Reading (with) Wollstonecraft

By Fiore Sireci. See the full companion article, “‘Writers Who Have Rendered Women Objects of Pity’: Mary Wollstonecraft’s Literary Criticism in the Analytical Review and A Vindication of the Rights of Womanin this season’s Journal of the History of Ideas.

How did Mary Wollstonecraft, the “mother of modern feminism,” spend her days in the year leading up to the publication of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792)? Her reading audience had little clue about the private Wollstonecraft until she died just 5 ½ years later. At that point, her widower William Godwin pulled back the curtain on a life that Wollstonecraft had carefully kept from view while she built up an impressive public image. They were transfixed (and mostly scandalized) by the complexity, drama, and heartbreak of her story, but much of that drama and heartbreak happened after the publication of Rights of Woman. Nevertheless, Godwin’s Memoirs of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1798) set up a pattern that continued for nearly two centuries: a focus on her emotional journey rather than on her work life.[1] I’d like to ask the question anew and look at the Wollstonecraft of 1791, the Wollstonecraft who had a professional life as a well-established literary commentator, and see if this opens new perspectives on her most famous work.[2]

During her lifetime–before she was known as the reckless Wollstonecraft who had a child out of wedlock (1794), or the desperate Wollstonecraft who twice attempted suicide (1795), and even the political Wollstonecraft who wrote two Vindications–she was already well-respected as an anthologist, educator, translator, and as a very active reviewer of books, for which she was paid well. Due to the irreplaceable spade work of Ralph Wardle, and scholars such as Janet Todd, we now have a good idea of which of the many anonymous and semi-anonymous reviews in the liberal Analytical Review can be attributed to Wollstonecraft. By the time she wrote Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft had penned well over 200 of these, and by her death at age 38, over 350.


Wollstonecraft’s reviews are not merely a distant accompaniment to her ideas in Rights of Woman, or as some have suggested, a rehearsal of the “tart” language in her most famous book. Her professional practice helped shape Rights of Woman in both style and substance. Her primary argument, and innovation, is that gender is shaped by culture, but that argument is primarily activated by critiques of well-known texts, and those critiques are in turn the fruit of a long period of intellectual gestation as a literary commentator and theorist.[3] One of the most prevalent approaches was one that has frequently been used on Wollstonecraft herself, that is, to see the text as symptom, but she and her contemporaries did not do this blindly. They also undertook comparative analyses of passages within and between texts, looking for threads of sympathy, intellectual and otherwise. Wollstonecraft built on this practice and in Rights of Woman she presented evidence, in the form of “illustrations,” to demonstrate that text was a powerful factor in the social construction of gender.

Eighteenth-century literary critics also mastered the rhetorical art of casting themselves as characters with powerful feelings, and it was through these carefully crafted public selves that they hoped to sweep their readers along to agree with their points of view on anything from politics to how raise children. This was the heyday of emotionally embodied literary criticism. In non-fiction there was Addison’s easy coffee-club manner in the Spectator (early 1711-1714), Samuel Johnson’s cantankerous wisdom in his Rambler essays (1750-1752), and Clara Reeves’ wise literary woman in The Progress of Romance (1785). In fiction, we can consider Charlotte Lenox’ Female Quixote (1752) as well as the youthful Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (completed 1803). The reader-as-character was ubiquitous because reading itself was an issue of great concern and anxiety in an age when, as Jürgen Habermas has shown, the “literary public sphere” was where political change originated. Mary Wollstonecraft fully participated in this literary culture, presenting critical and profoundly thoughtful selves in both fictional and non-fictional genres (sorry for the somewhat anachronistic categories). In other words, the virtual Wollstonecraft was constructed over a number of years and in many different genres. She is: the brassy and empathic governess in Original Stories (1788, illustrated by William Blake), the judicious editor of readings for young women in The Female Reader (1789, contested attribution), and the righteous female republican in A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790), but her most frequent appearance was as the sharp-witted, discerning, and often merciless book reviewer in Joseph Johnson’s monthly publication, the Analytical Review.

The demonstrative reader-writers of Wollstonecraft’s time sometimes resisted texts and other cultural forces, and sometimes dramatically gave in. In Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), the anti-revolutionary and increasingly conservative MP Edmund Burke recalls being moved to tears at seeing the young, graceful, royal figure of Marie Antoinette, so light, so ethereal her feet barely touched this corrupt “orb” of our earth. In her response, Wollstonecraft immediately recognized this fawning sentimental gesture as a familiar and potent literary move. But knowing that Burke was also an active reviewer (and founder of the Annual Register), as well as the youthful author of a treatise on the very topic of susceptibility to aesthetic stimuli, On the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), Wollstonecraft’s analysis of Burke traces the deep philosophical roots of his position, and in doing so her political argument is activated through cultural and literary criticism.[4]

Wollstonecraft’s extensive focus on books in her second Vindication was an extension of her approach in her first Vindication. Again, chronology illuminates. Rights of Men was completed in late 1790 and the second edition was published in early 1791. In the last section, Wollstonecraft promises a continuation and expansion of her literary approach:

And now I find it almost impossible candidly to refute your sophisms, without quoting your own words, and putting the numerous contradictions I observed in opposition to each other.

Rights of Woman was begun within weeks of this statement, if not earlier, and the first in depth critique in the book, which Susan Wolfson has dubbed “the genesis of feminist literary criticism,” features extensive quoting of John Milton and juxtaposition of passages from Paradise Lost. She does the same with Rousseau and many other writers throughout the book. Could it be, though, that Wollstonecraft had been pondering her great Vindication even before 1791, her thoughts on books nursed over the course of her experiences as a governess in Ireland, a founder of a girls’ school in the Dissenters’ community of Newington Green, and her job reading reams and reams of print since 1789?

In any event, between February and November of 1791, when it seems Rights of Woman was completed, Wollstonecraft had written another four or five dozen reviews. Some of these reviews picked up and extended the concerns of her growing literary critical practice, especially when she takes a good hard look at Rousseau’s Confessions, where she’s harder on her fellow critics than on Rousseau himself: “[T]hough we must allow that he had many faults which called for the forbearance of his friends, still what have his defects of temper to do with his writings?” This was written in December of 1791 when Rights of Woman was being typeset, a crucial fact when we juxtapose this statement with Wollstonecraft’s dismantling of Rousseau and other influential male writers in her treatise, sometimes accompanied by breathtaking ad hominem.

