What did Europeans contribute to the caste system in India?

By Contributing Writer Sumit Guha, University of Texas at Austin

Closed, normatively endogamous communities have a long history in Southern Asia. Over the past millennium, they have been labeled with the Sanskrit ‘jati’, Arabic ‘qaum’, Persian ‘zat’ and others. But we have long known that there is no equivalent word for “caste” in any Indian or Asian language.  It came as a loan-word but is today firmly embedded in Indian public and policy discourse. We also know that the first users of the term (as ‘casta’) were Iberians – Portuguese and Spanish, first in the Iberian peninsula and then in Asia and the Americas. But how the term was used– descriptively, administratively, and sociologically—is less known. The connection of Asia and the Americas has not been made.


Two Iberian Empires initiated and, for more than a century, controlled all the trans-Oceanic ventures of modern Europeans. These were the Spanish in the Americas and the Portuguese in Asia. Several Iberian kingdoms had begun a campaign of religious persecution against Jews in the 1300s. Many converted under duress. But to the dismay of many ‘old Christian’ churchmen in cushy sinecures, the educated and affluent among the Jewish converts then began to rise in Church and royal service. Furthermore, converts’ prominence among tax-collectors naturally made them unpopular with poorer Christians. The interests of clerics and plebeians thus coalesced first in pogroms and then in justifying their hostility via a doctrine of ‘purity of blood’ – the idea that only ‘old Christians’ were worthy of favor in Spanish and Portuguese society. Protagonists of the new idea had to contend against long-established Church doctrine of all humans are redeemable through Christ. Quite remarkably, they nonetheless succeeded in prioritizing biological descent above spiritual redemption. It followed that ‘New Christians’, ‘conversos’ etc., especially those belonging to the “casta de judios”, should be carefully watched and vigilantly excluded from offices of status. (The above is drawn largely from Albert Sicroff, Le Controverse de Statuts de Pureté de Sang 1960.) This grew into a settled prejudice that intensified into the nineteenth century. ‘Casta’ before 1500 had tended to refer to type or breed of plant or animal: but it now came to mean a species of human marked by descent. It was thus verging on the emerging concept of race. Even today a standard dictionary illustrates its meaning with the phrase “eso me viene de casta” rendered as “it’s in my blood”.

It is not surprising that when the Iberians came to Asia and the Americas, they promptly began classifying people by descent.  Even at the time, Indians did not marry outside a specific set of families, or ‘caste’ defined as a ‘marriage-pool’. Iberians however promptly decided that this was motivated by a drive to preserve the purity of their “blood”. This was pointed out by the American anthropologist Morton Klass.  At the same time, the Spanish and Portuguese also began creating a ‘sistema de castas’, a caste system in the Spanish Americas.


Ignacio María Barreda, Depiction of the Casta System in Mexico

Spain and Portugal were united under one monarchy from 1580 to 1640. More importantly, they were also bound by the powerful racial ideology well embedded in the Iberian Catholic Church. The Portuguese introduced later-coming Europeans to the Indian subcontinent and Indians to a new kind of Westerner. Many Portuguese loanwords entered the languages of Asia. One of these was ‘casta’, anglicized to ‘cast’ or ‘caste’. But while this etymology is well-known, most discourse has assumed that the loan-word was applied to a pre-existing and very old indigenous social institution, an institution that has remained unchanged until the present. In the twentieth century, with the mounting cultural power of the USA, proponents of this view have increasingly assimilated ‘caste’ to the Western idea of ‘race’. They have also assumed it to be confined to the Hindu segment of the Indian population.

This has been a powerful and persistent trope, even though many specialists, such as the veteran sociologist Joseph Elder, have listed seven errors in the popular Western understanding of caste. One of these was that ‘Castes are uniquely Hindu’. He wrote that in India, ‘castes exist among Christians, Jains, Sikhs, Buddhists, and Muslims.’ Frequently the rules about marrying within one’s caste and avoiding interactions with other castes are as strict among Christians, Jains, etc. as they are among Hindus. Elder also puts his finger on a key element of its durability. This was that the British colonial regime – the most influential of South Asian empires— deployed it in its legal and political system.

The American anthropologist Morton Klass also attempted a historical account of the origin of caste as a concept and a practice. He pointed out that the Portuguese and Spanish were themselves just evolving a system of ethnic and social stratification by biological ancestry; it was for this reason that they immediately assumed that Indian jāti endogamous groups were aimed at maintaining ‘purity of blood’.  The early response was, however, not to attack caste but to reduce most features of it to a concern of civil society, external to the faith (adiaphora). Converts of different castes were thus permitted separate churches. According to the famous Jesuit missionary Nobili, this was an established practice by 1615. Indeed, Nobili approvingly quoted a Brahman convert who had responded to the criticism that Nobili’s color was evidence to his being a despicable ‘prangui’ (barbaric Westerner).

You reproach the saniassi [ascetic, meaning Nobili] with being a vile Prangui and cite his color as proof. …by that argument I prove that you are a paria [a Dalit caste-name]. You are black, parias are black so you are therefore a paria. What! Can you not conceive that in another country where all men, brahmans and  parias alike are white, there will be among the whites the same distinction of castes, the same distinction between nobles and commoners? Everyone applauded this reply, which was as substantive as it was spirited.

This use of ‘casta’ to mean any kind of descent group entered other European languages. The Dutch, for example, were by 1640 describing the wives of some sailors as of “Portuguese casta”. It also traveled into English.

Early colonial governments recognized the administrative value of caste as a means to organize “civil society”. The Dutch conquered Sri Lanka from the Portuguese and enforced a strict caste system there. Different tax and labor dues were extracted from each caste in order to sustain Dutch colonial enterprise. To check evasion of the service requirement attached the land, subjects could not mortgage or sell their lands without leave, and the customs and distinctions of caste were rigorously enforced by Dutch penal regulations. This continued under the early British rule in Sri Lanka.  Similarly, in Bombay island, the first British colony in India, the early administration decided that the  “severall nations at pres[ent] inhabiting or hereafter to inhabit on the Island of Bombay be reduced or modelled into so many orders or tribes & that each nation may have a Cheif (sic) or Consull of the same nation appointed over them by the Gover[nor] and Councell”.  As late as 1900, the British government in India passed the Land Alienation Act, a major agrarian law regulating property transfers among two specified sets of “Tribes and Castes” described as ‘agriculturist’ and ‘non-agriculturist’. Both sets included Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. A more complete exposition of the long history of state, caste and ethnicity is to be found in my book, whose European and Indian editions are linked below.

