Micheline R. Ishay


On her book The Levant Express: The Arab Uprisings, Human Rights, and the Future of the Middle East

Cover Interview of February 19, 2020

In a nutshell

First, the book title, The Levant Express, is a metaphor representing the demands for human rights that raced across the Arab world like a high-speed train during the Arab uprisings of 2011. Within two years, the fast moving revolutionary contagion slowed to a halt. When the Arab Spring turned into the Arab Winter, some governments (Egypt and the Gulf monarchies) reestablished even more repressive authoritarian regimes, while other states (Libya, Syria, Yemen) devolved into civil wars. What led to those uprisings and their tragic consequences? My book addresses those questions by identifying how patterns of revolution and counterrevolution have played out in different societies and historical contexts. I then apply those insights toward offering hopeful and realistic proposals to reroute The Levant Express.

What makes my book unique are the arguments I offer for hope, and the paths that I offer for resuming the advance of human rights in the Middle East. Other experts view the region as trapped in an endless maelstrom, or offer incremental steps aimed at one or another immediate crisis. True, the region has been beset by a long history of political repression, economic distress, sectarian conflict, and violence against women. But that history pales in comparison to the tragedies of the West, which was also plagued by religious wars, and by two World Wars that brought Europe unprecedented devastation.

Hopefully, readers will be stimulated and informed by the lessons I draw from those European struggles and apply to the Middle East, and by my identification of current possibilities, including subterranean social forces for progress. I remind readers that before the defeat of Nazism, Franklin D. Roosevelt envisioned a post-war reconstruction effort based on foundational principles of freedom. His Four Freedoms (Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Religion, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear) paved the way for the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Marshall Plan, Bretton Woods, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. History offers no better success story than these post-World War II endeavors. We need to remember that sustainable peace needs to be planned even during times of war.

In short, this book is attentive to the current plight of people in the Middle East. It also challenges the pessimistic malaise that undermines Western interest in developing substantive plans for regional progress. It prods readers to resist succumbing to populist, protectionist, and nationalist fervor, and to understand why a restored international liberal order requires a peaceful Middle East. For example, the refugee crisis in Europe cannot be addressed without human rights, political stability, and economic opportunity in the Middle East and North Africa. Our futures are intertwined.



Lucas Richert


On his book Break On Through: Radical Psychiatry and the American Counterculture

Cover Interview of February 12, 2020

In a nutshell

A half century ago a “radical caucus” formed in the American Psychiatric Association. The group, while somewhat small, felt that mental medicine needed to change in the US. The caucus also worried about the country as a whole. Racism. Sexism. Poverty. Dislocation. The Environment. Militarism. Political divides. Corruption. Sound familiar?

These radicals weren’t alone, though. Nor were they the first to use the term “radical.” Through research I discovered that radicalism in mental medicine is far from new, whether it’s in the field of psychology or psychiatry.

The major swings and struggles in modern mental health care have often been accompanied by the term “radical.” The introduction of Freud’s ideas into psychiatry, for instance, was described as a “radical act,” and one that bestowed “radical gifts” to contemporary culture and social life. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1980 was called radical and revolutionary for the way it transformed the evaluation and treatment of mental illness.

The book offers a fresh view of the difficult struggles within psychiatry in the turbulent 1960-1970s. While radicalism in the psy-disciplines during the late 1960s has been mostly overlooked, for whatever reason, a lot has been done on Sigmund Freud and on the fight over the biological basis of mental illness. And while there is a great deal of research on the coercive and overreaching power of the psychiatric profession and the pharmaceutical industry, there is limited work about radical unrest within psychiatry. Break on Through adds to our understanding of health activism in American culture. As it happens, some pretty interesting developments occurred.



Françoise Baylis


On her book Altered Inheritance: CRISPR and the Ethics of Human Genome Editing

Cover Interview of February 05, 2020

In a nutshell

On December 30, 2019, the Chinese scientist Jiankui He was sentenced to three years in jail and fined three million yuan. His crime? Creating the world’s first CRISPR-edited babies. My book Altered Inheritance offers an ethical perspective on the science and politics leading up to the births of these children.

CRISPR (pronounced “crisper”) is the acronym for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats. This new technology allows scientists to remove, add or alter DNA in living organisms. Scientists are excited about this technology because it is faster, more accurate, more efficient and cheaper than previous genome editing technologies.

