What We're Reading

October Reading Recommendations

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

Jonathon Catlin

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

Shuvatri Dasgupta

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

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

What We're Reading

September Reading Recommendations

Isabel Jacobs

In the last days of summer, I am roaming through the brown and golden streets of London, while the following words reverberate in my head:

You can love a city, you can recognize its houses and its streets in your remotest or dearest memories; but only in the hour of revolt is the city really felt as your own city—your own because it belongs to the I but at the same time to the ‘others’. […] One appropriates a city by fleeing or advancing, charging and being charged, much more than by playing as a child in its streets or strolling through it with a girl. In the hour of revolt, one is no longer alone in the city.

Written against the backdrop of the Parisian revolt in May 1968, Italian philosopher Furio Jesi’s Spartakus: The Symbology of Revolt is a captivating homage both to the Spartacist revolt of 1919 and to Jesi’s favorite German writers, from Bertolt Brecht and Walter Benjamin to Thomas Mann. One of the most fascinating works of contemporary Italian philosophy, Spartakus speaks about power and time, subversion and memory—and remains today a ‘timeless’ analysis of how revolutionary uprisings get trapped in myth.

Slowly reading and re-reading Jesi’s text, time suspends again and again. London’s familiar sights merge with imagined and remembered streets in Turin, Berlin, Moscow and Paris. Contributing to Jesi’s broader project of ‘demythologization’, Spartakus was unpublished until 1980; in Alberto Toscano’s wonderful English translation, Jesi’s unique spirit is reborn. Or, in the words of British punk writer Richard Cabut: “Revolt has to be constantly reinvented just like the life it affirms.”


Oscar Broughton

For this month’s reading recommendations, I have stepped far away from my normal comfort zone of left-wing intellectual subjects. Instead, for the last few weeks, I have been reading the first volume of Ian Kershaw’s two-part biography Hitler 1889-1936: Hubris. This change in subject for me is akin to Kershaw’s own transition. Indeed, it was only after starting his career as a medieval social historian that he later became preeminent in the field of Hitler studies—a story that is instructively retold at the beginning of this book.

Beyond being a useful guide to historians about how research focuses can shift over time, this book is also a fantastic example of excellent prose. This provides a level of accessibility which is particularly useful for readers unfamiliar with the subject. Furthermore, it allows the book’s exceptional length (845 pages) and high degree of detail to still remain a pleasure to read.

At its core, Hubris is a well-written social history. Its focus is not on the personality of Hitler, but is directed towards “the character of his power—the power of the Führer.” As Kershaw explains, part of this power is derived from Hitler himself. However, a much greater portion was provided by the social conditions in the form of the expectations and motivations embodied in Hitler and his followers. As such, this account provides an excellent example of social history writing done to the best of its ability.


Tom Furse

Over the last month, I have been reading Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind by Tom Holland. His thesis is straightforward: Christianity still provides all our moral, cultural and social norms today. Its emergence from the ancient world, he says, is the “single most transformative development in Western history.” He might be right. His argument is difficult to falsify or disapprove. In part that aids his argument, Christianity is so hegemonic in morality, politics, science and culture that can be quite invisible. The book isn’t so much a narrative of 1st Century AD to 21st Century AD, it deals instead principally with ideas. Fortunately the prose is never dense, it has vivid stories about the Hussites of Tabor 1420 and Martin Luther’s book burning in Wittenberg.

The range is huge from the meanings of and in the apocalypse, science and revolution, and most fittingly at the moment the culture wars and ‘woke’ politics. He doesn’t use the term ‘woke’ as a pejorative, his point is that progressive and conservative talking points can be seen as essentially a Christian construct. Liberal cosmopolitans in London or New York might have little to do with Christianity in practice, but the idea of a single humanity united in universal (catholic) morality, not a single territorial homeland is as Christian as fire and brimstone preachers. The implication then is that if we lived with the moral norms from ancient paganism—with its indifference to cruelty and heroic gods, say, we wouldn’t be thinking or divided in the way we currently are.


Zach Bates

Rather than offering a specific title or study, my recommendations stem from revisiting a few political articles and academic reviews from the 1970s and 1980s, and perhaps resemble more a methodology than a suggestion of books.     

Over the last three weeks, I have been preparing a review essay.  It involved a deep level of engagement with a trio of Cambridge doctoral graduates in the late-1970s and early 1980s: Mark Goldie, Linda Colley, and Jonathan Clark.  Their focus was the study of politics, ideas, and parties over the late-seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. As I read Colley’s and Clark’s interpretations of the Tory Party, and Goldie’s arguments on “anglican royalism” and the “roots of true whiggism,” my attention turned to the larger political context of post-1960s Britain and America. I purchased several bound volumes of printed publications from this era (including National Review and New Republic—both American, I realize) and immersed myself in the political world, at least as represented in print media, of the 1970s and 1980s.    

It is hard not to see the party realignments in the 1970s and the accompanying rise of conservatism having a profound impact on this scholarship, and the zeitgeist of the period was a response to concerns of the identity of the Democratic and Labour parties and the rise of conservative dominance in the Reagan administration and Thatcher ministry. Yet, this perspective is layered, with me, an historian living in the 21st century, looking backwards for parallels both historiographically, via debates in the 1970s and 1980s, and historically, via the early origins of parties in British politics.  

This leads me to my final recommendation, Max Skjönsberg’s excellent investigation of early concepts of political parties in this very Blog. As we now seem to be living through another period of party realignment, the drama of history has not yet drawn its curtain.    

Who needs The Chair?


Stephanie Zgouridi

A strange detour during my dissertation research led me take a look at Sir Francis Bacon’s 1626 Sylva Sylvarum. In seeking some context for his writing, I was lucky to run across Theology and Science in the Thought of Francis Bacon by Steven Matthews. Matthews’s book convincingly illustrates that Bacon’s project of educational reform and dedication to scientific knowledge was tied to a specific reading of the fall in the Garden of Eden. 

Matthews argues that for Bacon, “The fall was not occasioned by knowledge per se, and certainly not by the knowledge of nature…the problem is not knowledge at all, but the sin lies in the selfishness and arrogance of the human motivation for the knowledge…” (p. 66). By shifting the blame away from knowledge itself to the many motivations that could drive humans to seek it out, Bacon disavowed the claim that gathering scientific knowledge was a dangerous practice that led only to amorality, atheism, and corruption. In doing so, he was able to build a stronger justification for his Instauration program, which aimed to develop scientific knowledge through the study of natural philosophy. To Bacon, alongside faith, the expansion of scientific knowledge actually offered humankind its greatest hope: “For man by the fall fell at the same time from his innocency and from his dominion over creation. Both of these losses however can even in this life be in some part repaired, the former by religion and faith, the latter by arts and sciences” (p. 73).

