It’s been a long hot summer here in New York, and we are only halfway through the season.
Paul Fusco died on July 15th. Two days later, on July 17th, John Lewis died.
John Lewis needs no introduction. By now, you’ve probably seen this 1963 Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee poster, featuring a young John Lewis:
In the midst of another long hot summer, Danny Lyon hitchhiked to a small town in Illinois called Cairo. It was 1962. As Lyon recounted in an essay for the New York Review of Books, “One of my classmates, Linda Pearlstein, had been arrested in civil rights demonstrations in Cairo, Illinois. With contacts from Linda, I put my 35 mm Nikon F reflex into an old army bag, asked my sister-in-law to drive me to Route 66 at the city’s edge, stuck out my thumb, and hitchhiked south. I thought I was just going on an adventure.”
Lyon made this photograph on his second day in Cairo. He followed “a small group” to “a segregated swimming pool that sported a “Private Pool, Members Only” sign.” The group knelt to pray, and Lyon saw before him “a sublimely beautiful moment: the grace of the three, the two men kneeling at each side, the child in the middle.”
Lyon met John Lewis in Cairo. The two would go on to work together in the SNCC, and they also became lifelong friends. You can see the two in conversation in this interview from 2016, on the occasion of Lyon’s retrospective, “Message to the Future.” Lyon recalls how he found his calling as a photographer that same hot summer: “[When I arrived in Albany, Georgia,] over my shoulder was a Nikon F reflex. “You got a camera,” James Forman—then SNCC’s executive secretary—said to me when we met at the Freedom House. “Go inside the courthouse. Down at the back they have a big water cooler for whites and next to it a little bowl for Negroes. Go in there and take a picture of that.”
I invite you to sit with these images, sit with the people in them, some of them ghosts now, and look upon them with a regard both raw and tender. Walk through their blind departure. Feel the rush of the past, the still point of the present.
Danny Lyon, again: ‘That day in Washington when John showed me the star where Dr. King had stood, I listened to Al Sharpton, the keynote speaker at the 2013 march, as his voice boomed out through the public address system.
“And when they ask us for our voter ID, take out a photo of Medgar Evers. Take out a photo of Goodman, Cheney, and Schwerner. Take out a photo of Viola Liuzzo.
“They gave their lives so we could vote. Look at this photo. It gives you the ID of who we are.”’
What did Aristotle really believe? For early modern humanists and scholastics, the answer depended, not surprisingly, on whom you asked and to what end they were either defending or decrying his views, and why. Professor Eva Del Soldato’s brand new bookEarly Modern Aristotle: On the Making and Unmaking of Authority revisitsthe debate over whether the ‘re-discovery’ of Plato (and other ancients) was the true hallmark of a Renaissance renovatio that triumphed over the stodgy Aristotle of the universities, or whether, in actuality, Aristotle as a thinker was re-imagined and re-figured to serve new ends. She argues that Aristotle, just like any ancient thinker, was a stand-in for a figure of authority and thus was tailored to suit certain, sometimes contradictory, agendas, further substantiating Charles Schmitt’s efforts to illustrate the multitude of early-modern Aristotelianisms. Del Soldato convincingly traces the use and abuse of Aristotle through thematic chapters acting like case studies, beginning with the late Byzantine genre of comparatio and a thorough study of the sheer variety of the conclusions found in early modern Latin comparatio. I especially enjoyed the final two chapters on apocryphal proverbs attributed to Aristotle, and the genre of texts in the vein of “if Aristotle were alive…,” what would he really think?
Stay tuned for my forthcoming interview with Professor Del Soldato and the role of authority in Early Modern Europe, on JHIBlog.
Karl Marx projected from the 1860s that the capitalism shaping the London around him would concentrate more and more proletarian workers in conditions of immiseration, while also leaving them more and more “disciplined, united, organized.” The factories that now defined the capitalist landscape pulled their denizens out of their domestic workshops, placing their occupants side-by-side with strangers rather than their families (who had also been their coworkers, or subordinates). There was no reason to think that the factories’ magnetic power would not attract more and more people inside, while those workers — and the class condition that unified them — became less and less anonymous to one another. From our standpoint looking back, the turn to remote work out of urgent necessity but likely to continue as a general trend reverses the story of capitalism’s tendency to physically bring together more working people. But computer programmers, grad students and clerical workers have not evacuated factories but rather offices, and the advent of the large office space and the economy that called it into being posed its own challenge to Marxist thinkers that sought to hasten the end of capitalism and the conservative commentators that celebrated its individualistic spirit. That history of how critics thought about the office space and its implications for work and social relations is brilliantly interwoven through Nikil Saval’s Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace(Vintage, 2014).
Saval traces literary representations and critical reflections on the nature of the modern office space and the “white collar” work that it typifies, from “Bartleby, the Scrivener” to Office Space. That intellectual history runs through absorbing accounts of architectural innovations and modern interior designs. Behind nearly every new office layout or skyscraper design was an idealistic aspiration to make work more human, which was subsequently undercut by the financial imperative to optimize limited space and maximize return on profit. The notorious cubicle farm originated in the optimistic “Action Office,” which would allow the “knowledge workers” of midcentury the opportunity to encounter and meet with their colleagues in ample space. We’ve inherited a powerful intellectual tradition from the post-war period that looked askance on offices as incubators of conformity and alienation. But reading this history from our current WFH moment left me longing for a common office space with my colleagues. University campuses aren’t quite the same as offices, though early twentieth-century office spaces like Bell Labs were intentionally designed to emulate the “chance encounters” in university departments, as Saval shows. Those chance encounters aren’t just opportunities to exchange teaching tips (though that’s helpful too). They’re also the occasion to talk about work, what we need, and how we can work together to get it. Marx focused on the factory, but he still saw real political potential in that space of coworking that could never be entirely closed. The office has always left space for those conversations as well, usually to the consternation of the people in the corner offices.
Acknowledging the intellectual endeavours and demands of BIPOC and LGBTQ+ within cultural institutions is often countered with a “parental-control” reaction–now is not the time, it takes time to do this right, that’s not a top priority, you need to be patient, such-and-such has that covered. As spaces of public engagement, cultural institutions play pivotal roles in shaping views on humans and the (un)natural world. Time is a contributing factor in silencing conversations on decolonization. As Leo Tolstoy wrote in War and Peace “[T]he most powerful warriors are patience and time”, institutions built on native invisibility, racism, genderism, and elitism are aware that it falls back to them to engage in the uncomfortable histories and ongoing legacies of such -isms. For many museums, however, “[T]ime waits for no one” (Folklore, 1225) as pressure–internal and external–force change that may otherwise be shelved. Decolonization of cultural institutions calls for something more complex and subtle; a decolonization of the mind and an openness to really listening and hearing, to expand not only the intellectual endeavours, but to contest the boundaries of intellectualism, a realm situated within whiteness.
Derek Owusu’s debut novel That Reminds Meis the story of K, a boy born in London to Ghanian parents, from birth to adulthood. Across five chronological sections, a narrator introduces each section by making an enigmatic declaration to Anansi, the trickster of western African folklore. The Anansi jumps from the page as they discuss the pleasures and challenges of storytelling. Each section is made up of fragments that weave together to tell K’s complex story of identity, sexuality, addiction, religion, and family as he battles budding neurosis. Oswusu’s novel implicitly challenges the boundaries of the field of history as the reader pieces together all that goes with memory, clipping and achronological experiences, and information. Owusu’s intimate narrative of mental health issues contrasts with another aspect of Black culture cast aside by history and contemporary political discussion; the black woman as theorist and political strategist.
Ashley Farmer’s Remaking Black Power is a comprehensive history of black womens’ engagement in Black Power ideals and organizations. Farmer argues that female activists fought for more inclusive meanings of Black Power and social justice by contesting the boundaries of black womanhood and developing new tropes for women of color. Farmer’s compelling book explores a variety of new tropes, such as “Militant Black Domestic”, as women within the Black Power movement debated over the centrality of gender to its political ideologues. Farmer argues that black feminism, as a modern phenomenon, was an emergent property rooted in urbanization and black women’s domestic work. Farmer contextualizes the radicalization of Black women and shows how internal debates forced many of the era’s organizations to adopt a more radical critique of patriarchy.
A few titles that stare at me from my bookshelf (or book list!), rolling their eyes, as soon as I turn on the television to watch a Disney movie. Samuel R. Delaney’s Dhalgren calls me to read, however, everyone who knows this science-fiction book defines it as “difficult.” Perhaps it is time to read about Bellona, a fictional Midwest city cut off from the rest of the world by some unknown catastrophe. Donna J. Drucker’s Contraception: A Concise History traces the development and future of contraception through an STS analysis. From the technological perspective she describes contraceptive methods available before and after the pill. Drucker examines the shifting power struggles between non-hormonal contraceptives favoured by the Catholic Church and women aiming to gain autonomy over their bodies. Drucker argues that the concept of reproductive justice is at the centre of these conflicts. Additionally, I am very excited to read Loud Black Girls: 20 Black Women Writers Ask: What’s Next? by Yomi Adegoke, Elizabeth Uviebinené once published.
