Book reviews

“To Intervene yet again”: Theory Revolt, Live!

By contributing writer Jonathon Catlin

In May historians Ethan Kleinberg, Joan Wallach Scott, and Gary Wilder, together known as the Wild On Collective, released “Theses on Theory and History,” a widely-discussed manifesto on historical methodology. On October 8, this “cabal of rebels” made their first public appearance at the New School for Social Research, introduced by historian Oz Frankel. (Ethan Kleinberg could not attend.) A recording of the event is available below.

The “Theses on Theory and History,”  emerged, Scott reflected, out of the authors’ shared “impatience with the persistent refusal of disciplinary history to engage with long-standing critiques of its practice: critiques of its realist epistemology and empiricist methodology, its archival fetishism, its insistence on the primacy of chronological narrative, and its maintenance of reified boundaries between present and past. How had it happened, we wondered, that the critiques which had nourished our own thinking had somehow failed to transform disciplinary norms in significant ways? Why the recurrent need for critique generation after generation?”

Scott began by addressing the most obvious criticism of the manifesto: “Didn’t you do this already in the 1980s? Haven’t you fought that battle?” “Yes,” Scott answers, “we did fight that battle, but somehow we failed to transform the disciplinary norms in significant ways. What we’re witnessing is a reaction against exactly the kinds of theoretical incursions, rethinking, the epistemological transformations, that we’d hoped to be putting in place, securing. We don’t believe in linear, progressive history, but I think we hoped that somehow those battles would have established a stronghold forever. I’m constantly amazed at the extent to which I think in terms of progress, even as I am a critic of [progress] narratives.”

Of course, she notes, critiques of history and historicism were not invented in the 1980s: Theory Revolt’s roots go back to the 19th century, to Nietzsche, Simmel, and Croce; to the interwar period, to Heidegger, Bloch, Du Bois, and C.L.R. James. “It’s not as if the discipline has not had its critics time and time again,” Scott reflects, “and yet that critique never came to hold.” Hence, she explained, “What we wanted to do was figure out how we could again address the questions, the ways in which theory has become ghettoized in the domain of intellectual history, how documentary and synoptic accounts were replacing the kinds of epistemological transformations the three of us had all undergone somewhere along the way in our formation.”

The manifesto emerged as the right genre for this intervention. Kleinberg in particular was keen on nailing copies of the theses to the door of every history department in the country in the fashion of Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses. These Theses themselves are clearly inspired, Scott said, by manifestos from Marx, Benjamin, and Horkheimer and Adorno. Making the theses open access—at Kleinberg’s insistence—resulted in a swift and eager reception around the world, including translation into many languages. “We hit a nerve that people in many parts of the world responded to.”

Scott spoke highly of a forum of critical responses to the Theses the authors commissioned at History of the Present, where she is an editor. Andrew Zimmerman, notably, “reminds us of the need to decolonize theory” to include figures like Fanon and his encounters with Africa, and Foucault’s unacknowledged debts to the Black Panther Party in his work on prisons; in Scott’s words, “theory is bigger than the suggestions we make about what theory could be.”

“Let’s break some windows” was the attitude that brought Wilder to Theory Revolt. He critiqued the “insidious ways” that “superficial but shallow and domesticated embrace of theory” has preempted real theoretical engagement. Their target, he said, is not historians of old who think theory is “nonsense,” but rather those who say, “we already do that!” and “we read your book twenty years ago and it’s on the syllabus!” Scott added to the chorus, “it’s in my footnotes!” Theory Revolt opposes this “domestication of theory by history” and also “the ghettoization of theory in intellectual history.” The issue is not that nobody out there is doing critical history; it’s that the structures of the discipline—journals, hiring, tenure—still make doing it difficult.

The aim of the Theses, Wilder said, “is not a call for historians to write about theorists or somehow apply theory to their work.” It’s not a call to “do theory,” whatever that might mean, but rather to practice “self-reflexive critical history.” For Wilder this means “conceptualizing our material: treating as real those processes, relations, structures, that might not be… objectively verifiable. It means asking questions whose answers can never be definitively found in an archival box. It’s not a call to not do archival history; but it’s calling out this idea that any question worth answering could be answered by a document in a box somewhere.” This amounts to a plea against “conventional history,” conceived, in Dominick LaCapra’s classic formulation, as “the translation of archives into narratives.” As he glossed the manifesto, this entails “being self-reflexive about the histories, limitations, and risks of one’s own categories and frameworks. It means taking responsibility for one’s own implication in the object of study—psychic, social, political, ethical. It means the need to address ways in which the past is implicated in the present, and vice versa. And critical history means being clear about the political stakes of the work, addressing the relevance for our political present. It doesn’t necessarily mean that every work of history has to be instrumental in some immediate way, but it means that if that question isn’t being asked then we’re in scholasticism or antiquarianism and we’re not speaking to the world.” A central aim of theory is to help the historian become conscious of, if not ever fully overcome, the liberal assumptions about self and agency they bring into the archive to begin with.

“The whole point,” he said, “is to challenge the reified distinction between history and theory. If you do history, it’s got to be theorized critical history; if you’re a critical theorist, you have to be doing history, because otherwise you’re also reproducing an ideological conception of the world if you’re not relating your concepts to social arrangements and social formations.” He readily admitted that there will always be traditional empirical historians, but its more modest intervention of Theory Revolt would be to say “not that every historian should be this kind of critical theorist, but at the very least, the field has to stop pronouncing on what is and is not history.” His preoccupation in his own work, he concluded, is “to break the fantasy that professional historians somehow have a monopoly on how to think about the past.” “Just as we should never concede politics to the politicians, or ethics to the ethicists, or even philosophy to professional philosophers, there’s absolutely no reason that professional historians should own history.” As Foucault once flippantly declared, “I’m not a professional historian—but nobody’s perfect.”

New School historian Jeremy Varon, a student of Dominick LaCapra, asked why the authors bothered to try “to rattle the cages of hegemonic discourse” within the discipline instead of creating to their own critical spaces, which as Scott agreed, the authors already do.

The most most interesting exchange was between the speakers and Ann Stoler, a historian and anthropologist who is also a leading postcolonial interpreter of Foucault. Stoler argued that using the word “theory” in the title of the manifesto and movement creates a black box around what the revolters are really advocating. Instead, she argued, they were ultimately after “a politics of knowledge” and reclaiming history as a political space. History, she said, must be answerable to the classic question of David Scott, “Are these questions worth having answers to?” “I don’t think we need the word theory any more,” she said, claiming what is meant by the word theory itself “isn’t even problematized half the time.” “Theory with a capital T,” Stoler said, has become “a black box.” “We are doing a disfavor to our graduate students by constantly talking about theory and history, theory and practice. It paralyzes them.”

In place of Theory, Stoler proposed “concept work” and “conceptual labor.” Changing this language, Oz Frankel suggested, would also help the authors get away from the same old “usual suspects” of Marxism, deconstruction, etc.—of giving the impression “that theory is history’s other” and that “we always have to cross some boundary” to reach it. Wilder thought it was interesting that they were read as “reifying theory” with its own “guild mentality” when he in particular has little patience for poststructuralism and is much more of a “live” ethnographic theorist in a Marxist framework—akin to what Stoler does with Foucault. As Wilder defined it, “Theory is a practice of triangulating your material, your concepts or categories, and the world” and, conversely, “every descriptive act already prefigures an whole theory of society.” Their opposition to “empiricism” is not a critique of doing archival work, but rather an attempt to dethrone the particular historical ideology “that the observable is the real.”

A pass through the Revolters’ academic trajectories reveals that none has ever been totally at home in the historical discipline: Wilder is equally a historian and an anthropologist; Kleinberg is just as often in conversation with philosophers as historians; and Scott was employed at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton in the School of Social Science, not the more conservative School of Historical Studies where she said has “never been welcome.”

As the discussion neared a close, Scott made a surprising admission that doesn’t come through in the boldly written manifesto: In the 1980s, she said, the feminist movement of which she was a part rejected the idea that the discipline should simply “add women and stir”—achieving sociological diversity without rethinking its work. Rather, their “great goal was to transform history.” Yet “that didn’t happen, for the most part; it was adding women.” “The dream of the 1980s that history was never going to be the same” ended in institutional resistance.

Perhaps addressing the critique of their own institutional power levied by John Handel on the JHI blog earlier that day, Wilder reflected that they wanted to use their platform to clear the ground for young graduate students to do more creative, exciting work. To have “to intervene yet again,” to use Scott’s words, might seem an exhausting task. But the energy Theory Revolt has injected into the discipline might just serve to nourish the next generation of critical historians.

Jonathon Catlin is a Ph.D. student in the Department of History at Princeton University. His work focuses on intellectual responses to catastrophe, especially in German-Jewish thought and the Frankfurt School of critical theory.

Listen to the full event here.

From our editors: What we’re reading this month (2/2)

Picasso, Femme Couchee lisant (1960)


Beyond Settler Time: Temporal Sovereignty and Indigenous Self-Determination by Mark Rifkin is a work of political and literary theory that re-interprets the axes and language of past and present as experienced by settlers and Native peoples in the Americas. Writing outside of a binary that forces a choice between casting indigenous peoples as keepers of the past or as necessarily co-eval with Europeans, Rifkin draws from philosophy, queer theory, and postcolonial theory to interpret texts and the experiences they bring to bear on a notion of “settler time”, a concept with he uses to draw out the stakes of thinking time along with politics, namely sovereignty and the temporal and spatial aspects of self-determination. I’m starting to work through this text as part of my foraging for helpful interpretations of political freedom, and it stands as another affirmation of the complicated relationship intellectual histories have to texts, which are so differently deployed in adjacent disciplines. (Rifkin is the Director of the Women’s and Gender Studies Program and Professor of English at  the University of North Carolina, Greensboro.)

A Specter Haunting Europe: The Myth of Judeo-Bolshevism by Paul Hanebrink details the rise of a paranoia at the beginning of the twentieth century that crystallized into one facet of a deadly ideology, and remained grafted onto each vision of white supremacy that came afterwards — including the one that persists today in Europe and North America. The myth that Jewish masterminds cooked up Communism to ruin Europe and take control of the world began, in Hanebrick’s telling, in the counterrevolutionary currents of the interwar period. He draws a line through the myth’s Cold War adaptation to today’s racist hand-wringing over Islam’s so-called global designs that often co-exists with its anti-Semitic ancestor. After a string of white supremacist attacks in the past weeks, and the direct line drawn by the Pittsburgh shooter from his hatred of Jewish people to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, intellectual histories that connect the century-long entanglements of such strands seem like necessary (if also incredibly grim) reading.

