What We're Reading

What We’re Reading: March, Part 1


David W. Blight, American Oracle: The Civil War in the Civil Rights Era (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011).


David W. Blight, American Oracle: The Civil War in the Civil Rights Era (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011).

I don’t think that the Civil War (1861-1865) has ever been quiescent in American culture and popular consciousness. In the 150 years since, though, major bouts of mythmaking and other engagement with the war’s legacy have stirred in roughly fifty-year increments: the widespread memorialization of the Confederacy and contemporaneous emergence of the Dunning School in the early 20th century;  the War’s centennial celebrations in the early 1960s and the Civil Rights movement’s indictment of Emancipation’s miscarried promise; our ongoing debates over the meaning of Confederate flags and memorials and–more important–the historical trajectory linking enslavement, Jim Crow law, and race-based inequality today. Each time, our relationship to the war refracts through these layers of interpretation.

Over the past ten days, I led a high school student tour about the history of the U.S. South and, in particular, the many memorial projects that seek to tell the story of the Civil War and Civil Rights movement. The monuments, historical landmarks, and history museums clustered in cities and scattered in towns across Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi (where we traveled) tell many and often conflicting histories. The new, arresting Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery (realized by the Equal Justice Initiative) have become perhaps the major tourist attractions in the state, suggesting where the momentum is in the popular telling of southern history.

As our group encountered this broader memorial cacophony, David Blight’s absorbing portraits of four men who wrote about the Civil War during its sesquicentennial was a compelling guide.  Organized around the troubling federally-sponsored centennial celebration of the Civil War, Blight’s book delves deeply into their attempts to challenge and reframe popular understanding of that conflict and its legacy in the 1950s and 1960s: Robert Penn Warren’s scholarly and fictional writing about the war, Bruce Catton’s wildly popular narrative histories, Edmund Wilson’s literary criticism, and James Baldwin’s much better known oeuvre. Each quarter fascinates and inspires one to read these authors, whom Blight relates around their shared engagement with the tragic dimensions of American history. “The grain against which they wrote was the powerful post-World War II and Cold War American confidence that their past and present could always somehow be woven into a pleasing tale of consensus and the righteous progress of a problem-solving, redemptive people”(27). Blight’s book is a portal that helps us see the stakes of that question in the turbulent 1960s. But it also artfully explores how these authors engaged with the myths of American history, in ways that can inform our own readings of the nation today.



The Collected Poems of A.E. Housman (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1959).

March is always a strange month. It is still cold outside but one takes solace in the longer and occasionally sunny days. The imminent joys of spring and summer excite the imagination but a tinge of nostalgia for snowy winter evenings continues to lurk around.

In such circumstances, I find it difficult to pick up something suitable to read. However, this year, the choice was made easier by a recent chat with a friend which reminded me of a brief pilgrimage of sorts that I made last summer. Ever since I first watched it a few years ago, I’ve always been a big admirer of the 1980s-90s British TV show Inspector Morse, which deftly began with televising some of Colin Dexter’s novels but gradually went on to acquire a life of its own. The titular character, known only by his last name Morse, is an enigmatic figure who, despite a lifetime of disappointments, continues to find meaning in life through his work and his two loves, beer and opera. Despite his eccentricities, he is a character that one can easily sympathize with. Naturally, as I watched episode after episode a few years ago, I myself developed a measure of sympathy for Morse. Therefore, in the last episode (spoiler ahead), when Morse died of a stroke in the quad of Exeter College, Oxford, I was taken aback.

Front Quad, Exeter College, Oxford

It was not the ending I had hoped for and I was left with some serious dislike for the last episode. However, at some point last year, I decided to give it another go and re-watched the last episode with less aversion. Needless to say, once I had decided to be more open-minded, I appreciated it a lot more and one scene, in particular, was lodged in my memory. As was his habit, Morse at one point gets tired and decides to drag his subordinate officer Lewis to a pub. In an eerie foreshadowing of his death in the show, Morse then recites A.E. Housman’s poem “The Remorseful Day” (also the title of the episode) overlooking a beautiful sunset. This brief two minute segment is, I think, one of the most meaningful and poignant scenes that I have ever watched. Its poignancy was only enhanced when I later learned that the actor John Thaw who played Morse in the show himself died of a stroke a few years after the last episode was shot.

Last summer, while doing research at the Bodleian in Oxford, I and some friends decided to punt down to Victoria’s Arms, the pub where the scene was filmed and pay our homage to Morse and Thaw. I was glad to see that a body named The Inspector Morse Society had decided to put a plaque inside the pub which read “This plaque commemorates filming that took place here for the Inspector Morse television series. Near this sport Inspector Morse recited ‘The Remorseful Day’ to Sergeant Lewis in the episode of that name.” It further noted that the plaque had been unveiled by Colin Dexter who created the character Morse and whose novels, as mentioned above, provided the screenplay for many episodes. For a Morse fan like me, it was a very heartening thing to see.

In any case, after I returned from England and settled back into my academic routine, I had forgotten all about Morse and Housman until the aforementioned chat with a friend reminded me of the poem. In the strangeness of March, it struck me that Housman with his crisp descriptions of natural beauty, and profound and elegiac reflections on the passage of time would make for the ideal distraction from the enjoyable but occasionally tedious preparation for my forthcoming oral exams. I got hold of a copy of Housman’s collected poems and was not disappointed.

