What books gives you comfort and joy in these times, and why? If what we do at the darkest moments is a glimpse of our inner nature, what we read then tells us just as much.
My own thoughts nowadays turn–surprise, surprise–to Hannah Arendt. She has this to say in her unforgettable 1968 book, Men in Dark Times:
“That even in the darkest of times we have the right to expect some illumination, and that such illumination may well come less from theories and concepts than from the uncertain, flickering, and often weak light that some men and women, in their lives and their works, will kindle under almost all circumstances and shed over the time span that was given them on earth–this conviction is the inarticulate background against which these profiles were drawn. Eyes so used to darkness as ours will hardly be able to tell whether their light was the light of a candle or that of a blazing sun. But such objective evaluation seems to me a matter of secondary importance which can be safely left to posterity.”
This is the first of several RTB episodes about the history of money. We are ranging from the earliest forms of labor IOUs to the modern world of bitcoin and electronically distributed value. Our idea is that forms matter, and matter in ways that those who profit from those forms often strive to keep hidden. Today, we begin by focusing on the rise of capitalism, the Bank of England, and how an explosion of liquidity changed everything.
We are lucky to do so with Christine Desan of Harvard Law School, who recently published Making Money: Coin, Currency, and the Coming of Capitalism (Oxford University Press, 2014). She is also managing editor of JustMoney.org, a website that explores money as a critical site of governance. Desan’s research explores money as a legal and political project. Her approach opens economic orthodoxy to question by widening the focus on money as an instrument, to examine the institutions and agreements through which resources are mobilized and tracked, by means of money. In doing so, she shows that particular forms of money, and the markets within which they circulate, are neither natural or inevitable.
Ajantha Subramanian‘s new book The Caste of Merit: Engineering Education in India is much more than simply an historical and ethnographic study of the elite Indian Institutes of Technology. John and Elizabeth speak with Ajantha about the language of “merit” and the ways in which it can conceal the continuing relevance of caste (and class, and race) privilege–in India, yes, but also in American and other meritocratic democracies as well.
Our wide-ranging discussion explored how inequality gets reproduced, passed on and justified. We talked about some of the ways caste–often framed as a fundamentally “Eastern” form of difference–not only seems to have a lot in common with race, but also shares a history through colonial, plantation-based capitalism. This may explain some of the ways “merit” has also made race (and class) disparities invisible in the United States. This topic surfaced during our discussion of the ways in which dominant groups excoriate the “identity politics” of those seeking greater access to privileged domains, and claim their own independence from “ascriptive” identities while silently relying on the privilege and other hidden advantages of particular racial or caste-based forms of belonging.
Not long after Maurizio Cattelan taped a banana to the wall, John and Elizabeth met with Silvia Bottinelli from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts to talk about food as art and art as food. Silvia is a Modern and Contemporary Art historian in the Visual and Material Studies Department at SMFA and her interests range from post-war Italian art to representations of the domestic and the uses of lead in art. We met to discuss the volume The Taste of Art: Cooking, Food and Counterculture in Contemporary Practices which she co-edited with Margherita d’Ayala Valva. The volume is a (forgive me) veritable buffet of delicate savories and sweetmeats and our conversation was similarly rich and far-reaching.
In our aesthetic and culinary wanderings, we talked about Dutch Vanitas Painting, apples
John sits down with Columbia University professor Sharon Marcus to discuss her latest book, The Drama of Celebrity, a tour-de-force argument about how stars are born, publicized, and in time devoutly scrapbooked by adoring fans.
They tackle a question at least as old as Sarah Bernhardt: who or what makes a star? Rather than crediting star making to the culture industry, to fans, or to star themselves, Sharon makes the case that all three forces together constitute a celebrity creation machine.
After discussing her archival work on theatrical scrapbooking in Indiana, Sharon pulls from the vaults a marvelous Hollywood memoir, Brooke Haywood’s Haywired. That triggers discussion of the studio system and how its models of celebrity are and are not with us today.
