44 Adaner Usmani: Racism as idea, Racism as power relation (EF, JP)

racism, mass incarceration, Southern plantation economy, and W.E.B. Du Bois

Do we understand racism as the primary driving engine of American inequality? Or do we focus instead on the indirect ways that frequently hard-to-discern class inequality and inegalitarian power relations can produce racially differentiated outcomes? Adaner Usmani, Assistant Professor of Sociology and Social Studies at Harvard and on the editorial board at Catalyst joins Elizabeth and John to wrestle with the subtle and complex genealogy of Southern plantation economy and its racist legacy.

Adaner offers a complex genealogy of violence, mass incarceration and their roots in the social inequity (and iniquity) of antebellum economic relations. He emphasizes a frequently overlooked fact that a century ago Du Bois had already identified a key issue: the belatedness of African-American access to the social mobility offered by the North’s industrialization, thanks to structures of a racist Southern agricultural economy that kept African-American workers away from those high-wage jobs. The result? An explanation for racial injustice that hinges on ossified class imbalances–contingent advantages for certain groups that end up producing (rather than being produced by) bigotry and prejudice.

Adaner Usmani and John Clegg, “The Economic Origins of Mass Incarceration” (Catalyst 3:3, 2019)

Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2010)

Robin Einhorn, American Taxation, American Slavery (2006)

Richard Rothstein, The Color of Law (2017)

Kenneth Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier (1987)

Barbara and Karen Fields, Racecraft (2014) makes the point that racism is the kind of thing that social scientists should try to explain rather than invoke as explanation.

Ira Katznelson et. al., Southern Nation (2018; the story of the Southern plantation elite’s successful effort to smother American economic development)

Bayard Rustin’s Time on Two Crosses, where Rustin asks how you build a civil-rights movement that is more than just symbolic in a country where white racism is an enormous obstacle.

Listen and Read Here:


43 Sanjay Krishnan on V. S. Naipaul: To make the Deformation the Formation (JP)

“My subject was not my inward self, but…the worlds within me.”

Sanjay Krishnan, Boston University English professor and Conrad scholar, has written a marvelous new book about that grumpiest of Nobel laureates, V. S Naipaul’s Journeys. Krishnan sees the “Contrarian and unsentimental” Trinidad-born but globe-trotting novelist and essayist as early and brilliant at noticing the unevenness with which the blessings and curses of modernity were distributed in the era of decolonization. Centrally, Naipaul realized and reckoned with the always complex and messy question of the minority within postcolonial societies.

He talks with John about Naipaul’s early focus on postcolonial governments, and how unusual it was in the late 1950’s for colonial intellectuals to focus on “the discomfiting aspects of postcolonial life….and uneven consequences of the global transition into modernity.” Most generatively of all, Sanjay insists that the “troublesome aspect is what gives rise to what’s most positive in Naipaul.”

Photo of Sanjay Krishnan by Cydney Scott for Boston University Photography
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42 Recall This Buck 2: Peter Brown on wealth, charity and managerial bishops in early Christianity (JP)

Our Recall This Buck series began by speaking with Christine Desan of Harvard Law School about how key ideas—and the actual currency, physical coins and bills— underlying the modern monetary system get “invisibilized” with that system’s success, so that seeing money clearly is both harder and more vital. Today, illustrious Princeton historian Peter Brown narrates the emergence, in the 3rd and 4th century AD, of striking new ideas about charity and how to include the poor inside a religious community.

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41 RTB Books in Dark Times 13: Lorraine Daston, Historian of Science (JP)

In this final episode of Books in Dark Times, John chews the bibliographic fat with Lorraine Daston of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin. Her list of publications outstrips our capacity to mention here; John particularly admires her analysis of “epistemic virtues” such as truth to nature and objectivity in her 2007 Objectivity (coauthored with Peter Galison).