On a lighter note, as I wind down my bi-annual re-read of Barbara Pym’s 1952 novel Excellent Women to the tune of some not insignificant fines from the local library, I’d also like to recommend it here. It details the life of a single woman in her thirties living in a London parish after the Second World War, and her chagrined and slightly titillated forays into the personal lives of her new neighbours, including an ex-Naval officer, a clergyman’s attractive widow, and a woman anthropologist (!). As the days become shorter and the impulse to eat dinner comes earlier and earlier during the workday, the attention to the small joys and indignities of being a person in Pym’s novels remains a welcome dose of comedy. Daniel Ortberg observes as such in his compilation of the most emotionally muted meals that appear in Excellent Women. Highly recommend. Please let’s talk about it. I’m going to have the Princeton Public Library’s copy out for another week, tops.



Certain objects seem to perform a kind of magic upon the beholder–time doubles back on itself, and past and present somehow fold into one. The most famous example, of course, is the Proustian madeleine. In The Remembrance of Things Past, a whole host of objects play this role–of both signalling a specific moment in history, and blurring the boundaries of the beholder’s present, so that multiple temporalities crowd together and become one. Fashion, for Proust, is capable of casting that particular magic. In the final volume of Remembrance, “Time Regained,” the narrator yokes the year 1916 to this specific image: “As if by the germination of a tiny quantity of yeast, apparently of spontaneous generation, young women now went about all day with tall cylindrical turbans on their heads, as a contemporary of Mme. Tallien’s might have done, and from a sense of patriotic duty wore Egyptian tunics, straight and dark and very ‘war,’ over very short skirts; they wore thonged footwear recalling the buskin as worn by Talma, or else long gaiters recalling those of our dear boys at the front…” The passage continues for a while, describing the vogue for “rings or bracelets made out of fragments of exploded shells or copper bands from 75 millimetre ammunition,” and the decision to wear bonnets of “white English crepe” in lieu of traditional mourning attire. But the narrator is not writing this in 1916. The fashion of 1916, so current in 1916, now serves also to distance the narrator’s own moment from the one where young women wore tall cylindrical turbans and spoke of “our dear boys at the front.” The clarity of the memory, the exactness of each detail,  serves to confirm the pastness of the past.


Lately, I’ve been thinking about this magical quality of fashion while scrolling through the artist Guadalupe Rosales’s two intertwined projects, Veteranas and Rucas and Map Pointz. Rosales describes these projects as “digital archives found on Instagram.” Veteranas and Rucas came first, in 2015. The New York Times described the Veteranas and Rucas digital archive as “an Instagram feed dedicated to Latina youth culture in Southern California, mainly from the ’80s and ’90s, but sometimes dating back much earlier.” Map Pointz, dedicated to the SoCal “90s party crew and rave scene,” came a little bit later, in 2016. Both archives are largely crowdsourced. These two intertwined archives serve as both autobiography and history. “I was born in California in 1980, daughter of two Mexican parents,” writes Rosales, “I grew up on Los Angeles’ Eastside and lived in a house that faced Whittier Blvd. That is when I realized how rich my culture was and was not what we see in movies or in the television.  From the age of 14-17, I was part of the party crew scene- a subculture organized by and for the youth in a time when many of my friends and relatives were in gangs. The gatherings occurred on the weekends and some weekdays in residential backyards and industrial warehouses throughout Los Angeles. Like most youth subcultures, music played a key role – we listened Techno, House and New Wave. Then on Sundays we cruised down the boulevard while bumping some oldies and freestyle. The Boulevard was a place where boys and girls met and exchanged telephone numbers.

These two digital archives came into being because Rosales was hungry for a way to connect to her history, her past: “I focused my research on the Los Angeles youth cultures in hopes of finding a deeper identity. If I Google searched my experiences as a teenager, what would I look for and how would I describe myself and those experiences? Someone who lived in Los Angeles and in the midst of gang violence, the Los Angeles riots and numerous protests. I wanted to read and look at images the brown youth on the dance floor and backyard parties, cruising the boulevard or anything that had documented the (sub)culture that existed in the midst of violence, unfortunately I wasn’t finding anything. With very little success, I started an Instagram feed, titled Veteranas and Rucas and posted photos from my own personal collection as reference. Within a week of my initial posting, people began to submit their own photos through email and messaging them through Instagram.”


The rise of material culture studies in the 1980s and 1990s helped shift our concepts of archives. Suddenly historians wanted to write about posters, or embroidery samplers, or military parkas. Any set of objects could be an archive.

The Internet opened up the archive further–more users, more stories, more material, more access, more of everything. In some ways, the internet itself is one vast archive. The power of Rosales’s crowdsourced Instagram archives lies in their ability to evoke–and capture–emotion. And they are not cordoned off from everyday life. For the moment, Instagram is a platform that is fully integrated into the fabric of quotidian life. Which also means that I cannot easily “forget” these faces, these histories. They show up on my phone screen, they speak to me, intimate as family, their images and stories cradled in my palm.



Though reading about Isaac Newton’s theological views is not exactly my idea of a good time, I recently found myself digging deep into the subject. I am working as a teaching fellow at the Yale divinity school this semester and had to give a lecture to my class on the ‘scientific revolution.’ To better explain some of the historiographical problems associated with early modern science, I was on the lookout for a case study which I could introduce towards the end of the lecture as a way of summing up some of my main arguments. While preparing the lecture, Newton came to mind. I suspected that, while the students would know quite a bit about Newton’s work on calculus and optics, his theological views, especially his ardent anti-trinitarianism, may come as a surprise.

To get a better grasp of some of Newton’s basic theological positions, I picked up Rob Iliffe’s new book Priest of Nature: The Religious Worlds of Isaac Newton and it was nothing short of a revelation. Iliffe, who currently holds a chair in the history of science at Oxford, has been working on Newton’s religious views for over three decades now and the book clearly shows his impressive learning and incisive thinking on the topic (Iliffe is also the co-editor of the Newton papers project which has compiled and transcribed an astonishing number of Newton’s manuscripts which are scattered in collections across the UK and Israel).

Iliffe’s claim is simple: Newton, he argues, was a deeply devout man who took his religious thinking and theological research as seriously as his ‘scientific’ work. Though this may hardly count as a path-breaking insight on his own, it is Iliffe’s relentless quest to painstakingly document the evolution of Newton’s theological views and their impact on his scientific work that makes his book one of the most exciting that I have read in a while. In particular, I was fascinated by the chapter “Methodizing the apocalypse” which examines Newton’s obsession with prophetic images in the bible. It looks at his deep interest in eschatological thinking and explains how Newton drew upon the ideas of older thinkers such as Joseph Mede and some contemporaries such as Henry More. Iliffe is especially good at using Newton as a lens for thinking about some of the bigger issues in the history of science. For anyone interested in early modern science and theology, this book is a must read.



In the first half of the twentieth century, a handful of scholars writing mostly in England attempted to understand how capitalism worked to produce the kind of isolated and self-interested people that its defenders associated with the natural human condition. These critics included R.H Tawney, the labor activist, education reformer and early modern historian whose research on the intellectual and social history of capitalism in the seventeenth century left such a deep imprint on my own field that the period of English history he studied came to be known as “Tawney’s Century.” Tawney and the intellectuals he helped inspire are the subjects of Tim Rogan’s rich and incisive book The Moral Economists: R.H. Tawney Karl Polanyi, E.P. Thompson, and the Critique of Capitalism (PUP, 2017).

Rogan traces the development over half a century of the distinctly historical critique of a capitalist system that these three scholars saw as insufficient for human flourishing. While the three scholars were familiar with each other’s work, Rogan groups them together not because they identified each other with a common mission but rather because they shared some conception of a “moral economy” that had been suppressed over time, to varying degrees, by laissez-faire capitalism and the theologies and philosophies that had served as its handmaiden through history, whether puritanism, liberalism or utilitarianism. Rogan’s close attention to the continuities and the subtle differences in these thinkers’ narratives of history and accounts of human flourishing leads him to convincingly demonstrate how they were all talking about moral economy in distinct ways, even before Thompson popularized the term itself in a famous article from 1971. This rigorous reconstruction of the logic of their arguments also allows Rogan to end with an evaluation of those accounts which he believes offer promising paths to guide political thinking today. Rogan sees Polanyi’s framework in particular as potentially fruitful for the present. Polanyi unmoored his own critique from the specifically Christian theological conception of human nature that Tawney had expounded before him. This transition leads me to wonder whether it’s valuable to think about such a shift as a kind of “secularization” between Tawney and Polanyi, and how that rejection of theology as a guide for their politics might lead Polanyi, his contemporaries and successors to attribute a different kind of significance to theology within the histories they write.

From our editors: What we’re reading this month (1/2)

Andrew Hines:

How to Read: Wittgenstein (2005) by Ray Monk

As someone with a background in post-Kantian European philosophy, whose interests had leaned quite heavily toward phenomenology, philosophical hermeneutics and deconstruction, I had unfairly dismissed Wittgenstein as “one of those analytic philosophers”. Recently, I’ve found my philosophical palette broadening as I’ve become increasingly concerned with understanding the broader context within which key, culture shaping ideas emerge as well as understanding why a particular thinker took the intellectual route he or she did. Ray Monk’s How to Read: Wittgenstein addresses both these interests on top of providing a lucid and authoritative introduction to Wittgenstein.

What comes through is Wittgenstein’s intellectual journey, the way that he continually reframes the problems he’s concerned with. Its evident that two of Wittgenstein’s abiding concerns are the limit and function of language. By focusing on Wittgenstein’s own biography alongside the ‘biography’ of his ideas, Monk not only provides an introduction to Wittgenstein’s main ideas, but an entire history of the development of one of Western philosophy’s key themes in the twentieth century. Not only did Wittgenstein revolt against his teacher Russell and assert that the activity of philosophy did not consist in providing a scientific like precision but in clarifying the true nature of the logic of language. He also built on Goethe and looked at the ‘morphology of expression’ and how philosophy provides the opportunity for a new perspective on a problem. Because of this, poets and musicians, Wittgenstein thought, can give us as much instruction as science.