Featured Image: August Macke, “At the Garden Table,” 1914. Courtesy of WikiArt.

What We're Reading

Reading Recommendations: Back to School Edition

Grant Wong

The art of history is all about exclusion. The historian’s craft necessitates, by design, the inclusion of certain evidence and analysis at the expense of others. Given the sheer vastness of history, it is mandatory to limit historical work (whether it be a book, article, blog post, museum exhibit, lesson, discussion, etc.) to best fit the arguments and scope of its subject matter. Periodization frames history by chronology. Analytical lenses, whether they be “politics,” “race,” “class,” or “culture,” work to similar ends. The intent of the term “area studies” is self-explanatory—its boundary is geography. Even world history has its limits; there’s a lot of detail lost when zooming out to a global scale.

It’s easy to forget that writing, too, is an art of exclusion. Every word is written at the cost of others. However, just as in the case of history, this is a necessity. As William Zinsser demonstrates in On Writing Well, a practical guide to non-fiction writing originally published in 1976, good writing derives its quality not simply by the skill and originality of its prose, but also by what it excludes. In other words, be concise. Be deliberate about what words you pen onto the page. Edit aggressively: remove extraneous words from your writing with extreme prejudice.

The result? Clear, engaging, unpretentious writing. “Good writing has an aliveness that keeps the reader reading from one paragraph to the next, and it’s not a question of gimmicks to ‘personalize’ the author,” writes Zinsser. It’s a question of using the English language in a way that will achieve the greatest clarity and strength.” In keeping with the argumentative thrust of his message, he pulls no punches in his advice. “Clutter is the disease of American writing,” he declares. “We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills, and meaningless jargon.” While Zinsser examines all kinds of writing conventions and genres over the course of his guide, this message is repeated throughout. Be exclusionary with your words, he implores, for your writing to embrace the personal feel of “humanity and warmth.”

As I train as a historian, I do so with a great sense of conviction and moral purpose. It is my firm belief that all history should be public history; therefore, it is my mandate to craft interpretations of the past that are meaningful, engaging, and insightful for the benefit of the public. To this cause, Zinsser’s lessons will serve me well. As I go back to school to start my PhD at the University of South Carolina, I aspire to craft histories that are as humane and warm as Zinsser believed all non-fiction writing should be.


Jenny Davis Barnett

As a native speaker of English, these 5 books on my bookshelf have received the most wear over the years: 1. A good dictionary: Spelling errors and incorrect use of collocation can quickly and easily be avoided by consulting a standard dictionary.  For native speakers of English in Australia or England, and for non-native speakers of English. A good thesaurus is also helpful. 2. The Elements of Style: I re-read this small work at least once or twice a year. It is timeless and indispensable for good mechanics. 3.The Craft of Research: The pain of trial and error can be reduced by setting down an organized plan for doing research. This book helped me transition from thinking like a student to thinking like a scholar. 4. The Elements of Academic Style: Academic English writing has expectations that are not always easily discerned. This book helped me change my writing from a level fit for English 101 to scholarly communication. 5. Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks: The adage “publish or perish” is the reality of careers in academia. This book helped me publish my first peer-reviewed journal article after receiving nothing but rejections for a few years. The author also runs a private discussion group.


Alec Israeli

Coming off a summer of blessed, elective pleasure reading, I have committed my final few weeks before the start of fall term to easing myself back into the realm of academic work. I began this transition with a recent anthology, The Worlds of American Intellectual History, edited by Joel Isaac, James T. Kloppenberg, Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, and the late Michael O’Brien. This 2017 collection serves as a kind of state-of-the-field report, with wide-ranging essay contributions from leading scholars of American intellectual history. The essays are organized thematically in five parts: Frames, Justice, Philosophy, Secularization, and Method. Of course—as Kloppenberg admits in his introduction—these divisions are purely heuristic. In my own reading, I found that the essays, however various, consistently complemented one another.

The book’s title speaks to a message unifying its pieces: a potentially infinite number of “worlds” (conceptual, temporal, spacial, political, etc.) constitute the entity that we provisionally call American intellectual history. Both the multiplicity and necessary porosity of these worlds is perhaps best displayed in the helpfully self-conscious essays by Daniel T. Rodgers and Sarah E. Igo, in the book’s section on Method. Entitled “Paths in the Social History of Ideas,” Rodgers’ essay challenges intellectual historians to take the lessons of academic history’s transnational turn and apply them to intellectual history within the bounded nation: ideas, carried by “parcels and persons”, move not only across the porous borders between nations, but also across the porous social and geographic borders within nations themselves. Building upon the material focus of histories of print cultures, he notes that published works frequently circulated more within particular regions of the US—or within particular sets of readers united by common interests, commitments, or identities—than circulated across the entire nation.

Rodgers closes his piece with the assertion that “knowledges are plural and socially inflected.” Igo’s essay, “Toward a Free-Range Intellectual History,” serves as an excellent follow-up. Drawing on her research into the history of the concept of privacy, she suggests that intellectual historians researching a concept have too often tied themselves to canonical or institutionally-endorsed texts (in the case of privacy, academic legal essays and court cases). Such an approach is limited, Igo argues, insofar as it often takes the meaning of the concept favored in these texts at face value, without considering the social forces shaping this particular usage. Here, then, the concept itself is not historicized, and attempted histories of the concept become histories of applied meaning (e.g. histories of a right to privacy rather than privacy as such).

As a corrective, Igo offers up an idea of “free range” intellectual history: a method “attuned to the shifting, open-ended, multivocal nature of the idea in question.” Igo endorses an “eclecticism” of sources—an examination of pop literature, periodicals, radio programs, various disciplinary journals, letters, etc., in conversation with canonical texts. Ideas, she holds, flow from low to high as much as vice-versa. As Rodgers reminds us: “the production of ideas goes on everywhere.” Igo similarly encourages us to search for “fresh pastures” in the popular realm as we study ideas that are “publicly claimed and, therefore, popularly shaped.”

Margaret Abruzzo’s essay, “The Sins of Slaves and the Slaves of Sin: Towards a History of Moral Agency,” exemplifies the kind of conceptual history Igo proposes. Rather than take “morality” or “agency” as fixed concepts, Abruzzo investigates how definitions of these ideas were contested and developed within antebellum debates around social reform and slavery; moreover, she holds that a history of morality must force us “to think about how moral ideas ranged more freely in broader discourses.” Free-range intellectual history indeed!

