he persists in his public statements, and it would be difficult for anyone in the UK to ignore the role he is presently playing in politics at the highest level. It would similarly have been impossible for anyone to ignore the role that anti-immigrationism played in politics in the 1960s and 1970s—and so to frame anti-immigrationism as strictly “marginal” is an inaccurate representation of the lived experience of this period.

Unearthing the unpleasant history of an anti-immigrationist past is not an easy task, or a straightforward one. But it is not a task that should be avoided for all that. The cumulative effect of a failure to deposit shameful documents, or of denying access to potentially shameful materials, is to render oneself complicit in the process of suppression. By pretending that these things did not happen, and by preventing others from telling the story of a shameful past, we are ourselves culpable. So what principles should guide our collection and preservation of historical evidence moving forward? Do we keep only that which we can be proud of? Or do we accept that there are certain things about humanity that should change, but which can only be changed if we confront them in all their gory detail, if we pay them as much attention as those events and individuals who we most admire? Indeed, should we continue to accept the social phenomena of pride and shame as the grounds upon which we do, or do not, remember the past?

Nicole Longpré recently completed her Ph.D. in history at Columbia University, and will take up a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Victoria in Fall 2016. She researches anti-immigrationism and twentieth-century British political history.

We Have Never Been Presentist: On Regimes of Historicity

by guest contributor Zoltán Boldizsár Simon

It is great news that François Hartog’s Regimes of Historicity: Presentism and Experiences of Time has finally come out in English. The original French edition dates back to 2003, and my encounter with the book took place a few years later in the form of its Hungarian edition. What I wish to indicate by mentioning this small fact is that Anglo-American academia is catching up with ideas that already made their career. But to be more precise, it is perhaps better to talk about a single idea, because at the core of Hartog’s book there is one strong thesis, namely, that since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union we live in a presentist “regime of historicity.”

The thesis makes sense only within a long-term historical trajectory, in relation to previous “regimes of historicity” other than the presentist one. Furthermore, it makes sense only if one comes to grips beforehand with Hartog’s analytical categories, which is not the easiest task. As Peter Seixas notes in a review, despite Hartog’s effort to articulate what he means by a “regime of historicity,” the term remains elusive. For the sake of simplicity, let’s say that it denotes an organizational structure which Western culture imposes on experiences of time, and that changes in “regimes of historicity” entail changes in the way Western culture configures the relationship between past, present, and future.

As to the historical trajectory that Hartog sketches, it goes as follows: around the French Revolution, a future-oriented modern regime of historicity superseded a pre-modern one in which the past served as a point of orientation, illuminating the present and the future. So far this accords with Reinhart Koselleck’s investigations concerning the birth of our modern notion of history. Conceptualizing the course of events as history between 1750 and 1850—the period Koselleck called Sattelzeit—opened up the possibility and the expectation of change in the shape of a historical process supposedly leading to a better future. Where Hartog departs from Koselleck is the claim that even this modern regime that came about with the birth of our modern notion of history has now been replaced by one that establishes its sole point of orientation in the present.

I believe that Hartog’s main thesis about our current presentist “regime of historicity” can be fundamentally challenged. I am with Hartog, Koselleck, and many others (such as Aleida Assmann) in exploring the characteristics of the “modern regime of historicity.” What I doubt is not even Hartog’s further claim that Western culture left behind this modern regime, but that it happened sometime in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and that the modern regime is followed by a presentist one in which we live. In other words, what I doubt is the feasibility of the story that Hartog tells about how we became presentist.

Let me tell you another story—the story of how we have never been presentist. It does not begin with the fall of the Berlin Wall and it does not begin when the Cold War ends. Instead, it begins in the early stage of the postwar period, when Western culture finally killed off the three major (and heavily interrelated) future-oriented endeavors it launched since the late Enlightenment: classical philosophy of history, ideology, and political utopianism.

By the 1960s, skepticism towards the idea of a historical process supposed to lead to a “better” future already discredited philosophies of history. The complementary endeavors of ideology and political utopianism shared this fate, given that the achievement of their purpose depended on the discredited idea of a historical process within which it was supposed to take place. In other words, dropping the idea of a historical process necessarily entailed putting a ban on all future-oriented endeavors that were rendered possible by postulating such a process. These are, I believe, fairly well known phenomena. Since Horkheimer’s and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947 [1944]), or at least since Karl Popper’s The Poverty of Historicism (1957), Judith Shklar’s After Utopia (1957) or Daniel Bell’s The End of Ideology (1960), the bankruptcy of the three major future-oriented endeavors of Western culture have become a fairly recurrent theme in intellectual discussion.