The recent death of the great Israeli historian of fascism Zeev Sternhell at the age of eighty-five has occasioned a number of timely reconsiderations of his work. Born in Przemyśl, Poland in 1935, he escaped that city’s ghetto during the Holocaust, studied in France, and taught for nearly four decades at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His Big Ideas were that fascism had a longer and broader prehistory in reactionary currents of European thought than was commonly recognized, that fascist movements constituted a forward-looking (counter-) “revolutionary right,” and that many of these phenomena could be traced back to France. As a young scholar writing in France in the 1960s, his work challenged the popular idea that France was “immune” to fascism—a founding myth of the French Fourth Republic—at a time when discussing Vichy and French antisemitism was still taboo. His most influential works include Neither Right nor Left: Fascist Ideology in France (1986); The Birth of Fascist Ideology (with Mario Sznajder and Maia Asheri, 1994); and The Anti-Enlightenment Tradition (2009).
Federico Finchelstein wrote on Sternhell’s continued relevancethe same week that Donald Trump gave an incendiary Fourth of July speech at Mount Rushmore that griped about “angry mobs are trying to tear down statues of our founders,” warned of “a new far-left fascism that demands absolute allegiance,” and referred to “cancel culture” as “the very definition of totalitarianism.” As Finchelstein puts one of Sternhell’s greatest insights, “fascism was ‘neither right nor left’ in the traditional sense but rather an extreme right-wing appropriation of both.” At the same time, he acknowledges the common criticism that Sternhell’s intellectual-historical approach “did not pay sufficient attention to how fascist movements spread chaos, violence, and political unrest or the role of leadership cults in fascist regimes.” An outspoken public intellectual and founder of Peace Now who also professed himself a “super Zionist,” Sternhell did not shy away from criticizing contemporary currents of exclusionary nationalism, including in his own country, as seen in his 1996 book, The Founding Myths of Israel: Nationalism, Socialism, and the Making of the Jewish State. One of his last articles is entitled, “Why Benjamin Netanyahu Loves the European Far-Right.” For his political engagement he was attacked in 2008 by a right-wing extremist with a bomb that exploded at his doorstep.
Following Sternhell’s death, Enzo Traverso updated a 2013 essay on him for Jacobin. As Traverso cites Sternhell’s most influential thesis, “The national socialism without which fascism would never have been born emerged in the 1880s, and the tradition perpetuated itself without break, up till the Second World War.” Fascism, he continued, “thus made its appearance before the Great War, without having any direct relation with it.” In the so-called Sternhell Controversy in the 1980s, Sternhell’s critics alleged that his view went too far and crudely inverted the French “immunity” myth into its opposite, representing France instead as the paradigm of fascism. As Traverso explains, “Sternhell recognized the limits of his approach: in order to defend the idea that fascism had French origins he was compelled to exclude Nazism from it.”
Traverso also situates Sternhell as a peculiar “platonic” historian of fascism, callinghim a “declared conservative” in methodology who was committed to the “autonomy of ideas” and a staunch critic of the contextualist Cambridge School approaches of Quentin Skinner and J. G. A. Pocock as well as the “irrationalist” linguistic turn. He relatedly held the social history of the movements he studied to be derivative and secondary to their ideological core, and for Traverso thus neglected the decisive role of the Great War and ensuing social and political crises. Sternhell’s heroes of the Enlightenment tradition—Ernst Cassirer, Raymond Aron, and Arthur Lovejoy—were even in his time already quite dated, and he rather cursorily dismissed Adorno and Horkheimer’s criticism of the “dialectic of Enlightenment.” Still, it is these unique methods and commitments that explain Sternhell’s enduring impact: “Here lay the paradox of a scholar who could revitalize history writing by deploying an old-fashioned conceptual arsenal.”
Between my dissertation, my podcast, and caring for my seven month old daughter, I get precious little time to do any extracurricular reading. But I have to tell you about the books of Sandra Boynton. Especially the book that I consider her masterpiece,Blue Hat, Green Hat.
You might—as I did—dismiss Boynton as yet another author of cute board books, peddling simple stories of obolid dogs and unthreatening hippopotamus to impressionable babies. Boynton began her career as a greeting card illustrator, and the pleasing accessibility of her draftsmanship is sometimes reminiscent of those dumb cards your grandma gets for you that you only care about because your grandma got them for you. Cheesy. Mawkish. A representative Boynton card just has a picture of a cartoon chicken on it. Inside it reads BEST OF CLUCK. It is the simplest card on the planet. And yet I challenge you not to smile when you see it. And the reason why it works is that Boynton has a real genius to her, in her buoyant draftsmanship, and her real mastery of the simple joke. Having read her books hundreds of times to my daughter I’ve come to realize that her work is profoundly funny. Not funny for a board book, but funny in its own right—truly funny—so essentially funny that it can teach us about the very nature of what being funny is all about.
Read Blue Hat, Green Hat with me to see what I mean. It won’t take more than a minute or two. It’s only 14 pages. The set-up is simple. There are a series of animals, wearing various items of clothing. Red Shirt. (Elephant.) Blue Shirt (Dog?). Yellow Shirt. (Moose.) Then there’s the turkey. The fucking turkey. The turkey is wearing her shirt on her legs. OOPS.
Turkey wears her shirt on her legs. OOPS. Her hat on her feet. OOPS. Her pants on her head. OOPS. Thing is, she’s always so proud of herself—so dead certain she has it right. Ready to plough head first into the world, completely wrong about everything. Certain that this time it’s not an OOPS. But it is an OOPS. Every damned time.
Then you get to the punchline, the last two pages. I actually laughed out loud when I read it—it is the perfect joke. Turkey has finally gotten her shit together. She’s got her whole outfit on. Yellow hat on her head. Green shirt on her torso. Blue pants on her legs. Purple socks on her feet. And red shoes, too. She’s ready to go! NOW she has something to be proud about. Now she’s going to go plough head first into the world, completely and properly dressed. No more OOPS. You can just see the pent up satisfaction in turkey’s goofy little face.
Next page. She’s jumping in a pool. Fully clothed. The rest of the animals look on in embarrassment, dressed properly in their swimwear. OOPS.
I laughed out loud when I first read this final OOPS and I still laugh when I read it to my daughter. And my daughter laughs when I read it. And to tell the truth, I’m smirking with joy writing about it. I hope that you smirk, too. That turkey can never catch a break!
What makes the joke so funny? In the same way that Boynton draws the perfect cartoon chicken in her greeting cards, in Blue Hat Green Hat, she’s made the perfect joke. She sets up an expectation—the animals wear clothes, but the turkey wears them wrong. Then she subverts our expectation—the turkey finally wears the clothes correctly! But then she subverts her subversion—the turkey has worn the improper clothes properly. OOPS on top of OOPSES.
But there’s something incomplete about that explanation. Why should the book be funny again and again? I know that the turkey’s going to make a big OOPS in the pool. It doesn’t surprise me anymore. I expect the subversion of my expectation. And yet it’s still funny. Maybe even funnier now that I expect it.
And maybe that’s it—humor isn’t just about subverting expectations, but doing so in a familiar form. It’s about having a pattern to the breaking of pattern, about having a ritual to your chaos, about controlling the OOPS of life in the form of a joke. It’s why my daughter likes us reading the book for the four hundredth time, because the turkey’s oops happens in a familiar nighttime ritual of bath, bedtime book, and song. That ritual makes the oopses something we can laugh about, because they are made safe by the form, their setting in a predictable pattern.
This is so different to the scary, the truly unexpected, the actually deviant—the stuff that makes my daughter and me truly afraid. Those things go against our expectation, but without the comforting form of a joke, without there being a structure that can make the subversion of expectation make sense. The truly scary stuff is profoundly unexpected, and its chaos is not confined by form, by ritual, by boundaries. Watching the news these days subverts our expectations of how things go, but it is terrifying, not funny, because we don’t know when the subversion will stop. We have no grounding, no stability, no form.
Alice Kaplan’s recent book is a phenomenal study of the life of one of the most famous works of fiction published in the 20th century. It is clearly written and, despite having no background in French literature of any sort, I was still able to follow the more intricate parts of the book and thoroughly enjoyed her almost forensic investigation into how Camus came to write the book and what it has meant to its many readers over the decades. Kaplan is especially adept at explaining what makes Camus’s writing so effective. For instance, in examining the climax of the novel and its aftermath, she writes of “a sense of heat and sweat so elemental that when Meursault tells an examining magistrate that the sun made him kill, the reader understands exactly what he means.” The book is similarly peppered with vivid descriptions of the many political twists and turns of the twentieth-century that shaped Camus and his world. Also welcome is the thorough analysis of the initial critical response to the novel. A richly rewarding read!