With this technology scientists can make genetic changes to our somatic cells (changes that die with us), or changes to our germ cells (changes that we pass on to our children).  Somatic cells are all of our non-reproductive cells and changes to these cells are not heritable – meaning they will not be passed down through the generations. Germ cells are our reproductive cells – gametes (egg and sperm) and the cells that make gametes. Changes to these cells are heritable. As well, heritable genome editing can involve the use of early stage embryos.

Both types of human genome editing can be used for health-related reasons (treatment or prevention) or non-health related reasons. The genetic changes could be for treating patients, preventing disease transmission, or pursuing various enhancements.

In exploring questions about the ethics and governance of human genome editing, I discuss the potential benefits, harms and wrongs of this technology. In this discussion I pay attention to the unique potential harms to women research participants. I then invite the reader to consider: the merits of ‘slow science’, which is about taking time to reflect on the BIG questions; the role of experts in policy making; the value of a global moratorium on heritable human genome editing; and the importance of broad societal consensus in deciding where to from here.

In my view, the human genome belongs to all of us and we should all have a say in whether, and if so how, to pursue genome editing technology. All of us – scientists, science funders, civil society (including non-governmental and not-for-profit organizations, community groups, indigenous groups, charitable organizations, and faith-based organizations), interested citizens who are not formally aligned with any interest group, artists, and biohackers – need to think carefully about “what kind of world we want to live in” and whether human genome editing technology can help us to build that world.

Altered Inheritance is a call to action.  A call for scientists to slow down and exercise their moral imagination. A call for all of us to take collective responsibility for our biological and social future.



Alex Krieger


On his book City on a Hill: Urban Idealism in America from the Puritans to the Present

Cover Interview of January 28, 2020

In a nutshell

The book’s primary intent is to portray the American inclination to experiment with forms of settlement, evident in both utopian and pragmatic efforts at reconceiving how and in what shape our towns, cities, and urban regions should grow. While not abandoning long-standing precedents of urban organization, Americans have commonly sought to improve upon the cities at their feet, or those from which they emigrated.

Aspirational approaches at community and city-building have served as the parallel to the political efforts to establish a republic dedicated to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” That post-revolutionary America expanded the frontiers of social and political institutions is widely acknowledged. That the reevaluation of old-world institutions and values would extend to how better to gather spatially in communities is less commonly understood. Each of the chapters explores an effort, cultural trend, or belief about what makes a good neighborhood, a better town, a more humane city, and about some longer consequences of proceeding to build such places. Setting out in search of utopia does not guarantee one’s arrival there.

The book ranges broadly across American history though without following a strict chronological timeline. It begins with Thomas Jefferson’s 18th-century determination to establish an egalitarian agrarian republic, and concludes with a fascination (encouraged by Google, Facebook, and other digital-world innovators) about the coming of an “e-topia.” Urban life becoming better, more palatable, even enjoyable, in “smart cities.” Cities becoming smart and smarter by the integration of informational technologies, data analytics, the “internet of things” and artificial intelligence. It is the current exemplar of a lengthy tradition of aspirational (and some would call naïve) ideas about perfecting places to live and to flourish in company with others.

Readers are welcome to proceed from the introductory chapter forward, though this is not necessary. It may be equally or even more enjoyable to enter the narrative via a particular chapter whose title, theme, or era of focus sparks that reader’s curiosity.



David M. Struthers


On his book The World in a City: Multiethnic Radicalism in Early Twentieth-Century Los Angeles

Cover Interview of December 11, 2019

In a nutshell

The near-continuous movements of people and of ideas are two themes that flow through the work. Migration from within the United States and across international boundaries increased the population of Los Angeles from roughly one hundred thousand in 1900 to over one million people in 1930. This created one of the most racially diverse places in terms of breadth in the United States and probably the world in this period. The new arrivals filtering into the city formed multiracial working-class neighborhoods.

An important thing to recognize about Los Angeles is that it had a very small industrial sector before 1920; the regional agricultural economy was far more advanced in terms of scale and corporate organization. This shaped migratory labor patterns typified by urban-rural and rural-rural movement where itinerate workers migrated between seasonal agriculture jobs and infrastructure work—things like laying railroad tracks, building roads, and digging aqueducts—and then back to “winter” in Los Angeles or other locations. As the city’s population increased, migration continued for a large sector of the population.