(European) Beyond Caste: Identity and Power in South Asia, Past and Present

(Indian) Beyond Caste: Identity and Power in South Asia, Past and Present


Sumit Guha is Professor of History at The University of Texas at Austin


“Why are we still having children?”

By Contributing Editor Cynthia Houng


Mary Cassatt, “Mother and Childc. 1900
Pastel on blue-gray wove paper (faded to tan), mounted on board
Bequest of Dr. John Jay Ireland, Art Institute of Chicago, 1968.81

I finished Sheila Heti’s Motherhood over Mother’s Day weekend. In this book, Heti asks herself if she should have a child. If she should be a mother. I hadn’t planned on reading Motherhood over Mother’s Day, but when I realized the coincidence, I found it appropriate. After all, I am also a woman who writes, a woman without children, a woman uncertain if her future holds either children or motherhood, and there I was, surrounded by celebrations of motherhood at every turn.  At the beginning of the book, Heti declares, “Whether I want kids is a secret I keep from myself–it is the greatest secret I keep from myself.”

Later, she asks, “Why are we still having children?”

Heti’s book received mixed reviews. A number of the reviews were written by women who were also mothers, who had already chosen to have children. Whether this was coincidence, or by design, I do not know. In any case, Heti’s book struck a nerve with most readers. Even the most positive reviews contain an acid phrase or two. Alexandra Schwartz (who describes herself in the review as also a woman in her 30s without children) noted that “there is a lax, self-indulgent quality” to Heti’s writing. Lauren Oyler describes the book as characterized by “obsessive recursion,” while another reviewer dismissed Motherhood outright, “No amount of metafictional smoke and mirrors can make up for the absence of a compelling story.” Lynn Steger Strong opened her review with this anecdote: “A friend texted me a few months ago to tell me her period was late. We spent five minutes going back and forth on the specifics, but I was about to teach a class and she was getting on a train. Remember, I said, just before I put my phone away, the abstract idea of the thing is always scarier than the thing itself. This is a sentence I wanted to whisper to Sheila Heti’s main character throughout the reading of her book Motherhood. This is a thought exercise, I wanted to tell her, but it has very little relation to the actual thing.” The suggestion is that Heti is immature, dawdling on “what if” when she should just take action. Just complete the act. Or, as a certain ad slogan might put it: Just do it.

There will be good things on the other side. As Strong put it, “I love the man I married. I love our marriage. I love motherhood, but most of it is exactly like the rest of life: confusing and exhausting, messy, complicated, never like I planned. This is also, of course, the relief of all these major life decisions: there is just more—sometimes more crowded, more exhausting, sometimes more joyful—life on the other side.” But is this doing the result of one’s agency? Or something else? For Strong, the crux of Heti’s book–and more generally, of the condition of being female and thus endowed with the ability to bear children–is the interplay between consciousness and body, between our agency and lack of it.

Christine Smallwood’s review began with an account of her son’s birth, as an illustration of the power of motherhood, the way that motherhood pushes the mother to go beyond the self, to become a whole new–more open, more selfless–being. In contrast, Heti’s relentless questioning of her own lack of desire for motherhood displays “a solipsistic existentialism.” Smallwood’s response is perhaps the nastiest of the bunch. Her dismissal of Heti’s ambivalence is an extreme version of the usual response to women who meditate on this choice: women who ask “why” and not “when” to the question of children are narcissistic, immature, incapable of rising to the fullness of adulthood.

Smallwood argues, “Time works differently after you have a child. What was once a very steady beat suddenly moves at crazy, uneven speeds. Children fill up time that you didn’t know was empty. […] The experience is so utterly transformative that the person evaluating the decision is a different version of the person who made it. That is why it’s exciting. It remakes the world.” But Heti? To Smallwood, Heti clings to her world, willing it to be static. Heti seems to desire a different kind of power, one that Smallwood casts as unnatural: “The point is that she wants to extend the present version of herself into the future. What is that but a way of stopping time? Who wouldn’t want that power?”

I went to Catholic school. I am all too familiar with the sanctity and glory of motherhood, reinforced again and again with images of the Madonna and child. For most of human history, women had little agency over whether or not they wanted to become mothers. To have a womb was to bear a certain fate, unless one made certain unusual choices. One could become a nun. That would take you out of the motherhood game.

In the same paragraph where Heti asked the question why, she also wrote: “When I think of all the people who want to forbid abortions, it seems it can only mean one thing–not that they want this new person in the world, but that they want the woman to be doing the work of child-rearing more than they want her to be doing anything else. There is something threatening about a woman who is not occupied with children. There is something at-loose-ends feeling about such a woman. What is she going to do instead? What sort of trouble will she make?”

I felt a small ping of pleasure when I discovered that a woman I respect, a woman who is a talented designer, a successful business owner, and a mother, had posted a photograph of this exact passage on her Instagram. The comments on her post are instructive. This book, and its questions, rile people up. Rile women up. The fact that Elle published a review of Motherhood is telling.

Several reviewers have pointed out that Heti’s book is part of a larger corpus of recent books (many belong to the genre of autofiction) on the intersection of creativity and motherhood. Here, an incomplete list: Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts; Rachel Cusk, A Life’s Work; Jenny Offill, Department of Speculation; Heidi Julavits, The Folded Clock. These are questions that interest contemporary readers. We want more than the usual song-and-dance about the sanctity of motherhood, more than the madonna/whore binary. We want new and different approaches to the question of how to be a person in this world, ones that don’t tie us to the same tired binary structures (mother/father, madonna/whore, male/female, etc.). There is a thread in these works, one not often picked up by reviewers–one that pushes against the limits of thinking, and seeing, motherhood and being female as one and the same. One might quip that this is a story as old as Adam and Eve, but then the touchstone of Heti’s story is not Adam and Eve at all, but Jacob wrestling the Angel. And angels are something else entirely — neither/nor — but something beyond.