Princeton’s Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor has written penetrating analysis of the ongoing global uprisings against racism and police violence. A scholar of racist lending and housing policies and racial wealth gaps, Taylor stresses the historical backdrop of racial capitalism and acute economic pain that set the stage for the present rebellion: what often gets called neoliberalism, neatly captured by the neat image of centrist Democratic politicians in the early 1990s, including Bill Clinton and Joe Biden, trying to win white voters by swapping out social welfare programs for beefed-up police and prisons. For Taylor, this is the historic mistake and injustice defunding police can help reverse today. She writes: “Riots are not only the voice of the unheard, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., famously said; they are the rowdy entry of the oppressed into the political realm. They become a stage of political theatre where joy, revulsion, sadness, anger, and excitement clash wildly in a cathartic dance. They are a festival of the oppressed.” And then there is the radical King, whose targeting by the FBI we would be remiss to forget. As UCLA’s Robin D. G. Kelley argues in a recent piece, on the question “Why are they looting?”: “Our country was built on looting — the looting of Indigenous lands and African labor. African-Americans, in fact, have much more experience being looted than looting….Our bodies were loot….We can speak of the looting of black property through redlining, slum clearance and more recently predatory lending.” “What to do?” he asks in conclusion. “Dr. King was unequivocal: full employment and decent housing, paid for by defunding the war in Vietnam.”
A series of short reflections on the coronavirus crisis by a diverse constellation of over thirty thinkers I co-curated with Benjamin Davis for Public Seminar over the past few weeks (including familiar names to the JHI such as Martin Jay, Enzo Traverso, Audrey Borowski, and Benjamin Bernard) is now published as “Sentencing the Present: An Archive of a Crisis” alongside our Adornian post-mortem on the project, “Field Notes on ‘Sentencing the Present’: Diagnosing what is false without ceding what is beautiful.” This archive offers a lesson in the complex intersection of crises, as the pain of Covid-19 gave way to an unprecedented anti-racism movement. Offered the possibility of continuing this series with a pivot toward racial justice, we decided we had said enough and passed on the mic to other voices. The pendulum had also swung from theory to praxis, and we joined many of our contributors in the streets. “Our final week’s theses reflect that the outbreak of Covid-19, the ensuing economic crisis, and the myriad racialized state murders serve as ‘flash points of trouble’ that reveal deeper intersecting ‘nodes of crisis’ (Nancy Fraser) — unpaid debts and crimes not atoned for, all related to long histories of racial domination and imperialist expropriation, conflicts of capitalism and care work.”
On the theme of intersecting crises, the Swedish thinker Andreas Malm recently spoke with Jacobin and also with the German critical theorist Rahel Jaeggi, about his forthcoming Verso book on “chronic emergency” and the relationship between coronavirus and capitalism, bat germs and deforestation. “The problem with social democracy,” he says, “is that it has no concept of catastrophe.” Malm offers an urgent reminder that the climate clock is still ticking.
Finally, some wise words from the British historian of Nazi Germany Richard J. Evans, who offers yet another case of “learning from the Germans” when it comes to legacies of racial violence and contested memorial culture: “Pulling down statues has nothing to do with history, and everything to do with memory. Statues are about the present, not the past: they are about the values we want to celebrate through the people we regard as having represented them.”
I live in Rhode Island, a state that is currently undergoing a name change to remove its association with plantation-based slavery. As we watch protestors topple statues dedicated to historical racists, it’s a reminder that we commemorate violent actions not only with images, but also with language.
In the past few weeks, GitHub, probably the most prominent version control system currently in use, officially changed its language for referring to main code branches and subsidiary ones, choosing to finally eschew the “master” and “slave” metaphor. Reading full stack engineer Alexis Moody’s call and instructions for the replacement of this language seemed incredibly important for this time. This language has been identified as problematic for a long time, however, and I’ve found Ron Eglash’s “Broken Metaphor: The Master-Slave Analogy in Technical Literature” provides a good overview of where this racist language came from and why engineers continued to use it.
On May 30, SpaceX launched the spacecraft Endeavour from Kennedy Space Center, containing the astronauts Douglas G. Hurley and Robert L. Behnken. The fact that both were white cis men was not lost on much of the viewing public, nor was the fact that news agencies kept referring to the spaceflight as “manned.” The Planetary Society’s Emily Lakdawalla has a great write-up of alternatives to this gendered language, a piece that was shared consistently during SpaceX’s flight as people reliably returned to the outdated terminology. Reflecting on the language of spaceflight also allowed me to return to one of my favorite pieces on this subject, Michael P. Oman-Reagan’s “Unmanning Space Language.” He invites us to consider how gendered language like “manned missions” and “mankind” reinforces sexism, as well as false ideas of a gender binary, but also how it contributes colonialist ideals like manifest destiny.
Ideas are shaped by language, but language is also shaped by ideas. As we work to confront institutionalized racism and our own internalized biases, we must also confront our language and excise outdated, racist, and sexist terms and metaphors from our lexica. Because some of these statues that must be felled aren’t built from stone.
Should historians read novels? What about graduate students? In 1998, John Demos, now Emeritus Professor of American History at Yale University, addressed the question with his In Search of Reasons for Historians to Read Novels for the Forum: Histories and Historical Fictions in The American Historical Review. I too, as a graduate student in 2020 (70 years after Demos’ experience in graduate school), read novels “only occasionally, and furtively, and with a somewhat guilty conscience.” Demos’ article explores both the methodological issues and the benefits that emerge when frequenting history and historical fiction, and how the two modes of history writing can inform each other. More recently, Carlos Noreña, Associate Professor in Ancient History and Mediterranean Archaeology at Berkeley, discussed how “reading fiction can serve as a wake-up call—a safeguard against interpretive myopia”, and historian Carl Abbot suggested that alternative history as practiced in speculative fiction can be beneficial for training the historian’s imagination. While I used to have a preference for historical fiction, I am also increasingly fond of speculative fiction set in imagined futures, with realistic claims. Today, more than ever, there is a growing consensus on the importance of unravelling the past as a condition for guaranteeing just and equitable futures. While I strongly believe that unravelling long histories of violence and inequity will help us envision the future, I also wonder what the imaginary scenarios of futurity in speculative fiction can do to help mobilize the present by reshaping the sense of what constitutes methods of history. Recently, I read Niccolò Ammaniti’s Anna, a novel published in 2015 and set in 2020 which depicts a world devoid of grownups upon the global spread of a respiratory virus which affects everyone on the verge of adulthood. Often compared to William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Annatroubles senses of linear history as Ammaniti’s descriptions of his fictive 2020 pandemic coincidentally overlap with occurrences of the ongoing current pandemic. For once, I must admit I read a novel because it prompted reflections on the historical development of linear conceptions of time. Given its coincidental overlapping with future history, Anna invites readers to consider the possibilities encountered through futurability.
It’s not uncommon for writers, scholars and scientists to talk about “inspiration” animating their work, especially in surprising moments and late hours. It’s much less common to hear them cite “divine inspiration” as the spark for their creativity. We don’t think that writers have any less right to claim the work as their own because they felt some rush of motivation in a moment, as if struck by something outside, that propelled them forward. But what if that something from outside was a divine presence, at least as they perceived it. Does the author own their work then? This is the deeply layered question that Andrew Ventimiglia explores in a recent article published in KNOW: A Journal on the Formation of Knowledge, “The Sermon’s Copy: Pulpit Plagiarism and the Ownership of Divine Knowledge.” Ventimiglia tracks through theological treatises and legal cases to show how the missionary imperative to spread true religion bedeviled efforts by popular preachers to fit sermons into otherwise profane intellectual property protections. It was not only the mission but also the source that made them an inconvenient genre to conform to secular copyright. Was it really the work of the preacher, or was it the work of the Holy Spirit? If it wasn’t the person behind the pulpit, could they really claim it was their own intellectual work?
That question did not just pose problems for contemporary jurisprudence and the modern expectations of copyright. It also provoked forceful responses from Christian reformers like Martin Luther in the early sixteenth century, as Ventimiglia illustrates. It was not just the sacred matters of the Reformation but also the mundane realities of publishing that raised questions about the relation among labor, learning and authorship in the period. In an excerpt that was published in Lapham’s Quarterly from his recent book, Inky Fingers: The Making of Books in Early Modern Europe (Harvard University Press, 2020), Anthony Grafton reconstructs the messy, scholarly work of the correctors, castigators and lectors in early modern printing houses. He cites account books and literary references to shows how these workers and thinkers occupied a liminal and sometimes contested space between learned men and manual workers. That ambiguous status rendered their editorial interventions suspect at times, at least in the eyes of their reluctant authors. It was not just divine inspiration that had an outside hand in writing some of the most influential theological works of the era. The mundane worker could disturb that pretense to authorial integrity as easily as sacred intervention.
