22: Ajantha Subramanian: meritocracy, caste, and class (EF, JP)

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.

Our companion text, Privilege, by Shamus Khan, addresses very similar issues in the elite high school where he was a student, teacher and sociological researcher, St. Paul’s School. Khan traces a shift over the past decades (we argued a bit about the time frame) from a conception of privilege defined by maintaining boundaries, to one based on the privileged person’s capacity to move with ease through all social contexts.

Discussed in this episode:

Ajantha Subramanian, Shorelines: Space and Rights in South India

Anthony Abraham Jack, The Privileged Poor : How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students 

Nicholas Lehmann, The Big Test

John Carson, The Measure of Merit

Anthony Trollope, Phineas Finn

Jennifer Ruth, Novel Professions

Lauren Goodlad, Victorian Literature and the Victorian State

Donna Tartt, The Secret History

Sujatha Gidla, Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India

Listen to the episode here:

Transcript Available here:

21: Silvia Bottinelli: Food, Art, Food Art!

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

Continue reading “21: Silvia Bottinelli: Food, Art, Food Art!”

20: The Drama of Celebrity with Sharon Marcus (JP)

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.

Continue reading “20: The Drama of Celebrity with Sharon Marcus (JP)”

19: Scientists, collaboration, and groupthink with Albion Lawrence (EF, JP)

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.

Continue reading “19: Scientists, collaboration, and groupthink with Albion Lawrence (EF, JP)”

18: Fictional Empathy. Rita Felski and Namwali Serpell (with JP)

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.

Continue reading “18: Fictional Empathy. Rita Felski and Namwali Serpell (with JP)”

17: In Focus: Mike Leigh (JP)

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.

Discussed in this episode:

Continue reading “17: In Focus: Mike Leigh (JP)”

16: de/industrialization with Christine Walley (EF and JP)

On a blustery fall morning, RTB welcomed Christine Walley, anthropologist and author of Exit Zero: Family and Class in Postindustrial Chicago. In the early 1980s Chris’s father, along with thousands of other steel workers, lost his job when the mills in Southeastern Chicago closed. The book is part of a multimodal project, including the documentary film, “Exit Zero: An Industrial Family Story,” (with director Chris Boebel) and an NEH-funded digitization project of the Southeastern Chicago Historical Museum, a community-based archive of materials related to the neighborhood.

WWI Bond Rally at Pressed Steel in Southeast Chicago
Courtesy of the Southeast Chicago Historical Museum

Continue reading “16: de/industrialization with Christine Walley (EF and JP)”