In his lifetime, Housman was primarily known for his classical scholarship (despite having flunked out of Oxford, he somehow managed to continue independent research and was later appointed Professor of Latin at Cambridge). However, he also continued to write poetry on the side. Though he only published two major collections, his fame as a poet grew considerably in his lifetime and, particularly during and after the First World War, he became one of the most widely read poets in Britain. Housman wrote primarily on two themes: the beauty of the English countryside and the tragic deaths of millions of soldiers in the many wars that Britain participated in over the course of Housman’s lifetime. Though not exactly compatible, the two themes fit together well in Housman’s poetry which achingly speaks of idyllic landscapes left hauntingly desolate by those who never returned to them. Most of the poems make for difficult reading and, at times, it can be agonizing to be constantly reminded of the horrors of modern warfare. Yet, if Archbishop Laud spoke of the “beauty of holiness” (I am obliged to indulge the 17th century historian inside me in everything I write), Housman was perhaps the quintessential prophet of the “beauty of sadness.” In this month of changing seasons, I’ve found him to be the ideal companion.

I leave you with two very different excerpts from Housman’s poems, one from “The Remorseful Day,” and the other from the very dramatic and disturbing “Hell’s Gate.”

“The Remorseful Day”

How clear, how lovely bright,

How beautiful to sight

Those beams of morning play;

How heaven laughs out with glee

Where, like a bird set free,

Up from the eastern sea

Soars the delightful day

“Hell’s Gate”

And the hollowness of hell

Sounded as its master fell,

And the mourning echo rolled

Ruin through his kingdom old.

Tyranny and terror flown

Left a pair of friends alone,

And beneath the nether sky

All that stirred was he and I.



Leonardo Sciascia, The Council of Egypt (Il Consiglio d’Egitto), trans. Adrienne Foulke (London: Carcanet, 1988).

In my work, I increasingly find myself thinking about ways to determine what counts as evidence, and what theoretical difference exists between documents, data, and other forms of representation. With the work of philosophers such as Bruno Latour and Karen Barad, scholarly discussions in the past three decades have in fact called attention to the socio-cultural processes that make the distinction between these different categories possible. If one accepts that each category indicates different approaches for collecting, structuring, and using information, such a distinction becomes blurred, thus undermining crucial disciplinary boundaries and posing fundamental ethical questions. Not only is the separation between sciences and humanities questioned, but also the very possibility to create reliable accounts of events which were or are occurring in a given context.

Leonardo Sciascia, The Council of Egypt (Il Consiglio d’Egitto), trans. Adrienne Foulke (London: Carcanet, 1988).

With these questions in mind, I started reading Leonardo Sciascia’s Il Consiglio d’Egitto (The Council of Egypt), intrigued by the many definitions that critics coined for his work. Scholars have in fact used different labels, such as “historical fiction,” “detective fiction,” and “historical investigation”, in the attempt to capture the hybrid quality of his writing. Published in 1963, Il consiglio d’Egitto focuses on the late-18th century historical episode of the fraudulent translation of two Arabic codices by the Maltese Abbot, Giuseppe Vella, and on the vicissitudes of his contemporary, the Sicilian jurist, revolutionary, and writer, Francesco Paolo Di Blasi, who was executed by decapitation in Palermo in 1795. The Vella plotline is particularly interesting for anyone concerned with the possible relationship between history and fiction, particularly when considering the cultural processes which define not only such disciplinary distinction but also the parameters for the identification of documents and reliable data.

The novel creates in fact a puzzling mirroring structure in which the Abbot’s forgery of both documents and history casts shade on Sciascia’s attempt to retell the historical past as a writer. For me, and perhaps for historians, the most puzzling aspect of Il Consiglio d’Egitto does not lie in Sciascia’s manipulation of the historical genre, but in his decision to focus on verifiable historical characters and thus on the implications of his own writing in relation to both documented facts and non-historian readers. The novel espouses in fact not only the relevance of understanding what counts as reliable documents and what doesn’t, but also the responsibility of those who make such a decision while reconstructing probable chains of connections in the attempt to define what happened.

According to Sciascia the author, unlike the historian, is not constrained by the limits of what can be verified through documentation, but can instead base his reconstruction also on intuitive and human truths, and therefore literature “è la più assoluta forma che la verità possa assumere” (‘is the most absolute form that truth can assume’) (Ambroise II 834). Il consiglio d’Egitto effectively dramatizes the tension between historical and narrative writing in relation to the truth of the past in order to ask crucial ethical questions about storytelling. Although, many scholars have reacted to the dangers of a “constructivist” approach to history, it is also productive to engage with the questions that authors like Sciascia pose to historians. Sciascia’s work represents an ideal thinking lab for dealing with a text that questions the divide between history and fiction, not from a speculative point of view, but within the writing itself. I definitely need more time to decide whose perspective is more convincing.


JHIBlog Podcast: Disha Karnad Jani interviews Eli Cook

pricing of progressOur editor Disha Karnad Jani interviews Prof. Eli Cook, winner of the Journal of the History of Ideas‘s Morris D. Forkosch Prize for The Pricing of Progress: Economic Indicators and the Capitalization of American Life (Harvard University Press, 2017).

