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July Reading Recommendations: Pride 2022!

Jonathon Catlin

On the beaches of Fire Island this summer I have been reading two books of Maggie Nelson-esque historical queer essay and memoir that I would highly recommend. I first came across the writer Joseph Osmundson through his remarkable 2019 essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books  that cleverly reflects on “the circuit” as both a mainstay of gay party culture and an essential element of networks and computing. In his playful prose, the notion of the circuit comes alive as a site of queer desire, knowledge, and memory. A virologist by profession, Osmundson has now published Virology: Essays for the Living, the Dead, and the Small Things in Between (2022). Based on his own reflections on living through the Covid-19 pandemic in New York City, Osmundson deftly explores how awareness of living among viruses (there are, he tells us, about as many viruses in a mouthful of seawater as there are human beings on the planet) has shaped queer sex and politics for decades, from the fearful times of the early AIDS crisis to navigating quarantine and isolation during the Covid-19 pandemic (a connection Justin Linds also explored on the Blog). By “showing us all how viruses live with us, as we live with them,” Judith Butler writes in a glowing blurb, the book exemplifies “queer pedagogy at its best.” I was particularly struck, reading the book on the eroding beaches of Fire Island, by Osmundson’s remark that “climate change make make us all queer, a worldwide people without a future.” The seemingly futureless temporalities of present intersecting crises Osmundson describes bring to life insights of queer theorists such as Lee Edelman and Leo Bersani, but also sometimes make space for the utopian practices and horizons described by José Esteban Muñoz. Another recent work that brings highbrow queer theory into the everyday is Jeremy Atherton Lin’s Gay Bar: Why We Went Out (2021), which combines gay memoir and essayistic musings on queer theory with little-known histories of a variety of queer subcultures, clubs, and parties from London, to Los Angeles, to San Francisco. Drawing especially upon the rich queer magazine culture of his coming of age in the 1990s, Atherton Lin delivers a paean to the gay bar after an earlier generation had mistakenly and prematurely proclaimed its death. Works like David Halperin’s landmark 2012 How to Be Gay lamented the demise of the gay bar in the age of dating apps, homonormativity, and assimilation, and gentrification, noting their steady decline in economic viability in recent decades. Atherton Lin, however, begins begins with escapades from a number of relatively new gay bars, showing that the institution stubbornly refuses to die, as younger and more diverse generations of queers yearn for connection after the ’90s era of “post-gay” and “de-gaying.” Post-post gay?

Shuvatri Dasgupta 

This set of reading recommendations were planned with the idea of celebrating Pride month, a cause which though has been partially co-opted by capitalism in recent times, still calls for a celebration of the anti-capitalist emancipatory radical politics it continues to stand for. Through this tiny initiative we sought to shape historical pedagogy, by listing and archiving a set of readings on the gender question, that would help us educate, agitate, and organize for a radically egalitarian future. In the midst of this initiative, we now face a major setback: the anti-abortion legislation in the United States, with fear of further state infringement on gay marriage and inter-racial marriage. It is this fear we must address with hope—hope for solidarity, hope for emancipation, and hope for a better tomorrow—inspiring us to stand up to these atrocities.  As historians are pointing out, women have historically always gotten abortions. What this judgment does is create a barricade in terms of access. Perhaps, this judgment in a way makes our task with this reading recommendation all the more crucial, all the more urgent, and all the more necessary. Reproduction remains crucial to the functioning of capitalism, along with affective labor, care work, and other forms of work which contribute to the maintenance of life. The production and reproduction of life largely depends on the labor of those who continue to be exploited by capitalist patriarchy, in intersection with other violent hierarchies. In desperate times such as these, it is imperative to educate, to unlearn, to understand the violence of the state, to be abolitionist—for there is no other way but to overthrow the nexus of state and capital, one step at a time! I will suggest some reading lists, videos, and podcasts, rather than any individual works. The works listed have all played a seminal role in my understanding of the history of reproduction, and the exploitation which lies at the heart of capitalist (colonial and neoliberal) patriarchy. These are extremely useful public resources for understanding the ways in which hierarchies of race, gender, class, caste, and ethnicity function in intersection to inflict violence in association with the state. Thus by centering powerful critiques of carceral feminism, these works provide inspiration for resisting the state’s attempt at coopting the emancipatory potential of gender politics. 

  1. Abolitionist Futures 2022: Reading List.
  2. Interview with Angela Davis and Gina Dent on abolitionist feminism, and Françoise Vergès on how to end carceral feminism.  
  3. Reading list/Microsyllabus from the Wages for Housework Movement. 
  4. What’s so political about reproduction in Latin America: A Podcast with Professor Laura Briggs.
  5. On Reproductive Justice: A Verso Reading List 
  6. The Reproductive Justice Research Network
  7. Tithi Bhattacharya, On Social Reproduction Theory. Also see, Social Reproduction and the Pandemic, an interview with Tithi Bhattacharya.
  8. Reading list for a graduate course on ‘Sex, Race, and Empire’, compiled by Professor Mytheli Sreenivas on Twitter; Also see Twitter reading list on Reproductive Governance compiled by Professor Helen Tilley. 
  9. Feminism for the 99 percent: YouTube playlist.
  10. Reading list by Feminist and Degrowth Alliance.

