Another Perspective on Non-Human Minds

While listening to Peter Godfrey-Smith discuss octopuses on this month’s Recall This Book podcast, I thought of my time with orphaned chimpanzees in Cameroon from 2013 to 2019. For Other Minds, Godfrey-Smith went in search of encounters with nonhuman minds that were “as different as…we can find on Earth” and landed on cephalopods. In my anthropological research, I have been focused on encounters with nonhumans that are shockingly similar to us—chimpanzees.

My work in primate sanctuaries in Cameroon explores interspecies care and what happens when humans try to help orphaned chimps become chimps. In a 2018 post for Sapiens, reposted below, I wrote about how our overwhelming similarities make it difficult for humans to know how to care for chimpanzees. As I reread my essay, I ask myself if there is anything to be gained by thinking of chimps as aliens. By likening octopuses to intelligent aliens, Peter Godfrey-Smith gave readers an opening to the magnitude of interspecies difference that lay between us. He brought octopuses, in all their difference, closer. Could I use the same idea to hold chimps and humans apart? Would thinking of chimps as aliens have helped me see more of our interspecies difference? What might doing so show us about them and their lives?

At a sanctuary in Cameroon, caregiver Henriette holds Gnala, a 2-year-old chimpanzee who had previously lived in a human household as a pet. Amy Hanes/Sanaga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue

For Chimps, Human Touch Can Hurt

By Amy Hanes

The bruise on my bicep was starting to purple. Small, teeth-shaped scabs crusted over its center. While typing field notes, I stopped midsentence to poke the bruise and see if it still hurt. It did.

Being bitten was not what I expected when I traveled to Cameroon in 2015 for 18 months of dissertation research. During my fieldwork in chimpanzee sanctuaries, I would be bitten—multiple times—by Gnala. At a year old, Gnala (pronounced “Nya-la”) was the youngest chimp at the Sanaga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue (SYCR) when I arrived there.

While preparing to leave the U.S. for Cameroon, I helped name Gnala. The sanctuary had asked their Facebook followers to suggest names for a newly rescued chimp. She was tiny. Big ears framed a light-brown face, and her wide, honey-colored eyes made her seem perpetually surprised. I suggested Gnala, which means “sweetheart” in Zarma, a language I spoke while serving in the Peace Corps in Niger 10 years earlier. Gnala’s name soon became a running joke. Her biting, pinching, and hair pulling earned her the nickname “Little Devil.”

The SYCR, like more than a dozen other accredited primate sanctuaries in Africa, provides lifelong care for chimpanzees orphaned by the illegal pet, zoo, entertainment, and bushmeat trades. Orphaned chimpanzees that have been beaten by humans, isolated for long periods of time, or stuffed into boxes for transport and sale arrive at the sanctuary visibly terrified. Some scream or bang their heads against things, while others bite the caregivers who try to comfort them.

Gnala was different. By her second day, she enthusiastically sought human touch. Gnala solicited tickling like other chimps: presenting her back to the tickler, scrunching her shoulders up to her ears, and raising her hands as if to shield her neck from the almost unbearable pleasure of it all. When caregivers used chimpanzee gestures to signal the end of playtime, Gnala charged in for more, laughing, biting, and scratching with abandon.

Gnala, shown here at 14 months, has already learned behaviors from humans. For example, in this photo, she’s wiping excrement from her foot after a misstep. Amy Hanes/Sanaga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue

In recent years, wildlife sanctuaries, conservation organizations, and animal rights groups have told the public to stop touching chimpanzees and other wild animals. National Geographic, PETA, and even Instagram draw explicit links between human touch and harm. They discourage wildlife enthusiasts from visiting “fake sanctuaries” that let tourists play with wild animals. Sanctuary accreditation organizations, such as the Pan African Sanctuary Alliance (PASA), can refuse to accredit facilities that allow visitors to touch primates. They say that visitor illness, easily communicated through touch, can kill a young chimpanzee. Moreover, this touch—even if it is playful—can harm chimps and other wild animals by igniting a desire for human interaction.

These organizations are trying to educate a public that seems largely unaware of the link between playful touch and harm. Somewhere between 3.6 and 6 million tourists visit wildlife tourist attractions (WTA) annually. In a 2015 study, zoologists at the University of Oxford analyzed visitor feedback on WTAs on the online review forum TripAdvisor. Around 80 percent of reviewers failed to identify problematic practices as harmful; many comments praised organizations that offer close encounters with wildlife. For a little money, tourists can snuggle a sloth, swim with a baby tiger, or even tickle a rambunctious little chimp.

How does any of this do harm? Gnala arrived at the SYCR wanting human touch. Would playing with (healthy) visitors really hurt her?