Speculations on the emotional state of an author are found throughout Rights of Woman. However, Wollstonecraft also takes a step back and questions the interpretive theory itself, as in this statement from Chapter 5: “But peace to his manes! I war not with his ashes, but his opinions,” and this is followed by another extraordinary implication: “I war only with the sensibility that led him to degrade woman by making her the slave of love.” In other words, she characterizes Jean-Jacques as himself subject to cultural and psychological pressures. The great man as vulnerable weather vane of culture appears again here: “Rousseau’s observations, it is proper to remark, were made in a country where the art of pleasing was refined only to extract grossness of vice,” in Chapter 5. Milton is also subject to a psychological reading. In Chapter 2, Wollstonecraft’s juxtaposition of allegedly contradictory passages from Paradise Lost is meant to reveal the emotional instability that can beset even the most respected writers. Wollstonecraft explains that, “into similar inconsistencies are great men often led by their senses.” Wollstonecraft places the most influential writers in the role that young women had been placed in for over a century, as hapless and indiscriminate readers sponging up cultural influences.

wollstonecraft advert

Wollstonecraft signals that a series of “fresh illustrations” structure the text

Rights of Woman presents an anti-canon of texts which had conspired over generations and across different societies to construct the feminine “character,” making the book a forensic treasure trove of gender normative evidence, annotated by an expert editor (and she had perhaps edited two anthologies by this time). In short, if we see A Vindication of the Rights of Woman as a continuation of her practice as a literary, political, and cultural commentator, then a new book comes into view, a book in which each text under consideration links to others, across genres and literary generations, as Wollstonecraft excavates a self-generating ideology of gender, or as she puts it so well: “The Prevailing Opinion of a Sexual Character Discussed.” The title of Chapter 2 is so perfect that she saw no need to give Chapter 3 a new title, calling it, “The Same Subject Continued.” In fact, these two chapters contain, by my quick count, at least 53 allusions, references, and quotations of influential texts, but not “influential” in the elitist sense. The primary criterion for inclusion is not how “great” a work is but how much of an effect it has had upon notions of femininity. In the midst of dismantling the work of an allegedly lascivious and condescending writer of conduct manuals, Wollstonecraft drops this hammer:

As these volumes are so frequently put into the hands of young people, I have taken more notice of them than, strictly speaking, they deserve; but as they have contributed to vitiate the taste, and enervate the understanding of many of my fellow-creatures, I could not pass them silently over.

We can look at Chapters 2 through 5 as a unit, one in which Wollstonecraft methodically works through a huge range of genres, generations, and authors. Chapter 5 itself is essentially a mini-anthology of five reviews, each covering a representative book or genre, and is the last chapter in the book to feature a rich interplay of texts. Chapter 6 is the proper and organic endpoint to the literary critical portion of the book, as it supplies a philosophical and physiological argument for the effect of texts upon impressionable minds. Again the title of the chapter says it so well: “The Effect which an Early Association of Ideas Has upon the Character,” apparently drawing on Joseph Hartley’s proto-psychological theories of how the mind is held in thrall by random ideas that group together and roam the mind in “posses” (which in turn come from a midcentury debate over John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding). In Chapter 6 in particular and in Rights of Woman in general, this analysis expands into a proto-feminist theory: “Everything that they see or hear serves to fix impressions, call forth emotions, and associate ideas, that give a sexual character to the mind,” and to pin part of the blame on books, she specifies that, “the books professedly written for their instruction, which make the first impression on their minds, all inculcate the same opinions.”

Wollstonecraft expands the view of the vulnerable recipients of gendered education to include male figures such as the great writers themselves, Milton, Rousseau, and “most of the male writers who have followed his steps.” Notions of gender identity don’t just turn young women’s heads, but also act upon authors, even quite established and otherwise judicious ones. That is why she saves her most biting epithets in Rights of Woman for writers, not readers, which constitutes a break from most of the reviews up to 1791. In conclusion, Rights of Woman is a brilliantly orchestrated set of literary commentaries. Who but a practicing educator, critic, and journalist could construct such a comprehensive anthology of texts which build an image of women’s “character” and back it up with pointed analysis of the authors she engages with? Who but a hardworking woman who spent her days earning a living by writing about books?


[1] To get an overview of the state of the art, it is worth a look at the Cambridge History of Literary Criticism, volume 4, but for women’s literary criticism of the long eighteenth century there is the gem, Women Critics, 1660-1820 (1995).

[2] One of the best treatments of the literary nature of Wollstonecraft’s first Vindication is still the brilliant and useful book by Virginia Sapiro, A Vindication of Political Virtue: The Political Theory of Mary Wollstonecraft (1992).

[3] A very notable exception was Emma Clough’s A Study of Mary Wollstonecraft and the Rights of Woman from 1898 (the work of one of the first female doctoral students in the United States).

[4] I am very much indebted to Virginia Sapiro, Mitzi Myers, Caroline Franklin, Mary Waters, Susan Wolfson,Daniel O’Neill, many others who have brought Wollstonecraft’s work as a professional reviewer further into the light.


Fiore Sireci (PhD Edinburgh) is on the faculty of Hunter College (CUNY) and The New School for Public Engagement, where he teaches interdisciplinary courses in literature, philosophy, and social history. Professor Sireci is a former Fulbright scholar in literature pedagogy. He has recently presented at the American Academy in Rome, publishes regularly on Mary Wollstonecraft, and is completing his second book, After Italy, a memoir and local history.

Summer Reading: Part II



Oil on Canvas, Lombard School, c.1700.

Here is the second 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 third & final installment!


It seems that every other book I pick up about the contemporary political scene, especially those like Melinda Cooper’s Family Values attempting to develop a conceptual framework for the intersection of neoliberalism and social conservatism, draws in a fundamental way on Wendy Brown’s States of Injury. The book is now more than twenty years old and I should have read it long ago, so a goal for the summer is to sit down with it and also Brown’s more recent work.  

Another scholarly monument I hope to move out of the “ought already to have read” category is Istvan Hont’s Jealousy of Trade. For different reasons, this is a summer of doing Enlightenment reading for me, and Hont fits into this. I am particularly interested again for contemporary reasons in getting to think a bit differently about nation-states and their historical functions and reasons.

I’ve started the summer returning to George Eliot. Middlemarch is perhaps the first (capital L) Literary novel I picked up on my own as a teenager and was really swept up by. Now I am part way through Adam Bede, and am reading this novel—featuring Methodists and skilled craftsmen—with much more E.P. Thompson in the back of my head than I had as a younger person. It is delightful, although the human sympathy with which Eliot approaches so many of her characters takes on a different hue when, after all, it is not given to all of the characters.



I finished (and passed!) my qualifying exams three weeks ago. On the shelf above my desk is a skyscraper of paperbacks looking down at me as a Cheshire Cat would beckoning me to give into temptation, and now I surrender.  My reading list for the summer, thus, draws from this tower of books as I try to explore the themes of memory, experience, violence and the criminal underworld for my own dissertation.

In Petina Gappah’s The Book of Memory (2015) the narrator reveals how writing and recollection interact and produce non-linear snapshots as her own life as it is held in the balance of the Zimbabwean legal system. The narrator, playfully named Memory, is an albino woman in the Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison in Harare. She is convicted of the murder of Lloyd Hendricks, a wealthy white professor. As she waits for the results of her appeal Memory is asked to write her own story from the townships to the suburbs of Harare. Gappah’s book intersects with Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak Memory (1951) who also tried to capture, like his butterflies in a net, remembrances of a life not yet completed.

