By contributing writer Stephanie Zgouridi

While living in Paris in 1784, surrounded by beautifully carved bureaus, tasteful tables, and fragile glass flutes of champagne, Benjamin Franklin penned a letter to a friend, in which he stated, “But the eyes of other people are the eyes that ruin us. If all but myself were blind, I should want neither fine clothes, fine houses, nor fine furniture.” Contained within Franklin’s words was a tacit judgment of vain opulence, and a reminder that such opulence was a fundamentally visual practice. Indeed, it was precisely because mankind was not blind that the fineries of the rich were broken or taken away during the French Revolution only a few years later, and that furnishing Napoleon’s spaces with taste and style was the equivalent of a political bid to gain status and power. And because the visual requires at least two components, that which is viewing and that which is viewed, I contend that the visual process is almost always a divisive one. It highlights activity versus passivity, the primary versus the secondary—but not always in the direction or the combinations that one might expect. In the Napoleonic period, for instance, the emperor’s architects were viewers of both him and his empire, in some ways even superseding Napoleon’s role in determining his own image and the national imaginary of the places to which he’d traveled.

Just fifteen years after Franklin’s departure from Paris, architects Charles Percier and Pierre Fontaine came under the patronage of the Bonapartes, and with the best interest of their clients in mind, proceeded to design a corpus of work that would later fit under the bracket of “Empire-style furniture”, a term typically applied to architecture, furniture, and other decorative arts that aimed to glorify the First French Empire. In consideration of their patrons, Percier and Fontaine frequently produced furnishings that were grandiose in scale and dotted with Egyptian motifs, particularly the sphinx— elements of the caractère of the owner and his many voyages and exploits (Kruft, 166). Although today Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt is thought of as a loss, it is important to recall that he marched at least 40,000 men through Egypt’s great cities, Alexandria and Cairo, lighting them ablaze and capturing them, far before that defeat came. Percier and Fontaine, in line with Napoleon’s own sentiments, chose to cast the expedition as a victory in terms of a “conquest…over ignorance”, and so displayed as frequently as possible the many objects discovered and catalogued by Napoleon’s men during the expedition. The Sphinx of Giza was prominent amongst them (Strathern, 1).

A first glance at this situation might cause one to cast architects Percier and Fontaine as the viewers, and Napoleon himself as the viewed, a person deconstructed only to be reconstructed into a semblance of harmonious interior furnishings meant to impress guests. Some might even proceed to say that there is a difference in primacy of experience between these first viewers and those that were intended to view the very same tableau afterwards. Percier and Fontaine, after all, could do what even Napoleon could not. As the scholar Leora Auslander put it while discussing the relationship between the king and his objects during the Ancièn Regime, “Qualifying the king’s capacity to determine aesthetic form was the fact that neither the king nor his court could make anything. The crown was dependent on artisans, architects, and artists to create visual and mechanical forms” (30). Although Napoleon was no king in the absolutist sense, he was also no cabinetmaker. In terms of technical capacity, then, Napoleon and the future guests he hoped to impress were equally powerless. Patronage went a long way, but its influence ended where the role of the architect began. Only Percier and Fontaine, the direct producers of these objects, stood apart from both Napoleon and future viewers of these things. In this dynamic alone we see that the viewer may not always be the primary component in a visual exchange, for not all viewers are equal.

But just as not all viewers are equal, neither are all things that are viewed. The Egyptian motifs mentioned above show how specific bits and pieces of Egyptian culture might have been transported into Napoleon’s spaces, but still did not indicate any knowledge, understanding, or acceptance of it. In the works of Percier and Fontaine, this much was demonstrated by a variety of visual practices, perhaps most clearly through the placement of said elements in the pieces of furniture at large. Take the following piece included in their Recueil de Décorations Intérieures: Comprenant tout ce qui a Rapport à l’Ameublement as an example:



[Charles Percier and Pierre Fontaine, Recueil de Décorations Intérieures: Comprenant tout ce qui a Rapport à l’Ameublement (Paris, 1812), Planche X in Appendix.]

This jardinière designed by the duo, for instance, features sphinxes placed into only supporting roles— quite literally. In fact, not only were their heads somewhat ridiculously serving as supports for flower pots, but their wings were the supports for the structure that held up the large figure of the minor Greek goddess Hebe. That the goddess Hebe, designated in studies of Greek mythology to the humble status of a cupbearer, was the highest point and central feature of this piece (in their words, the piece was “crowned” by her statue) with the sphinxes meant as support clearly betrayed a lack of interest in understanding the status and place of the sphinx in the ancient Egyptian world (Percier and Fontaine, 23).

Positioning and placement in a static medium such as furniture-making was crucial, for once selected and built, changes were very difficult to make. The sphinxes in pieces of Empire furniture could not easily be molded or moved; likewise, neither could the status and position of Egyptian culture within Napoleon’s empire be easily disturbed. Percier and Fontaine, having previously worked on architecture and furnishings for the theater, were intimately aware of the fact that their art was a fundamentally static one. As Iris Moon put it in her study of Percier and Fontaine, “Essentially, the architecture of theater was a problem of motion: how to move the audience through static materials, and how to freeze the action of the play into scenes…” (44). While Napoleon’s properties were no theater in the traditional sense,  they were theatrical all the same, decorated with furnishings meant to both frame and build upon the character of the emperor. In fact, this jardinière was to be gifted by Napoleon to Sweden, in a somewhat contradictory movement of a static piece and message. It was posturing in the farthest and largest sense, extending Napoleon’s viewership past the bounds of his empire. The problem of the static in the theater applied to the theater of everyday life. As Napoleon’s persona became an explicitly imperial one, the Egyptian campaign became immutably tied to the furnishings of the Bonapartes—and the practices of viewing the immovable, aesthetically potent, and structurally integral sphinx, as above, lay bare the dynamics of power in Napoleon’s empire.