Long-standing theological debates over sin and free will, Abruzzo shows, filtered through contemporary political concerns, tackled by odd-ball reformers, pro-slavery zealots, and enslaved and formerly-enslaved people alike: To what extent could sinners—in reformers’ eyes ranging from drunkards to slaveholders—be saved or held responsible if they were “slaves to sin?” Did chosen sin compromise free will? For slaveholders: if they believed that slaves were prone to sin, and thus needed enslavement to ensure just conduct, to what extent could slaveholders hold themselves culpable for their slaves’ sins? For enslaved persons themselves: could they hold themselves accountable for sins they committed while bound in slavery, in which their actions as agents were conditioned by a state of domination? Could they, would they, have acted otherwise?

As Abruzzo demonstrates, freedom and moral agency were not, are not, the same thing. For my own research purposes, I found this chapter helpful in illuminating the moral-philosophical dimensions of contemporary political-economic debates: similar problems of freedom and domination were often considered at the time in the radical republican terms favored by the politicized free laborers who called themselves “wage slaves.”

Abruzzo’s translation of moral philosophy into a subject of material import has normative implications for intellectual historians: ideas and their interpretations, those of intellectual historians included, do not “float untethered to concrete moral engagement.” An essay by Sophia Rosenfeld—“On Lying: Writing Philosophical History after the Enlightenment and after Arendt”—offers a rousing call for the return of the intellectual historian engagé, one who can blur the lines between philosophy and history not by a rank, particularistic presentism, but by “[estranging] our audience from its and our own present,” and so being “invested in the present” and its challengeable political assumptions. In writing on lineages and constellations of ideas across time, unabashedly filtered by current concerns, impelled by an intention to estrange the present, the philosophical historian is “liberated” to “draw general conclusions” about our contemporary social life.

Rosenfeld’s program—and the many essays in this collection which seem to conform to it, whether consciously or not—is a tall order, but inspiring nonetheless. It certainly has reinvigorated me for the fall term ahead.


Shuvatri Dasgupta

Since the theme of this month’s reading recommendations is “Back to School,” I hope a bit of reminiscence will not be out of place. When I started my PhD at the Faculty of History, University of Cambridge, broadly identifying myself as a researcher in intellectual history, a course titled (History of) History of Political Thought (abbreviated as HHPT) was suggested to me as foundational, for working in the field of intellectual history. One of the first things I noticed about it was the fact that although the course claimed to be on the history of political thought, its focus was entirely and admittedly ‘Western’. Was the non-West then not a space which generated political thought? The other thing that caught my eye in the initial days was the fact that not only were the subjects of this history of political thought male and white: even the secondary literature that was recommended on them was of a similarly myopic nature. I remember sitting in that classroom week after week attempting to participate. I use the word attempting to draw attention to the fact that no one in the classroom was able to respond to and engage with my comments and thoughts on the readings. It was in that space that I realized the relevance and importance of decolonizing the curriculum at large, and decolonizing intellectual history specifically. 

As a young researcher trained in India before arriving in Cambridge for my doctoral research, I was immensely struck by how exclusionary the structures of education here were, and how they upheld (if not celebrated) the alleged maleness, and Eurocentrism, within the discipline of intellectual history. The epistemic violence of colonialism, racism, and patriarchy continued to remain enshrined and protected in spaces such as these. In formulating my critiques of the discipline as it is now, and charting a roadmap for the ways in which it can be transformed, I have returned to two of my courses from the Department of History, Presidency University, Kolkata, titled ‘Global Intellectual History’ (I and II) designed by Dr. Milinda Banerjee. These remain fundamental to what I understand as intellectual history, which I believe as a discipline can offer the tools for an archaeology of concepts and ideas without being hierarchical and exclusionary. They brought to fore the radical possibilities of intellectual history by investigating the category of the “global” and opening the discipline up to histories of philosophies without a philosopher. They have hence proved crucial in my early days of doctoral research for thinking through questions of violence, exclusion, canonization, and the materiality and textuality of archives, amongst other things. I return to these readings time and again, in my ongoing experiments with intellectual history, as I attempt to recenter ideas and concepts from non-Anglocentric lifeworlds as subjects of historical investigation.  

Featured Image: Illustration taken from Robert Seaver, Ye butcher, ye baker, ye candlestick-maker: being sundry amusing and instructive verses for both old and young, adorned with numerous woodcuts (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1908).

What We're Reading

July Reading Recommendations

Shuvatri Dasgupta 

“But though ‘silver and gold he had none,’ he gave heart-service and love—works of far more value.”, wrote Elizabeth Gaskell about Jem Wilson (and John Barton), the working class hero(es) of her Victorian industrial novel Mary Barton. As I was re-reading Gaskell’s masterpiece, this particular sentence made me pause and wonder: what do we mean by valuable, or to put it in another way, how can we think of value as a concept, both historically and universally? What is the relationship between historical contexts and the processes of valuation in our lifeworlds? In this novel set in nineteenth century Manchester, torn apart by poverty, diseases, and death (resulting from industrial capitalism), Gaskell attempts to relocate value in affective unquantifiable categories such as love (and care), as opposed to commodities such as silver and gold, whose valuable status was already established by the material context of the narrative. 

Historians of political economy as well as economic thought, have traced the genealogy of value either by locating it within markets which determine value, or through commodities, which function as material repositories of value. Taking a step back from this quantifiable understanding of the concept of value and the processes that determine it, Nancy Folbre in her work ‘The Rise and Decline of Patriarchal Systems: An Intersectional Political Economy’, makes the case for broadening the category of ‘economic’ to include unquantifiable and undervalued aspects of life. In this wonderfully innovative work Folbre argues that all forms of hierarchy, whether it be of class, caste, race, gender, or ethnicity, are not only inegalitarian structures of exploitation by their very nature, but are economically consequential. The question of what is valuable (and in turn what is undervalued) can no longer be answered sufficiently through an exploration of either production and circulation of commodities or accumulation of profit. Instead we need a fuller picture where diverse hierarchies co-exist, and co-evolve, and co-exploit, and determine value through intersection and interaction with one another. In her earlier work ‘Greed, Lust, and Gender: A History of Economic Ideas’ Folbre had explored emotions such as greed, and lust, as unquantifiable expressions of desire and human self-interest. These affective registers not only shape ethical or moral frameworks of being, but act as central determinants of the actions of the homo economicus as a subject of capitalism, in Western political thought. 