Featured Image: Scuola di Atene/The School of Athens (detail). Musei Vaticani. File source: Wikimedia Commons.
A new podcast series, Talking Politics: History of Ideas, led by the Cambridge historian of political thought David Runciman, “explores some of the most important thinkers and prominent ideas lying behind modern politics—from Hobbes to Gandhi, from democracy to patriarchy, from revolution to lock down.” I also recommend the insightful episode of Ezra Klein’s podcast, “Why the coronavirus is so deadly for black Americans,” with David R. Williams, a professor of public health at Harvard and one of the most-cited social scientists in the world, on how racism and resource gaps adversely affected black health long before the shock of coronavirus made these disparities highly visible. Williams concludes with a passage from W. E. B. Du Bois’s The Philadelphia Negro (1899): “The most difficult social problem in the matter of Negro health is the peculiar attitude of the nation toward the well-being of the race. There have…been few other cases in the history of civilized peoples where human suffering has been viewed with such peculiar indifference.”
Corey Robin’s “This is the Time to Resurrect the Public University” in the New Yorker is an ode to the City University of New York, which used to be known as “the poor man’s Harvard” and was tuition-free until the 1970s. In the past few decades, the system has been defunded and fallen into disrepair. The CUNY system, which has been hard-hit by the Covid-19 crisis, exemplifies many broader realities of higher education in America: A majority of its students live at home or off campus, are poor, and are people of color. Robin rightly challenges a recent call by Brown University president Christina Paxson for universities to reopen in the fall—something that might be possible for a wealthy, residential, and unrepresentative institution like Brown, but is unlikely to be safe or possible at institutions like CUNY that already lacked basic resources even before the pandemic. Robin can’t even count on there being soap in the bathrooms. In the interview “The Coming Disruption” in New York Magazine, NYU Stern’s Scott Galloway makes surprising predictions about how such inequalities will play out in coming years, arguing that they will be accelerated by the budgetary crises and enrollment declines caused by the pandemic. He predicts that many colleges—at least in the hundreds—will close, while the top 20-ranked universities will ally themselves with tech companies in order to monetize their “brands” in online education ventures like “MIT@Google. iStanford. HarvardxFacebook.”
Samuel Moyn’s essay “The Trouble with Comparisons” offers a response to Peter E. Gordon’s “Why Historical Analogy Matters,” which was also published in the New York Review of Books a few months ago. Arguing for the importance of historical disanalogy alongside analogy, Moyn contends that “comparison, even when controlled by the ballast of contrast, is a political act to be judged successful or not.” Gordon’s essay centers on the so-called “concentration camp debate” launched by Democratic congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s denunciation of inhumane conditions in migrant detention centers on America’s southern border in the summer of 2019. Moyn returns to the earlier claim, starting around 2016, that Trump is in some respects fascist, from scholars such as Timothy Snyder, Jason Stanley, and Federico Finchelstein—a view that drew criticism from those further to the left including Moyn himself, Corey Robin, and Daniel Bessner and Udi Greenberg in their takedown of “The Weimar Analogy.” As Moyn articulates the left position: “Abnormalizing Trump disguises that he is quintessentially American, the expression of enduring and indigenous syndromes. A response to what he represents hardly requires a restoration of ‘normalcy’ but a questioning of the status quo ante Trump that produced him.” Because of their differing examples and political outlooks on the present, Moyn and Gordon’s essays ultimately talk past one another. Whereas Gordon identifies the power of careful comparison with darker times to draw moral urgency to present injustices and overcome complacency, Moyn thinks Trump’s critics should pour their energies into “building an alternative to the present,” not returning to normal: “Analogy and disanalogy with the past can assist in analyzing our present, but not if they allow indulging in a melodramatic righteousness, and luxuriating in our fears, all while preparing a terrifyingly normal future.”
Reading Jacqueline Wernimont’s “The Grim History of Counting the Dead During Plagues”, it becomes clear that the history of epidemics is intimately bound up with the history of mortality rates. Wernimont shows that examining this history illustrates demography’s exploitative approach to death and the entanglement of meticulously counting the dead with economic interests. John Graunt, nowadays often considered one of the founding fathers of vital statistics, actually began his professional career with an analysis of death counts before moving on the living—and as Wernimont makes clear, even in 17th-century London, those tallies worked like “a kind of civic algorithm that could help [contemporaries] program their shopping, travel, and business dealings while avoiding plague-stricken districts of the growing metropolis.” Yet, depending on the parameters applied, the data used for public information about mortality often proves deceptive despite its supposed authority, and Wernimont thus warns that we should be wary about “the uncertainty of our counting and classifying practices.”
A different kind of deconstruction is pursued by Mischa Meier in his German-language article “Die ‘Völkerwanderung’ kennt keine Völker”, which approximately if somewhat awkwardly translates to “There are no Barbarians in the ‘Barbarian Invasions’.” The argument behind it, though, certainly bridges national historical debates as Meier is keen on debunking a myth that has arisen around the role migration played in the fall of the Roman Empire and led more than one contemporary commentator to compare the 2015 European “migration crisis” to the doom Imperial Rome faced from “barbarian” Germanic invaders. Apart from the fact that he obviously deems this argument historical misappropriation, Meier is quick to point out that the entire concept of a “Völkerwanderung” is a misnomer in ancient history. Not only was there no coherent, unified “people” replacing another—which, he points out, is a romantic reading of the past that emerged in the 19th and 20th century around the cult of the Volk—but the act of migration itself was not even perceived as a threat or transgression within its proper historical context. In antiquity, mobility and not sedentary life was the norm, even within the Roman Empire, so using this historical episode as a way to understand the current reveals itself to be doubly misguided.
A longer, but certainly rewarding read is the new themed issue of Humanity on “technologies of stateness” in an age of internationalism. Focusing on a wide range of 20th-century case studies and operating with a broad and permissive definition of “international organization,” the contributions to this issue ask: how did supra-state bodies like the League, the UN, the World Bank, or a temporary international round table influence the making and continuous reform of nation-states? What techniques of governance were passed on from such organizations to existing and prospective states? In what ways did they influence the self-perception of these states and what each regarded as their primary interests? And how, if at all, were these “technologies of stateness” different from the tenets of colonial rule?
In between giggling at sad animals cartoons (I am a botanist, what can I say!) I am reading
Northscapes : History, Technology, and the Making of Northern Environments edited by Dolly Jørgensen and Sverker Sörlin. The Northscapes — the circumpolar regions of Iceland, Finland, Sweden, Russia, the Pacific Northwest, and Canada– enter into the historical imagination as places of desolation, survival, and ancient “tribes”. In recent years these landscapes have drawn the attention of climate change scientists, indigenous cultures over their territorial rights, oil and gas companies, new shipping routes, and heroism of bygone days ( with advice on surviving social distancing). This collection examines this view of a distinctive “northscape” across eleven chapters from A.E. Nordenskiöld’s passion for fossils, Viking-Norse settlements to the Klondike Gold Rush. The book presents diverse viewpoints–historians, anthropologists, and one natural scientist — to reconsider the North as both a physical environment shaped by natural processes and its global interconnectedness. The editors provide four themes—Exploring, Colonialism, Working, and Imagining–(which makes the book very useful pedagogically) to organize the changing visions of the North. This ambitious collection argues that a set of locations found in the north can be understood together, across temporal and geographical space (CE 800 to the year 2000), across shared physical and material conditions but also through human interactions and responses to these environments over time. This book also demonstrates how scholarly collaboration across fields can produce a richer and more meaningful understanding of “peripheral” spaces.
Perhaps I was drawn to Testosterone: An Unauthorized Biography after indulging in heroic male survival stories in the Arctic or quite simply I suffer from penis envy (perhaps writing about eels in the next paragraph was not a good idea), or both. Anyways. Rebecca Jordan-Young and Katrina Karkazis present a richly sourced argument challenging the perception that testosterone is merely a biological steroidal molecule zooming around men’s bodies controlling their strength, power, and sexual desire. By hybridizing the biological and the social the authors offer a more nuanced understanding of how the physiological and the environmental affects levels of the hormone and its effects. The authors show how hormone researchers–then and now, design experiments and interpret data not only with blinkers on but infused with their own social constructions of “maleness” traits, such as, aggression, strength, violence. Karkazis and Jordan-Young highlight how the desire to fit models and data into prevailing theories of the”male hormone”, such as the connection between testosterone to violence, remains dubious and very tenuous. They are not debunking the science, per se, but warn against simple one-to-one correlations, such as the prevailing notion that testosterone derives violence. They argue that by focussing on this small molecule it draws attention away from the broader and more significant social inequality. Indeed, in a similar fashion to Northscapes they argue that scientists and science studies scholars should work together. I would highly recommend reading this book alongside Erika Milam’s Creatures of Cain; The Hunt for Human Nature on COld War America and Looking for a Few good males: Female Choice in Evolutionary Biology.
