What We're Reading

October Reading Recommendations

Nuala Caomhanach

Shadows, phantoms, and spirits feature prominently in oral legends and have an important place in most cultures. When a supernatural being appears it is not in the least surprising, and is even expected as they can be an integral dimension of belief systems and cosmologies. Ghostly entities witness, interrogate, dislodge, challenge, and disrupt individual and collective experience for the characters and the reader as they slip into the lives of the living whenever and wherever they wish. 

In Katrina. A History 1915-2015 (Harvard University Press, 2020) Andy Horowitz argues for the relevance of the past (or history) itself. The August 29, 2005 hurricane named Katrina, was not just a natural disaster–a discrete moment in New Orleans history– but the legacy of endemic and enduring racist-classist social reordering of the (un)natural urban environment over the course of a century. Impressively archived and absorbing to read, Horowitz reveals that Katrina did not cause many of the effects commonly attributed to it, such as the housing recovery program appropriating money to home-owners but not recenters, or political officers arresting musicians for leading jazz funerals without city permits, as violent crime plagued the city.  Horowitz presents the loss and horror for New Orleanians of the disaster as he equally demonstrates how Katrina becomes an easy excuse for the unaccountability, corruption, and irresponsibility of powerful men. Reading Katrina and watching Jordan Peele’s Get Out movie lead me down this haunted path of literature I now share with you.

Towards the mid-nineteenth century, Indigenous cultures, such as the Lakota, started ghost dancing. Initially it seems to have been a mystical ritual that slowly spread through western Indigenous reservations. For many cultures, it metamorphosed into a symbol of resistance to the ongoing oppression by the U.S. government, a last, desperate self-affirmation in the face of cultural annihilation. To ghost dance was to perform defiance against total extinction.

In the opening scene of Sony Labou Tansi’s La Vie et Demie (Life and a Half, Indiana Press, 2011) we meet the rebel leader Martial, in the fictional post-independence African nation of Katamalanasie. Martial is arrested with his family and brought in front of the dictator or ‘providential guide’ of the country. The guide kills and cannibalises Martial and his family in a barbaric and horrific manner.  Martial’s spirit lives on to guide his followers in their fight against the dictators. In the closing chapters of Jesmyn Ward’s novel Sing, Unburied, Sing (Scribner, 2017) one of the narrators, a black teenager named JoJo, comes across “a great live oak” full of ghosts. The ghosts share their stories of violent deaths—brutal torture, rape, suffocation–as Jojo is on a road trip with his family.  Ward’s novel, written in the 21st century, highlights that racial violence has never gone away. It is indeed, as the ghosts are, an ever-present and visible lineage that accumulates, adapts, morphs rather than dissipates and heals with the passage of time. Ghosts are experienced everyday for some people; for others they will never ever meet those ghostly ethers. This kind of ghostly atmospheric violence was examined by Frantz Fanon in Les Damnés de la Terre (The Wretched of the Earth, Grove Atlantic, 1961). Fanon presents a psychological analysis of the dehumanizing impact of colonization and how liberation, a space free of atmospheric violence, can only be achieved through its own mechanism, outright brutality.  Helen Olajumoke Oyeyemi picks up some of Fanon’s themes in  White is for Witching (Penguin Random House, 2014). In this unconventional ghostly tale, Oyeyemi subverts the European vampire metaphorical associations replacing it with the Caribbean soucouyant. The soucouyant represents the fears of the outsider or foreign and an unnatural appetite. Oyeyemi’s novel about Miri, a young woman who suffers from pica, a disorder that compels her to eat foreign objects. She lives with her twin brother and widowed father in a haunted house across the street from a cemetery full of unmarked graves. The author blends female insanity and a coming-of-age into a novel that dizzies the reader in ways that offers a mere glimpse to second-handedly “experience” trauma and despair. These books do not offer bright futures, exorcise the ghosts from their brutal pasts, offer correctives or solutions or pathways for the reader to feel good about the state of the world. They challenge readers to question the roots and ghosts of systems that depend on the alienation, criminalization, displacement, and disenfranchisement.