In my work, I found that our touch presents a conundrum when it comes to chimpanzees. Sanctuary staff must touch Gnala to help her. She needs frequent, reassuring contact to support her development. In this sense, human touch can help. But human touch outside of a real sanctuary—even if that touch is sweet—harms, and that harm cuts deep. It can spark a series of events that irrevocably change a wild animal and may even threaten her life.

When Gnala was just weeks old, a wealthy Cameroonian businessman bought her from a poacher. He gave her to his children as a pet. The man’s brother knew keeping a chimp was illegal in Cameroon, and he reported the situation to the sanctuary. When SYCR staff told Gnala’s owner he had to surrender her, he pleaded his case. His children loved Gnala. She had the run of the house, climbing on the couch and eating human food. She was a part of their family, he said. Nonetheless, authorities confiscated Gnala, and she became the 71st chimpanzee at the SYCR.

Sheri Speede, an American veterinarian from Mississippi, founded the sanctuary in 1999. Its mission is twofold: ensuring the welfare of rescued chimps and promoting species conservation by helping to stop poaching and the illegal chimpanzee trade.

Ducelier, a Cameroonian volunteer, carries playmates Kimbang (left) and Gnala (right) through the forest at the Sanaga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue. Amy Hanes/Sanaga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue

Throughout Africa, poachers and wildlife traffickers sell adult chimps as bushmeat. Captured infants may go as far as the Middle East, where demand for exotic pets is growing, or China, where zoo owners know a cute baby chimp will attract large crowds. By some estimates, people pay tens of thousands of dollars for individual infants. Experts say fewer than 200,000 chimpanzees remain in the wild. When officials arrest traffickers and poachers in Cameroon, the chimps they seize go to the SYCR or one of Cameroon’s other two accredited sanctuaries, Ape Action Africa or the Limbe Wildlife Center. These sanctuaries therefore play a vital role in the wildlife law enforcement chain and are critical to conservation.

The SYCR is committed to chimpanzee welfare. They promise to provide lifelong care for orphaned chimps (who can live for up to 60 years) because reintroducing them to the wild is not always possible. Managers, staff, and volunteers from Cameroon, Europe, North America, and Australasia try to replicate forest living as best they can. The sanctuary sits on 225 acres of the Mbargue Forest. Adult chimps spend their days climbing tall trees and foraging for wild ginger in large forest enclosures, which range in size from 1 to 20 acres. The chimps eat tropical fruits and vegetables bought from local farmers, and sleep in large night cages for protection from poachers. Chimps and humans use chimpanzee alarm calls to communicate danger when they see cobras, vipers, or green mambas, one of the world’s deadliest snakes. Compared to the fate that awaited them, chimps at the SYCR lead a very good life.

When I met Gnala in 2015, she and a 1.5-year-old female named Kimbang spent their days in the forest, away from visitors. The pair stayed close to Henriette, their full-time Cameroonian caregiver. Henriette encouraged Gnala and Kimbang to do “chimp things” such as digging, climbing, and wrestling with each other.

I became one of Gnala’s volunteer caregivers because, as a cultural anthropologist, I gather data by participating in what I study. I was there to understand “care.” What is it for one species to care for and about another? How do humans from different countries, religions, languages—from different moral worlds—negotiate competing ideas about what makes for good care? To get an embodied sense of what it is like to care for infant chimps, I tended Gnala and Kimbang on Henriette’s days off.

Before I met Gnala and Kimbang, Lisa (a pseudonym), an assistant manager from Belgium, explained to me that we were to provide reassurance and discipline to the infants. Comforting them when they were frightened would help them learn to trust. Teaching them to recognize “no,” by redirecting their attention and hooting at them when they did wrong, would give them a sense of limits. To hoot like adult chimps, we dropped our voices a few octaves and grunted a loud, fast, “HOO!” Lisa stressed that understanding boundaries would help keep Gnala and Kimbang safer when it came time to integrate them with adult chimps.

Gnala and I got by with my redirection and hooting for several months. When she bit my shoelaces, I feigned interest in nearby millipedes or butterflies to redirect her attention elsewhere. I hooted at her for pinching me when I tried to disengage from play. Her pinches hurt, and her scratches stung, but Gnala was easy to forgive—until the day redirection and hooting stopped working. That was the day I began to question my own assumptions about harm and human touch.

Gnala and Kimbang finish half a papaya, and Kimbang springs up a tree. Gnala stays perched on my lap. It is the rainy season in 2015, and I have been working with Gnala for five months. The humidity makes it impossible to dry clothes, so my pants are damp and smell like mold. I wipe Gnala’s sticky hands with a leaf, but she is focused on something just above me. All at once, she launches herself at my face and grabs the knot of hair piled on top of my head. She hangs, one-handed, from my hair. My eyes water, and my scalp burns. I grab her at the waist to support her weight and relieve pressure. I hoot my best baritone hoot and bark her name, “GNALA!”