The sheer breadth of this intellectual journey is far too often written off by students of ‘continental philosophy’ and I am perhaps the worst offender. Because of this, I would generally recommend ‘How to Read: Wittgenstein’ by Ray Monk to anyone looking to fill in the gaps of the intellectual-historical context of the early twentieth century. Particularly, however, I would recommend it for those, like myself, who had unfairly ignored Wittgenstein.



In one of my very favorite plays, Alan Bennett’s The History Boys (2004), one of the titular students proudly describes his attempt to impress the new teacher by referring a book he’s been reading, by one “Frederick Kneeshaw.” This beautiful malapropism, achingly relatable and touchingly human, has haunted the name “Nietzsche” for me ever since I first saw The History Boys some ten years ago. Just as in the Hebrew Bible, there is the word as pronounced, the qere (“what is read”), that may differ from the word as written, the ketiv (“what is written”)—most famously in the name of God—so I have spent a decade hearing “Kneeshaw” in my head whenever I have read (or more rarely written) the name of that great philosopher.

Yet, until this week, my knowledge of Kneeshaw’s oeuvre went no further than the handful of aphorisms that have become common currency: “God is dead.” “There are no facts, only interpretations.” “He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster.”

Prompted by Carlo Ginzburg’s masterful History, Rhetoric, and Proof (1999), in which Nietzsche is a key interlocutor on rhetoric, I plunged a few days ago into On the Genealogy of Morals (1887). The going has been slow, more as a result of too many claims upon my time than any fault in Michael Scarpitti’s translation. Indeed, the quality of the prose has been a revelation, surpassed only by the humor. Take Nietzsche’s imagining of the moral systems of the weak (the lambs) and the strong (the eagles): “And when the lambs say among themselves, ‘Those birds of prey are evil, and he who is most unlike a bird of prey, who is most like its opposite, a lamb – is he not good?’ then there is nothing to cavil about in the setting-up of this ideal, except perhaps that the birds of prey will regard it with some measure of derision, and say to themselves, ‘We bear no ill will against these fine, goodly lambs, we even like them; nothing is tastier than a tender lamb.’”

There is always the danger that mellifluous prose and trenchant wit (a particular delight of mine) misdirect attention away from the ideas Nietzsche is propounding. And for a pacifist, Jewish reader such as yours truly, these must be awkward fare. Nietzsche’s veneration of the “blonde beast” does not wear so well in the wake of the twentieth century—and did not wear much better in the nineteenth. So, too, the denigration of the Jews as “a priestly nation of resentment par excellence” and the propagators of “slave morality” rankle all the more in the light of recent tragic events in Pittsburgh. I learn from Cathy Gere’s excellent Knossos and the Prophets of Modernism (2009) and other scholars that Nietzsche himself was a dedicated critic of anti-semitism and that the filiation between his works and the ideology of National Socialism was largely the creation of his vehemently anti-Semitic sister. Perhaps so, but Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche was not without material to work with in her brother’s writings.

These uncomfortable flashes of prejudice aside, the content has been striking in its familiarity—my ignorance of Nietzsche’s work notwithstanding. What I have realized is that a century and more of thought and culture steeped in Nietzsche has made his ideas ubiquitous, even banal. The suggestion that morality is the creation of power does not shock in 2018, even for those to whom it is anathema.



Just this week, I picked up a slightly older book: P. Steven Sangren’s Chinese Sociologics: An Anthropological Account of the Role of Alienation in Social Reproduction. More than a work of ethnography in China, this volume is primarily a theoretical treatise which unfolds a slightly modernized Marxian understanding of social mechanisms and patterns while drawing upon the author’s fieldwork in Taiwan for examples and illustrations. While some aspects of the work merit critique (particularly the titling of the work as “Chinese Sociologics” when the vast majority of its basis is specifically Taiwanese, and a bit of a simplistic take on “Gender and Exploitation”), its primary purpose as a cohesive and thoughtful Marxian analysis is insightfully fulfilled.  With chapters focusing on classical Marxian cultural features such as production, alienation, circularity, etc., as well as copious citations from Marx, Durkheim, and other related scholars, this work serves as an interesting insight into the Marxian tradition of social theory as well as more modern attempts to incorporate Marxian theory into modern ethnography.



This month I’ve found myself reading quite a bit about the history of gunpowder. Gunpowder was first discovered by Chinese alchemists before the 11th century. The earliest European gunpowder recipes from the 13th century were written in code because the alchemists were fearful of the compound’s power: “No clap of thunder can compare with such noises. Some of them strike such terror to the sight that the thunders and lightnings of the clouds disturb it considerably less.” (Kelly DeVries, Gunpowder and Early Gunpowder Weapons, in Gunpowder: the History of an International Technology.) States were less fearful. Centuries of experimentation used gunpowder to make fireworks, rockets, cannons, blunderbusses, rifles, and pistols. For the next six hundred years, battlefields would be covered with a black brimstone smoke.

Gunpowder is a mixture of saltpeter, charcoal and sulfur. The result is a brownish, smelly powder that when exposed to flame can produce a fire so sudden that its shockwave hits the speed of sound—an explosion. Of gunpowder’s three ingredients, the most unusual and most important is saltpeter (potassium nitrate), which makes up 70% of most gunpowder recipes. There are some natural formations of saltpeter in cakes of whiteish powder forming a crust atop nitrate-rich soils. Damp caves with beds of guano or fetid houses sometimes produce a white salt on their walls—the salt of the rock (petrus). But this was not enough to meet states’ growing demand for gunpowder.

You can manufacture saltpeter as well. The big European powers employed roving armies of saltpeter men who were allowed to go into people’s dovecotes and mangers looking for guano and manure. They’d cart this ordure off to special factories, and soak it in urine (that of drunk men worked best) to leech out the saltpeter. Antoine Lavoisier, the great French chemist, searched for a way to make artificial saltpeter after the British seized the world’s great Indian saltpeter areas during the Seven Year’s War. Lavoisier’s success kept the French gunpowder barrels full over the next quarter century of war. (During the Revolution, Lavoisier’s apprentice, Éleuthère Irénée du Pont, fled to America where he set up a gunpowder mill—the birth of DuPont, the world’s biggest chemicals company.)

Saltpeter is a form of reactive nitrogen, and reactive nitrogen is one of the hidden foundations of the modern world. Nitrogen is plentiful: it makes up three quarters of the air, but this is tightly bound up in N2, hitched together with strong triple bonds. But reactive nitrogen is rare. To use nitrogen, we need to make reactive nitrogen like saltpeter and ammonia that can be used by plants and animals. Much comes from bolts of lightning turning atmospheric N2 into nitrogen oxide. Some plants (particularly legumes) have symbiotic bacteria in their roots that can make reactive nitrogen. Fertilizing crops with manure helps plants grow by giving them the reactive nitrogen bound up in our dung. Without nitrogen, no food.

In the early 20th century, German industrial chemists looking for a way to make explosives figured out how to turn atmospheric nitrogen into reactive nitrogen in a lab—the Haber-Bosch process. This is now the most important source of fertilizer on earth. Perhaps 80% of the nitrogen in your body comes from the Haber-Bosch process. All this readily-available reactive nitrogen is probably one of the reasons why we have nearly 8 billion people on earth today. Nitrogen kills: nitrogen feeds. The early alchemists treated gunpowder and other nitrates with wonder. Perhaps we should do the same.


The Principle of Theory: Or, Theory in the Eyes of its Students

By contributing writer John Handel. This and Jonathon Catlin’s “Theory Revolt and Historical Commitment” respond to the May 2018 “Theses on Theory and History” by Ethan Kleinberg, Joan Wallach Scott, and Gary Wilder.

“It is impossible, now more than ever, to dissociate the work we do, within one discipline or several, from a reflection on the political and institutional conditions of that work. Such a reflection is unavoidable. It is no longer an external complement to teaching and research; it must make its way through the very objects we work with, shaping them as it goes, along with our norms, procedures, and aims. We cannot not speak of such things.”

-Jacques Derrida (1983)

In 1967 Jacques Derrida famously asserted that “there is no outside-text.” This was not a literary formalist screed against historical context, it was rather that context as such was an unstable category–that context itself was endlessly shifting and was never a stable given. Derrida’s injunction to us, as scholars, in whichever discipline we worked, was to question and deny these categories of certainty, to see things in their most capacious sense, to know that our own sight was always already constrained and limited. It was imperative to constantly question the adequacy of our vision. Theory Revolt is a welcome, deconstructive, reminder on this front, as it lays bear many of the central assumptions of the epistemology of the historical profession and what they problematically overlook. Yet, despite its protestations that “Critical historians are self-reflexive,” and “recognize that they are…implicated in their objects of study,” there is little impetus on the part of Theory Revolt to question this further, to turn its sights inwards to the institutional site of knowledge production: the university (III.6). Bringing the ethics of deconstructive criticism back to the university especially in the context of the colonialist, military-industrial, production of post-war American knowledge, was a critical move for Derrida, and likewise, is a necessary mode of critique that Theory Revolt must take up if it is to effect the radical change in the profession that is desires.

Without actively thinking through the institutional forms of power and politics that structure the production of historical knowledge they wish to critique, Theory Revolt’s project itself is implicated in perpetuating them. “Structures of…politics, or even identity that do not conform with convention are ruled out or never seen at all,” they write. Indeed. In focusing so intently on assaulting the “guild” mentality of the current historical profession and its epistemological assumptions and practices, Theory Revolt misses what constitutes their central problem, for it is impossible to explain why we stopped arguing about theory without attending to the political economic transformation of the university: the collapse in undergraduate humanities enrollments, the implosion of the academic job market, and the subsequent proliferation of the precarious labor which manages to keep the university afloat.

This is, in large part, a generational blindness. Theory Revolt argues that the historical profession sees “theory as one more turn (a wrong one) in the ever-turning kaleidoscope of historical investigation. The lure of theory is taken to be an aberrant stage in the intellectual history of the discipline, happily outgrown, replaced by a return to more solidly grounded observation.” (II.3) But, as James Cook has argued in an essay entitled “The Kids Are Alright: On the ‘Turning’ of Cultural History,” “turning” becomes synonymous with a generational rite of passage—most typically, from the new social history of the 1970s to the new cultural history of the 1980s.” Theory Revolt’s emplotment of its own intellectual history rests on the specters of a generational revolt, in particular on the radical critique of post-structuralism that lost the generational fight to a new empiricism. But it is hard to have a generational revolt when your generation has been systematically excluded from the academy. The kids are definitely not alright.