What We're Reading

February Reading Recommendations, Part 2

Mary Sarah Bilder, Madison’s Hand: Revising the Constitutional Convention (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015).


When James Madison died in 1836—last of the men present at the 1787 convention that wrote the U.S. Constitution—his Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 fell into the hands of Dolley Madison, his wife, to be published under her “authority and direction”–with Madison’s “entire confidence in her discreet and proper use of them.” (235). Congress soon purchased them, along with his other papers, for $30,000, and published them in several volumes. In her fascinating, very close reading of Madison’s writing and re-writings of his Notes in Madison’s Hand: Revising the Constitutional Convention (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015), Mary Bilder doesn’t linger on this concluding moment in the documents’ transit from early national Philadelphia to antebellum D.C. The bulk of the monograph is a study of how Madison’s Notes were forged in the older British genre of parliamentary diary–for his own rather than public use–before passing through the changing prism of how he came to understand the Convention and Constitution over the following decade. Bilder summarizes: “Madison understood his revisions as repeated efforts to create a record—his record—of what he saw as significant in the Convention. Yet each revision increased the distance between Madison’s Notes and the actual Convention” (4). The book is a meaningful source for readers wishing to retrace the debates and stakes at the convention on the ground, rather than an aerial or presentist perspective. For historians and other professionals, it offers a very welcome reminder and examination of the complex and shifting context in which one of Americans’ most important sources actually emerged.

Within this story of revision, transmission, and publication that Bilder unveils, I think it worth observing that as James was the last first-hand participant in the Convention to die, Dolley was the last spouse of these participants to receive the bequest of their personal papers. She thus figures among the numerous wives and daughters of American founders who found in their hands masses of documents accumulated by the leading figures of the Revolutionary generation. This occurrence was frequent in the antebellum. As historical societies emerged, collectors of manuscripts roved the country, and families hoped to curate the reputation of their Revolutionary ancestor, these women found themselves at the important juncture between private papers and public records. Some, as Dolley, collaborated to edit and then pass them through government sponsorship. Others edited and published such papers themselves. Others selectively released and withheld them. It’s one of the many, important spaces in the early U.S. where women writers of history could leave their imprint on historiography and historical consciousness in this period, a question best explored in the work of Nina Baym, about which there remains much to say.


In lectures and in seminars we’ve gotten used to asking history students to think about their research as an effort toward answering some question, which takes quite an effort to articulate in the first place. In a recent essay on historians’ engagement with public audiences, the political theorist Corey Robin insists that it is precisely in their capacity to pose such original questions that historians can contribute to public discourse. They ought to aim “not to provide different answers to the same questions but to raise the questions that aren’t being asked.” When we write the history of ideas, we don’t just frame our own questions, we also write about thinkers as if they’re posing and answering their own. The philosopher Hans Blumenberg thought that it was questions, rather than the ideas that answer them, that continually persist through time to make intellectual history possible. There’s no getting away from questions when we think about the history of ideas, and in her recent book the historian Holly Case turns to intellectual history to help us understand why that might be.

In The Age of Questions (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018), Case traverses the “extremely long nineteenth century” to account for why so many journalists, philosophers and politicians in Europe came to embrace the question-form as the appropriate framework for seemingly every debate. In this century appeared the Jewish Question, the Polish Question, Social Question all to the much lesser known Dentist Question (you’ll have to read the book to find out what that was all about!). The sweep of Case’s account is impressively panoramic, and that panorama reinforces her argument that the popularity of the question-form cannot be explained by the resonance of one nineteenth-century debate alone, whether over nationality, emancipation or war. She shows how across these arguments the question-form encompassed conflicting and contradictory answers, but in all cases it allowed thinkers to imagine the possibility of reconciling their ideals, of equality or freedom or peace, with stubborn reality. In this way, Case suggests that the prevalence of questions marks a deep shift in the way people thought about the relationship between ideas and society, through history and projected in the future, over the course of the nineteenth century. It is a bracing account that offers a model and encouraging example for histories that trace epistemological assumptions and conventions that have become so pervasive that it’s hard to imagine a history behind them. It should lead historians, and particularly intellectual historians, to wonder how much our own thinking about ideas and society in the past and future remain within the bounds of the age of questions.


Amongst early modernists, the “seventeenth-century crisis” is now a widely accepted formulation for describing various developments in 17th-century Europe under a single framework. In Hugh Trevor-Roper’s original summation, it denoted the general breakdown of social and political order all across Europe that led to the Thirty Years War, the British Civil Wars, the Fronde and various other contests for social, religious and political power. However, while most historians agree with the essence of the formulation, there is little consensus on what caused this general collapse of order. For instance, while several historians, Jonathan Scott for example, like to think of the British civil wars as another chapter in the wider saga of the Thirty Years War, other historians continue to insist on the uniqueness of the British conflicts.

In their scale and complexity, the European wars of the 17th century are simply baffling. However, in his Global Crisis: War, Climate Change and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014), Geoffrey Parker, noted historian of early modern Spain, has found a way of reinvigorating the “seventeenth-century crisis” framework and breathed new life into it. The result is an astonishingly ambitious book that ranges from England to Tokugawa Japan and covers most, if not all, parts of the globe. The book is remarkable for its wide research and the sheer audacity with which it tries to take on the task of the explaining the “seventeenth-century crisis.”