This is not to say that traces of these endeavors did not remain present as implicit assumptions in cultural practices, however. It took a post-1960s “theory boom” and decades of postcolonial and gender critique even to attempt to deconstruct the prevailing assumptions of Western universalism and essentialism. But the point I would like to make is not whether this did or did not prove a successful intellectual operation; rather, I would like to emphasize that regardless of the question of overall success, Western culture self-imposed some sort of a presentism already in the 1960s by putting a ban on its own future-oriented endeavors.

Yet this self-imposed presentism remains only one side of the coin as concerns the ideological-utopian project. The other side is the proliferation of technological imagination and the future visions simultaneously launched when Western ideological-political imagination had been declared bankrupt. You can think of the space programs of the same period or of the sci-fi enthusiasm of the 1950s and 1960s, both in cinema and literature, which was inspired by actual technological visions reflected in the foundation of artificial intelligence research as a scientific field, splitting out of cybernetics in 1956. Today, this technological vision is more omnipresent than ever before. You cannot escape it as soon as you go to the movies or online. Just like every second blockbuster or like DeLillo’s latest novel, magazine stories and public debates now habitually address issues of transhumanism, bioengineering, nanotechnology, cryonics, human enhancement, artificial intelligence, technological singularity, plans to colonize Mars, and so on.

Hartog shows himself to be well aware of this technological vision, just as he remains aware of how the notion of history brought about by classical philosophies of history was abandoned in the postwar years, entailing the collapse of ideology and political utopianism. I can think of only one reason why he still fails to consider this as the abandonment of the modern regime of historicity. It seems to me that Hartog mistakes matters of political history like the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989) and the collapse of the Soviet Union (1991) for matters of intellectual history like the skepticism toward grand ideological-political designs of the common future that had already taken root in the 1950s-1960s. This must be the fundamental ground upon which Hartog places “the collapse of the communist ideal” alongside the fall of the Wall, as if the intellectual “ideal” could simply collapse together with the material collapse of the Wall or the political collapse of the communist bloc. This elision prevents Hartog and other critics from seeing that, first, the loss of Western ideological-utopian future-orientation was self-imposed and, second, that it did not result in overall presentism but in exchanging an ideological future-orientation for a technological-scientific one that emerged simultaneously with the abandonment of the former.

Of course the emerging technological-scientific vision (again, vision, and not necessarily the actual technological advancement, which one can debate) can be considered ideological as well, but that is beside the point. More importantly, the obvious omnipresence of the technological-scientific vision hardly enables us to talk about “a world so enslaved to the present that no other viewpoint is considered admissible” as Hartog does. Not to mention that the temporal structure of the technological vision may be completely other than the developmental structure that underlay late Enlightenment and nineteenth-century future-oriented endeavors. If these past endeavors were deliberately dropped for good reasons, whatever future endeavor Western culture ventures into, it simply cannot be a return to an abandoned temporality. If the future itself has changed, it necessarily entails a change in the mode by which we configure the relation of this future to the present and the past.

I think—and Hartog might agree if he reconsidered future-orientation—that the principal task of historians and philosophers of history today remains coming to terms with our current future vision. It is the principal task because insofar as we have a future vision, we imply a historical process; and if the technological-scientific vision is characteristically other than the abandoned ideological-utopian one, then the historical process it implies must be different too. What this means is that – using Hartog’s vocabulary – we may already have a new regime of historicity which we have yet to explore and understand.

Yet even if we do not fully grasp what regime of historicity we live in, one thing is certain: it is anything but presentist. In fact, we have never been presentist.