I return to D.M. Thomas’s White Hotel (1981) that I had read years ago for a history course. I recall the horror that my fellow students viscerally experienced, not due to the violence in the book, but the erotic sexual fantasies of the main character, Anna G. The book is divided into three parts beginning in 1919. Anna G. presents herself to Freud as suffering from hysteria. Ultimately his analysis of her judges Anna G. as an unreliable narrator of her own past. He is unable to see that she is actually envisioning her own future, the Holocaust. Thomas presents a blistering analysis of the 20th century as he weaves scientific case history and fantasy to locate the individual within the contingency of historical fate. These themes resonate in Juliane Okot Bitek’s 100 Days (2016). This book of poetry brings the reader through the towns and villages in Rwanda, as the world looked on helpless and in shock, as a televised genocide took place.

Journalist Martin Dillon explores the “Troubles” (1960s-1990s) in Northern Ireland in The Dirty War (1990).  The author describes the ideology and the methods of the British security forces to infiltrate, destabilize and destroy the Provo’s (Provisional Irish Republican Army). The reality of imprisonment, torture, blackmail are also imprinted on Abdelilah Hamdouchi novel echoing the underworld of Dillon’s in Whitefly. A crime novel about drug dealers, traffickers and smugglers in Morocco offers an insight into police culture in a post-colonial space. My desire to understand the everydayness of violence brings me to Anne Nivat’s treatment of the Russian war with Chechnya in Chienne de Guerre: A Woman Reporter Behind the Lines of the War in Chechnya (2009). In 1999 she travelled illegally into the war zone by disguising herself as a Chechen woman. For six months she moved amongst the protagonists and some antagonists to listen to their experiences. Her ethnographic-style of journalism records the confusion, loss and disruption for Chechens as they became foreigners within their own homeland.

Fouad Laroui The Curious Case of Dassoukine’s Trousers (2016) takes up the task of the realities of what it means to be foreign as he follows his main character Dassoukine from Morocco to Belgium.  Joseph Cassara’s debut novel  The House of Impossible Beauties (2018) narrates the drag ball scene in 1980s New York during the emergence of HIV/AIDS. Cassara’s novel is about queer life and the ways in which the protagonists deal with their own family history and the pressures to conform to heteronormative ideals of masculinity and femininity. Another debut novel I discovered of late is Tendai Huchu’s The Hairdresser of Harare (2010). The blurb describes it as a “delicious and devastating” black comedy of political manners in the Zimbabwe. The book follows Vimbai, the best hairdresser in Mrs. Khumalo’s salon. When the slick Dumisani shows up one day for work with his impressive skills with the scissors Vimbai becomes uncomfortably competitive. The tension between these two characters reflects the rapidly changing social and economic structures of Zimbabwe in the 21st century.

Reading these types of novels always brings me back to the historian’s craft, especially in dealing with how we map and interrogate contemporary climate change and history. Rob Nixon’s  Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (2013) and Jasbir K. Puar’s The Right to Maim: Debility, Capacity, Disability (2017) are path breaking books that aim to disrupt categories of disability, violence and liberal state.  As I am never-endingly drawn to all things “sciency” I wait with great anticipation for Rob McCleary’s Too Fat To Go To The Moon” (or, “Gay Sasquatch Saved My Life”) scheduled for publication in 2019. In lieu of this book, I will read his short story Nixon in Space. I will pair this with Minsoo Kang’s Sublime Dreams of Living Machines: The Automaton in the European Imagination (2011) in tracing how the automaton has captured the Western imagination. Kang uses this trope as a lens into the human/machine and nature/culture binaries. In mapping the origin of these ideas and how they penetrate into cultural, artistic and intellectual spheres Kang’s synthetic work will bring the reader on quite the intellectual adventure, from ancient Greece to mechanistic philosophy and nineteenth century fantastic literature.

Last, Nick Hopwood’s Haeckel’s Embryos: Images, Evolution, and Fraud (2015) and Kirk Wallace Johnson’s The Feather Thief. Beauty, Obsession and the Natural History  Heist of the Century (2018). Hopwood maps the story of the infamous drawings of embryos by the Darwinist Ernst Haeckel. The drawings show humans and other vertebrates as begin identical in embryo-form but eventually diverge toward their diverse adult forms. Upon its publication in 1868, Haeckel’s colleague alleged fraud and Hopwood examines how this charge has been repeated numerous times ever since. Johnson, however, tracks a more unusual “fetish” of sorts.  In 2009, twenty-year old American flautist Edwin Rist broke into the Tring Museum, a suburban outpost of the the British Museum of Natural History. Once inside, Rist removed hundreds of rare bird skins from their shelves into his suitcase, and sold them to interested buyers. Many of these desiccated birds were tagged 150 years earlier by the naturalist, and close colleague of Charles Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace. Johnson immerses himself into this fascinating illegal trade to understand the characters that risk their lives for these feathered trophies.  



Considering the myriad nineteenth-century works of literature that might be refashioned for our day, I wasn’t eagerly awaiting a new rendition of Irish-American playwright Dion Boucicault’s The Octoroon (1859). In its day, though, from its first performance at the famous Winter Garden Theatre in New York, the melodrama was a hit. Unsurprisingly, it conformed neatly to the confines of that genre, and more specifically the trope of the tragic mixed-race female protagonist–often a quadroon, of one-fourth black ancestry, or in this case one-eighth. Despite its considerable popularity during those years, it is not well-known. It certainly is more so now. Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ ingenious and compelling reinterpretation of Boucicault’s original premiered at the Soho Rep in spring 2014. It has since made the rounds among US and UK theaters, including Berkeley Repertory Theater, where I saw it (and then had UC Berkeley students of mine watch) this past summer. There’s too much in the play to laud or that has been lauded. The play enthralls, and I think its strongest accomplishment is to both mock the melodrama it is based on while compellingly using that genre to meditate on racial relations in the US today. The audience is made uncomfortable, scripted as participants in a slave auction and, more subtly, prompted to laugh at a variety of minstrel antics and dialect echoing the very blackface minstrelsy that delighted audiences in the antebellum US. I would recommend reading and viewing side-by-side, beginning with Boucicault’s play and looking out for Jacobs-Jenkins An Octoroon: it plays in Chautauqua later this month, Fort Worth late summer, and right now in London at the National Theatre’s Dorfman Theatre (I’m sure there it’s running elsewhere too, or will be soon).

Network Guys

By Contributing Editor Brendan Mackie

Just what makes humanity special? On a range of merely physical indicators, the human animal is downright average. Our metabolic rate is roughly what it is for other animals our size. We’re decent sprinters, but not particularly strong. Darwin said that the difference between the human and . And although we’re clearly smart, who knows how smart we would find a sperm whale to be, if we could only speak whale?

