As dwellers of and in language, we know the power of words, but what we do not know—or perhaps we know but aren’t able to predict the particular form and effects of—is the process by which language forms a spectacular house of meaning, such as the poetic edifice that Mohabir has built. Mohabir’s poems house his queer identity, diasporic existence, and multivalent violence—they are a construction of precise imageries and innovative hybridifications of interfacing languages.
Madeline Miller has made a name for herself by retelling Greek myths; she calls it literary adaptation or mythological realism. Her 2012 debut novel The Song of Achilles (Orange prize winner), retells an episode from the Iliad. Circe, published in 2018, is a retelling and expansion of the Odyssey from the perspective of Circe.
In Homer’s Odyssey, Circe is a witch who lives on the island of Aiaia and turns visitors into beasts. She traps Odysseus’s men this way, but with his cleverness and help from the gods, Odysseus himself evades her tricks, frees his men, and wins her over. She is an important ally, telling him how to visit the underworld and return home. As the introduction to the RtB conversation with Miller puts it, though, she only has a “bit part.” Reflecting on her approach to retelling Circe’s story, Miller tells RtB, “I do feel like it’s a corrective in the sense that it’s a balancing […] We’ve had three thousand years of the male heroic tradition. Can we just pull on that a little bit, and bring the female voices up?”
Retellings are intensified stories. When you read a retelling, you read at least two stories at once, like the doubled vision of blurry eyes. Because of this, I was fascinated to see that Circe in Miller’s retelling has a similarly doubled vision of herself. She constantly sees herself as men see her, constantly hears her story as a man would tell it.
“I could imagine the stories he was telling of me, humorless, prickly, and smelling of pigs,” Circe says after sending Hermes away from her island. She is well aware of the stereotypes she inhabits, steps around, plays into and is forced into. They have become the lenses through which she views herself, and therefore limit the ways she can imagine herself being. She is haunted by the way others will tell her story.
When Stephenie Meyer’s first Twilight Saga entry made it to the big screen in Catherine Hardwicke’s Twilight (2008), it dutifully included a rendition of the vampiric Cullen family’s supernaturally enhanced baseball game. The film sequence – affectionately nicknamed Vampire Baseball by fans – diverges slightly but significantly from its novel counterpart, depicting the game with a certain conscious absurdity that never devolves into self-parody. Everything from the soundtrack’s bombastic guitar riffs to the rapid, disorienting cuts offer a high-octane viewing experience unmistakably out of step with this strange permutation of what Immortal Teenage Heartthrob Edward Cullen drolly identifies as “the American pastime.” Indeed, something more complicated lurks beneath the surface of Hardwicke’s ballgame. Unlike earlier scenes that allow the Cullens to credibly perform normalcy and mortality in front of protagonist Bella Swan, the Vampire Baseball sequence highlights the conspicuous traits which remind her that her newfound friends are neither normal nor mortal at all.
As an indigenous person, listening to “Land-Grab Universities” (Recall this Book 76) made me reflect on my own education–acquired from a land-grant institution. It was both sobering and stimulating to consider how I profited from a university whose historic and present-day rhetoric on land-grabbing, land acknowledgement, and land-use is a continued support for the settler colonialism project in the U.S.
The episode unfolds from Robert Lee and Tristan Athone’s project, “Land-Grab Universities,” a High Country News investigation into how the United States funded land-grant universities with expropriated Indigenous Land. He explains that under the Morrill Act of 1862, colleges were built across the U.S. to teach branches of learning related to agricultural and mechanic arts to foster agricultural production. States received parcels of land to build their colleges on but also received land beyond the campus grounds to lease and sell for fundraising efforts. But before these states could be given parcels of land to sell, the federal government violently seized lands from Indigenous people – nearly 11 million acres of land from 250 tribes, bands and communities.
In “Church Bells Will Signal,” the Greek poet and revolutionary Yiannis Ritsos mourns and celebrates the oppressed and martyred during the fight for a liberated Greece: “those ones are in irons, and those others are in the earth. // The earth is theirs and ours.” Although not a “political” poet in the conventional sense, Ritsos helped reclaim the totality of Greek history in service of social struggle, imbuing even his most innocuous lyrics with the specter of solidarity––a subversive practice that got his work banned several times by Greek authorities.
George Kalogeris is also not a “political” poet, but, like Ritsos, his attention to poetic speech emerges from a place of deep struggle and historical memory. His 2018 collection, Guide to Greece, borrows its title from the 2nd-century AD travelogue by Pausanias and charts the intersections of ancient and modern Greece. The decision to poeticize Greece, of course, has a long and uneven legacy in western thought. In the works of non-Greek writers like Michel Foucault, W.B. Yeats, and Robert Penn Warren, their investigations into the ancient world serve mostly to enrich or supplement their own philosophical-poetic development. For many of these writers, “Greece” loses all historical specificity, becoming a metonym for the “west” in its infancy. Greek myths, political forms, and cultural practices are instrumentalized indiscriminately; they gain meaning largely as the foundation of Euro-American culture. Reading, Foucault’s late engagements with ancient Greek poetry, one might not realize that Greece’s history continued past the fourth century B.C.