Although she “came of age in an era of extreme contextualism” Daston is anything but time-bound. She starts things off in John’s wheelhouse with Henry James, before moving on to Pliny the Younger–no, not the scientist, the administrator! Then she makes a startling flanking maneuver to finish with contemporary Polish poetry. John puffs to keep up…

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40 Global Policing: Hayal Akarsu on Turkish Community Policing (EF, JP)

The Black Lives Matter movement and the policing-related deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and others have struck a nerve worldwide. Our “Global Policing”series aims to capture the protests over systemic racism and policing in their various national forms.

Picture taken from journalist Zeynep Kuray’s Twitter account.

In Turkey, for example, a June 19 article in the English edition of DuvaR. news magazine reported that

Footage of the detentions of five individuals detained at pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party’s (HDP) press conference in Istanbul reveal shouts from the civilians begging the police to stop pressing on their backs and telling them that their chest hurts…reminiscent of the recent police killing of black Minneapolis resident George Floyd, remembered with his words “I can’t breathe!

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39 RTB Books in Dark Times 12: Carlo Rotella (JP)

Carlo Rotella of Boston College is author of six books, among them the amazing Good With Their Hands: Boxers, Bluesmen, and Other Characters from the Rust Belt (University of California Press, 2002) and most recently The World Is Always Coming to an End:  Pulling Together and Apart in a Chicago Neighborhood (University of Chicago Press, 2019). What is he reading in the darkness? He starts by praising sagas, makes a case for stories of disagreeableness and plugs a remarkable book about preaching, deception, and the urge to belong.

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38 Beth Blum on Self-Help from Carnegie to today (JP)

Beth Blum, Assistant Professor of English at Harvard, is the author of The Self-Help Compulsion (Columbia University Press 2019). Learn how self-help went from its Victorian roots (worship greatness!) to the ingratiating unctuous style prescribed by the other-directed Dale Carnegie (everyone loves the sound of their own name) before arriving at the “neo-stoical” self-help gurus of today, who preach male and female versions of “stop apologizing!” You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll either help yourself or learn how to stop caring.

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37 RTB Books In Dark Times 11: Elizabeth Bradfield (JP)

Elizabeth Bradfied is editor of Broadsided Press, professor of creative writing at Brandeis, naturalist, photographer–and most of all an amazing poet (“Touchy” for example just appeared in The Atlantic). Her books include Interpretive Work, Approaching Ice, Once Removed, and Toward Antarctica. She lives on Cape Cod, travels north every summer to guide people into Arctic climes, birdwatches. She is in and of and for our whole natural world.

So, is it poetry sustaining her now? Or does she (she does!) have other sources of inspiration?

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36 Policing and White Power: (EF, JP) Global Policing Series

Black lives matter. Yet for decades or centuries in America that basic truth has been ignored, denied, violently suppressed. Many of the mechanisms that create an oppressed and subordinated American community of color can seem subtle and indirect, despite the insidious ways they pervade housing law (The Color of Law), education (Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together, Savage Inequalities) and the carceral state (The Condemnation of Blackness, The New Jim Crow, Locking Up Our Own).

Although there is plenty of subtle racism in policing as well, there can be a brutally frontal quality to white-power policing: just look at the racial disparity in the stubbornly astronomically number of fatal shootings by police.

In this episode, we join other public discussions (including Brandeis University’s America’s Racial Reckoning: Black Lives and Black Futures in Historical, Political and Legal Context and Democracy Now’s interview with Angela Davis on abolition) of police brutality, systemic and personal racism and Black Lives Matter. We are lucky to be joined by Daniel Kryder and David Cunningham, two scholars who have worked on these questions for decades.

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35 RTB Books In Dark Times 10: Martin Puchner

RTB listeners already know the inimitable Martin Puchner from that fabulous RTB episode about his “deep history” of literature and literacy, The Written World. You may even know he has a family memoir coming out soon, The Language of Thieves.

But it took Books in Dark Times to uncover his secret hankering for tales of the British aristocracy, and for off-kilter modernist texts.