Zoltán Boldizsár Simon is a doctoral research associate at Bielefeld University. Lately he devotes articles to the question of how our future prospects and visions inform our notion of history, not only as related to the technological vision, but also with respect to our ecological concerns and within the framework of a quasi-substantive philosophy of history. You can also find Zoltán on Twitter and

What We’re Reading: April 30


Nakul Krishna, What Enid Blyton’s school stories taught me about ethics (Aeon)

and Hannah Woods, Winning University Challenge, googling my eyebrows, and inspiring girls to be swots (New Statesman)

Alison Flood, Author Jenny Diski, diagnosed with inoperable cancer, dies aged 68 (Guardian)
Madeleine Schwartz, Jenny Diski (1947-2016) (Dissent)

Catharine R. Stimpson, ‘Democracy and Education’ at 100 (Public Books)

A. Everett Beek, Ovid’s Afterlife (Eidolon)

The Early Music Show: Sounds of Shakespeare (BBC Radio 3)

Colm Tóibín, After I am hanged, my portrait will be interesting, on the Easter Rising (LRB)

Keith Thomas, Was There Always an England? (NYRB)

In Our Time: 1816, The Year Without a Summer (BBC Radio 4)

The Gay Academic Union: The Proceedings of Its First National Conference, 1973, New York City (OutHistory)


Sarah Laskow, Audobon Made Up at Least 28 Fake Species to Prank a Rival (Atlas Obscura)

Chris Woolgar, The medieval senses were transmitters as much as receivers (Aeon)

Abbie Weinberg, In Defense of the Card Catalog (The Collation)

The BL just launched a new site for their digitized Hebrew Manuscripts. In addition to gorgeous, high resolution scans of their spectacular collections, the site also has about a dozen excellent articles, like this one by Israel Sandman: “Paleography: Scribes and the Transmission of Hebrew Scientific Works.”


Jennifer Schuessler, Walt Whitman Promoted a Paleo Diet. Who Knew? (New York Times)

Anemona Hartocollis, At Small Colleges, Harsh Lessons About Cash Flow (New York Times)

Steven Shapin, What do you mean by a lie? (LRB)

Elizabeth Kolbert, Unnatural Selection (New Yorker)


Jenny Ferretti, Beyoncé’s ‘Lemonade’ and Information Resources (Maryland Institute College of Art Library)

A Call and Response with Melissa Harris-Perry: The Pain and the Power of ‘Lemonade’ (Elle)

Jacqueline Rose, Who Do you Think You Are? (LRB)

Sarah Laskow, The Rise of Pirate Libraries (Atlas Obscura)


Melissa Dinsman, The Digital in the Humanities: An Interview with Richard Jean So (LARB)

Joshua Knobe and Daniel Kahneman, A Characteristic Difference: When Experimental Philosophy Meets Psychology (Edge)

Peter Unger, Empty Ideas (The Philosophers’ Magazine)

Randall Jarrell, A Man Meets a Woman in the Street (

Robert Dijkgraaf, Are There Barbarians at the Gates of Science? (Nautilus)


Steven Nadler, “Why Spinoza still matters” (Aeon)

Maya Jasanoff, “The First Global Terrorists were Anarchists in the 1890s” (NYT)

Chronology’s Forgotten Medieval Pioneers

by guest contributor Philipp Nothaft

According to a metaphor once popular among early modern scholars, chronology is one of the “two eyes of history” (the other being geography), which is an apt shorthand for expressing its tremendous utility in imposing order on the past and thereby facilitating its interpretation. Yet in spite of the undiminished importance chronology possesses for the study and teaching of history, latter-day historians tend to lose relatively little sleep over the accuracy of the years and dates they insert into their works. Assyriologists may continue to argue among themselves about variant Bronze Age chronologies, but for that happy majority focused on the development of civilization since the dawn of the first millennium BCE, errors in historical dating appear to be a local possibility rather than a global one. We may be wrong in attributing a Greek astrological papyrus or the foundation of a Roman military fortress to, say, the late second rather than the early third century of the common era, but even then we remain secure in the knowledge that the centuries themselves retain their accustomed place, containing as they do a fixed and familiar inventory of historical events. On the whole, it looks like the timeline is under our control.

