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May Reading Recommendations

Pranav Jain 

Jack Tannous, The Making of the Medieval Middle East: Religion, Society, and Simple Believers (Princeton, 2018) 

This extraordinarily erudite book asks big questions and offers even bigger answers. Its aim is nothing less than to explain the “nature and significance of non elite Christianity and the mechanics and pace of Christianization/Islamization.” (xiv) Regarding the former, Tannous’s main contention is that the late antique/early medieval Middle East was home to many “simple believers.” As he explains: 

“The great majority of Christians in the Middle East, I will suggest in Part I of this book, belonged to what church leaders referred to as ‘the simple.’ They were overwhelmingly agrarian, mostly illiterate, and likely had little understanding of the theological complexities that split apart the Christian community in the region. ‘Simple’ here does not connote ‘simple-minded,’ as it might in some varieties of English, nor should it be understood as a category restricted to the laity: there were monks, priests, and even bishops who were simple believers. The men who wrote the texts we study lived their lives among these simple believers: they fed them and ate with them, they prayed with them and for them, they taught and healed them, and they had the responsibility of pastoral care for them. A key to understanding the world that the Arabs found is the recognition that it was overwhelmingly one of simple, ordinary Christians; and that it was a world fracturing into rival groups on the basis of disagreements that most of those Christians could not fully understand.” (3) 

With relation to the origins of Islam, he suggests that putting ‘simple belivers’ at the centre of analysis leads us to ask very different questions: “…what does putting the simple at the center of our story do for our understanding of the world the Arab conquests created? For the moment, we can make a slight (and as we will see, provisional) change to the question we have been asking. The question now becomes: What happened when a politically dominant religious rival to Christianity appeared in the Middle East, one whose strongest theological criticisms of Christianity centered on doctrines—the Trinity and the Incarnation—that simple believers could not understand fully or properly?” (221) 

As a non-specialist, I am not qualified to judge the merits of Tannous’s arguments within their historiographical context. However, the range of the book’s evidence and arguments makes it worth reading for any historian of religion, regardless of what period/religion they work on. I personally found it very interesting to see how historiographically different debates about late antique Christianity/early Islam are from my own field of study (early modern Europe), even though, in a broad sense, both fields are trying to ask similar questions about the nature of religious belief and the relationship between complex doctrines and everyday practices. My only qualm is the single mindedness with which Tannous pursues his arguments. Though he certainly gets his points across, I was left with some doubts about how fair his characterization of the work of his fellow scholars was. Regardless, a very rewarding read! 

Nuala Caomhanach

Machines are like techno-shadows to humans. Like a visiting guest that overstays their welcome, we enjoy them for a wee bit, get bored of them, wish they would get lost, then freak out when we do lose them, then become nostalgic when they are gone. Machines seem to cohabit, to parasitize but are symbionts to our lives, we created them but fear they may destroy us. Machines are our companions here to stay. Uber uses machine learning for estimated time of arrivals for rides, UberEats for delivery time, planes have autopilot (as far back as 1914!) of which up to seven minutes are human powered. All aspects of our lives are infiltrated by machines and artificial intelligence. After attending In our Image: Artificial Intelligence and the Humanities hosted by the National Humanities Centre I started to read more about the social and political implications of machines and artificial intelligence in our lives. **Of course the algorithms behind the online books I choose to read highlighted other similar books–thanks machine learning technology. Let’s not ask did I have free will here at all. That’s for the next reading recommendations!**

Meredith Broussard’s Artificial Unintelligence: How Computers Misunderstand the World (2018) along with her New York Times piece “When Algorithms Give Real Students Imaginary Grades” is a good place to start as Broussard has a knack of grounding the sociological analysis in an accessible technical account of the major computational processes involved in machine learning. This book is non-technical reader friendly. The book maps out the socially-constructed nature of technologies that are inevitably embedded with the cultural and political values of their designers, developers and programmers. Ever think about how most “robots” are female, Amelia, Siri, Alexa etc. especially those who are designed to serve us humans? Broussard’s engrossing book demonstrates how machine learning–which is a model of making predictions based off pattern recognition within reams of data –simply perpetuate structural social inequalities, such as racial discrimination. By sharing her own experience as a data journalist and programmer she explains how these biases need to be consciously designed out of the system. At the heart of her argument is the issue of the failure of self-governance within the tech community that has led to an urgent need for ethical and legal education of developers. Her work adds to the critique of not only the tech “bro” culture but also how this techno-chauvinism permeates the coding of artificial intelligence. 

