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…
The Black Lives Matter movement and the policing-related deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and others have struck a nerve worldwide. Our“Global Policing” series aims to capture the protests over systemic racism and policing in their various national forms.
In Turkey, for example, a June 19 article in the English edition of DuvaR. news magazine reported that Footage of the detentions of five individuals detained at pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party’s (HDP) press conference in Istanbul reveal shouts from the civilians begging the police to stop pressing on their backs and telling them that their chest hurts…reminiscent of the recent police killing of black Minneapolis resident George Floyd, remembered with his words “I can’t breathe!
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.
The largest slave uprising in the 18th century British Caribbean was also a node of the global conflict called the Seven Year’s War, though it isn’t usually thought of that way. In the first few days of the quarantine and our current geopolitical and epidemiological shitshow, John and Elizabeth spoke with Vincent Brown, who recently published Tacky’s Revolt: The Story of an Atlantic Slave War (Belknap, 2019), centered on a group of enslaved West Africans, known under the term “Coromantees” who were the chief protagonists in this war.
Tracing the vectors of this war within the Caribbean, the North Atlantic, and West Africa, Vince shows us how these particular enslaved Africans, who are caught in the gears of one of human history’s most dehumanizing institutions, constrained by repressive institutions, social-inscribed categories of differences and brutal force, operate tactically within and across space in complex and cosmopolitan ways.
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.
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.
Seeta Chaganti, medievalist extraordinaire (Strange Footing and The Medieval Poetics of the Reliquary) joins John to discuss–wait for it–data visualization in the work of W. E. B. Du Bois, philosopher, visionary and scholar. They go on to discuss past traditions that merge text and image in ways that foreshadow modern visualization practices, and close with beloved books that take readers “back of the tapestry” to reveal what everyday front-of-tapestry life keeps decorously hidden.
So, what is he reading? The fully absorbing “other worlds” of Dickens and Mark Twain tempt David, but he goes another direction. He picks one book that shows humanity at its worst, heading towards world war. And another that shows how well we can behave towards one another (and even how happy we can be…) at “moments of super liquidity” when everything melts and can be rebuilt. He also guiltily admits a yen for Austen, Rowling, and Pullman–and gratuitously disses LOTR. John and David bond about their love for lonnnnnnng-form cultural history in tSo, what is he reading?he mold of Common Ground. Finally the brothers enthuse over their favorite book about Gettysburg, and reveal an embarrassing reenactment of the charge down Little Round Top.
Steve brings light to dark corners in this the second installment of Books in Dark Times. He sings the praises of Charles Dickens, of Anthony Trollope (Elizabeth, offstage, chuckles delightedly) and the world-escaping delights of both Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited and the Mapp and Lucia novels of E. F. Benson. He concludes with sweet words for the sour genius of a trio of late 20th century American pessimists: Joan Didion, Dorothy Baker and Iris Owens.