In this episode John and Elizabeth sit down with Brandeis string theorist Albion Lawrence to discuss cooperation versus solitary study across disciplines. They sink their teeth into the question, “Why do scientists seem to do collaboration and teamwork better than other kinds of scholars and academics?”
The conversation ranges from the merits of collective biography to the influence of place and geographic location in scientific collaboration to mountaineering traditions in the sciences. As a Recallable Book, Elizabeth champions The People of Puerto Rico, an experiment in ethnography of a nation (in this case under colonial rule) from 1956, including a chapter by Robert Manners, founding chair of the Brandeis Department of Anthropology. Albion sings the praises of a collective biography of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, A Message to Our Folks. But John stays true to his Victorianist roots by praising the contrasting images of the withered humanist Casaubon and the dashing young scientist Lydgate in George Eliot’s own take on collective biography, Middlemarch.
John travelled to Odense, Denmark for a conference called “Love Etc.” (RTB is for it…) and fell into this conversation about empathy, identification and “uncritical reading” with the novelist Namwali Serpell and literary theorist Rita Felski. Hannah Arendt’s distrust of too much feeling, not enough thinking loomed large; so did Zadie Smith’s recent article in defense of empathy. The room was unexpectedly resonant–but so were Serpell and Felski’s insights.
The British filmmaker Mike Leigh puts the move into movies: he never stops changing, never stops inventing. In nearly 50 years of filmmaking, he has ranged from comic portrayals of ordinary life amid the social breakdowns of Thatcher’s Britain (Life is Sweet, High Hopes) to gritty renditions of working-class constraint and bourgeois hypocrisy (Meantime, Abigail’s Party, Hard Labour) to period films that reveal the “profoundly trivial” elements of artistic life even two centuries in the past (Topsy-Turvy, Mr. Turner).
Leigh (did you guess he was our Mystery Guest from the grainy photo we posted last week?) contains multitudes. What Roland Barthes says about the novels of Marcel Proust is true of Mike Leigh films as well: you notice different things every time you return to them.
When he sat down with John in Columbus, Ohio (at a Victorianist convention, no less!) they were united by love for a hometown boy made good: James Thurber. The conversation ranged from recording working-class voices in the 19th century to Method acting to the pointlessness of fetishizing closeups to the movies John had never seen and should have–and that’s only the first twenty minutes. It cries out for footnotes, but maybe the best result of all this talk would be simply your decision to go off and see a couple of (or four, or five, or like John seven) Mike Leigh films you’d never seen before. You won’t be sorry.
Zadie Smith touched down at Brandeis because Swing Time was this year’s New Student Book Forum selection. It made for a busy day: on top of the podcast, she spoke to faculty and undergraduates at two different events. So, lots of material to discuss.
In this episode, John interviews the celebrated British writer Zadie Smith. Zadie’s horror at the idea of rereading her own novels opens the show; she can more easily imagine rewriting one (as John’s beloved Willa Cather once did) than having to go through them all again. From there the conversation quickly moves through Brexit (oh, the inhumanity!) and what it means to be a London–no, a Northwest London–writer before arriving at her case against identity politics. That case is bolstered by a discussion of Hannah Arendt on the difference between who and what a person is. As Zadie puts it, “When you say my people, you can[‘t] know for certain who those people are by looking at them and by hearing what they have to say. I think what fiction as a kind of philosophy always assumed is that what people make manifest is not all that people are. There’s a great part of human selves which are hidden, unknown to the self, obscure, and that’s the part that fiction is interested in.”
The RTB crew were busy over the summer. Like an iceberg (although not quite as cool….maybe more like a duck) most of what we do lurks beneath the surface, invisible and inaudible. Getting Cixin Liu’s words out there in both Chinese and English was fun, but it was also daunting; ditto our presentation of The Electro-Library.