This essay first appeared on the website Novel Dialogue, our partner podcast for this month’s episodes, and is reprinted by permission, with our thanks. If you like what you read, head over to Noveldialogue.org to read and hear more.
“The novel wraps itself around you like a cocoon.”
In last week’s RtB, Jennifer Egan speaks of Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa (1747) and wonders at the 18th century author’s ability to sustain a creative exploration over “many thousands of pages.” At this prompting, I have been thinking a lot about novels that refuse to let you go. I’ll never forget how Cynthia Wall first introduced Clarissa to our graduate seminar: “you don’t read through Clarissa, you sink into Clarissa. The novel wraps itself around you like a cocoon or being trapped in a web.” Her description was apt. I remember reading for hours at a time, making excruciatingly slow progress through densely packed, oversized pages with teensy font. But I was ensnared by the text’s progress, just as trapped and frustrated as Clarissa herself, and I couldn’t stop reading. I met Lovelaces and Clarissas in the people around me; my emails and texts took on an epistolary verbosity; I dreamt of being unheard, imprisoned, tricked, assaulted; I felt an unfamiliar impulse to write a will and research casket designs.
As a fellow anthropologist of finance, I especially enjoyed this month’s Recall this Book conversation with Dan Souleles. His trajectory—from studying monks to private equity mavens!–proves anthropologists can help us make sense of the inequality that the world of finance produces. Building on comparisons with other powerful groups in the anthropological record, such as Inka accountants, Dan’s eye-opening book, Songs of Profit, Songs of Loss, and his subsequent research, emphasizes the diversity of groups within finance. He explores the particularities of private equity investors as well as theorizes on how to compare accounting across the anthropological record, from the present day to that of the Inka.
This analysis of diversity in finance is integral to my own research as an anthropologist of finance in the world of climate finance, a sector of financial markets promoted as financing/refinancing projects that have climate and environmental benefits. In my research, I study different forms of expertise and work amongst climate-finance practitioners: among them bankers, accountants, and policymakers. Climate change itself is defined by the time horizons of our new Anthropocene era. Some may seem distant (when will the last amphibian vanish?) while others (2 degrees Celsius rise, anyone?) now loom terrifyingly near. In climate finance, geological climate time interacts with the profit-and-loss time horizons familiar from accountancy and Wall Street quarterly reports. Understanding what type of time climate-finance practitioners focus on turns out to be crucial to unpacking their assumptions—and their actions.
In this installment of our Recall this Buck series, John and Elizabeth talk with Daniel Souleles, anthropologist at the Copenhagen Business School and author of Songs of Profit, Songs of Loss: Private Equity, Wealth, and Inequality (Lincoln : University of Nebraska Press 2019). Dan’s work explores the world of private equity “guys” (who are indeed mostly guys) and the ways they are “suspended in webs of significance [they themselves have] spun” as Clifford Geertz puts it.
Further, he explores the ways we are all suspended in these webs through the immense buying and managing power of private equity firms. Private equity investors buy out publicly traded companies, often through enormous debt (which is why these deals used to be called “leveraged buyouts” or LBOs), manage the companies and then sell them. They argue they are creating value by cutting fat in management; typically workers bear the brunt of the debt while executives–and the private equity firm and lawyers and others servicing the deal–receive hefty payments.
Does a free-market foster or undermine our creativity? How does the market impact cultural creations? Recall this Book’s recent episode made me think of these questions. In the episode, Mark McGurl, the Albert L. Guérard Professor of Literature at Stanford University (Everything and Less: The Novel in the Age of Amazon) discussed how Amazon’s commitment to customer service influences the book industry and the production of literature. McGurl studies Amazon as a social-historical phenomenon that epitomizes the logic of the service economy. McGurl introduces Amazon’s history of bookselling, Jeffrey Bezos’ affinity with books, the company’s literary culture, and its approach to literature, which turns fiction into a form of customer service. McGurl uses a multi-scalar framework that delineates how phenomena are constituted in different institutional environments at various levels of analysis. This allows him to show how Amazon’s success, along with its influence on publishing and literary history, is embedded in a broader background related to the rise of the service economy in the past several decades. McGurl names such background “the age of Amazon.”
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?
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org and we might include them in an upcoming podcast episode!
We would also love to hear from you on our various social media accounts:
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”