Jennifer Egan, Reverberator

By Paige Eggebrecht

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. 

It’s not that Clarissa is an exceptional novel because of the way it ensnares its reader. Rather it merely exploits, to an exceptional degree, how all novels work. So I believe Richardson would have answered Egan in the same way as a reader would: “you simply get lost in it.” Hearing Egan speak about how A Visit from the Goon Squad (2011) “never felt done” to her, or about Anthony Trollope’s series-within-series worldbuilding, is simply more evidence of the captivating mechanism of novel reading and, as Egan reminds us, novel writing as well. Readers and writers become contained by the worlds novels build. These worlds become touchstones in our own experiences and we cannot help but read our lives through them. 

This reminds me of Egan’s other novel The Keep (2006), which I adore for the way it adores its own genre: the Gothic. The Keep gets lost in the Gothic–willfully. Like other Gothic novels, it deals heavily with the theme of confinement. In this, Egan shows us how genres like the Gothic work as relay systems, reverberating through the tropes and stories that precede them. This reverberative quality is symbolized in The Keep’s image of a radio to the dead, a shoebox filled with dust and furnished with an assortment of dials and knobs punched into the cardboard. Ray, the novel’s frame narrator, initially scoffs at the “radio,” but soon realizes he is also ensnared by a voice. Through a kind of portal, Danny, the protagonist of the story Ray is writing, steps across the narrative boundary to whisper in Ray’s ear, forcing Ray to become an unwilling conduit for his tale.

 In The Keep, Ray–like Egan herself and I imagine Richardson and Trollope too–is compelled to craft Danny’s story, to continuously add on new rooms with new doors to existing genres. That is, to create new “portals,” to invoke another theme from the episode, that pass on old stories to new writers and readers. Like the radio to the dead or The Keep’s titular castle–a strange amalgamating pastiche of new wings built onto old buildings and even older fortresses–novels simultaneously become conduits and containers for the plots, conventions, and expectations of their genres. Genres are the captors of novels. Writers and readers, in turn, become entrapped by the stories they tell and keep telling. So my question in response to Egan’s is not how Richardson stayed in Clarissa’s head for so long, but rather, how did he get out?

Upcoming episodes: As promised, Crossover Month also includes a second gem from Novel Dialogue, a conversation with Caryl Phillips: if you want to hear more,  RtB 53 featured Nobel Orhan Pamuk, RtB 54  Helen Garner. Not only that, we will also smuggle in further bonus content on the fourth Thursday of this month:a fantastic little conversation from our dear friends over at High Theory.

71 Jennifer Egan with Ivan Kreilkamp: fiction as streaming, genre as portal (Novel Dialogue crossover, JP)

This week on Recall this Book, another delightful crossover episode from our sister podcast Novel Dialogue, which puts scholars and writers together to discuss the making of novels and what to make of them. (If you want to hear more, RtB 53 featured Nobel Orhan Pamuk, RtB 54 brought in Helen Garner, and in RtB 72 we haveCaryl Phillips). Who better to chat with John and Jennifer Egan–prolific and prize-winning American novelist–than Ivan Kreilkamp? The distinguished Indiana Victorianist showed his Egan expertise last year in his witty book, A Visit from the Goon Squad Reread.

Jennifer Egan © Pieter M. van Hattem

Their conversation ranges widely over Egan’s oeuvre–not to mention 18th and 19th century literature. Trollope, Richardson and Fielding are praised and compared to modern phenomena like TikTok and gamers streaming (including gamers streaming chess, a very special instance of getting inside someone else’s thought process). The PowerPoint chapter in Goon Squad gets special treatment, and tantalizing details from Egan’s forthcoming novel,  The Candy House (April, 2022) make an appearance. Egan discusses her authorial impulse towards camouflage, her play with genre’s relationship to specialized lingos and argots–and the way a genre’s norms and structure can function like a “lifeline” and also a “portal.”