Like so many amenities of modern life, this feeling of security is the hard-won result of a long process of trial and error, one that can be shown to have started a good deal earlier than commonly assumed. For the thirteenth-century Dominican philosopher Giles of Lessines, who turned to historical chronology in a pioneering Summa de temporibus (ca. 1260–64), the intervals of years between the major events of biblical and profane history were still a bewildering patchwork of individual puzzles, not all of which allowed for an easy solution. Problems were posed above all by the Old Testament, which in spite of its status as a divinely inspired, and hence exceptionally reliable, record of history since the world’s creation confronted Christian historians with a range of pitfalls. Even those who felt equipped to smooth out some of the contradictions encountered in the Bible’s chronological record still had to admit the existence of two discrepant versions: the Hebrew Masoretic text, represented to Latin Christians by St Jerome’s Vulgate translation, and the Greek Septuagint, which differed from the former in several numerical details. On Friar Giles’s count, the Greek translation added a total of 1374 to the Vulgate’s tally of years between Creation and Christ, which effectively double the nine different chronological readings he had been able to extract from the “Hebrew truth,” leaving him with a range of possibilities between 3967 and 5541 years. The margin of plausible intervals was mystifying and threatened to expose the scriptural exegete to the same sort of uncertainty that was encountered in profane chronicles and works of history, where scribal corruption, but also mendacity and ignorance on the part of authors, could mean that dates, years, or even centuries suddenly vanished or were retroactively inserted into the historical record.

In spite of such discouraging signals, Giles of Lessines believed that he had identified a class of sources that was worthy of his unreserved trust: works of astronomy, which linked observed phenomena such as eclipses of the sun and moon to particular dates in history, usually identified according to years of the reigns of ancient kings and emperors. Since these observations provided the raw material for astronomical theories, which in turn underpinned computational algorithms and the tables based on them, it was possible to assess their trustworthiness long after the event. Astronomical books, Giles wrote, “depend on years in the past being noted down with utmost certainty—otherwise the rules and principles they contain would not be dependable for the future” (Summa de temporibus, bk. 2, pt. 3, ch. 2). The predictive success of mathematical astronomy hence guaranteed the accuracy of the underlying chronological data, and vice versa. Friar Giles’s pièce de résistance in exploiting this insight were three lunar eclipses the Alexandrian astronomer Ptolemy had observed during the reign of the Roman emperor Hadrian: more specifically in years 133, 134, and 136 CE. As a seasoned astronomical calculator, Giles was able to use the specific criteria of these eclipses (their time, magnitude, and location) to establish the interval between Ptolemy’s observations and the present. The exercise gave him an entering wedge into the chronology of the Roman Empire, which, among other benefits, made it possible to confirm—against certain medieval critics—that the Church’s practice of calculating the years of Christ’s birth from 1 CE rested on a sound historical basis.

Giles of Lessines was far from the only medieval author to experiment with astronomical techniques in an effort to put chronology on a sure footing. A prominent case is the English Franciscan friar Roger Bacon (ca. 1214–1292?), who had read Giles’s Summa de temporibus, and who was to use astronomical tables to establish the date when Jesus died on the cross. His result of 3 April 33 CE, though unorthodox at the time, continues to be viewed as plausible by many contemporary scholars. In the following century, the application of astronomy to history was pursued by authors such as the Swabian astronomer Heinrich Selder, who used Ptolemy’s eclipses to bring order into biblical, but also ancient Greek and Near Eastern, chronology. Others, like the Benedictine monk Walter Odington (Summa de etate mundi, 1308/16) and the Oxford astrologer John Ashenden (Summa iudicialis de accidentibus mundi, 1347/48), tried to tame the timeline by bringing in assumptions of an astrological, as opposed to just astronomical, nature. In Odington’s case, his efforts to extort the age of the world from a calculation based on 360-year planetary circles proved irreconcilable with biblical chronology, prompting him to boldly surmise that the numbers encountered in Scripture had to be read in an allegorical rather than a plain historical way—an idea that stands in striking contrast to the assumptions made by present-day Young Earth Creationists.

Seven centuries down the line, we possess sufficient hindsight to discern more or less exactly where authors such as Giles of Lessines and Walter Odington went wrong or, conversely, where their arguments produced results of lasting validity. More so than any particular date proposed in these medieval texts, what remains unchanged is the fundamental soundness of their insight that the predictive capacities of natural science can furnish historical chronology with the sort of security its conclusions would otherwise be lacking. To this day, astronomical phenomena, from comets and the positions of stars to the intervals revealed by ancient eclipses, remain absolutely essential to the basic grid of ancient dates displayed in our reference works. In addition, the range of possibilities has been greatly expanded by novel chronological tools such as stratigraphy, radiometric dating, dendrochronology, and the study of Greenland ice cores.