Jonathon Catlin

Pankaj Mishra’s latest book, Bland Fanatics: Liberals, the West, and the Afterlives of Empire (Verso, 2020), is an early post-mortem on an era of neo-imperialist liberalism that Mishra wishes he could finally pronounce dead. Call it “the end of history”—history that shocked many complacent liberals by “beginning” again in 2016 with Brexit and Trump. Mishra’s essays, written over the past two decades, evolve from indictments of the generation of interventionist liberal policy-makers and intellectuals who enabled and defended the Iraq War to calling out many of those same intellectuals’ naive shock at the failures of the “deplorable” masses in 2016 to continue their tacit support of an elitist, neoliberal, neo-imperialist agenda that had become as unsustainable as it was utterly taken for granted. Mishra’s primary targets include Niall Ferguson’s tired defenses of (white) civilization and whitewashing of the crimes of British imperialism, numerous fearmongering bestsellers alleging that Islamic barbarism is taking over the West, and the out of touch editorial elites of The Economist. As Rebecca Liu writes in her smart and sympathetic review, these “Western consensus-shapers have taken to asking what went wrong in the history of liberalism – the likes of Tony Blair and Joe Biden urge a return to a stable centre. But Mishra sees the chaos of the past years as a belated but inevitable homecoming for a broken social and political ideology whose high-minded rhetoric espousing human rights, tolerance, and mutual respect has continually stood at odds with the violent disregard for human life that defined its practice.” Another highly symptomatic target of Mishra’s criticism, Jordan Peterson’s pseudo-philosophy, which posits the inherent maleness of human consciousness, seems to have also inspired Mishra’s forthcoming next book, entitled The Trouble with Men: A Short History of Masculinity. One of the only figures who emerges from Mishra’s book unscathed, and in fact as a perceptive model intellectual who learned from their mistakes and then some, is the intellectual historian and legal scholar Samuel Moyn, who in the course of a few years went from working in the liberal-interventionist Clinton White House to indicting an hypocritical liberalism whose only issue seemed to be its enemies. This hawkish “anti-totalitarian” liberalism, as these critics have documented so well, used the covers of humanitarianism and human rights to impose democracy abroad by force, with catastrophic consequences. After 2016 that “bland fanaticism” (as Reinhold Niebuhr once called it) returned like a zombie from the dead, but Mishra roared back, too—the critic as zombie hunter.

Pranav Jain

David Edgerton, The Rise and Fall of the British Nation: A Twentieth-Century History

Few books have made me more aware of my own profound ignorance than David Edgerton’s fantastic history of 20th century Britain. Before I read this book, I thought I had a good idea of the basic outline of modern British and British imperial history. However, Edgerton’s many cutting-edge arguments challenge nearly every piece of conventional wisdom. Bit by bit, he lays out a profoundly novel argument about the trajectory of modern Britain since the early 20th century. His primary aim is to challenge “declinist” narratives that insist that British industry, business, and much else went into terminal decline after 1945. Instead, he argues, the period between 1945 and 1970 was when British industry was at its peak. At the same time, he shows that there emerged a unique and peculiarly national orientation in British society that diverged from the liberal, free-trading, and largely imperial inclination of the first half of the twentieth-century.  There are several other arguments in the book that compel one to re-think one’s understanding of modern British history. Among other things, he shows that it is warfare, not welfare, that is the central story of the modern British state. Similarly, in line with his argument about the “British nation,” he suggests that we should think of Labor as a nationalist party first, and a socialist party second.

 To me, the most fascinating parts of the book are the ones where Edgerton launches withering attacks on the various historical and historiographical stereotypes that have come to shape our understanding of modern Britain. Not all of these are convincing. Some of them might even appear extreme at times. But provocative and thoughtful they certainly are. For instance, Edgerton is keen to call out leftist histories that blame all of Britain’s ills on the empire. As he writes, “overplaying the significance – economic, ideological and political – of empire has been at the expense of understanding non-imperial, indeed national, sources of inequality, racism, economic problems and militarism too. Blaming empire and imperialism has let the guilty get away scot free!”