Tom Furse
Although I haven’t read it since studying for my Masters’s in 2016, Aaron Belkin’s Bring Me Men Military Masculinity and the Benign Facade of American Empire still remains a useful exploration of masculinity, queer history, and of course, American military history. “Warriors attain masculine status by showing that they are not-feminine, not-weak, not-queer, not-emotional.” (p. 4). Indeed, it’s not difficult to see that this vision of military men runs simultaneously with the United States as a domineering masculine power in the world over feminine (read: submissive) states. With this in mind, it’s not difficult why Robert Kagan, a liberal interventionist or neoconservative, argued in 2003 that the US is Mars and Europe is Venus. This binary is central to the book. Belkin finds that sex (consensual and non-consensual) shaped how male soldiers thought about themselves and others. In male rape, for instance, there was a taboo on the victim because they were regarded as submissive and female. Yet, in a somewhat memorable part (p. 87), marines were stereotyped as ‘bottoms’ and saw being penetrated as a manly test of endurance. Unrelated to Pride month, but nonetheless on topic, I listened to the podcast series Bad Gays, with one episode on John Maynard Keynes.

Isabel Jacobs

In an interview with Hubert Fichte in New York in September 1978, the translator Joachim Neugröschel states: “Nothing is as boring as another person’s sex life.” Published as the third volume of Fichte’s monumental cycle History of Sensitivity, entitled “The Second Guilt”, the interview deals with Neugröschel’s emigration, poetry, his encounters with Celan and Gombrowicz, and gay culture in 1970s New York and Berlin (“For me everything is intercourse [Verkehr] but nothing wrong [verkehrt]!”). While extensively traveling through Brazil, Haiti, Senegal and Trinidad, Fichte continued working on sensitivity, writing towards his utopia of a global gayification [Verschwulung der Welt]. Through portraying his own sexuality, he also aimed to rewrite “the history of homosexuality since 1900.” In 1986, he died of AIDS-related illness, leaving behind an ambiguous body of work that dissolved the boundaries between sexuality, poetic ethnography and avant-garde writing. What remains today from Fichte’s history of sensitivity? For me, a first and unique attempt to study tenderness as a concept. In Fichte’s words, his history of tenderness was “about what Henry James calls Private History, as opposed to History, History in general, and as opposed also to what he calls Public History. This private historicity, private evolution is called here, abbreviated, sexuality.” 


Featured Image: Flag of gay and trans pride in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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April Reading Recommendations

Tom Furse
Over this month, I read Tony Wood’s Russia Without Putin. His narrative manages to navigate the reader away from Putin as the master strategist playing 4D chess with the world and from the bare-chested macho man in Siberia. It subtly adheres to the conventional Realist point that the West created some of Russia’s foreign policy aggression. That is, the West was taciturn when Russia sought warm relations, especially in the early 2000s. But he doesn’t wax on about how it’s all the fault of the West. Most of all it shows that the Russian state has entrenched habits, ideas, and behaviors so that it produces leaders who would act like Yeltsin or Putin. The state and a lot of civil society consolidate a distinctly Russian civilization in face of increasing immigration from Central Asia and in a multipolar world. This civilizational chauvinism in turn often breeds hatred of immigrants, and a militarism that encourages the state to see war in Chechnya, Georgia, Syria, and Ukraine as the answer to its (often internal) problems. Certainly, a vicious cycle and Wood doesn’t see a clear way out. He rightfully in my view declines the optimism about Alexei Navalny as a viable opposition leader. Navalny plays the Russian political game, and that means occasionally exhibiting xenophobia and even tolerating neo-Nazis. You get the impression from this book that if Navalny gets into power, which is completely unlikely anyway, he’d probably be like Aung San Suu Kyi, a disappointment to the West, and another Russian nationalist similar to Yeltsin and Putin.

Nuala Caomhanach

With madeleines stashed in my pocket (Proust alert), I visited the Giovanni Boldini: Les Plaisirs et les Jours exhibition at the Petit Palais. An immersive and evocative tour of the lavish vision of the Belle Époque that Boldini realized. The painting of Gertrude Elizabeth Blood sent me down velvet-lined rabbit holes about this compelling art-critic. In 1880, her wedding to Lord Colin Campbell was postponed twice due to Lord Colin’s health issues. He suffered from “the wilful  communication of a loathsome disease” as Christabel Pankhurst named the venereal disease Campbell eventually passed onto Gertrude. Pankhurst warned that marriage truly was a dire threat to the wellbeing of women and epitomized the debates about social purity and feminism during this period. This was not just disdain towards the male sex but a commentary on the prevalence of veneral disease in men before their marriage and evidence of the double standard of tolerating male sexual escapades at the expense of the women forced into prostitution by their economic dependency. Campbell’s divorce case was tabloid fodder. In 1895, her husband’s death of venereal disease freed her to reshape her life. Writing under pseudonyms, such as, “Véra Tsaritsyn ” and “Q.E.D”, Campbell wrote with immense wittiness and confident sexuality of the class she so desired to be a member of. Her description of Oscar Wilde as “a great white caterpillar” left me laughing-out-loud as I wondered whether Lady Gertrude Chiltern in The Ideal Husband was based on Lady Campbell’s wishful social transformation.

