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What We're Reading

February Reading Recommendations

Jonathon Catlin

I was fascinated by a short piece for Public Seminar by William E. Scheuerman, a scholar of Carl Schmitt and his Frankfurt School critics, which reflects on the paradox that in Schmitt’s view, “Democracy’s realization can legitimately take authoritarian forms,” such as plebiscites and sham elections. As Scheuerman explains, Schmitt argued that democracy (narrowly conceived as homogeneous political identity) and liberalism (narrowly conceived as preserving individual liberties) are not only different but fundamentally antagonistic. This view has returned from the dustbin of historical ideas in Hungarian leader Victor Orbán’s proud affirmation of “illiberal democracy”—a notion Jan-Werner Müller has argued is self-contradictory. Eschewing the “fascism debate,” Scheuerman argues that Trump remained—disturbingly—within the realm of democratic practice, however exclusionary and illiberal his actions may have been: “Authoritarian populists such as Trump hollow out democracy while mimicking its language and sometimes its forms. They practice staged or phantom democracy.”

The historian Robert Gerwarth similarly argues in his piece “Weimar’s Lessons for Biden’s America” that while direct analogies between Trumpism and fascism do not stand up to scrutiny, if Weimar offers one lesson it “is that it is fatal for conservatives to think that they can play with the fire of right-wing extremism without getting burned. Trump is no Hitler, but his deliberate mobilization of the far-right has made the Republican Party dependent on voters who include militant nationalists, Holocaust deniers, white supremacists, and conspiracy theorists—in short, people who want more than just a different government.”

Finally, in Jacobin, historian Matt Karp argues that the present “American political situation portends much scattered violence, but nothing that resembles either civil war or fascist coup.” Rather, he argues that the best historical analogy for understanding the present moment is the Gilded Age, which similarly locked American politics in identity-based partisanship and prefigured the present “class dealignment” of political parties that became strikingly clear in the results of the 2020 election: upper-middle-class suburban whites flocked to the Democratic Party to remove Trump from office, but on the same ballots voted against substantive policies like progressive taxation. In the reverse direction, Karp notes, one working-class county in Florida voted overwhelmingly both to raise the minimum wage to $15 and to reelect Trump. While all three authors argue that removing Trump from office hardly ensures the security of American democracy in the years to come, Karp notes that the democratic process is thriving in at least one sense: “More than two-thirds of eligible voters cast a ballot this fall, making 2020 the highest-turnout election since 1900.”

Max Norman

I have been sampling from A Dictionary of Symbols, by the Spanish artist, aesthete, and latter-day humanist Juan Eduardo Cirlot, recently reprinted by New York Review Books. Cirlot took to symbology in order to understand the ancient roots of the symbols that animated the twentieth-century avant garde: the crosses, hourglasses, skeletons and the like that modern artists took from the tradition like so much ancient spolia. Weaving together Jungian psychoanalysis and 20th century Geistesgeschichte, Cirlot writes a kind of encyclopedia of the tradition, with miniature essays on topics from ‘abandonment’ to the Zodiac. It’s a work whose grandeur and fascination approaches that of Benjamin’s Arcades Project and Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas. Caveat lector: reading before bed may cause Surrealist dreams.

Simon Brown

Earlier this week, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who published and publicized and represented his Beat generation of poets, died in San Francisco. He helped to found City Lights, the bookstore and printing house that was sued for obscenity when it published Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems. It is an icon and fixture of the Bay Area literary world. It also represented the San Francisco that I imagined before I moved to the East Bay in 2015. If you live in Berkeley or Oakland or elsewhere across the Bay, you spend a lot of time—usually unintentionally —looking over at San Francisco and, by extension, thinking about it. On one hand, it makes sense to think about its successive migrations—of Chinese workers, Queer runaways, and now tech workers—since the early twentieth century. There is also the implacable view that Ferlinghetti himself gave in his poem (“The Changing Light,” 2005), of a place recognizable by its natural light: 

    The light of San Francisco

                                                    is a sea light

                                                                          an island light

    And the light of fog

                                        blanketing the hills

                            drifting in at night

                                        through the Golden Gate

                                                              to lie on the city at dawn

Nathan Heller, writing recently for The New Yorker, described “the Northern California style of intellection,” in which writers like Joan Didion have “pinned their ideas to details of landscape,” to escape endless abstraction. The light of San Francisco attracts that style, and makes it hard to look elsewhere. Ferlinghetti captured that and much more of the city.  