As workers traveled, they formed social connections at the sites of their labor, along the path of their journeys, and independent of their work in places often hundreds of miles away; they formed communities as dispersed, flexible, and mobile as their lives. The mobile working class extended the reach of Los Angeles’ diverse urban community through layers of interconnected social ties that reached throughout the U.S. West and Mexico and into the broader world. Radical political ideals carried by people and print traversed the same commodity and migration networks into and out of Los Angeles.

My interest lies in the alliances people formed to improve their lives in this period of settler colonialism and U.S. imperialism. The most racially diverse coalitions formed among workers with precarious employment and living situations in spaces with weak organizational structures, fueled by the ideals advanced in anarchism—especially by the Partido Liberal Mexicano—the syndicalism of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), and socialist internationalism. Radicals generated novel forms of multilingual and interracial organizing by rearticulating anti-statist and internationalist streams of thought to create a local internationalism rooted in place. These practices had a broad cultural impact.

The radical practices that germinated in and near Los Angeles gave rise to some of the broadest interracial solidarities in the history of the United States as Mexicans, European immigrants, Japanese, South Asians, African Americans, indigenous, and native-born whites often found cause for cooperation. Though these solidarities constantly reformed, shifted, and dissolved in a multiracial city during a period of remarkable economic development and population growth. Radicals did not reverse the powerful economic forces and racist logics fueling Los Angeles’ rapid growth, but their organizing provided important outlets for working-class people to shape their lives with hope for a better world.



David T. Courtwright


On his book The Age of Addiction: How Bad Habits Became Big Business

Cover Interview of December 04, 2019

In a nutshell

Vice and addiction have always been with us. The Age of Addiction shows how entrepreneurs melded vices and addictions into a global economic system of limbic capitalism, outmaneuvering reformers determined to contain the damage through regulation and prohibition.

“Limbic” refers to the brain region responsible for pleasure, motivation, and long-term memory essential for survival and reproduction. Yet the same system can be captured by others and made to work against us. Limbic capitalism hurts us by systematically undermining appetite control.

The chief means of subversion are products that provide quick hits of brain reward, ranging from old standbys like drugs and alcohol to the latest social media and gaming apps. Technological innovation enables limbic capitalists to sharpen and multiply commercial hooks, catching more of us with products that encourage excessive consumption and addiction.

The “and” is important. Not all forms of excessive consumption are addictions. Yet regular, heavy consumption has a way of shading into addiction, as when a steady drinker’s craving intensifies and erupts into full-blown alcoholism.

The odds of addiction depend on both personal and social variables, which is why arguments about causation are heated. What I want readers to see is that the social causes are historically contingent. Limbic capitalism, a potent force today, was not always so. It emerged gradually from the ancient human quest to discover, refine, and blend novel pleasures. The likelihood that this quest would spawn addictions grew as entrepreneurs rationalized—that is, made more scientific and efficient—the trade in brain-rewarding products and pastimes. Commercial vice became more dangerous as it became more McDonaldized.

rorotoko.com Pre-digital limbic capitalism. Mint Hotel, Las Vegas, 1969. Special Collections, Lied Library, UNLV.

Limbic capitalism overlaps with surveillance capitalism. The photograph of one-way surveillance of the Mint Hotel in Las Vegas, taken in 1969, shows a pro gambler watching for card counters and cheaters among the tipsy tourists on the casino floor, sheep waiting to be sheared. But one can as well imagine Ray Kroc contemplating McDonald’s customers in 1979. Or Philip Morris executives studying Marlboro smokers in 1989. Or Anheuser Busch ad men quizzing Super Bowl focus groups in 1999. Or pornographers tracking site visitors in 2009. Or Juul marketers targeting teenage vapers in 2019.

The photo’s James Bond-ish quaintness (pressed suits! one-way mirrors!) reminds us of limbic capitalism’ recent, high-tech surge. Today digital cameras enable jeans-clad casino employees to monitor more territory, more quickly. Blackjack tables and dealers have given way to serpentine rows of blinking video poker and slot machines. House-issued debit cards track gamblers’ play. Algorithm-generated incentives keep them glued to their custom-designed chairs.

Digital technology did not invent limbic capitalism. It did supercharge it by firing all five cylinders of the engine of mass addiction: accessibility, affordability, advertising, anonymity, and anomie.