Inspired by recent research in environmental history and other fields, Parker makes a simple but bold claim. In his view, it was the Little Ice Age, the global cooling of temperatures that occurred roughly across the span of the seventeenth-century, that was at the heart of the multiple crises that troubled states and empires across the world. It led to failed harvests, severe droughts and a host of ecological problems that, when combined with simmering social, political, and religious tensions, boiled over leading to turmoil across the globe. Parker is no environmental determinist and his arguments are far more nuanced that they initially appear to be. While insisting on the essential threads uniting the various crises, he goes to great lengths to pay attention to the uniqueness of each episode. For example, he delves deep into Tokugawa history to explain how Japan was one of those places which “got it right” and didn’t suffer as much as the rest of the world over the course of the 17th century.  

Needless to say, the book has a number of problems. For one, as Parker acknowledges, it is too long. There is too much on the specifics of each case that doesn’t quite add up to the final arguments. Similarly, as Ken Pomeranz has argued, Parker gets some things about Japan and China wrong in his analysis. While these errors may be enough to demolish any ordinary historical argument, they are nothing but minor issues in the face of the comprehensiveness of Parker’s work. Global Crisis is truly global history on the grandest scale, a rewarding read for historians in virtually every subfield.


Morgan Parker

I am indebted to the brilliant Professor Brittney Cooper (Rutgers) for many things—inspiration, some extraordinary perspectives on time, space, gender, and race, two of the best academic talks I’ve ever seen—but looming large among them is surely introducing me to the work of Morgan Parker. For two weeks now I have been unable to get Parker’s incandescent, breathtakingly incisive verses out of my head, by turns lyrical and brutal, speaking to the darkness of contemporary America and speaking with a voice totally itself. Because, as Alan Bennett reminds us, “with a poem or any work of art we can never say ‘in other words’. If it is a work of art there are no other words,” I give you the first five stanzas of Parker’s gorgeous “The Book of Exodus“:

In this busted sailboat of a body,
I have never feared hovering sea fog.

I never stopped wandering in and out
of mouths, waving future in the air.

I am all the plagues at once: anxiety,
wine teeth, bad credit, general malaise.

Sometimes at a party I escape
to watch my lipstick fade in the bathroom mirror.

I rub my tongue until it bleeds. I become
a snake. I make you uncomfortable.

It becomes addicting
after a while. I get a taste for it.

Here I am presented in two parts:
a burning omen, a montage of flight.

I’m thinking glossy dream of highway, flowered
scarf trailing the dusty road of tribulation.

I’m thinking of taking a year off in Bali,
or whatever white folks are doing these days.

Going on a cleanse. Taking strange words fearlessly
into my pink mouth. Consider this my retirement.


JHIBlog Podcast: Disha Karnad Jani Interviews Jennifer Pitts

Our contributing editor Disha Karnad Jani introduces her interview with Prof. Jennifer Pitts (University of Chicago), focusing on her recent book Boundaries of the International: Law and Empire (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2018):

What We're Reading

February Reading Recommendations, Part 1


This month I’ve been re-reading Continental Divide: Heidegger, Cassirer, Davos, Peter E. Gordon’s brilliant intellectual-historical overview of the famous Cassirer- Heidegger disputation at the International Davos Conference in 1929. While writing my PhD thesis, I drew heavily on the book to educate me about the wider context of European intellectual life in the early twentieth century leading up to the disputation. By the time I started my PhD, I had read a considerable amount of Heidegger, but I had admittedly very little knowledge of the context out of which his thought emerged. Gordon’s book was a rigorous and balanced antidote. What emerged was Heidegger the human being, flaws and all, putting forward provocative ideas in the already fragmented intellectual and political climate of Weimar Germany.

This time around, beyond the depth of historical research and the clarity and precision with which Gordon deals with his subject matter, I’ve been struck by the nuance with which he treats Cassirer’s position. Not so long ago, I had viewed Cassirer’s position on the objectivity of symbolic forms and how these related to a normative definition of a human being, as a failed project. However, Gordon’s nuanced treatment of why Cassirer arrived at his position allows one to reassess key questions that have been abandoned or reshaped in the wake of the popularity of Heidegger’s philosophy. Gordon allows us to ask, are we happy with the answers that have been put forward? It is certainly clear while reading the book that Gordon has a deep understanding of Heidegger and a respect for his philosophy. But what is also clear is that despite the fact that the Davos disputation has gained almost mythical status as a recreation of the European philosophical world in Heidegger’s image, Heidegger did not necessarily always meet Cassirer’s questions  on their own terms.

Shortly after the books release, some reviews were critical of Gordon’s treatment of Cassirer’s position, including Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. However let us not forget that later philosophers, including Jürgen Habermas, have suggested that Cassirer was far more in tune to Heidegger’s position than Heidegger himself realised. What emerges then, from my re-reading of Continental Divide, is not a fully fledged conversion to Cassirer’s position. Rather, Gordon gives the reader the tools to reassess the questions posed and the suitability of the answers given in this key moment in Western philosophical history.



I used to tell my students that, before everything was on the internet, art history students at Berkeley prepared for exams by studying reproductions on paper.