Two books explore the myth of technological neutrality—the notion that technology and tech creators are neutral actors free of impolict ethical and moral dimensions and values: Ruha Benjamin, Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code (2019) and Safiya Noble, Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism (2018). As noted in my introduction, as technology becomes increasingly ubiquitous we hear of more and more troubling tech incidents, such as facial recognition softare claiming to know if you are gay, or Google photo labelling Black people as gorillas. Many scholars are questioning the exalted status of technology in society. Benjamin explores the ways in which modern technology creates, supports, and amplifies racism and white supremacy. She provides stacks of evidence for her argument–from robot labour and predictive policing systems to AI-judged beauty contests–hence broadening the tech term “coding” away from its narrow meaning within computer science to the way in which races, ethnicity, and names are themselves code and are coded with important information. Her central argument is that we are living in the ‘New Jim Code’ era where technologies replicate existing inequities and hide behind the modern vision that machines are more objective than humans. Noble’s Algorithms of Oppression (2018) focuses on the use of the internet and search engines, especially Google search, by applying an intersectional analysis of racial, ethinic and gender. In this fascinating book, Noble unmasks the Wizard of Oz– the human(s) behind algorithmic-driven software, artificial intelligence technologies, and computer-generated automation. She demonstrates how search engines structure knowledge, reflect racialized cultural, social, and economic values, and ultimately legitimize dominant group ideologies that oppress marginalized racial identities. All our interactions with information are heavily curated and mediated and propagate cultural stereotypes, particularly Black culture. She highlights the real issue in society is that we take for granted that information is reliable and credible because it’s just there for everyone to access. 

Taken together these books highlight, as a matter of human rights, that individuals and groups lack control over how personal information is indexed, studied, stored and who has access to it. They all suggest that the importance of human-centric design and human-machine collaboration is required to counterbalance the inherent biases within coding and the male-dominated tech world. Each author offers a provocation or solution to this issue of corporate control over public access to information. For Broussard, there may be better and more obvious low-tech solutions–for example, greater investment in public edition, or transportation. Noble and Benjamin envision an ethical algorithmic future and offer practical solutions, for example, challenging the privatization of the internet , they advocate for government regulation to break up large tech monopolies that threaten democracy in the information sector and call on public policy to foster noncommercial search engines and information portals. 

If this is an area of interest, look out for Wendy Chun, “Red Pill Toxicity, or Liberation Envy” Discriminating Data (The MIT Press, forthcoming) and have a read of Mar Hicks, Programmed Inequality: How Britain Discarded Women Technologists and Lost Its Edge in Computing (next on my list). 

Shuvatri Dasgupta 

Françoise Vergès, A Decolonial Feminism (Pluto Press, April 2021)

In this powerful text, the author brings out the intersections of anti-patriarchal and anti-imperialist politics through the category of ‘disposability’. Vergès illustrates how capitalism functions by oppressing women of colour more than white women. Although the labor of women of colour is crucial, capitalists keep these forms of labor invisibilized, maintaining its alliance with hierarchies of race, ethnicity, and nation. As a result, their labor becomes as disposable as the waste they clean. Using this as a point of departure, the author identifies the exploitative agenda behind the universalising rhetoric of ‘civilisational feminism’, and calls for us to evolve a decolonised pedagogy for gender history, and women’s political thought, as a means to decolonise feminism. Moreover, she makes a compelling case for what she terms as ‘multidimensional’ feminism, which goes a step forward from existing discourses on intersectional feminism. This interview and this article both provide short overviews of her larger arguments. 