Todd McGowan


On his book Emancipation After Hegel: Achieving a Contradictory Revolution

Cover Interview of November 27, 2019

In a nutshell

Emancipation After Hegel provides an introduction to Hegel that reimagines Hegel’s project and at the same time engages in contemporary political debates. When I started thinking about the book, I had a sense that Hegel had been completely misunderstood both in the popular reception of his thought and among many leading interpreters. I also saw political possibility in Hegel’s key idea—that we find satisfaction in the act of sustaining contradictions, not in solving them. In the book, I argue that the attempt to sustain contradiction is the driving force of Hegel’s philosophy. I admit that when we first hear this, it doesn’t make much sense: to sustain contradiction would just be contradictory and thus doomed to undermine itself.

But my claim in the book is that Hegel reverses our typical judgment on contradiction. Contradiction is not what we try to avoid but what we seek because it provokes our desire. We don’t look for what confirms our way of thinking but for what contradicts it. Once we overcome a particular contradiction, we no longer find it interesting. Even scientists only continue to experiment on problems as long as the possibility for contradiction exists. Once this possibility vanishes, the problem ceases to interest them. Hegel claims that our desire searches for contradiction because if it ever overcame contradiction desire itself would cease to exist. This is why absolute knowledge for Hegel is the knowledge that we cannot ever overcome contradiction.

The implications are important not just for philosophy but also for our own psyches and for all our political projects. What pushes thought forward is not an effort to solve contradictions or problems but to deepen them. Instead of thinking about how to overcome contradictions and be rid of them once and for all, we have to think about how to sustain them if we are to find a way through our current political dead ends. In this sense, the problem with contemporary capitalism is that its contradictions are too evident and too facile, not that they threaten to undermine the system.

As Hegel sees it, thought itself is contradictory because it requires the involvement of non-identity within every assertion of identity. I cannot identify anything without at the same time identifying what it is not. This is especially clear in the politics of immigration around the world. The identity of the citizen forms through the negation of the immigrant: a citizen is not an immigrant. But this negation is part of the identity, not just something external to it. Citizenship would be meaningless without this negation of the non-citizen. There is no way to be free of what is other or different in the formation of an identity. An identity free of negation would be completely immobile, isolated, and finally unidentifiable. It is only through the negation or through the introduction of otherness that identity becomes what it is. This is the contradiction that informs all identity.

By placing contradiction at the heart of Hegel’s philosophy, we begin to see the political importance of this philosophy. If contradiction undermines every identity, there can be no substantial authority that can operate without itself being contradictory. In this way, the recognition of contradiction as foundational provides definitive proof of the actuality of freedom. Hegel’s philosophy draws a clear line from reconciling ourselves with the inevitability of contradiction to recognizing the fact of emancipation. The key to a political catastrophe such as Stalinism lies in the attempt to overcome contradiction, which is why sustaining contradiction is vital. Only by avoiding the attempt to overcome contradiction do we ward off political catastrophes like Stalin’s Reign of Terror.



Tobias Boes


On his book Thomas Mann's War: Literature, Politics, and the World Republic of Letters

Cover Interview of November 20, 2019

In a nutshell

My book tells the story of the German novelist Thomas Mann’s anti-fascist activities during the period of his American exile, which began in 1938. Mann had won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1929 and was one of the world’s most famous literary celebrities when he settled in the U.S. nine year later. At a time when many Americans still clung to the isolationist ideas that had governed U.S. foreign policy for the previous decades, Mann was adamant about the need to defend the ideals of liberal democracy against the threat posed by the Nazis. He wrote essays and op-eds, visited the White House, and embarked on lecture tours that reached hundreds of thousands of people.

On one level, then, this is a work about a forgotten chapter in the history of World War II. It’s also a book about the nature of literary celebrity, however. I’m very interested in how Mann came to be so famous in the United States. After all, the circumstances greeting him there were far from auspicious. During World War I, there had been a massive backlash against all things German, up to and including book burnings. And Mann was a difficult writer who barely spoke English when he first arrived in America. How did he become an anti-Nazi icon, an author who was not only followed by intellectuals, but publicly cheered by ordinary people?

To answer this question, I’ve documented in meticulous detail how Mann was advertised and promoted during the 1920s and 1930s. Doing so also forced me to engage with more fundamental questions, namely: what were Americans reading and what drove their choices? What, other than simple entertainment, did they hope to get out of books? As it turns out, the answers to these questions changed over time, and Mann’s American allies—foremost his publisher Alfred A. Knopf and his patron Agnes E. Meyer—were incredibly skilled in changing their marketing tactics to accommodate shifting demands.