Featured Image: Don Quixote Reading. Honore Daumier, c. 1865 – 1870.

Categories
What We're Reading

January Reading Recommendations

Jonathon Catlin

During the final days of Donald Trump’s presidency, prompted by the pro-Trump armed insurrection at the Capitol on January 6, several historians contributed new positions to the ongoing “fascism debate.” Robert Paxton, an emeritus Columbia historian of Vichy France and the author of an influential book on fascism, wrote that while he had long hesitated to call Trump a fascist, the Capitol insurrection crossed the red line when armed rioters stormed the seat of government. The historical analogy Paxton invokes is not the Nazi seizure of power in 1933 but the “openly fascist demonstration in Paris during the night of February 6, 1934,” in which “thousands of French veterans of World War I, bitter at rumors of corruption in a parliament already discredited by its inefficacy against the Great Depression, attempted to invade the French parliament chamber, just as the deputies were voting yet another shaky government into power.” This is not the first time Paxton has identified fascism in America. As Sarah Churchwell notes in her New York Review of Books essay, “American Fascism: It Has Happened Here,” Paxton observed, in her words, “that a strong argument could be made for the first Ku Klux Klan in the Reconstruction South being the world’s earliest fascist movement.”

On the other hand, Cambridge historian of Nazi Germany Richard Evans is far more circumspect about using “the f-word.” Evans declared that Trump is still not a fascist, for he sees many distinguishing elements of interwar European fascism still missing from the present situation, notably the volatile context of young and untested democracies, economic depression, revolutionary political prospects, and the ruin of war. To Evans, January 6 was not a coup but an armed insurrection. He warns that while American democracy faces formidable challenges, they should not be mistaken for “a rerun of the fascist ­seizure of power,” all aesthetic similarities aside. “You can’t win the political battles of the present if you’re always stuck in the past.”

A capstone, if not the conclusion, to this debate can be found in the productive discussion that took place around the same time between Jason Stanley, Samuel Moyn, Jodi Dean, Daniel Bessner, and Eugene Puryear on Katie Halper’s podcast. It spells out compelling reasons for taking both stances in this sometimes pedantically academic debate and unpacks their real-world consequences. Stanley and Dean, speaking from very different political orientations, support the fascist designation to describe not only Trump but also broader right-wing currents in America, whereas Moyn and Bessner uphold their well-known rejection of the “Weimar analogy,” worried that it “Trump-washes” America of deeper problems such as racism and inequality, of which Trump is more a symptom than a cause. With Trump out of office, I’m almost sad to see this era of pressing engagement by public intellectuals come to an end—for now.

I’d finally like to share recordings of a number of illuminating academic events that took place since our last reading recommendations. First, the Jewish studies scholar Susannah Heschel presented the tenth Frankfurt Martin-Buber-Lecture in Jewish Intellectual History and Philosophy, entitled “Racism in America: The Past and Future of Black-Jewish Relations.” Several influential theorists and students of Fredric Jameson, including Ian Balfour, Andrew Cole, Jonathan Culler, and Sianne Ngai, reflected on their teacher’s classic work The Political Unconscious, followed by a reflection by Jameson himself. Finally, Geneviève Zubrzycki presents “Nationalism, Mnemonic Wars and Poland’s ‘Holocaust Speech Law’” at a time when trials about national memory are currently ongoing against Holocaust researchers in Poland.

Ruhi Roy

Earlier this month, soldiers were quartered in the Capitol building for the first time since the Civil War. Comparisons to other historical crises have abounded in the past weeks, particularly to the turbulent political situation in Weimar Germany in advance of the Holocaust. In his 2010 publication The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, Eric Foner offers another analog, considerably closer to home. His portrait of Lincoln and the cataclysmic political context within which he operated offers an interesting meditation on how a single president and the broader environment may interact on each other and on the country. Not only is the specific historical moment of the Civil War useful for throwing our own current events into relief, but the foci and analytical approaches Foner uses in this book may help us draw conclusions about the impact a single individual in a single office may have on the government and the nation’s history moving forward. In these pivotal few weeks at the very start of the Biden administration, that is surely the most pressing question for all of us watching.