Mentioned in the Episode

Listen to the episode here. Or simply via this embedded reader:

71 Jennifer Egan with Ivan Kreilkamp: Fiction as Streaming, Genre as Portal (Novel Dialogue crossover, JP) Recall This Book

This week on Recall this Book, another delightful crossover episode from our sister podcast Novel Dialogue, which puts scholars and writers together to discuss the making of novels and what to make of them. (If you want to hear more, RtB 53 featured Nobel Orhan Pamuk, RtB 54 brought in Helen Garner, and in RtB 72 we haveCaryl Phillips). Who better to chat with John and Jennifer Egan–prolific and prize-winning American novelist–than Ivan Kreilkamp? The distinguished Indiana Victorianist showed his Egan expertise last year in his witty book, A Visit from the Goon Squad Reread. Jennifer Egan © Pieter M. van Hattem Their conversation ranges widely over Egan’s oeuvre–not to mention 18th and 19th century literature. Trollope, Richardson and Fielding are praised and compared to modern phenomena like TikTok and gamers streaming (including gamers streaming chess, a very special instance of getting inside someone else’s thought process). The PowerPoint chapter in Goon Squad gets special treatment, and tantalizing details from Egan’s forthcoming novel, The Candy House (April, 2022) make an appearance. Egan discusses her authorial impulse towards camouflage, her play with genre’s relationship to specialized lingos and argots–and the way a genre’s norms and structure can function like a “lifeline” and also a “portal.” Mentioned in the Episode Jennifer Egan: Visit from the Goon Squad; Look at Me; Manhattan Beach; The Keep Samuel Richardson: Clarissa; Pamela Henry Fielding, Shamela Herman Melville, Moby Dick Patrick O’Brian (e.g. Master and Commander) Alfred Hitchcock, Lifeboat Read the transcript here. Elizabeth Ferry is Professor of Anthropology at Brandeis University. Email: ferry@brandeis.edu. John Plotz is Barbara Mandel Professor of the Humanities at Brandeis University and co-founder of the Brandeis Educational Justice Initiative. Email: plotz@brandeis.edu. Learn more about your ad choices. Visit megaphone.fm/adchoices
  1. 71 Jennifer Egan with Ivan Kreilkamp: Fiction as Streaming, Genre as Portal (Novel Dialogue crossover, JP)
  2. 70 Recall this Buck 5: "Studying Up" with Daniel Souleles (EF, JP)
  3. 69 Recall this Buck 4: Daniel Souleles on Private Equity (JP, EF)
  4. 68 Martin Puchner: Writing and Reading from Gilgamesh to Amazon
  5. 67 Everything and Less: Mark McGurl on Books in the Age of Amazon

Read the transcript here.

70 Recall this Buck 5: “Studying Up” with Daniel Souleles (EF, JP)

John and Elizabeth continue their conversation 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 fits into a newish approach in anthropology of researching people with greater power and influence than the researchers themselves. That’s sometimes called “studying up” and Dan and Elizabeth (who’s writing a book about gold, after all!) have both thought a lot about it.

Listen to the episode here.

71 Jennifer Egan with Ivan Kreilkamp: Fiction as Streaming, Genre as Portal (Novel Dialogue crossover, JP) Recall This Book