They would prepare by descending into the basement of Moffitt Library, where photographic reproductions of various artworks–usually rendered in black and white, and not always with great clarity–had been pinned to bulletin boards, along with identifying captions. There, in the bowels of the library, with the flickering fluorescent lights and the strange musty basement smells, you were supposed to commit everything to memory. It was not a particularly relaxing situation. The room was crowded, especially in the final days before the exam. The library had limited hours. To save money, the reproductions were all uniform in size — 8.5 x 11 inches — and it was often impossible to see them well, unless one pushed to the front of the group. You might only see an image once, and never again — since it wasn’t illustrated in the textbook and there was no way of tracking the work down again.

Inevitably, a student would interrupt my self-pitying reverie to ask, But what did they do before photography?

Well. The short answer: They were very, very sad.

The longer answer: They looked at engravings, or sometimes at copies made after important works.

The not-so-pleasant answer: In the days before cheap (and ubiquitous) photographic reproduction, art history was an expensive proposition.

In many ways, art history is still an expensive proposition. One way or another, you have to eventually get yourself in front of the actual object. Photographs–or their flickering, digital emanations–are no substitute.

Digital images are no substitute for the real thing, but they are useful tools, and they open up access. Imagine the resources required to actually see an artist’s entire oeuvre, even one belonging to an artist like Vermeer, whose corpus is extremely small.

Now, anyone with an internet connection can view Vermeer’s entire oeuvre. Through the Closer to Van Eyck website, they can study Jan Van Eyck’s Ghent altarpiece or examine the entire van Eyck corpus. I mention early modern European artists only because they relate to my own field of expertise, and it is impossible for one person to know everything. For something that’s neither early modern nor European: visit the Souls Grown Deep Foundation site to explore “the contributions of artists from the African American South, and the cultural traditions in which they are rooted.”  Museums are starting to put entire collections online, often offering open access to the digital images themselves.

The internet offers a marvelous–and somewhat overwhelming–profusion of information. It also opens the doors to so much more: more scholarship, more creativity, more drawing and writing and thinking.


Over the last month I have been doing a lot of reading on flooding. While I came across several works that deal with flood from a theoretical point of view and that try to define what flood means, particularly in terms of the separation it implies between dry land and bodies of water, this month I would like to recommend Gregory Aldrete’s Floods of the Tiber in Ancient Rome. Published in 2007 by The Johns Hopkins University Press, this work in fact approaches the topic from a historical perspective and investigates flooding in the ancient city of Rome, thus revealing how “from the earliest stages of Roman urban history, efforts to build an artificial environment were constrained by the challenges of dealing with unwanted water” (9).

Rather than focusing on developing a conceptual understanding of flooding which could be applied to different contexts, Gregory Aldrete, who is professor of history and humanistic studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, identifies as ‘floods’ those specific situations that were recorded as such in sources of the time. Thus, references in historical and literary texts by Roman authors are used to draw a road map of occurrences that Romans themselves viewed as instances of flooding. This set of information surveyed and analyzed in the first chapter is compared with data from other fields, particularly architecture, archeology, and hydrology, in order to determine when floods occurred (Chapter 1), why they occurred (Chapter 2), what effects they caused (Chapters 3 and 4), and how the local community reacted to such events (Chapters 5 and 6).

Although it might be objected that by intersecting ancient records with contemporary data, this book traces just the occurrence of those events that would be considered as floods according to both ancient and modern standards, this interdisciplinary method is effective in allowing the author to produce a fascinating history of flooding in the city of Rome under the reign of the first emperor Augustus. Moreover, the chapters include a  number of topographic maps which visually render conclusions drawn from the analyzed data. Thanks to the methodological innovations and the incredible amount of information it includes, this book is an invaluable resource for anyone interested in addressing the question of the relation between humans and water. In fact, while most literature on the Roman culture of water tends to celebrate their technological power and thus their achievements in hydraulic engineering, Aldrete’s research creates a more complex picture and leads him to conclude that “while the Romans had both the technology and the resources to safeguard the city against flooding, they chose not to do so” (231). Certainly, such conclusion has incredible relevance for historical investigations addressing water cultures and water management. However, it also raises a crucial question on the role of technology in the human effort to engineer their surroundings. History seems to suggest in fact that the answer to flooding might come from setting limits to such an effort rather than from pursuing an ideal status of stabilized environmental conditions.


I’ve been reading Circe, by Madeline Miller, a charming story of the Greek Witch made famous by turning Odysseus’ shipmates (temporarily) into pigs. (She’s also the aunt of Medea and the Minotaur–a storied side-character.) Circe is a self-consciously modern retelling, with this once-marginal, mysterious woman given a full first-person treatment. Circe grows from immaturity, survives sexual harassment, does good and bad things, and becomes a successful single mother after battling postpartum depression. The pace is brisk, the writing decent, and the events full of drama and interest. But there’s something unsatisfying about the book. And I think it’s the Gods.

The Gods in Circe are honestly disappointing. More Marvel superhero than deity. Sure, Circe’s dad Helios can light people on fire with a furrowed brow, but in personality he is just another scheming C-suite executive, waiting for the opportunity to stage some tawdry boardroom coup against CEO Zeus. The depiction of the Titans’ boozy drinking halls is more like a bad departmental party than a divine realm. The skeezy Titans feel up the scheming nymphs, everyone except for the very top of the powerful men only pretending to have fun. The characters are familiar, the types easily identifiable, and the motivations of everyone decidedly clear.