A Pandemic of Bloodflower’s Melancholia: Musings on Personalized Diseases

By Editor Spencer J Weinreich


Peter Bloodflower? (actually Samuel Palmer, Self Portrait [1825])

I hasten to assure the reader that Bloodflower’s Melancholia is not contagious. It is not fatal. It is not, in fact, real. It is the creation of British novelist Tamar Yellin, her contribution to The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases, a brilliant and madcap medical fantasia featuring pathologies dreamed up by the likes of Neil Gaiman, Michael Moorcock, and Alan Moore. Yellin’s entry explains that “The first and, in the opinion of some authorities, the only true case of Bloodflower’s Melancholia appeared in Worcestershire, England, in the summer of 1813” (6). Eighteen-year-old Peter Bloodflower was stricken by depression, combined with an extreme hunger for ink and paper. The malady abated in time and young Bloodflower survived, becoming a friend and occasional muse to Shelley and Keats. Yellin then reviews the debate about the condition among the fictitious experts who populate the Guide: some claim that the Melancholia is hereditary and has plagued all successive generations of the Bloodflower line.

There are, however, those who dispute the existence of Bloodflower’s Melancholia in its hereditary form. Randolph Johnson is unequivocal on the subject. ‘There is no such thing as Bloodflower’s Melancholia,’ he writes in Confessions of a Disease Fiend. ‘All cases subsequent to the original are in dispute, and even where records are complete, there is no conclusive proof of heredity. If anything we have here a case of inherited suggestibility. In my view, these cannot be regarded as cases of Bloodflower’s Melancholia, but more properly as Bloodflower’s Melancholia by Proxy.’

If Johnson’s conclusions are correct, we must regard Peter Bloodflower as the sole true sufferer from this distressing condition, a lonely status that possesses its own melancholy aptness. (7)

One is reminded of the grim joke, “The doctor says to the patient, ‘Well, the good news is, we’re going to name a disease after you.’”

Master Bloodflower is not alone in being alone. The rarest disease known to medical science is ribose-5-phosphate isomerase deficiency, of which only one sufferer has ever been identified. Not much commoner is Fields’ Disease, a mysterious neuromuscular disease with only two observed cases, the Welsh twins Catherine and Kirstie Fields.

Less literally, Bloodflower’s Melancholia, RPI-deficiency, and Fields’ Disease find a curious conceptual parallel in contemporary medical science—or at least the marketing of contemporary medical science: personalized medicine and, increasingly, personalized diseases. Witness a recent commercial for a cancer center, in which the viewer is told, “we give you state-of-the-art treatment that’s very specific to your cancer.” “The radiation dose you receive is your dose, sculpted to the shape of your cancer.”

Put the phrase “treatment as unique as you are” into a search engine, and a host of providers and products appear, from rehab facilities to procedures for Benign Prostatic Hyperplasia, from fertility centers in Nevada to orthodontist practices in Florida.

The appeal of such advertisements is not difficult to understand. Capitalism thrives on the (mass-)production of uniqueness. The commodity becomes the means of fashioning a modern “self,” what the poet Kate Tempest describes as “The joy of being who we are / by virtue of the clothes we buy” (94). Think, too, of the “curated”—as though carefully and personally selected just for you—content online advertisers supply. It goes without saying that we want this in healthcare, to feel that the doctor is tailoring their questions, procedures, and prescriptions to our individual case.

And yet, though we can and should see the market mechanisms at work beneath “treatment as unique as you are,” the line encapsulates a very real medical-scientific phenomenon. In 1998, for example, Genentech and UCLA released Trastuzumab, an antibody extremely effective against (only) those breast cancers linked to the overproduction of the protein HER2 (roughly one-fifth of all cases). More ambitiously, biologist Ross Cagan proposes to use a massive population of genetically engineered fruit flies, keyed to the makeup of a patient’s tumor, to identify potential cocktails among thousands of drugs.

Personalized medicine does not depend on the wonders of twenty-first-century technology: it is as old as medicine itself. Ancient Greek physiology posited that the body was made up of four humors—blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile—and that each person combined the four in a unique proportion. In consequence, treatment, be it medicine, diet, exercise, physical therapies, or surgery, had to be calibrated to the patient’s particular humoral makeup. Here, again, personalization is not an illusion: professionals were customizing care, using the best medical knowledge available.

Medicine is a human activity, and thus subject to the variability of human conditions and interactions. This may be uncontroversial: even when the diagnoses are identical, a doctor justifiably handles a forty-year-old patient differently from a ninety-year-old one. Even a mild infection may be lethal to an immunocompromised body. But there is also the long and shameful history of disparities in medical treatment among races, ethnicities, genders, and sexual identities—to say nothing of the “health gaps” between rich and poor societies and rich and poor patients. For years, AIDS was a “gay disease” or confined to communities of color, while cancer only slowly “crossed the color line” in the twentieth century, as a stubborn association with whiteness fell away. Women and minorities are chronically under-medicated for pain. If medication is inaccessible or unaffordable, a “curable” condition—from tuberculosis (nearly two million deaths per year) to bubonic plague (roughly 120 deaths per year)—is anything but.

Let us think with Bloodflower’s Melancholia, and with RPI-deficiency and Fields’ Disease. Or, let us take seriously the less-outré individualities that constitute modern medicine. What does that mean for our definition of disease? Are there (at least) as many pneumonias as there have ever been patients with pneumonia? The question need not detain medical practitioners too long—I suspect they have more pressing concerns. But for the historian, the literary scholar, and indeed the ordinary denizen of a world full to bursting with microbes, bodies, and symptoms, there is something to be gained in probing what we talk about when we talk about a “disease.”