More generally, the figure of the homo economicus, or the ‘economic man’ in Foucault’s lectures on neoliberal governmentality, emerges as the atomised individual who valorises the pursuit of self-interest by becoming an entrepreneur, and emerging as the source of his own income by selling his labour. This subject of capital was therefore empowered through his ability to satisfy his needs in the market. Drawing on this Foucauldian genealogy, Ritu Birla in her book ‘Stages of Capital’ conducted a fascinating investigation of the capitalist subject in colonial India, and argued that the colonised homo economicus underwent a process of transition by bringing together vernacular market values (of kinship, family, caste, and community) and the logic of liberal colonial modern free trade in the British empire. Through this interaction, staged in colonial India, emerged the capitalist, fully formed and sovereign, now capable of self-government as an agent of capital accumulation, in postcolonial India. 

Juxtaposing Folbre’s understanding of political economy, with that of the homo economicus, two deficiencies stand out rather starkly in the way the concept of value and related subjectivities are explored in the existing corpus of literature. Firstly, the question of gender remains largely unaddressed in the way histories of subjectivities (and their appropriation of value) are traced under capitalism. The role of patriarchy and other structural hierarchies in constructing, and transforming the homo economicus remains majorly overlooked. This has been addressed recently in some works, like Peter Fleming’s ‘The Death of the Homo Economicus  and Emma Griffin’s ‘Breadwinner: An Intimate History of the Victorian Economy’. Secondly, there is an overwhelming focus on the more quantifiable aspects of the question, such as production, circulation, and accumulation, than on the more unquantifiable aspects of human life. Folbre argues in her construction of intersectional political economy that affect, and other aspects of social reproduction such as care, and domestic work, have longer pre-capitalist and non-capitalist histories of being undervalued. When we intend to explore historically why women’s labour related with care, reproduction, domesticity, and affect have been undervalued, we need to not only broaden the realm of political economy to include other hierarchies, but we also need to situate the household at the centre of such explorations, and bring the realm of the ‘economic’ back to the oikos. 

Armed with this methodology, we can on one hand, revisualise the capitalist subject, beyond the construction of the economic man. It can emerge as it is, and as it always was: intersectional, produced by its context but also determining it, located at the liminal intersections of the home and the world, and inevitably suffering from the crisis of social reproduction which has been inherent in the workings of capitalism since its inception. On the other hand, we can broaden the remit of the concept of value, by exploring the unquantifiable aspects of life and the ways in which they became undervalued under the onslaught of capitalism, as Gaskell attempted to urge her readers to do, almost two centuries ago. 

Tom Furse

Over July I’ve mostly been reading T.J. Clark’s The Absolute Bourgeois: Artists and Politics in France 1848-1851 which is the first book of the two-part series about revolutionary politics in French art. It covers the short-lived Second French Republic (1848-1852) that existed between the July Monarchy and Napoleon III’s Third French Empire. The main painters in the book are Adolphe Leleux, Eugène Delacroix, Honore Daumier, Ernest Meissonier, Jean-Francois Millet, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Unfortunately, the illustrations (there’s a 109) aren’t in color, but Clark’s analysis brings them to life.

His writing style is quite polemical, but the analysis is never superficial. Probably the most famous painting of a revolution is Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty Guiding the People, where Liberty, as represented by a semi-naked woman, leads well-dressed and tattered revolutionaries to victory over barricades. It is the image on Wikipedia’s entry for ‘revolution.’ Clark’s take on it is that we can see the bourgeois myth about its unity with the working-classes against a common royalist oppressor. If it was true, if the revolution really was universal and open to all, then the bourgeois would be entirely outnumbered by the masses. Of course, it was not universal. The National Guard defended bourgeois property and beat up the masses who got out of line. Delacroix painted Liberty in 1830, but its influence was pervasive in the book’s main years. To understand what Delacroix was painting and thinking about in 1848, we need to know this painting.

This fractious, somewhat mythical alliance between the bourgeois and working classes was a feature of how the Second Republic, as a state, thought about art. In 1848, the new government invited artists to compete for the visible representation of the new republic. There was a jury of politicians, artists and officials and the artists entered anonymously. The regulations and the bureaucracy of setting up this art commission went well. The trouble was that no one knew what they were looking for. What was this Republic? Artists like Ingres thought it was neither a dream nor a nightmare. Virginity was a common-ish theme among some entries, although Daumier and Millet didn’t go down that path. A letter from a minister to an anonymous artist said that their composition should unite Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, it should show stability and that the national colors (red, white and blue) should predominate. There 700 entries, and the jury recommended 500 of them seek other occupations. The event was a laughingstock. Clark argues that this event was an example of how the new state was a victim of its own utopian expectations and private fears that the Republic was actually visually, and therefore politically, ambiguous. It is little wonder that Napoleon III was able to electorally unite the peasants, the bourgeois and the military in his “18 Brumaire” coup in 1852.             

A painting that stands out is Adolphe Leleux’s The Password, which is purposely undramatic with its two guards and a third wishing to pass through. It captures the everyday secrecy in periods of revolutionary fervour. From it we can imagine the scene: Travelling in the shaken city whose districts have turned to revolt becomes difficult; the streets and squares are littered with rubble and certain areas become out of bounds. The footsoldiers of the revolution stand guard across the city rooting out traitors and watching the hungry citizens. We see this in The Password where the two guards stand by a heap of stone bricks. The traveller, almost certainly fellow revolutionary, whispers the password in the ear of one as the other looks out. What is this the second guard looking at? There is no crowd or prying ears in the painting, and you don’t get the sense there is one either. The overwhelming sense from looking at this painting is that the street is entirely desolate; the tone is grey and dark and the feeling is of fear. The whispered password allows physical access, but it’s also a form of recognition at a time when people’s allegiances are fickle and masked: I know the secret word, just like you do, so we’re on the same side. 

Oscar Broughton

In preparation for the 2022 Brazilian elections I have been reading Emir Sader and Ken Silverstein’s Without Fear of Being Happy. This introductory account of the growth of the Partido dos Trabalhadores (The Workers Party, PT) during the late twentieth century remains one of the most insightful English language sources on this subject. Although specialists in twentieth century Brazil will find little surprising in this account, it nevertheless proves to be an exciting and condensed account of PT’s early years. Taking its title from the hugely popular slogan adopted by PT, this work reflects on the growth of this political party since its formation in 1980 as it emerged out of the increasing violence and social inequality under Brazil’s military dictatorship (1964-1985) and was forged by a diverse group of activists, trade unionists, landless peasants, and progressive members of the Catholic Church. Out of this mixture emerges a history of the development of the Brazilian working-class and PT’s most recognisable leader, Luiz Inácio ‘Lula’ da Silva, the former factory worker turned politician. Lula remains a dominant figure in Brazil today and is currently tipped to win the 2022 elections, so this book provides useful insight into his early career.