My own brief trajectory at Berkeley provides some anecdotal evidence for this shift. I arrived at Berkeley in the fall of 2015 for graduate school, excited to come to the place that was the birth place of cultural history. I expected to find a place that was the center of radicalism in the United States for so long, the place that founded the journal Representations, that prided itself on being “happily at the margins” of the mainstream historical profession. Instead, I found an institution that was rife with crises. From a culture of systemic sexual harassment to a structural budget deficit that seemed to spell the end of the public research university; from an endemic housing crisis to a campus that was overrun by right-wing trolls and heavily armored police. These were inauspicious years to be at Berkeley.

Somewhere amid the institutional decay that blighted the landscape of Berkeley (not to mention the rest of higher education), the Berkeley of the cultural turn had also seemed to disappear. Where I thought I would find intellectual iconoclasm, all I found was methodological malaise. For instance, at the institution whose connection to Foucault helped bring his work into the mainstream of U.S. academic culture, one of the professors teaching the department’s “Historical Methods & Theory” course notoriously refused to read Foucault with us. “You’re all more or less cultural historians at Berkeley,” the professor informed us, “you all need to read Foucault in chronological order, start to finish on your own, anyways.” What was the use of actually discussing it in a seminar?  The next year this course was replaced with one on professionalization—on using twitter in academic contexts, on building a CV, on networking at conferences, etc. Professionalization for an almost non-existent academic job market had replaced theoretical stakes.

And therein lies the unseen problem of Theory Revolt’s critique of the mainstream practice of history. In ignoring the neoliberal transformation of the university, they miss the reason we stopped arguing about theory in the first place. It is hard to engage in a collaborative rethinking of historical methodology when most of your generation will not end up in the academy. The disciplinary and professional pressures of the historical guild weigh especially heavy when you are fighting for one of the few jobs available in your field. In the midst of institutional crisis, how can we orient ourselves to address both that crisis and the epistemological malaise of the historical profession that Theory Revolt rightly critiques? Ben Mechen argues that as graduate students we can use our precarious position in the university to inform both a new politics of solidarity and critique of the power structures that produced such precarity. Can Theory Revolt’s critiques be joined to this purpose?

One way Theory Revolt’s mode of critical history might work itself in and through its objects of study is in relation to the New History of Capitalism. HoC was a field born in direct response to the new political realities after 2008, as well as a response to the new institutional directives within universities. But the History of Capitalism remains notoriously under theorized. In a programmatic state-of-the-field essay in 2014, Seth Rockman claimed that HoC “has minimal investment in a fixed or theoretical definition of capitalism,” and that “the empirical work of discovery takes precedence over the application of theoretical categories.” In the words of Theory Revolt, this type of empiricism only serves to “reinforce disciplinary history’s tendency to artificially separate data from theory, facts from concepts, research from thinking. This leads ‘theory’ to be reified as a set of ready-made frameworks that can be ‘applied’ to data.” (I.9) Theory is not a lens that can be applied to historical work, it is rather the political stances that every historian, whether implicitly or explicitly, brings to their attempts to understand the past. Despite our protestations to the contrary, we can never get outside theory.

One of the most prescient and enduring critiques of this type of empiricism, especially as it relates to the history of capitalism and the economy, is from none other than Joan Scott, one of the authors of Theory Revolt. In her canonical Gender and the Politics of History, Scott performed a brilliant reading of mid-19th century French statistical reports. Rather than viewing these reports as “irrefutable quantitative evidence,” Scott argues that in merely using these reports in a purely empirical sense, we “have accepted at face value and perpetuated the terms of the nineteenth century according to which numbers are somehow purer and less susceptible to subjective influences than other sources of information.” These statistical reports were neither neutral representations nor sheer ideological constructions, she argued, but were rather “ways of establishing the authority of certain visions of social order, of organizing perceptions of “experience.” Scott’s project constituted a major post-structural attack on the categories that undergirded the basic assumptions of the dominant strains of Marxist and social history at the time and problematized what could be taken and used as historical “facts.”

Years later, Adam Tooze would revisit the ways in which economic historians in particular might make use of numbers as historical facts. “The polemical energy involved in tearing up the empirical foundations of economic and social history, to reveal them as rooted in institutional, political, and indeed economic history, overshot its mark,” he argued. Rather than jettisoning numbers as usable historical facts, Tooze argued that we should adopt a “hermenutical quantification,” where we “move from a generalized history of statistics as a form of governmental knowledge to a history of the construction and use of particular facts.” In other words, we could be attentive to the contingent, cultural construction of numbers, while also acknowledging that those numbers were operationalized and did work in the world for those who used them.

Tooze’s move from questioning the category of statistics to thinking about the particular moments & conjunctures by which certain quantitative facts, once constructed, gain authority is consonant with the radical strains of cultural history influenced by STS & ANT. Revealingly, Tooze takes most of his theoretical cues in that article from Bruno Latour (see for instance notes 51 and 52). Latour’s radical constructivism finds sympathetic allies in Scott’s post-structural wing of the cultural turn, for instance, Patrick Joyce’s insistence on not conceiving “culture” as an essentialist superstructure, but culture as a process, “as for or around practice,” and “located in practice and in material forms.” This continual attendance to the process of knowledge production, rather than ever taking forms of knowledge either in the past or presence as givens, is what I take Theory Revolt to be stressing in their insistence on a “Critical history (that) recognizes all ‘facts’ as always already mediated, categories as social, and concepts as historical; theory is worldly and concepts do worldly work.” (III.4). This kind of critical history, when brought to the history of capitalism and the economy, seems well positioned to cut through the endless methodological stand-offs between economic historians and historians of capitalism.

A critical history thus positioned is also poised to make sense of the broader political moment within which we live. In his 1987 work, Science in Action Bruno Latour asked: “Given the tiny size of fact production, how the hell does the rest of humanity deal with ‘reality’?” In our moment of Trumpian politics that has witnessed the collapse of post-war America’s key sites of fact and knowledge production—from universities to the media—it becomes clear that the answer to this question is “not well.”  Plenty of pseudo-intellectuals have been quick to proclaim that post-structuralism bears at least some responsibility for the collapse of these institutions and the  rise of Donald Trump. It did not take long for critics to marshal these claims against Theory Revolt, and rehearse the “dismissal oftheory as dangerous relativism.”(II.6).

Yet it is precisely here that the type of radical constructivism—a post-structuralist critical history that is always methodologically self-conscious—can make a key intervention in our current political moment. There is no doubt, for instance, that Donald Trump has launched a dangerous assault on facts and facticity, but post-structuralism didn’t cause Trump’s rise, it can help explain him. As Nils Gilman has argued, in the current maelstrom of fake news, “dry fact-checking does not work in the face of a deliberate assault on facts as such.” A critical history that refuses to take any fact as a given, and insists on historicizing how facts are constructed and operationalized, is far more politically exigent than a dry empiricism that attempts in vain to fact check those who refuse the very premise of factuality.

In the age of Trump, knowledge is up for grabs in ways previously unimaginable. On one hand, this is profoundly terrifying, as those in the highest offices of political power seemingly refuse to share the same factual reality with the world around them. But instead of driving us to a knee-jerk and uncritical defense of our universities, it should push us to further critique. The knowledge production of the academy has thus far not been up to facing the challenges within or without. This should force us within the academia to rethink not only the epistemological practices of our discipline but the institutional structures that created them. As the structures of the post-war university crumble, we can, finally, begin to imagine new collectivities, institutions, and forms of professionalism that do not have to replicate the neoliberal logics that have hollowed out these institutions to begin with. Theory Revolt’s critique of historical epistemology is a welcome part of this project, but rather than being a radical move forward, it is too often a nostalgic look backward to the generational revolts of the 1980s and 90s, obfuscating the tectonic shifts in the structure of our institutions and professions that have occurred in the meantime. But it doesn’t have to be. The critical history it advocates can and should be positioned not just to bring its critique to bear on histories of capitalism and neoliberalism, nor just on the high politics, but on the academic institutions that not only have failed to stop these transformations but have, in ways, been complicit in them. For Theory Revolt’s critiques to take shape, and to work their way into our practices of history, they cannot limit themselves to a critique of their own self-proclaimed outside Other—empiricist epistemology—but they must also turn inside, and examine their own sites and sights of power within the university itself.

John Handel is a Ph.D Candidate at UC Berkeley.

Personal Memory and Historical Research

By Contributing Editor Pranav Kumar Jain


Eric Hobsbawm, Interesting Times (2002)

During a particularly bleak week in the winter of 2013, I picked up a copy of Eric Hobsbawm’s modestly titled autobiography Interesting Times: A Twentieth-Century Life (2002), perhaps under the (largely correct) impression that the sheer energy and power of Hobsbawm’s prose would provide a stark antidote to the dullness of a Chicago winter. I had first encountered Hobsbawm the year before when he had died a day before my first history course in college. The sadness of the news hung heavy on the initial course meeting and I was curious to find out more about the historian who had left such a deep impression on my professor and several classmates. Over the course of the next year or so, I had read through several of his most important works, and ending with his autobiography seemed like a logical way of contextualizing his long life and rich corpus.

Needless to say, Interesting Times was an absolutely riveting read. Hobsbawm’s attempt to bring his unparalleled observational skills and analytical shrewdness to his own work and career revealed a life full of great adventures and strong convictions. Yet throughout the book, apart from marveling at his encounters with figures like the gospel singer and civil rights activist Mahalia Jackson, I was most stuck by what can best be described as the intersection of historical techniques and personal memory. Though much of the narrative is written from his prodigious memory, Hobsbawm regularly references his own diary, especially when discussing his days as a Jewish teenager in early 1930s Berlin and then as a communist student in Cambridge. In one instance, it allows his later self to understand why he didn’t mingle with his schoolmates in mid-1930s London (his diary indicates that he considered himself intellectually superior to the whole lot). In another, it helps him chart, at least in his view, the beginnings of peculiarly British Marxist historical interpretations. Either way, I was fascinated by his readings of what counts as a primary source written by himself. He naturally brought the historian’s skepticism to this unique primary source, repeatedly questioning his own memory against the version of events described in the diary and vice versa. This inter-mixing of personal memory with the historian’s interrogation of primary sources has long stayed with me and I have repeatedly sought out similar examples since then.