This week on Recall this Book, another delightful crossover episode from our sister podcast Novel Dialogue, which puts scholars and writers together to discuss the making of novels and what to make of them. (If you want to hear more, RtB 53 featured Nobel Orhan Pamuk, RtB 54 brought in Helen Garner, and in RtB 72 we haveCaryl Phillips). Who better to chat with John and Jennifer Egan–prolific and prize-winning American novelist–than Ivan Kreilkamp? The distinguished Indiana Victorianist showed his Egan expertise last year in his witty book, A Visit from the Goon Squad Reread. Jennifer Egan © Pieter M. van Hattem Their conversation ranges widely over Egan’s oeuvre–not to mention 18th and 19th century literature. Trollope, Richardson and Fielding are praised and compared to modern phenomena like TikTok and gamers streaming (including gamers streaming chess, a very special instance of getting inside someone else’s thought process). The PowerPoint chapter in Goon Squad gets special treatment, and tantalizing details from Egan’s forthcoming novel, The Candy House (April, 2022) make an appearance. Egan discusses her authorial impulse towards camouflage, her play with genre’s relationship to specialized lingos and argots–and the way a genre’s norms and structure can function like a “lifeline” and also a “portal.” Mentioned in the Episode Jennifer Egan: Visit from the Goon Squad; Look at Me; Manhattan Beach; The Keep Samuel Richardson: Clarissa; Pamela Henry Fielding, Shamela Herman Melville, Moby Dick Patrick O’Brian (e.g. Master and Commander) Alfred Hitchcock, Lifeboat Read the transcript here. Elizabeth Ferry is Professor of Anthropology at Brandeis University. Email: ferry@brandeis.edu. John Plotz is Barbara Mandel Professor of the Humanities at Brandeis University and co-founder of the Brandeis Educational Justice Initiative. Email: plotz@brandeis.edu. Learn more about your ad choices. Visit megaphone.fm/adchoices
  1. 71 Jennifer Egan with Ivan Kreilkamp: Fiction as Streaming, Genre as Portal (Novel Dialogue crossover, JP)
  2. 70 Recall this Buck 5: "Studying Up" with Daniel Souleles (EF, JP)
  3. 69 Recall this Buck 4: Daniel Souleles on Private Equity (JP, EF)
  4. 68 Martin Puchner: Writing and Reading from Gilgamesh to Amazon
  5. 67 Everything and Less: Mark McGurl on Books in the Age of Amazon

Read the transcript here.

Read Aneil Tripathy’s RTB piece about actuarial time scales and how they shape the sort of anthropology that both he and Souleles practice.

Points of Comparison in Time: Methods in the Anthropology of Finance

by Aneil Tripathy

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.

Continue reading “Points of Comparison in Time: Methods in the Anthropology of Finance”

69 Recall this Buck 4: Daniel Souleles on private equity (JP, EF)

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.

Continue reading “69 Recall this Buck 4: Daniel Souleles on private equity (JP, EF)”

68 Martin Puchner: Gilgamesh to Amazon (EF, JP)

Book Industry Month continues with a memory-lane voyage back to a beloved early RtB episode. This conversation with Martin Puchner about the very origins of writing struck us as perfect companion to Mark McGurl’s wonderful insights (in RtB 67, published earlier this month) about the publishing industry’s in 2021, or as Mark tells it, the era of “adult diaper baby love.”

puchner

Aside from being a fabulous conversation about Martin’s wonderful history of book production through the ages (The Written World) this episode brings back happy memories of Elizabeth and John piling their guests into a cozy sound booth at Brandeis, the kind of place that’s utterly taboo in Pandemic America.So travel with us back to 2019 for a close encounter with the epic of Gilgamesh. The three friends discuss the different stages of world writing–from the time of the scribes to the time of great teachers like Confucius, Socrates and Jesus Christ, who had a very complicated relationship to writing.

Continue reading “68 Martin Puchner: Gilgamesh to Amazon (EF, JP)”

The Novel in the Age of Amazon and the Commercialization of Culture

by Jing Huang

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.”

Continue reading “The Novel in the Age of Amazon and the Commercialization of Culture”

67 Everything and Less: Mark McGurl on Books in the Age of Amazon (JP, EF, 11/4)

RtB Book Industry month kicks off with a simple question: What do you make of Amazon? Is it the new Sears Roebuck? A terrifying monopoly threat? Satisfaction (a paperback in your mailbox, a Kindle edition on your tablet) just a click away? John and Elizabeth speak with Stanford English prof Mark McGurl, whose previous books include the pathbreaking The Program Era.