Owing to these methodological developments, our conventional chronology of the past three millennia rests on such a solid basis that twenty- and twenty-first century attempts to subvert it have been staged almost exclusively from the fringes of respectable scholarship. One of the few flavors of such chronology revisionism to have captivated a larger audience is Heribert Illig’s so-called phantom time hypothesis, which argues for the fictitious character of the period we usually refer to as the Early Middle Ages. If Illig is right, which is more than unlikely, the reign of Charles the Great and all the other persons and events historians of medieval Europe assign to the years 614–911 were no more than an invention, retroactively inserted into the historical record by a cabal of powerful men involving the Holy Roman Emperor Otto III (980–1002) and Pope Silvester II (999–1003).

Beyond the tiresome hermeneutics of suspicion and outright falsehoods that pervade the hypothesis propagated by Illig and his followers lies a valuable reminder to the effect that historians should, at least on occasion, try to assure themselves of the foundations on which their accepted narratives rest. In a sense, the revisionists are indeed correct in assuming that some of these foundations can be unearthed deep in the Middle Ages. Their actual shape, of course, looks very different from what they would have us believe.

C. Philipp E. Nothaft is a post-doctoral research fellow at All Souls College, Oxford. He is the author of “Walter Odington’s De etate mundi and the Pursuit of a Scientific Chronology in Medieval England,” which appears in the April 2016 issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas.

Comparative Difficulties in the Global Academy

by guest contributor Nicholas Bellinson

[Fu Xi] looking up… observed the images in the heavens and looking down he observed the models in the earth. He looked at how the markings of the birds and animals were appropriate to the earth. Near at hand he took them from his body, and at a distance he took them from things. With these he first made the eight trigrams [written characters]…. (The Classic of Changes, “Commentary on the Appended Phrases,” translated by Edward Shaughnessy with modifications by Jane Geaney)

Adam first gave names to all things with souls, calling each one after its apparent constitution as well as after the role in nature to which it was bound… in that language… which is called Hebrew. (Isidore of Seville, Etymologies, XII.I)

At once, these two legends—one from the Chinese and one from the Christian Latin canon—invite comparison. Did both cultures, we wonder, derive this myth of natural language from a common source, or do the two stories manifest some universally human relationship to language? In my ignorance of Chinese traditions, I have no idea whether the ancestors and immediate offspring of the Fu Xi legend are documented. However, the Western discovery of this story and of the Chinese writing system (thanks to Jesuit missionaries in China) certainly resonated with learned Europeans more because of their own linguistic origin story. The Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher wrote in his monumental China Illuminated (1667) that

The Chinese place the first invention of letters about three hundred years after the Flood; the first inventor of letters was also a king named Fòhì…. The ancient Chinese obtained their characters from all the things which were presented to their sight, and from the various order and arrangement of these many accumulated things made manifest the concepts in their mind. (VI.i-ii)

Kircher thought that the Chinese were descended from the Egyptians, that the Chinese characters were hieroglyphic, and that both Egyptian and Chinese hieroglyphs encoded imperfect versions of the Edenic knowledge of nature which Adam had used to name the animals and passed on to his descendants. (Leibniz, meanwhile, read the The Classic of Changes and found support for his theory that all human thought could be reduced to binary code.)

Kircher eagerly assimilated a culture with which he had only passing familiarity into his standard universal-historical framework based on the Biblical creation myth; he would do the same with India, Egypt, and any other ancient culture he encountered. Anyone who has learned a foreign language knows how treacherous this temptation can be—and why we bitterly call words that sound similar but mean different things faux amis (“false friends”). The temptation grows with ignorance and distance.

Comparatists working across chasms of space, time, and culture have to take particular care not to fall in. We still both enjoy and criticize the first chapter of Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis, in which he compares the immediate style of Homeric epic to the inward style of the Bible. Under the influence of globalization, comparative literary scholars and historians have increasingly undertaken comparisons of entire traditions. Sometimes they give us useful scholarly projects and gatherings—but with more breadth often comes greater superficiality, and correspondingly the need for the academy to insist on greater depth of knowledge. The line between caution and limitation is fine, but worth treading.