All five of her long fingers are threaded through my hair. I find two and try to pry them open. No dice. I hoot again, but she stays put. And then I laugh because I do not know what else to do. I cannot call over the radio and ask someone to come get the smallest chimp in the sanctuary off my head. While we sit there, I review my options. Chimp hoots are not cutting it. I wonder, what if I go more chimp? What if I bite her?

Kimbang bites Gnala in two ways. She uses what I think of as “blood bites,” which break skin and make Gnala scream, and “snap bites,” where she takes Gnala’s skin between her teeth, pulls it hard, and then releases it. I imagine that this rubber band motion feels like a hard pinch to Gnala, and it usually stops her from doing whatever she is doing. The snap bite is probably my best bet.

I try a final time to peel Gnala’s fingers open, and I hoot once more to make sure I exhaust all my options. Nothing happens, so I take a soft chunk of hairy forearm between my teeth, inhale, and bare down.

She does not move. I apply more pressure. Nothing.

Gnala, at age 2, has a powerful grip that allows her to navigate vines—and hang from humans. Amy Hanes/Sanaga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue

Chimps are said to have a higher pain tolerance than humans. If I bite her harder—if I’m a little more chimp—she will let go. I can do this, I tell myself. I try again, then stop.

Although human jaws are strong, and my ape self is capable of biting her, my human self is not. The pressure I need to use for a chimpanzee snap bite would break human skin. I cannot make myself say “no” like a chimp would. We sit like that until she finally releases her grip, drops into my lap, then darts off to examine the broken hairs she has made away with.

I often thought about harm and human touch throughout my remaining 14 months in Cameroon. I asked myself what kind of person bites a baby chimpanzee and how did we arrive at that moment: Gnala with her baby vise grip and me at a complete loss over what to do.

During interviews, I began asking directors, managers, staff, and volunteers if we should make our touch a little more chimp. Are we hurting infants by not disciplining them like chimpanzees would? When I asked Speede, she answered: “That could work, while they’re young, but as they get stronger than us we’d have to be really brutal to keep that up. … We wouldn’t do that because we wouldn’t want them to be scared of us.”

By the time I returned to Cameroon in 2018, 4-year-old Gnala had become too strong for Henriette to handle in the forest. Gnala’s strength, climbing ability, and foraging skills meant she was ready to be “adopted” by an adult female chimp. The managers identified Jantan to care for Gnala and Kimbang as if they were her own.

The adoption went smoothly. Jantan and Gnala now sleep side by side, and Gnala rides on her back around their forest enclosure. The threesome spends their time climbing, napping, and playing chase.

This time is a critical learning period for Gnala and Kimbang. Next year, they will be integrated into a larger forest enclosure with adult chimpanzees. Although extremely rare, infants can be injured or even killed during integrations if they do not adhere to chimpanzee social norms. Infants learn about nurturance, dominance, and chimp politics largely through observation. They see how grooming others can solidify shifting alliances. They witness aggression when males injure one another while vying for the position of alpha and when their group kills outsider chimps encroaching on their territory.

This adult chimpanzee group shares an enclosure at the Sanaga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue that spans 20 acres. Amy Hanes/Sanaga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue

Sanctuary staff often say that chimps like Gnala are the hardest to integrate, because chimps used in tourist attractions or kept as pets are largely ignorant of the role of aggression in chimpanzee society. The infants that know human touch—how human hands hold and human fingers tickle—are often unfamiliar with chimp social boundaries. For Gnala, that ignorance could be dangerous.

It’s early evening in April 2018, and Gnala stares at me from within the cage area where she sleeps. As I wait for her to reach her hand through the bars so I can drop an avocado into it, she extends her palm out farther than I expect. Gnala manages to flip her wrist and quickly dig her nails down deep into the back of my hand. “Owwww! Gnala!” I mumble as I snatch my hand back.

Gnala is bigger now—though she is still the smallest chimp in the sanctuary. She often stands on two legs and walks bipedally around the enclosure. Her face is darker, more of an ash brown.

Gnala positions herself a few feet above me. She clings to the cage bars and expertly waits until I look toward Kimbang. Gnala aims and drops the avocado I gave her on my head. I stand up, brush the dirt off my pants, and finally look down at my hand. A scratch or scrape itself is not dangerous unless it becomes infected, but it hurts.

When she scratched me, she drew blood.