But what does this lowly placement of Egyptian motifs in a static medium (as in the jardinière above as well as in countless other pieces featured in Percier and Fontaine’s Recueil) mean for the dynamic of viewing and being viewed? It suggests that Egyptian motifs were consistently refused primacy, despite the fact that they were ironically selected from within a vast range of possibilities by Percier and Fontaine for the express purpose of being seen. These images were borrowed and used as symbols precisely because they were to remain forever in the dark; it is only around the unknown and that which is not understood that one can build a myth of man, after all. In Percier and Fontaine’s quest to build Napoleon up, they did so by bringing Egypt and her many cultural images down. Her images became facets of one foreign man rather than the expressions of an entire culture and its history. It was not Napoleon that was ruined by the eyes of others and the opulent practices that that entailed— it was Egypt.

Stephanie Zgouridi is a first year PhD student in the Department of History at Princeton University, where she works on topics ranging from architecture to philosophy in modern Europe. She holds a Bachelor’s degree from UC Berkeley and a Master’s degree from the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, which she completed under the aegis of a Fulbright Student Award to Belgium. All translations not otherwise attributed are courtesy of the author.


What we’re reading, week of November 13th

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


Jacoba Urist, “A Contemporary Artist Is Helping Princeton Confront Its Ugly Past” (The Atlantic)

John Spence, “How the military is making it hard to remember our wars” (Washington Post)

Elizabeth Catte, “The Mythical Whiteness of Trump Country” (Boston Review)

A.E. Stallings, “Shipwreck is Everywhere” (Hudson Review)



Michael Scott Christofferson, “The Last Tocquevillian” (Jacobin)

Leilah Danielson “Roundtable conclusion (part 7 of 7)” on her American Gandhi: AJ Muste and the History of Radicalism in the Twentieth Century (USIH)

Mareike König, “Hat Karl Marx dieses Haus jemals betreten?” (19JhiP)

Nicholas Mulder, “Neutrality, Sanctions, and Outcasting(Humanity)



Caroline Crampton, “Lucia di Lammermoor” (New Statesman)

A Short Interview with Professor A.M. Walsham” (American Society of Church History)

Hal Boyd, “The Ignorance of Mocking Mormonism” (The Atlantic)

Alice Spawls, “If It Weren’t for Charlotte” (LRB)



Maybe you want to watch some dance?

I have some videos for you. The Guggenheim posts videos from its “Works and Process” series. I’ve selected a few videos that convey some of the liveliness and energy of NY ballet right now. The first video features the choreographer Troy Shumacher and dancers from Balletcollective. Schumacher demonstrates his creative process. The video also showcases a male duet–still a rarity in ballet. In the second video, Wendy Whelan and the choreographer Pontus Lidberg discuss the development of his commission for the NYCB, “The Shimmering Asphalt.” In the third video, Emery LeCrone presents two different works–one more classical, the other more contemporary–set to Bach’s Partita No. 2 in C Minor.



Wyatt Mason, “The First Woman To Translate the ‘Odyssey’ into English,” (NYT)

Adam Shatz, “The President and the Bomb,” (LRB)

Michael Scott Christofferson, “The Last Tocquevillian,” (Jacobin)


Asking the Wolf

By Joyce E. Chaplin

You can read Professor Chaplin’s article “Can the Nonhuman Speak?: Breaking the Chain of Being in the Anthropocene” in this quarter’s edition of the Journal of the History of Ideas.

“Do you like our owl?”

“It’s artificial?”

“Of course it is.”

“Must be expensive.”


There it is, scripted as flirtatious banter, possibly the most dangerous hypothesis we currently entertain, the idea that we could somehow survive without other naturally-occurring species. The dialogue appeared in Blade Runner, a movie set in 2019 and released in cinemas in 1982, and it is replayed in Blade Runner 2049, set in that year and released in ours. To imagine our survival in a world without functioning ecosystems may be our era’s most dangerous hypothesis because it is the most hypothetical. Could it be done? How would we know it could be done? Like all owls, the owl of Minerva, symbol of wisdom, flies at dusk, a habit that G. W. F. Hegel interpreted as the tendency to acquire knowledge too late, only as night falls. The artificial owl in Blade Runner obligingly flies across a vast room with huge windows through which we see the sun setting over a Los Angeles that has no trees, no birds, no parks, and no exposed earth, nothing that is not artificial—except the people, at least some of them. Could humanity actually survive in such a place? If we don’t know that we could, why wait until too late to risk it?

The two Blade Runner films’ storylines (and some of their characters) are portrayed in time shots that are 30 years apart, and the filmmakers themselves worked 35 years apart—each interval is about a generation’s measure, going by the typically accepted average of 30-35 years. A “generation” is precisely what is at stake in the films, which imagine a future in which biological regeneration is rare and precious. The films’ android “replicants” are manufactured slaves who, except in one case, cannot reproduce. Any replicants who evade human command are tracked and “retired” by LAPD “blade runners,” some of them also replicants. The whole thing is a meditation on what it means to be human—of course it is—with special attention to the psychological testing that supposedly reveals the shallowly-souled nature of replicants.

But if the morality play about humanity and justice is the obvious plot of the films, the dystopian view of human life plays out against a background drained of every other kind of life. Is that even possible? The question was embedded in the Blade Runner ur-text, Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Both films pose variations on Dick’s question, again and again, and very often in sentences that end in question marks, that lead to other questions, no resolution.