Mann’s story forever changed the public role of the author in modern society. Americans came to believe that he represented the true voice of a great cultural tradition that Nazism had perverted. And this belief that literature can give us insight into foreign cultures that are struggling with war and authoritarian oppression is very much with us even today. It explains the success of The Kite Runner, for example, Khaled Hosseini’s novel about Afghanistan that was published in the wake of the 2001 U.S. invasion.

Ultimately, then, this is more than a work of literary history. I hope it will lead readers to reflect on the ways in which they use books in their everyday lives.



Amanda Boetzkes


On her book Plastic Capitalism: Contemporary Art and the Drive to Waste

Cover Interview of November 13, 2019

In a nutshell

Waste occupies a paradoxical position today: it is made to be disposable, and we want to get rid of it, but we cannot. Where at other times in history, we’ve been able to banish waste—burn it up, bury it, or otherwise make it disappear—today, we are producing forms of waste that do not disappear. While we still have a drive to waste, waste therefore perpetually returns to us, often in toxic forms. Art gives us many perspectives—from the intimate to the global—of these eternal returns of contemporary waste.

This is a book about contemporary art and what it has to tell us about our production and consumption of waste. It charts a general preoccupation with different forms of waste in contemporary art, and it considers how artists use waste to critique, express, and imagine the global ecological condition. The book analyzes waste from an aesthetic perspective, and thinks about art as an ecological form, and specifically a form of waste.

Addressing diverse artistic practices from around the world, the book features artists from the United States, Canada and Mexico, to Brazil, South Korea, China, and Europe, I consider artworks that are situated in landfills, installations made entirely out of fluorescent plastics, performance and body art that engage waste materials, as well as documentary photographs and films that track the movement and accumulation of non-biodegradable waste. So the scope of the book is expansive.

An important facet of the argument is that the forms of waste we have been producing since the mid-20th century are deeply tied both materially and ideologically to oil capital. The rise of the global oil industry has put us at an impasse: we are situated between a cultural imperative to conserve and recycle energy for ecological reasons such as climate change, but we are also subject to an economic imperative to expand oil production, and with it, oil consumption, on the other. How can we both burn oil and conserve energy? Art shows us how the material wastes of the cultures of global oil express exactly this dilemma. Waste keeps coming back in toxic forms.

The book includes a genealogy of waste art from its modernist origins to its contemporary global and ecological conditions. It begins with an analysis of the politics and representation of gleaning and ragpicking in art in the nineteenth century. From that starting point, I discuss more recent forms of waste handling in art, including interventions in landfills, exchange-based practices, ecologically-charged natural history displays, and visual practices involving plastics. These aesthetic forms show the emergence of a new waste imaginary that struggles with the scale of climate change and its effects, the global scope of oil capital, processes of anthropogenesis which change the nomenclature of life itself, and the possibilities of resistance and ethical response that emerge from this fraught terrain.

The best way to read this book is to look at the artworks! The book is beautifully designed, and the sequence of the images articulates the movement of the argument. But more than this, the book is attentive to the language and poetics of theorists and artists dealing with waste, elemental philosophy, and even the aesthetic dimensions of the oil economy itself.



David Farber


On his book Crack: Rock Cocaine, Street Capitalism, and the Decade of Greed

Cover Interview of November 06, 2019

In a nutshell

Crack tells the story of the young men who bet their lives on the rewards of selling “rock” cocaine, the people who gave themselves over to the crack pipe, and the often merciless authorities who incarcerated legions of African Americans caught in the crack cocaine underworld.

Based on interviews, archival research, judicial records, underground videos, and prison memoirs, Crack explains why, in a de-industrializing America in which good paying, dignified jobs in inner cities were rare, selling rock cocaine made cold, hard sense to a broad cohort of young men. The crack industry was a lucrative enterprise for the “Horatio Alger boys” of their place and time, especially in an era in which market forces ruled and entrepreneurial risk-taking was celebrated.

These young, predominately African American entrepreneurs were profit-sharing partners in a deviant, criminal form of economic globalization. Like their mostly legit counterparts in 1980s and 1990s America (e.g., Donald Trump and his “Art of the Deal”), they embraced the “creative destruction” that was simultaneously tearing apart communities and reinventing American capitalism.