However, perhaps most interestingly, is the analysis of the left-wing ideology at the core of PT. Despite being openly “socialist” the ideology of PT defies easy categorisation and shares little connection with the earlier anarchist and communist movements in Brazil, or international socialist groups during the mid twentieth century. As a result the development of PT highlights the shifting character of social democracy towards the end of the Cold War, which serves as an interesting case in comparison to other left-wing parties undergoing changes during this period in Latin America and Europe especially.

Originally published in 1991 this book misses much of the most recent dramatic history of PT. In particular, this book does not give an account of the electoral successes of PT beginning with Lula’s first victory in 2002 and the introduction of highly effective and popular social welfare programs, such as Bolsa Família, and the massive expansion of higher education leading to the creation of large numbers of new universities. Furthermore it does not include an account of PT’s descent into crisis in 2013 following nationwide protests against price increases in public transport and corruption scandals, which precipitated the 2016 impeachment of the then PT president, Dilma Rousseff. Nevertheless, despite these shortcomings this account provides a detailed and useful account for historians interested in the contemporary history of Brazil and formative preparation for next year’s elections.

Grant Wong

“What do I do the summer before I start graduate school?,” I asked a trusted mentor. “Do something fun, travel, spend time with friends,” she replied. “Read whatever you want, you’ll have plenty of time to labor over academic work in the Fall. Take a break if you can, it’s been a difficult year.”

This exchange is what eventually led me to Neil Strauss’ The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists (2005). Part-memoir, part-reportage, the book follows Strauss’ misadventures in the pickup community, an Internet-linked, international group of men dedicated to the pursuit of “picking up” women – that is, talking with them, going on dates, and orchestrating one-night stands. It is a masculine world, dominated by self-styled “PUAs” (“pickup artists”) who teach fresh faced “AFCs” (“average frustrated chumps”) socialization skills, self-improvement, and, in their view, the most effective means of appealing to the opposite sex – mastering a mental and social “game.” Strauss himself becomes a pickup artist in the process as his PUA alter-ego “Style.”

The book details a series of episodes defined by toxic masculinity, positive male bonding, blatant misogyny, and at the very end, an ambiguous rejection of pickup culture for its failure to teach its community the importance of genuine romantic connection. Whether expressed through techniques like “the neg” (diminishing a woman’s self-esteem as a means of provoking interest), “peacocking” (wearing attention-grabbing clothes), or assessing when to “kino” (using physical touch to build rapport), pickup culture resides in a highly gendered, performative world. Pickup techniques appear to be effective due to the self-confidence they instill in their practitioners (one study does note the effectiveness of some of pickup’s basic principles), though they verge into uncomfortable ethical territory when the logic of “the game” is taken too far. Once the women they are meant to appeal to are imagined not as people but solely as “HBs” (“hot babes”) and puzzles to be mastered, “the game” becomes morally bankrupt.

This appears to be the general lesson of the book, though I find The Game to be much more revealing when considered in its wider contexts – the twentieth and twenty-first-century transformations of masculinity, capitalism, and communication technologies shed much insight into the mental frameworks of pickup artistry. As vapid as it might appear at first glance, it does have a distinctive intellectual worldview, shaped by these changing historical trends. Pickup even has a history in its own right, dating back to the original publication of Eric Weber’s How to Pick Up Girls! (1970), though Weber, interviewed in The Game, rejects modern pickup culture on the basis of its denigration of women.

As depicted in The Game, masculinity within the pickup community is shaped by performance and mindset, whether it be the “Mystery Method” or “Speed Seduction,” as masterminded by PUAs “Mystery” and “Ross Jefferies,” respectively. Many PUAs developed their teachings from their own experiences of social awkwardness, and thus knowingly demonstrate their masculinity through carefully-calculated charisma. Conventional attractiveness and athleticism are more often associated by PUAs to “AMOGs” (“alpha males of the group”), who are to be socially bested as a Revenge of the Nerds-style matter of principle. The performance of masculinity, through “sarging,” (going out to meet women) serves both as a means of group bonding and discord. The PUAs of The Game build each other up in their successes, but tear each other down when they view their masculinities as threatened.

Capitalism is also an ever-present theme throughout The Game. PUAs are obsessed with the concept of “value,” broadly defined. The dating world is viewed by them as a sexual marketplace, as women are commodified, rated on scales of one to ten based on their attractiveness. Male attractiveness, too, is determined by a market-based mindset – to “DHV,” or “demonstrate higher value,” is to showcase one’s worth to a woman in a social setting. Another summer read, sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild’s The Outsourced Self: Intimate Life in Market Times (2012), offers similar takes on the commodification of romance. Interviewing a dating coach, Hochschild finds that some of the coach’s clients have so internalized their romantic lives in capitalist terms that they put less investment into dating. They perpetually seek to “trade up,” imagining themselves in a “buyer’s market.” I was reminded by this upon learning about the PUA concept of a “pivot,” a woman brought along on a PUA’s shoulder for the sole purpose of attracting more desirable women. Much actual capital is spent over the course of the book as well. Over the course of The Game, PUAs “Papa” and “Tyler Durden” found and operate a lucrative pickup school, Real Social Dynamics. By the end of the book’s narrative, PUA Mystery charges $2,250 a head for each of his Las Vegas pickup workshops.

Lastly, it’s important to note the importance of technology to the pickup scene, which would be unrecognizable without the connections made possible by the Internet. Through online forums, most prominently “Mystery’s Lounge,” PUAs share their experiences online via “field reports,” discuss pickup theory, and organize workshops across North America, Europe, and Australia. In essence, they form their own twenty-first century republic of letters as they philosophize over the effectiveness of different pickup approaches and critique their community. In one notable forum post, Strauss accuses his fellow PUAs of becoming “social robots,” too set in their routines to showcase their genuine personalities to women.

All in all, The Game was a thought-provoking read, if only for forcing me to ask myself, “how did we get here? What historical trends have led us to reshape masculinity around a commodified ‘game,’ to view dating as a market, to create digital communities of mutual support and knowledge-sharing?” In any case, The Game has reignited my academic interests in sexuality, gender, and capitalism. Perhaps not the kind of summer reading my mentor envisioned. 

Featured Image: Still Life with Gingerpot 1, Piet Mondrian, 1911. Gemeentemuseum den Haag, Hague, Netherlands.