In the interview she responds to the question: what does it mean to decolonise feminism?

“…(to decolonise feminism)…is to reclaim the forgotten and [hidden] history of racialised women’s fights. Women of colour are fighting not only for equal rights but also against exploitation, injustice, and oppression. Women in the Global South have always been in the front lines of feminist fights, yet their voices are never heard unless they’re instrumentalised. You have to uphold their voices, to read their material, to recenter their narratives.” 

After this extremely thought provoking read, I found myself reflecting on the existing works of intellectual history which attempt this task of decolonising women’s political thought. What immediately came to mind was Milinda Banerjee’s monograph titled ‘The Mortal God: Imagining the Sovereign in Colonial India’. This subversive intellectual history of sovereignty provides a framework for decolonising political thought on one hand, by looking at vernacular registers of the idea in South Asia. On the other hand, the author looks at women’s discourses on sovereignty, and queenship, thereby foregrounding women’s voices in his non-Eurocentric conceptual exploration. There are two other works which attempt a similar task. These include the 2015 classic titled ‘Towards an Intellectual History of Black Women’, co-edited by Mia Bay, Farah J. Griffin, Martha S. Jones, and Barbara D. Savage; and secondly, the more recent volume titled ‘Women’s International Thought: A New History’ co-edited by Patricia Owens, and Katharina Reitzler. To say that Vergès’ book is inspiring and thought-provoking is utterly insufficient. It is a call to action. It is an invitation for us to formulate solidarities as we collectively seek to evolve decolonized anti-capitalist pedagogies of feminism and gender politics. On that note, next on my reading list is Sylvia Tamale’s Decolonization and Afro-Feminism, which recentres the concept of ubuntu as social justice, instead of the Eurocentric discourse on human rights, as the epistemic tool for uncovering the history of African women’s thought and activism. These works all bring to the fore voices and ideas of those women whom civilizational feminism had marginalised, and whose radicalism neoliberal capitalism had disciplined in its attempt to canonise women’s thought. 

Jonathon Catlin

Since living in Berlin for the better part of the past two years, I have followed ongoing debates about Holocaust memory and antisemitism in Germany. The latest round of debates can be said to have begun May 17, 2019, when the German parliament voted to endorse a resolution calling on cities and states to withhold public funding from institutions, organizations, and individuals affiliated with the movement for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) toward Israel. In December, 2020, a letter jointly authored by the Weltoffenheit (world openness) GG 5.3 Initiative, which comprises the heads of many of Germany’s major cultural and academic institutions, denounced the resolution as “detrimental to the democratic public sphere” and warned of its negative impact on the free exchange of ideas. That same month, the Bundestag’s scientific service department ruled that the resolution was not legally binding, as it would violate the constitutionally protected right to freedom of expression. Nevertheless, the resolution left its mark and has been widely implemented. Some have claimed the resolution has led to “an expansive culture of fear and inquisition” in Germany, while one of Germany’s leading scholars of Holocaust memory, Aleida Assmann, proclaimed, “a spectre is haunting Europe: the accusation of antisemitism.” One month after the BDS resolution was passed, Peter Schäfer, a non-Jewish scholar, was forced to step down as director of Berlin’s Jewish Museum after the museum retweeted an article about a petition critical of the resolution signed by 240 Jewish studies scholars. About a year later, in April, 2020, the Cameroonian-born postcolonial philosopher Achille Mbembe, who had been invited to give the keynote lecture at the Ruhrtrienale culture festival, was charged with harboring antisemitic views, supporting BDS, and “relativising the Holocaust.” Germany’s federal commissioner for Jewish life and combating antisemitism, Felix Klein, called for Mbembe to be disinvited, but the festival was canceled due to the Covid-19 pandemic; in turn, hundreds of defenders of Mbembe from both African and Jewish/Israeli backgrounds signed petitions calling for the resignation of Klein and a restructuring or abolition of the new post he holds. The ensuing “Mbembe affair” in the summer of 2020 involved many of Germany’s leading intellectuals. It has reactivated older “Anxieties in Holocaust and Genocide Studies” concerning other genocides and colonialism. It is too soon to say how the debate will resolve and how its history will be written, but it has already been indexed in an English-language forum in the Journal of Genocide Research introduced by Dirk Moses and Ulrike Capdepón and featuring responses by leading scholars of history and memory, including Aleida Assmann, Natan Sznaider, Irit Dekel and Esra Özyürek, and Susan Neiman.