In recent years, there has been a remarkable flowering of memoirs or autobiographies written by historians. Amongst others, Carlos Eire and Sir J. H. Elliott’s memoirs stand out. Eire’s unexpectedly hilarious but ultimately depressing tale of his childhood in Cuba is a moving attempt to recover the happy memories long buried by the upheavals of the Cuban Revolution. In a different vein, Elliott ably dissects the origins of his interests in Spanish history and a Protestant Englishman’s experiences in the Catholic south. The intermingling of past and present is a constant theme. Elliott, for example, was once amazed to hear the response of a Barcelona traffic policeman when he asked him for directions in Catalan instead of Castilian. “Speak the language of the empire [Hable la lengua del imperio],” said the policeman, which was the exact phrase that Elliott had read in a pamphlet from the 1630s that attacked Catalans for not speaking the “language of the empire.” As Elliott puts it, “it seemed as though, in spite of the passage of three centuries, time had stood still” (25). (There are also three memoirs by Sheila Fitzpatrick and one by Hanna Holborn Gray, none of which, regrettably, I have yet had a chance to read.)


Mark Mazower, What You Did Not Tell (2017)

Yet, while Eire and Elliott’s memoirs are notably rich in a number of ways, they have little to offer in terms of the Hobsbawm-like connection between historical examination and personal memory that had started me on the quest in the first place. However, What You Did Not Tell (2017) Mark Mazower’s recent account of his family’s life in Tsarist Russia, the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, France, and the tranquil suburbs of London provides a wonderful example of the intriguing nexus between historical research and personal memory.

In some ways, it is quite natural that I have come to see affinities between Hobsbawm’s autobiography and Mazower’s memoir. Both are stories of an exodus from persecution in Central and Eastern Europe for the relative safety and stability of London. But the surface level similarities perhaps stop there. While Hobsbawm, of course, is writing mostly about himself, Mazower is keen to tell the remarkable story of his grandfather’s transformation from a revolutionary Bundist leader in the early twentieth-century to a somewhat conservative businessman in London (though, as he learned in the course of his research, the earlier revolutionary connections did not fade away easily and his grandparents’ household was always a welcome refuge for activists and revolutionaries from across the world.) However, on a deeper level, the similarities persist. For one thing, the attempt to measure personal memories against a historical record of some sort is what drives most of Mazower’s inquiries in the memoir.

The memories at work in Mazower’s account are of two kinds. The first, mostly about his grandfather whom he never met (Max Mazower died six years before his grandson Mark was born), are inherited from others and largely concern silences—hence the title What You Did Not Tell. Though Max Mazower was a revolutionary pamphleteer, amongst other things, in the Russian Empire, he kept quiet about his radical past during his later years. His grandfather’s silence appears to have perturbed Mazower and this plays a central role in his bid to dig deeper in archives across Europe to uncover traces of his grandfather’s extraordinary life. The other kind of memories, largely about his father, are more personal and urge Mazower to understand how his father came to be the gentle, practical, and affectionate man that Mazower remembered him to be. Naturally, in the course of phoning old acquaintances, acquiring information through historian friends with access to British Intelligence archives, and pouring through old family documents such as diaries and letters, Mazower’s memories have both been confirmed and challenged.


Mark Mazower

In the case of his grandfather, while Mazower is able to solve quite a few puzzles through expert archival work and informed guessing, there are some that continue to evade satisfactory conclusion. Perhaps the thorniest amongst these is the parentage of his father’s half-brother André. Though most relatives knew that André had been Max’s son from a previous relationship with a fellow revolutionary named Sofia Krylenko, André himself came to doubt his paternity later in life, a fact that much disturbed Mazower’s father, who saw André’s doubts as a repudiation of their father and everything he stood for. Mazower’s own research into André’s paternity through naturalization papers and birth certificate appears to have both further confused and enlightened him. While he concludes that André’s doubts were most likely unfounded, a tinge of unresolved tension about the matter runs through the pages.

With his father, Mazower is naturally more certain of things. Yet, as he writes towards the beginning of the memoir, after his father’s death he realized that there was much about his life that he did not know. In most cases, he was pleasantly surprised with his discoveries. For instance, he seems to take satisfaction in the fact that, in his younger years, his father had a more competitive streak than he had previously assumed. But reconstructing the full web of his father’s friendships proved to be quite challenging. At one point, he called a local English police station from Manhattan to ask if they could check on a former acquaintance of his father whose phone had been busy for a few days. After listening to him sympathetically, the duty sergeant told him that this was not reason enough for the police to go knocking on someone’s door. Only later did he learn that he was unable to reach the person in question because she had been living in a nursing home and had died around the time that he had first tried to get in touch.

The Pandora’s Box opened by my reading of Hobsbawm’s autobiography is far from shut. It has led me from one memoir to another and each has presented a distinct dimension of the question of how historical research intersects with personal memories. In Hobsbawm’s case, there was the somewhat peculiar case of a historian using a primary source written by himself. Mazower’s multi-layered account, of course, moves across multiple types of memories interweaving straightforward archival research with personal impressions.

While these different examples hamper any attempt at offering a grand theory of personal memory and historical research, they do suggest an intriguing possibility. The now not so incipient field of memory studies has spread its wings from memories of the Reformation in seventeenth and eighteenth-century England to testimonies of Nazi and Soviet soldiers who fought at the Battle of Stalingrad. Perhaps it is now time to bring historians themselves under its scrutinizing gaze.

Pranav Kumar Jain is a doctoral student at Yale where his research focuses on religion and politics in early modern England.

Summer Reading: Part I

Book of Hours

Book of Hours, 1480-1490, Victoria & Albert Museum. Photo Courtesy of Britain Loves Wikipedia.

Here is the first installment of some of the books that the Blog’s editors have lined up for summer. From art history to critical theory, from fiction to poetry, we’ve got you covered if you’re looking for something to pick up during the academic off season. Look out next weekend for the second installment!


I got hit by a car this year. After surgery, after a month of Netflix and couch, after I had weaned myself off the pain pills, I slowly began to piece myself together again. I picked up an old favorite, Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, a book I’ve returned to again and again throughout my life. The book follows a fin de siècle everyman, Hans Castorp, as he spends seven years of his early adulthood in a TB sanatorium. The book is filled with characters who are allegories standing for this-or-that Big Thing: militarism, liberalism, extremism, nihilism, sex, death, bodily pleasure. The book ends with Castorp disappearing into the mass of young men in the trenches of the First World War. Castorp may or may not have been sick; but Europe certainly was.

I’ve come to appreciate different things about The Magic Mountain with every reading. My first I treated the book like a puzzle, proud of myself for each allegory I managed to identify. Later, I came to appreciate the book as a narration of the First World War. This latest reading, my body still bruised, my bone still knitting back together, still bound to the Barcalounger in my living room, I came to appreciate the Magic Mountain as a novel about sickness. Virginia Woolf wondered in On Being Ill why “illness has not taken its place with love, battle, and jealousy among the prime themes of literature.” Illness is uncomfortable. It is boring. Not much happens when you’re ill. So sickness is dealt with in fiction usually invisibly: the bones heal in the spaces between chapters. We get better, slowly. Yet in The Magic Mountain, sickness was ruminated on, lingered over, discussed, understood as its own form of experience. This comforted me. How differently time passed on that Barcalounger! Months which would have otherwise been filled with activity, instead passed by like minutes. And here I read Hans Castorp feeling the same way. Laying on his chair during the rest cure, letting his mind wander, thinking about the peculiar way time passed while he was ill, wondering whether the stuff inside him was healthy or invisibly diseased, wondering about what it all meant to be sick.



Besides research-related adventures and a foolhardy scheme to read the entirety of John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments, my reading list this summer is drawn from the books that have lain in my house unread for far too long. Here are three of those hitherto-neglected titles:


Penelope Fitzgerald, The Blue Flower (1995). Described by its author as “a novel of sorts,” The Blue Flower retells the early life of the poet and philosopher Novalis, his puzzling engagement to twelve-year-old Sophie von Kühn, and the beginnings of what would become German Romanticism. This was the last work of Penelope Fitzgerald, whose subtle wit and profound insight into the peculiarities of human relationships remain criminally under-appreciated.


Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (2004). My blurb was going to say, “Dueling magicians in the Napoleonic Wars—need I say more?” But then I discovered a fact that will prove an even greater enticement to readers of JHIBlog: footnotes! Clarke has constructed a baroque edifice of fictitious scholarship upon which her story rests—and, truly, what self-respecting library could be without John Segundus’s A Complete Description of Dr. Pale’s fairy-servants, their Names, Histories, Characters and the Services they performed for Him (Thomas Burnham: Northampton, 1799)?


Sir Walter Scott, Ivanhoe (1819). Sir Walter Scott’s iconic historical romance, to which we owe the familiar tale of the doughty Richard the Lionheart, the dastardly King John, and the honest thief, Robin Hood. On a personal note, the “Dedicatory Epistle” to Ivanhoe is addressed to a (spiritual) ancestor of mine, the Reverend Dr. Jonas Dryasdust, FAS.




Rachel Kushner, The Mars Room — this is the book to tuck into your carry-on bag. You’ll speed through it so you can get to the ending, but once you get there, you’ll want to read the whole book all over again. You won’t even notice that your flight is delayed, or your luggage still hasn’t arrived on the carousel. I’m not going to tell you what the book is about (you can cheat and read the reviews if you want). When you get to the end, and find yourself meditating on questions of fate and agency, not sure if you’re looking into darkness or light, remember to thank me for this recommendation.


Lucie Brock-Broido, A Hunter, The Master Letters, Trouble in Mind, Stay IllusionI am re-reading Brock-Broido’s oeuvre this summer. Brock-Broido passed away this past March. She was only 61. Her language followed the diction and syntax of another time–but what was that time? Was it the deep past, or some future yet to come? Brock-Broido’s poetry was always beautiful, in a way that flirted with the decorative. Her best work veered away from mere beauty, aching towards something like the sublime.


Kelly Jones, South of Pico: African American Artists in Los Angeles in the 1960s and 1970s — Jones tells a “hidden history of blackness” of 20th-century California. African Americans, as well as members of the Latinx and Asian Pacific Islander communities, have traditionally been excluded from the story of modernism in California. Jones tells the history of the African American art community “south of Pico” in Los Angeles, embedding well-known artists such as Bettye Saar and Noah Purifoy within the complicated historical contexts of both Los Angeles and California in the second half of the 20th century. This book changed how I think of modern and contemporary American art. It will change how you think, too.