Colonies of M. tuberculosis

The question may be put spatially: where is disease? Properly schooled in the germ theory of disease, we instinctively look to the relevant pathogens—the bacterium Mycobacterium tuberculosis as the avatar of tuberculosis, the human immunodeficiency virus as that of AIDS. These microscopic agents often become actors in historical narratives. To take one eloquent example, Diarmaid MacCulloch writes, “It is still not certain whether the arrival of syphilis represented a sudden wanderlust in an ancient European spirochete […]” (95). The price of evoking this historical power is anachronism, given that sixteenth-century medicine knew nothing of spirochetes. The physician may conclude from the mummified remains of Ramses II that it was M. tuberculosis (discovered in 1882), and thus tuberculosis (clinically described in 1819), that killed the pharaoh, but it is difficult to know what to do with that statement. Bruno Latour calls it “an anachronism of the same caliber as if we had diagnosed his death as having been caused by a Marxist upheaval, or a machine gun, or a Wall Street crash” (248).

The other intuitive place to look for disease is the body of the patient. We see chicken pox in the red blisters that form on the skin; we feel the flu in fevers, aches, coughs, shakes. But here, too, analytical dangers lurk: many conditions are asymptomatic for long periods of time (cholera, HIV/AIDS), while others’ most prominent symptoms are only incidental to their primary effects (the characteristic skin tone of Yellow Fever is the result of the virus damaging the liver). Conversely, Hansen’s Disease (leprosy) can present in a “tuberculoid” form that does not cause the stereotypical dramatic transformations. Ultimately, diseases are defined through a constellation of possible symptoms, any number of which may or may not be present in a given case. As Susan Sontag writes, “no one has everything that AIDS could be” (106); in a more whimsical vein, no two people with chicken pox will have the same pattern of blisters. And so we return to the individuality of disease. So is disease no more than a cultural construction, a convenient umbrella-term for the countless micro-conditions that show sufficient similarities to warrant amalgamation? Possibly. But the fact that no patient has “everything that AIDS could be” does not vitiate the importance of describing these possibilities, nor their value in defining “AIDS.”

This is not to deny medical realities: DNA analysis demonstrates, for example, that the Mycobacterium leprae preserved in a medieval skeleton found in the Orkney Islands is genetically identical to modern specimens of the pathogen (Taylor et al.). But these mental constructs are not so far from how most of us deal with most diseases, most of the time. Like “plague,” at once a biological phenomenon and a cultural product (a rhetoric, a trope, a perception), so for most of us Ebola or SARS remain caricatures of diseases, terrifying specters whose clinical realities are hazy and remote. More quotidian conditions—influenza, chicken pox, athlete’s foot—present as individual cases, whether our own or those around us, analogized to the generic condition by memory and common knowledge (and, nowadays, internet searches).

Perhaps what Bloodflower’s Melancholia—or, if you prefer, Bloodflower’s Melancholia by Proxy—offers is an uneasy middle ground between the scientific, the cultural, and the conceptual. Between the nebulous idea of “plague,” the social problem of a plague, and the biological entity. Yersinia pestis is the individual person and the individual body, possibly infected with the pathogen, possibly to be identified with other sick bodies around her, but, first and last, a unique entity.


Newark Bay, South Ronaldsay

Consider the aforementioned skeleton of a teenage male, found when erosion revealed a Norse Christian cemetery at Newark Bay on South Ronaldsay (one of the Orkney Islands). Radiocarbon dating can place the burial somewhere between 1218 and 1370, and DNA analysis demonstrates the presence of M. leprae. The team that found this genetic signature was primarily concerned with the scientific techniques used, the hypothetical evolution of the bacterium over time, and the burial practices associated with leprosy.

But this particular body produces its particular knowledge. To judge from the remains, “the disease is of long standing and must have been contracted in early childhood” (Taylor et al., 1136). The skeleton, especially the skull, indicates the damage done in a medical sense (“The bone has been destroyed…”), but also in the changes wrought to his appearance (“the profile has been greatly reduced”). A sizable lesion has penetrated through the hard palate all the way into the nasal cavity, possibly affecting breathing, speaking, and eating. This would also have been an omnipresent reminder of his illness, as would the several teeth he had probably lost (1135).

What if we went further? How might the relatively temperate, wet climate of the Orkneys have impacted this young man’s condition? What treatments were available for leprosy in the remote maritime communities of the medieval North Sea—and how would they interact with the symptoms caused by M. leprae? Social and cultural history could offer a sense of how these communities viewed leprosy; clinical understandings of Hansen’s Disease some idea of his physical sensations (pain—of what kind and duration? numbness? fatigue?). A forensic artist, with the assistance of contemporary symptomatology, might even conjure a semblance of the face and body our subject presented to the world. Of course, much of this would be conjecture, speculation, imagination—risks, in other words, but risks perhaps worth taking to restore a few tentative glimpses of the unique world of this young man, who, no less than Peter Bloodflower, was sick with an illness all his own.

Editors’ weekly readings


Portrait of a painter during the reign of Mehmet II (1451-1481)


Alexandra Alvergne and Vedrana Högqvist Tabor, “Is Female Health Cyclical? Evolutionary Perspectives on Menstruation,” (TREE)

Jen Banbury, “The Weird, Dangerous, Isolated Life of the Saturation Diver” (Atlas Obscura)

Jill Lapore, “The Right Way to Remember Rachel Carson”(New Yorker)

Jenna Tonn, The Handmaid’s Tale. Hulu. Season 1 (April–June 2017). Television (Journal of the History of Biology)



David Graver, Art Activist Liina Klauss’ Sculpture From 5,000 Salvaged Flip-Flops, (Cool Hunting)

Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh, “The rise, fall and rise of Anwar Ibrahim,” (The Straits Times)

Stephen M. Walt, “The Art of the Regime Change,” (Foreign Policy)


Brendan M

Lauren Michele Jackson, Shudu Gram Is a White Man’s Digital Projection of Real-Life Black Womanhood (New Yorker)

Daniel Immerwhar, We’re the Good Guys, Right? (N+1)

Alex de Vreis, Bitcoin’s Growing Energy Problem (Joule)

Ryan Avent, A Brief(ish) Review of Radical Markets (Medium)



Mary Beard, “New deal for old tyrant” (TLS)

Miles Burrows, “Conversation in Avalon” (TLS)

Karl Kirchwey, “Once I lived” (Atlantic)

Josephine Livingston, “Weird Fiction is Alive” (New Republic)



Emma Brockes, “Tom Wolfe and the Bonfire of Male Literary Reputations,” (Guardian)