While the book is fantastic on 1900-1970, it loses its pace and clarity as we enter Thatcher’s Britain. Though Edgerton convincingly shows that the British nation as he conceives it began to disappear in the 1970s, he does not explain why this was the case. But the last pages of the book are a devastating indictment of British politics since then. Speaking initially of Augusto Pinochet’s arrest in 1998, he writes:

 “Margaret Thatcher was voluble in his support, as well she might be, given his free market views and his help in the war against Argentina. Her last speech to the Conservative Party conference, in 1999, was on his arrest. It is even more telling that while in office New Labour agreed to an all-but-state funeral for Lady Thatcher, a ceremonial funeral with military honours. Big Ben was muffled, and Prime Minister’s Questions cancelled. Most prime ministers were buried privately: Winston Churchill was the only one since William Gladstone to have had a state funeral. The country saw her passing, when it came in 2013, rather differently. Her body was carried on a gun-carriage from the National Gladstone Memorial at the Aldwych, at whose unveiling in 1905 crowds had thronged years after his demise, along Fleet Street into the City of London and St Paul’s Cathedral, where her funeral service was held. There were no cranes left to be dipped in respect by dockers in the unprecedented honour the London proletariat gave Churchill in 1965. In the old and distressed pit villages of England, of Scotland and of Wales, forgotten former miners celebrated bitterly. Tony Blair, meanwhile, was making money working for some of the vilest torturers and dictators on earth. Only satirists, not historians, could do justice to this turn of events.”

Simon Brown

I taught for the same course in the spring that I do now, and I’ve watched the same lectures given in person then and recorded in advance now. The way that I hear them and the way the students experience them have changed too. In a lecture hall you can zone out, lose track, spring back to attention and choose when a fleeting moment is worth immortalizing in your notes. On a recording you can keep rewinding by a few seconds. Any lapse in attention can be reversed. Judging when a moment is worth recording in your notes feels less urgent when every moment is already recorded. The ability to hear every turn in a historical narrative with as much attention as you want to give, I thought, must inform how students hear the course material.

I was thinking about these questions as I read Jordan Alexander Stein’s new literary history, When Novels Were Books (Harvard University Press), and it has shaped that thinking since. Stein approaches the history of the English novel in the seventeenth and eighteenth century through their material construction. Through this view it becomes clear just how unextraordinary they were for most of the period. They shared material features — lightweight, octavo or duodecimo, thick but portable in the pocket — with remarkably popular “devotional steady sellers.” These other “short, tubby bricks,” to use historian Stephen Foster’s term, were Protestant guidebooks that readers were supposed to dive into regularly but at appropriate locations for particular circumstances This “discontinuous reading” only gave way to the continuous reading with which we are more familiar later in the seventeenth century, as individuals striving — like the reader — for salvation could become more recognizable as characters. In books like John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress of 1678 we see a prose narrative depicting a (barely) named character, Christian, follow a path toward salvation that looks novelistic but also conventionally devotional. For most of the eighteenth century novels and pious narratives would be largely just as indistinguishable until the religious societies that distributed the latter condemned their competitors in the former.

Continuous reading for the way the whole story “hangs together” became more common and more natural at the expense of selection of passages to produce an “application” to oneself. Stein’s story is not about technological or even significant material transformations of the medium, yet those profound effects of continuous reading for the way audiences think about novelistic narrative and its recognizable characters made the same impression as my students’ attitudes toward our lectures. Since they can listen to them at will and with a technologically-enhanced degree of attention I have found they’re also more inclined to treat the lectures like the other texts we read, as stable stories rather than collections of important notes on lined paper or google docs. We are all also much more accustomed to the way recorded lectures work. We listen to them and rewind them and speed them up in the same way we do with podcasts and a proliferating array of recorded media. Like novels in Stein’s account, these lectures enter a media environment in which they don’t look that different and certainly not that special.