Shuvatri Dasgupta

T.S Eliot’s modernist ballad ‘The Waste Land’, published a century ago, celebrated April as the cruelest month. This phrase acquires a proverbial resonance in our lives under capitalism (and the resultant eco-social and political crisis), leaving us unable to appreciate the beauty and joy of spring!  How do we protect ourselves against this cruelty? By caring for each other, and for the world, is the answer decolonial feminist Françoise Vergès arms us with. In her work ‘A Feminist Theory of Violence’, recently translated into English by Melissa Thackway, Françoise Vergès argues against the futility and impasse of civilisational and carceral feminism. She points out a fundamental paradox of state capitalism by noting how legislation against violence, and rise in capitalist gendered and racialised brutality, go hand in hand. Using this as her point of departure she looks beyond the state (and its legislative mechanisms) and towards people’s solidarities with one another. She charts out a hopeful future, where solidarities will be forged between different emancipatory struggles (against race, capital, patriarchy, casteism), and mutual care and protection will create a better world. Therefore to look past the cruelty of April and to rediscover the spring of revolutionary hope, I cannot think of a better read than this. 


Featured Image: The Twelve Months of Flowers- April 1730 print by Pieter Casteels III. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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Spring Reading Recommendations

Jonathon Catlin

W. H. Auden observed shortly after Sigmund Freud’s death that he was “no more a person now but a whole climate of opinion.” The intellectual historian Samuel Moyn has edited a newly-released critical edition of Freud’s 1930 Civilization and Its Discontents (Norton, 2022), which features James Strachey’s classic translation, a new critical apparatus, and commentaries from a remarkable range of thinkers, including Thomas Mann, Herbert Marcuse, and leading contemporary critical theorists Amy Allen and Judith Butler. Moyn’s short preface captures the enormous intellectual, cultural, and social impact Freud and his heirs have had on the modern world. Psychoanalysis once “communed with an age of crisis,” as Freud observed “enlightened” Europe descend into war and fascism. But Moyn laments that it has so dramatically fallen out of fashion in recent decades, replaced by pop psychology and pills, and mirroring the downfall of other grand theories. Yet for Moyn “a new age of crisis has begun” in which younger generations no longer take for granted the triumph of reason. If psychoanalysis did one thing, it was to teach us to face the irrationality in our midst, rather than turning away from it dismissively. Even as Freud situated himself resolutely on the side of enlightenment, texts like Civilization and Its Discontents identify dark drives in both psyche and society, disabling the “benevolent illusion” of progress. In our own “war-torn and unequal world,” Moyn writes that “rationality finds itself enthroned” once again through technocracy, leaving us in need of reexamining “the political meaning of our disorderly psyches.” In The New Republic, Udi Greenberg suggests that Moyn overplays the political value of Freud’s text as one with which to think the present (if not as a “guide,” which Moyn does not claim), instead finding in Freud a lesson much broader and more enduring: “that human life is always dominated by ambiguity, uncertainty, and inconsistency, and that there’s no escape from the haunting torment that this entails.”

Pablo Martínez Gramuglia

I have finally found the time to read Ink under the Fingernails, by Corinna Zeltsman, probably the most ground-breaking book of 2021 in Latin American print studies. Unlike many recent works -some indeed excellent-, this is not a case study around a newspaper, an author, or a print workshop. Zeltsman goes beyond in her effort and works with the whole Mexican “long” 19th century (from late colonial times to 1910’s Revolution) to review the politics of printing. I enjoyed reading the nuanced narratives of specific experiences that nonetheless kept building on a general rationale, i. e., all the political actors of that jolted century embraced printing, and printers and other workers engaged in political activities. The study of legal debates, interventions in the public arena, and practical negotiations between printers, authors, and authorities, sheds light on a complex world that combines intellectual and manual labor. By paying entrepreneurial printers and political figures equal attention, and from the outskirts of Western civilization, Zeltsman dialogues with (and sometimes corrects) well established narratives of the public sphere as a gradual acquisition of liberty and reason or of print capitalism as a driving force behind the birth of modern nations. Rather than following a technology that mirrored political history, the book shows that the printing press has a history of its own, and that it is worth -even fun- studying it.