The debate has been mired with hostility, accusation, and defensiveness—especially in light of the latest conflict in Israel/Palestine—but it has also produced a number of important reflections, ranging from thoughtful to provocative, that are essential reading for anyone wishing to understand contemporary Holocaust memory and debates about antisemitism in Germany: Michael Rothberg’s “The Specters of Comparison” and “‘People with a Nazi Background’: Race, Memory, and Responsibility,” Rothberg and Jürgen Zimmerer’s “Enttabuisiert den Vergleich!” (Abolish the Taboo on Comparison!), Dirk Moses’s “The German Catechism,” and Fabian Wolff’s reflection on being Jewish in Germany, “Only in Germany.” The clash between these international or marginal thinkers and the mainstream German press has revealed a deep cultural rift and highlighted the historically understandable particularity (and provincialism) of German memory. As Sznaider noted, both sides of the debate have suffered from a tendency to universalize their particular point of view. A few years on from the launch of her book Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil, Susan Neiman, a Jewish-American public intellectual who has worked in Germany for many years as director of the Einstein Forum (to see how much has changed since the 1980s, read her memoir, Slow Fire: Jewish Notes from Berlin), reflected that in light of the latest debates her book may have been too praiseworthy about German society’s capacity of self-criticism and accepting responsibility. Having been called antisemitic for her role in organizing the Weltoffenheit initiative, she doubts whether such German-Jewish luminaries as Hannah Arendt or Albert Einstein would be allowed to speak in Germany today, given their criticisms of Israeli policies. “Caught in the shame of being descendants of the Nazis,” she writes, “some Germans find it easier to curse universalistic Jews as antisemites than to realize how many Jewish positions there are.”


Featured Image: Vincent van Gogh, The Novel Reader. 1888. Courtesy of WikiArt.

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What We're Reading

April Reading Recommendations

Jonathon Catlin

Several reviews of Timothy Brennan’s Places of Mind: A Biography of Edward Said (FSG, 2021) explore the life and work of Edward Said (1935–2003). Pankaj Mishra, in The New Yorker, calls Said “simultaneously a literary theorist, a classical pianist, a music critic, arguably New York’s most famous public intellectual after Hannah Arendt and Susan Sontag, and America’s most prominent advocate for Palestinian rights.” Despite his celebrity status, Mishra chides Said as an upper-class dandy with “cramped political horizons” whose “critique of Eurocentrism was in fact curiously Eurocentric.” Most cynically, he writes, “For a posher kind of Oriental subject, denouncing the Orientalist West had become one way of finding a tenured job in it.” In The New Republic, historian Udi Greenberg views Said’s legacy rather more ambivalently. While Said “forever transformed the meaning of the word orientalist” through visionary works that made him rightly famous, his activism and direct involvement in Palestinian politics made him as many enemies as allies. As Thomas Meaney notes in his review in The New Statesman, “Visitors to [Said’s] apartment in Manhattan noted that along with his well-stocked shelves and formidable collection of classical music records, the…Professor in the Humanities kept a map with the current positions of the ­Israeli Defense Forces.” A Commentary headline from 1989 referred to Said as a “Professor of Terror.” A critic of Yasser Arafat’s authoritarianism, Said began to lose faith in the political cause after the 1993 first Oslo Accord, which he called “a Palestinian Versailles.” In his late years he became more resigned, even as he collaborated with artists reflecting on everyday experience in Israel-Palestine. In his 1993 Reith Lectures on “Representations of the Intellectual,” Said memorably characterized the intellectual as defined by exile, whether compelled or chosen, and being a perpetual “outsider” and “disturber of the status quo.” He certainly inhabited that role, but he did so in a singular way. As he characterized himself obliquely in a late interview in Haaretz in 2000: “I’m the last Jewish intellectual….The only true follower of Adorno. Let me put it this way: I’m a Jewish-Palestinian.”