But do we want to understand our gods? Maybe not. I’m no expert in the Classics—but for me, part of the pleasure about reading myths is that the Gods’ clear personalities occlude the motivation for their powerful actions. The Gods are fire, thunder, healing, death—they don’t dissemble, because what they are does not change, and cannot be disguised. (Unless we’re talking about some kind of trickster god, but then in those cases dissembling is very on-brand.) When the Gods are angry, they are very angry. And when they are good, they are very good. But they are Gods because we don’t know why they are angry or good at any given moment.

I can’t help comparing the depiction of the Gods in Circe with another modern-day portrayal of Greek myth: the Wire. David Simon, the Wire’s showrunner, has explained that the show is self-consciously modeled on Greek tragedy, only with the irresistible power of the Gods replaced by the irresistible power of the institutions of the modern city. “It’s Baltimore, gentlemen. The Gods will not save you,” Deputy Commissioner Burrell says to a doomed hero. It will not be the Gods who actually dole out the Doom, of course, but the System—the invisible rules that all the players in the game need to follow. The System turns the understandable and often good-willed actions of individuals into the inscrutable tragic outcomes of the crooked world. Individuals may try to make their will on the world—they may try to disobey the Gods—but they usually fail.  In the gap between the mystery of how the System works and the immanence of the System’s power there’s a very real and familiar terror. Without that gap, Circe’s gods are just like us—mortals dressed only in the clothing of the Gods, but without their terrifying power.


As my enthusiastic weekend tweets on the subject probably indicate, I’ve just finished Stefanos Geroulanos and Todd Meyers’ new book The Human Body in the Age of Catastrophe: Brittleness, Integration, Science and the Great WarIt is a history of the emergence of thinking about homeostasis and the fragile nature of the human body during the human catastrophe of the First World War. Drawing together the work of thinkers from from the psychologist W. H. R. Rivers, the neurologist Kurt Goldstein and physiologist Walter Cannon through to the founding father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, and anthropologists Marcel Mauss and Claude Lévi-Strauss, Geroulanos and Meyers have written a groundbreaking example of the possibilities of intellectual history which combines penetrating critical analysis with compelling prose. In my own writing, I spend a lot of time thinking about the relationship between structure and ideas and I was really drawn by the way that Geroulanos and Meyers build their arguments as the book unfolds throughout its three sections. The first part examines the way in which ‘[b]attle provided a ready-made experimental situation in which research and physiological experimentation came under the heading of care, therapy, and rehabilitation.’ (37) In the second, the reader is carefully guided through the multiple approaches to the concept of integration by neurological, psychiatric and ethnographic researchers. Here integration refers to three things: ‘the integration of the nervous system’; ‘the integration understood, both a contrario and experientially, as the instance of health right before and after the collapse caused or precipitated by brain injury’; and the ‘concept of integration and disintegration that took over after a traumatic even.’ (113). These first two sections are carefully framed in terms of the relationship between physiological conceptions of bodily disintegration and psychoanalytical analyses of shell shock. In this way, Geroulanos and Meyers pave the way for the tour de force of the third and final section which persuasively traces the legacies of this thinking about bodily integrity for myriad thinkers and disciplines concerned with concepts as far ranging as psychiatry and psychoanalysis, cybernetics, taboos and magic, as well as international politics and anthropology.

I’ve also been reading the sociologist Jean Beaman’s, Citizen Outsider: Children of North African Immigrants in France which came out with the University of California Press in 2017. It is a fascinating inquiry into the tension between French Republican values and the reality of the lived experience of minority groups within French citizenry. Beaman focuses her study on those children of maghrebin immigrants who have, for all intents and purposes, successfully ‘become French.’ All of her subjects are middle-class professionals with university education. They are all men and women who identify as French and are yet not quite fully included by virtue of their ‘minority’ identity. Despite being a contemporary study, the issues Beaman identifies resonate closely with the conversations about Republican belonging and exclusion that my own research maps out in Third and Fourth Republic France. Plus ça change!

My final recommendation for this month is Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky With Exit Wounds. I am far behind the curve ball with this one, as it came out in 2016 and has received a slew of prizes since, but it is honestly one of the most beautiful collections of poetry I’ve read in the last few years.

Intellectual history

Unlearning Eugenics in Post-Nazi Europe

By guest contributor Jonathon Catlin

The New York Consortium for Intellectual History recently hosted Dagmar Herzog (CUNY) for a discussion of her new book, Unlearning Eugenics: Sexuality, Reproduction, and Disability in Post-Nazi Europe (Wisconsin, 2018). Three scholars offered responses: Danilyn Rutherford (Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research), Johanna Schoen (Rutgers), and Moira Weigel (Harvard), all introduced by Stefanos Geroulanos (NYU). A recording of the event provided by the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s George Mosse Program appears at the end of this article. Herzog’s recent discussion on New Books Network is linked here.

Dagmar Herzog’s provocative new book is based on the George L. Mosse Lectures she delivered at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in December 2016. In the acknowledgements, Herzog makes a fitting homage to Mosse’s pioneering work on European cultural history and the history of sexuality. Yet Herzog breaks new ground by illuminating the under-studied—but, as she shows, decisive—subject of disability rights. Unlearning Eugenics is a politically shrewd and empathetically attuned culmination of the distinctive critical approach combining attention to sexuality, religion, and the politics of memory we have come to recognize in Herzog’s work since her landmark Sex after Fascism: Memory and Morality in Twentieth-Century Germany (Princeton, 2005). It also proves as essential as her Doktormutter Joan W. Scott’s recent intervention Sex and Secularism (Princeton, 2017) for understanding the complex nexus of religion and sexuality in contemporary Europe.