Investigating the divides– political, economic, regional, and otherwise– which have made politics so explosive in recent years is just as important as understanding and drawing parallels about our immediate situation. This question led me to Stephen Stoll’s 2017 volume Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia, which points out the growing rift between rural and urban parts of America by placing Appalachian rural society into a broader global pattern of agrarian dispossession. While the notion that all the virulent racism and xenophobia motivating the attack on Washington stems entirely from economic anxiety is oversimplifying at best and apologist at worst, it cannot be denied that understanding and interrogating the stark divides between large groups of Americans is as productive now as it has ever been. By crafting an enlightening (and often enraging) history of land taking and expropriation in Appalachia, Stoll sheds light on some of the tensions that led us to our current position.

Lastly, I turned to literature, and placed my feelings in the hands of Franz Kafka and his unfinished manuscript The Trial, published posthumously in 1925. It describes the plight of one Josef K., who is indicted for an unidentified crime. Information about his crime, and about the trial ahead of him, and even about the court accusing him, is unforthcoming; it quickly becomes clear that this is no real court, and then becomes unclear again when we start to ask what a real court even is. The novel is unsettling, infuriating, and deeply unsatisfying; the text even reads, in certain places, like an unfinished and unedited manuscript, with confusions between characters and locations. My own distress about current events, my feelings of powerlessness, my inability to form any complete or satisfying explanation for what was happening or why– all of that came through in Kafka’s brisk, detached prose and the winding, confusing nature of the plot. I don’t feel any better about this past month, or indeed about this past year, or the past four years, after reading The Trial— but I do, at least, feel less alone.

Simon Brown

When I read The Rest is Noise, a gripping account of classical composition in the twentieth century by the critic Alex Ross, I was struck by the resonances between writing historical music criticism and writing intellectual history. The beauty of the book lies in Ross’s skill in describing the sometimes technical stylistic innovations in a language that lets even a novice like me see — and hear — why a particular movement of a symphony might have sounded so discordant to its first audiences. Tension between the pressure to appeal to wider audiences and the resistance to conformity in the market drives much of the drama for the form over the last century. Likewise, engaging histories of ideas can articulate the novelty of an intellectual intervention and reconstruct the contested social positions of the thinkers making them.

Ross’s most recent book, Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music, vividly illustrates the close relationship between these two, and not just by analogy. The book ranges over the most important aesthetic movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century and finds in each direct references and unmistakable engagements with Richard Wagner’s music and the theory behind it. Wagner’s trademark commitment to the Gesamtkunstwerk, or the total work of art that eschews formal boundaries, finds a parallel in Ross’s approach to a potentially limitless subject. He traces direct and indirect responses to Wagner in painting, theater, dance, and most recognizably, film. Wagner’s works and his writings that justified them came to represent a transcendent spirituality, a primitive simplicity, a revolutionary liberalism, or an Aryan supremacy. In showing these jostling and sometimes surprising receptions of Wagner’s operas, Ross gestures to broader arguments in the history of art and aesthetics. The characteristically modernist ‘stream of consciousness’ of the early twentieth century starts to look like innovations in symbolist poetry of the late nineteenth, which — sometimes intentionally — emulated Wagner, who could also be a paragon of bourgeois late-nineteenth-century taste. Ross draws from and contributes to a rich body of scholarly literature, for instance, on the origins and characteristics of an “avant-garde.” Wagnerism, as one interview with Ross points out, is a refreshing example of trade nonfiction that rigorously cites scholarly sources and points the reader in the direction of any of the many literatures that the author traverses. With that facility in showing his sources, Ross proves how one critic can solve that problem of appealing to a broad audience without sacrificing the work’s novelty.