Jacob Saliba

In the American sporting imaginary, Spring-time means baseball season.  Whether you play yourself or just enjoy watching a game at the ballpark, there are unique and thought-provoking ways to further enhance an appreciation of the sport. One such avenue I might recommend is reading Alva Noe’s latest book Infinite Baseball: Notes from a Philosopher at the Ballpark (2019). Written from the perspective of a trained philosopher, Infinite Baseball examines and highlights the intricacies of baseball from a phenomenological point of view. According to Noe, baseball operates outside of mechanical or stringently enforced rational principles; rather, it develops in and through change, flux, and disruption on a level of lived experience. Whereas other sports like boxing (a recurring example for Noe) reflect on the game after the fact by tallying scorecards and numbering punches hit versus punches missed, baseball incorporates and weaves scoring—that is, thinking about outcomes—into the game while it is happening first-hand. Furthermore, this fusion between living (i.e., playing) and scoring (i.e., observing or reflecting) baseball occur simultaneously within a culture of infinite possibilities. Once you are able to understand Noe’s phenomenological interpretations and the paradoxes that animate them, it becomes more apparent why and how he takes particular positions on some of the sport’s most fundamental questions, such as: Why is baseball such a slow game; should we speed it up? Is baseball simply a numbers game, and can the code be cracked? How do players communicate and what are the varieties of formulas that they employ? Why does the American ballpark live in our hearts and minds in the way that it does?  In addition to his own claims, Noe provides a helpful bibliography by which readers can acquaint themselves with a growing literature on the sport beyond our natural attitude of it. For theorists, this book will no doubt enrich your understanding of the sport. For baseball fans and players, it will uncover much of the philosophy that dwells just beneath the surface. 

Nuala Caomhanach

In the afternoon of March 5th, the Endurance22 Expedition located Ernest Shackleton’s ship Endurance on the Antarctic sea floor. When the Exploration Director Mensun Bound stated, ‘Gents, I want to introduce you to the Endurance’ it reminded me of that well-known greeting by the American-Welsh explorer, Henry Stanley to David Livingstone. Livingstone was “lost” in the African continent. The 144-foot wooden ship, Endurance, which was crushed in the Weddell’s treacherous pack ice and sank in 1915 during Shackleton’s ill-fated attempt to be the first to cross Antarctica,was not. The earth offers less and less of what the exploration world calls “firsts” yet these stories are undeniably fascinating.   With much delight I attended the Virtual HistSTM Roundtable on the discovery of the Endurance with Sarah Pickman, Stephanie Barczewski, Henrietta Hammant and Daniella McCahey. Barczewski explained that one is either on team Scott or team Shackleton. She was team Scott. I was most definitely team Shackleton (and not because Ernest and I share the same homeland–it’s complicated). The rich discussion covered the relevance for  today of such a ‘discovery’, what it means to locate this particular shipwreck, the legacy of heroes of empire, along with our enduring fascination with shipwrecks. This engrossing roundtable questioned the gender politics of scientific exploration, climate change, and these remote places in our imagination. Mrs. Chippy would have approved!

Shuvatri Dasgupta

With the onset of Spring, as the days turn longer, and snowdrops give way to cherry blossoms, I turn to poetry and music to commemorate the annual rebirth of beings in nature. As I revisited Wordsworth’s lyrical ballad on daffodils, written in 1804, I was particularly struck by the relationship between nature and the process of abstraction. When the poet gazes at the flowers, he finds himself overwhelmed by their beauty. In his words “I gazed—and gazed—but little thought, What wealth the show to me had brought.” What “wealth” did he hope to earn from looking at this “host of golden daffodils”? This wealth was nothing but happiness. The poet’s feeling of joy was however not limited to the moment(s) of watching the flowers dance in gaiety. The moment of sharing in the cheerful being of the daffodils becomes eternal through an act of abstraction. By imagining that scene of daffodils in later moments of solitude, the poet notes in the conclusion that his “heart with pleasure fills, And dances with the daffodils”. Nature and seasons may be ever-changing and cyclical, but the poets give us hope that through abstraction, through imagination, spring can become timeless. Therefore, in 1818, Keats noted: “a thing of beauty is a joy for ever”. 

Alec Israeli

To recommend a book which needs no recommendation: Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. I am currently reading it with a group of friends, for the second time. Melville’s magnum opus is of course as enormous as its central metaphor, the whale; its cetacean proportions indeed make it difficult to recommend in brevity. For a blog on intellectual history, then, it is enough to allude to some already-identified themes of intellectual-historical interest. Employing a creative contextualism which he has dubbed “reconstructive literary criticism”, David S. Reynolds has situated Moby-Dick within the variously reformist, sensationalist, and seedy tropes of the popular literature Melville voraciously consumed. The novel’s complex interplay between a demagogic Ahab and his frenzied crew—both of which remain eminently sympathetic—Reynolds deems “the literary culmination of the radical egalitarianism” unique to Jacksonian democracy. Readers might then approach Moby-Dick as “the grand proclamation” of Melville as “the democratic writer”. From another perspective, they might instead read Moby-Dick as Alfred Kazin did, as Melville’s foray into the Emersonian confrontation between Nature and humankind. The novel presents a panoply of metaphors which outgrow their very substance (as Reynolds also suggests): unconquerable Whale and Ocean are limitless symbols that confound the fictional narrator Ishmael as much as the very real Melville. Kazin too calls Ishmael the “last transcendentalist” insofar as he is a dreamer, following the will-bound Ahab towards the Absolute. Coming from a long period of research on the Transcendentalist milieu, I might object to this characterization, and encourage readers to think of Ishmael as an anti-Transcendentalist wanderer: favoring extensivity over intensivity; accepting the unconquerable rather than presuming the universe’s correspondent knowability; skeptical of the Promethean split which Ahab asserts between imperial noumenal will and secondary phenomenal Nature. But, I would warn, Ishmael does not relish that the Transcendental conceit (however caricatured it might be in Melville’s presentation) might be wrong. He laments: “would I could mount that whale and leap the topmost skies”! Moby-Dick remains great because it is unsatisfied with its own conclusions.