Unlearning Eugenics tells the surprising story of how two progressive and traditionally allied causes, women’s reproductive rights and disability rights, have become pitted against one another. Since the 1990s, anti-abortion activists across Europe (and now in the U.S. as well) have successfully promoted “restrictions on sexual and reproductive self-determination as justice for the physically and cognitively disabled” (3). Taboos about Nazi eugenics have become a key weapon in the arsenal of the religious right’s campaign to restrict abortion access by conflating abortion on the grounds of fetal anomaly with Nazi eugenics and mass murders of the disabled. Herzog provides a convincing genealogy of this this false association (after all, the Nazis restricted and penalized abortions), with each turn of her narrative unraveling this dubious connection stitch by stitch. In the process, she illustrates the “contrapuntal relationship between different moments in time” and profound “ricochets and repercussions” of the Nazi past in contemporary Europe (10).

Antiabortion demonstrators in Warsaw, June 2011, with banners of bloody fetuses and Adolf Hitler as an abortionist. In the foreground, a feminist counter-demonstrator raises a poster declaring, “Life for fetuses / Death to women,”  feminist activists’ summation of the new law proposed in Poland that would have banned all abortions without exception.

The epicenter of these debates was postwar West Germany, where among Protestants and Catholics alike “early pride in having protested the so-called euthanasia murders was generally combined with the message that sexual conservatism needed to be restored and that above all abortion—on any grounds—must remain criminalized” (4). From Germany, to Italy, to France, völkisch anxiety about falling birthrates carried over from the fascist era and in some respects even intensified. Meanwhile, other religious groups defended reproductive self-determination as a moral right in itself, arguing that “‘wantedness’ is a foundational condition of the human quality of human life and that this condition cannot be forced via the threat of punishment” (27). On both sides of the debate, arguments about abortion were haunted by “the persistence of contempt for the disabled” and an inability “to argue straightforwardly for women’s rights to sexual pleasure without reproductive consequences. Abortion quite evidently was never just about itself” (16).

In the 1960s, thousands of highly publicized cases of birth defects caused by the morning sickness pill thalidomide helped legalize abortion in the UK, the first country in Western Europe outside of Scandinavia to fully decriminalize abortion in 1967; they made the “eugenic indication” for fetal health included in the law “appear to be imperative and self-evidently moral” (29). Yet such campaigns shot themselves in the foot with their often “disdainful, unempathetic tone, treating disability as a tragedy for families and a burden for societies” (9). Decades later, fetal anomaly went from being a widely accepted ground for abortion to being “a new entry point for regenerating a sense of moral conflictedness about abortion in general.” By the 2000s, “it was becoming unmistakable that unreflected insensitivities inherent in the prochoice rhetoric of the 1960s–1970s had come to haunt the abortion politics of the twenty-first century.”

The 1989 “Singer Affair” explored in Herzog’s second chapter was a high point of these debates. German disability rights advocates invited the Australian philosopher and animal rights activist Peter Singer to discuss his defense of infanticide for severely disabled infants on the grounds of preventing unnecessary suffering. The tremendous backlash that ensued ended in all but one of Singer’s appearances in Germany being canceled due to protestors—ranging from religious groups to an AIDS victims’ organization—who invoked the lessons of Nazi eugenics. Singer’s host retorted that “it was the critics’ refusal to let Singer speak that was best compared to the Nazis’ ‘burning of books.’” (Singer’s parents were Jewish refugees from Vienna and three of his grandparents were murdered in the Shoah.) For some, the Singer affair revealed “the immaturity of moral reasoning abilities in West German society in comparison with the rest of the West, a lamentable and inappropriate oversensitivity that led to ‘thought and discussion taboo[s],’ an incapacity to confront the genuine and inescapable challenges brought by technological advances and crises of extremity of suffering at either end of life” (49).

While the backlash was excessive, Singer courted it with his inflammatory conclusions. His radical utilitarianism led him to insist that pre-intelligent infants and severely cognitively disabled adults were not “persons,” while intelligent non-human animals were; hence “the life of a newborn baby is of less value than the life of a pig, dog, or a chimpanzee” (59). Singer had in fact used growing moral acceptance of abortion fought for by feminists as a “springboard” for his defense of ethical cases of infanticide; but by his then “actively blurring the boundary between abortion and infanticide,” Herzog writes, “feminists would lose the ability to retain the—morally crucial—distinction between an abortion on grounds of anticipated disability and an infanticide.”

Memorial for the Victims of National Socialist Euthanasia Killings (2014), Berlin, designed by Ursula Wilms, Heinz Hallmann, and Nikolaus Koliusis. Image courtesy of DPA.

Throughout the book, Herzog applauds the struggles of radical disability rights activists to have Nazi eugenics, euthanasia, and forced sterilization recognized as “racial” policies, which would grant their victims recognition as part of the Holocaust and make them eligible for reparations.