Poor Leon (Brion James), the replicant whose interrogation starts off the first Blade Runner. Brought in for psychological testing, his interrogator asks him to imagine being in a desert. “Which desert?” Leon asks. “Doesn’t matter,” the official says, who wants Leon to imagine a tortoise lying on its back in a desert, should he help it? Leon doesn’t know what a tortoise is, has to be told it’s like a turtle, an animal he’s never seen but knows about. But Leon’s question—“which desert?”—is not replicant obtuseness, not necessarily. It’s something any wildlife biologist would ask, a big clue, the first clue, that replicants are more complicated than they’re supposed to be. Later, when Blade Runner Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) interrogates replicant Rachael (Sean Young)—they of the flirty owl banter—he asks questions meant to test her awareness of the immorality, in the dying world of 2019, of owning a calfskin wallet, of eating raw oysters, of killing a wasp, of keeping a butterfly collection. Somehow, amid it all, Rachael and Deckard fall in love and escape, a human and a humanoid, and away they soar, in his flying police car, out of Los Angeles and over a visually soothing landscape of forest and mountain slopes.

No such hope in the new movie, which presents the world beyond LA as an extended toxic garbage dump, barely habitable. The movie’s immediate past is a total collapse of ecosystems that occurred in the 2020s. People and androids only survive because of synthetic farming, done in special tents and vats, the trademarked product of a mad scientist who is also crafting new replicant models. Spoiler alert: get your hydroponic setup working now, so you’ll have some garlic to kick some flavor into the protein afforded by synth-farm insect grubs. Given the hard-boiled, neo-noir aesthetic of both films, it’s apt that their characters somehow have plentiful cigarettes, coffee, and liquor, though one wonders what these staples are actually made of, and worries that they resemble the Victory Gin in 1984. Blade Runner 2049 is also explicit about what resource scarcity can do to human relations, most obviously in an orphanage (workhouse) for sick, starving children who are forced to process electronic waste.

But without a large complement of non-human creatures in nature, would anyone get fed anyway? Not even Blade Runner’s creators quite believe it. In the second film, the land around a grub farmer’s homestead is described as having nothing but “dirt and worms.” Great news! Earthworms help things grow, their presence slightly belies the long-dead tree in their midst. Later, a red, ruined landscape nevertheless harbors a mysterious array of thrumming beehives. Worms and bees are exactly the small creatures that would support agriculture—ecosystem collapse seems not to have been total. It’s other creatures, after all, animals and plants, that help to make human food or are human food. If they did all die, it’s still an open question whether we would continue to live. Everyone? Or only certain people? Who?

Even if we did survive ecosystem collapse, would human nature be altered, perhaps worsened, in the absence of natural things? For millennia, we have used seasons, landscapes, and non-human others to orientate ourselves, to give ourselves meaning. Without them, would we still be human? Would we be synth-humans, virtual androids? Both films feature characters who long for and make versions of the animals that are no longer physically present. Gaff (James Edward Olmos) compulsively does origami, folding paper into creatures, in one case, a paper sheep. Deckard eventually imitates him by whittling animals from wood. One of his carvings, a wooden horse, is a coveted toy for which a child gets beaten up, badly. Adults have synthetic animals, if they can afford them, as with that “very” expensive owl in the first movie.

For those who can’t afford artificial pets, there are synthesized human companions that, in the second film, are, with depressing consistency, female. A customizable electronic companion named Joi is the only option for the replicant Blade Runner nicknamed “K,” after the first character of his serial number, later renamed “Joe” by his Joi. He and the other Joes who have Jois call them up with software whose signature is taken from Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf,” the playful piece that acoustically summons animals: duck, cat, bird, wolf. Joi is thus summoned, someone nice for K/Joe to come home to, good kitty. Her nemesis is the replicant Luv, the mad scientist’s attack dog. Male replicants are animalized too. Joe’s boss encourages him at one point with “attaboy,” though Luv later calls him a “bad dog.” But Joe is a gender exception in an artificial landscape overstocked with artificially tractable women. An ad for the Joi prototype shows her fuchsia-skinned, azure-haired, with solid-black anime eyes, a blank ready to have any racial or other characteristics projected onto her. It’s an unsettling warning, this suggestion that, in a world without animals, women would be regarded as pets, even more explicitly than may be done now. (Will androids ever read Donna Haraway?)


We go to nature not just to get food, but to consider how we are different, perhaps, from the rest of nature. Without that non-human nature, we can’t ask certain questions, including questions about ourselves. My essay for this month’s Journal of the History of Ideas is about that problem, and is meant to encourage more historians of ideas to interrogate the history of human beings’ asking who they are in relation to the non-human, even to the point of discovering where those questions end in silence—because they must be posed to non-humans. At the end of Blade Runner 2049 K/Joe goes to Las Vegas and finds there not only those mysterious bees but also a mythic hunk of charisma. No, not Harrison Ford, though he’s there too, reprising his role as Deckard. But let’s consider his lupine companion, maybe a dog, maybe a wolf, a shaggy, intriguing, four-legged presence. Deckard gives K/Joe some whiskey from his cache of “millions” of pre-2020s bottles. He kindly slops some on the floor for his other companion. As the creature slurps away, it’s K’s turn to ask the question: “Is it real?” Deckard, retired from blade running, tired of its hierarchical divisions between human and non-human, fires back: “I don’t know. Ask him.”


Joyce E. Chaplin is the James Duncan Phillips Professor of Early American History at Harvard University. She recently edited Thomas Robert Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population, A Norton Critical Edition (2017). 

What if Humans Were Raised Like Bees? Charles Darwin and the Evolution of Morality

By Greg Priest

Read the full companion article in this quarter’s Journal of the History of Ideas.

Darwin image

Charles Darwin

A new biography of Charles Darwin is coming out. Styled as a “radical reappraisal,” the book, by A.N. Wilson, condemns Darwin, accusing him of intellectual piracy and scientific blundering. Wilson reserves some of his harshest criticisms for Darwin’s account of morality. We are told that Darwin deployed his conceptions of the “struggle for existence” and the “survival of the fittest” to defend an ethics derived from “selfish capitalist economics” that naturalized the greed and rapaciousness of Darwin’s race and class. The critique is certainly scathing, but it is far from “radical,” at least as far as its portrayal of Darwin’s account of morality is concerned.