Today, when volunteers come to the SYCR, managers warn them about how dangerous Gnala is. Do not be deceived by her size; small does not equal safe. Staff say Gnala may grow up to be the most aggressive chimp in the sanctuary. Her regular attempts to bite and scratch the humans caring for her is unusual when compared to the behavior of other chimps at her age. Their aggression, unlike Gnala’s, could often be explained by context: If an infant perceived a human’s actions as violating their boundaries, the chimp may bite. Gnala’s behavior is much less predictable. However, Gnala’s aggression toward humans, in and of itself, is not the problem. It is her sense of boundaries, and how untested they are, that is disquieting. Jantan indulges Gnala, as mother chimpanzees often do, which leaves staff with a lingering question: When she faces new adult chimpanzees with firm boundaries, will Gnala know when to stop?

For chimps like Gnala, human touch set a particular kind of harm in motion. It fractured her world, dividing her experience into a before and an after. In her short before, when she was a newborn with her chimp family in the forest, her body matched up to those around her. She touched and was touched by bodies that aligned with hers. She exercised her clinging reflexes days after birth and later would have tested her power in wrestling matches with her siblings. Their strength would have accommodated hers and helped her grow her own. But then time stopped.

Gnala, age 4, sits on a high platform with Jantan, an adult female who is helping the younger chimps learn more about their species’ behaviors and norms. Amy Hanes/Sanaga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue

Poachers forced Gnala into human touch. When a chimpanzee group flees poachers and a mother is shot mid-flight, she goes down with her infant. The infant’s grip is so tight that poachers must pry her from her mother’s body. Given this fact, Gnala’s first contact with human hands would have likely been violent.

When the Cameroonian father bought her for his children, she met a human touch that was different in tone. Children’s hands reached for her as they would a human baby or a hairy little doll. Being carried upright against a human chest would have been a mismatch for Gnala’s long arms. Her muscles would not fully develop. Over time, other incongruities would have appeared. Gnala’s mounting strength would quickly surpass that of the children’s. Her agility would make her hard to catch, tough to hold, and impossible to restrain.

Compared with the touch Gnala’s chimp family would have provided, the children’s touch would have been too soft and gentle. When she became too chimp for the children, their father could have kept her in a cage, dumped her somewhere, or sold her as bushmeat, all likely outcomes for chimps who have outgrown their pet status.

Gnala was not abused in the conventional sense, like many captive wild animals are. Her teeth were not pulled out with pliers to prevent her from biting. To our knowledge, she was not beaten. But she was harmed.

Although Gnala is one of the lucky orphans that made it to a sanctuary where humans encourage her chimpness, there is always a tipping point. As she ages, human efforts to emulate her chimp family will not be enough. Our muscles will not win in a tug of war. Our hands will be too small, our skin too sensitive. Our touch, and our ability to be touched by Gnala, will be too weak. As Speede pointed out, we would have to compensate by going much further than biting.

Rachel Hogan, a conservationist originally from the U.K., directs Ape Action Africa (AAA), the largest primate sanctuary in Cameroon. At the close of an interview, Hogan told me, “The truth is, we aren’t chimps. We aren’t really their mothers. We can’t give them what their mothers could have. Their mothers are gone.”

Hogan’s point gets to the heart of harm. Sanctuaries try to transition infants from human care to living with other chimpanzees as soon as possible, because human touch is not enough for a chimp. We give Gnala the best life we can. We use her vocalizations. We dig in the dirt next to her. We move through the forest with her on our backs. But our touch will always fall short.

Her life is irrevocably different due to human touch; Gnala must reconcile the human with the chimp. Sanctuary staff have tried to prepare her. They set boundaries with her and integrated Gnala with Jantan when she hit her tipping point. Soon she will enter an adult group. As much as humans tried to prepare her, and as much as Jantan will try to defend her, Gnala must find her way on her own.

Postscript: If you want to watch Gnala grow and follow her progress as she is integrated into her new adult chimp group, you can follow the SYCR on social media or check out Gnala’s adoption page on the SYCR website.

This work first appeared on SAPIENS under a CC BY-ND 4.0 license. Read the original here.

Everything Changes, Nothing Changes…RtB joins up with NBN

What changes about this podcast tomorrow? Depending on your vantage, absolutely nothing or quite a lot. If you crave clarity in your life, read on.

Tomorrow we will release RtB 65, a conversation with Peter Godfrey-Smith about octopus intelligence and the limitations of an anthropocentric view of conscious experience. Starting with 65, each and every podcast  episode we release will also go out simultaneously on the New Books Network, “a consortium of author-interview podcast channels dedicated to raising the level of public discourse via new media.” RtB has a dedicated page there and episodes will also show up in one or more of the “channels” NBN has established for folks with various intellectual interests. The podcasts that NBN has convened are great–this is definitely a club we want to be part of!