The death of the University of Chicago cultural anthropologist Marshall Sahlins (1930–2021) in early April at age 90 led me to revisit his work. When Sahlins studied in France in 1967, he was introduced to the structuralism of Claude Lévi-Strauss. Perhaps his greatest contribution was to modify structuralism to better allow for historical contingency. As an activist since the 1960s, Sahlins organized a nationwide teach-in against the Vietnam War. His work emphasized the role of culture over deterministic theories rooted in biology or economics, challenging “the folklore of genetic determinism now so fashionable in America: a movement purporting to explain all manner of cultural forms by a universal ‘human nature’ of competitive self-interest….Of course we can recognize the classic bourgeois subject in this so-called human nature.” In certain native societies where other ethnographers projected violence and self-interest, Sahlins saw cooperative, collectivist, and nonviolent alternative forms of social organization. As he explained the upshot of this view in Dissent: “A huge ethnocentric and egocentric philosophy of human nature underlies the double imperialism of our sociobiological science and our global militarism.” Overcoming received views of human nature is also central to his last work, On Kings (2017), which he co-authored with his former doctoral student, the late anarchist thinker David Graeber.

Finally, a review in The Nation of Shlomo Avineri’s biography of Karl Marx for Yale University Press’s Jewish Lives series by Columbia English professor Bruce Robbins challenges the way Avineri “ushers us gently away from the revolutionary Marx to a more gradualist and social democratic Marx whose central vision of change is better adapted, in the author’s eyes, to today’s limited political horizons.” Robbins, by contrast, wonders whether in addition to pragmatic progressives shaping political conversations in the U.S. today, “we also need a more revolutionary voice, like Marx’s, which might inspire the kind of movements that can confront the vast problems of climate change, pandemics, and rising inequality without the polite tones that are preferred by today’s political elite. For that, and more, it’s good to know that the revolutionary Marx can still speak to us, rudely and ringingly and righteously.”

Simon Brown

If the historical specificity of “fascism” emerged as a point of contention since 2016, the new economic and political landscapes of 2020-2021 lift up “Keynesianism,” its history and its conditions as a salient question today. The titanic levels of public spending in the United States through the CARES Act could be continued through President Biden’s proposed infrastructure bill. There is little indication in political rhetoric or in economic counsel that this fiscal policy is contained to an emergency stimulus in the face of unprecedented catastrophe. The inauguration of these policies only twelve years after the Obama administration and its economic advisors warned of “belt tightening” as the financial crisis of 2008 unraveled presents a clear question for historians. Two recent essays have framed it through a lens of intellectual history.

In a review and profile for the London Review of Books, Adam Tooze traces the influential and popular economist Paul Krugman’s intellectual trajectory alongside Krugman’s own autobiography. Krugman’s analysis, raised in the New Keynesian school of the 1970s and 1980s, has shifted in important ways since his defenses of economic globalization in the 1990s. Tooze narrates Krugman’s turn toward a further left critique of “actually existing neoliberalism,” which his kind of economics had tried to describe and define, as a growing skepticism toward the standards of orthodoxy in the economics profession itself. Krugman recognized after the 2008 financial crisis that the austere response would undercut political coalitions that could keep up the macroeconomic intervention necessary. His historical attention to inequality led him to identify “class” struggle, not just frictionless economic calculation, driving policy. This has led Krugman to a newfound appreciation for the Marxist critique of the conditions that make Keynesian macroeconomics possible that had been articulated by the midcentury Polish economist Michał Kalecki. If questions about the historical conditions that enabled Keynesian policies in the 1930s and 1940s are once again salient, contemporary critics like Kalecki are too.