Nuala Caomhánach

Reading about the rise of the feel-good feel-bad pat-on-the-back story led me down a Liberalism Rabbit-Hole covered in William Morris’s finest wallpaper and endless cups of tea. The feel-good feel-bad story is an inspirational story that enables a burst of endorphins upon reading it until you step back and realise how utterly awful late-stage capitalism can be.  It “papers” over the real experience of poverty, social-inequality, and violence to claim hope is just around the corner if you squint really hard (or work really hard). The reader is brought on an uplifting journey, and thus, willingly forgets the circumstances that lead to that desire to be uplifted. On cup of tea number one, I delved into Reinhold Niebuhr’s Liberalism: Illusions and Realities (1955) paired with Timothy A. Beach-Verhey’s H. Richard Niebuhr and the Ethics of American Public Life. Niebuhr was widely acknowledged as the father of Christian realism and an uncompromising critic of political pacifism. I find the notion of “Christian realism” an oxymoron, or to use Niebuhr’s favorite expression, a paradox. This cognitive dissonance, where, on the one hand,  the ethics of love and self-sacrifice exists as a path to the Holy Grail. On the other hand, it is “wallpapered” with the doctrine of compromise and pragmatism to accept the world as it is. A world that is not amenable to perfection, redemption of salvation, but rather constitutes an environment governed by contingency, competing interests, and an uncontrollable (market) force. Beachy-Verhey explores the impact that NIebuhr had on the problem of Christianity’s relationship to American public and political life. The author’s main argument is that Niebur, as a religious elite, resides in a Liberal liminal space where religious faith cannot be removed from political life. The author argues that state and market dominate current American life and produce a shared value system around “self-interested individualism, commodification, and utilitarian rationality” (2). While this culture can allow for individual rights and freedoms, it provides little basis for the solidarity and “work” that accompanies freedom and equality. Thus liberalism in this form fails to create societal cohesion. 

John Milton Cooper’sThe Warrior and the Priest. Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt (Harvard, 1985) presents a curious joint biography of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. The book flips between the two men, from chapter to chapter, forcing (encouraging) the reader to begin to locate patterns of convergence and divergence between the two men. Cooper explains the differences between Wilson’s New Freedom and Roosevelt’s New Nationalism. While they both focused on the need for a much more active government role in society and the economy, Wilson’s enthusiasm toward the role of the “broker state” was in sharp relief to Roosvelt’s deep seated fear and suspicion of such groups within American life. Although Cooper aims to demonstrate how these two men shaped the major ideological dimensions of twentieth century politics, Coopers focus on their overlapping biographies, cannot really explain why voting notification fell off during the presidencies of these two charamatsic men. Using these two men as a lens on American culture we cannot fathom why half the american pivoting population became alienated from these ideological ideas. The view from the top is quite cloudy, but a book worth the read and cup of tea,

In The Promise of American Life (Princeton University Press, 1909) by Herbert Croly inspired Roosevelt to create his New Nationalism vision, and with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Croly, the founding editor of the New Republic, is considered the first important political philosopher and intellectual elite in the United States. I really enjoyed reading this book because it brings you on the history of America, its political ideas, the ills of the day, the concerns of its citizens, and how  rampant economic inequality and the rise of unchecked corporate power interact. Croly’s insight led him to argue for a strong federal government to ensure that equity and equality remained American core ideological and political values. This book resonants today even a century after its publication and offers a way into liberalism for the undergraduate student. 

And finally with no more tea in the teapot, I read Liberalism, The Life of an Idea, by Edmund Fawcet (Princeton University Press, 2018). Fawcett satisfied my need to understand “isms.” This fascinating book lays out,  in a really useful and readable way, liberalism as it flourished and moved across Europe and the United States since the 1830s. Fawcett shows how liberalism is less about freedom, and more about equality. Liberalism, Fawcett says, is “a search for an ethically acceptable order of human progress among civic equals without recourse to undue power”(10). In the desire for order, power always requires to be checked by a refusal to submit to the domination of any one single interest, faith or class. Fawcett is mindful that freedom is a key element to the algorithm but the element of equal respect is constant and non-negotiable. This device enables Fawcett to integrate both the positions of philosophers but the positions of liberal politicians as well, and thus, is a really good insight into liberal politics and liberal ideology. From the main actors—Keynes, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Gladstone, Fawcett brings in cameo appearances from Leonard Hobhouse, Hayek, John Rawls. In reading this series of books I ponder on how liberalism always purported to be a platform of inclusiveness, but in no way did it need to be wedded to democracy. Fawcett’s book shows how these two visions operate decoupled from each other in ways that resonant today. Fawcett is a British journalist and really succeeds in showing how liberal democracy is not just abstract ideology but how legislation enacts the shape of liberalism. 


Featured Image: Nieuwjaarswens van Octave Uzanne voor het jaar 1897. Georges de Feure, 1896. Courtesy of The Rijksmuseum.