Continue reading “67 Everything and Less: Mark McGurl on Books in the Age of Amazon (JP, EF, 11/4)”

66 On Multi-Species Community: A Critical Conversation with Patricia Alvarez Astacio (Gina T, John P)

Octopus month has morphed seamlessly into Multispecies month here at RtB, bringing with it not only last week’s piece on chimpanzees, but also this sparkling conversation about all sorts of multi-species communities. Recorded live in front of an audience of writing students and introduced by Brandeis physicist Matthew Headrick, it features Patricia Alvarez Astacio, an anthropologist and filmmaker. She has made a film about her work in the Peruvian highlands, where people live with, respect, shear and sometimes eat alpacas. Gina Turrigiano, RtB guest-host of long standing, wears her biological hat in this conversation, bringing to bear insights about avian intelligence and the other sorts of animal community that silently surround our species (think microbiome…). John tries to steer the conversation towards SF as usual.

Listen and Read

https://newbooksnetwork.com/on-multi-species-community-a-critical-conversation-with-patricia-alvarez-astacio-gina-t-john-p

71 Jennifer Egan with Ivan Kreilkamp: Fiction as Streaming, Genre as Portal (Novel Dialogue crossover, JP) Recall This Book

This week on Recall this Book, another delightful crossover episode from our sister podcast Novel Dialogue, which puts scholars and writers together to discuss the making of novels and what to make of them. (If you want to hear more, RtB 53 featured Nobel Orhan Pamuk, RtB 54 brought in Helen Garner, and in RtB 72 we haveCaryl Phillips). Who better to chat with John and Jennifer Egan–prolific and prize-winning American novelist–than Ivan Kreilkamp? The distinguished Indiana Victorianist showed his Egan expertise last year in his witty book, A Visit from the Goon Squad Reread. Jennifer Egan © Pieter M. van Hattem Their conversation ranges widely over Egan’s oeuvre–not to mention 18th and 19th century literature. Trollope, Richardson and Fielding are praised and compared to modern phenomena like TikTok and gamers streaming (including gamers streaming chess, a very special instance of getting inside someone else’s thought process). The PowerPoint chapter in Goon Squad gets special treatment, and tantalizing details from Egan’s forthcoming novel, The Candy House (April, 2022) make an appearance. Egan discusses her authorial impulse towards camouflage, her play with genre’s relationship to specialized lingos and argots–and the way a genre’s norms and structure can function like a “lifeline” and also a “portal.” Mentioned in the Episode Jennifer Egan: Visit from the Goon Squad; Look at Me; Manhattan Beach; The Keep Samuel Richardson: Clarissa; Pamela Henry Fielding, Shamela Herman Melville, Moby Dick Patrick O’Brian (e.g. Master and Commander) Alfred Hitchcock, Lifeboat Read the transcript here. Elizabeth Ferry is Professor of Anthropology at Brandeis University. Email: ferry@brandeis.edu. John Plotz is Barbara Mandel Professor of the Humanities at Brandeis University and co-founder of the Brandeis Educational Justice Initiative. Email: plotz@brandeis.edu. Learn more about your ad choices. Visit megaphone.fm/adchoices
  1. 71 Jennifer Egan with Ivan Kreilkamp: Fiction as Streaming, Genre as Portal (Novel Dialogue crossover, JP)
  2. 70 Recall this Buck 5: "Studying Up" with Daniel Souleles (EF, JP)
  3. 69 Recall this Buck 4: Daniel Souleles on Private Equity (JP, EF)
  4. 68 Martin Puchner: Writing and Reading from Gilgamesh to Amazon
  5. 67 Everything and Less: Mark McGurl on Books in the Age of Amazon

Read Transcript Here (or Visit the Recallthisbook.org Transcript page)

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.

Continue reading “Another Perspective on Non-Human Minds”

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

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 Recallthisbook.org (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.

Continue reading “65 Octopus World: Other Minds with Peter Godfrey-Smith (EF, JP)”

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!