Why the change? We had a very pleasant series of conversations with the founder and host of NBN, Marshall Poe. We decided his model and ours work very well together. Ours is to create idiosyncratic, unexpected conversations between people across disciplines, such as tomorrow’s talk between anthropologist, biology-minded philosopher and SF critic. Theirs is to find promising intellectual podcasts of all stripes and bring them to folks who trust the NBN imprimatur as guarantee of thoughtful engagement with unexpected material. We think they will give a lot more listeners a chance to choose our episodes, if they seem appealing.

Our webpage is unchanged, as is our editing and the “show notes” we write for each episode. But you will notice one big change: ads. They make the network possible, and hence the chance for shows like ours to reach a wider audience. We remain the same (unpaid) hosts and guests. Such modest funding as we have, to stipend students who work on the show, still comes from Brandeis grants.

So please continue to reach out to us the same way, by twitter or email or directly to John Plotz and Elizabeth Ferry at Brandeis. And continue to urge your friends to subscribe here, or to access us via Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Stitcher. Same show, same editorial philosophy; just standing on a newer bigger soapbox.  Hope you approve!

Here, for example is an episode in the new format; if you enjoy the Megaphone interface, head on over to New Books Network to browse our back catalogue!

65 Octopus World: Other Minds with Peter Godfrey-Smith (EF, JP) Recall This Book

Peter Godfrey-Smith knows his cephalopods. Once of CUNY and now a professor of history and philosophy of science at University of Sydney, his truly capacious career includes books such as Theory and Reality (2003; 2nd edition in 2020), Darwinian Populations and Natural Selection (2009) and most recently Metazoa. RtB–including two Brandeis undergraduates as guest hosts, Izzy Dupré and Miriam Fisch– loves his astonishing book on the fundamental alterity of octopus intelligence and experience of the world, Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea and the Deep Origins of Consciousness. Another equally descriptive title for that book, and for the discussion we share with you here (after Thomas Nagel's "What is it like to be a Bat?") might be What is it Like to be an Octopus? As always, below you will find helpful links for the works referenced in the episode, and a transcript for those who prefer or require a print version of the conversation. Please visit us at (or even subscribe there) if you are interested in helpful bonus items like related short original articles, reading lists, visual supplements and past episodes grouped into categories for easy browsing. Mentioned in the Episode: –Adrian Tchaikovsky, Children of Ruin –"Open the pod bay doors, Hal": a chilling line from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) –District Nine (2009, dir. Neill Bloomkamp) in which giant intelligent shrimp from outer space play the role of octopus-like alien intelligence, and prompt a complex but unmistakably racist reaction on their arrival in South Africa. –Charles Darwin, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872) –Erik Linklater, Pirates in the Deep Green Sea (1949) Transcript Finally, all listeners and readers who are interested in the gentle art of podcasting are cordially invited to the inaugural Humanities Podcasting Symposium, held over Zoom, October 15-16. Latif Nasser of Radiolab will headline two days of workshops, seminars and discussions among scholars students and amateurs who have fallen in love with the pedagogical and intellectual possibilities the medium affords. Elizabeth and John will both be presenting. Join us. RSVP here Elizabeth Ferry is Professor of Anthropology at Brandeis University. Email: John Plotz is Barbara Mandel Professor of the Humanities at Brandeis University and co-founder of the Brandeis Educational Justice Initiative. Email: Learn more about your ad choices. Visit
  1. 65 Octopus World: Other Minds with Peter Godfrey-Smith (EF, JP)
  2. 64 Brahmin Left 4: Adaner and John wrap up with Elizabeth
  3. 63 Brahmin Left 3: Arlie Hochschild (AU, JP)
  4. 62 Brahmin Left 2: Jan-Werner Müller (AU, JP)
  5. 61 Brahmin Left 1: Matt Karp on class dealignment (AU, JP)

Recall this Book’s new monthly schedule, week by week

Starting with October’s episode, which features Peter Godfrey-Smith, philosopher of science and author of Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea and the Origins of Deep Consciousness, we are launching a new schedule for RTB content. Our main episode of the month will drop on the first Thursday of the month; on the second Thursday we’ll publish an essay (like Miranda’s essay this week) or commentary on our blog; and on the third Thursday more audio–a mini-episode or extension. On the fourth Thursday, we’ll send announcements and maybe other stuff for the next month’s episode. So, wish us luck, and get ready for Octopus Month, starting on October 7!

The Return of Sprezzatura: a 16th-Century Perspective on the Brahmin Left

by Miranda Peery

Recall this Book’s recent summer series on the Brahmin Left began with Jacobin’s Matt Karp arguing that “class dealignments” have arisen due to the failure of Left politics to address or understand the needs of the working class. This and subsequent discussions with Jan-Werner Müller (What is Populism?) and Arlie Hochschild (Strangers in Their Own Land) were inspired by Thomas Piketty’s account of the “Brahmin Left,” a highly educated cultural elite now aligned with liberal politics. This group dominates education, media, technology, and most of the cultural landscape, thus leading to what Piketty refers to as “class cleavages” that run the risk of producing a politics of resentment and alienation among what might be called the anti-Brahmin Right.