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34 The Caribbean and vectors of warfare: Vincent Brown (EF, JP)

Simon’s March, September 1760, “Slave Revolt in Jamaica, 1760-1761
A Cartographic Narrative”

The largest slave uprising in the 18th century British Caribbean was also a node of the global conflict called the Seven Year’s War, though it isn’t usually thought of that way. In the first few days of the quarantine and our current geopolitical and epidemiological shitshow, John and Elizabeth spoke with Vincent Brown, who recently published Tacky’s Revolt: The Story of an Atlantic Slave War (Belknap, 2019), centered on a group of enslaved West Africans, known under the term “Coromantees” who were the chief protagonists in this war.

Tracing the vectors of this war within the Caribbean, the North Atlantic, and West Africa, Vince shows us how these particular enslaved Africans, who are caught in the gears of one of human history’s most dehumanizing institutions, constrained by repressive institutions, social-inscribed categories of differences and brutal force, operate tactically within and across space in complex and cosmopolitan ways.

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33 RTB Books in Dark Times 9: Ben Fountain (JP)

Ben Fountain is far more than just the author of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, which won RTB hearts and minds (and the National Book Award) long before it became a weird Ang Lee movie.

What is consoling and engaging the author of the best novel about America’s dismal experience in Iraq? American novels, especially those about Americans abroad (Joan Didion. say) have always done something special for him. Marilynne Robinson’s and James Baldwin’s work make us confront the reality that’s happening around us all the time, “a freaking massacre.” He carried the the (fictional but genuine) facts of Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk in his head for forty years.

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32 RTB Books in Dark Times 8: Paul Saint-Amour (JP 5/20)

Who better to talk about Dark Times than the author of an unforgettable scholarly book about the grimness of the interwar years, Tense Future? Paul Saint-Amour, Professor of English at University of Pennsylvania and author of various prizewinning books and brilliant articles, joins John to talk about realism, escapism and the glories of science fiction.

Paul wonders if immersive reading is even possible during this terrible imminence. Can we really gaze at the dental work of the pandemical lion as its jaws open upon us? He goes on to praise “recursive” plots as glimpsed in time-travel narratives, which produce not interactivity with a text, but interpassivity; the immersion into a form that has its ending always waiting for readers from their very beginning. Throughout he manages to be pessimistic but hopeful.

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Pandemic in the Pacific: Kurt Vonnegut’s COVID novel

Just about every adult human being back then had a brain weighing about three kilograms! There was no end to the evil schemes that a thought machine that oversized couldn’t imagine and execute. … This was a very innocent planet, except for those great big brains.

There is a volcanic archipelago in the Pacific that Polynesian settlers on their canoes never reached. In 1854, Herman Melville saw “The Encantadas” through a dark lens, darkly:

Take five-and-twenty heaps of cinders dumped here and there in an outside city lot, imagine some of them magnified into mountains, and the vacant lot the sea, and you will have a fit idea of the general aspect of the Encantadas, or Enchanted Isles. A group rather of extinct volcanoes than of isles, looking much as the world at large might after a penal conflagration. It is to be doubted whether any spot on earth can, in desolateness, furnish a parallel to this group.

Darwin, though,  saw the Galapagos islands quite differently when he arrived in September of 1835 He may not have wasted much time praising the landscape in the ways he praised the mind-bending sublimity of Patagonian steppes. But in The Voyage of the Beagle includes this teaser about those soon-to-be-famous Galapagos finches:

Seeing this gradation and diversity of structure in one small, intimately related group of birds, one might really fancy that from an original paucity of birds in this archipelago, one species had been taken and modified for different ends.

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31 RTB Books in Dark Times 7: Vanessa Smith (JP)

U. Sydney professor Vanessa Smith–author of Intimate Strangers, and also of this lovely short piece about Marion Milner–joins John to discuss her pandemic reading. She praises a Milner (quasi)travel book, but she also makes the case for M F K Fisher and a book about the glories of hypochondria.

Tasmanian selfie: John, Vanessa, mysterious mathematician (r to l)

Then the old friends share their newfound love for spiky Australian novelist Helen Garner, doyenne of share-house feminism.