My last stop here is to think about Eels. Yes. Eels. Yesterday I read the New Yorker essay about the just published The Book of Eels. Our Enduring Fascination with the Most Mysterious Creature in the Natural World. My book is on its way, however, Brooke Jarvis entices the reader with the anecdotes about this mysterious organism, for example, Sigmund Freud, “elbow-deep in slime, he hoped to be the first person to find what men of science had been seeking for thousands of years: the testicles of an eel.” The question the book poses is quite simply one that has puzzled so many men of science, where do eels actually come from? Jarvis lays out the scope of the book as she explains how scientists are racing to find them—leaving this author wondering about the legacy of “firsts” and the sheer magnetism of the mysteries of the natural world. If the eel is an Endling; could we not just leave them to be eels?
Recently I started wondering how “ethics of care” might play a role in shaping research methods and styles of writing in intellectual history. Thus, I approached María Puig de la Bellacasa’s Matters of Care: Speculative Ethics in More Than Human Worldswhich provides a good sense of the historical development of the idea of care while expanding its possible role in significance and ontology. The academic journal ISLE presents the book as being of particular interest to practitioners of science and technology studies, feminist care ethics, and posthumanism. Different conceptual declinations of care have in fact become increasingly important parameters in a wide range of inquiries, but particularly in feminist theory, environmental humanities, and philosophy of science. Born from the unease with “critique of critique” as it emerges throughout the work of scholars such as Bruno Latour and Donna Haraway, thinking with matters of care aims to encourage a new ethos (and possibly a new method) for engaging with knowledge and research. In proposing the notion of “matters of care” María Puig de la Bellacasa continues the shifting in knowledge politics that began with Latour’s move from “matters of fact” into “matters of concern”, with the aim to “affect the lively life of things” by bringing care into the picture (53). While Part I explores the relevance of care in opening new ways to approach ethico-political questions in the context of the tradition of Western modern thought, the chapters in Part II provide helpful examples of research journeys informed by thinking about and with care. Although at times challenging, such new parameters of research, which are informed by the notion of care rather than those of fact or concern, offer potential for developing new ways for conducting ethically engaged inquiry and research.
These past few months, my life has orbited around the same small Manhattan apartment. The experience is like being adrift on an island. Bittersweet, at once insular and insulated, but not so insulated that I could truly escape the world. During the worst weeks of April, I heard the ambulances below, screaming past, far too frequent. I thought, at times, of Madeleine Miller’s Circe, how Aiaia was both dreamtime and prison.
If you, like me, have found these days grinding, full of sorrow and anxiety, and if you have also been surprised, as I have, that in the midst of it all, you’ve noticed spring descending again, the air softening and the trees greening—then you might find something in Miller’s words.
Such a question can feel like too much. Too broad. A long time ago, in another life, I learned that success in project management depended on the manager’s ability to break each project down to its constituent parts. “What kind of country do we want?” is not a question that submits easily to the project management approach.
I’ll leave you, instead, with Circe’s words: “For a hundred generations, I had walked the world drowsy and dull, idle and at my ease. I left no prints. I did no deeds. Even those who had loved me a little did not care to stay.
“Then I learned I could bend the world to my will, as a bow is bent for an arrow. I would have done that toil a thousand times to keep such power in my hands.”
If “MOOC” was the unpleasant acronym that inspired hope from cost-cutting administrators and derision from concerned educators about a decade ago, another abbreviation has found new prominence in the midst of Covid, and to the same effect. “Edtech” is not intuitive to pronounce, and it’s not clear what falls within its scope as “educational technology.” It certainly includes Zoom, MOOCs and other software that allows normal teaching to happen virtually. But what about technology that lets us learn in our spare time, not in lieu of our work in-person as students and teachers? What about podcasts, which so many of us would play while we’re cooking or commuting before the move to remote instruction, and even more often during it?
Zachary Davis, the president and founder of the educational audio platform Lyceum, discussed that question and the apprehensions about grouping podcasts among these other media with Maximillian Alvarez at the Chronicle Review. In a time of acute vulnerability for university education, exacerbated by decades of diminished state funding and adjunctification of the teaching force, praises for the pedagogical potential of podcasts can sound like the opening of a consultant’s presentation on classroom cost reduction. But Davis recounts his own experience with MOOCs to resist the association between educational audio and the encroachment on classroom teaching. New platforms like Lyceum can continue the project of public education rather than replace it, especially for audiences that fall outside of the age and income brackets that are most overrepresented in universities. Rather than detract they could, in Alvarez’s words, preserve what is “sacred” in the classroom.
I have often felt that apprehension about the potentially corrosive effects of the proliferation of educational podcasts at a moment of retrenchment for classroom instruction, particularly in the humanities. I can’t imagine how our own podcast could distract from new scholarship rather than popularize it, but in other cases that line might be fine. That description of the “sacred” quality that we fear losing helped me understand why that concern — misplaced though it might be — persists. It made me think of another account of a contested sacred soundscape that I read recently in our own Journal of the History of Ideas. In the April issue, Fayçal Falaky explores how the rhythm of church bells (cloches) provoked anticlerical and sometimes antireligious arguments from French commentators of the eighteenth century. Even mainstream writers complained of their disruption to the commercial life of the city and the working and waking hours of shopkeepers. They were a sonic testament to the uneasy compatibility between traditional religion and the business of increasingly commercial cities and towns.
The critics, it seems, were insisting that public bells should ring only according to the convenience of the working day. After the restoration of the French monarchy brought the restoration of the bells, they became associated in literature with the pastoral escape from the city’s bustle. Podcasts that you can play at any time, on your way to work or after you’ve come home, are defined by their convenience. You can listen as you do whatever else you need to do. That’s empowering, especially for working people, and as Davis and Alvarez discuss, it should make us excited about their educational potential. The fear that one more moment of education is compressed and reduced for convenience — especially the convenience of the market — might explain that lingering apprehension.
Recently nominated for the prestigious Wolfson Prize, Prashant Kidambi’s Cricket Country is a fascinating look at the entanglement of sports, race, and politics in the British Empire. Its main subject is the first “All India” cricket team that toured Britain and Ireland in the Coronation summer of 1911. Unlike in England, Kidambi argues, cricket in the subcontinent had decidedly urban origins and was pursued by middle class-youth “because it represented the allure of the colonial modern.” Playing cricket offered middle class men a way of re-asserting their masculinity on the playing field. Ultimately, he suggests, the cricket field emerged as an important venue for the increasingly fertile Indian national imagination.
The book begins by tracing the popularity of cricket in Bombay’s Parsi community and examines the successful early effort to send a Parsi cricket team to England in 1887. Alongside the growth of cricket across different religious communities, it also looks at the spectacular success of Ranjitsinhji, the prince of Nawanagar, who went on to become the first global cricketing celebrity and the effect his renown had on perceptions of cricket in both India and England. Having set the stage, Kidambi then looks at the almost successful venture to send a team consisting of Hindu, Muslim, and Parsi cricketers to England in 1903. Despite a great deal of support, the team never set sail for England. However, 8 years later, the effort bore fruit and an “All India” team finally toured England, Scotland, and Ireland in 1911 and played a total of 36 matches. Despite heavy losses in the initial matches, the team eventually found its way and went on to win a number of games later in the tour.
In line with CLR James’s question “what do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” Kidambi does a fantastic job of offering broader context for each and every episode he discusses. To explain how the young Maharaja of Patiala came to captain the 1911 squad, he tells the incredible story of tensions between the prince and the imperial administration. We also learn a great deal about anti-colonial violence in the English capital and Kidambi is keen to emphasize that the cricketers were not the only Indian athletes touring England that summer and their efforts are to be understood along with those of the multiple wrestlers, weightlifters, and entertainers who came to seize the imagination of the British public that summer. His greatest contribution, however, is to offer a comprehensive account of the life and career of Palwankar Baloo, the Dalit cricketer who regularly fought caste prejudice and was arguably the most successful Indian cricketer on the tour.