Just a few years after the publication of the Descent of Man, Friedrich Engels charged Darwin with trying to turn the “bourgeois economic theory of competition” into an “eternal law[] of human society.” Even Darwin’s defenders have been captured by this interpretation. Darwin’s “bulldog,” Thomas Henry Huxley, admitted that Darwin had described a natural world characterized by competition and struggle, but believed that morality obligates us to resist the dictates of nature. Some of Darwin’s other defenders agreed that nature was filled with selfishness, but pointed out that Darwin had also shown that organisms cooperate to achieve common goals, and so emphasized cooperation as a source of moral instruction. More recent discussions of Darwin’s account of morality have for the most part followed one or another of these prototypes.

Darwin’s Fable of the Bees

But the notion that Darwin’s account of morality is centered around competition and struggle is a misconception. In my article “Charles Darwin’s Theory of Moral Sentiments: What Darwin’s Ethics Really Owes to Adam Smith,” I show that Darwin had a clear ethical theory, and that it had no connection, one way or the other, to “selfish capitalist economics.” Darwin wrote about struggle between organisms, and he wrote about cooperation among them. But when he offered an account of morality, he built his argument on Adam Smith’s idea—expressed in The Theory of Moral Sentiments—that humans have an inborn moral sentiment by which we sympathize with the fortunes of others. Darwin argued that this was not a peculiarly human faculty, that all social animals develop social instincts regulating how they behave toward other members of their community. He suggested that any species that evolved a high degree of intelligence would begin to reflect on and to develop those social instincts, and would eventually create a code of morality that members of the species would consult in determining appropriate conduct. But because the social and physical environment of every species is different, the particular content of the moral codes of different species would evolve in different directions. So, in one of his more striking passages, Darwin performed a thought experiment: “If, for instance, to take an extreme case, men were reared under precisely the same conditions as hive-bees, there can hardly be a doubt that our unmarried females would, like the worker-bees, think it a sacred duty to kill their brothers, and mothers would strive to kill their fertile daughters; and no one would think of interfering.”

Darwin in America: The Metaphysical Club Reads the Descent of Man

I will leave the details of the argument to my article. What I wish to do here is recount a single episode that shines a spotlight on Darwin’s account of morality, and for that, we have to cross the Atlantic and visit Boston. In the early 1870s, a small coterie of young Cambridge intellectuals formed a discussion group that they styled—“half ironically and half defiantly,” as one of their number put it—the “Metaphysical Club.” The club comprised Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., William James, Charles Sanders Peirce, Chauncey Wright, and a handful of others. And they received and debated Darwin’s ideas with deep interest.

One of the club’s lesser lights was a non-conformist Unitarian minister named Francis Ellingwood Abbot. One of Abbot’s principal projects was to put religion and morality on a scientific foundation, and one of his early efforts in that direction was an 1874 essay titled “Darwin’s Theory of Conscience: Its Relation to Scientific Ethics.” In his essay, Abbot celebrated Darwin’s naturalistic account of the source and development of moral obligations, but he could not abide Darwin’s suggestion that morality might not be the same for all moral beings. In particular, Abbot contended that Darwin was wrong in how he analyzed the thought experiment about humans raised as bees. All moral beings would converge, Abbot wrote, on the same moral principles, Moral obligations are “not accidental or fortuitous; they are not one thing here and another thing there.” Rather, “Ethics treat of rights and duties among all moral beings, as objective and universal facts.”

Abbot image

Francis Ellingwood Abbot

Abbot sent a copy of the essay to Darwin asking for his views. In his letter responding to Abbot, Darwin doubled down, both on his evolutionary account of morality, and on his insistence that morals will differ from one species to another. “Lower” social animals” have instincts “not habitually to kill each other, & the mothers to protect their offspring, … as the species c’d not exist in society without it.” But instincts differ in different lineages and so are not everywhere the same: “Would you consider this an ‘objective & universal fact’? I suppose certainly not, as instinct is subjective & the obligation w’d differ to a certain extent for different species.” For Darwin, the same analysis applies to morals in species that are more intellectually developed: “Now as soon as a social animal became in some slight, incipient degree a moral creature,—that is—was capable of approving or disapproving of its own conduct,—… Would not the obligation remain, to a large extent, of the same so-called instinctive nature as before?” In any case, “I cannot see why it [the obligation] sh’d be an objective & universal fact, any more than with the instinctive obligation or bond between the lower social animals.”

James image

William James

Despite its value for understanding Darwin’s account of morality, this exchange of correspondence has received little attention. Darwin’s sons thought it merited publication, however, so they planned to include it in an edition of his letters. But they weren’t entirely sure what to make of it, so they sent the correspondence to another member of the Metaphysical Club to get his perspective. That member was William James. James had no doubt about how to interpret the correspondence, or about whether Abbot or Darwin had the better end of the argument. “Abbot thinks,” wrote James, that moral principles are “real, objective, universal,” and so “absolute.” In contrast, “I take it your father meant to protest against this ideal of a perfection equally binding on all types of creature, no matter what their physiological differences.” Darwin believed, James thought, that there is no “objective” standard that one could use to measure “the virtue of the rabbit” against “that of the lion.” And James was sympathetic to Darwin’s view: “I may add that I think your father’s way on the whole more sound than Abbot’s.”

Adam Smith, Charles Darwin, and William James: An Eternal Golden Braid?

It should be obvious that I think James got Darwin right. But I mention him for another reason as well. Darwin had taken Smith’s idea of an innate human faculty of sympathy and read it through an evolutionary lens, transmuting it in the process. On Darwin’s account, all social animals have the instinct of sympathy, and any lineage may evolve sufficient intelligence that the instinct evolves into a moral code. I haven’t worked the argument out in detail, but it seems that James may have done to Darwin something very much along the same lines as what Darwin had done to Smith. James’s published discussions of morality post-date his analysis of the Darwin-Abbot correspondence. And in those later writings, he used some of the same phrases he had earlier used to characterize Darwin’s position vis-à-vis Abbot. James even alluded to Darwin’s thought experiment regarding humans raised as bees, suggesting that our mental worlds might differ substantially “were we lobsters, or bees.” But James pushed the relativity of ethical principles further than Darwin had. For Darwin, different lineages would evolve different moral codes, and there is no objective ground on which to judge which code is more “right.” James argued that, even within our human lineage, different individuals might have different understandings of right and wrong, and that there is no objective ground from which those understandings can be judged. James may, then, have taken Darwin’s account of morality and read it through a pragmatic lens, transmuting it in his turn.