Featured Image: Boticelli, La Primavera, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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January Reading Recommendations

Tom Furse

Over the Christmas break and into January, I’ve managed to fit in several books and essays that have a partial theme about socialism and social reform. The first was Lenin’s Imperialism is Highest Stage of Capitalism (1917), which was a slight juxtaposition as I was a willing beneficiary of global capitalism by eating Christmas food from around the world. It is a short analytical book with a polemical style. He doesn’t hold back his dislike of Karl Kautsky. Knowing now that Lenin became the leader of the Soviet Union while Kautsky became almost forgotten makes his criticism here almost comically earnest. I bought Era of Tyrannies (1938) by Élie Halévy in late 2021 and flicked through it but other work took over. I finally read it this month. It is a terrific collection of essays. He covers many issues, perhaps the most central was that European nations were heading toward an ‘era of tyranny’ through a merging of coercive state power, corporatism, and capitalism as a way out of the problems associated with modern global industrial and financial capitalist relations. I read a couple of William Hazlitt’s short essays, his ruthless putdown of Jeremy Bentham and the monotony of utilitarianism is well worth half an hour of your time. Lastly, Charles Dickens’s Hard Times. Although it is a social commentary about an industrial city in northern England, he isn’t that vivid about factories or machinery. The best writing is on characters, Gradgrind is terrible but Mr. Bounderby is the worst, and all power to Louisa.

Rachel Kaufman

Laura Levitt, Professor of Religion, Jewish Studies, and Gender at Temple University, recently published a beautiful book, The Objects That Remain, which dwells on the act of holding. Intent on approaching the ways in which objects brushed by violence become sacred objects through the tender act of custody, Levitt weaves together (while acknowledging the spaces between threads) her rape as a graduate student, police property management of criminal evidence, and objects held and conserved by institutions dedicated to Holocaust remembrance. The book is in conversation with Maggie Nelson, Edmund de Waal, Jewish and Christian notions of the relic, archival studies, and much more. A work which presses the boundaries of form quietly and surely, The Objects That Remain persists in weaving a story of justice, memory, and care as bound to knowing as it is to the remains which we can never fully know.

Oscar Broughton

At the start of 2022, I began reading Joshua Specht’s Red Meat Republic: A Hoof-to-Table History of How Beef Changed America (2019). This book analyzes the development of beef production in the United States during the late nineteenth century by creating a convincing narrative across five chapters. It begins with the remaking and standardization of land on the North American frontiers in order to make it suitable for cattle. This displaced indigenous communities and created different areas within the United States that began to specialize in parts of the bovine lifecycle. Cows were typically born in the South in Texas and then moved north to places such as Colorado and Montana where they were fattened. After the Civil War (1861-65) the integration of railway networks allowed national cattle markets to emerge. This allowed Chicago to become the undisputed center of meatpacking by 1890, which Upton Sinclair famously decried in The Jungle. Chicago was not only the center of meatpacking in the United States but also central to a global economy, literally helping to feed military forces around the world and supplying cheap beef products particularly in Europe and the Caribbean. As a result, the Chicago meatpacking firms rightly claimed to have democratized meat consumption as beef became cheaper and more accessible to the general population. New recipes and hierarchies emerged as a consequence highlighting how race, class, and gender were inseparable from dietary choices. Specht conveys all of this information while never forgetting to note the role of social and political choices made along the way, leading to a nuanced narrative that cuts against the fat of technological determinism that might otherwise be used to explain this story.

Jacob Saliba

Perhaps like many, I go to the novel as a means of quiet escape from the workload and responsibilities of academic research. For me, I have been drawn to the novels of J.K. Huysmans, a late nineteenth-century French Decadent writer turned avowed Catholic. Two of his works in particular have captured my attention: À rebours (Against Nature) and Là-Bas (Down There). Published in 1884, Against Nature is a psychologically playful and linguistically animating story of a solitary French bourgeois man struggling with great despair to find personal wholeness in the lifestyle he has inherited from his wealthy Parisian parents. It is a spectacular literary expression of French Decadence both for its historical richness as well as its general reading enjoyment. Down There, first published in 1891, provides an exciting shift in Huysmans’ outlook as a novelist. Having definitively cut ties with naturalism as a literary paradigm, he takes the reader deep into the caverns of the nineteenth century culture of the occult. Entangling Satanism with romance, unabashedly criticizing science by way of raw religious feeling, and explaining the history of the Church through cathedral bells, Huysmans experiments with religious consciousness not so much for its transcendental values but for its haunting inflections in lived experience. My suggestion is to read these books in order; that way one can feel the tensions in which Huysmans the novelist and Huysmans the person begin to evolve and take shape. Should a reader need more context to unpack these fascinating texts, I recommend Richard Griffiths’ The Reactionary Revolution: The Catholic Revival in French Literature 1870-1914.  