Featured Image: Jacob Lawrence, The Library, 1960. Smithsonian American Art Museum
The Los Angeles Review of Books published a collection of quarantine reflections by a wide array of intellectuals, ranging from a hilarious domestic scene by the affect theorist Lauren Berlant to this sobering meditation on medicine and racial inequality by Saidiya Hartman: “Many of us live the uneventful catastrophe, the everyday state of emergency, the social distribution of death that targets the ones deemed fungible, disposable, remaindered, and surplus. For those usually privileged and protected, the terror of COVID-19 is its violation of and indifference to the usual distributions of death. Yet, even in this case the apportionment of risk and the burden of exposure maintains a fidelity to the given distributions of value. It appears that even a pathogen discriminates and the vulnerable are more vulnerable…Who lives and who dies? I fear the answer to such a question. I think I know what it is.”
Samuel Clowes Huneke, “An End to Totalitarianism,” Boston Review. A helpful post-mortem on the concept of “totalitarianism,” which was employed by Cold War thinkers including Hannah Arendt and Carl J. Friedrich to conflate fascism and communism. The term long ago exhausted its analytical usefulness for historians but has recently witnessed another popular revival to describe Trump and leaders who seek to exploit the Coronavirus crisis for authoritarian ends. Huneke aptly characterizes the danger of this terminology: “The ideological work that the term totalitarian performs is significant, providing a sleight-of-hand by which to both condemn foreign regimes and deflect criticism of the regime at home.”
Federico Marcon, “Historical Knowledge, Historians’ Categories, and the Question of ‘Fascism,’” in the critical Asian studies journal positions. A historian of knowledge in early modern Japan, Marcon reflects on the challenges of writing a history of the concept of fascism, a topic a few centuries outside his area of specialization. Criticizing a recent flurry of works on fascism, Marco makes a strong case against the “generic concept” model that sees “fascism” as applicable to our present. Fascism, he writes, “is a term that is, one the one hand, overloaded with meanings and, on the other, is, at closer investigation, surprisingly fuzzy and meaningless.” Against the proliferation of the concept, Marcon concludes, “the name ‘fascism’ is ultimately a disadvantage for our understanding of the different forms of voluntary dis-emancipation of the last hundred years.” His broader reflections on the historical discipline identify him closely with the Theory Revolt collective the JHI Blog has covered in recent years: “In today’s post-theoretical age, in which the naïve notions that historians’ job essentially consists in reporting archival findings and that archives give historians unmediated access to the past seems once again pervasive, reflections on the cognitive practices of historians are preciously untimely. Self-reflection, once the province of ‘theory’ and today largely disavowed, has the important function of accounting for historians’ cognitive labor and its consequences.” How, Marcon asks of those historians putting too much stake in the inconsistent—even incoherent—category of fascism, does one’s conceptual apparatus contribute to creating the past one strives to reconstruct?
Exemplifying the “generic concept” approach to fascism Marcon criticizes, the New School historian Federico Finchelstein has published an excerpt from his new book A Brief History of Fascist Lies(California, 2020) at Public Seminar.
The Chronicle of Higher Educationasked scholars including Maya Jasanoff, Steven Salaita, Samuel Moyn, and David Halperin for their favorite scholarly book of the decade.
The title should be enough to convince you to read this most fascinating of articles. If not, consider what happened in Paris when Hans and Parkie, two elephants brought in from Sri Lanka, refused to copulate:
“The institutional efforts reached their apex in a professional concert performed on 10 prairial of the Revolutionary Year VI (May 29, 1798) by musicians from the Parisian Conservatoire de la musique, featuring some of the most renowned contemporary performers. Following Hans and Parkie’s earlier reluctance to engage in the desired activity, it was thought they could be stimulated by a rich musical program played from a purpose-built platform behind them. The concert for the elephants included, among other pieces, extracts from Rameau’s opera Dardanus, his rival Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Le Devin du village, Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride, a symphony by Haydn, and Revolutionary songs like “Ça ira.” While Rousseau’s music seemed to excite both elephants “into joyfulness,” it was the third performance of “Ça ira” (in D Major and with multiple voices) that reportedly rendered the female particularly aroused. The male elephant seemed to play along for a while before losing interest”
Spending time in the house, my attention has increasingly (perhaps dangerously) been shifting toward the invisible processes that are necessary to produce the privilege of a safe domestic space. The topic is complex and difficult, but I started with Maria Kaika’s City of Flows, particularly chapter 4, where the author discusses the invisible network of piped waters and their role in the making of “the detached, self-contained space of the home” (50). Thinking about cold water pipes, water heaters, and domestic sewage puts Latour’s discussions of infrastructures in Paris: Invisible City into new light. While there is a tendency to think about “invisible” infrastructures as universal objects, the materiality of such infrastructures is weirdly entangled with local cultures and economic systems. In spite of international building codes (such as the NEC, the NESC, or the IEC for electric and the IPC or Eurocodes for plumbing), in fact, local amendments, aesthetic sensitivity, and shifts in the market contribute to rearrange the components of infrastructures in ways that can be readable, but unpredictable. With these texts in mind and a network of “unknown” infrastructures making the “envelope of space” around me (Kaika, 50), I started reading Norman Pounds’Hearth and Home: A History of Material Culture(Indiana University Press, 1989) and Maureen Ogle’s All the Modern Conveniences: American Household Plumbing, 1840-1890 (Johns Hopkins Studies in the History of Technology, 2000).In spite of its questionable use of the wonder narrative, I also enjoyed watching David Massar’s historical documentary Plumbingwhich was originally broadcast on the History Channel. Being increasingly aware of my dependence on people who have both theoretical and practical literacies in the infrastructures I live with/on, I also started diving into blogs that offer insight into those sets of knowledge.
Bullshit. Bad science. Charlatans. Fake news. Coverups. Trust. Conspiracy. UFO’s. Way back when I taught an undergraduate course called “Science and Pseudoscience”. The course was a broad survey of a hodge-podge of themes, concepts and categories—from The Death Star, Psychic Phenomenon, Evolution, Climate Change to Alien Abduction–and was one of the most engrossing teaching experiences I have yet to have. For what it’s worth, the student population was ethnically diverse and male-student dominated (25 male: 5 female). The students approached this dichotomy as a simple demarcation problem, however, the security of their own knowledge systems quickly morphed into a quagmire of crises as the stability of their culturally and socially informed worldview collapsed.The dichotomy of science and pseudoscience often devolved into arguments over whether or not the data was “right” or “wrong”. This stamp of validity was their gold standard for Truth or Non-Truth.
Today, the coronavirus pandemic has created novel sites for misperceptions, misinformation, and the uncomfortability of listening to friends, families, communities and nations arguing along anti-intellectual, anti-science and anti-”truths” lines. Having sat performing judgment-filled inner-eye rolls to suppress my allergic reaction to an uncle’s argument that God sent this plague for those who have sinned—-as my brother loudly preaches that the pandemic is part of a global political hoax—I squirmed as i wondered why I had ever assumed my logic was more “Truth-ful” and more rational than theirs. The copious amounts of over-brewed tar tea did not settle my unease, and left me wondering–what comfort and control do we both “get” in digging our heels into our closed-off (and perhaps smug) opinions? How is information, care and safety constructed and maintained during national crises for groups of people with different value systems? And why are there no biscuits left for this cup of tea?
“Bullshit is a widely recognized problem” stated sociologist Joshua Wakeham, in Bullshit as a Problem of Social Epistemology (2017). Wakeham offers the reader 20 pages of “bullshit” as a primer to reframe this concept as a problem of social interaction. This fascinating read highlights the tension between the individual pragmatic need to have “true” beliefs and the social pragmatic desire to “get along” and not rock the boat. The paper explores how naturalized this concept has become within everyday social spaces– the workplace, social media, colleges, and politics. His analysis asks ”[H]ow do we decide whose claims to believe?” Wakehams study suggests that an individual’s own experiences play a limited role, and we rely on a series of value systems from our social context to evaluate the credibility of secondhand knowledge. Thus, notions of authority, self-worth, presentation and trust operate rapidly in whether the individual absorbs this information as an accurate claim. Wakeham argues, however, that these heuristics operate as a positive feedback loop as the very social pathways (or social norms) that we rely on to make these risk/benefit evaluations are not designed for the task of epistemic vigilance.
In The roles of information deficits and identity threat in the prevalence of misperceptions (2017), political scientists Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler explore how diverse populations within the United States hold misperceptions. The authors present three case studies to explore the mechanics of human misperceptions–the troop surge in Iraq, job change under President Obama, and global temperature change. This fascinating study found that providing information in graphical form reduced misperceptions and lessened the threat to an individual’s self-conception or worldviews. Their results suggest that misperceptions are caused by a lack of information that melds with the feeling of a psychological threat, factors that offer more pathways to understand how individuals hold their worldviews in the face of new and opposing information.
The following books are teacher and student-friendly books to critically engage with issues surrounding what defines good, bad and ugly science, and how we trust what we think we know about the world. Michael Shermer offers a starting point for the neophyte in Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time(2002). The book covers many complex issues–such as cults and Holocaust deniers—to explore the human reasons that draws people to their belief systems. Shermer himself is a curious fellow–a former theology student, a self-identifying skeptic, and an incredible writer–that many students in my own course were unable to locate Shermer’s own biases. A must for critical thinking skills.