One indicator does set humanity apart.While every other mammal gets roughly a billion heartbeats over their natural lifetime, a modern human gets more than two and a half billion beats. Why?

A pair of recently released books looks to answer the question by looking at the geometry of human social life. In Scale (Penguin Random House, 2018), Geoffrey West, a theoretical physicist and long-time head of the Santa Fe Institute, explores what happens when things get big and small. It turns out that things from animals to trees to cities scale in very similar ways because of the special geometric properties of fractal networks. The secret to our extra billion beats lies in the scaling properties of modern life. Niall Ferguson’s The Square and the Tower (Penguin, 2018) argues that the big creative moments of your World History survey class like the Industrial Revolution can be explained by the shape of historical social networks. Two stand out: the network, and the hierarchy. Both books present easy to understand, compelling stories about what make humans—particularly modern humans—different. Both books agree that this difference resides in the geometry of human connection.

Scale makes one big point. As a number of things (animals, trees, cities, companies) get bigger, they get bigger in similar ways. Bigger animals, for instance, have lower metabolic rates because each individual cell needs to work less; this means a slower heartbeat, and a longer life span. For every four orders of magnitude an animal grows, its metabolic rate only grows three orders of magnitude. This is true for the 27 orders of magnitude of life on earth, from bacteria to whales. There are similar scaling patterns for scores of indicators, from the width of tree trunks to the size of the aorta.

The reason for these roughly similar scaling relationships in so many different domains is that we are dealing with same kind of shape: space-saving self-similar fractal networks. A : a coastline, a tree, a lung, an org chart, a paisley pattern. Fractals have a special property that they seem to grow the more you zoom in on them. You know this intuitively. Imagine measuring the coastline of California from one of those big elementary school atlases. Then imagine measuring the same coastline on foot with a ruler, walking patiently along every cliff, every inlet, and every tide pool. The second measure would be far longer than the first, because you’d be picking up on the coastline’s fractal dimension—the little zigs and zags that are only appreciable when you get really close to them. This means fractals behave as if they have an extra dimension. Take the little fractal bags of air called alveoli that fill up our lungs. If you unfurled them, their surface area could cover a tennis court, although they only take up five liters of space in your chest. This extremely fast scaling is why fractals appear so much in nature—they are incredibly efficient at filling up valuable space, and so are continually selected for.

fractal britain

From the Fractal Foundation’s course on the Fractal Dimension

But this does not account for our extra billion heartbeats. To do so, West pushes us to see humanity as something more than just the sum of our biological processes. Look at just how much energy we use in a day. Our bodies use only slightly more energy than a 90 Watt lightbulb. But accounting for our extra-bodily energy use (the fertilizer used to grow our crops, the gasoline used to drive our cars, the electricity we use to run our computers) we use more like 11,000 watts a day—the equivalent of a small group of elephants. We have an extra billion heart beats because we are effectively much larger and greedier animals than our physical size would suggest. Here’s West summing it up: “Our effective metabolic rate is now one hundred times greater than what it was when we were truly biological animals, and this has had huge consequences for our recent life history. We take longer to mature, we have fewer offspring, and we live longer, all in qualitative agreement with having an effectively larger metabolic rate arising from socioeconomic activity.” We should consider the modern human not an animal, but as an animal at the center of a massive networks of buildings, machines, roads, businesses, and institutions. These are why we have the extra billion heart beats.

That massive networks of buildings, machines, roads and institutions go by another name—the city—and it is in West’s discussion of the modern city that he comes closest to explaining the history of human divergence. It will be no surprise that there are robust scaling relationships tourban phenomena as well. We can appreciate this in a pair of logarithmic graphs. As a city gets an order of magnitude bigger,its infrastructure (the length of its roads and power lines, the number of its gas stations) increases by 0.85 of an order of magnitude;while its ‘socioeconomic effects’ (income, flu and crime rates, patents filed, number of restaurants) increase by 1.15 orders of magnitude. This might not seem like a big difference, but it compounds exponentially. Bigger cities become cheaper and cheaper to provision per person, and similarly they become increasingly creative, wild, interesting, varied, and profitable. It is not liberal institutions, or the special genius of a particular culture, or democracy that have led to the prosperity of the modern world. It’s the metropolis.

predictable cities

From A Unified Theory of Urban Living by Luis Bettencourt. Note the scale is logarithmic.

Has this always been the case? Will it continue? As for the future, West is softly apocalyptic. Exponential growth—that is, a phenomenon in which the rate of growth is itself growing—must always reach a limit. The past two-hundred years have been an outlier, because new innovations have effectively reset the growth curve before this limit has been reached. When steam engine spluttered out, along came steel. Big data might soon reach its peak, but within a year or two we’ll have AI. But as the growth curve gets ever steeper, the extra time bought by each subsequent innovation is a little bit less, so the new innovation must come ever quicker—until we can buy no more time at all.

growth and innovaion

A schematic of the increasing pace of innovation, from Growth, Innovation, Scaling and the Pace of Life In Cities, by Bettencourt, et. al.

The implications that these scaling patterns have for our understanding of the past is another matter. It is an unanswered question whether the same relationships existed for cities before the modern era (there is some indication that they do). Yet I suspect that before the prevalence of cheap energy from fossil fuels, big cities were simply too dirty, too complicated, and too messy to sustain major growth. Historians could do interesting work seeing how the scaling relationships in human societies have changed over time.

West, a physicist, looks for elegant, parsimonious answers to big questions. But he only gets this perspective by stripping away particularities until all that’s left is a piece of data that can be pinned on a graph. There is little room for the individual in West’s story—even the scientists, entrepreneurs, politicians and kings that are the usual protagonists of doorstopper history books. There can be little confrontation with inequality in West’s story, because studying inequality means wrestling with difference, and difference here is stripped away in favor of the big picture. Why do some people grow rich and others stay poor? Why do some societies decline, while others come to a kind of supremacy? Does exponentially growing prosperity simply make a small group of people obscenely rich? Is this all good? Or is it bad? In the end, West can show us the pattern, but he cannot tell us the meaning of the pattern, because we’ve zoomed so far out the human has foreshortened to almost nothing.