Featured Image: Carl Gustav Carus, Faust’s Dream (~1852). Courtesy of the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden.

What We're Reading

September Reading Recommendations

David Kretz

On Sept 2, the anthropologist David Graeber passed away. The New York Review of Books has collected powerful statements of his academic colleagues and activist comrades which show the sheer range of his intellectual pursuits, the vigor with which he threw himself into political struggle — and just how heavy weighs the loss of this man who was for so many of us the very model of a scholar-activist. As one obituary had it, Graeber “a cosmic mind, worked on the very largest scale. He was interrupted mid-flight [Graeber, cosmique, faisait les choses en grand. Il a été interrompu en plein vol.].” His erudition of cosmic expanse combined with his signature blend of humor, care, clarity, and curiosity to make Graeber a consummate essayist. His article on Bullshit Jobs, later expanded into a book, has become a classic. Not as well known, though they should be, are these two essays. What’s the Point if We Can’t Have Fun? argues for the centrality of play in every attempt to understand the human condition. Boldly stepping onto philosophy’s turf, it is a dazzling tour-de-force touching on everything from the nature of consciousness to competing accounts of what makes an explanation scientific to metaphysical speculations about the mindedness of matter to, finally, an ancient Chinese anecdote, which he interprets with masterful delicacy. Closer to intellectual history is his short introduction to one his own heroes, the French anthropologist Marcel Mauss and the Mouvement Anti-Utilitariste dans les Sciences Sociales, MAUSS for short, that took inspiration of his work and which has unjustly been neglected in the English-speaking world in favor of mainstream French postmodernism. May his memory be a blessing. 

Jonathon Catlin

Not to be missed is UC Berkeley historian Stefan-Ludwig Hoffman’s beautiful essay in Aeon on the German conceptual historian Reinhart Koselleck, focusing on his relationship to the British communist historian Eric Hobsbawm, who taught the young Koselleck in a British “reeducation” center for former Nazis in occupied Germany. Hoffman centers on Koselleck’s Historik, or theory of possible histories, a kind of anti-philosophy of history that provides a basic framework within which contingent historical events occur: “As we find ourselves again in a world of global convulsions and crises, in which events have surprised many, Koselleck reminds us to sort out what repeats in a moment of rupture.” Recent pieces on the Blog have addressed Koselleck’s writings on memorials, crisis, and images.

A number of recent articles and discussions have also considered the “new normal” of American higher education in light of the pandemic as a state of permanent crisis. Jacobin’s podcast The Dig, hosted a discussion on “Higher Education in Crisis” that featured faculty and graduate students from a range of public and private institutions: historian Tithi Bhattacharya on how austerity and profit motives at her institution, Purdue University, have cut programs focused on diversity and social justice while recklessly enrolling record numbers of students for in-person classes to bolster tuition revenues; University of Washington professor Daniel Bessner on his piece “House of Cards: Can the American university be saved?” which highlights the fact that nearly 75 percent of college instructors in the U.S. are contingent, non-tenure-track, or graduate students, many of whom are paid poverty wages and were the first to be fired when budgets and enrollments plunged after the pandemic hit; and Yale graduate student Simon Torracinta on his May 2020 piece “Extinction Event” on how the pandemic challenged the viability of existing university models: “The joke about the Ivies is that they are nonprofit hedge funds with schools attached. Most schools are closer to sprawling conglomerates: an equity fund, a real estate empire, a private hospital, a football team, an apparel company, a brand licensing agency, and an event space, with a little teaching on the side.” He concludes by asking, “What if the torrents of federal money that will be needed to relieve the system required union neutrality, living wages, endowment spending ratios, or more egalitarian admissions?” Daniel Lemons, president of CUNY’s Lehman College, wrote earlier this month, this crisis of higher education is really “a tale of two cities”: media focus (especially from the political Right) on elite colleges conducting instruction remotely through “glorified Skype,” providing students with luxurious and unnecessary amenities, and then leaving them with massive debts, hardly reflects the reality of the more than half of American students who attend public institutions, many of which remain relatively affordable and provide significant social mobility. Astra Taylor’s piece, “The End of the University,” sets the fiscal shock of the pandemic in a longer-term trajectory of public disinvestment, surging student debts, and racial wealth and borrowing gaps: “The coronavirus pandemic did not cause the current crisis like an unexpected blow to an otherwise healthy patient; it has exposed and exacerbated an array of preexisting conditions, revealing structural inequalities that go back not just decades but centuries….One of many ironies of contemporary higher education is the fact millions of students are mortgaging their futures to pay for classes taught by people who may not make minimum wage.”