Review Essay: Caomhánach on Hamlin, Milam, and Schiebinger

By Contributing Editor Nuala F. Caomhánach

Kimberly A. Hamlin. From Eve to Evolution: Darwin, Science, and Women’s Rights in Gilded Age America. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2014.

Erika Lorraine Milam. Looking for a Few Good Males: Female Choice in Evolutionary Biology. Animals, History, Culture. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010.

Londa Schiebinger. Nature’s Body: Gender in the Making of Modern Science. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2004.

Although women were excluded from the biological sciences, women were very much on the minds and the scientific research of the men who excluded them. The three books under review explore gender and natural history in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American and European society. I argue that the books form a triad of analytically distinct interlocking pieces about the construction of sexual difference as a means of excluding women from the public sphere and science.  The authors use the categories of science, class and gender, not because they perceive them as natural, but because they recognize that these categories form lines of historical power. Hamlin’s From Eve to Evolution: Darwin, Science, and Women’s Rights in Gilded Age America (2014) examines how American feminists responded to and integrated Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory in Gilded Age America. Milam’s Looking for a Few Good Males: Female Choice in Evolutionary Biology (2010) presents the history of post-Darwin biological research on the concept of female choice, showing how men were mediators between biology as a body of knowledge and society. Schiebinger’s Nature’s Body: Gender in the Making of Modern Science explores how the gender-binary has molded biology since the eighteenth century. This triad demonstrates how science reinforced the binary of gender and created associated traits, how science is not external to culture but forms a symbiotic relationship that reflects societal and political order, and how biology “is not value neutral but participates in and continues to support scientific knowledge that is highly gendered” (Schiebinger x).

Sexual Difference and the Rank of Woman


Londa Schiebinger, Nature’s Body: Gender in the Making of Modern Science (New Brunswick, 2004).

Schiebinger argues that “scientific sexism” (xi), related to the concepts of the masculine and feminine, co-evolved with the emergence of modern biology. She shows the roots of sexual difference as being created by elite men who “read nature through the lens of social relations” (17).  When Hamlin’s Darwinian feminists challenged, and Milam’s (male) biologists tackled this sexual difference, they provide additional support for Schiebinger’s argument that the gender binary had become fully ingrained into society. Schiebinger explains how Linnaeus’s Systema naturae (1735) created a hierarchical system of the natural world. Although contemporary naturalists recognized his scheme being artificial, he placed female traits (pistils) into the rank of order and male traits (stamens) into the rank of class. In the “taxonomic tree of life”, order was subordinate to class (Schiebinger 17). In taxonomy, traits mattered; Linnaeus prioritized male traits for identification. Schiebinger argues that Linnaeus had “ no empirical justification” (17) for this decision and here lay the origins of gendering science.

For Hamlin, the Bible created the gender binary. Hamlin argues that the biblical creation narrative, for Darwinian feminists, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, was “the single most powerful barrier to female equality” (49). The legacy of Eve had shaped conceptions of womanhood. When Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) and The Descent of Man (1871) were published, these texts enabled woman’s rights activists to upend traditional ideas about gender roles. Hamlin shows how Darwin’s Origin provided the ideal “ballast” to fight this legacy by offering an alternative narrative of human origins (52). This new theory enabled woman’s rights activists to use objective science to subvert the assumptions that women were created from Adam’s rib and, therefore, subordinate to men.

Milam argues that Darwin’s sexual selection theory was “built on his assumptions about normative relations between men and women” (10). Darwin argued that the “psychological continuity of all animal life” proved sexual difference and supplied the reason why women were intellectually inferior to men (Milam 11). Darwin applied Victorian gender roles to nature, suggesting that females were “less eager” to mate and acted “coy” and “passive” to the aggressive, hypersexualised male (Milam 15). As males competed for females, females chose males. This implied a “rational choice-based behaviour” (1) of aesthetics which required an intelligent mind and “in such cerebral evaluations lay the problem” (15).  Biologists were hesitant to ascribe to animal minds this cognitive ability and reframed female choice as a reaction to male dominance. The female body, thus,  became the site of analysis.

Animal-Human Kinship and the Female Body

Schiebinger demonstrates how the masculine morphology in humans became representative of the normal form and the feminine an anomaly. Linnaeus delimited hairy, lactating quadrupeds as being mammals (Mammalia); at first this seems to invert Schiebinger’s argument but she shows how this descriptor did not elevate the feminine. It was a patriarchal lesson for women to return to their natural functions, such as breastfeeding and motherhood. As naturalists became obsessed with the primate order— Linnaeus coined the term “primates,” meaning “of the first rank,” in 1758 (Schiebinger 78)—they reinforced notions of sexual difference along the animal-human continuum.  Schiebinger argues that a focus on female primates’ primary and secondary characteristics advanced the masculine form as rational and intellectually superior. Milam explains that the biologist’s model of the female assumed they were naturally passive and always  “needed stimulation to persuade them to mate” (34). Biologists never questioned the male-female binary. The research of scientists Vernon Kellogg, Julian Huxley, and the Fisher-Haldane-Wright triumvirate rarely focused on female choice because they felt that Darwin’s natural selection theory sufficiently explained female-male interactions.

Hamlin explains how this animal-human kinship model supported Darwinian feminists’ demand for the equitable division of household labor, “fit pregnancy” (98), and ability to work outside the home because gendered differences did not characterize the animal kingdom. Hamlin shows how Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Antoinette Brown Blackwell declared the separate-spheres ideology a man-made construct. When Darwinian feminists argued that women as mothers could improve the genetic stock of the human species, it became a powerful tool for women to claim a natural right to reproductive autonomy. Hamlin notes that Margaret Sanger’s fight for autonomy over the female body and her birth control movement was shaped by these popular discussions. Milam shows how biology was intrinsically at odds with popular discussions of evolutionary theory.  Biologists and physiologists struggled to frame female choice, and thus they dismissed it as a viable mechanism in nature because females were limited in cognitive ability.

Science as a Male Pursuit

Hamlin shows how science became an “unwitting ally” (17) for Darwinian feminists and states that it metamorphosed into a “sexist science” as it increasingly “professionalized and masculinized” (59). Schiebinger, however, finds that science was always exclusionary. Schiebinger shows that botany was considered suitable for upper-class women, but they did not have the ability to shape biology.  Hamlin argues that women did shape science. Blackwell and Helen Hamilton Gardener tried to redefine the female “mind-body dualism” by asserting their distrust in the research findings of male scientists (59). Blackwell suggested that women needed to create the “science of feminine humanity” (60) because to study female bodies “one must turn to women themselves” (62). As science gained more cultural authority, Hamlin argues, Darwinian feminists played an active role in shaping science because they rejected biological determinism and demanded accurate research. Milam’s book provides historical evidence that biology was a male pursuit and women were always excluded.


These authors show that biology is not a neutral practice but emerges from complex cultural and political networks. They are impressive books that shed light on the development of modern biology and the popularization of evolutionary science by dethroning notions of objectivity in science, providing  a significant contribution to gender and science studies.

A conversation with Prof. Surekha Davies: From our occasional podcast series

In our inaugural podcast, Contributing Editor Cynthia Houng speaks with Prof. Surekha Davies about her book, Renaissance Ethnography and the Invention of the Human: New Worlds, Maps and Monsters (Cambridge University Press, 2016), winner of the 2016 Morris D. Forkosch Prize for the best first book in intellectual history.

Below, you’ll find some of the maps and objects that we discuss in our conversation. Follow the links to explore each object in greater detail.

Vallard Atlas Huntington

Vallard Atlas, 1547, Map 2, Terra Java. The Huntington Library, HM 29.


Pierre Desceliers, Detail of World Map (Mappe monde), 1546. The University of Manchester Library, FR MS 1*.

Explore other parts of this large map (it is 260 x 130 cms in size!).


J. Hondius, Nieuwe Caerte van het wonderbaer ende goudrijcke landt Guiana, gelegen onder de Linie Aequinoctiael tusschen Brasilien ende Péru. nieuwelick besocht door Sir Water Ralegh Ridder van Engelandt in het jaer 1594, 95 ende 1596 (New Map of the Wonderful, Large and Rich Land of Guiana…), Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Cartes et plans, GE D-14317.

Explore this map on Gallica.

Screenshot 2018-02-05 19.05.08

Detail of the frontispiece to J. Hondius, Kurtze wunderbare Beschreibung. Dess Goldreichen Königreichs Guianae im America, oder newen Welt, vnter der Linea Aequinoctiali gelegen: so newlich Anno 1594. 1595. vnnd 1596. von dem wolgebornen Herrn, Herrn Walthero Ralegh…, Nuremberg, 1599. The John Carter Brown Library, Accession Number 0918.

Explore the entire book.


Jan van Kessel, America (from The Four Continents), 1666, oil on copper. Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Alte Pinakothek, Munich, inv. no. 1913

A note on the music in this podcast:

The music on this podcast was recorded by Paul Bowles in Morocco in the late 1950s.

Today, we remember Bowles as the author of The Sheltering Sky, but he was also a composer with an interest in ethnomusicology. That interest, coupled with his belief that Moroccan musical traditions were threatened by post-Independence modernization efforts, led Bowles to propose, in 1957, that the Library of Congress sponsor a project to record Moroccan music in all of its breadth. The project was, in Bowles’s words, “a fight against time.” In 1959, with the support of the Library of Congress and a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, Bowles criss-crossed Morocco, setting up recording sessions in towns all over the country. He would make three more trips between 1959 and 1961. Bowles had no formal training in ethnomusicology, and his choices were guided by the contingencies of geography and travel–and by his own aesthetics.

In that sense, Bowles shares something with early modern travel writers and cartographers. They made forms of knowledge that bear some resemblance to modern-day academic disciplines, but belong, properly, to their own times. Bowles once told an interviewer, “I’ve always wanted to get as far as possible from the place where I was born. Far both geographically and spiritually. To leave it behind. One belongs to the whole world, not just one part of it.”

The Library of Congress maintains the Paul Bowles Music Collection. If you like what you hear, some of these recordings are available from Dust-to-Digital as a four-CD set, the Music of Morocco.