71 Jennifer Egan with Ivan Kreilkamp: Fiction as Streaming, Genre as Portal (Novel Dialogue crossover, JP) Recall This Book

This week on Recall this Book, another delightful crossover episode from our sister podcast Novel Dialogue, which puts scholars and writers together to discuss the making of novels and what to make of them. (If you want to hear more, RtB 53 featured Nobel Orhan Pamuk, RtB 54 brought in Helen Garner, and in RtB 72 we haveCaryl Phillips). Who better to chat with John and Jennifer Egan–prolific and prize-winning American novelist–than Ivan Kreilkamp? The distinguished Indiana Victorianist showed his Egan expertise last year in his witty book, A Visit from the Goon Squad Reread. Jennifer Egan © Pieter M. van Hattem Their conversation ranges widely over Egan’s oeuvre–not to mention 18th and 19th century literature. Trollope, Richardson and Fielding are praised and compared to modern phenomena like TikTok and gamers streaming (including gamers streaming chess, a very special instance of getting inside someone else’s thought process). The PowerPoint chapter in Goon Squad gets special treatment, and tantalizing details from Egan’s forthcoming novel, The Candy House (April, 2022) make an appearance. Egan discusses her authorial impulse towards camouflage, her play with genre’s relationship to specialized lingos and argots–and the way a genre’s norms and structure can function like a “lifeline” and also a “portal.” Mentioned in the Episode Jennifer Egan: Visit from the Goon Squad; Look at Me; Manhattan Beach; The Keep Samuel Richardson: Clarissa; Pamela Henry Fielding, Shamela Herman Melville, Moby Dick Patrick O’Brian (e.g. Master and Commander) Alfred Hitchcock, Lifeboat Read the transcript here. Elizabeth Ferry is Professor of Anthropology at Brandeis University. Email: ferry@brandeis.edu. John Plotz is Barbara Mandel Professor of the Humanities at Brandeis University and co-founder of the Brandeis Educational Justice Initiative. Email: plotz@brandeis.edu. Learn more about your ad choices. Visit megaphone.fm/adchoices
  1. 71 Jennifer Egan with Ivan Kreilkamp: Fiction as Streaming, Genre as Portal (Novel Dialogue crossover, JP)
  2. 70 Recall this Buck 5: "Studying Up" with Daniel Souleles (EF, JP)
  3. 69 Recall this Buck 4: Daniel Souleles on Private Equity (JP, EF)
  4. 68 Martin Puchner: Writing and Reading from Gilgamesh to Amazon
  5. 67 Everything and Less: Mark McGurl on Books in the Age of Amazon

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 <https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Mostaert_Portrait_of_a_courtier.jpg&oldid=530593838>.

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, http://www.cnn.com/videos/style/2021/01/22/bernie-mittens-senator-sanders-inauguration-viral-fashion-moos-pkg-ebof-vpx.cnn.

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.

Weiss, Joanna. “The MAGA MASKS Bringing AMERICANS TOGETHER.” POLITICO, POLITICO, 29 May 2020, http://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2020/05/29/the-maga-masks-bringing-americans-together-289926.

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

64 Brahmin Left 4: Adaner and John wrap up with Elizabeth

Our Summer series on the Brahmin Left, winding down as Fall approaches, was inspired by our bracing but terrifying interview with Thomas Piketty. It starts from the assumption that a major realignment (or, rather, a “dealignment”) from the class-based politics of the mid-20th century is underway all over Europe and North America–and perhaps worldwide. What caused that? Piketty’s explanation centers on the rise of the Brahmin Left. He maintains that Left parties have abandoned the working-class for an increasingly highly educated voter-base (as if on cue, Nate Cohn recently supplied this analysis).

We spoke with Matt Karp, Jan-Werner Mueller and Arlie Hochschild and learned far more than we bargained for. Karp is among those who point to political changes produced by the waning power of labor in our post-industrial era; Mueller points to populist revival and ethnonationalism resurgent; Hochschild notes the breakdown in the narratives that succeeded in tying working-class white voters to Left parties in the 20th century. Other scholars (we spoke with Quinn Slobodian in 2019 for example) see in the Right’s recent successes the latest twist in a neoliberalism controlled by corporate elites.