The Historian of Science, Michael Gordin offers the beautifully written and engrossing The Pseudoscience Wars. Immanuel Velikovsky and The Birth of the Modern Fringe(2002). The book centres on Immanuel Velikovsky, a Russian-born psychoanalyst, who settled in the United States in 1939. His book Worlds in Collision (1950) rewrote the early history of the world using a wide selection of non-science sources that Velikovsky argued mapped out the real historical events. He argued that Venus was a cometary ejection from Jupiter and that the orbital instability of Venus, Mars, and other planetary bodies was a consequence of as-yet-unexplained electromagnetic forces between them, counteracting the effects of gravity. Astronomers were outraged for two major reasons. First, Velikovsky’s claims about Venus seemed un-scientific and implausible, and second, it was not “science” so why did the division of the Macmillan Company publish the book at all. Gordin’s narrative traverses the rise and fall of Velikovisky from a scientist, a pseudoscientist, and a martyr to an anti establishment movement in the context of the Cold War, the McCarthy era, Lysenkosim and the sudden rise of American science to unprecedented prominence. Gordin’s book is an excellent example of the history of demarcations. Two other books that are useful teaching-textbooks are, David Raup’s The Nemesis Affair: A Story of the Death of Dinosaurs and the Ways of Science (1999) and Massimo Pigliucci Nonsense of Stilts. How to Tell Science from Bunk (2018)
Lastly, a selection of recent articles that touch on the topics discussed above. In Dealing with Conspiracy Theory Attributions (2020) social scientist Brian Martin analyzes the methods, effectiveness and audiences of academic myth debunking efforts. In Coronavirus: the spread of misinformation, medical surgeons Areeb Mian and Shujat Khan discuss the disconnect between scientific consensus and scientific communication with the public on topics such as climate change, vaccine science and safety and the shape of the earth.
Edward Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (1963) has entered the canon of modern historiography through countless graduate seminar syllabi, and that is how I first read it. It was sandwiched between the Annales School and Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, a position which would have likely horrified Thompson. We read it as a response to a “vulgar Marxism” that made no place for workers’ “experience” or “agency” because it had room only for rigid classes and economic laws. Thompson was not writing against this foil, however, but rather against and with a cohort of socialists, particularly in Britain, who were trying to understand the future of their political movement in the midst of rising working-class affluence, a declining empire and a deteriorating hope in the Soviet Union. I’ve been reading The Making of the English Working Class again and trying to understand it within that moment and its debates, and I’ve been doing it alongside the new podcast from Jacobin Radio, “Casualties of History,” dedicated to a close reading of the classic, its context and its critics.
The podcast is hosted by Alex Press, a writer and editor at Jacobin, and Gabriel Winant, a historian at the University of Chicago. Thompson wasn’t writing just for scholars and future historians. He was writing within a socialist movement pulled in different directions by factions, publications and intellectuals to whom activists might look to represent what the left was supposed to be. Thompson’s essays and his Making intervened in contentious debates with Marxist thinkers like Perry Anderson, Tom Nairn and Raymond Williams over the possibilities for organizing a working-class movement in Britain and the role of intellectuals within it. Those issues would have felt particularly pressing to Thompson’s cohort of radical historians who wrote their formative work while teaching in the Workers’ Education Association. The hosts elaborate on their sometimes convoluted series of overlapping debates conducted largely in the pages of New Left Review. When it’s read among a pantheon of the most influential historical works of the half century, this urgent politics of TheMaking recedes into the background. This podcast explores how the book helps us understand class formation in the early decades of industrialization, and what it has to say to leftists and socialists today
Featured Image: L.S. Lowry, A Northern Race Meeting (1956). Courtesy of WikiArt.
Susan Sontag once wrote, “One feature of the usual script for plague: the disease invariably comes from somewhere else… there is a link between imagining disease and imagining foreignness.” There are countless examples of this phenomenon, from the “Spanish Flu” of 1918 to the Trump administration’s recent rhetoric describing the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus” and “Wuhan virus,” after the city where the outbreak first occurred. Recognizing such historical patterns and precedents is the first step to avoiding their blind repetition. It is with the conviction that the language we use to describe events matter for how we address them that the editors of the JHI Blog have compiled critical and historical sources, past and present, to help our readers contextualize and navigate the present crisis. – Jonathon Catlin, Contributing Editor
Several weeks into the plague that had descended on London in 1665, the sidewalks began to empty and the streets began to fill with foot traffic. The chronicler of that plague, Daniel Defoe, recounted through the fictional narrator of his Journal of the Plague Yearhow Londoners grew to fear walking too close to their neighbors’ doors and the accompanying watchmen who sometimes enforced their quarantine inside. Apart from the guards, I recognized this dynamic in my walks, which I divert into the street to avoid close contact with neighbors. This could have been a troubling development for Defoe, his narrator and his contemporaries, who elevated the values of “civility” and “sociability” to new heights. But notably absent from the Journal’s account, from what I can tell, is a sense that all those social interactions make up some abstract society that could be disturbed by their disruptions.
We often read now that the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed previously obscured social ties that link classes, nations and races. It has been described as a “leveller” which has proved just how imbricated we are in unknown connections. It poses a worthwhile contrast, then, to read an account nearly three centuries old that has no place for these assertions, and reports the experience of the plague almost strictly as an experience for certain people, particularly the poor and laboring classes. The rich leave for the country before the city deteriorates, and the Journal focuses on the experience of those who could not. “It must be confest, that tho’ the Plague was chiefly among the Poor; yet, were the Poor the most Venturous and Fearless of it, and went about their Employment, with a sort of brutal Courage.” That “brutal courage,” driven by desperation, forced the working poor to endanger themselves as watchmen and undertakers. We have seen in our current crisis how the need to keep working has pushed millions to the front lines of the virus. Defoe’s narrator, witnessing his own crisis as a crisis for the laboring class, saw it too.
That is a condition that can be obscured, however, precisely by a particular view of “society” as a dense network of unknown connections. Will Davies, in a recent essay for the London Review of Books, traces a contemporary history of this equation of society to a “network, made up of billions of interconnected nodes.” This view ascended in the 1990s and flourished in the 2000s within the pages of bestselling social-theory-cum-advice-books like Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point and Cass Sunstein’s Nudge. It influenced policy in David Cameron’s Conservative government, justifying measures that encouraged, but did not enforce, individual choices whose positive effects would ripple through one’s social networks. Millennials like me likely consumed these insights like the air we breath, through Ted Talks and Gladwell paraphrases, in the 2000s. Now, with their allergy to collective action and class-perspective, they could not look any less equipped to the conditions of the crisis we face.
In a multi-interspecies planet where we know so much about certain “things,” the coronavirus family remains poorly studied. Unfortunately right now, that means human populations are the test subjects around the globe to understand the (un)natural history of this submicroscopic infectious agent that requires a living cell to replicate. Describing the virus as an agent—-as a force producing specific results—highlights the distance created between humans and their environment. The virus will replicate once inside a cell with the increase of itself the main outcome. For humans, the outcome is varied, asymptomatic, sympotamic, or death. Unfortunately (with all due respect to the outcomes on humans from this pandemic) viruses remain fascinating from a biological point of view.
Edging between inert and alive, viruses force us to rethink the divide between biotic and abiotic. Viruses not only resist our assumptions about how life happens and is expected to perform, but they also overturn our desire to delimit and pin down definitions of organic life. Suspended on surfaces, evolutionarily streamlined into strands of ultramicroscopic threads of genetic material (DNA, RNA) wrapped in a protein jacket, viruses just seem to hang out doing nothing all day, every day, seemingly the least animated and biotic “things”. A quick hike on a taxonomic trail ticks a bunch of boxes–genes, serological markers, spikes, envelope, membrane, proteins, RNA– that enable scientists to say, “Yes! That is a Virus.” That, in itself, is an incredible feat as they are ridiculously tiny. All of these physical characteristics place the coronavirus in the Coronaviridae family, subfamily Orthocoronavirinae. And yet we know so little about how viruses, animals and humans interact over evolutionary and historical time.
The selection of recommendations focus on opinion pieces and articles from scientists and nonscientists as they grapple not only with the science but with the wider implications for society that these pared-down viral entities create as they cross inter-species and national barriers, all the while disrupting our scientific theories of life.
In “A Primer on Biodefense Data Science for Pandemic Preparedness” (Cell) biomedical informaticist Eric Perakslis offers a brief overview of the field of biodefense policy in the United States and the role of data science. He focuses on the concepts of resilience, risk assessment, response, and recovery to understand how natural disasters and unexpected crisis impact operations. This opinion piece is useful as a starting point to understand how earlier models of biological weapons threats are not useful during peacetime crises.