All three guests undertook ideological investigations into how the modern left has lost its way by catering to the interests of this privileged class. Thus, the argument goes, privileged voters of the Left have created the opposition that they now face. This pattern certainly resonates with an ongoing project for the American left, who, prompted by the election of Trump in 2016, have struggled to understand their own complicity (or lack thereof). This has led to an important revisiting of some economic, racial, gender and class divides, but has failed (at least so far) to ask some crucial questions: What is it about the Brahmin Left that provokes such a strong sense of resentment? Why does this feeling of alienation lead to such specific forms of performative opposition? I wonder if an answer can be found in a concept from 16th century Europe known as sprezzatura.

The notion of sprezzatura first appeared in Baldassare Castiglione’s 1528 work Il Cortegiano or The Book of the Courtier. The text takes the form of a long philosophical dialogue on the topic of what makes someone an ideal courtier, a person who is worthy to be close to and advise a Prince or political leader. In early modern England, the book became enormously popular after its translation by Thomas Hoby in 1561. In the text itself, sprezzatura is defined by the author as “a certain nonchalance, so as to conceal all art and make whatever one does or says appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it” (Castiglione, 32). It is the ability of the courtier to display “an easy facility in accomplishing difficult actions which hides the conscious effort that went into them.” Sprezzatura is, in essence, the ability to embody all of the aspects that society has deemed appropriate for a member of an elite class, while simultaneously appearing to exert no effort at doing so.

This marker of the early modern aristocratic class may not be as relegated to history as it appears.

In Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School, Shamus Rahman Khan (a onetime attendee and later teacher at the elite prep school St. Paul’s whose work was discussed in an earlier episode), describes the way that the school in the 21st century focuses on teaching “ease,” or, “feeling comfortable in just about any social situation.” (Khan, 20) This “embodied interactional resource” becomes naturalized through long exposure and immersion within the kinds of cliques and institutions that practice it, allowing the privileged to obscure structural inequality behind ideas like talent or skill. As Khan puts it, “What seems natural is made, but access to that making is strictly limited.” (16). For Kahn, this invisible argument for perceived meritocracy pretends not to advantage anyone while actually solidifying larger and larger class divides. Without mentioning it, both Khan and Piketty can be seen as making the point that the Brahmin Left, while culturally dominating the landscape, have created a new kind of sprezzatura.

“File:Mostaert Portrait of a courtier.jpg.” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository. 5 Feb 2021, 08:34 UTC. 22 Sep 2021, 19:06 <>.

In place of the conduct literature and Beau Brummel-esque nonchalance of renaissance courts, posh private schools and Brahmin Left social circles imbue the privileged (or those who can join them in a society where social mobility is diminishing) with all of the qualities that make them most likely to succeed in an American “meritocracy” that is no such thing. For anyone outside of these cultural reproduction centers, these codes are as inaccessible as any that the 16th century aristocracy ever dreamed up.

Hence the pushback that all three episodes discussed. In many ways, the desire to “Make America Great Again” can be read as a wish to make America simple again – that is, to render it understandable to those who feel that they have been left behind by the modern world. This world—with its tech-speak, internet language, social justice-focused discourse and endlessly renewing but hard to understand forms of communication—makes them feel obsolete, stupid, excluded and completely at odds with the social norms that have formed around them and that others seem to navigate with ease. Yet, as Khan illustrates, it comes no more naturally to people now than it did in the age of conduct books. Privilege is learned and reproduced—and pretends that it’s what comes naturally.

Burnett, Erin. “Bernie Sanders’ ‘Grumpy Chic’ STYLE Steals the Show at the Inauguration – CNN Video.” CNN, Cable News Network, 22 Jan. 2021,

In response, an anti-sprezzatura position seems, if not reasonable, at least predictable.

In episode #63, Hochschild points out that the power of Donald Trump is centrally the stealing of “legitimacy”, his “lightning in a jar,” offering a counter-narrative to the Brahmin Left’s apparent cultural dominance. One unexpected result of this mystification of norms has been the development of, not only a counter-narrative, but a kind of counter-sprezzatura.

Referring to his essay on the comparison between the current political moment and the Gilded Age (another period, much like the early modern in Europe, which relied heavily on sprezzatura-like class embodiment), in RtB episode #61 Matt Karp touches on the identarian logic of these kinds of cultural codes: “I still do think class does matter…my read is that even though it matters less and less electorally, I’m not convinced that it doesn’t matter politically or even if it doesn’t really matter to sort of social identities and social relationships. I think it’s really significant.”