Continue reading “64 Brahmin Left 4: Adaner and John wrap up with Elizabeth”

62 Brahmin Left 2: Jan-Werner Müller (AU, JP)

This new series on the Brahmin Left was inspired by Adaner and John’s bracing but terrifying interview with Thomas Piketty. Piketty maintains that Left parties have abandoned the working-class for an increasingly highly educated voter-base. This has turned (or perhaps only threatens to turn) Left parties all over the developed World (US, Western Europe, Australia/NZ etc…) from champions of egalitarianism into defenders of the privileges and interests of the educated. So, how do various scholars make sense of this ongoing realignment (or perhaps “dealignment”) from the class-based politics of the mid-20th century?

In this set of three conversations we set out to ask a set of related questions around that claim. First, is Piketty right? Second, to the extent that he is, how do we understand class dealignment in both Europe and America? Some scholars point to “post-materialist” politics; others to populist revival or ethnonationalism resurgent; others to the collapse of the trade unions which linked the working-class to the parties of the Left. Some even see in the Right’s recent successes simply the latest twist in a neoliberalism controlled by corporate elites.

Continue reading “62 Brahmin Left 2: Jan-Werner Müller (AU, JP)”

61 Brahmin Left 1: Matt Karp on class dealignment (AU, JP)

This new series on the Brahmin Left was inspired by our bracing but terrifying interview with Thomas Piketty. So what even is the Brahmin Left? There seems to be little disagreement that a major realignment (or, rather, a “dealignment”) from the class-based politics of the mid-20th century is underway all over Europe and North America–and perhaps worldwide. Some scholars point to “post-materialist” politics; others to populist revival or ethno-nationalism resurgent; others to the collapse of the trade unions which linked the working-class to the parties of the Left. Some even see in the Right’s recent successes simply the latest twist in a neoliberalism controlled by corporate elites.

Piketty’s explanation, though, centers on the rise of the Brahmin Left. He maintains that Left parties have abandoned the working-class for an increasingly highly educated voter-base. This has turned Left parties from champions of egalitarianism into defenders of the privileges and interests of the educated.

Continue reading “61 Brahmin Left 1: Matt Karp on class dealignment (AU, JP)”

60 Sean Hill on Bodies in Space and Time (EF, EB)

Elizabeth is joined by Elizabeth Bradfield, poet, naturalist and professor of poetry at Brandeis, in a conversation with the poet Sean Hill, author of Blood Ties and Brown Liquor (2008) and Dangerous Goods (2014).

Sean read his “Musica Universalis in Fairbanks,” (it appeared in the Alaska Quarterly Review) and then, like someone seated in an archive turning over the pages of aged and delicate documents, unfolded his ideas about birds, borders, houses and “who was here before me.”

Continue reading “60 Sean Hill on Bodies in Space and Time (EF, EB)”

59 Recall This B-Side #4: Pardis Dabashi on “My Uncle Napoleon” (JP)

Iraj Pezeshkzad‘s My Uncle Napoleon is a slapstick and at times goofy love story, but it is also in the best tradition of sly anti-imperial satire. Scholar Pardis Dabashi came to it late, but she has all the convert’s zeal as she links it to a literary tradition that’s highly theoretical, but also delightfully far-flung. Plus, it makes her parents laugh….

Pardis’s talk with John is our last “Recall this B-Side,” drawn from the column John edits at  B-Side Books  and the book that collects 40 of these columns. It has been an unalloyed pleasure to spend June with this set of acoustic variations on the theme.

Continue reading “59 Recall This B-Side #4: Pardis Dabashi on “My Uncle Napoleon” (JP)”

58 Recall this B-Side #3: Caleb Crain on Daisy Ashford’s “The Young Visiters” (JP)

John’s favorite avocation is editing a Public Books column called B-Side Books, where writers resurrect beloved but neglected books. Now comes a book that collects 40 of these columns (the Washington Post review was a big thumbs-up, and John talked about the B-side concept on  Five Books).  

This week’s B-Sider is celebrated American novelist Caleb Crain (Necessary Errors and Overthrow). When not photographing cowbirds and orioles for his brilliantly titled Steamboats are Ruining Everything, Caleb took time to read and report on the best novel ever written by an under-10, The Young Visiters.

Continue reading “58 Recall this B-Side #3: Caleb Crain on Daisy Ashford’s “The Young Visiters” (JP)”