I recently attended several sessions of the four-day international workshop “Across Text and Source: Comparative Perspectives in Literary and Historical Theory” at the University of Chicago (where I first heard of Fu Xi). Dr. Ulrich Timme Kragh noted in his opening remarks that, due to the vast range of the participants’ expertise, the organizers had chosen to divide each forty-eight-minute session into two ten-minute “concept papers” followed by discussion—in admitted hopes of “mutual intelligibility.” The primary goal of this event was to reexamine the categories of “text” and “source” using examples from ancient and medieval Asia and Europe (though modern comparanda were adduced on occasion).

“Ambitious” is a gentle word for such a goal. How does one initiate listeners into the mysteries of an alien culture in ten minutes, forty-eight minutes, or four days? I was fascinated to learn from Dr. Ping Wang that the classical Chinese wén (“text,” according to her) literally means a “woven pattern,” much like the English “text” (cf. Latin textus from texo “I weave”)—but the ensuing discussion involved enough disagreement about the exact meaning of wén that I came away without a confident evaluation of the conceptual parallelism between the two words. Participants keenly aware of the structural difficulties facing them sought to disentangle (or perhaps even spin) den roten Faden (“the red thread,” a German phrase for the unifying concept or theme); I wasn’t present for enough of the conference to judge their ultimate success. The obvious gains of such an event are intimations of new material which participants can later investigate in depth: new texts, new ideas, new patterns. I wonder, though, whether these gains come at the prohibitive cost of a certain model of scholarship.

When a medieval Latinist and a classical sinologist discuss similar features of their respective scholarly domains, they will produce a very different kind of comparative work from that of a single scholar who knows both traditions very well. To return to the analogy of foreign languages: translating The Classic of Changes into English would require one fluent reader of both English and classical Chinese, not two distinct speakers of English and classical Chinese. (Occasionally, “translations” have been attempted without knowledge of the language, like Stephen Mitchell’s rewritings of Chinese texts, which have been criticized by “very irate Taoists.”) In general, I’m inclined to think that two comparatists’ heads are not better than one.

To be clear: cultural historians and literary theorists have much to learn from even a superficial acquaintance with other cultures and time periods. In perhaps the most celebrated case of successful comparative work, Milman Parry and Albert Lord derived permanent insights about the Homeric poems’ composition from ethnographic research on modern Slavic bards. Entire fields, like narratology and generic criticism, are highly comparative. Yet because comparatists often emphasize formal similarities and minimize differences, they can seem intentionally superficial and stubborn. It’s not a new point that “close reading” implies a focus deliberately rejected in the comparative approach, but the growing interest in “global” comparative projects occasions a renewed call for caution: studying the intersection of two traditions requires firm prior knowledge of both.

Nicholas Bellinson is a second-year graduate student in the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. He has studied Renaissance literature, art history, and history of science. He is writing his dissertation on Shakespeare.

What We’re Reading: April 23


Jim Farber, Before the Stonewall Uprising, There Was the ‘Sip-In’ (NY Times)

Marissa Brostoff, Where the Boys Are, on Bernie Sanders, gender and politics (n+1)

Rachel L. Swarns, 272 Slaves Were Sold to Save Georgetown. What Does It Owe Their Descendants? (NY Times)

Laura Ramsay, The Church of England, Sexual Morality, and the Complications of Institutional Decision-making (Notches)

University Greek Plays, in America (The Secret Victorianist)

Mary Beard, Does it matter if a house at Pompeii falls down? (A Don’s Life)

The University Challenge final was thrilling indeed. (BBC iPlayer; UK IP address required)


Stephen Greenblatt, “How Shakespeare Lives Now” (NYRB)

Lawrence Downes, Martyrs with Guns and the Easter Rising (NYT)

Rachel L. Swarns, Georgetown University’s search for slave descendants (NYT)

Ken Owen, Historians and Hamilton: Founders Chic and the Cult of Personality (The Junto)


Louis Auchincloss, The Book Class (1984)

Douglas Flowe, “They’re Knocking Down Negroes Down Here”: Public Racial Violence and Black Self-Defense in Early 20th Century NYC (Gotham Center Blog)

Paul Genders, Ziggy Didn’t Just Play Guitar (TLS)

Oakley Hall, Warlock (NYRB Reissue)

In other news, the American Printing History Association is seeking an editor for their bi-annual publication, Printing History. This is a part-time position which pays the editor a stipend of $2500 per issue and has a term limit of five years. Full details and application procedures here. Deadline is May 15, 2016.