What We're Reading

June Reading Recommendations

Tom Furse
I have been reading Leo Tolstoy’s Sevastopol Sketches this month among other works on humane war and humanitarianism. It is, admittedly, a weighty subject for summer, but it might suit as a cerebral beach read perhaps, it is at least, set by the sea. This book is a semi-autobiographical account of Tolstoy’s military service at the Siege of Sevastopol in the Crimean War (1853-1856) on the Russian Black Sea. It is essentially three rather discrete short stories. The first story “December” for me was probably the most powerful in terms of how it conveys the physical messiness of war. This disorder and even chaos is most visible when Tolstoy describes a field hospital and wounded soldiers crying. But there is also the emptiness of an otherwise bustling seaside town. In events entirely outside of their control, Sevastopol’s inhabitants become locked down and the buildings on the main street beyond the barricade are practically uninhabited. Tolstoy says of the “strange intermingling of camp and town life, handsome town and dirty bivouac.” The soldiers reside everywhere ruining any sense of tranquility they might have had. Bloodstained stretchers, stray cannonballs, and horses, a lot of horses replace the litter of civilian life. Sevastopol is empty of its everyday normality but at the same time is busy and loud with military sounds; gunfire, grunting, shouting, crying, and screaming. It is a physical kind of busyness that he writes of, one of ‘severe jolts’ from sudden noises.

The second and third stories flesh out characters more. There is a half-humorous half-sad story of a group of officers, some of which are really aristocratic, and others who are less aristocratic and trying a bit to hide it. At an officer’s drinks reception at a pavilion, officers meet and greet each other. And who shakes hands with who and bows at who matters a lot. Even with the chaos around them, feelings about status remain entirely solid. Two poorly dressed officers, captains Obzhogov and Suslikov greet Lieutenant-Captain Mikhailov when he enters which denotes their warmth for him as they serve in the same regiment but also because Mikhailov is an aristocrat in their eyes. To Mikhailov, however, Adjutant Kalugin is the real aristocrat, and he’s nervous to meet him and a circle of other aristocrats, Prince Galtsin, Lieutenant Colonel Neferdov, a ‘Moscow clubman,’ a cavalry captain Praskukhin and Baron Pest. Kalugin and Galtsin display their easy confidence in front of Mikhailov who cuts a slightly pathetic figure compared to these men. Tolstoy shows us that for these men confidence is easy, because they all think they are heroes after spending a few nights on the battlefield. Mikhailov doesn’t think of himself as a hero partly because he’s there so much. After a few drinks, the aristocrats tire of Mikhailov’s company and don’t meet his gaze in conversation and then eventually walk away from him. Mikhailov remembers how he was a popular dandy-like figure at home who could at least play at being rich, but now, as an infantry officer at Sevastopol he doesn’t even have well-heeled boots or a well stitched coat. He gets angry with his servant after the party about this. The fate of Russia is being fought out only miles away, and this mid-ranking officer’s main concern is about being accepted by people who probably won’t remember his name in the morning.

Tolstoy was a vegetarian Christian pacifist. Samuel Moyn’s Plough essay on Tolstoy’s ideas of humanity and morality of war is a valuable guide when reading it. The essay foreshadows Moyn’s Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War set to be released in September. Moyn picks up on Tolstoy’s radical point that making war or slavery humane postpones their abolition and continues its practice indefinitely. If we fight for humanity, we may never stop, and thus continue a cycle of violence. When we make animal abattoirs clean and humane with stun guns, we make meat eating more acceptable. Most nations now do not use chemical and biological warfare which have grizzly outcomes, think of Assad in Syria or Agent Orange in Vietnam. And yet we live with ‘forever wars.’ The biggest successes of the antiwar and neutrality movements in history have been to make war more humane and cleaner: Geneva Convention, landmine, and cluster bombs bans. But this has, in a sense, had the effect of well-regulated stun guns in abattoirs. States fight cleanly and discretely with drones and special forces. Humane warfare then is not a stop-gap to abolishing war, but an entity in itself with its own working logic.  

Shuvatri Dasgupta

What does it mean to care for one another and for the world around us? What if caring for one another is not a vulnerability as neoliberal individualism would have us believe, but is actually a collective strength? What if caring is the only way we can build a better world? These are questions that The Care Manifesto answers in affirmative. Beginning with a scathing critique of neoliberal capitalism and its ‘care-lessness’ which furthers alienation under the garb of ‘self-care’, the Care collective in this manifesto asks us to recognise our interdependence. Building on that premise, in the following six sections it takes us on a journey where radical care shapes politics, kinships, communities, states, economics, and ultimately the world. If the languages of the political were framed, not with the alienating ‘friend-enemy’ distinction (as Schmitt would have us believe!), but with an universal recognition of interdependence, what would our world look like? Dean Spade’s pamphlet on Mutual Aid addresses this by mapping the ways in which we can effectively form solidarities which are anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, and ultimately nourishing for us and our worlds. The series of pamphlets published by Verso attempts to chart out a roadmap for making our world a better place. These works bridge age-old divisions in progressive politics between class and identity politics, between feminism and environmentalism, between Marxists and feminists, in an attempt to write new and nourishing languages of the political. They diagnose the maladies of our present, and uphold the vision of a better future. They provide indications of the ways in which we can liberate ourselves from the strangling grip of neoliberal capitalism’s invisible hand. These works spoke to the intellectual historian in me by reminding me that ideas have the power to change our world, and change it for the better. 

The first work that I encountered in this series was ‘Feminism for the 99 percent: A Manifesto’ by Nancy Fraser, Tithi Bhattacharya, and Cinzia Arruzza. It begins with the premise that neoliberal feminism and its languages of empowerment has been exclusionary for the 99 percent, if not exploitative and downright fatal. By recentering emancipation of women, and linking it with an environmentalist and anti-imperialist agenda through the lens of social reproduction, the eight thesis of this manifesto calls for a radical rewriting of feminist politics. The authors argue that ours is a world suffering from a generalised crisis of reproducibility of all life forms and beings, and by prioritising care, we can start to move beyond capitalist exploitation, and build a life of greater wellbeing and nourishment. We can have our bread, and the roses!  