In this ongoing struggle, many disability rights activists rejected being “instrumentalized” by anti-abortion groups, who they accused of indifference toward the “‘social euthanasia’ stigmatizing disabled adults” (p. 60). Gisel Hermes, an activist in the German “radical cripple” movement, denounced the way “we are so apparently being used as show-pieces for an action that trivializes the fascist crimes against the disabled” and the fact that “for the opponents of abortion, only the unborn, and not the born life, appears worthy of protection” (p. 61). Herzog is quick to note the hypocrisy here: many on the right calling for abortion restrictions in the name of disability rights also advocate austerity that undermines social programs enabling differently abled adults to live flourishing lives. Thus it is not easy to determine where disability rights are “sincere” or have been “instrumentalized” (p. 34). In both cases, Herzog criticizes “romanticized” depictions of disability, noting that many activists with firsthand experience of the burdens disabilities may carry advocate a woman’s right to make an informed choice about abortion, taking into account her circumstances and resources. Against paternalistic moral dogmatism, Herzog emphasizes that disability is not only a matter of conception and birth; it has lifelong consequences for differently abled people, their network of family and caregivers, and the welfare states that support them. Eschewing simplistic solutions, Herzog calls for information, understanding, and empathy amidst the anguishing personal decisions many women are faced with in the course of pregnancies.


Cartoon by John Francis Borra for the American Christian anti-abortion group Operation Rescue (2007)

Unlearning Eugenics also delves into the “post-secularism” debate by illustrating “the growing success of an energetically politicized postmodern religiosity in advancing its agendas in secular moral language” (6). Religious political parties played a strong role in postwar West Germany, where, “to legalize abortion… opponents of abortion had contended in the 1970s, would be ‘the most disturbing attack on the moral foundations of our society since 1945’ and ‘the largest Auschwitz in European history’” (28). In France, the republican doctrine of laïcité (secularism) compelled analogous movements to frame their moral crusade in secular terms, and so oftentimes “reference to the horrors of Nazism fulfilled the moral function” (29). Yet Herzog argues that such cases are not so much indications of secularism as of “postmodern” “religious renewal” (17).

Herzog’s final chapter explores how activists turned to strains of psychoanalysis and French poststructuralist theory that reconceptualized agency for differently abled lives. For example, the notions of “supported decision-making” and “assisted freedom” may support the right of disabled individuals to vote (85). Similarly, “the locus of… personhood is dispersed” when individuals may require assistance to realize their human right to sexual pleasure (78). For Herzog, disabilities challenge “long-cherished Enlightenment ideals of individual autonomy—even as the Enlightenment heritage remains indispensable for advancing the cause of disability rights in numerous realms” (11). After all, the point of disability “coordination… is preciselyso that the disabled individual is ‘able to flourish as an individual’” (78–79). This aim fit well with the “schizoanalysis” of the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze and psychoanalyst Félix Guattari, coauthors of the 1972 classic Anti-Oedipus, which emphasized the “rhizomatic” interconnectivity of human lives, as well as with the “intimate and vulnerable” style of psychoanalysis pioneered by Sigmund Freud’s longtime associate Sándor Ferenczi (13). The forms of utopian communal disability care Herzog commends in her conclusion emphasize the particularity of disabled experience in order to challenge normative assumptions of “ordinary” life as well—opening up what Eve Sedgwick called a dialectic of “minoritizing” and “universalizing” views of difference.


In her response, Moira Weigel situated Unlearning Eugenics amidst wider crises of care and social reproduction seen around the world today, in which the temptation to find a “usable past” for one’s cause—enabled by social media—can be a dangerous one. Ultimately, the “moral and strategic failings” of past movements for reproductive rights “raise the question in the present of whether it is not a mistake not to be more ambitious in our feminist and emancipatory politics to make claims from the basis of female autonomy and even a right to pleasure on its own terms as an end in itself, not something that needs to be rationalized in relation to other moral ends.”

Johanna Schoen aptly condensed another key lesson from Herzog’s book: “moral reasoning” surrounding reproductive choices like abortion “shifts as our positionality changes.” An unfortunate effect of taboos about the Nazi past in her native Germany, she reflected, is that it has “limited not only reproductive choices, but also conversations about these choices.” Indeed, “From an American feminist perspective, Germans’ inability to concede full reproductive decision-making authority speaks to the very erasure of women as moral agents.”

Danilyn Rutherford’s response centered on a question illuminated by the different dependencies of pregnancy and disability: “To whom do we make ourselves vulnerable?” “In a world where there is more support for those who care for the disabled,” she said, “prospective parents facing a prenatal diagnosis might make different kinds of decisions. Without contempt for disability, people’s dreams and nightmares might change.” As Weigel similarly asked: “How would the world have to change to create the conditions under which a person could desire a disabled child differently?” What work might be done “to collectively, politically, desire better, to build a better desire?”

Herzog concludes that until now it has been “apparently quite hard to unlearn eugenic thinking” (32). At the same time, as Weigel remarked, the process of unlearning Herzog’s book initiates means working through the past in a way that opens up understanding and dialogue rather than retreating into the safety of taboos: “To unlearn means first engaging… To unlearn we must first do the work of having known.” In this sense, unlearning is the opposite of forgetting.

Jonathon Catlin is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of History at Princeton University. His dissertation in progress is a conceptual history of “catastrophe” in modern European thought, focusing on German-Jewish intellectuals including the Frankfurt School of critical theory.