Leading historians of varying political stripes have weighed in on the ongoing “fascism debate” about the contemporary United States and historical analogies. Historian of Italian fascism Victoria de Grazia grew up as a leftist using “fascist” as a political buzzword for everything from McCarthyism, to police brutality against African Americans in the civil rights era, to the war in Vietnam, but writes that today “we face not fascism, but rather a crisis of a kind that historic fascism invented itself to address.” Niall Ferguson provides six historical reasons the “Weimerica” analogy fails, writing that Trump’s “worldview and political style are so much closer to vintage American nativism and populism that I have the utmost difficulty understanding why any educated person would liken him to Hitler.” Finally, David Bell reminds us that history provides plenty of threats to democracy besides the contentious f-word: Trump is “racist demagogue,” Bell argues, but the broader category of “charismatic authoritarianism,” exemplified by figures like Napoleon Bonaparte, provides more accurate historical analogies than interwar fascism.

Rachel Kaufman

The first chapter of Jenny Sharpe’s recent work, Immaterial Archives: An African Diaspora Poetics of Loss, begins with lines from poet M. NourbeSe Philip’s Looking for Livingstone (1991): 

in the beginning was



             but Silence

and a future rampart

                                              with possibility

A book intent on centering African diaspora cultures’ understandings of the relationship between past and present, Immaterial Archives explores artistic works which confront loss and fragment as means toward a salvaged, sacred future. In Sharpe’s reading, the artwork of Haitian American Edouard Duval-Carrié submerges images of colonial-era European books during the Haitian Revolution within a vast landscape of Vodou cosmology. Barbadian poet and historian Kamau Brathwaite and Jamaican writer and historian Erna Brodber recover silences in black history through the audibility of oral histories, the interface between technology and black diasporic memory, and the intrusion of the spiritual upon anthropological study. With careful attention to form, futurity, and story, Sharpe traces presence in absence and sight in the unseen. Allowing the immaterial of the works she explores to surface untouched, she reveals “where words sit on top of large holes leading to a parallel world of spirits, and [where] the gossamer of dreams paradoxically returns us to the repositories of material archives.”

Pranav Jain

At 792 pages, Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD is Peter Brown’s longest book. The length is justified by the sheer scope and audacity of the subject matter. Brown’s purpose, as he explains, is no less than to account for notions of wealth in the later Roman world and their relationship with the rise and transformation of Christianity. He does so through a combination of sweeping overviews of vast subjects and highly detailed portraits of individual thinkers, clerics, and politicians. While the book does not have a single argument that holds it together, the general narrative explains how early Christians struggled to come to terms with the vast wealth of the Roman empire. Next, it shows how the fall and eventual dissolution of the western half of the empire created conditions under which individual Christian churches amassed great wealth. At the core of this story, he explains, is Christianity’s deeply fraught but ultimately successful attempt to sacralize wealth and connect it with the afterlife. 