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What We're Reading

Winter Reading Recommendations

Jonathon Catlin

I’ve been reading the historian Helmut Walser Smith’s latest book, Germany: A Nation in Its Time: Before, During, and After Nationalism, 1500–2000 (Liveright, 2020), a beautifully-written and ambitious book that traces evolving conceptions of Germany over a vast period of time. Smith’s narrative is grounded in a fascinating series of maps, some discovered and some made himself and regularly shared and discussed on his social media. What, Smith begins by asking, was a cartographer such as Martin Waldseemüller referring to when he labeled a vast region of north-central Europe “Germania” in his 1513 map by that name? What could “Germany” at that time have consisted of, if not any recognizable political entity or bounded region? To some extent, until the nineteenth century the notion of Germany could be considered what Reinhart Koselleck called an Erwartungsbegriff, an idea that had not yet been realized. Yet Smith contends through rich readings of sources as broad as religion, literature, and science that the designation Germany in the maps, travel itineraries, and other sources “confirms that seeing Germany for the first time was an act  of discovery, not chauvinism.” Taking such a broad view of German history helps overcome the distorted perspective of narrower histories of Germany focused on the nineteenth century. In this wider frame, Smith shows, “German nationalists did not invent the German nation,” for “there was no transhistorical concept of the German nation. There was only a nation in its time….There was a Germany before, during, and after nationalism.” This approach counters the dated Sonderweg thesis about late German national development molded by Prussian militarism and, on the contrary, emphasizes that “German lands experienced roughly twice as  many years of peace as war between 1500 and 1914.” In Smith’s telling, the “age of nationalism” (1815–1914) gives way to the more radical and genocidal “nationalist age” (1914–1945), but these periods do not exhaust the historical or possible meanings of Germany. Indeed, he argues that after 1945 Germany entered a post-nationalist age as an anchor of pacifism and European integration, and that this non-nationalist condition is hardly as foreign or exceptional as it is sometimes considered. Indeed, Smith’s book makes a compelling case for historians generally to “contextualize the nation within a history that is far greater than its nationalism.”

Pranav Kumar 

Nicholas McDowell, Poet of Revolution: The Making of John Milton (Princeton, 2020)

The first volume of Nicholas McDowell’s proposed two-part study of Milton’s life seeks to explain how and why Milton became disillusioned with the Church of England and the monarchy. Most biographies of Milton, he argues, tend to project his later political commitments onto his younger days and portray him as a radical from the beginning. However, in McDowell’s telling, Milton emerges as an ambitious young man somewhat indifferent to the political squabbles of the early seventeenth-century. Instead, his prime concern was to prepare himself for his poetic vocation and, ultimately, to establish himself as an epic poet of the caliber of Virgil and Dante. It was Milton’s emerging fear that clerical tyranny and monarchical corruption would stifle creativity in England and thus hamper his poetic ambitions that led him towards the path to becoming a staunch critic of episcopacy and a defender of regicide. The book ends in 1642 with the outbreak of the English civil war and it would be interesting to see how McDowell extends his argument to explain the fascinating trajectory of Milton’s political and literary life.

There is much to admire in this study. It is clearly written and skillfully walks its readers through some of Milton’s earlier literary achievements. Individual chapters offer fresh readings of key incidents in Milton’s life and even those uninterested in the bigger question of Milton’s later radicalization will find valuable information about other aspects of his life. However, McDowell’s attempt to suppress any possibility of Milton’s turn to radical politics in his early years is less than successful. His argument is far too reliant on an older revisionist historiography which emphasized consensus over conflict in early Stuart England and argued against deeper causes of the mid seventeenth-century crisis. While this literature is rich and sophisticated, it does not represent the entirety of the current thinking about early Stuart England. Relying too heavily on it often leads McDowell to outright dismiss any inkling of theological radicalism in Milton’s early writings. While McDowell is quite sensitive to the numerous theological disputes of the Jacobean period, these are almost always treated as peripheral to Milton’s concerns. Perhaps they were indeed unimportant to Milton’s thinking at the time. However, McDowell’s argument would have been much more effective if it was not as indifferent to the slightest possibility of the theological roots of Milton’s later disaffections with the Church and the Stuarts.

Nevertheless, this is a very ambitious and rewarding book. Any student of 17th century English history will learn a great deal from it. I eagerly look forward to the second volume of the study.