Hip Hop artists often celebrated the exploits of the crack kingpins and their crews. Biggie Smalls laid out “The Ten Crack Commandments” for aspiring dealers. In “Kilo,” Ghostface Killah of the Wu Tang Klan explained the joy of moving weight and reaping the benefits of seemingly unattainable wealth. For some of their peers, crack dealers were the neighborhood Robin Hoods. They were the “social bandits” of their economically beat-down streets.

Overwhelmingly, Americans—across racial lines—did not take so kindly to the crack dealers and “crackheads.” Crack dealers defended their drug selling territories with unvarnished violence. Homicide rates soared in poor, inner city neighborhoods. Innocents were caught in the crossfire. Crack addicts robbed, stole, and prostituted themselves to pay for their rocks. Poor people were prey for crack dealers; families and neighbors in poor communities paid the heaviest price for the localized crack epidemics of the 1980s and 1990s.

Americans, fueled by fear and sometimes hysteria, cracked down on the sale and use of rock cocaine. Congress, supported by presidents Reagan, Bush, and Clinton, passed draconian federal laws that punished crack dealers with sentences that often exceeded those handed out to murders and rapists. State and local authorities followed suit. Authorities spent billions to build a merciless system of mass incarceration. Overwhelmingly, that punishing carceral machinery targeted black Americans.

Crack takes a hard look at the dark side of late twentieth century capitalism. It examines how an explosive mix of deviant globalization, racial inequities, and the war on drugs shattered American society.



Mary Anne Franks


On her book The Cult of the Constitution

Cover Interview of October 30, 2019

In a nutshell

The reverence Americans profess for the Constitution is all too often a selective and self-serving devotion. Constitutional fundamentalists, as I call them, treat the Constitution the way that religious fundamentalists treat sacred scripture: they read only the parts that serve their interests, interpret those parts in self-serving ways, and claim to be faithfully obeying the commands of a higher, noble authority in doing so. Like all cults, the cult of the Constitution makes use of powerful propaganda to justify the unequal distribution of power and privilege. The outsized focus on constitutional rights relating to guns and speech perpetuates the political, economic, and cultural domination of white men rather than serving the interests of “we the people.”

This selective constitutionalism transcends political affiliation. While conservatives dominate the appropriation of the Second Amendment for racist and sexist ends, both conservatives and liberals use the First Amendment to promote free speech ideology that reinforces white male supremacy. The civil libertarian fetishization of the “marketplace” finds its fullest expression in the idealization of the Internet, where guns, speech, money and everything else supposedly circulate freely –but always to the primary benefit of white men above all others.

This book endeavors to take the Constitution seriously, not selectively. It does so by focusing on the Fourteenth Amendment, the keystone of the Constitution. The equal protection clause demands that Americans be treated equally under the law, which includes equal protection of their constitutional rights. To dismantle the cult of the Constitution that has sustained an elitist and antidemocratic system of constitutional protection for more than two hundred years, it is necessary to engage in honest constitutional accounting. We must confront the fact that constitutional rights and resources have overwhelmingly been allocated to the interests of white men, and that the white male monopoly on power is neither natural nor benevolent. To achieve the unfinished project of equality, we must reorient our constitutional attention to the most vulnerable.



Andrew Ross


On his book Stone Men: The Palestinians Who Built Israel

Cover Interview of October 22, 2019

In a nutshell

Ostensibly, Stone Men is about the lives and labors of Palestinian stonemasons. These are men who work in the West Bank stone industry—in quarries, workshops, and factories—and have a rich and venerable history behind their craft. Palestinian masons have been sought out for centuries for their superior artisanal skills. For the book, I interviewed them at every point in the production and supply chain, along with the construction workers who follow the journey of the stone across the Green Line and onto building sites in Israel or in the West Bank settlements.

The Central Highlands of the West Bank harbor some of the best quality limestone deposits in the world, and they are the one natural resource that Palestinians still have under their control. Sadly, most of the quarried stone is used to build out Israel, the state of their occupier, and its spreading archipelago of settlements in the West Bank. Also, to some degree, Palestinians suffer from the same “resource curse” as oil-rich countries. The extraction of the stone (sometimes known as “white oil”) is only lightly regulated and so strip-mining ravages the environment and sickens the workforce.