Greg Priest is a PhD candidate in History and a member of the Program in History & Philosophy of Science at Stanford University. Greg focuses on the history of evolutionary biology, and in particular, Charles Darwin. He has had articles published in the Journal of the History of Ideas and in Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences and is currently co-editing a special issue of Endeavour on the practice of scientific diagramming.

What we’re reading: Week of November 6th

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



Diarmaid MacCulloch and Eamon Duffy, “Should the World’s Christians Celebrate the Reformation?” (London Evening Standard)

Roisin O’Connor, “Chopin died from rare tuberculosis complication, new study of composer’s pickled heart finds” (Independent)

Abigail Green, “Acceptance World” (TLS)

Adrienne Green, Abdallah Fayyad, and Annika Neklason, “From Frederick Douglass to Edith Wharton” (The Atlantic)

Ed Simon, “Defining the Demonic” (Public Domain Review)



Chris Bodenner, “The Surprising Revolt at the Most Liberal College in America” (The Atlantic) (”Humanities 110” Syllabus available here)

Henry Adams, “What the history of iconoclasm tells us about the Confederate statue controversy” (The Conversation)

C.W. Marshall, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Greeks?” (Eidolon)



James Brindle, “Something is Wrong on the Internet” (Medium)

Madhav Khosla, “The Banality of Virtue” (LARB)

Brianna Rennix & Nathan J. Robinson “Why You Hate Contemporary Architecture” (Current Affairs)

Glenda Sluda, “Capitalists & Climate” (Humanity)



Chu T’ien-wen “We All Change into Somebody Else: In Acceptance of the 2015 Newman Prize for Chinese Literature” (Chinese Literature Today)

Stephen Metcalf “How John Wayne Became a Hollow Masculine Icon” (The Atlantic)

How Aristotle became a Jew: Fake News and Philology in Early Modern Europe

By Eva Del Soldato

You can read the full companion article in this quarter’s edition of the Journal of the History of Ideas.

It is not easy to navigate the web in a time of fake news. Social networks and other instruments can create news items which have no basis in reality, but which many perceive as facts only because they are shared and re-tweeted. But in some ways, this is nothing new. Fake news has always existed, and been an important element in the shaping of public opinion, as Robert Darnton has recently noted. In this respect, philology has always been an essential tool for analyzing texts and separating truth from fraud. Highlighting textual inconsistencies, underlining anachronisms, and verifying the sources, something that modern fact checkers do, has been used throughout the centuries to expose false documents and beliefs.

However, once philology has done its work, its findings themselves must be disseminated properly in order for them to take hold. The early modern reception of the legend of the Jewish Aristotle is a fitting example of this process. In the Middle Ages, the legend that Aristotle had been a Jew flourished in Jewish intellectual circles, with the purpose of both ennobling Judaic culture and legitimizing the use of Aristotle. A missing comma in the editio princeps of the Latin translation of Eusebius’ De praeparatio evangelica incidentally spread the legend in Christian circles as well, and writers like Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499) welcomed the discovery of the Jewish Aristotle. But in 1573, a Jewish philologist from Mantua, Azariah de’ Rossi (d. 1578), revealed that the Jewish Aristotle was nothing more than a fable. However, though being the hero of this story, Azariah was marginalized from his community, and his demystification went largely unrecognized.


Detail of Aristotle, from Raphael’s The School of Athens (1509-1511)

In the meantime, the appetite both in Jewish and Christian circles for the legend only increased. The Talmudist Gedaliah ben Joseph (d. 1587) revived the tradition in his Cabbalistic Chain – a work soon to be unflatteringly labelled as the Chain of Lies – with the intent of celebrating Judaic excellence. And in 1640 the professor Fortunio Liceti (1577-1657), a staunch supporter of Aristotle who wanted to keep Peripatetic philosophy alive by advertising the piety of the philosopher, took this precious piece of information from Gedaliah. The legend fit Liceti’s aims perfectly: if it was chronologically impossible for Aristotle to have been Christian, the best Liceti could do was to identify him as the closest thing to a Christian that existed in the fourth century BCE.  When Liceti published the relevant passage from Gedaliah, he did so in no less than in three different versions – Hebrew, transliterated Hebrew, and in Latin translation.


Liceti, De pietate Aristotelis (Udine: Schiratti, 1645)

By using Jewish sources to legitimize the unwavering authority of the Philosopher, Liceti was doing what theologians of his time often did to bolster the authority of Christian truth. He was unique, however, in doing so to rescue a pagan philosopher. Liceti’s main opponent, the Franciscan Mattia Ferchio (1583-1669) was not pleased by the Jewish Aristotle, which he deemed a fable that a layman like Liceti was unqualified to discuss. Other theologians, like Serafino Piccinardi (1634-1695), questioned how Aristotle’s Jewishness could support another of Liceti’s assertions: that the Philosopher was familiar with the Trinitarian dogma. And Liceti’s colleagues at the University of Padua, like Giovanni Cottunio (1572-1657), had serious doubts about attempts to Christianize Aristotle. Ferchio, Piccinardi and Cottunio, were not opponents of Aristotle; they simply rejected the idea that Aristotle could be fully baptized, something that Liceti wanted to do in order to protect the wavering authority of his philosophical hero (Craig Martin has recently shown how the conflict between Aristotle’s thought and religion played a decisive role in its decline).