Andrew Hines

This month, while preparing for a class, I stumbled upon a book by Ernst Bloch posthumously published in 2019 entitled Avicenna and the Aristotelian Left. In it, Bloch makes the case that ‘there is a line that leads from Aristotle, not to Thomas Aquinas and to the spirit of the beyond, but to Giordano Bruno and the blossoming nature of universal matter. And it is Avicenna who, along with Averroes, is one of the first and most important points of note in this tradition’ (3). Part romanticism and part profound, Bloch traces the history of what he calls a ‘long forgotten’ view of matter in the work of the philosopher Ibn Sina (Avicenna). Because Ibn Sina was a key interpreter of Aristotle, Bloch suggests that the views put forward on matter by Ibn Sina, constitutes an Aristotelian left in the same way that a Hegelian left led to Marx. 

Whether you agree with Bloch’s interpretation of Ibn Sina or not, it’s worth reading for three reasons. First, it’s a fascinating piece of historical reconstruction. Loren Goldman and Peter Thompson’s translation makes Bloch’s German lucid and really brings out the breadth of Bloch’s research into the life and thought of Ibn Sina. The detail alone gives the reader unfamiliar with Ibn Sina or the historical and cultural context of his philosophy a fantastic sourcebook. Beyond that however, Bloch’s interpretation is also an object of study in its own right. He brings the reader rich intellectual historical detail and then fashions his own narrative about the period. How this shapes Bloch’s conclusion about Ibn Sina’s distinct thesis of materialism is up to the reader to decide.

The second reason to read the book is that it’s short. The entire book is 109 pages and 39 of those are the book’s extensive endnotes, bibliography and index. As a result, it’s a fantastic book to get a quick sense of a provocative idea in a way that doesn’t compromise scholarly depth.

Finally, it’s worth reading because Bloch, in 70 pages, transforms  the concept of materialism. His intellectual historical reconstruction may at times be romanticised, but the philosophical precision and insight through which he assesses what Ibn Sina can bring to the concept of materialism, makes one scratch their head and wonder why it has taken so long to get round to this giant of Islamicate philosophy. Like the best interpretations, Bloch leads one back into the text, back into the thinker being interpreted, while simultaneously offering up new possibilities for the future.

Nuala Caomhanach

I am currently reading about genes and mutagenesis–I mean it is the holiday season after all! Soraya de Chadarevian’s Heredity Under the Microscope. Chromosomes and the Study of the Human Genome (University of Chicago, 2020) is a fascinating read on the development of postwar human genetics. Chromosomes are X-shaped macromolecules (except for that wee Y-chromosome) made of threadline strings of DNA and protein found in the nucleus of most living cells. Inside is a dataset that makes you you. De Chadarevian shows how during much of the twentieth century, researchers studied chromosomes under a microscope as she maps the changing theoretical models about how chromosomes operated. As the rise of molecular biology in modern science emerged, the next generation of scientists argued that visual evidence was not enough, but understanding and knowing the actual chemical and molecular mechanisms. This highly readable and impressive book demonstrates the overlapping concerns of science, medicine, law, and policy in the atomic age. De Chadarevian argues that the earlier microscopic research was central to the approach to studying human genetics. This book is a richly sourced survey of human cytogenetics and would be useful for undergraduate teaching. 

Adriana Petryna’s Life Exposed: Biological Citizens after Chernobyl (Princeton University Press, 2013) is a compelling and thought-provoking read. Petryna explores the interactions between “sufferers” (people exposed to radioactive iodine-13) and the red-tape (pun intended) of the bureaucratic state and medical machinery of the state.  This book is a useful undergraduate text for entry into the complex story around Chernobyl as the author shows how Soviet citizens, in a failing state, became “biological citizens” to gain treatment and welfare provision. Petryna’s anthropological approach reveals how expert opinion in the Soviet Union and internationally was deeply divided, biological damage was inestimable and the legacy of radiation exposure over generations difficult to predict, and the manner in which medical diagnoses were heavily inflected with politics and policy.


Featured Image: Giuseppe Arcimboldo, The Librarian, 1566. Skokloster Castle, Sweden.

Categories
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.

Categories
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

        not

word

             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.

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What We're Reading

July Reading Recommendations – Part 2

Cynthia

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.