Daniel Kalder, “Tradition and the Individual Tyrant,” (TLS)

Nathalie Olah (in conversation with Brett Easton Ellis), “Brett Easton Ellis and the Future of Fiction,” (TLS)

Sally Rooney, “An Irish Problem,” (LRB)

Giovanni Tiso, “Restoring the Future: On the Closure of Italy’s Asylums,” (Overland)



Michael Moorcock, “The Truth of Ray Bradbury’s Prophetic Vision” (Lithub)

Joseph Vogel, “The Forgotten Baldwin” (Boston Review)

Kate Cronin-Furman, “The Insistence of Memory” (LARB)

Journal of the History of Ideas, vol. 29, no. 2

The Spring 2018 edition of the Journal of the History of Ideas. JHI logo.jpg

When the Eyes Are Shut: The Strange Case of Girolamo Cardano’s Idolum in Somniorum Synesiorum Libri IIII (1562) by Anna Corrias

Pierre Bayle and the Secularization of Conscience by Michael W. Hickson

Volney and the French Revolution by Minchul Kim

“Writers Who Have Rendered Women Objects of Pity”: Mary Wollstonecraft’s Literary Criticism in the Analytical Review and A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Fiore Sireci

Family, Gender, and Progress: Sophie de Grouchy and Her Exclusion in the Publication of Condorcet’s Sketch of Human Progress by Sandrine Bergès

Marx and the Kabbalah: Aaron Shemuel Lieberman’s Materialist Interpretation of Jewish History by Eliyahu Stern

John Robert Seeley, Natural Religion, and the Victorian Conflict between Science and Religion by Ian Hesketh

What we’re reading this week

Picasso, reading at a table

Picasso, Girl Reading at a Table (1934)


Stephanie McCarter, “The Bad Wives: Misogyny’s Age-Old Roots in the Home” (Eidolon)

Sam Haselby, “These should be the end times for patriotism” (aeon)

Eric Posner and Glen Weyl, “How Economists Became Timid” (Chronicle of Higher Education)

Claire Messud, “Wilder and Wilder” (NYRB)

Doreen St. Felix, “The Carnage and Chaos of Childish Gambino’s ‘This if America’” (New Yorker)



Charles Arthur, Scientists discover why fungi have 36,000 sexes (Independent)

Patchen Barss, Meet Your Body’s Death Eaters. From brain to blood to bone, macrophages take out our cellular trash (Nautilus)

S.Lochlann Jain, Cancer butch. (Cultural anthropology)

Miles Klee, Dirty War. The personal frontlines of germ warfare(Lapham’s Quarterly)



Lydia Robert, “Not in Someone Else’s Footsteps” (LARB)

David W. Blight, “The Silent Type” (NYRB)

The First Reviews of Every Toni Morrison Novel” (LitHub)

Rosebud Ben-Oni, “A Future for a Handful of Hours” (Marginalia)

Katherine Harvey, “Iconology of a Cardinal” (Public Domain Review)



Nils Gilman, “Human Rights and Neoliberalism,” (LARB)

Nanor Kebranian, “Genocide Recognition Without Human Rights?” (Humanity J Blog)

David Runciman, “Why Replacing Politicians with Experts is a Reckless Idea,” (Guardian)

Stuart Schrader, “Henri LeFebvre, Mao Zedong and the Global Urban Concept,” (Global Urban History)

Robert Zaretsky, “The Welcoming Labyrinth: What We Gain And Lose As Libraries Change,” (The Chronicle of Higher Education)

What Does it Mean to “Speak”? Postcoloniality, Imperial Exhibitions, and the Martial Arts

By Contributing Editor AJ Hawks

I first started studying taekwondo when I was in high school, partially because of the movies (“Can he really do that?!”) and partially to please my Korean grandmother who had handed me a flier about Korean weaponry that was a tad on the intimidating side. My studio occasionally hosted seminars on a weaponry martial art called Modern Arnis, which I eventually decided to pursue. Serendipitously, Modern Arnis, an indigenous Filipino art, would unexpectedly intersect with my academic study of Muslim minority groups via the Moro Muslims in the Southern Philippines.

The academic study of the history of martial arts is underdeveloped. This is surprising if only because of martial arts’ deep cultural roots in a wide variety of societies around the globe. Here I want to specifically suggest that Modern Arnis offers a unique and critical framework by which to consider postcolonial theory.

“Arnis” refers to a variety of styles of martial arts that deal with the use of two rattan wood sticks called “escrima” as well as a variety of Southeast Asian machetes. It formed as a blend of “systems from all over the world: Thailand, China, Spain, Indonesia, Japan and India [that] reached the islands as the people of the Philippines interacted, traded and fought with these diverse nations” (Horwitz).


When the Spanish occupied the Philippines, they banned the study of these martial arts (then called Kali among other things) with one exception. They allowed fights between Filipino Moros for Spanish entertainment and dressed fighters in ceremonial Spanish armor (the old Spanish word for armor being “Arnes”) (Wiley). Before the Spanish, Arnis was largely practiced by peasants (a divide further underscored by its association with the Muslims of the Philippines).

pilipinas 2

Katipuneros, members of Katipunan, an anti-Spanish revolutionary society in the Philippines

The tradition of stage fights among Moros were continued under American occupation with less emphasis on the “clash of religions”, instead intended to shore up a distinct American vision of the Moros. Indeed, Hawkins has argued persuasively in his work “Making Moros” that the present significance of the term was actually forged under American occupation of the Philippines after the Spanish-American War.

The Americans were committed relatively early to two things: (1) They wanted a unified Filipino government that eventually could manage independence and (2) they wanted to incorporate the highly resistant “Moros” into Western civilization. The American government, like the Spaniards before them, put great effort into suppressing Moro attempts at rebellion- much of which has been glossed over in the popular memory (Gowing, 325). Oddly enough, however, the US also displayed an almost romantic affinity for the rebellious Moros (Hawkins, 125). As such, they put great efforts into romanticizing Moro wildness which they saw as analogous to the untamed West. Americans created exhibitions similar to the exhibitions under the Spanish without the explicitly religious flavor. They were intended to showcase “Moro culture” and in particular their status as “brave and ferocious fighters… Most Filipino Muslims gladly accepted opportunities to reaffirm narratives of Moro gallantry and autonomous ethno-religious identities” (Hawkins, 47). And what was being used for this purpose? Yet again, the martial art broadly described by the term Arnis.