Jane Coaston, Prince Made Me Free (MTV)

Parag Khanna, A New Map For America (NY Times)

Felix Petty, Mary Kelly: The Feminist Who Revolutionised Conceptual Art (i-D)


Catharine R. Stimpson, “Democracy and Education” at 100 (Public Books)

Elaine Blair, Note to Self: The lyric essay’s convenient fictions (Harper’s)

Daniel Little, Defining social phenomena (Understanding Society)

Michael Lind, The Art of the Book Review (Smart Set)

Encounters with Shakespeare (New Yorker)


Sarah “Moxy” Moczygemba, Amoris Laetitia in 140 Characters or Less (Marginalia Blog)

Paul J. du Plessis, When Roman Law Makes You Smile, with a link to children’s author Claudia Rueda’s graphic novel dissertation on the history of Roman Law in Latin America (The Edinburgh Legal History Blog)

Jonathan Jarrett, Learning from an Ailing Emperor (A Corner of Tenth Century Europe)

Mary Beard, Does It Matter if a House at Pompeii Falls Down? (A Don’s Life)

Historicizing Failure

by guest contributor Disha Jani

Making meaning out of the past requires sifting: turning flotsam and jetsam into units of time and entities of subjecthood. One of the most basic ways in which historians sift is with beginnings and ends as markers. This debris, the fragments of failure, is what fascinates us when we ask, “Why didn’t they succeed?” or “Why did this come to an end?” When the end of an era is what has drawn us to it in the first place, how does this making of meaning in retrograde affect our narrative writing and historiographical context? When we study the end of things, we encounter a particular set of questions. I believe the first among them should be, “Why does this failure fascinate me?”

There is a particular historiographical problem surrounding the study of failure. Certain phrases or dates are widely associated with a spectacular finish. Cleopatra’s reign. The League of Nations. 1989. Some historical moments are swept from our collective memory by virtue of their quite lackluster ends—and it falls to the historian to resurrect them, and explain why we had never heard of them in the first place. Infamy and erasure both color scholarship, because they often drive the aims of the historian herself, in her role as interpreter between past and present. When a scholar selects such a topic for study, the reason for this choice is a curiosity with how something came to an end, how a particular individual or group failed to achieve their aims. Historicizing the concept of failure, then, has implications for why and how we make meaning out of particular moments in history.

What constitutes failure in the eyes of the historian? The War of 1812 was miraculously won and lost by both the British and the Americans simultaneously: the British defended their colonies, and the Americans maintained that “not one inch of territory [was] ceded or lost.” What a happy conclusion that was! No one had to go home a loser, and we were treated to such fun re-enactments at the bicentennial.

Failure in the eyes of the historian can come from one of several places. If the historical subjects stated their aims at the beginning of a project and were not able to fulfill those aims, that can constitute failure. If a bounded and sovereign entity, such as a nation-state or empire, ceases to exercise control over its former territories, or its former territories remain basically the same but are re-named and ruled differently—that can constitute failure. And even if the stated aims of a project are achieved by most accounts, but the central or guiding logic of the project is not upheld—historians can see that too as a failure. The Spanish Popular Front. The Roman Empire. American democracy in 1776. In all of these instances, once a failure has been identified and defended, the historian can begin to explain why it happened: why their subjects were unable to fulfill their aims either materially or essentially. This designation of success or failure cannot occur in a vacuum, of course. Often, the identification of a marker of failure comes from a popular understanding of that event, and the historian’s desire to either explain it or debunk it.

Making meaning out of a subject’s failure is similarly manifold. On the most basic level, the chronological markers of beginnings and ends can perform the intellectual and affective work of periodization. For me, the word “interwar” carries all the hope and loss of the 1920s and 1930s, but to a historian of the Middle Kingdom, it might be meaningless. When we lay varied timelines on top of one another, more and more complex renderings of the past emerge—as we consider legal milestones, influential popular culture, social and demographic shifts, and linguistic divides alongside the reigns of kings and ministers.