In fact, that form of resentment may exist even among voters who form the core of the old Left. In that same episode, Karp points out that, “Cori Bush wins St. Louis over a machine candidate, but totally loses in North St. Louis in the kind of poor and working-class black communities and wins decisively among non-black gentrifiers in the central and southern parts of the city.” What are we to make of the fact that a candidate like Bush, who advocates for progressive policies aimed at helping the working class, can lose in neighborhoods that did turn out to vote in numbers for Joe Biden? Political or economic concerns alone can’t account for the divide. Instead, Karp’s point about these kind of de-couplings shows some of the ways that, even within the left, those who don’t have access to the kind of Brahmin Left “ease”, can become alienated by the invisible codes and markers which make up modern-day sprezzatura.


Harry Berger describes sprezzatura as a form of defensive irony. In Donald Trump’s brash mocking of people who are different, in the ever-present laugh emoji of the internet troll on the posts of earnest liberals, and in the derisive term, “social justice warrior”, every effort to “own the libs” can be seen as the urge to tear down or render visible—and therefore inert—the very “ease” for which the Brahmin Left is known. At the same time, the rise of an intentional obfuscation-style of discourse and the smug “if you get it, you get it, if you don’t, you don’t” meme on the Right hint at a competition between two versions of sprezzatura, rather than a single, dominant strain. Much like the one embraced by the Brahmin Left, this counter-sprezzatura is created and reinforced by the social circles and institutions which surround its participants. It can be passed on generationally. It also mystifies its rules and codes – you must be enmeshed in it to understand how to perform it properly. Finally, and most importantly, you must not appear to be trying too hard. If the Brahmin Left has reinvigorated sprezzatura in their cultural dominance, the new Right, it seems, has decided that the best way to overcome it is to create their own.

Mentioned in the blog

Jan Werner-Mueller, What is Populism?

Arlie Hochschild, Strangers in Their Own Land

Thomas Piketty, Capital and Ideology

Baldassare Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier

Shamus Rahman Khan, Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School

Matt Karp, “The Politics of a Second Gilded Age”

Harry Berger, The Absence of Grace: Sprezzatura and Suspicion in Two Renaissance Courtesy Books

June is all about Forgotten Favorites: Introducing “Recall This B-Side”

You know how obsessed we at RtB are with books that are dredged up dripping out of the past, still coming in as hot as the day they were printed. Whether it is the 1968 Kerner Commission Report as prelude to the long hot Pandemic Summer of 2020 or Thomas Piketty using long-ignored tax records of slave societies in indicting present-day inequality regimes, the podcast is built around a simple premise. When old books topple off their shelves, open up, and start speaking–pay attention, pal!

So, you won’t be shocked to know that we actively seek out other ways to amplify those whispers from the stacks. For about four years now, John has been editing a column called B-Side Books at the journal Public Books. If you’re old enough to recall buying those little 45 rpm records (say, “Salad Days” by Minor Threat, in memory yet green) then you know the column is named after the obscure “flip side” that accompanies the song marketed to be a hit.

Continue reading “June is all about Forgotten Favorites: Introducing “Recall This B-Side””

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.

Continue reading “Pandemic in the Pacific: Kurt Vonnegut’s COVID novel”

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.

Continue reading “A Book in Dark Times: Albert Camus, “The Plague””

Books in Dark Times: What Are You Reading?

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.”

So, we decided to devote several RTB episodes to this hunt for candles or suns. We started with dear old friends: Steve McCauley (who already talked to us about the comic novel), renowned editor Alex Star (that episode drops tomorrow), John’s brother David (host of The Slate Political Gabfest), Seeta Chaganti (professor of English at UC Davis and author of Strange Footing: Poetic Form and Dance in the Late Middle Ages), Paul Saint-Amour (Co-editor of Modernist Latitudes), and Vanessa Smith (author of Intimate Strangers).

In the weeks to come you can hear what various writers and scholars and thinkers we love had to say. Who chose Little Dorrit and who was reading Jill Lepore? Who found Daniel Defoe’s Journal of a Plague Year 2020’s hot read? And who confessed to staying up late binging Brideshead Revisited?

Our questions were simple ones:

What books are currently giving you comfort? why?

What books are giving you joy? why?

What do you read even though it gives you neither comfort nor joy?

What is the oldest book you are reading or plan to read? The funniest? The saddest? The lamest? What childhood books? Why?

Look at your bookshelf now: what books are crying out to be read?