Early on, then, this singular population began to embrace their place in American narratives. They also held highly publicized carnivalesque shows intended to establish a particular narrative about the US-Moro relationship, central to this being the United States’ preeminence and Moro potential. Hawkins spends time discussing at length Moro efforts to “reorient and appropriate discourses and symbols of imperial control” (incidentally, this offers an interesting parallel with Catholics in the North resisting the Spanish) (Hawkins, 71). Thus, long before any particular social movement organization came onto the scene, there were conscious efforts by local leaders to develop a particular narrative about the Moro people and their aims, efforts which continued to include the practice and performance of Arnis.

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Modern Arnis was developed by the now world-famous Grand Master Remy Presas. Presas was trained in a local variety of Arnis by his father Jose Presas. According to his interview with Black Belt Magazine, “Presas refined and blended the important aspects of tjakele, arnis de mano, karatejujitsu and dumog into the art he named modern arnis” (Horwitz). Presas indicated that he wanted to unify these arts to help the “diverse systems of [his] country… feel the connection” (Horwitz). He also explicitly chose the term “arnis” over others such as “kali”, arguing that with other terms, “not many people in the Philippines will know what you are talking about. Arnis best reflects the Philippine culture because it is a Tagalog word” (Horwitz). His efforts in the Philippines were immensely successful, and in 1975 he was sent on a “good-will tour sponsored by [the Filipino] government to spread information about modern arnis techniques around the globe” (Horwitz). Thus, at each of these stages of development in Arnis history, we see an intentionality by practitioners to take advantage of Western interest and preserve their sense of local identity. It’s also worth noting that much of the history of Arnis is recited orally in the martial arts studio. Like other martial arts, the sense of cultural belonging and history is considered an important part of becoming a practitioner and eventually a master.

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As the United States was following the Spanish imperial tradition of hosting Moro cultural demonstrations, something similar was happening on the other side of the world: the French imperial exhibitions. Zeynep Çelik and Leila Kinney offer a probing look at the mechanisms behind the “enactment of the eroticized mystique of the Orient, the belly dance… a myth of Islamic culture” (Celik and Kinney, 286). They argue that the expositions’ planning principles were designed to demonstrate French material superiority and  “enhance supremacy through representation” (Celik and Kinney, 290). Moreover, these displays interacted with French class relations in the press and “elaborated and promoted fantasies about working-class women” (Celik and Kinney, 300). In short, the French constructed exhibitions to create the image of a coherent “orient”, one that underscored French superiority and interacted with the local French cultural context to reinforce class distinctions. In sustaining this imagined oriental other, imperialism was justified.

It seems logical, then, to consider martial arts in a way similar to imperial exhibitions. And yet, the study of these exhibitions has not substantially been connected to the history of martial arts. This is likely tied to the simple facts that many East Asian societies (highly associated with martial arts) did not experience formal colonialism and because orientalism proper has a strong geographical referent (Burke and Prochaska, 42). Nonetheless the general mode of approaching “othering” discourses has been shown by scholars to be helpful in understanding cultural representation in East Asia (Dirlik). And more critically, the Philippines did experience formal colonialism.

Thinking about the history of the Filipino martial arts, and Arnis specifically, in this way suggests two things. First, it situates the Western consumption of martial arts in a broader imperial cultural framework, much like belly dancing. Unlike belly dancing, as already pointed out, many cultural groups that are considered originators of martial arts never experienced colonization to any degree remotely similar to other parts of the world. Thus, it might make more sense to see the cultural imperialism of the martial arts as an incomplete project. Martial arts’ widely known multiplicity of origin sources and broad acceptance in a variety of social and class contexts made it far more resistant to simplified appropriation.

Second, Arnis illustrates a case where the colonized voice broke through. While it is true that the Spanish (and eventually Americans) tried to utilize Arnis in their imperial narratives, it is also true that Filipinos were willing and able to use this platform to protect a substantial portion of indigenous culture under the guise of preparing for exhibitions. Eventually they, knowingly or otherwise, were able to tap into Western exoticism to continue to propagate traditions, oral histories, and a sense of self not directly beholden to imperial narratives.

In the context of critical theory and subaltern studies, Spivak posed a now famous epistemic question:

Let us now move to consider the margins of the circuit marked out by this epistemic violence, men and women among the illiterate peasantry, the tribals, the lowest strata of the urban subproletariat… We must now confront the following question: on the other side of the international division of labor from socialized capital, inside and outside the circuit of the epistemic violence of imperialist law and education supplementing an earlier economic text, can the subaltern speak?

Spivak’s answer was no. But in considering martial arts as a sort of historical knowledge, I wonder if the answer should be a highly qualified “yes” or at least “in part”. While it is true that imperial power used martial arts to their own ends, it is also true that practitioners were able to take advantage of this and preserve at least some of their artistic integrity and frame their historic experience through oral and physical training in a way that is still passed on today. Moreover, many if not most of the practitioners throughout Spanish and American rule in the Philippines were in fact of the “peasantry, the tribals, the lowest strata of the urban subproletariat”. Perhaps ironically, one of the few voices that were protected in this colonial context were the subaltern. Sadly, adequately addressing the history of women in the martial arts will have to wait for another article.