During Pride month, I have been thinking a lot about the ways in which neoliberal capitalism merchandises love and sex through dating apps on one hand, and on the other hand it leaves conditions of homophobia and transphobia unchecked by valorising individual freedom and empowerment.  Thesis 7 of the Feminist Manifesto acknowledges this paradox. When the entire political spectrum is liberal and capitalist (both the left wing progressivism and right wing authoritarianism), it leaves marginalised groups between a rock and a hard place. For women and LGBTQ+ groups the choice therefore comes down to religious patriarchy, or capitalist patriarchy. The way out is a refusal to play this game, and instead reinvigorate the radical spirit of 1969 Stonewall uprising in an attempt to liberate love from sexuality, and gender. The suggested readings curated on this list provide a great starting point for thinking about anti-capitalist queer liberation. 

For Pride Month specifically I wanted to share a series of English language fiction and non-fiction books, all of which focus on trans and queer lives and experiences in the Global South, curated by my friend Anil Pradhan. Whilst many of these are chronicles of pain, exclusion, and marginalisation, some of them are stories of radical resistance, of surrender, of non-conforming desire, and radical hope. This series forms a crucial archive for documenting marginalised lives, and suppressed voices, by bringing to the forefront non-confirming and non-normative life worlds from South Asia. 

Let me end this with a brief excerpt from a poem titled ‘To Hope’, written in 1815 by John Keats. It bridges these reading recommendations conceptually by celebrating hope and mutual interdependence, and is one of my favourite odes written in the early nineteenth century.  

Whene’er the fate of those I hold most dear
Tells to my fearful breast a tale of sorrow,
O bright-eyed Hope, my morbid fancy cheer;
Let me awhile thy sweetest comforts borrow:
Thy heaven-born radiance around me shed,
And wave thy silver pinions o’er my head!

Nuala Caomhanach

We live in increasingly challenging times with a heightened level of uncertainty  and constant reminders of the unpredictability of what might be lurking around the corner, be it financial crisis, catastrophic climate events, a global pandemic, or even a bad cup of coffee.  One of the prescribed remedies for 

for dealing with such a state of instability or flux which has gained significant currency in the scholarly and political arena is ‘resilience’. Resilience has toppled the use of ‘sustainability’ as the latest buzzword. Yet delving into the literature reveals that it is not quite clear what resilience means beyond the simple assumption that it is good to be resilient. 

In nineteenth-century physics, resilience denoted the material property of elasticity. In the latter half of the twentieth century, resilience entered systems thinking and spread to entirely new entities such as the human personality as an affect-processing system and nature as a crisis-processing and self-optimizing ecosystem. This lack of clarity has enabled ‘resilience’ to be used everywhere and has become a buzzword of our time.  Key Concepts for Critical Infrastructure Research (2018) (ed. Engels) is a really great start into  the discussion of critical infrastructures which is dominated by the use of interlinked concepts “criticality”, “vulnerability”, “resilience”, and “preparedness and prevention”. In public discourse and in scientific debates these terms are so capacious yet seem so obvious in outcome. They are often voiced simultaneously in a normative as well as in a descriptive way. The series of essays, written from multiple fields perspectives (for example, history, spatial planning, political science, philosophy)  examines each concept systematically and critically to give an excellent overview for the reader to grasp the politically-laden terms. The book highlights the political and normative implications of translating resilience from ecological to social domain, and offer a critique of how a highly selective

interpretation of resilience has been deployed in the neoliberal governmentality of unknowns.  If you are short on time, Simon Davoudi’s essay “Resilience and governmentality of unknowns” in Governmentality after Neoliberalism (Bevir, ed, Routledge, 2018), along with Davoudi’s “Resilience: A bridging concept or a dead end?” (Planning Theory & Practice, 2012) will cover some of the broad sweeps to get you started. 

To look specifically at popular discourses and images of a resilient (or on the contrary, vulnerable, or contradictorily both) nature, I recommend watching and critically analysing the nature documentaries of David Attenborough. It is really fascinating to map over time how nature is characterized, from eco-entertainment in the 1960s and 1970s to edu-entertainment in the 80s and 90s, into contemporary times where the heavy-handed and dramatic staging of nature becomes a moral imperative.   Important in thinking about how resilience is parcelled to the public is Episode 8: “Forests”  and the famous Walrus Scene from Episode 2: “Frozen World”. The interesting ‘Making Of’ of the same scene (“Behind the Scenes“). Additionally,  watching “A Life on Our Planet” (2020, by Alastair Fothergill and Keith Scholey),offers a really provocative approach to understanding the Chernobyl exclusion zone and how we talk about the natural world catastrophic post-disasters. Documenting the World Film, Photography, and the Scientific Record (2016 )  (edS. Mittman and Wilder) is a wonderfully researched series of essays about the social and material life of photographs and film made in the scientific quest to document the world. In a similar vein to Key Concepts for Critical Infrastructure Research the book draws on scholars from diverse fields, including visual anthropology, and science and technology studies. Each chapter explores how this documentation has entered and altered our lives, our ways of understanding and knowing the world, and our social and economic relationships. Dip into this at will. Each chapter brings the reader on a glorious journey about how integral and transformative part of the world they seek to show us. Speaking of the earth, Sabine Höhler’s Spaceship Earth in the Environmental Age, 1960–1990  (2015) is an engrossing book on the idea of the earth as a vessel in space. Höhler maps how this idea came of age in the Cold War period and the dreams of space travel and domination using STS methodologies. The book maps how various actors—environmentalists, cultural historians, writers of science fiction and politicians—envision the earth within the politically hot space-race.  For a rather thought-provoking essay, look to Greg Bankoff  “Remaking the world in our own image: vulnerability, resilience and adaptation as historical discourses”(Disasters, 2018) . Bankoff offers a rich overview of examining ‘vulnerability’, ‘resilience’, and ‘adaptation’, and the ways these key concepts have dominated disaster studies since the end of the Second World War. 