Maria Wiegel

While reading Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth (1905), I couldn’t help but notice how relevant Wharton’s view on women still is today. The protagonist Lily Bart’s quest for prosperity and social status, which she hopes to find in matrimony, while also looking for love, does not merely reveal the flaws of capitalist early twentieth-century America. Much more than that, while reading about Lily’s dating life, it makes one wonder, in how far dating has changed by the early twenty-first century in our neoliberal western world (which went through several waves of feminism, already). Luckily, I could draw on a recent birthday present, Florence Given’s Women Don’t Owe You Pretty (2020), to gain a little bit of an overall view of the topic from today’s perspective. In this book Given, a British feminist and illustrator, deconstructs women’s performativity under the male gaze, while drawing on her own experiences (I am aware of Chidera Eggerue’s critique on Given’s book and will elaborate on this issue, as soon as my copy of What a Time to Be Alone (2018) arrives and I get a chance to read it). Interestingly, in Wharton’s novel, Lily Bart’s fall from grace—due to the upper class’ male and female influences, coupled with her naiveté—reflects what Given describes in her book; namely that “abuse in our society is normalized” (97). What I think is especially interesting in both Wharton’s novel and Given’s book, is that abuse is not exercised by men only. Additionally, women themselves often reproduce patriarchal structures, instead of fighting them. This, however, often happens unconsciously (e.g. by establishing and maintaining stereotypical figures, such as ‘the other woman’ or ‘the basic bitch’). I think both books provide ample food for thought and I would recommend reading them together, since they show how little has changed ever since Wharton voiced her discontent with women’s place in society. Maybe even more importantly, they induce one to rethink one’s own behavior and thought patterns.

Emily Hull

During the winter break, I finally sat down to read a number of journal articles which had accumulated on my “to read list” throughout the previous term. In the course of my reading, I particularly enjoyed Nick Devlin’s recent article “Hannah Arendt and Marxist Theories of Totalitarianism.” Devlin revisits Arendt’s masterpiece The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), a text which was fundamental in shaping Cold War intellectual life in America and across the Atlantic. Crucially, he suggests that Origins should be viewed as three different theories of totalitarianism. The most interesting element of the article is his discussion of the first two parts of Arendt’s classic volume where he argues that Origins can be better understood within the history of interwar Marxist thought on totalitarianism. Here, he specifically analyzes the way in which Arendt relied on the same languages of imperialism and Bonapartism as the interwar Marxists had done. Furthermore, he also presents an enlightening discussion of ex-Marxist intellectuals, such as James Burnham, and demonstrates the links between their work and Arendt’s. In short, the article is an excellent read for those interested in the work of this vital twentieth-century political theorist and seeking a greater understanding of the historical development of theories of totalitarianism.


Featured Image: “Woman Reading,” Pablo Picasso, 1935.

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Winter Reading Recommendations

Jonathon Catlin

I recently returned to New York’s legendary art house IFC cinema to see the new documentary Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time, a film forty years in the making co-directed by Robert Weide, a close friend of Vonnegut (1922–2007) and the director of Curb Your Enthusiasm and the 1996 film adaptation of Vonnegut’s Mother Night. Like many Americans, I devoured Vonnegut’s irreverent, satirical novels in high school. I wrote my admissions essay for the University of Chicago about his 1963 Cat’s Cradle, a fictional ethnography the university retroactively accepted as his MA thesis in anthropology. (“I liked the University of Chicago,” he once said. “They didn’t like me.”) Returning to his books in recent weeks, I was still struck by his characteristic combination of cutting humor and utter moral seriousness. The documentary presents Vonnegut as a remarkable friend but also highlights his anti-war politics. He served as an American soldier in World War Two and was captured at the Battle of the Bulge, where most of his division was wiped out. An even more powerful experience was later surviving the allied fire-bombing of Dresden while a German prisoner of war. He struggled for over twenty years to write his “Dresden book” (there’s also a new book about his many aborted attempts, including a play), which finally came out in 1969 as the bestselling Slaughterhouse-Five, which secured his place in the canon of American literature. What finally overcame his seemingly interminable narrative experimentations was the moral urgency of 1969, the high point of the senseless violence of the Vietnam War. As Vonnegut explained, “I think the Vietnam War freed me and other writers, because it made our leadership and our motives seem so scruffy and essentially stupid. We could finally talk about something bad that we did to the worst people imaginable, the Nazis.” Vonnegut’s lifelong reflections on violence exemplify the kind of multidirectional memory that drives my own research on catastrophe, and in particular the phenomenon memory studies scholars call remediation, whereby certain aspects of the past gain new salience and become narratable in light of the changing present. In his eighties, Vonnegut came out of retirement to write a series of columns against the Iraq War for the leftist Chicago-based magazine In These Times. “Like my distinct betters Einstein and Twain,” he wrote in 2004, “I now am tempted to give up on people too. And, as some of you may know, this is not the first time I have surrendered to a pitiless war machine. My last words? ​’Life is no way to treat an animal.’”