What we’re reading this week

Sundry readings from our editorial team this week:

Kunisada 1823-5

Utagawa Kunisada,
Woman Reading Libretto (1823-5)


Alina Cohen, “The Legendary Bars Where Famous Artists Drank, Debated, and Made Art History” (Artsy)

Lungisile Ntsebeza, “This Land is Our Land” (Foreign Policy)

Ronald Brownstein, “American Higher Education Hits a Dangerous Milestone” (The Atlantic)

Shaun Manning, “The White House Correspondents’ Dinner’s Controversial Jokes… in Action Comics Special #1”(Comic Book Resource)



Minsoo Kang, Catapunk: Toward a Medieval Aesthetic of Science Fiction. (Boydell & Brewer)

Hanna Kokko, Give one species the task to come up with a theory that spans them all: what good can come out of that? (Proceedings of the Royal Society B)

James Alexander Wearn, Seeds of Change — Polemobotany in the Study of War and Culture. (Journal of War and Culture Studies)

Vinciane Despret, What Would Animals Say if We Asked Them the Right Questions? (University of Minnesota Press)



Frieze NY is on. Art fair openings always feel, at least to me, a bit like the first day of school. The air is bubbly. Are you in or are you out? These days, a spate of articles denouncing the art fair heralds the arrival of each art fair. They rehearse a litany of (legitimate) criticisms: The fairs are too big. They are too expensive (according to Jerry Saltz, “A large booth costs $125,000. A gallery can sometimes pay another $15,000 to $18,000 to build out the booth. On-site handling costs can run another $5,000). Only the blue-chip galleries make any money. Of course, most of the critiques revolve around art-as-business. It’s all fun and games until the realization hits: art is made by artists. And artists are flesh-and-blood human beings, not manifestations of cultural capital or the cultural economy or the superstructure, or whatever theoretical construct we find most apt for our argument.

Are you in or are you out? Being on the inside, having access to all that capital and all those connections, can mean the difference between surviving (i.e., paying the bills, eating, having a place to sleep), or not. The mainstream press loves to focus on the artists who command stratospheric prices, but most artists are not superstars and do not travel with retinues of celebrities. A recent NYT article asked if artists with day jobs make better art, as if day jobs somehow complement and elevate the practice of art. Well, let me assure you that most artists do not take day jobs because they believe in complementary practices. Most artists have day jobs because they need them. Day job or not, artists need to get past the gatekeepers in order to get on the inside. And if there’s one thing history has taught me, it’s this–”Don’t trust the gatekeepers.”

Aruna D’Souza’s thoughtful review of “Outliers and American Vanguard Art” (at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.) argues that one of Lynn Cooke’s goals, as the curator of this exhibition, was to “signal another way through the American visual landscape of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries,” by proposing a historical narrative that acknowledges, and incorporates “makers, ideas, and practices that modernism has long resisted, or only accepted begrudgingly: craft processes, regional idioms, traditional “women’s work” such as textile arts and beading, the work of black and Chicano artists long ignored by mainstream art history, the role of religion and spirituality in American visual culture, the artistic value of utilitarian objects, the unironic, artists making installations in their backyards, and so on.” What would such a history of American art look like?

Derrick Adams takes on the precarious status of the outsider from a very different perspective in his exhibition,“Sanctuary” (Museum of Arts and Design). “Sanctuary” grew out of Adams’s meditations on The Green Book, “a series of AAA-like guides for black travelers published from 1936 through 1966 […] Widely used at a time when African-Americans were navigating physical and social mobility through the swamp of Jim Crow laws and attitudes in the mid-20th century, the Green Books, as they came to be known, listed businesses from gas, food and lodging to nightclubs and haberdasheries that welcomed African-Americans when many did not.” Segregation meant that African-American travelers were excluded from a wide range of establishments, and had to be mindful of “sundown towns,”  where African-American travelers were not welcome after dark. The Green Books, Adams noted, “enabled African-Americans to travel like Americans and to feel American,” despite the legal and institutional structures that kept African Americans on the outside, unable to fully inhabit the American Dream.



Stefan Collini, “Diary: Why Have They Done This?” (LRB)

William Davies, “The Windrush Scandal,” (LRB)

Anna Russell, “Sketching the M.T.A. with a Subway Archaeologist,” (New Yorker)

Jacob Hamburger, “Tocqueville, soixante-huitard?” (Tocqueville21)

Peter Hessler, “Cairo: A Type of Love Story,” (New Yorker)



Robert Greene II, “Misremembering 1968” (Religion and Politics)

Errol Morris, “Is there such a thing as truth?” (Boston Review)

David Wallace, “Fred Wallace’s Radical Critique of the Present” (New Yorker)

Marcus Rediker, “The forgotten prophet” (aeon)

The Philosopher’s Pages

By Contributing Writer Flaminia Incecchi

The only existing memorial to the once-famous philosopher Giovanni Gentile is in his native city Castelvetrano, a modest country town in the Sicilian province of Trapani. The memorial was made by a local artist in 2007, and it is entitled ‘Le Pagine del Filosofo’, literally, “The Philosopher’s Pages”. It is located in the small city center, in a tranquil square adorned with emerald green ficus trees, in the vicinity of a school and a museum. The square is traditionally Sicilian: tuff stone buildings of different heights, vibrant green trees trimmed to perfection. The sculpture is impressive, stark, but oddly enough, hidden at the piazza’s edge. It is a stately bronze page engraved with passages from Gentile’s philosophical texts. But a slash runs through the page, thus leaving the reader unable to continue Gentile’s thought. The memorial portrays an interrupted thought, a voice silenced mid-sentence.

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Giovanni Gentile remains to this day one of Italy’s most illustrious, prolific, lucid and problematic thinkers. Born in 1875, Gentile received a prestigious scholarship to study in Italy’s most renowned institution, the Normale, in Pisa. His intellectual career lasted almost 50 years, during which he authored several volumes on the history of Italian philosophy and cultural and political history, translated texts of Immanuel Kant, constructed a highly sophisticated philosophical system called actual idealism, and penned commentaries to several philosophical texts. Gentile’s corpus amounts to almost 60 volumes. It challenges disciplinary boundaries, ranging from philosophy to history, to political articles, to texts on philosophy of education, to commentaries on Ancient Greek philosophers; and essays of the most varied content, from the concept of love, to the meaning of decorative arts, to the aesthetics of cinema, as well as nostalgic papers re-evoking Italy’s Unification period. His philosophical system is an entirely original encounter of an Idealist philosophy stemming out of Hegelianism with Italian philosophical thought. The crux of Gentile’s philosophy is the idea that the human spirit is the creator of all reality, in other words, that there is nothing which is not created by the human subject through thought. This makes the human subject the very center of all there is, conferring it absolute freedom. Gentile’s philosophy is a system, which is to say an apparatus stemming from a metaphysical core and branching out in several directions, such as history, ethics, and aesthetics. The nature of Gentile’s philosophical elaborations is to this day highly original and has much to offer to students and scholars of the humanities. So why does Gentile lie in oblivion?