On The Pinkster King and the King of the Kongo: An Interview with Jeroen Dewulf

Interview conducted by editor Derek O’Leary

Jeroen Dewulf is the Queen Beatrix Professor in Dutch Studies and an Associate Professor of German Studies at UC Berkeley, where he also directs the Institute of European Studies. His new book, The Pinkster King and the King of Kongo: The Forgotten History of America’s Dutch-Owned Slaves (University Press of Mississippi, 2017), departs from a study of nineteenth-century Pinkster, which has generally been considered a syncretic Dutch-Afro performance clustered in the formerly Dutch colonial territories of New York. Through a careful excavation of these rituals, he resituates an apparently local story in a much broader and deeper Atlantic context. His study casts light on the origins of Pinkster in a very different syncretism–of Iberian and African cultures on African soil–and the crucial role of mutual-aid associations in its transmission and promotion. For students of the intellectual and cultural history of the Atlantic, it provides a compelling model for circum-Atlantic history (to borrow from David Armitage’s typology), while encouraging us to reconsider our understanding of syncretism.

Dewulf_cover copy

Derek: If we look at the longer trajectory of popular and scholarly impressions of New Netherlands and Dutch heritage in the US, there seems to be something especially malleable about how people have understood the Dutch. This ranges among the extremes of Washington Irving’s burlesque notions of the Dutch in the early nineteenth century, to Holland Mania later that century, to obliviousness at various times of the Dutch presence in North America. Your book takes as point of departure certain nineteenth-century misperceptions of Pinkster as an originally Dutch and African syncretic phenomenon that the Dutch gradually lost interest in. Such misperception seems due, in part, to the fact that the Dutch and their descendants rarely told their own history of the life in North America. Could you talk about why this is the case?

Jeroen: It is important to highlight the topic of language as such. Even within the Dutch community in America, preserving Dutch attachment to the language is an interesting topic, and you see as a general rule that as soon as people of Dutch descent achieved positions of power, their attachment to the language tended to disappear. And those who held on to Dutch were often farmers or rural inhabitants, which has consequences on the way the story is told.

On top of language, we have the matter of religion, another important element here. The Dutch had their own religion in a way: the Dutch Reformed Church. And having your own religion isolated the Dutch community from others. And then you also clearly see a division within the Dutch community, between those who abandon this history as soon as New Netherland becomes New York, and those who hold onto it. And those who hold onto it are not necessarily those who write. So, you have relatively few documents in which you hear a Dutch voice commenting on Dutch traditions in America.

As a result of this, the way we have told the history of New Netherlands is one heavily influenced by an Anglo-Saxon perspective, which would look at this Dutch heritage and make it correspond to a perception that they already had of it. It is also very important to keep in mind that there was no such thing as Dutch newspapers, so the voice of the media was an English voice.

Derek: Your study explores a sort of “double erasure” in this context, of both Dutch voices and members of the Afro-Dutch community.

Jeroen: Who is aware that in the mid-eighteenth century that about 10-15% of blacks in New York still spoke Dutch? The Dutch and African linguistic heritage of the region are similarly forgotten. Little attention has been given to the fact that African-American history is a multilingual history, and not just in the sense of bringing different languages from Africa.


Middle panel of 1733 painting by John Heaton of Van Bergen farm near Albany, NY: One of the few images depicting African American slaves on a Dutch-owned farm at a time when about 10-15% of the slaves living in the states of New York and New Jersey spoke Dutch.

Derek: Ironically, then, the erasure of Dutch voices from the nineteenth-century record seems to contribute to the erasure of the African and Portuguese origins of Pinkster. Your book takes a phenomenon—Pinkster– that has also, like this Dutch-American history, been interpreted in a very malleable way, and pulls it from a local context into a much more complex Atlantic context. In the process, the long-imagined Dutch influence on this Afro-American phenomenon recedes, and it becomes much less a story of the Dutch legacy in America. Much of the past few decades of historiography on the Dutch colonies in the Western Hemisphere have sought to reinsert them into both US and Atlantic history, so in an interesting way your book departs from this—indeed, it distances Dutch influence from a circum-Atlantic phenomenon of Pinkster, and directs us to see its roots elsewhere.

Jeroen: The book didn’t take me in the direction I was planning to go, and in a certain sense the book wrote itself. Originally, I thought this would be about performance culture, but it ended up being much more about mutual aid and solidarity and community-building. I also expected it to be a much more Dutch book, which it did not turn out to be. That was a surprise to me in the sense that what became clear is that we are speaking about a time period when Dutch Atlantic history was starting, and as a newcomer you naturally don’t build things out of nowhere: You build on what is already there. Especially when it comes to the process of slavery, we see how strong the continuation of Iberian model was among those who took over from the Spanish and Portuguese in the seventeenth and eighteenth century. I felt that this element has been underestimated by people who write about Atlantic History.

pinkster in 1800We still have this assumption that scholars choose “their” nation, and then tend to give too much importance to the colonizer of a specific area: If you focus on New Netherland you focus on the Dutch, if you write about New England you focus on the English, etc. But especially when you focus on a field such as slavery, its Atlantic complexity forces you to use a perspective that tries to capture this vast area, and you realize that holding on to this one-nation perspective is just not providing you with the answers to the challenging questions that manuscripts raise. Pinkster is a good example of this. It has traditionally been reduced to a “syncretic Dutch-African” tradition, which is true in the sense that there certainly are Dutch and African elements to be found in the tradition, but to say that something is syncretic doesn’t mean much. In fact, Pinkster is so much more complex than just a “mixture of Dutch and African” elements.


Jan Mosatert, Portrait of an African man, circa 1525-1530: An early connection between the traditional Pinkster (Pentecost) celebration in Dutch culture and Africa is this painting, depicting a unidentified black man from the sixteenth-century who wears in his hat a badge that indicates a visit to the Black Madonna of Halle, who is honored every Pentecost with a procession

Concerning Pinkster, I think we see this performance in New York, see Africans participating, and immediately jump to the explanation that it is a Dutch-African syncretic process. When it comes to African-American traditions, it is much too easy to remain superficial and assert the usual things (e.g. they are honoring their ancestors) while avoiding more challenging questions, such as how ancestor worship would vary by region, for instance. Also, when we think about syncretism, we make a mistake in limiting syncretism to the Americas and the Caribbean, and do not apply the notion to Africa.

Syncretism in a way can correct the traditional approach, whereby you would assume clear boundaries between cultures, as syncretism forces you to look at two cultures producing something new. But even that is too simple, because those two cultures are themselves full of syncretisms.

Derek: In the comparative study of empire in the Atlantic, though, I think that we are still inclined to see a certain Dutch exceptionalism–that it was basically different than the other European colonial projects there. Indeed, as you note, there may have been a particularly Dutch colonial capacity to adopt the techniques and technologies—and, as we see here, integrate the customs—of other colonial projects in the Atlantic. But your study is also intriguing because it suggests we can look around the Atlantic, within other colonial projects, and find more complicated stories of syncretism as well. Was there something about the Dutch Atlantic project that made it more open to such transmission of culture and ideas?

race on the ice

King Charles Racing on Ice.
 “Artist’s conception of Charles, the Pinkster king, winning a nightly horse racing competition for his master Volkert Petrus Douw against General Philip Schuyler. In Harper’s New Monthly Magazine 62 (March 1881)” (Dewulf, 64).

Jeroen: There were definitely certain elements that the Dutch brought to the Atlantic that singled them out, including religion. When you see how the Dutch initiate slavery in their colonies, initially the way slavery is handled is similar to how it was handled by the Portuguese and Spanish, but soon you see that because of their different notions of religion, they start to change these practices. The example I give is baptism and the consequences of welcoming someone to your church, as the Dutch notion of Christianity and freedom was different than the Iberian notion, which led the Dutch to change their slave policy. In fact, the Dutch Reformed Church initially baptized slave children, similar to how the Iberian Catholic Church did, but stopped doing so after slave owners began to fear that once these children were admitted to the Church, they would no longer be able to sell      them as slaves.  Had this earlier process continued, I’m convinced that Pinkster would have disappeared, because the mutual-aid traditions out of which the African Pinkster celebrations developed would have been incompatible with Calvinist morality and mutual aid would have been provided within the context of the Church anyway. But it survived because at one point the church came under pressure from slave owners who opposed baptism, which gave those communities no other choice but to organize mutual aid on their own, for which they naturally used a brotherhood structure they were familiar with. Which also then explains the demise of the tradition, when the first black Christian churches come into existence in the nineteenth century and a Protestant morality becomes dominant within the African-American community. So, there was some form of Dutch exceptionalism in the Americas, but it developed only gradually, they had to learn to be an Atlantic power.

When people use the term “exceptionalism” and link it to the Dutch, there is a tendency to link it to pragmatism and tolerance. But what I’ve tried to highlight is that we would make a mistake if we assumed that the existence of Pinkster was solely there because the Dutch were so tolerant to allow it to happen. There clearly was within a slave community a strategy used to make the Dutch realize that it was in their own interest, so it appears as pragmatism, but it is not something that would have happened without pressure from the slave community.



Fête de Ste. Rosalie, Patrone des négres by Johann Moritz Rugendas: Pinkster is far from being the only example where members of the slave community elected and celebrated their ‘king’ with a procession; this illustration from Rugendas shows a slave king procession in 19th-century Brazil


King processions by brotherhoods still today exist in rural parts of Latin-America. This example comes from Pernambuco, Brazil.

You do find such examples of pragmatism, but I would be careful of explaining this as a natural Dutch instinct, as has been done in books about Dutch exceptionalism. But, as a general observation, you can state that compared to the Portuguese and Spanish, the Dutch were more focused on profit and reluctant to share their culture, language, religion and identity with Others. In this respect it was not a problem for the Dutch to have a large community around them who did not share their language and church, which was unthinkable for the Portuguese and Spanish. Indonesia is the clearest case of this, where the Dutch used a local language—Malay—as the lingua franca of their colony.

Derek: A common feature of many works of Atlantic History is that the Atlantic world—however we define it—forms a distinctive space in which innumerable hybrid identities are possible, rather than strictly national ones. Syncretism is crucial to this, and your book is a careful excavation of the syncretic process behind Pinkster. Though in our teaching and writing it can be easy to deploy this term rather casually. Has this study led to any general guidance or framework you would propose to other scholars seeking to understand syncretism in the Atlantic beyond the generalizations we tend to use about it?