Isabel Jacobs

“O Shariputra, form is not separate from boundlessness; boundlessness is not separate from form. Form is boundlessness; boundlessness is form.” In the last weeks, I have been reading Kazuaki Tanahashi’s in-depth guide to the Heart Sutra, one of the most widely recited and studied scriptures in Mahayana Buddhism. Also known as the Prajna Paramita Hridaya Sutra, it is chanted by millions of Zen practitioners worldwide. With few lines, the Heart Sutra reflects on emptiness, transience and awakening, leading a path to the other shore, towards “wisdom beyond wisdom.”

In his extensive study, the Japanese Zen teacher and calligrapher offers a cross-cultural history and translation of the Sutra. In Sanskrit, the word sūtra means scripture, but also string, line or thread. Accordingly, the Heart Sutra is presented as a travelling text conjoining “the invisible connections among bits of information scattered throughout Asia and beyond.” Tracing the Sutra’s centuries-long pilgrimage to the East and West, Tanahashi elucidates its pan-Asian and global transmission; from early Korean woodblock printing, calligraphy and Phoenician scripture to California’s ashrams. In this intricate web of correspondences, the Heart Sutra is the thread that holds everything together.

Tanahashi’s historiography is animated by his own cross-cultural experience of “living in India, translating into Japanese the books addressed to a U.S. audience by a Vietnamese master who lived in France.” It suits the picture that his first encounter with the sutra was in a Zen temple in San Francisco. Tanahashi recalls: 

One of [the students], a relaxed young man with an unshaven face and long hair, who might then have been called a beatnik, showed me around the city in his old truck. The interior of his vehicle was ornately decorated; a small Buddha figure was glued onto the centre of the dashboard. He would turn his ignition key, offer incense to the Buddha, and take off. While driving, he listened to a tape recording of a group chanting the Heart Sutra. I must admit that it sounded rather weird to my ears. This was my initiation into the sixties counterculture in the United States. 

In Tanahashi’s footsteps from India and Japan to Hawaii, Central Asia and Korea, the reader slowly uncovers the fascinating journey of the Heart Sutra. On this long path, we meet great translators and mediators, such as the Chinese monk Xuangzang (602–664). Finally, in Tanahashi’s translation, the famous concept of emptiness (śūnyatā) reappears as boundlessness or zeroness, with “no eyes, no ears, no nose.”

Nick Barone 
This past week, I returned to one of the more idiosyncratic works to emerge from the debates over objectivity and archival mediation that roiled the historical profession in the last quarter of the twentieth century: Carolyn Kay Steedman’s 1987 classic, Landscape for a Good Woman: A Story of Two Lives. Resisting precise formal categorization, Landscape for a Good Woman draws on (and unsettles) the discursive idioms of psychoanalysis, Marxist and feminist cultural criticism, traditional historical scholarship on class, and memoir to investigate twentieth-century British working-class girlhood through the prism, per its title, of two lives: those of Steedman’s mother and Steedman herself. In Steedman’s words, it is a story which concerns itself less with “what really happened” and more with interpreting “the experience of my own childhood, and the way in which my mother re-asserted, reversed and restructured her own within mine.” A set of personal and epistemological questions animates Steedman’s account: what desires, privations, and attachments experienced in childhood motivated her mother to abandon her family’s Labour roots and embrace post-Attlee Toryism in the 1950s, the decade of Steedman’s own upbringing? How do concrete historical phenomena––the exigencies of wage labor, the promises and limits of welfare state provisions, the multiple forms of productive and reproductive labor women are required to perform––accumulate in our psyches, our endocrine and nervous systems, and shape how we narrate our lives? I won’t give away too much, but Steedman’s deft balancing of emotional candor and conceptual rigor foreshadows, for me, some of the genric experimentations of “autotheory” pioneered by Paul Preciado in Testo Junkie and exposed to a broader audience through Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, among others. The recent turn to affect theory in social and labor history, exemplified by Gabe Winant’s phenomenal The Next Shift, testifies to the enduring relevance of Steedman’s work. Moreover, in an era of endless ethnographic analyses probing why working-class people “vote against their interests” and embrace right-wing populists, it would be prudent to sit with Steedman’s provocations and consider whether academic and media elites––left, right, and center––are asking all the wrong questions about class. Steedman’s book reminded me of Mike Leigh’s gorgeous 1990 film Life is Sweet, which similarly grapples with the psychosexual dimensions of working-class family life. Both explore how histories of exploitation inhere and disclose themselves, unexpectedly, without warning, in the hyper-intimate, mundane textures of everyday life, in structures of desire, in “the processes by which we come to step into the landscape, and see ourselves.”