Despite the profoundly theoretical character of Gentile’s elaborations, Gentile became a strong advocate of Italy’s participation in the First World War, on the grounds that only war was capable of molding the Italians into a nation. Gentile had lamented that despite the spirit of the Risorgimento (the period of Italian unification), the Italians still thought of themselves as citizens of a particular city or province, not of a nation. In his eyes, the propulsive force of the Risorgimento could only be renewed by a conflict, for conflict alone is capable of merging individual interests in a universal will. Gentile welcomed the war, not because he wanted to eradicate a particular enemy, but because only the struggle of war could create an internal friendship between individual Italians, and thus unify a fragmented people.

Gentile’s advocacy for war came to be known to the Fasci, the group headed by Mussolini that would later become the Fascist party. In 1923, Gentile became the Minister of Education for the Fascist Regime. During his tenure, he initiated a complete overhaul of the Italian education system. Schools were completely state-centralized, and education profoundly oriented towards the humanities and the formation of the future ruling classes. Mussolini praised the new school system as “the most Fascist of Reforms”. In 1925, Gentile penned The Manifesto of Fascist Intellectuals, singed by the Italian intelligentsia that pledged allegiance to the Regime and endorsed its credo. In 1929, Gentile ghostwrote the philosophy (or metaphysical backbone, as it is often called) of Fascism, the Origins and Doctrine of Fascism, published under Mussolini’s name. During the Ventennio Fascista, Gentile initiated a number of cultural enterprises geared at the systematization of Italy’s cultural capital, among these, founding the Italian Encyclopaedia, along with several cultural centers.

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Gentile was killed in 1944, aged 68, by a GAP (Gruppo Azione Patriottica) cell. The circumstances of his death are still mysterious.

After the demise of the Fascist Regime, students of philosophy moved beyond the Idealist ‘hegemony’ that had characterized the Italian intellectual panorama for almost fifty years. Intellectuals were keen to explore alternative philosophical avenues and re-join the debates outside the country. As a result of this desire to move beyond the ‘domestic’ intellectual landscape, as well as the intention to embrace a new dawn after fascism, Gentile was largely forgotten. The question for today, is how to remember a philosopher, whose thought might be rigorous, impeccable even, and whose pen was decisive in the writing of Italian history in an unprecedented manner, but whose political actions, allegiances and beliefs, have turned out to be disastrous.

Until a few years ago, the few people who published on Gentile were largely ideological, and their work read more like a denouncement of Gentile’s actions, with the aim of ascertaining whether he was actually a Fascist. These works by and large, tried to establish a continuity between Gentile’s philosophy and the metaphysical backbone of Fascism, in other words, to what extent his philosophy was congruent with Fascism, or Fascism with his philosophy. There were few genuine investigations of his intellectual work. Today there are hints of a germinal interest in Gentile, suggesting that we are moving beyond the epoch of ideologically-driven investigation, and perhaps entering a landscape of unprejudiced intellectual inquiry, but Gentile remains under-read considering his importance.

Moving outside academic circles, there have been a few initiatives sponsored by the Italian government to commemorate the death of the philosopher, particularly that of 1994, which saw the emission of a stamp with Gentile’s portrait. More recently, in 2004, the Senate of the Republic organized a conference on Gentile, involving Italy’s most high-profile experts on his thought.

Gentile’s memorial in Castelvetrano is of great interest because of its unproblematic nature, which is largely determined by its location, the initiators of the remembering, and what the sculpture symbolises. Situated in his birth city, it is a commemoration of the most illustrious citizen of a modest rural town in one of Italy’s most disadvantaged provinces. There is nothing political, partisan, or controversial about it. It is a local memory of a prestigious – if not the most prestigious – local. The monument is free of the problematiques that an institutional statue would comport: it is a local initiative, entirely independent from commissions of the Italian government. Regardless of the sedimentation of the ashes of history, The Philosopher’s Pages has, I believe, a radically different spirit compared to institutional acts of remembering. It is a town, remembering one of their own, within their walls, for the intellectual stature he reached, a stature by all means infrequent. The local flavor, essence, and position of the memorial is what makes it unpolitical and free of polemic. In this sense, even the location within the location is worth noting: the memorial is not situated in the center of the piazza, but on the side, almost hidden or sheltered by the ficus trees. The lack of partisanship and the local aura of the memorial is highlighted by the silence surrounding it: national newspapers have not reported the issue; no commentators or intellectuals have discussed the monument. The absence of discourse exorcises worries related to a reactionary memory of the thinker. The Philosopher’s Pages is a peculiar fusion of memories: the philosophical and the personal.

In this vein, it is important to note that the passages engraved on the statue come only from Gentile’s philosophical works. This suggests that it is only Gentile, as philosopher, that is being remembered. It symbolizes the ruptured life of an intellectual – thus a page that has been ripped – a voice that has been muted. The flavor would, of course, have been quite different had the memorial included passages from other, more controversial works. In addition, the location – Castelvetrano – suggests a memory of a personal nature, the local dimension. Here the Gentile being remembered is also the person, not in the political sense, but in a purely local sense of provenance. Thus, The Philosopher’s Pages presents a serendipitous encounter of local, intimate and personal remembrance, with a testament to the heights of intellectual speculation, that results in an unproblematic and serene memory of a complex figure whose posthumous fate is still undecided.

The case of Gentile is only but a particular manifestation of a more general trait – intellectual life, with all that it comports, does not extinguish itself with death, but rather, takes unpredictable turns and follows new plots, just like an ever-evolving fractal in the memory of the living.

Flaminia Incecchi is a PhD candidate in International Relations at the University of St
Andrews. She is working under the supervision of Gabriella Slomp and Vassilios Paipais on a dissertation entitled “The Aesthetics of War in the Thought of Giovanni Gentile and Carl Schmitt”. Her research aims at shedding light on the controversial figure of Gentile, and aims at establishing a conversation between Gentile and Schmitt. In doing so, she relies on several disciplines: history of ideas, aesthetics, political thought, and philosophy. She can be reached at: fi7@st-andrews.ac.uk.