New policies are not always the result of new ideas, as Krugman’s own work attests. In Jacobin, Tim Barker argues that it is neither intellectual innovation nor ascendant class interests alone that explain the sustained public spending in the US. “Somewhere between ideas and interests,” Barker maintains “a political learning process seems to have taken place.” That learning process partly accounts for why someone like Krugman came to recognize after the response to 2008 that fiscal austerity and deficit guarding do no swell the coalitions for liberal political parties. But economically too, consistently stagnant wages and limited union density have kept the dangerous prospects of inflation at bay. Janet Yellen, now Treasury Secretary, articulated the perspective succinctly when she expressed sympathy to the view that “the world might have changed” since the 1970s.

Luna Sarti

Mid-spring in Northern Texas means sudden, abundant rains. As warnings for flash floods and tornadoes pop up on my phone, I think about the nearby creek and the streams that run unseen, enclosed underground in cement pipes. I mentally run over the course of the creek reflecting on the measures taken by the city of Fort Worth to slow the speed of the waters and on the artificial bends that should facilitate controlled overflows. Water control intersects the history of modernity, industrialization, and the technocratization of the state in complex and fascinating ways. 

Flooding episodes—and unstable water/land relationships in general—are usually perceived negatively throughout Western modernity. Certainly, the shift from dry to wet land undermines much of the assets on which contemporary cities and economies are built. Several histories exist that unravel how the efforts on the side of rulers to create controlled, ordered landscapes constitute a way to assert power while alienating claims that other institutions could have on either water or land—or even on both. In The Conquest of Nature David Blackbourn discusses the peculiar ways in which race, land reclamation and genocide were intertwined in the history of modern Germany by looking at the conquest of waterlogged swamplands and rivers as an asset in the formation of German identity and imagination over almost three centuries.

Looking at a different time and place, in the Politics of Water in the Art and Festivals of Medici Florence, Felicia Else elucidates the importance of water control for the establishment of power through performance in  Florence between the 16th and the 17th century. Else extensively analyzes the implications of water-themed spectacles sponsored by the Medici grand dukes, especially as articulated in public sculptures, festivals, and paintings, thus concluding that “the introduction of new water-themed iconography reflected Cosimo’s political ambitions and the family’s ongoing quest to control waters”. (1) A rich literature exists investigating the concern displayed by the Medici, particularly beginning with Cosimo I, in “hydraulics and landscape engineering”, often with an understandable sense of fascination for such an interdisciplinary “interest in knowledge” on the side of a ruler. Among the enterprises sponsored by the Medici, and by other European elites in general, hydraulic projects involving channeling waters, managing rivers and the drying up of marshes, are usually viewed positively, often as a sign of enlightened policies advancing public health, economic production, and the public good in general. However, as Blackbourn highlights, achieving the mastering of water—by draining a marsh or redirecting a river—often constitutes a strategy for power centralization at the expense of other institutional powers. Such machinations of rulership “often wiped out human communities, and with them valuable forms of knowledge,” particularly those developed through “carefully calibrated ways of living with and from the water.” (10) Thankfully, those ways of living with and from the water might survive to the present day outside of large, urban centers, particularly in areas where the articulation of urban-rural economies allowed for discontinuities in memory making. Maldifiume (River-sickness) by Simona Baldanzi—for now only in Italian—voices the diverse ways of experiencing the waters of the Arno river as they survived in “peripheral” areas of Tuscany. By collecting the stories of fish farmers, bird watchers, millers, and boat builders, Baldanzi demonstrates that ways of experiencing the river as a moody, yet trustworthy companion for work and life survived in Tuscany at least until 1966. In 1966, in fact, a major flooding occurrence allowed centralized powers to decide what deserved investment (art and industry) and what was doomed to stay in the past (aquatic life and craftsmanship). 

Floods continue to be scary given the articulation of life in an American suburb as much as in a city like Florence. However, while usual narratives—such as Franco Zeffirelli’s documentary Days of Destruction—present unruly, torrential rivers as “monsters,” it’s a relief to think with Blackbourn and Baldanzi, and perhaps one starts to wonder whether such a monstrosity has to be found somewhere else.