Jeroen: Saying that something is syncretic is in a way saying nothing. Because, then what is it? You see this reflected in the way how we study black identity in the diaspora. In the old days, the nineteenth century, African elements were simply neglected. In the forties, you see a shift in which scholars become more interested in signs of African cultural “survivals,” which ultimately leads to a boom in the search for “Africanisms”—traces of African identity in the Americas. The important question I raise in this book is:  How African are such Africanisms? There has been a clear tendency to equalize Africanisms with indigenous African elements. What the book made me realize is that indigenous African element certainly were there, but I highlight the fact that it would be wrong not to realize that long before the first slaves arrived in North America, a syncretic process had already started on African soil. So, when you look at performance traditions, you see that in certain parts of Africa – such as the Kingdom of Kongo –  certain performances had already been influenced by European music, dance, musical instruments, clothing, etc. before coming to the Americas and the Caribbean.

To come back to Pinkster: Dutch elements were certainly in Pinkster performances, but ultimately they were less important than earlier Afro-Iberian ones. Obviously, we are forced to an extent to speculate on matters of African heritage. Mine is not the final word on Pinkster, but a new perspective that helps us rethink the history of this phenomenon. It is also another approach to the study of syncretic processes that is truly Atlantic in the sense that you avoid the mistake of looking at the powers – including African powers – of the Atlantic as pure entities with clear boundaries between them.

My suggestion when using the term syncretism, is not to see it as an answer to your question, but as a stepping stone to begin answering the question of what this syncretism consists of and how it came into being. After all, every cultural manifestation in syncretic in nature, so it would be wrong to limit the notion to the Americas and the Caribbean. I’m not the first one to do this; there are many other studies that raise such questions, but somehow in the field of performance studies there seems to be a reluctance to accept that some of the performance traditions enslaved Africans brought to the Americas were not indigenous in nature but rather characterized by inter-African and Afro-European syncretism. In the field of linguistics, for instance, there are plenty of studies that show us the important influence of Portuguese on the languages that enslaved Africans brought with them to the Americas. So, if language was influenced, why not dance, parades or certain musical instruments?  My only explanation for this is that many of those working in the field of performance studies are deeply influenced by the idea of black resistance against oppression that grew out of  the Civil Rights movement ideology, and are perhaps therefore reluctant to recognize that already in African, Africans voluntarily adopted certain elements of European culture and religion in their own cultural and religious traditions.

Derek: Importantly, you depict that the Afro-Catholic syncretism behind Pinkster took place at a moment when Africans and Europeans were on more equal terms in Africa, as compared to in the Americas.

Jeroen: Which makes me wonder if it makes sense to use the same term both in the context of colonial oppression and in an era when Africans were still firmly in control of the African continent. We call that syncretism in general. I do feel there is a difference. One thing is integrating elements of a foreign culture into your own when you are in a situation of power; one very different thing is you adopting foreign elements when you are a slave. Nevertheless we use the term syncretism for both.

Derek: You’ve mentioned brotherhoods and other voluntary organizations as a motive force in propelling this performance around the Atlantic and across centuries.

Jeroen: What this book taught me is that when you want to learn about matters of identity and culture, you need to ask how the community organized mutual aid. We as twenty-first-century people have perhaps forgotten this because we have all these services provided. This is a key question: how did a community organize mutual aid? This crucial question leads us to the fields of performance, but also language and religion. I often see in studies of religion a limitation to questions of spiritualism, and much less a focus on questions of material support and solidarity within the religious community. In fact, one of my most surprising conclusions in this book is that, originally, there was little difference between the way slaves in North America organized themselves from the way slaves in Latin-America did. Crucial differences only then start to develop when slaves in North America embrace Protestantism and begin to organize mutual aid as part of a community with (Afro-)Protestant norms and values.

Derek: How has this project influenced your research interests?

Jeroen: This led me to look at black performance traditions elsewhere in America, and naturally I became interested in the case of New Orleans. And to my surprise, I learned that all major contemporary performance traditions related to the black community in New Orleans can be traced back to mutual aid societies. I wrote an article about this for the Louisiana Historical Association (“From Moors to Indians: The Mardi Gras Indians and the Three Transformations of St. James”), which they selected as the best article of the year 2016. In the article I ask how we can link the dances in Congo Square in New Orleans to carnival traditions such as the Mardi Gras Indians, and I show that the missing link is the existence of black mutual aid societies in New Orleans. Societies that, unlike in the case of Pinkster where they disappeared in the context of the “Second Great Awakening”, are still there in New Orleans. I decided to expand it, which is now leading to a new book to be entitled From the Kingdom of Kongo to Congo Square, and to be published in the coming months by the University of Louisiana Press.


Revolutions Are Never On Time

by contributing editor Disha Karnad Jani

9780231179423In Enzo Traverso’s Left-Wing Melancholia: Marxism, History, and Memory, timing is everything. The author moves seamlessly between such subjects as Goodbye Lenin, Gustave Courbet’s The Trout, Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire, and the apparently missed connection between Theodor Adorno and C.L.R. James to guide the reader through the topography of the Left in the twentieth century. The book is an investigation of left-wing culture through some of its most prominent (and dissonant) participants, alongside the images and metaphors that constituted the left of the twentieth century as a “combination of theories and experiences, ideas and feelings, passions and utopias” (xiii). By defining the left not in terms of those political parties to be found on the left of the spectrum, and rather gathering his subjects in ontological terms, Traverso prepares the laboratory prior to his investigation, but not through a process of sterilization. Rather, the narrative of the “melancholic dimension” of the last century’s left-wing seems assembled almost by intuition, as we follow along with affinities and synchronicities across the decades. In its simultaneously historical, theoretical, and programmatic ambitions, Left-Wing Melancholia sits in the overlapping space between the boundaries of intellectual history and critical theory.

In a series of essays, Traverso explores the left’s expressive modes and missed opportunities: the first half of the book is an exploration of Marxism and memory studies (one dissolved as the other emerged), the melancholic in art and film, and the revolutionary image of Bohemia. The second half of the book is a series of intellectual and personal meetings, which Traverso adjudicates for their usefulness to the left: Theodor Adorno and C.L.R. James’ abortive friendship, Adorno and Walter Benjamin’s correspondence, and Daniel Bensaïd’s work on Benjamin. The “left-wing culture” these affinities is meant to trace is defined as the space carved out by “movements that struggled to change the world by putting the principle of equality at the center of their agenda” (xiii). Since that landscape is rather vast, Traverso relies on resonant juxtaposition and very real exchanges in order to erect monuments to the melancholia he reads throughout their shared projects.

The nineteenth and twentieth centuries burst forth onto the stage of history buoyed by the French and Russian Revolutions, surging confidently forwards into a future tinged with utopia. In devastating contrast, the twenty-first century met a future foreclosed to the possibility of imagining a world outside of triumphant capitalism and post-totalitarian, neoliberal humanitarianism. While successive defeats served to consolidate the ideas of socialism in the past, the defeat suffered by the left in 1989 withheld from memory (and therefore from history) any redemptive lesson. In Left-Wing Melancholia, the reader is thus led gently through the rubble of the emancipatory project of the last two hundred years, and invited to ruminate on what could come of “a world burdened with its past, without a visible future” (18).

As critical theory, Left-Wing Melancholia uses the history of socialism and Marxism over the last two hundred years and its defeat in 1989 in order to name the problem of the left today. As intellectual history, it may be found wanting, at least if one seeks in its tracing of left-wing culture some semblance of linearity. If, however, a reader is willing to follow, instead of context à la Skinner, or concept à la Koselleck, a feeling – then Left-Wing Melancholia will soothe, disturb, and offer an alternative: Traverso assures us that “the utopias of the twenty-first century still have to be invented” (119). Indeed, Traverso argues that Bensaïd “rediscovered a Marx for whom ‘revolutions never run on time’ and the hidden tradition of a historical materialism à contretemps, that is, as a theory of nonsynchronous times or non-contemporaneity” (217). Traverso’s own project could be read as part of this now-unearthed tradition.

It is clear that Traverso is aware of the reconfiguration of enshrined histories of socialism and Marxism implicit here, that he has skewed any orthodox narrative by reading through disparate political projects the feeling of melancholia. Ascribing a single ontology to the left over the course of the twentieth century and representing its culture in such a frenetic fashion makes this book vulnerable to the criticism of the empiricist. For instance, he speculates on the lost opportunity of Adorno’s and James’s friendship with “counterfactual intellectual history”: “what could have produced a fruitful, rather than missed encounter between Adorno and James…between the first generation of critical theory and Black Marxism? It probably would have changed the culture of the New Left and that of Third Worldism” (176). In such statements, it is startling to see at work the faith Traverso has in the dialogue between intellectuals, and in intellectuals’ power to change the course of history.


Hammering through the Berlin Wall. Photograph by Alexandra Avakian, from Smithsonian Mag.

He also eschews the Freudian use of the term “melancholia,” representing it instead as a feeling of loss and impossibility, expressed through writing, monuments, art, film, and his repeated articulations of how “we” felt after 1989. Presumably, this “we” is those of us who existed in a world that contained the Berlin Wall, and then witnessed it come down and had to take stock afterwards. This “we” is transgenerational, as it is also the subject that “discovered that revolutions had generated totalitarian monsters” (6). This same collective subject is a left-wing culture that had its memory severed by 1989, but also remembers in an internalist melancholic mode: “we do not know how to start to rebuild, or if it is even worth doing” (23). (I ask myself how the “we” that was born after 1989 fits in here, if the transgenerational memory of the left was severed in that year. Leftist post-memory, perhaps?) This book is addressed to fellow travelers alone. The reader is brought into the fold to mourn a loss assumed to be shared: “…we cannot escape our defeat, or describe or analyze it from the outside. Left-wing melancholy is what remains after the shipwreck…” (25). Thus, Traverso demonstrates the possibility of fusing intellectual history and critical theory, where one serves the other and vice versa; in his discussion of Benjamin, he remarks: “To remember means to salvage, but rescuing the past does not mean trying to reappropriate or repeat what has occurred or vanished; rather it means to change the present” (222). Left-Wing Melancholia has the explicit purpose of rehabilitating the generation paralyzed by the triumph of neoliberal capitalism. It is a long history of left-wing melancholy that puts struggles for emancipation in our own moment in perspective. And for all its morose recollection, Left-Wing Melancholia contains moments of hope: “we can always take comfort in the fact that revolutions are never ‘on time,’ that they come when nobody expects them” (20).