The Israeli construction industry is heavily reliant on Palestinian labor and on the West Bank stone industry. I felt that my reporting (I write in a style I call “scholarly reporting”) might be a good way to tell the story about the colonial nature of this economic interdependency between Palestinians and Israelis, while documenting the daily routines of the workforce. Of course, it’s a very asymmetrical relationship. For example, the Israeli authorities have finessed a policy of economic pacification to discipline the workforce—we will issue work permits in return for your acceptance of the status quo, but if you, or any family member, steps out of line, or gets arrested, the permits will be withdrawn. Because Palestinian development has stagnated under the 52-year occupation, there are few alternatives on the West Bank that pay more than a starvation wage, so it’s what I call a compulsory workforce that crosses the Green Line every day.

So, too the Israeli economy benefits at all levels from this arrangement—workers return to the West Bank every night, posing no social burden on the Israeli state, and they spend their pay on Israeli goods at Israeli prices in their hometowns. That’s a win-win for Israel. But the occupation is also good for profit-takers on the Palestinian side. There are the crony, or comprador, capitalists around the Palestinian Authority, then there are the stone industry owners themselves, who constitute a smaller petty-bourgeois economy, and, last but not least, the middlemen subcontractors who take a hefty cut from the labor supply chain.



James Simpson


On his book Permanent Revolution: The Reformation and the Illiberal Roots of Liberalism

Cover Interview of October 16, 2019

In a nutshell

Protestants won in Northern Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The narrative produced by the winners was and largely remains triumphalist: Protestantism won because it foreshadowed the liberal order. It promoted the growth of individuality, now that each Christian had unmediated access to a personal God; liberty of conscience; rationality; the right to interpret scripture for him or herself; equality through the democratic priesthood of all believers; toleration; constitutionalism, and national independence. Winners make history.

In Permanent Revolution I argue that this argument is both wrong and right. It is wrong because most varieties of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Protestantism were the opposite of liberal. They were illiberal in remarkably extreme, soul-crushing, violence-producing ways.

The triumphalist argument is right insofar as the 150 years following 1517 witnessed a historical process whereby many Protestants ended up repudiating the initial, founding doctrines of Luther and Calvin. Democracy; division of political powers; separation of church and state; free-will; toleration for minorities; liberty and privacy of conscience; artistic liberties; liberty of textual interpretation: all these cardinal features of the Enlightenment emerge from Protestant polities. They do so, however, by repudiating Lutheran and Calvinist Protestantism.

In sum, Protestant triumphalism is wrong with regard to the beginning of the Reformation centuries, and right with regard to the end of that historical period.

How did the process of repudiation occur? I make sense of that historical process by defining three broadly applicable periods of the Reformation centuries in Britain: (i) 1517-1560, the revolutionary, carnivalesque, fun period of smashing the Catholic Church and all its practices; (ii) 1560-1625, the decidedly unfun period when many Protestants discover that they are violence-producing, iconoclastic hypocrites likely damned by predestination; and (iii) 1625-1688, the period in which Protestantism divides into its illiberal, Presbyterian, Calvinist wing on the one hand, and its proto-Enlightenment, proto-liberal wing on the other.

I substantiate the argument with sections devoted to the following topics: despair; hypocrisy; iconoclasm; theater and the pursuit of “witches”; reading; and liberty.



Herbert S. Terrace


On his book Why Chimpanzees Can't Learn Language and Only Humans Can

Cover Interview of October 02, 2019

In a nutshell

This book is about the origin of language, why it is special, and how it got that way. One reason language is special is that it allows human beings to name things and to use those names conversationally. No animal has this ability; only humans do. We are now beginning to understand when and how our ancestors began to talk and what it takes to get an infant to speak their first words.

Some people say language was simply created. End of story! That’s nonsense. Language evolved, just like all other biological and psychological processes. Until recently, however, nobody had any serious idea how it took shape from animal communication. I didn’t either, at least not until I tried to explain the failure of a project in which I attempted to teach a chimpanzee to use language.

The failure of that and similar projects comprise one of three themes in my book. The other two concern (1) an ancestor who likely produced the first words and (2) the non-verbal experiences an infant shares with their parents that are crucial for producing their first words.

Consider the failures of ape language projects. Linguist Noam Chomsky began his distinguished career with a scathing critique of behaviorism in which he claimed language was uniquely human. Many behaviorists reacted to that claim by starting projects in which they attempted to teach apes language. To get around an ape’s articulatory limitations, some projects, including my own, used American Sign Language, a gestural language used by hundreds of thousands of deaf people. The focus of my project was an infant chimpanzee we humorously named Nim Chimpsky. Other projects sought to teach language to chimpanzees and bonobos by training them to produce sequences of arbitrary visual symbols.

