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”

63 Brahmin Left 3: Arlie Hochschild (AU, JP)

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.

Continue reading “63 Brahmin Left 3: Arlie Hochschild (AU, JP)”

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)”

57 Recall this B-side #2: Elizabeth Ferry on “The Diary of ‘Helena Morley'” (JP)

Given this podcast’s love of neglected books, you won’t be shocked to know that John has a side-hustle–in which Elizabeth plays a significant part. He edits a Public Books column called B-Side Books, where writers like Namwali Serpell and Ursula Le Guin sing praises to a beloved but neglected book. Now, there is a book that collects 40 of these columns (Washington Post review; interview with John about the B-side concept on Five Books).  Find it as your local bookstore, or Columbia University Press, or Bookshop, (or even Amazon).

Continue reading “57 Recall this B-side #2: Elizabeth Ferry on “The Diary of ‘Helena Morley’” (JP)”

56 Recall This B-Side #1: Merve Emre on Natalia Ginzburg’s “The Dry Heart”

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.

Continue reading “56 Recall This B-Side #1: Merve Emre on Natalia Ginzburg’s “The Dry Heart””

June is all about Forgotten Favorites: Introducing “Recall This B-Side”

You know how obsessed we at RtB are with books that are dredged up dripping out of the past, still coming in as hot as the day they were printed. Whether it is the 1968 Kerner Commission Report as prelude to the long hot Pandemic Summer of 2020 or Thomas Piketty using long-ignored tax records of slave societies in indicting present-day inequality regimes, the podcast is built around a simple premise. When old books topple off their shelves, open up, and start speaking–pay attention, pal!

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.

Continue reading “June is all about Forgotten Favorites: Introducing “Recall This B-Side””

55 David Ferry, Roger Reeves, and the Underworld

Their tongues are ashes when they’d speak to us.

David Ferry, “Resemblance”

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?”

Continue reading “55 David Ferry, Roger Reeves, and the Underworld”

54 Crossover Month #3: Novel Dialogue with Helen Garner (Elizabeth McMahon, JP)


Crossover Month continues with a scintillating Australian fiction episode from Novel Dialogue, a new podcast hosted by the awesome Aarthi Vadde of Duke, and RTB’s own JP. If you like what you hear, please share the love by recommending it to friends, tagging @noveldialogue in your tweets, and subscribing to it via Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Stitcher.

Continue reading “54 Crossover Month #3: Novel Dialogue with Helen Garner (Elizabeth McMahon, JP)”

53 Crossover Month #2: Novel Dialogue (Orhan Pamuk, Bruce Robbins, JP)

Crossover Month continues with something completely different, and only a little bit incestuous. Novel Dialogue is a new podcast hosted by the awesome Aarthi Vadde of Duke, and RTB’s own JP. John and Aarthi serve as the third wheel (or if you prefer the social lubricant) for a scholar and a novelist who sit down each week to explore the making of novels, and what to make of them. If you like what you hear, please share the love by recommending it to friends, tagging @noveldialogue in your tweets, and subscribing to it via Apple Podcasts  Spotify or Stitcher

Continue reading “53 Crossover Month #2: Novel Dialogue (Orhan Pamuk, Bruce Robbins, JP)”

52 Crossover Month #1: “High Theory” and the Pastoral (Kim, Saronik, JP)

Kim Adams and Saronik Bosu share an office at the English department of NYU–and now they also share High Theory a podcast where you can “get high on the substance of theory.” Their lovable podcast always identifies a single manageable topic and asks three magic questions (what is your quest? is not one of them). Today that topic is “the pastoral”; in a role reversal, John asks the three questions of Saronik and Kim.

Topics covered include the joys of sharing an office, and the irony that podcasts mimic the very social face-to-face intimacy that they actually displace. John admits RtB’s informal motto, “After the conference, the bar” is blatantly cribbed from the cry of the Paris ’68ers: sous les pave, la plage (under the pavement, the beach).

Continue reading “52 Crossover Month #1: “High Theory” and the Pastoral (Kim, Saronik, JP)”

51 Recall This Buck 3: Thomas Piketty on Inequality and Ideology (Adaner, JP)

Is Thomas Piketty the world’s most famous economic historian ? A superstar enemy of plutocratic capitalism who wrote a pathbreaking bestseller, Capital in the 21st Century? Or simply a debonair and generous French intellectual happy to talk redistributive justice? Join John and Adaner Usmani (star of RTB’s episode 44: Racism as idea, Racism as Power Relation) to find out.

Why did we invite him? John thinks nobody is better than Piketty at mapping and explaining the nature and origin of the glaring and growing inequality that everywhere defines wealth distribution in the 21st century—both between societies and within them. His recent magnum opus, Capital and Ideology. ask what sorts of stories societies (and individuals within those societies) tell themselves so as to tolerate such inequality—and the poverty and misery it produces. Or even to see that inequality as part of the natural order of things.

Continue reading “51 Recall This Buck 3: Thomas Piketty on Inequality and Ideology (Adaner, JP)”

50 Greg Childs on Seditious Conspiracy; or, Why Words Matter

Continuing our conversation on the events at the Capitol and the end of the Trump era, John and Elizabeth spoke with Brandeis historian Greg Childs. He is an expert in Latin American political movements and public space; his Seditious Spaces: Race, Freedom, and the 1798 Conspiracy in Bahia, Brazil is forthcoming from Cambridge. His historical and hemispheric perspective helped bring out the differences between calling an event “sedition,” “seditious conspiracy” and “insurrection,” the new “Lost Cause” that many of those attacking the Capitol seem to hold on to and the particularities of Whiteness in the United States, as compared to elsewhere in the Americas. Greg even proposes a new word for what happened January 6th: counterinsurgency.

Continue reading “50 Greg Childs on Seditious Conspiracy; or, Why Words Matter”

49 The Capitol Insurrection and Asymmetrical Policing: David Cunningham (EF, JP)

We first heard from the sociologist of American racism David Cunningham in Episode 36 Policing and White Power. Less than a week after the horrors of January 6th, he came back for an extended conversation about “asymmetrical policing” of the political right and left–and of White and Black Americans. His very first book (There’s Something Happening Here, 2004) studied the contrast between the FBI’s work in the 1960’s to wipe out left-wing and Black protests and its efforts to control and tame right-wing and white supremacist movements. That gives him a valuable perspective on the run-up to January 6th–and what may happen next.

Continue reading “49 The Capitol Insurrection and Asymmetrical Policing: David Cunningham (EF, JP)”

48 Transform, Not Transfer: Lisa Dillman on Translation (PW, EF)

The eternal challenge (obsession) of translation: “how not to get lost in translation”.

Lisa Dillman

However, the award-winning translator and literary scholar at Emory University Lisa Dillman suggests that we may be missing the truly challenging and exhilarating part of translation in this endless and “elitist” obsession.

In fact, not “losing” original meaning may not be what translation is about at all.

“I find it more useful a view of translation, not as a transfer of meaning, but a transformation.”

Lisa Dillman
Continue reading “48 Transform, Not Transfer: Lisa Dillman on Translation (PW, EF)”