While a handful of Jewish intellectuals, like the physician Isaac Cardoso (1604-1683), endorsed Liceti’s Jewish Aristotle, the decline of Aristotelianism soon deprived the legend of its appeal in other contexts. Pierre Bayle, for one, ridiculed the legend, relying on the Bibliotheca Magna Rabbinica by the Cistercian Guido Bartolocci (1613-1687). Other writers reacted against the Jewish Aristotle by presenting evidence from the corpus Aristotelicum and other ancient sources and insisting on the depreciation of the Philosopher’s authority, which at that point had been almost completely overcome by alternative schools of thought. The fact that Aristotle’s importance had been so diminished eventually granted Azariah a measure of redemption. Philology’s fact checking needs to find willing ears in order to prevail, but fake news cannot hold its spell forever .

Eva Del Soldato is Assistant Professor of Romance Languages at the University of Pennsylvania. As you might have guessed, she is a very optimistic person!

What we’re reading: Week of October 30th

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



Roqayah Chamseddine, “Wanting to Believe,” (overland)

Malcolm Gaskill, “Unnatural Rebellion,” (LRB)

Robert Greene II “The Enduring Crisis of Black Intellectuals,” (Black Perspectives)

Sarah Manguso, “The Surprisingly Happy Journals of Jules Renard,” (New Yorker)



Linda Nochlin passed away on October 29th. She was 86. ARTnews published Nochlin’s essay, “Why have there been no great women artists?” in 1971. Even if you read nothing else this week, you must read Nochlin’s essay, and follow it with this open letter, signed by over 5,000 artists, curators, writers, and other members of the art world. The letter opens with the phrase, “we are not surprised,” a play on Jenny Holzer’s 1982 piece, “Abuse of Power Comes as No Surprise.” We are tired of being #notsurprised.

Almost half a century ago, Nochlin wrote: “What is important is that women face up to the reality of their history and of their present situation, without making excuses or puffing mediocrity. Disadvantage may indeed be an excuse; it is not, however, an intellectual position. Rather, using as a vantage point their situation as underdogs in the realm of grandeur, and outsiders in that of ideology, women can reveal institutional and intellectual weaknesses in general, and, at the same time that they destroy false consciousness, take part in the creation of institutions in which clear thought—and true greatness—are challenges open to anyone, man or woman, courageous enough to take the necessary risk, the leap into the unknown.”

Are we, those living in this moment, “courageous enough to take the necessary risk, the leap into the unknown”?



Peter Brown, “Dialogue with God” (NYRB).

Philip Gorski, Susan McWilliams, Peter Steinfels, Matthew Sitman, “Beyond Identity?: Forum on Mark Lilla’s Once and Future Liberal” (Commonweal).

Zacharia Mampilly, “A Handbook for Revolution” (Africa is a Country).

Jacques Rancière, Giuseppina Mecchia, David Bell, Marina van Zuylen, Suzanne Guerlac (video) “Rancière: Aesthetics and the Question of Disciplinarity” (FRIT: OSU).



Antoinette Nwandu, “Reading Audre Lorde’s ‘Sister Outsider’ After Charlottesville” (LARB)

Delia Ungureanu, “The Surreal Sources of ‘Lolita’” (LARB)

The Guardian view on the Reformation: justification through faith” (The Guardian)

Tim Page, “The Perfectionist” (NYRB)

Chris Power, “The hunt for a ‘complete edition’ of Fernando Pessoa’s fragmentary masterpiece” (New Statesman)



Rafia Zakaria, “The Myth of Women’s ‘Empowerment'” (NYT)

Susie Kilshaw, ““How Culture Shapes Perceptions of Miscarriage” (Sapiens)

Yu Ning, “How the Two-Child Policy Shapes Kids’ Names” (Sixth Tone)



Véronique Truong, “American Rage: On Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s The Vietnam War(Harpers)

Interview with Richard Rabinowitz, “Curating America: Journeys through Storyscapes of the American Past” (New Books Review)

Kathryn Nuernberger, “The Invention of Witches” (The Paris Review)

Inventing Normal Sex

By Laura Doan

Read Laura Doan’s full article in this quarter’s edition of the Journal of the History of Ideas.


Marie Stopes in her laboratory (1904)

Earlier this year I spotted an article in the Guardian headlined: “Anger after nun says Mary likely to have had sex.”  Sister Lucia Caram—a Dominican nun with a huge Twitter following—had received death threats from outraged viewers after stating on Spanish TV that Mary and Joseph “were a normal couple”—and “having sex” was a “normal thing.”  I’m no expert on the teachings of the Catholic church but I can assure readers that whatever happened between Mary and Joseph, it was not normal.  My archival evidence indicates that even a hundred years ago, most ordinary people in Britain and North America viewed the physical expression of conjugal love as part of Nature’s scheme, the moral order grounded on the assumed authority of the natural order.  Sister Lucia’s translation of a story from the distant past into words current now would trigger alarm bells for most professional historians, though not all.  According to one historian of the early Christian church, the fourth-century theologian St Augustine saw the marriage of Mary and Joseph as an “asexual friendship,” while another argues that Augustine understood the “normal” relations between women and men as “heterosexual love.”  There are obvious advantages to narrowing the gap between then and now but we need to recognize the ways anachronistic expressions obscure how people in the past understood or talked about the sexual.  In my article for JHI I explore how and when marital relations in Britain came to be configured as normal by turning to the work of a highly influential natural scientist, Marie Stopes.  The history of sexual normality in Britain begins in the 1910s with the dissemination of the writings of Stopes, whose understanding of science as a positivist and empiricist endeavor, in tandem with her adept use of statistical methods, enabled her to pioneer a modern way to think about sexuality.