Featured Image: Edouard Manet, Woman Writing. c.1863.

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Spring Reading Recommendations

Jonathon Catlin

I’ve been quite disturbed the past few months following a new turn in the “memory wars” in Eastern Europe. The most recent uproar concerns Masha Gessen’s March 26 New Yorker article, “The Historians under Attack for Exploring Poland’s Role in the Holocaust.” An early subheading for the article, which has since been amended, claimed the Polish state was trying to “exonerate the nation of the murders of three million Jews,” putatively implying that Poles were solely responsible for those murders. It has since been qualified to claim that the trials are an “effort to exonerate the nation of any role in the murders of three million Jews during the Nazi occupation.” Already in an event in February sponsored by Bard College and YIVO (YouTube recording available here), Gessen spoke with the Polish-Canadian historian Jan Grabowski, who together with Barbara Engelking, was recently put on trial in Warsaw and found guilty of defaming a long-deceased Polish village official by suggesting his complicity in turning over Jewish residents of his village to the Nazis for muder. When the authors’ Polish-language book Night Without End: The Fate of Jews in Selected Counties of Occupied Poland was published in 2018, it was hailed by scholars as a landmark work of historiography on the Holocaust in Poland.

So why would it be of serious legal concern? As Gessen’s piece shows, the trials are politically motivated defenses of national memory and glory, backed by weak evidence pulled from the book’s 3,500 footnotes by organizations with names like the Institute of National Remembrance and Polish League Against Defamation, both of which are closely allied with the ruling Law and Justice Party, which for its part has in recent years packed and eroded the legitimacy of Poland’s courts. The case builds upon a long series of memory wars in Poland, dating back at least to the publication of the now-retired Princeton historian Jan Gross’s 2000 book Neighbors, which recovered the history of the 1941 Jedwabne pogrom, in which many of that town’s Poles murdered hundreds of their Jewish neighbors (Gross’s estimate of 1,600 has been disputed) by locking them in a barn and setting it on fire. The town’s leaders had previously met with the Gestapo, who were not present during the pogrom. In 2018, the Polish government passed what became known as the “Gross law,” which makes it a criminal offense, in Gessen’s words, “to ascribe blame for Nazi atrocities to Poles or Poland.” These laws and trials upholding them are rooted in a cult of sacred memory, which portrays Poland as a perpetual victim of German and Russian aggression.

The preponderance of historical evidence tells a much more complex story: Poland was not only home to the most rescuers of Jews recognized as “Righteous Among the Nations,” but also to the most collaborators and complicit bystanders. As one can find illustrated, for example, in Claude Lanzmann’s documentary film Shoah, countless Poles turned in their Jewish neighbors in hiding, whether out of antisemitism or simply for personal advantage, seeking their property. Grabowski and Engelking have already observed a chilling effect of the memory laws on historical investigation into the Holocaust in Poland, the territory on which all of the Nazi death camps were located and where the vast majority of Europe’s Jews were murdered.

Gessen responded to the backlash to their article with a powerful statement that concludes: “As a final note, I would like to state that I am no stranger to this topic, as a person and as a writer. Before the war, my family lived in Bialystok and Warsaw. Of a sprawling family—my great-grandparents had 25 siblings between them—only four people survived: my grandmother and great-grandmother, who ended up in the Soviet Union, and my great aunt and her young daughter, who were saved by ethnic Poles. To be more specific, they were saved by strangers after their Polish friends, fearing repercussions, turned them away. I grew up with this complicated history, and one of my first books, written twenty years ago, delved deeply into it. I am all too aware that complicated, contradictory stories cannot be told in a climate of outrage and denunciation, when a writer knows that any word or phrase of theirs is likely to be taken out of context, twisted, and used against them. What I have seen in the last couple of days, since the publication of my short piece thousands of miles away from Poland, is the very opposite of a climate in which intellectual inquiry and nuanced storytelling are possible.”

