Kim Adams and Saronik Bosu share an office at the English department of NYU–and now they also share High Theory a podcast where you can “get high on the substance of theory.” Their lovable podcast always identifies a single manageable topic and asks three magic questions (what is your quest? is not one of them). Today that topic is “the pastoral”; in a role reversal, John asks the three questions of Saronik and Kim.
Topics covered include the joys of sharing an office, and the irony that podcasts mimic the very social face-to-face intimacy that they actually displace. John admits RtB’s informal motto, “After the conference, the bar” is blatantly cribbed from the cry of the Paris ’68ers: sous les pave, la plage (under the pavement, the beach).
Why did we invite him? John thinks nobody is better than Piketty at mapping and explaining the nature and origin of the glaring and growing inequality that everywhere defines wealth distribution in the 21st century—both between societies and within them. His recent magnum opus, Capital and Ideology. ask what sorts of stories societies (and individuals within those societies) tell themselves so as to tolerate such inequality—and the poverty and misery it produces. Or even to see that inequality as part of the natural order of things.
We first heard from the sociologist of American racism David Cunningham in Episode 36 Policing and White Power. Less than a week after the horrors of January 6th, he came back for an extended conversation about “asymmetrical policing” of the political right and left–and of White and Black Americans. His very first book (There’s Something Happening Here, 2004) studied the contrast between the FBI’s work in the 1960’s to wipe out left-wing and Black protests and its efforts to control and tame right-wing and white supremacist movements. That gives him a valuable perspective on the run-up to January 6th–and what may happen next.
What’s a picture worth? How about the picture that allows scientists to grasp what’s actually going on in a cell–or on the spiky outside of an invading virus? Gael McGill, Director of Molecular Visualization at the Center for Molecular and Cellular Dynamics at Harvard Medical School is founder and CEO of Digizyme and has spent his career exploring and developing different modes for visualizing evidence.
For this scientific conversation, John is joined once again by Brandeis neuroscientist Gina Turrigiano (think ep 4 Madeline Miller; think ep 2 Addiction!). And because Gael’s work proves that a picture can be worth far more than a thousand words, our RTB post is more picturesque than usual. Start by checking out Digizyme‘s image of the spike protein attaching the SARS-CoV2 virus to a hapless cell and fusing their membranes:
Or maybe you’d rather click through to watch a gorgeous video Gael and his team have created?
What do children love most about books? Leaving their mark on inviting white spaces? Or that enchanting feeling when a book marks them as its own, taking them off to where the wild things are? To understand childhood reading past and present, Elizabeth and John talk with the illustrious and illuminating book historian Leah Price. They explore the tactile and textual properties of great children’s books and debate adult fondness for juvenile literature. Leah asks if identifying with a literary character is a sign of virtuous imagination, or of craziness and laziness. She also schools John on what makes a good association copy, and reveals her son’s magic words when he wants her to tell a story: Read it!
Sometime around the turn of the millennium, the concern about distinguishing between juvenile and adult books seemed to shift from moral panic about speeding up sexual maturity to worry about turning back the clock on what we now call adulting through the mainstreaming of young adult literature.
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.
“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.”
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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 theEncantadas, 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.
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.
Then the old friends share their newfound love for spiky Australian novelist Helen Garner, doyenne of share-house feminism.
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.
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.