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1913 Chart by Stopes

There is now a substantial historiography accounting for the emergence of homosexual practices, identities, cultures, and communities across the globe, yet the story of the rise of heterosexuality is largely untold.  I see my own project as honoring a rare contribution to the field by the historian Jonathan Ned Katz, whose important book—The Invention of Heterosexuality (1995)—broke the silence surrounding this most elusive of sexual practices.  Unfortunately, historians of sexuality have been slow in building on Katz’s intervention and, consequently, as he puts it: “the “heterosexual norm still generally works quietly, unspoken, behind the scenes.”  Such neglect points to a curious lopsidedness in the history of sexuality in which the homosexual possesses a historical presence the heterosexual lacks.  Queer theorists have been highly effective in theorizing how heterosexuality secures its power through a perverse symmetry with its lexical counterpart, but detailed historical understanding of how the hetero evolves and establishes its dominance over the homo is sketchy.

With the medicalization of sexuality in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries sexologists required an ideal social norm—called the “normal”—against which perversion, anomaly or deviance might be measured.  Conjured into existence through the taxonomical elaboration of the perversions, the normal would become a paradox—hegemonic as an absent presence, lurking obliquely in early twentieth-century references to “regular” sexuality.  A product of negative identification, the category of the heterosexual would come to be perceived not for what it is but for what it is not.  For this reason, the title of my new book in progress is subtitled “an unnatural history”—unnatural in the sense of what is unusual, unexpected or strange in constructing heterosexuality.  I suggest attempts to produce knowledge of a normal sexual subject are inextricably connected to the circuitries of a much older discursive formation which pits the natural against the unnatural, the latter associated with what is irregular or at variance with the usual.  To this day, as the historian of science Lorraine Daston observes, the “reproach of the ‘unnatural’ has not lost its sting.”  The history of normal sex is full of the unexpected, not least in its resistance to ontology, its appeal to all things “natural,” and its investment—indeed, privileging—of the abnormal, a topic I discuss at length in my article.


Havelock Ellis (1859-1939)

My main concern has been to investigate the consequences of tethering the normal to Nature, as if the natural order was simply a fact of life.  The history of modern heterosexuality begins with investigating the consequences of fusing and confusing the natural and the normal—or, to put it more accurately, historicizing normal sexuality entails looking closely at how the norm of normal became bound up with what was imagined as Nature’s scheme.  In the first half of the twentieth century ordinary Britons came to see sexual instincts not only as part of—or contrary to—Nature’s plan but also as normal or abnormal, largely due to the tremendous influence of Stopes’s research on the cyclical nature of female sexual desire.  Comparing Stopes’s research methods to those of the well-known sexologist Havelock Ellis indicates the invention of heterosexuality owes more to natural science than sexual science.  Often pigeonholed as a birth control campaigner or agony aunt, Stopes should not be underestimated as a central figure in the making of sex as normal.  In addressing ordinary people rather than professional colleagues, Stopes turned her readers into collaborators, carving out conceptual space for imagining sexual desire between women and men as a project of scientific interest.


Laura Doan is Professor of Cultural History and Sexuality Studies at the University of Manchester, UK.  She is author of Fashioning Sapphism: The Origins of a Modern English Lesbian Culture (2001) and Disturbing Practices: History, Sexuality, and Women’s Experience of Modern War (2013). 

What we’re Reading: Week of October 23rd

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



Patrick Cabanel (interview par Bernadette Sauvaget), “A partir du XVIe siècle…” (Libé)

Luca Provenzano, “Street Fighting Men” (LARB)



Regina Hansen, “Tricking and treating has a history” (The Conversation)

Rebecca Bengal, “Alec Soth’s Mississippi Dreamers in a Nightmare America” (The Paris Review)

Zachary Jonathan Jacobson, “Trump Is the New ________” (Chronicle of Higher Education)



Susan Dunn, “An Icy Conquest” (NYRB)

Seamus Perry, “The Rhymes are Sometimes Poor” (TLS)

Jack Miles, “A Roadmap to Qur’ans in English” (LARB)”

Aisha Harris, “How Movie Theaters, TV Networks, and Classrooms Are Changing the Way They Show Gone With the Wind” (Slate)


Feral Frames: On occupy-able frames and expanded thresholds as mediators between the real realm and the pictorial realm

By guest contributor Zahra Safaverdi

I see the status of architecture as a “domain of cultural representation” and also knowledge production. Buildings embody the notion of architecture by making physical the manifestation of space via different materials, tectonic characteristics, and orientational attributions; however, they cannot exhaust the architecture fully. The built form is a mere vessel, a proxy for architecture to showcase one dimension of its multifaceted existence.

Let’s take a close look at figure number one briefly. Figure 1 represents Plafond de Peinture; Plafond du même cabinet (1740). The painting is done by French goldsmith, sculptor, painter, architect, and furniture designer Juste-Aurèle Meissonier and is engraved by Pierre-Alexander Aveline. The original engraving is currently located in the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. As their record states, the engraving is done for the ceiling of Count Bielinski’s cabinet. “Large central roundel shows a sunburst as background for a mythological scene. A chariot, drawn by two horses and driven by a man is surrounded by female figures, putti, garlands and fruits. Cartouches at the four corners are decorated with putti.”


The engraving depicts a frame which contains another frame inside. The frame inside holds an entire world within itself, depicting a scene from a divine territory. What is striking in this engraving is the role of the intermediate frame: The frame morphs from its traditional definition and assumes a new character: It acquires depth, hence hinting at the frame becoming a three-dimensional space rather than a mere boundary maker. The frame, then, becomes a stage for characters to reside on and not only observe the pictorial world but interact with it, dive into it or emerge from it. Characters could sit on the frame, walk in and out of the frame or morph into the frame itself, shifting shapes and turning into another entity (Figure 2,3,4).

In these engravings, the frame doesn’t divide the world of the image from the real: It connects the two to each other and it blurs the boundaries between them. By providing a gradual tonal transition, the frame becomes an occupy-able threshold allowing free meander between the world of the image and the world of the real.