One way of capturing the dynamics of scale while keeping attention on the human is to look at networks. It is the properties of fractal networks after all that give modern cities their peculiar scaling properties. Niall Ferguson attempts such a history in his recent book The Square and the Tower. Ferguson is a self-professed ‘network guy’; a man of dinner parties, conferences, and wide-ranging influence. (Ferguson even appears in West’s acknowledgements.) Ferguson, like West, sees humanity as a species defined by its participation in networks—he even suggests that humanity might be renamed homo dictyous, or Network Man. And like West, Ferguson proffers a parsimonious explanation for the modern world, in which modernity is driven by the special properties of social networks. Ferguson’s idea is that history is driven by the For most of human history, hierarchies reigned. But during certain periods, networks successfully challenged hierarchies, leading to amazing ages of human potential

square and tower

The Square and the Tower of the title, from Siena, from Wikipedia

Two moments stand out. The first happened in Western Europe between the Commercial and Industrial Revolutions. Unconstrained by a strong despotic state, European men formed networks with relative freedom. Networks of sailors benefiting from the competitive patronage of Mediterranean princes traded information about trade routes and sea winds, allowing them to ride the waves of the Atlantic and exploit the Americas. The printing press allowed the creation of networks of print that spread the message of Martin Luther (but came too late to spread the equally revolutionary words of Jan Hus), unintentionally upending restrictive religious orthodoxies. Networks of scientists and tinkerers were allowed to build up knowledge of the solar system and steam engines without worrying about the hierarchy of the Inquisition restricting their inquiries. Networks of malcontents and revolutionaries egged each other on to mount the American and then the French Revolutions. But in history there must be a fall for every rise: in the 19th century hierarchies reestablished themselves—here comes Napoleon on his world historical horse, an Emperor to rip the networks of the Sans Culottes to shreds. In the aftermath of Waterloo, European nations created an unequal hierarchical world order. Big businesses expanded with top-heavy org charts. More war! 1914! 1945! Networks only rose again this past generation, prompting computers, the internet, Twitter, and the usual list of salutary or not so salutary developments. (Al Qaeda, though it means “The Base,” is a network.)

The simplicity of West’s story is grounded in precise mathematical definitions, but Ferguson’s simplicity rests on concepts that never really get firmly pinned down. It’s unclear, frankly, just what Ferguson means by network and hierarchy. Ferguson gives no end of examples: hierarchies are horizontal, while networks are vertical; hierarchies give people power, networks influence; hierarchies are kings and CEOs, networks influencers and creatives; hierarchies are bureaucratic organizations, networks loose alliances. Hierarchies are the Mughal Court, the Pentagon, the Aztecs, and the office of the Presidency. Networks are the East India Company, spy rings, the Royal Society, the conquistadors, and the friends of Henry Kissinger. In a central chapter, Ferguson proposes a formal definition from network analysis that a hierarchy is a special kind of self-similar network in which connections are monopolized by particular nodes. But this formal definition is rarely if ever mobilized to actually define whether a given organization is a network or a hierarchy. Instead if it looks like a network, then it’s a network. If it looks like a hierarchy, then it’s a hierarchy. Oddly enough for a book in which network analysis is meant to uncover new patterns in history, we hardly ever look into the geometry of the historical networks themselves. Instead we get a long string of anecdotes.

Network Models - Random network, Scale-free network, Hierarchical network

What is clear is that a previously-obscured historical actor is now uncertainly stepping to the forefront of the human drama—the network—and history has to grapple with it. But what are we to do? How can we tell historical stories using these new tools but still pay attention to individuals and difference? We are left with a series of itching inconclusive questions: How are we all connected? How can we reach beyond the dull confusion of our small lives to somehow understand the universe itself? And not to forget that there are people in those dots, love and enmity in those lines connecting them?

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.

Trafficking, Smuggling and Illicit Migration in International History: A Conference Report

By guest contributor Emma Kluge

On April 12-13, scholars from across the world gathered together at the University of Sydney for Trafficking, Smuggling and Illicit Migration in International History: New Geographic and Scalar Perspectives. This workshop and conference was birthed out of a collaboration between the Trafficking Past project led by Julia Laite (Birkbeck, University of London) and Philippa Hetherington (University College London) and the Laureate Research Program in International History led by Glenda Sluga (University of Sydney). The Trafficking Past project aims to interrogate ‘trafficking’ in history on global, national and local scales within the context of migration, labour and gender, and to bring a critical historical perspective to present-day political debates over trafficking and migration. The Laureate Research Programme in International History brings together a team of specialist researchers to ask innovative questions about how humans have imagined the international as a realm of politics and society in the past. The purpose of this co-organised event was to gather together research from and on the Asia-Pacific region and examine how different geographic and scalar perspectives can contribute to historicising ‘trafficking’. If you want to see how things played out in real-time catch up on the proceedings through following the #traffickingpast hashtag on twitter and see photos of the conference.

The proceedings kicked off with a Sydney Ideas public event on Wednesday 11 April entitled ‘Beyond Trafficking and Modern Slavery’ chaired by Philippa Hetherington and featuring talks from Jennifer Burns, director of Anti-Slavery Australia and professor at UTS, and Sverre Molland, anthropologist at Australian National University. The event drew a large crowd of students, academics and members of the public. It brought a historic and legal perspective to current development of Australian Modern Slavery legislation and challenged citizens and activists alike to consider the history of approaches to combating trafficking and reconsider how they mobilize the language of trafficking within the political sphere.

The following day a more intimate group of scholars gathered together for the workshop. The speakers were arranged into panels, each with a generous amount of time for discussion and debate in order to draw out connections and interrogate ‘trafficking’ in its different contexts and iterations.

Julia Laite and Philippa Hetherington set the frame for the workshop and then the conference kicked off with the first panel which explored how local and global scales can be used to study trafficking in the nineteenth century.  April Haynes (University of Wisconsin) spoke on intelligence officers, employment agencies, and narratives of trafficking in early nineteenth century America. Her paper focused on the politics of intimate labour in a local context. This paper was followed by Rae Frances (Australian National University) who took up an international frame to examine sex trafficking through the prism of empire. This panel inspired discussions on the usefulness of different geographical frames in thinking through the policing and responses to trafficking. What specificities become visible at the local level and what patterns emerge on the global scale?

This was followed by a panel that focused on trafficking in Asia Pacific. Sophie Loy-Wilson (University of Sydney) examined the Australian discourse of illicit migration and its use to discredit Chinese workers in Australia and how this contributed to restrictive migration schemes and harsh legal practises in the nineteenth century. Then Sandy Chang (University of Texas) took us to British Malaya with her examination of the brothel economy from 1900s-1930s. She complicated ideas of trafficking through examining the lives of Chinese women involved in the sex trade. These papers generated a discussion of the politics of different forms of labour and its intersection with race and gender.

On Friday morning Clare Corbould (Deakin University) took centre stage to discuss the Pacific Afterlives of slavery through the writing of Mark Twain. Corbould highlighted the need to connect studies of the Pacific indentured labour trade in the nineteenth century with the broader historiography of slavery and specifically American studies scholarship of the legacies of the eighteenth-century slave trade. How do we define the term slavery? At what point does trafficking and coerced labour become slavery? How do our conceptions of these term impact on the histories we write?