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30 In Focus: Nir Eyal on (the deontology of) “challenge testing” a Covid vaccine

On April 27, David D. Kirkpatrick reported in the N. Y. Times that Oxford’s Jenner Center is close to starting human trials on a potential Covid-19 vaccine. According to Kirkpatrick, “ethics rules, as a general principle, forbid seeking to infect human test participants with a serious disease. That means the only way to prove that a vaccine works is to inoculate people in a place where the virus spreading naturally around them.”

It ain’t necessarily so, says Nir Eyal, Henry Rutgers Professor of Ethics and Director of  Center for Population-Level Bioethics, Rutgers University.

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29 RTB Books in Dark Times 6: Kim Stanley Robinson (JP)

Kim Stanley Robinson, SF novelist of renown, has three marvelous trilogies: The Three Californias, Science in the Capital and, most celebrated of all, Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars. His honors include many Locus, Hugo and Nebulae awards. Small fact connecting him to RTB-land: he completed a literature PhD directed by Frederic Jameson with a dissertation-turned-book on the  novels of Phillip K. Dick.

Stan and John start out with Stan’s emerging from the Grand Canyon in late March. Then they discuss Stan’s sense that SF is the realism of the day and his take on “cognitive estrangement.” Finally, they happen upon a shared admiration for the great epic SF poet, Frederick Turner.

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28 RTB Books in Dark Times 5: Seeta Chaganti (JP)

Seeta Chaganti, medievalist extraordinaire (Strange Footing and The Medieval Poetics of the Reliquary) joins John to discuss–wait for it–data visualization in the work of W. E. B. Du Bois, philosopher, visionary and scholar. They go on to discuss past traditions that merge text and image in ways that foreshadow modern visualization practices, and close with beloved books that take readers “back of the tapestry” to reveal what everyday front-of-tapestry life keeps decorously hidden.

Seeta teaches at UC Davis (as a bantam owner, John has chicken envy)
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A Book in Dark Times: Albert Camus, “The Plague”

I recognize that hearkening back to Albert Camus in our own post-existentialist moment is controversial. Heck, calling him controversial may even itself be controversial. He’s long struck many as a soft-left deviant in the Sartre circle, nether rigorous nor theoretical enough to pass muster in the long run.

I do love a motorcycle-riding Gauloise puffer, but I’m no dyed-in-the-wool acolyte. Still, I always admired Camus’ evident belief (reminiscent of Kierkegaard) that the best thing writing can do is hint at the complex, ambivalent, ultimately irreproducible ways the actuality of events shapes how individuals experience the world.

His fiction gets at what it means for people to adjust themselves, slowly to adjust themselves, to a new reality. Like, say, a plague that forces everyone slowly to acknowledge they are not going anywhere. Under those circumstances, Camus, hypothesizes, the imprisoned population becomes a collection of invalids: unable to act, unable to escape and barely able to do the only thing they can, which is to bear their present misery until it subsides.

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27 RTB Books in Dark Times 4: David and John Plotz

Aside from being John’s (younger, brighter, handsomer–and definitely hirsuter) brother, what has the inimitable David Plotz done lately? Only hosted “The Slate Political Gabfest“, written two books (“The Genius Factory” and “The Good Book“) and run the amazing travel website, Atlas Obscura.

panda bad, horse good: David Plotz feeds a new friend

So, what is he reading? The fully absorbing “other worlds” of Dickens and Mark Twain tempt David, but he goes another direction. He picks one book that shows humanity at its worst, heading towards world war. And another that shows how well we can behave towards one another (and even how happy we can be…) at “moments of super liquidity” when everything melts and can be rebuilt. He also guiltily admits a yen for Austen, Rowling, and Pullman–and gratuitously disses LOTR. John and David bond about their love for lonnnnnnng-form cultural history in tSo, what is he reading?he mold of Common Ground. Finally the brothers enthuse over their favorite book about Gettysburg, and reveal an embarrassing reenactment of the charge down Little Round Top.

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