This seemingly peculiar function of the frame is not specific to Meissonier’s engraving or late Baroque ornamentation. This way of being for the frame is in fact not even peculiar. Ever since modernity, interpreted here as post 1800, the distinction between the product of imagination (the physical manifestation of the image, the world of imagery) and that which belongs to the reality and the normality of the quotidian life has been clear. This clarity, this separation, this profound emphasis on keeping the realm of the real discernible from the realm of the imaginary is the product of modernity.

Looking back at historical references of late Baroque, one could see that this boundary has been rather subtle and there wasn’t a rigid distinction between the two. The framing and ornamentation would turn the pictorial realm of the image into a latent reality, a condition of possibility which needs a small trigger to burst into our world. In late Baroque and Rococo ornamentation, the frame could shift character and attribution and morph into the pictorial realm in a seamless manner. Such characteristics would let different worlds (different depictions) exist adjacent and related to each other without colliding or collapsing. The meandering frame becomes the adhesive holding everything together, weaving in and out of different spaces and preventing the entire construct from unraveling on itself. (For most precise examples take a look at late Baroque churches in southern Germany, as analyzed here. For the purpose of this essay, the following churches have been analyzed in depth: Steinhausen Pilgrimage Church, Weltenburg Abbey Church, St. Johann Nepomuk Church in Munich, Pilgrimage Church of Vierzehnheiligen, Birnau Pilgrimage Church, Zwiefalten Abbey Church.)

With the progression of digital technology, the boundaries between real and imagery are once again blurred in the world at large. As one could observe in many contemporary works in the movie/gaming industry and the art domain, access to virtual reality is not limited to goggles and gadgets anymore and the pictorial realm has already leaked into reality, turning the space of the immersive installation into a liminal zone and a state of in-between-ness. (Take a look at installations done by team lab, the “Void” series of immersive experiments, “Box” by Bot and Dolly, and experiment done in Harvard’s seminar “Mechatronic Optics”.) Given such change, the modernist definition of space- defined based on a didactic grid and forms driven from platonic geometry-needs a revision.

FeralFrames_ F5

Figure 5

Let us investigate two contemporary installations as examples of environments where the said boundary is blurred. Figure 5 represents the installation “Between you and I”. Here, Anthony McCall defies traditional definitions of space-making by extending the realm of the imagery into the reality. He materializes the virtual world by creating a new interpretation of an atmosphere that is defined by materials that have been traditionally perceived immaterial before. By portraying the light beams as solid, he highlights dust particles and creates an illusive weightless fog. These liminal zones, then, become mediums mediating the two realms and connecting them together in a seamless manner. Sarah Oppenheimer does the reverse action with her spacial installations: By modifying the existing space, she extends the reality into the pictorial realm, hinting at spaces that are present but do not exist in our immediate tangible world. These deceptive liminal zones are distorted reflections of reality, stretching dimensions of the room without occupying extra space (figure 6).

FeralFrames_ F6

Figure 6

By relying on the historical evidences of late Baroque framing and also evidences in the contemporary art domain, all of which eliminate the need for separation between image and the material world called reality, the possibility of an alternate mode for space and architecture existence would emerge: objects that could act as an occupy-able world with spatial qualities and orientational attributions. These objects provide the moment where the boundary between the imaginary and the real is blurred and the physical rigid threshold is broken. This alternative domain would, then, not only becomes a quasi-physical manifestation of imagery and imagination but a way in which these two realms could be welded to each other with a less pronounced seam: a tight fit that is not just a binary relation between two worlds of the real and the imagery, the normal and not normal. Frames with their latent ability to exist in two paradoxical mode of existence simultaneously, that of separation and that of connection, have the capacity to expand and become a place of in-between-ness and a state of limbo. Introducing occupy-able frames as design elements and re-purposing thresholds, which are seen as program-less spaces now, could be steps toward an alternative mode of space-making. In the architecture discipline, each space inside a building is assigned a specific function and is placed under a specific category called “program” (for example in a house, kitchen, dining room, bedrooms, living rooms are all different program spaces). If the program was the major dictating element of architecture in the modernist approach, here the flow between spaces and the circulation becomes the new driving factor for shaping spaces. Lacan expressed where this is leading us: no one knows anymore whether the door opens to the imaginary or to the real. We are all unhinged.

Why shouldn’t our space be?

Zahra Safaverdi is the Irving Innovation Fellow in Architecture from Harvard University, where she examines new modes of representation of space in the post-digital era. She is one of the current directors of the MASKS event series and the editor of MASKS: journal of dissimulation in art / architecture / design.


Work Referenced, and further reading

Conner, Steven. “Reading Michel Serre.” 20 April 2017, http://stevenconnor.com/ milieux/.

Hayes, Micheal. Architecture’s Desire. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2010. 1-50; 89-134.

Hejduck, John. Mask of Medusa. 1st ed. N.p.: Rizzoli International Publications, 1989. 40-65.

Hendrix, John Shannon. Architecture and Psychoanalysis: Peter Eisenman and Jacques Lacan. New York: Peter Lang, 2006.

Hitchcock, Henry-Russell. Rococo Architecture in Southern Germany. London: Phaidon Press, 1968.

Pallasmaa, Juhani. “Space, Place, and Atmosphere: Peripheral Perception in Existential Experience.” Architectural Atmospheres (2014): 19-45.

Pallasmaa, Juhani, and Peter Zumthor. Sfeer Bouwen = Building Atmosphere. Rotterdam: Nai010 Uitg., 2013.

Picon, Antoine. Ornament: The Politics of Architecture and Subjectivity. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2013.

Serres, Michel. The Five Senses: A Philosophy of Mingled Bodies. London: Continuum, 2009. 100-240; 275-300.

Serres, Michel. The Parasite. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2013.

Siegert, Bernhard. Cultural techniques: Grids, filters, doors, and other articulations of the real. New York: Fordham University Press, 2015.

Young, Michael. The Estranged Object. N.p.: Graham Foundation, 2015.