Simon Brown

It seems ironic that the politics of self-styled progressives is often a work of recovery. The European welfare state at its strongest in the three decades following the Second World War and the American “New Deal Order” first constructed in the 1930s are both models to be emulated, and their decline, for these thinkers, is a historical problem to be solved. Two recent essays explore and critique how intellectuals and critics between the center-left and the socialist left narrate that history and how they place “ideas” and ideology within it.

Thomas Picketty has occupied a unique position as a break-out star economist of the progressive left since Capital in the Twenty-First Century of 2013 traced in granular detail the diverging fortunes of the owners of capital and most everyone else. Writing for New Left Review, Alexander Zevin closely reads Picketty’s recent tome, Capital and Ideology, to reconstruct the logic of its historical explanation. The book’s synthetic scope aspires to trace how “ideology” — by which he largely means ideas about law and distribution — have shaped economic relations, especially since the rise of “proprietarian” legal systems of the modern period. Zevin shows the inconsistencies in Picketty’s analysis, which eschews a theory of ideology and its relation to social conditions and so falls into ahistorical narrative. This hand-waving, Zevin argues, leads Picketty to account for the international rise of social democracy in the mid-twentieth century as a natural, almost obvious reaction against rising inequality, without reference to particular ideological formations or specific economic structures.

If that inconsistent approach can lead to naturalistic explanations, it can also fall back into elite-drive assumptions. Erik Baker, writing in n+1, illustrates that dynamic in a book that is ostensibly anti-elitist, Thomas Frank’s The People, No. The book traces the history of “anti-populism” in American politics through a primarily elite intellectual history. Through this lens, even sweeping economic and legal interventions of the New Deal appear primarily as an “attitude.” The work of dismantling the programs and the political coalitions of the New Deal, then, falls to liberal intellectuals, according to Frank. This account assumes that the people who craft the ideas about popular governance closely, even if indirectly, determine policy. The reification of an “elite” into a recognizable and stable category practically assure that they would be the prime movers in a history that takes ideas to be central without a consistent theory of their relation to policy.

Nuala Caomhanach

The standards, expectations, and performance of professionalism has always intrigued me—especially as a graduate student who is situated in this in-between stage, not an undergraduate, not a professor, yet performing duties akin to both. Searching standards of professionalism online retrieves images of business suits, glossy hair, perfect teeth, and confidence oozing from every pore and fiber of the person. For a halfling (like me) I often wonder how to dress “above” an undergraduate, yet not mimic the model of professionalism “just yet”. Wearing a business suit to a workshop or lecturing as a teaching assistant seems like performing on stage whilst wearing my father’s best funeral suit.

According to grassroots organizer-scholars Tema Okun and Keith Jones, these standards are heavily defined by white supremacy culture, in other words, centering whiteness. In workspaces, whiteness equates to particular ways to dress, talk, walk, and this foil enables incompetences, systematic discrimination, and institutional othering. How would Marx and Engels write about this? Free-market, technology, the status of education, global movement of labor, Bitcoin, disenfranchised workers, Facebook, the list goes on and on. However, how would they conceptualize the expectation to perform and its emotional toll? Micheal Sandel in The Tyranny of Merit. What’s Become of the Common Good? (2020) frames his argument about meritocracy with the election of Donald Trump and Brexit being the products of a populist backlash among those who lost the game of globalization. Sandel claims that populist resentment originated in and is justified by the failure of democratic elites, as they promoted an ethos that lead the successful to believe that they deserve their success.Whilst acknowledging that racism, nativism and misogyny are deeply entangled with populism, Sandel situates the plight of white working class in developed democracies as the hotbed of populist dissatisfaction. Whiteness created meritocracy; meritocracy created white populist dissatisfaction. A tidy tautological equation that left me unsatisfied and more curious all the while wondering which ill-fitting suit I could wear to the next graduate workshop.


Featured Image: Marcelo Pogolotti, El intelectual, 1937. Courtesy of Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de Cuba.

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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.

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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.