33 RTB Books in Dark Times 9: Ben Fountain (JP)

Ben Fountain is far more than just the author of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, which won RTB hearts and minds (and the National Book Award) long before it became a weird Ang Lee movie.

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.

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32 RTB Books in Dark Times 8: Paul Saint-Amour (JP 5/20)

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.

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31 RTB Books in Dark Times 7: Vanessa Smith (JP)

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.

Tasmanian selfie: John, Vanessa, mysterious mathematician (r to l)

Then the old friends share their newfound love for spiky Australian novelist Helen Garner, doyenne of share-house feminism.

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30 In Focus: Nir Eyal on (the deontology of) “Challenge Testing” a Covid Vaccine

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.

Eyal is lead author (along with Harvard’s Marc Lipsitch and Peter Smith) of a striking March article in the Journal of Infectious Diseases, “Human Challenge Studies to Accelerate Coronavirus Vaccine Licensure.” A recent interview with Nir in Nature has a more revealing title: “Should scientists infect healthy people with the coronavirus to test vaccines?”

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29 RTB Books in Dark Times 6: Kim Stanley Robinson (JP)

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.

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28 RTB Books in Dark Times 5: Seeta Chaganti (JP)

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.

Seeta teaches at UC Davis (as a bantam owner, John has chicken envy)
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27 RTB Books in Dark Times 4: David and John Plotz

Aside from being John’s (younger, brighter, handsomer–and definitely hirsuter) brother, what has the inimitable David Plotz done lately? Only hosted “The Slate Political Gabfest“, written two books (“The Genius Factory” and “The Good Book“) and run the amazing travel website, Atlas Obscura.

panda bad, horse good: David Plotz feeds a new friend

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.

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26 RTB Books in Dark Times 3: Plotz/Ferry

For the third installment of Books in Dark Times, inspired by our global moment, Elizabeth and John turned inward.

We started with a book that you might not think would be so comforting, Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1722) about the plague in London “during the last Great Visitation in 1665.”

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25 RTB Books in Dark Times 2: Stephen McCauley (JP)

On March 20th, John talked to Stephen McCauley, author of such brilliant comic novels as Object of My Affection (also a Jennifer Aniston movie) and most recently My Ex-Life.

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.

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24 RTB Books in Dark Times 1: Alex Star (JP)

“Books In Dark Times” takes its inspiration from Hannah Arendt’s Men in Dark Times, which proposes “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.”

At this dark moment, we really want to know what brings people like Alex—and like you, dear listener—comfort or joy in these dark Corona days. Alex Star, brilliant editor at Farrar Straus and Giroux, former editor of Lingua Franca, founding editor of the Boston Globe Ideas section, is the editor of many remarkable prizewinning books including George Packer’s The Unwinding and James Forman’s Locking Up Our Own

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23 Recall This Buck 1: Chris Desan on Making Money (EF, JP)

This is the first of several RTB episodes about the history of money. We are ranging from the earliest forms of labor IOUs to the modern world of bitcoin and electronically distributed value. Our idea is that forms matter, and matter in ways that those who profit from those forms often strive to keep hidden. Today, we begin by focusing on the rise of capitalism, the Bank of England, and how an explosion of liquidity changed everything.

Chris Desan

We are lucky to do so with Christine Desan of Harvard Law School, who recently published Making Money: Coin, Currency, and the Coming of Capitalism (Oxford University Press, 2014).  She is also managing editor of  JustMoney.org, a website that explores money as a critical site of governance. Desan’s research explores money as a legal and political project. Her approach opens economic orthodoxy to question by widening the focus on money as an instrument, to examine the institutions and agreements through which resources are mobilized and tracked, by means of money. In doing so, she shows that particular forms of money, and the markets within which they circulate, are neither natural or inevitable.

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9* Women in Political Power, with Manduhai Buyandelger (Rebroadcast, in honor of Elizabeth Warren)

As we prepare our mini-season on the history of money (Recall This Buck) we dive back into the archives for our very first Rebroadcast. And our first asterisk, too: was that the right symbol to use? The egress of Elizabeth Warren from the race for the Democratic nomination saddened us: after all, we both belong to her broad-based coalition of kindergarten teachers, college teachers and teacher’s pets… It also inspired us to revisit this favorite conversation. Enjoy!

Thatcher and HRC walk into a glass ceiling…In this episode, John and Elizabeth are joined by MIT anthropologist Manduhai Buyandelger to discuss women in political power in Argentina, Mongolia, the UK, the United States and beyond.  At the conversation’s heart: Manduhai analyzes  the legacy  of “female quotas”  in Soviet-era politics, as well as the narrow “lanes” that women politicians are sorted into.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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

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15x Afterthoughts on Zadie Smith (John and Elizabeth)

Zadie Smith touched down at Brandeis because Swing Time was this year’s New Student Book Forum selection. It made for a busy day: on top of the podcast, she spoke to faculty and undergraduates at two different events. So, lots of material to discuss.

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