Featured Image: Trompe-l’oeil still-life. Samuel van Hoogstraten, 1664.

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What We're Reading

October Reading Recommendations

Tom Furse
Over the last month, I’ve been reading David Edgerton’s The Rise and Fall of the British Nation: A Twentieth-Century History. Rarely can we be convinced of something at once, but for me, this book (with some qualifiers) did it. It made me look at my own country in a new way. This book pushes against Thomas Nairn, Peter Cain and Tony Hopkins’ story of British history as one of a slow decline managed by a stodgy Edwardian ruling class. His revisionist account is that after the Second World War, Britain, as a nation, began to exist. Pre-1945 Britain was not a nation because it couldn’t be divorced from its empire, which incidentally, it didn’t trade with that much in comparison to Europe and US. The 1956 Suez intervention was a national war (with France and Israel), not an imperial war. It was only when it became a nation that it started relying on Australia, New Zealand, and others and then, in 1973, it joined the Common Market for good or ill. The book is built from an analysis of British capitalism, state militarism and political-economic ideas. It is on ideas where Edgerton is fascinating, how the Tory Party nearly mainstreamed protectionism or his contextualizing of Edwardian free trade ideas as particular to that time, and so can’t be reborn despite how contemporary free-trade advocates might try. The book gives us a detailed picture of a nation that was post-imperial, with protected industries, and thought in strictly national terms—British Rail, British Leyland, and the National Health Service. 

Jonathon Catlin

Martin Jay’s latest book, Genesis and Validity: The Theory and Practice of Intellectual History, is forthcoming in the University of Pennsylvania Press’s series Intellectual History of the Modern Age. This collection of mostly previously published essays (see links) centers around the age-old problem of genesis and validity, the extent to which the meaning of ideas is bound to the historical contexts in which they were created, reevaluated against the contemporary backdrops of multiculturalism, the provincialization of Europe, and “this day and age of identity politics” and “speaking azza.” A thorough introduction explores the problem from various angles, while Jay articulates his own nuanced position in essays on how “events” produce new ideas and a related skepticism toward David Armitage’s call for transhistorical studies of “big ideas”. Reflections on the ironic affinities of presentist Hayden White and contextualist Quentin Skinner and a communitarian conception of historical truth forge a path out of the reductive binary of relativistic historicism versus universalizing transcendentalism toward a third possibility inspired by Frank Ankersmit’s notion of “sublime historical experience”: “the importance of opening ourselves to the radical alterity of a past that resists being ‘appreciated’ or judged by present values, and in fact my fruitfully challenge them.” Jay thus calls for “a mutual relativization of contexts”: contexts of genesis but also contexts of reception; of the past but also of present historians’ narcissistic claims to superior understanding. Essays on Blumenberg, Lukács, and Benjamin and Berlin model Jay’s famous “synoptic” style of intellectual history, which balances the transcendent validity claims of “philosophy” with the subject-positioning of “theory,” the Habermasian impulse for “rational reconstruction” with the Benjaminian and Adornian impulses to present ideas in unstable and reflexive “constellations” and “force fields.” Ultimately, Jay concludes, “we come to history to be torn out of the complacency of the present.”

Shuvatri Dasgupta

On the centenary of Rabindranath Tagore’s Visvabharati University, established with the agenda of decolonising the educational curriculum in colonial India, it seems apt to ask: How can we conceptualise a decolonised classroom on a planet heaving under an unprecedented advent of capitalism and increasing climate crisis? Priyamvada Gopal’s recent article provides some key indications on the project of decolonising the university, where she argues that metropolitan universities can begin the task by taking a cue from anti-colonial ideas and institutions. Drawing upon the works of Kenyan-Marxist thinkers like Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Gopal makes the crucial and compelling argument that institutions in the erstwhile colonial metropole must grapple with their violent histories, and estimate the material and affective costs of their past, to begin the humongous and reparative task of decolonising. Tagore’s vision of an anti-colonial educational project which he developed over the course of his lifetime, can also be a source of inspiration. Visvabharati University, formalised back in 1921, relied largely on biophilic practices of education such as open air classrooms, celebrating seasons, and commemorating the annual ritual of tree plantation. Tagore sought to refocus the teleology of India’s educational infrastructure in the early twentieth century, from being valued and estimated in terms of grades, degrees, and jobs, to largely undervalued ethico-moral parameters such as generosity, kindness, mutual interdependence, and collective thinking. He reimagined the pursuit of knowledge as a pursuit of truth, as an end in itself, rather than as means to an end. After all, education must aid in remaking our worlds for the better, and decolonising pedagogy, within an anti-capitalist, pro-environmentalist framework, remains crucial for that.


Featured Image: “Farmer sitting at the fireside and reading,” Vincent van Gogh, 1881. Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, Netherlands. Courtesy of WikiArt.