“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.
What books gives you comfort and joy in these times, and why? If what we do at the darkest moments is a glimpse of our inner nature, what we read then tells us just as much.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.