“Theses for Theory in a Time of Crisis,” a series of provocations I recently co-authored with the philosopher Benjamin P. Davis, for the New School’s Public Seminar. Our first thesis: “Catastrophe is not ‘to come,’ but here and now. Before the current pandemic, our way of life was already killing life on earth. State selections of who shall live and who shall die already produced medical shortages. ‘That things are “status quo” is the catastrophe. It is not an ever-present possibility but what is in each case given’ (Walter Benjamin).”
Charles E. Rosenberg, “What Is an Epidemic? AIDS in Historical Perspective” (1989). This classic article in the history of science, written in the heat of the AIDS crisis in America, interrogates the meaning of “epidemic” in a time when the concept seems stretched thin by “metaphorical” usage ranging from tuberculosis to alcoholism and car accidents. Rosenberg argues: “These clichéd usages are disembodied yet at the same time tied to specific rhetorical and policy goals. The intent is clear enough: to clothe certain undesirable yet blandly tolerated social phenomena in the emotional urgency associated with a ‘real’ epidemic.” Epidemics, he contends, are social “events” that elicit “immediate and widespread response” rather than slow “trends” to be retroactively excavated by historians. Drawing upon his reading of Albert Camus’s 1947 novel The Plague, Rosenberg writes, “a social phenomenon, an epidemic has a dramaturgic form.” Epidemics “follow a plot line of increasing and revelatory tension, move to a crisis of individual and collective character” that mobilizes “communities to act out proprietory rituals that incorporate and reaffirm fundamental social values and modes of understanding.”
Albert Camus’s 1947 novel The Plague is currently witnessing a new wave of readership by social distancers. It is set in 1940 but loosely based on the cholera epidemic of 1849 that followed the French colonisation of Algeria. The novel can also be read as an allegory of the French resistance to the pestilence of Nazism and the German occupation during World War Two. Camus’s daughter, who is also the manager of his literary estate, recently told the Guardian that in her view La Peste contains a message for us today: “We are not responsible for coronavirus but we can be responsible in the way we respond to it.”
The European Journal of Psychoanalysis has published an extensive conversation among contemporary European thinkers entitled “Coronavirus and philosophers.” The journal compiles historical and philosophical texts addressing medieval plague, modern techniques of quarantine, and the contemporary coronavirus pandemic from thinkers including Michel Foucault, Giorgio Agamben, Jean-Luc Nancy, and Roberto Esposito. Particularly notable is the Italian theorist Giorgio Agamben’s now-embarrassing skepticism about the threat the “alleged epidemic” poses. He suggests that the “disproportionate reaction” of the Italian state declaring a “state of emergency,” lockdown, and general quarantine validates his broader theory that modern states tend to exploit disasters like acts of terrorism to entrench their biopolitical power over their citizenries. Agamben wrote in a clarificatory note: “People have been so habituated to live in conditions of perennial crisis and perennial emergency that they don’t seem to notice that their life has been reduced to a purely biological condition and has not only every social and political dimension, but also human and affective. A society that lives in a perennial state of emergency cannot be a free society.” In a rejoinder in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Anastasia Berg criticized Agamben’s reflections on “bare life” as “bare theory” that rehashes his old maxims in a way utterly out of touch with the current reality of the pandemic. Agamben’s old friend Jean-Luc Nancy quipped that Agamben has given poor medical advice before, advising Nancy against an essential heart operation, but that at least he remains a truly “exceptional” character.
The American philosopher Judith Butler, on the Verso blog, views the pandemic through the lens of “equality, global interdependence and our obligations toward one another,” given that “The virus does not discriminate. We could say that it treats us equally, puts us equally at risk of falling ill, losing someone close, living in a world of imminent threat. By the way it moves and strikes, the virus demonstrates that the human community is equally precarious.” This perspective leads Butler to stress the potential benefits of universal access to healthcare, which she sees less as a “human right” than as “a social obligation, one that follows from living in society with one another.” She reminds us that in recent progressive movements, “the idea that we might become a people who wishes to see a world in which health policy is equally committed to all lives, to dismantling the market’s hold on health care that distinguishes among the worthy and those who can be easily abandoned to illness and death, was briefly alive.”
Henning Trüper (in German) uses the lens of “humanitarianism” to reflect on the “remarkable historical stability” of the category of “epidemic.” He argues that if we entertain Carl Schmitt’s idea that the sovereign is the one who declares a “the state of emergency,” then today it is the coronavirus itself that is sovereign; emergency is not “decided” in the sense of a cognitive act, but state decrees do not change the fundamental exceptional situation that has already occurred. Trüper explains why the pandemic has so far only been addressed on national levels and not seen as a crisis suited to “humanitarian” framing or intervention: “Humanitarianism” takes place in a specific temporal order rooted in moral meanings that shape our selective attention to certain types of suffering amenable to intervention and control.
Philipp Sarasin’s essay (in German) “Understanding the Pandemic with Foucault?” develops Agamben’s provocations on the Foucauldian notion of “biopolitics” along more differentiated and conceptually precise avenues: the leprosy model (expulsions of the sick Foucault observed in medieval cities), the plague model (practices of confinement and quarantine begun in the early modern period), the smallpox model (more liberal and information-based responses to modern outbreak, most recently seen in South Korea’s response to coronavirus), and the model of the “care of the self” connected to the late Foucault’s work on ancient techniques of self-fashioning (optional and norm-based practices, like the social distancing recommended today).
Pankaj Mishra compares the pandemic to the First World War I and the Great Depression in their suddenness, demand for mass mobilization, and transformation of the international order: “The First World War not only brought the period of friction-free globalization to a gruesome end. It also cruelly exposed an intelligentsia which had believed in irreversible progress and now was forced to acknowledge that, as an embittered Henry James wrote to a friend in August 1914, ‘the tide that bore us along was then all the while moving to this grand Niagara.’”
John M. Barry, an expert on the “Spanish Flu” pandemic of 1918, writes that the early strategy of “containment” has already failed. This means that we should all brace for a prolonged global struggle with the virus, for it can reinfect places that have initially controlled it; we are currently seeing this China, which seems to have contained its own initial outbreak only to face new outbreaks brought by infected people coming into the country from abroad. The 1918 pandemic also contains another important lesson. The approaches of two American cities in that crisis lay bare the necessity of social distancing today: Philadelphia stayed open, allowing business and gatherings that spread the sickness, while St. Louis canceled all large events and restricted public life. The outcomes, predictably, look like the two curves we are now seeing in “flatten the curve” announcements: the death rate in St. Louis was ultimately less than half of the rate in Philadelphia. Philadelphia’s sudden spike of flu exposures proved catastrophic.
The political theorist Ian Zuckerman argues in Public Seminar that the appropriate framing for the current pandemic is crisis rather than emergency, because “the framework of an “emergency” is a serious distortion of what we are facing: the total failure to plan for a pandemic that had been widely predicted by experts.” He emphasizes two important characteristics of crisis: “First, drawing on the nineteenth- and twentieth-century social scientific understanding, an emergency is unexpected, unanticipated, and arises suddenly, whereas a crisis is often predictable long in advance. The second distinction of crisis derives from its dramaturgical usage in classical aesthetics from Aristotle to Hegel. According to Jürgen Habermas’s summary of this tradition, a crisis occurs ‘in the revelation of conflicting norms against which the identities of the participants shatter, unless they are able to summon up the strength to win back their freedom by shattering the mythical power of fate through the formation of new identities.’ A crisis, in this sense, is a condition in which the dramatic hero is either fundamentally transformed or destroyed. Whereas the goal of emergency powers is to restore the status quo ante, overcoming a crisis often implies fundamental and permanent transformation.”
The Slovenian theorist Slavoj Zizek, writing in Critical Inquiry, notes how thoroughly the pandemic has scrambled the contemporary political landscape: “When I used the word communism a couple of weeks ago, I was mocked, but now there is the headline ‘Trump announces proposal to take over private sector’ – can one imagine such a headline even a week ago?” Like many thinkers on the Left, Zizek argues, to borrow the memorable expression of Rahm Emanuel, that we should “never let a serious crisis go to waste.” Zizek warns that “a focus on individual responsibility, necessary as it is, functions as ideology the moment it serves to obfuscate the big question of how to change our entire economic and social system.” Another piece Zizek wrote for the Philosophical Salon of the LA Review of Bookscredits Tolstoy with the notion that works of art and ideas—like his own Christian faith—are like “infections,” the effects of which jump from one person to the other. Zizek connects this prescient description to the pervasiveness of “meme” culture today and the much later writings of Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett. Zizek thus suggests that even the language we use to represent and manage the pandemic is, like all other languages, a matter of mimesis, contagious in its own right.