When narrative is the medium through which we deliver this meaning to our readers, the trajectory and emotion our stories imbibe can be governed by our knowledge of our subjects’ fate. When a political project lies at the center of a study, often the stakes for those involved were life and death. When a subject has great cultural or moral significance, or exists larger than life in contested popular imaginations, it is difficult, and perhaps dishonest, to try and step outside the looming shadow of the eventual end. For example, it is difficult not to write a melancholy or angry account of a quashed slave rebellion. Even accounts of the joy and creativity within such a project can read tinny and sharp against the harsh knowledge of the centuries that followed. The dramatic irony the reader dubiously enjoys allows the historian to use detail and sources in a particularly captivating way, since we know what our subjects do not—they will fail, and their friends and family will die. Identifying turning points in a series of events becomes almost perverse, when you know each decision or happenstance leads, thundering, down a path of no return.

Finally, the historian must defend the significance of her subject to the reader (and her colleagues) by learning a lesson from it. She may conclude that a project did not, in fact, fail—due to some criteria that were not considered in the initial assessment. She may conclude that a project was a failure, but remains significant because of how it changed its participants, or changed its environment, or paved the way for another, more obviously significant occurrence. If the failure was spectacular and earth-shattering, then this defense is unnecessary, but the historian needs to say something new about an event everyone considers common knowledge.

This is, of course, if you allow your narrative to be governed by the failure it explains. What could be the alternative? Historians tend to acknowledge, to varying degrees, the effect of their positionality on their work and use of sources. From our perch in the present, does a methodology exist that would allow us to suspend our knowledge of our subjects’ eventual failure, and proceed, as it were, spoiler-free? I don’t think that’s something anyone wants or believes to be possible, but it is an interesting intellectual space to imagine, if only for a moment.

Let us imagine that we don’t know how the story ends. Of course, such a space exists, and it is called the present. How do historians assess the significance of political projects in the immediate wakes of their demise? Accounts of events of significance to us today were written about from the moment they happened, and part of assembling our own narratives involves sifting through the ones that came before. But how do we, as historical actors ourselves, historicize the successes and failures of our present and recent past?

The Occupy movement began on July 13, 2011 when Micah White and Kalle Lasn of the Vancouver-based Adbusters magazine released a tactical briefing to their mailing list calling for the occupation of Wall Street and a new form of citizen-led protest. This year will be five years since the beginning of Occupy, and to many activists, writers, and organizers, this movement is far from finished. In March, White published his book The End of Protest: calling for a shift away from old protest tactics, towards a rescaling and reorientation of the terms of revolt. The book describes the history of protest and the form a new protest might take, and emphasizes the spiritual and non-hierarchical nature of this new protest as key to its success and resonance. I spoke with White last week about how he sees the history of the movement he helped create, and how we might view the failures of our fledgling century in light of how we have written about and internalized the successes and failures of the last one.

White referred to Occupy as a “constructive failure”:

DJ: What does that mean for Occupy’s role when we think about protest in the 21st century?

MW: I think that’s the only real revolutionary way to look at it. We are part of a five-thousand-year revolutionary uprising that has been passed from generation to generation. Everything that’s come before has been in some way, a constructive failure. The Russian Revolution was a constructive failure. The Paris Commune was a constructive failure…. There’s a tremendous inertia within contemporary activism not to learn from our past failures… the goal has to be revolution, but people don’t want revolution, they’re afraid of revolution. But seeing things as a constructive failure allows you to move closer to a revolution.

As participants in the present moment, we begin immediately to historicize the present and thereby forge the recent past. It is impossible to know the signposts future historians will use to separate us from our parents or grandparents, creating eras and pre- and post- where there once were just lives lived. But it is clear that we are leaving historians much more preservable data than they could ever sift through, and much more than our predecessors were given. Knowing this, we will see in our lifetimes the grand narratives of 21st-century failure written and re-written. The particular problems involved with writing the history of a failed project deserve our careful thought, since they reveal a great deal about what we consider a loss and what we consider collateral damage. Lives lost during conflict can amount to an overall failure in policy, but a peace conference in Geneva can render it successful all over again. It is already happening: histories of the invasion of Iraq, of the 2008 housing bubble, of the Syrian civil war, of austerity and of police brutality—these could be the crises that define our time, used as buzzwords and explanatory notes on why the next decades would unfold as they did.

Disha Jani is a writer based in Toronto. Her research follows the movements and writings of anti-imperialist organizers in the British Empire between the First and Second World Wars. Broadly speaking, Disha is curious about the intersection of socialist, post-colonial, nationalist, and imperial histories, and the ways in which memory and narrative mediate the past, present, and future for historical subjects and people living today. She will be a Ph.D candidate in History at Princeton University in the fall.