Simon Brown 

Edward Gibbon published the first volume of his prolific Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in 1776. The same year that Adam Smith put out his Wealth of Nations and American revolutionaries declared their independence from the British parliament in which Gibbon himself sat. While Smith accounted for the steady increase in material prosperity from the heart of the British empire, Gibbon recounted in granular detail the total decline of Roman civic virtue and martial power under the weight of territorial expansion and material luxury. The Decline and Fall is sometimes described as a “philosophical history” for the ambition of its scope, ranges across economic conditions, religious revivals and intellectual movements. In a recent article in Modern Intellectual History, Anton Matytsin traces how Gibbon embraced a school of historical scholarship that combined the evidentiary detail of antiquarian erudition with a general view on recurring transformations in religion and culture. Gibbon’s prose, distributing sharp aphorisms throughout dense chronicles, remains surprisingly compelling. When he introduces his reexamination of the early Christian movement, which he steers away from the long tradition of Christian ecclesiastical history throughout the volumes, Gibbon describes the work of the historian of religion in terms that still resonate with me today: “The theologian may indulge the pleasing task of describing Religion as she descended from Heaven, arrayed in her native purity. A more melancholy duty is imposed on the historian. He must discover the inevitable mixture of error and corruption which she contracted in a long residence upon earth, among a weak and degenerate race of beings.” (XV, 238)

Gibbon took a total view of the conditions of decline. A renewed attention to one version of that decline story in the present, framed as “decadence,” invites comparisons with Gibbon’s pioneering work. The conservative journalist Ross Douthat published a recent book, The Decadent Society, analyzing the stagnation of the “Western world.” The new journal American Affairs, that claims to transcend “conventional partisan platforms,” publishes essays that abound with “decadence” as a description of everything from neoliberalism to the contemporary novel. In an essay that extends the analysis of his book, Douthat focuses on “Decadence and the Intellectuals.” He laments the surrender of public intellectual life to journalists and the retreat of scholars and theologians from positions of popular prominence. Douthat points to the radical severance from traditional canons of influence and excellence that he associates with artists and intellectuals who spoke for the “revolutions of the 60s.” This contrasts sharply from Gibbon’s assessment of the derivative literary culture of the later Roman empire. Gibbon instead argues that the imposition of Latin standards of literary excellence stunted the artistic production of Rome’s subject peoples. Gibbon looks to the political conditions of imperial subjugation and its reverberations in the metropole to explain the cultural erosion he identifies. Rather than seeing cultural and intellectual forces as sufficient explanations for the cultural and intellectual decline associated with decadence.    

Cynthia Houng

The Fourth of July is just around the bend. Between 2020 and 2021, it has been a long and exhausting journey. I’ve spent a good chunk of that time thinking about America and what it means to be American, what it means to be part of American society. These questions took on an intensely personal valence this winter, when anti-Asian violence surged in New York City and around the country. Around the world, even (which brings up the question of who gets to be included in the circle of humanity). For a while, every walk down the street was tense. I walked with one hand on the dog’s leash and the other on my phone. In January, we moved downtown, close to Chinatown, and I went from being a minority (my old neighborhood was over 80 percent white) to being part of a thriving Asian community. Only, this winter, it was a community under siege. As the attacks continued, I couldn’t shake the thought, This, again. 

Not much happened to me. A few epithets, here and there, and one time, I heard an older man yell, “You people are always sneaking around!” I looked around to see who he might be addressing, and realized that “you people” was meant for me. Another time, a man stared at me for an uncomfortably long time on the subway, and when I got to my stop, I sprinted out of the car without looking back. Just in case.

It feels uncomfortable to be seen–dangerous, even–and it feels uncomfortable not to be seen. I want to be seen as a friend, a neighbor, a member of the community, an American. I want to be seen with love, held in a warm regard. I want to be seen as a person, a human, a dog lover, a writer… I do not want to be seen like this. Or like this. But, then, how should I be seen? What image do I want to project? Do I have a choice over how I am seen?

In her essay for Aperture, “Why We Must See Asian Americans in US History,” Stephanie H. Tung discussed a daguerreotype of an anonymous Chinese woman. Tung writes, “We do not know who she is. We do not know her name. It is not often that an Asian woman—an immigrant, a worker, perhaps a mother—is pictured, or even rendered visible, especially in nineteenth-century America. What makes this image extraordinary is that it’s most likely from 1850s California: it tells the story of Chinese immigrants who came to America during the California Gold Rush (1848–65).” Curiously, the anonymous woman in this daguerreotype is cradling another daguerreotype, a portrait of another seated subject.

“The only other daguerreotypes of Chinese women I have encountered,” Tung notes, “are the photographs of Miss Pwan Ye-Koo and Lum-Akum, part of P.T. Barnum’s “Living Chinese Family,” at the Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology at Harvard University. Made by Lorenzo G. Chase between 1844 and 1856, they were discovered over a century later in the same attic trunk as the Zealy daguerreotypes of enslaved people of African descent. The images were presumably part of the same Louis Agassiz project that used photography to support pseudo-scientific theories of race.” 

Barnum billed Pwan Ye-Koo as a “true Chinese lady,” and the “the first Chinese lady that had yet visited Christendom.” In her article, “Daguerreotypes and Humbugs: Pwan-Ye-Koo, Racial Science, and the Circulation of Ethnographic Images around 1850,” Michelle Smilley notes that whether onstage or in Chase’s images, Pwan Ye-Koo was always visible, but never truly seen as herself: “In 1850, Pwan-Ye-Koo stood ambiguously between the categories of ethnographic specimen and celebrity, traveling among the spheres of pseudoscience and spectacle, as Barnum staged her body as one component among the inorganic trappings of Orientalism, clothed as she was in silk and gold. Curiously, as in the images of Lum-Akum and Soo-Chune, Pwan-Ye-Koo’s ornamental coverings probably also partially defeated the purposes of Agassiz’s archive of racial difference, just as the ornamentations of commercial Orientalism physically obscure many of the morphological features of her skull and body. Where Agassiz sought to use the double daguerreotype view as a means to more exhaustively catalogue a subject’s appearance, Pwan-Ye-Koo’s doubling only adds to the hall of mirrors effects of her traveling performances. In Pwan-Ye-Koo’s case, the pictorial evidence ultimately proves as fragile as the daguerreotype, a type of object that was frequently cracked and destroyed in the mail. In her multiple Daguerreian images, this young woman is made to bridge the shores of Canton and the port of New York. As her body sits wrapped in the costume drama demanded by Barnum’s racialized spectacle, it resists Agassiz’s archival impulse via the very trappings of commercial Orientalism that led her to [Chase’s] studio in the first place.”

Regardless of my desires, I will always be regarded by others as an Asian woman, or, more uncomfortably, a yellow woman. A phrase that I, like Anne Anlin Cheng, have long shied away from saying out loud. As Cheng said, in an interview with Shivani Radhakrishnan, “The phrase yellow woman is one I have not been able to say for many, many years. It’s an ugly phrase. But then I thought why is the term painful, and why is it not in use? We speak of Black women, white women, Brown women, but not yellow women. Why not?” 
Maybe what I need to do is follow Cheng’s lead. In the same interview, she notes that it was precisely her discomfort with this concept of the yellow woman that led her to sit with it and write Ornamentalism. Or, as she put it, “These moments, when my mind shrinks in pain from something, are when I think I need to take a closer look.”

Featured Image: Still Life with a Book. Paul Signac, 1883.

What We're Reading

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.