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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Our Brahmin Left investigation was inspired by Adaner and John’s eye-opening 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 from champions of egalitarianism into defenders of the privileges and interests of the educated.
In this series we set out to ask how various scholars make sense of this ongoing realignment (or perhaps “dealignment”) from the class-based politics of the mid-20th century. We might call today’s episode a tale of the Brahmin Left and the Tea Party Right—since we are interested not just in the movement of educated upper middle class people towards traditional left parties like the Democrats, but also in the movement of working class and less educated citizens towards the Right and the Republican party. We could imagine no better companion for that aspect of the series than renowned sociologist Arlie Hochschild, distinguished emerita professor of Sociology at UC Berkeley. We love many of her books (see partial list below) but it is her 2016 account of alienation, anomie and anger in Louisiana, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right , that drew RTB to her for this conversation.
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.
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.
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.”
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….
RtB loves the present-day shadows cast by neglected books, which can suddenly loom up out of the backlit past. So, you won’t be shocked to know that John has also been editing a Public Books column called B-Side Books. In it, around 50 writers (Ursula Le Guin was one) have made the case for un-forgetting a beloved book. Now, there is a book that collects 40 of these columns. Find it as your local bookstore, or Columbia University Press, or Bookshop, (or even Amazon).
Like our podcast, B-Side Books focuses on those moments when books topple off their shelves, open up, and start bellowing at you. The one that buttonholed Merve Emre (Oxford literature professor and author most recently of The Personality Brokers) was a novella by the luminous midcentury Italian pessimist, Natalia Ginzburg. And if you think you know precisely why a mid-century Italian writer would have a dark and bitter view of the world (already thinking of the Nazi shadows in work by Italo Calvino, Primo Levi and Giorgio Bassani) Ginzburg’s The Dry Heart will have you thinking again.
So, you won’t be shocked to know that we actively seek out other ways to amplify those whispers from the stacks. For about four years now, John has been editing a column called B-Side Books at the journal Public Books. If you’re old enough to recall buying those little 45 rpm records (say, “Salad Days” by Minor Threat, in memory yet green) then you know the column is named after the obscure “flip side” that accompanies the song marketed to be a hit.
The underworld, that repository of the Shades of the Dead, gets a lot of traffic from time to time, especially from heroes (Gilgamesh, Theseus, Odysseus, Aeneas) and poets (Orpheus, Virgil, Dante). Some come down for information or in hopes of rescuing or just seeing their loved ones, or perhaps for a sense of comfort in their grief. They often find those they have loved, but they rarely can bring them back. Comfort they never find, at least not in any easy way.
In conversation with Elizabeth for this episode of Recall this Book, poets Roger Reeves and David Ferry join the procession through the underworld, each one leading the other. They talk about David’s poem Resemblance, in which he sees his father, whose grave he just visited, eating in the corner of a small New Jersey restaurant and “listening to a conversation/With two or three others—Shades of the Dead come back/From where they went to when they went away?”