It goes without saying that this is quite simply an astonishing work of scholarship. Brown brings the full force of his erudition to bear upon the subject and moves effortlessly from Rome to Gaul to Spain to North Africa and back again. Individual thinkers are treated with great attention and he repeatedly shows how seemingly banal and obvious ideas about wealth were, in fact, extremely radical in their various contexts. However, at least for me, the best aspect of the book is the generosity with which he acknowledges his debt to the work of his fellow scholars. On almost every page, there is mention of the incredible amount of new scholarship on late antiquity and how it has transformed our understanding of the period. Most importantly, though, Brown never relishes in pointing out the flaws in the work of other scholars. While he clearly states their positions and his disagreement with them, his next step is almost always to speak in the first person plural and explain how “we like to imagine” or “we like to think.” The onus of the mistaken interpretation is almost always shifted from the individual writers on to the scholarly community as a whole. Some might disagree with this practice. However, to me, it stands out as an important reminder of how scholarly successes and failures have broad origins and are not always the result of individual triumph or disaster. As Brown wrote in 2003, 

…scholars need to become, from time to time, historians of themselves in order learn a measure of intellectual humility. A little history puts one firmly back in one’s place. It counters the amiable tendency of learned persons to think of themselves as if they were hang-gliders, hovering silently and with Olympian ease above their field, as it has come to spread out beneath them over the years. But real life, one knows, has not been like this. We are not hang-gliders. We are in no way different from the historical figures whom we study in the distant past: we are embodied human beings caught in the unrelenting particularity of space and time. 

Featured Image: F. Luis Mora, “Subway Riders, New York City, 1914.” Courtesy of The New York Public Library.

What We're Reading

July Reading Recommendations – Part 2


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.”

Go in there and take a picture of that.


Paul Fusco had a long and productive career as a photographer. He began as a staff photographer for Look magazine in the heyday of magazine photography. After LOOK shut down, fusco joined magnum photos. Fusco is perhaps best known for his photographs of Robert F. Kennedy’s funeral train. Kennedy was shot on June 4, 1968. After the funeral on June 8th — held at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, where for 2 days crowds lined up for blocks to pay their last respects — a slow train carried RFK’s casket from New York to Washington. D.C. Fusco was also on that train.  “All I was thinking about was how to get access when we got to Arlington,” he said. “Then, when the train emerged from beneath the Hudson, and I saw hundreds of people on the platform watching the train come slowly through — it went very slowly. I just opened the window and began to shoot.”


I invite you to take some time to sit with these photographs. 

And then, turn your attention to Danny Lyon’s reminiscences of John Lewis, interleaved between other topics–some heavy, others mundane. 

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.”’


Look upon them with a regard both raw and tender.

Take up the labor they left undone.

Maryam Patton

Early Modern Aristotle: On the Making and Unmaking of Authority

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 book Early Modern Aristotle: On the Making and Unmaking of Authority revisits the 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.

Simon Brown 

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.   

Find more reading suggestions in our July Reading Recommendation Part 1.

Featured Image: Raphael, Portrait of Pope Leo X with two Cardinals (detail). Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

What We're Reading

July Reading Recommendations – Part 1

Nuala Caomhanach

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 Me is 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. 

Jonathon Catlin

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 relevance the 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, calling him 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.”

Brendan Mackie

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.


Pranav Jain 

Alice Kaplan, Looking for the Stranger: Albert Camus and the Life of a Literary Classic (Chicago, 2016) 

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! 

Find more reading suggestions in our July Reading Recommendation Part 2.

Featured Image: Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel (detail). Musei Vaticani.

What We're Reading

June Reading Recommendations

Jonathon Catlin

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.”

E.L. Meszaros

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.

Luna  Sarti

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, Anna troubles 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.

Simon Brown

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.

What We're Reading

May Reading Recommendations

Jonathon Catlin

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.”

Finally, two review essays in The Nation provide longue durée historical analysis useful for understanding contemporary “crises” of liberalism and leftist politics: “One Damn Thing After Another: The long roots of liberal democracy’s crisis,” by Jan-Werner Müller, and “Comrades: The inner life of American communism,” by Corey Robin.


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?

Plate 109, Georges Cuvier, Le règne animal distribué d’après son organisation, Book VIII (1828)


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 Worlds which 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.

In this suspended dreamtime, I often asked myself the same question as Marilynne Robinson: “What kind of country do we want?” 

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.  


Prashant Kidambi, Cricket Country: An Indian Odyssey in the Age of Empire (OUP, 2019) 

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 Library1960. Smithsonian American Art Museum