The second panel for the day was on Law, Regulation and Global Governance. Both papers asked how legal definitions or official discourse might obscure forms of trafficking. Jean Allain (Monash University) took up a legal frame to examine the meanings of trafficking law as articulated at the 1904 International conference for the Repression of the White Slave Traffic. Julia Martinez (University of Wollongong) challenged us to think through our maps of trafficking – literal and scholarly – and think through which regions have been excluded through exploring the case study of trafficking in the Philippines under the US administration. Martinez highlighted the need to study the trafficking of women within the context of migration in order to recognize more complex or less visible forms of forced labour.

This was followed by a panel on Trafficking and Technology.  Leslie Barnes (Australian National University) spoke on Nicholas Kristof and the reshaping of humanitarian impulse. She gave a critical literary analysis of Kristof’s twitter feed surrounding a Cambodian brothel raid in 2011 and what it tells us about modern conceptions of trafficking and public responses to it. Next Julia Laite and Philippa Hetherington shared the Trafficking Past project’s challenges in developing an online database on trafficking. They reflected on the potentials and pitfalls of collaboration and education in the online world and the role of historians in engaging with modern debates about human trafficking and forced migration. How might we use the digital space to historicize trafficking? How can scholars fruitfully intervene in debates around trafficking and modern slavery discourse?

This discussion coalesced into the closing session where panelists reflected on the concept of trafficking and larger themes raised by the conference. Fiona Paisley (Griffith University) asked participants to consider different ways of framing studies of trafficking, such as transnationalism and cosmopolitanism, to think about trafficking across different scales and networks. Glenda Sluga highlighted the link between trafficking and studies of capitalism. What happens when we add businesses and corporations to our map of trafficking? Laite urged us to consider what it would look like to radically contextualise the lives of those involved in trafficking. How might we use the lives of individuals to draw out organic connections across empire? Finally, Hetherington reflected on importance of critically examining narratives of trafficking and not falling into the trap of sexual exceptionalism through oversimplification. In drawing together these themes, Laite and Hetherington urged scholars to continue to grapple with diverse scalar and geographical perspectives and use this network as a way to collaborate and contextualise their studies.*

As part of the continuing work of the Trafficking Past project Julia Laite and Philippa Hetherington will be editing special issue of Journal of Women’s History on Migration, Sex, and Intimate Labour’ which will continue to draw out the themes of the workshop. You can find out more about the Trafficking Past project on their website (Link: https://traffickingpast.uk/) and stay up to date with their twitter (link: @traffickingpast). You can follow along with the International History Laureate on their website (http://rp-www.arts.usyd.edu.au/research/inventing-the-international/index.shtml) and twitter @IntHist. The conference program can be found here: http://sydney.edu.au/arts/research/inventing-the-international/news-events/events.shtml?id=10131

Emma Kluge is a PhD Candidate at the University of Sydney. Emma is a historian of human rights, decolonization and the Pacific. She is currently working on her PhD thesis ‘Histories of West Papuan resistance and resilience’, examining the development of the West Papuan independence movement in the 1960s-70s. She is an avid #twitterstorian and PhD-blogger; you can follow her on twitter @EmmaKluge1 and read about her research adventures and misadventures at www.emmakluge.com.

What did Europeans contribute to the caste system in India?

By Contributing Writer Sumit Guha, University of Texas at Austin

Closed, normatively endogamous communities have a long history in Southern Asia. Over the past millennium, they have been labeled with the Sanskrit ‘jati’, Arabic ‘qaum’, Persian ‘zat’ and others. But we have long known that there is no equivalent word for “caste” in any Indian or Asian language.  It came as a loan-word but is today firmly embedded in Indian public and policy discourse. We also know that the first users of the term (as ‘casta’) were Iberians – Portuguese and Spanish, first in the Iberian peninsula and then in Asia and the Americas. But how the term was used– descriptively, administratively, and sociologically—is less known. The connection of Asia and the Americas has not been made.


Two Iberian Empires initiated and, for more than a century, controlled all the trans-Oceanic ventures of modern Europeans. These were the Spanish in the Americas and the Portuguese in Asia. Several Iberian kingdoms had begun a campaign of religious persecution against Jews in the 1300s. Many converted under duress. But to the dismay of many ‘old Christian’ churchmen in cushy sinecures, the educated and affluent among the Jewish converts then began to rise in Church and royal service. Furthermore, converts’ prominence among tax-collectors naturally made them unpopular with poorer Christians. The interests of clerics and plebeians thus coalesced first in pogroms and then in justifying their hostility via a doctrine of ‘purity of blood’ – the idea that only ‘old Christians’ were worthy of favor in Spanish and Portuguese society. Protagonists of the new idea had to contend against long-established Church doctrine of all humans are redeemable through Christ. Quite remarkably, they nonetheless succeeded in prioritizing biological descent above spiritual redemption. It followed that ‘New Christians’, ‘conversos’ etc., especially those belonging to the “casta de judios”, should be carefully watched and vigilantly excluded from offices of status. (The above is drawn largely from Albert Sicroff, Le Controverse de Statuts de Pureté de Sang 1960.) This grew into a settled prejudice that intensified into the nineteenth century. ‘Casta’ before 1500 had tended to refer to type or breed of plant or animal: but it now came to mean a species of human marked by descent. It was thus verging on the emerging concept of race. Even today a standard dictionary illustrates its meaning with the phrase “eso me viene de casta” rendered as “it’s in my blood”.

It is not surprising that when the Iberians came to Asia and the Americas, they promptly began classifying people by descent.  Even at the time, Indians did not marry outside a specific set of families, or ‘caste’ defined as a ‘marriage-pool’. Iberians however promptly decided that this was motivated by a drive to preserve the purity of their “blood”. This was pointed out by the American anthropologist Morton Klass.  At the same time, the Spanish and Portuguese also began creating a ‘sistema de castas’, a caste system in the Spanish Americas.


Ignacio María Barreda, Depiction of the Casta System in Mexico

Spain and Portugal were united under one monarchy from 1580 to 1640. More importantly, they were also bound by the powerful racial ideology well embedded in the Iberian Catholic Church. The Portuguese introduced later-coming Europeans to the Indian subcontinent and Indians to a new kind of Westerner. Many Portuguese loanwords entered the languages of Asia. One of these was ‘casta’, anglicized to ‘cast’ or ‘caste’. But while this etymology is well-known, most discourse has assumed that the loan-word was applied to a pre-existing and very old indigenous social institution, an institution that has remained unchanged until the present. In the twentieth century, with the mounting cultural power of the USA, proponents of this view have increasingly assimilated ‘caste’ to the Western idea of ‘race’. They have also assumed it to be confined to the Hindu segment of the Indian population.