In May, John and Pu interviewed SF superstar Cixin Liu (you will want to listen to that episode before this one). In August they entered the studio again to work on the final edits for that interview in both its Chinese and English versions. While they were there, they took some time to reflect on the most significant things that Liu had said, and to ponder the political situation for contemporary Chinese writers who come to the West to discuss their work.
John and Elizabeth talk cultural renewal with Christina Thompson, author of Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia, a book that both tells a part of the history of Polynesia, and tells how histories of Polynesia are constructed.
The discussion also ranges to consider different moments of cultural contact between Polynesian and European thinkers and doers. Those range from the chart Tupaia drew for Captain Cook during the “first contact” era (above) to the Hokule’a‘s triumphant reconstuction of ancient Polynesian wayfinding, in which the work of David Lewis, Brian Finney and the Bishop Planetarium (below) served as invaluable background to the navigational achievements of Mau Pialug and Nainoa Thompson.
In this warm summer episode, Elizabeth and John present a marvelous podcast, The Electro-Library, and they speak with one of its hosts and founders, Jared Green.
Elizabeth, Jared and John play snippets from a recent Electro-Library episode on the decidedly non-podcasty topic of photographs, and use it as a springboard to discuss the different aesthetic experiences of radio, television, film, reading, audiobooks, and podcasts. Which are the easiest and which the hardest artworks to get lost in? Would Frankenstein’s monster be more popular as a podcaster than as a YouTuber? (The answer to that one seems most likely to be yes). Continue reading “12 RTB Presents “The Electro–Library” (with Jared Green)”
What’s the relationship between immigration, globalization and demographics? What do a badly characterized, racist novel and an imaginatively metaphoric biology article from the 1970s have to do with that? And what is woke particularism? John and Elizabeth find out all of that and more in this discussion with Quinn Slobodian, professor of history at Wellesley College and author, most recently, of Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism.
They first discuss Jean Raspail‘s racist 1973 novel The Camp of the Saints, a book whose popularity in certain quarters since its publication might explain how Europe has gone from Thatcher to Brexit, from Vaclav Havel to Viktor Orban. How is this xenophobic screed related to science fiction of the same period–and to John Locke? Pat Buchanan, American early adapter of Raspail’s hate-mongering, figures prominently. Continue reading “11 Xenophobia and Ethno-Nationalism, 1973 to today (Quinn Slobodian)”
Bonus! Available only on our website, Episode 10X includes a brief RTB discussion about Exit Zero, a stunning “auto-ethnography” that raises fascinating questions about what it means when people retell stories or anecdotes about their own lives as a form of evidence that helps explain their overall worldview.
Update: For more on autofiction, check out this essay on Ben Lerner by William Egginton from our partners at Public Books.
How does the past live on within our experience of the present? And how does our decision to speak about or write down our recollections of how things were change our understanding of those memories–how does it change us in the present? Asking those questions brings RTB into the company of memory-obsessed writers like Virginia Woolf and Marcel Proust. But it also takes up into the modern phenomenon of “autofiction,” a term which, if you’ve never heard of before today, you’re in good company! But by discussing autofiction writers like Rachel Cusk, Sheila Heti and Karl Ove Knausgaard, we begin to understand that the line between real-life fact, memory, and fiction is not quite as sharp as we had thought. Continue reading “10 Life, Writing, and Life Writing with Helena DeBres”
Helena DeBres had so many brilliant insights about the ethics and the future of life writing that the final third of our discussion overflowed the bounds of our ordinary format. So we present that final conversation to you here as a bonus episode–well, episodelette.
Elizabeth, John and Helena here discuss Christine J. Walley’s “autoethnography” Exit Zero: Family and Class in Postindustrial Chicago. They talk about the relation of an autoethnography to life writing a la Woolf or Cusk, the capacity of stories to both empower and to constrain, the semiological differences between Marxist philosophers and ministers, and when and how to use scare quotes. Continue reading “10x Bonus! “Exit Zero” and Life Writing”