So, dear listeners, where do you stand? We really want to know, and there are a number of great ways you can reach us. You can leave us a comment on this post to start the conversation, or if you’re feeling inspired, voice record your thoughts, email them to us at and we might include them in an upcoming podcast episode!

We would also love to hear from you on our various social media accounts:




Use the hashtag #booksindarktimes on a photo of a book you’ve recently turned to for comfort or joy and to check out what others are currently reading.

Spring Schedule and our new partnership with Literature Lab

When Recall This Book started back in January, we modestly thought we might manage  one episode per month.Instead, we bolted from the gate fast: eight episodes in our first two-and-a-half months.

That is a sprinter’s pace, when what we have in mind is a marathon. So: a slowdown of sorts…but with the prospect of some great upcoming items. Continue reading “Spring Schedule and our new partnership with Literature Lab”

Minimalism’s Untidy Travels


In Episode 1 of Recall this Book, sculptor and Brandeis professor Tory Fair, John and I discussed minimalism. We were just starting out, and I felt a little out of my depth, not only with podcasting but also with the topic. Both Tory and John know a lot about work in their fields that describes itself as (or more often, is described as) minimalist, and they work in fields where the idea of minimalism has a clear definable life, even if artists, critics and others can’t necessarily easily define what it actually is.

I broke ranks and kind of broke the rules by describing the migration of the term minimalism into the realm of “lifestyle.” Broke the rules, I mean, because at first glance it seems that Donald Judd and Samuel Beckett have little more than a name in common with Real Simple or Simplify magazine or the blog  Minimalist Baker. It feels a bit like comparing the discipline of anthropology and that store with the clothes made from cool fabrics that don’t seem to fit anyone quite right. I could feel John’s non-nominalist hackles (and mine too, if I’m being honest) ready to rise. Continue reading “Minimalism’s Untidy Travels”

Our Drugs, Our Stories, Ourselves

Public Books recently ran an article called “Our Drugs, Ourselves” by Susan Zieger, that touches on several of the issues that John, Elizabeth, and Gina discussed in our second episode about addiction. Zieger analyzes “the slimy lie at the bottom of ‘drugs’…the false belief that my natural experience is more authentic and valuable than your artificial one.” Zieger looks at this premise in High Price: A Neuroscientist’s Journey of Self-Discovery That Challenges Everything You Know About Drugs and Society, How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us about Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression and Transcendence by Michael Pollan, and My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh. Zieger argues that community, and the practice of sharing experiences, are what need to undergird the use of drugs in order to prevent them from being demonized or fetishized. While the Pollan’s and Hart’s take up real-world concerns about addiction and experience of the sort that John, Elizabeth and Gina discussed, I am particularly interested in a phenomenon that Zieger traces in Moshfegh’s novel: the use, in recent(ish) fiction, of fictional drug brands alongside real ones. Continue reading “Our Drugs, Our Stories, Ourselves”

Upcoming Episodes…and More

Eagle-eyed fans of Recall This Book will have noticed  an implicit pattern: episodes dropped each Wednesday (err, now Thursday), with upcoming episodes announced with the closing credits.

However, that is a pattern that will hold true only during the academic semester, when the whole team is around to get to work. This upcoming week, for example, Brandeis shares in the Boston February break week. So we will defer episode 6, with Martin Puchner, until our return. It will come out on Thursday February 28th. Continue reading “Upcoming Episodes…and More”

Upcoming Episodes

We hope you have been enjoying the first episode of our new podcast. Here is the slate of upcoming episodes for the first half of our inaugural season:

1/15: Minimalism with sculptor Tory Fair

1/22: Addiction with neuroscientist Gina Turrigiano

1/30: Old and New Media with media historian Lisa Gitelman

2/6: Circe with novelist Madeline Miller

Stay tuned for these episodes and more updates! You can listen to the podcast here on our website or by searching Stitcher or Spotify–Apple Podcasts and Google Play coming soon!

Welcome to Recall This Book!


Recall This Book is a monthly podcast exploring important books on a pressing topic. Each episode focuses on a contemporary problem or event and zeroes in on a book or books that shed light on it. We look backwards to see into the future: we can understand things about the future by choosing texts that shed a sideways light on our present situation, and attempt to shake up the terms of present debate by showing how a topic was approached in earlier times when a different version of this question had come up before. We aim to have lively barstool discussions–a warm but involved and potentially argumentative hashing out of the best way to think through difficult present-day issues. Sometimes we bring on writers to talk about their own books, sometimes we discuss these works with other academics in the field. Most episodes are hosted by Prof. Elizabeth Ferry, of Brandeis University’s Anthropology Department, and John Plotz, of Brandeis’s English Department.

Our first episode will be released on January 15, with the remainder of our episodes making up our first season released in the following weeks–check back here to listen along, or follow us on twitter at @recallthisbook.