This has been a powerful and persistent trope, even though many specialists, such as the veteran sociologist Joseph Elder, have listed seven errors in the popular Western understanding of caste. One of these was that ‘Castes are uniquely Hindu’. He wrote that in India, ‘castes exist among Christians, Jains, Sikhs, Buddhists, and Muslims.’ Frequently the rules about marrying within one’s caste and avoiding interactions with other castes are as strict among Christians, Jains, etc. as they are among Hindus. Elder also puts his finger on a key element of its durability. This was that the British colonial regime – the most influential of South Asian empires— deployed it in its legal and political system.

The American anthropologist Morton Klass also attempted a historical account of the origin of caste as a concept and a practice. He pointed out that the Portuguese and Spanish were themselves just evolving a system of ethnic and social stratification by biological ancestry; it was for this reason that they immediately assumed that Indian jāti endogamous groups were aimed at maintaining ‘purity of blood’.  The early response was, however, not to attack caste but to reduce most features of it to a concern of civil society, external to the faith (adiaphora). Converts of different castes were thus permitted separate churches. According to the famous Jesuit missionary Nobili, this was an established practice by 1615. Indeed, Nobili approvingly quoted a Brahman convert who had responded to the criticism that Nobili’s color was evidence to his being a despicable ‘prangui’ (barbaric Westerner).

You reproach the saniassi [ascetic, meaning Nobili] with being a vile Prangui and cite his color as proof. …by that argument I prove that you are a paria [a Dalit caste-name]. You are black, parias are black so you are therefore a paria. What! Can you not conceive that in another country where all men, brahmans and  parias alike are white, there will be among the whites the same distinction of castes, the same distinction between nobles and commoners? Everyone applauded this reply, which was as substantive as it was spirited.

This use of ‘casta’ to mean any kind of descent group entered other European languages. The Dutch, for example, were by 1640 describing the wives of some sailors as of “Portuguese casta”. It also traveled into English.

Early colonial governments recognized the administrative value of caste as a means to organize “civil society”. The Dutch conquered Sri Lanka from the Portuguese and enforced a strict caste system there. Different tax and labor dues were extracted from each caste in order to sustain Dutch colonial enterprise. To check evasion of the service requirement attached the land, subjects could not mortgage or sell their lands without leave, and the customs and distinctions of caste were rigorously enforced by Dutch penal regulations. This continued under the early British rule in Sri Lanka.  Similarly, in Bombay island, the first British colony in India, the early administration decided that the  “severall nations at pres[ent] inhabiting or hereafter to inhabit on the Island of Bombay be reduced or modelled into so many orders or tribes & that each nation may have a Cheif (sic) or Consull of the same nation appointed over them by the Gover[nor] and Councell”.  As late as 1900, the British government in India passed the Land Alienation Act, a major agrarian law regulating property transfers among two specified sets of “Tribes and Castes” described as ‘agriculturist’ and ‘non-agriculturist’. Both sets included Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. A more complete exposition of the long history of state, caste and ethnicity is to be found in my book, whose European and Indian editions are linked below.

(European) Beyond Caste: Identity and Power in South Asia, Past and Present

(Indian) Beyond Caste: Identity and Power in South Asia, Past and Present


Sumit Guha is Professor of History at The University of Texas at Austin


“Why are we still having children?”

By Contributing Editor Cynthia Houng


Mary Cassatt, “Mother and Childc. 1900
Pastel on blue-gray wove paper (faded to tan), mounted on board
Bequest of Dr. John Jay Ireland, Art Institute of Chicago, 1968.81

I finished Sheila Heti’s Motherhood over Mother’s Day weekend. In this book, Heti asks herself if she should have a child. If she should be a mother. I hadn’t planned on reading Motherhood over Mother’s Day, but when I realized the coincidence, I found it appropriate. After all, I am also a woman who writes, a woman without children, a woman uncertain if her future holds either children or motherhood, and there I was, surrounded by celebrations of motherhood at every turn.  At the beginning of the book, Heti declares, “Whether I want kids is a secret I keep from myself–it is the greatest secret I keep from myself.”

Later, she asks, “Why are we still having children?”

Heti’s book received mixed reviews. A number of the reviews were written by women who were also mothers, who had already chosen to have children. Whether this was coincidence, or by design, I do not know. In any case, Heti’s book struck a nerve with most readers. Even the most positive reviews contain an acid phrase or two. Alexandra Schwartz (who describes herself in the review as also a woman in her 30s without children) noted that “there is a lax, self-indulgent quality” to Heti’s writing. Lauren Oyler describes the book as characterized by “obsessive recursion,” while another reviewer dismissed Motherhood outright, “No amount of metafictional smoke and mirrors can make up for the absence of a compelling story.” Lynn Steger Strong opened her review with this anecdote: “A friend texted me a few months ago to tell me her period was late. We spent five minutes going back and forth on the specifics, but I was about to teach a class and she was getting on a train. Remember, I said, just before I put my phone away, the abstract idea of the thing is always scarier than the thing itself. This is a sentence I wanted to whisper to Sheila Heti’s main character throughout the reading of her book Motherhood. This is a thought exercise, I wanted to tell her, but it has very little relation to the actual thing.” The suggestion is that Heti is immature, dawdling on “what if” when she should just take action. Just complete the act. Or, as a certain ad slogan might put it: Just do it.

There will be good things on the other side. As Strong put it, “I love the man I married. I love our marriage. I love motherhood, but most of it is exactly like the rest of life: confusing and exhausting, messy, complicated, never like I planned. This is also, of course, the relief of all these major life decisions: there is just more—sometimes more crowded, more exhausting, sometimes more joyful—life on the other side.” But is this doing the result of one’s agency? Or something else? For Strong, the crux of Heti’s book–and more generally, of the condition of being female and thus endowed with the ability to bear children–is the interplay between consciousness and body, between our agency and lack of it.

Christine Smallwood’s review began with an account of her son’s birth, as an illustration of the power of motherhood, the way that motherhood pushes the mother to go beyond the self, to become a whole new–more open, more selfless–being. In contrast, Heti’s relentless questioning of her own lack of desire for motherhood displays “a solipsistic existentialism.” Smallwood’s response is perhaps the nastiest of the bunch. Her dismissal of Heti’s ambivalence is an extreme version of the usual response to women who meditate on this choice: women who ask “why” and not “when” to the question of children are narcissistic, immature, incapable of rising to the fullness of adulthood.

Smallwood argues, “Time works differently after you have a child. What was once a very steady beat suddenly moves at crazy, uneven speeds. Children fill up time that you didn’t know was empty. […] The experience is so utterly transformative that the person evaluating the decision is a different version of the person who made it. That is why it’s exciting. It remakes the world.” But Heti? To Smallwood, Heti clings to her world, willing it to be static. Heti seems to desire a different kind of power, one that Smallwood casts as unnatural: “The point is that she wants to extend the present version of herself into the future. What is that but a way of stopping time? Who wouldn’t want that power?”

I went to Catholic school. I am all too familiar with the sanctity and glory of motherhood, reinforced again and again with images of the Madonna and child. For most of human history, women had little agency over whether or not they wanted to become mothers. To have a womb was to bear a certain fate, unless one made certain unusual choices. One could become a nun. That would take you out of the motherhood game.

In the same paragraph where Heti asked the question why, she also wrote: “When I think of all the people who want to forbid abortions, it seems it can only mean one thing–not that they want this new person in the world, but that they want the woman to be doing the work of child-rearing more than they want her to be doing anything else. There is something threatening about a woman who is not occupied with children. There is something at-loose-ends feeling about such a woman. What is she going to do instead? What sort of trouble will she make?”

I felt a small ping of pleasure when I discovered that a woman I respect, a woman who is a talented designer, a successful business owner, and a mother, had posted a photograph of this exact passage on her Instagram. The comments on her post are instructive. This book, and its questions, rile people up. Rile women up. The fact that Elle published a review of Motherhood is telling.

Several reviewers have pointed out that Heti’s book is part of a larger corpus of recent books (many belong to the genre of autofiction) on the intersection of creativity and motherhood. Here, an incomplete list: Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts; Rachel Cusk, A Life’s Work; Jenny Offill, Department of Speculation; Heidi Julavits, The Folded Clock. These are questions that interest contemporary readers. We want more than the usual song-and-dance about the sanctity of motherhood, more than the madonna/whore binary. We want new and different approaches to the question of how to be a person in this world, ones that don’t tie us to the same tired binary structures (mother/father, madonna/whore, male/female, etc.). There is a thread in these works, one not often picked up by reviewers–one that pushes against the limits of thinking, and seeing, motherhood and being female as one and the same. One might quip that this is a story as old as Adam and Eve, but then the touchstone of Heti’s story is not Adam and Eve at all, but Jacob wrestling the Angel. And angels are something else entirely — neither/nor — but something beyond.

Editors’ weekly readings


Portrait of a painter during the reign of Mehmet II (1451-1481)


Alexandra Alvergne and Vedrana Högqvist Tabor, “Is Female Health Cyclical? Evolutionary Perspectives on Menstruation,” (TREE)

Jen Banbury, “The Weird, Dangerous, Isolated Life of the Saturation Diver” (Atlas Obscura)

Jill Lapore, “The Right Way to Remember Rachel Carson”(New Yorker)

Jenna Tonn, The Handmaid’s Tale. Hulu. Season 1 (April–June 2017). Television (Journal of the History of Biology)



David Graver, Art Activist Liina Klauss’ Sculpture From 5,000 Salvaged Flip-Flops, (Cool Hunting)

Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh, “The rise, fall and rise of Anwar Ibrahim,” (The Straits Times)

Stephen M. Walt, “The Art of the Regime Change,” (Foreign Policy)


Brendan M

Lauren Michele Jackson, Shudu Gram Is a White Man’s Digital Projection of Real-Life Black Womanhood (New Yorker)

Daniel Immerwhar, We’re the Good Guys, Right? (N+1)

Alex de Vreis, Bitcoin’s Growing Energy Problem (Joule)

Ryan Avent, A Brief(ish) Review of Radical Markets (Medium)



Mary Beard, “New deal for old tyrant” (TLS)

Miles Burrows, “Conversation in Avalon” (TLS)

Karl Kirchwey, “Once I lived” (Atlantic)

Josephine Livingston, “Weird Fiction is Alive” (New Republic)



Emma Brockes, “Tom Wolfe and the Bonfire of Male Literary Reputations,” (Guardian)

Daniel Kalder, “Tradition and the Individual Tyrant,” (TLS)

Nathalie Olah (in conversation with Brett Easton Ellis), “Brett Easton Ellis and the Future of Fiction,” (TLS)

Sally Rooney, “An Irish Problem,” (LRB)

Giovanni Tiso, “Restoring the Future: On the Closure of Italy’s Asylums,” (Overland)



Michael Moorcock, “The Truth of Ray Bradbury’s Prophetic Vision” (Lithub)

Joseph Vogel, “The Forgotten Baldwin” (Boston Review)

Kate Cronin-Furman, “The Insistence of Memory” (LARB)

Journal of the History of Ideas, vol. 29, no. 2

The Spring 2018 edition of the Journal of the History of Ideas. JHI logo.jpg

When the Eyes Are Shut: The Strange Case of Girolamo Cardano’s Idolum in Somniorum Synesiorum Libri IIII (1562) by Anna Corrias

Pierre Bayle and the Secularization of Conscience by Michael W. Hickson

Volney and the French Revolution by Minchul Kim

“Writers Who Have Rendered Women Objects of Pity”: Mary Wollstonecraft’s Literary Criticism in the Analytical Review and A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Fiore Sireci

Family, Gender, and Progress: Sophie de Grouchy and Her Exclusion in the Publication of Condorcet’s Sketch of Human Progress by Sandrine Bergès

Marx and the Kabbalah: Aaron Shemuel Lieberman’s Materialist Interpretation of Jewish History by Eliyahu Stern

John Robert Seeley, Natural Religion, and the Victorian Conflict between Science and Religion by Ian Hesketh

What we’re reading this week

Picasso, reading at a table

Picasso, Girl Reading at a Table (1934)


Stephanie McCarter, “The Bad Wives: Misogyny’s Age-Old Roots in the Home” (Eidolon)

Sam Haselby, “These should be the end times for patriotism” (aeon)

Eric Posner and Glen Weyl, “How Economists Became Timid” (Chronicle of Higher Education)

Claire Messud, “Wilder and Wilder” (NYRB)

Doreen St. Felix, “The Carnage and Chaos of Childish Gambino’s ‘This if America’” (New Yorker)



Charles Arthur, Scientists discover why fungi have 36,000 sexes (Independent)

Patchen Barss, Meet Your Body’s Death Eaters. From brain to blood to bone, macrophages take out our cellular trash (Nautilus)

S.Lochlann Jain, Cancer butch. (Cultural anthropology)

Miles Klee, Dirty War. The personal frontlines of germ warfare(Lapham’s Quarterly)



Lydia Robert, “Not in Someone Else’s Footsteps” (LARB)

David W. Blight, “The Silent Type” (NYRB)

The First Reviews of Every Toni Morrison Novel” (LitHub)

Rosebud Ben-Oni, “A Future for a Handful of Hours” (Marginalia)

Katherine Harvey, “Iconology of a Cardinal” (Public Domain Review)



Nils Gilman, “Human Rights and Neoliberalism,” (LARB)

Nanor Kebranian, “Genocide Recognition Without Human Rights?” (Humanity J Blog)

David Runciman, “Why Replacing Politicians with Experts is a Reckless Idea,” (Guardian)

Stuart Schrader, “Henri LeFebvre, Mao Zedong and the Global Urban Concept,” (Global Urban History)

Robert Zaretsky, “The Welcoming Labyrinth: What We Gain And Lose As Libraries Change,” (The Chronicle of Higher Education)