All those projects failed. In the case of sign language, my analyses of videotapes in which Nim signed with his teachers revealed that they had inadvertently prompted him to make signs they anticipated he would make. Sequences of signs that seemed spontaneous were, in fact, cued by Nim’s teachers.

Sequences that chimpanzees learned to produce in other projects could be explained by rote memorization, like the sequences people use to enter a password to obtain cash from an ATM. What those sequences have in common is they are motivated by reward. Requests for rewards, however, constitute a minuscule portion of human vocabulary. If such requests were all an infant learned, they would never learn language.

“Ape language” experiments failed because none of the subjects could learn to use symbols as names — the basic function of words. They showed why it is futile to teach an ape to produce sentences if it can’t even learn words. Although the results of Project Nim were negative, they showed why a theory of language’s evolution must begin with words, not sentences.

What ancestor might have produced the first words? Now that we know chimpanzees are unable to learn words, we must ask, which, if any, of our ancestors were the first to use them, why they might have done so, and what they might have said. Recent discoveries by paleoanthropologists suggest it is likely that the first words were invented by Homo erectus.

The critical question to ask about any purported inventor of words is how did they contribute to a species’ survival? If they didn’t, they couldn’t be naturally selected. Most candidates fail that test, e.g., using words to enhance pair-bonding and social bonds. Each of these behaviors develop without words. To survive, Homo erectus needed copious calories to feed its enlarged brain, the volume of which was almost three times the size of a chimpanzee’s.

The most efficient source of calories is meat, but Homo erectus lacked the required weapons to kill large animals. They could use stone tools to butcher animals that had been killed by other predators or that had died a natural death, but they couldn’t kill them outright. They had to use another approach. After one of their group, a “scout”, located a dead animal, he had to recruit colleagues to help butcher it where it lay and scare off other animals that might pick at its remains while they attempted to.

Because the dead animal was far away and out of sight, the scout had to invent arbitrary words to describe it and its location. The innate vocabulary of signals animals used to communicate would not suffice. We don’t know if the scout used gestures or a spoken utterance, or both, to get his colleagues to think about the animal they had to scavenge, but whatever form the gestures or utterance took, some linguists suggest it was the origin of the first words. Our vocabulary grew from there.

Now consider pre-verbal precursors of an infant’s first words. Something remarkable happens to every infant during their first year that distinguishes their history from that of every other primate. They experience two non-verbal relations with their parent that pave the way to language. During the first few months, human infants are cradled by their parents. That provides a basis for their sharing gazes and emotions in a stage of development called intersubjectivity.

Beginning at approximately six months, the infant begins to crawl and to point to external objects, often picking them up to show to their parents. Pointing to an object and sharing it with a parent takes place during a second stage of development called joint attention. When an infant and parent know they are attending to the same object, the infant can readily learn its name by imitating a parent’s comment.

Intersubjectivity and joint-attention, two uniquely human phenomena, are crucial for the development of language. Their absence in chimpanzees is the best explanation for their inability to learn language. Their partial absence in autistic children and in children raised in orphanages also explains why language development in those children is retarded.



Ian Hodder


On his book Where Are We Heading? The Evolution of Humans and Things

Cover Interview of September 25, 2019

In a nutshell

In this book I grapple with a problem: Is human development directional? Does human evolution move in a particular direction? In recent decades the dominant view in the various sciences of evolution has been that change does not tend in any particular direction. The older 19th century idea of progress and advancement towards a civilized ideal has long been overturned by notions of a directionless process of natural selection. Current theories seek to avoid any notion of teleology and goal in the human story. And yet all archaeologists know that when looked at from a distance, the story of human development has a clear direction in at least one aspect – the amassing of more and more stuff. Humans started making simple stone tools and in the millennia of early human development they amassed small assemblages and made tools that had few parts. Today we produce massive machines such as the Hadron Collider, the largest single machine in the world, that connects 170 computing centers in 36 countries and uses $23.4 million in electricity annually.

This book seeks to marry the archaeological evidence of gradual and then runaway increases in material stuff used by humans with a theory that avoids teleology or goal direction. I outline a theory of human evolution and history based on ‘entanglement’ defined as the ever-increasing mutual dependency between humans and made things. It is widely accepted that humans have become increasingly dependent on technologies and on consumerism, but less emphasis has been placed on the way these human dependencies on things also involve things being dependent on humans. And they involve things being dependent on other things in complex, far-reaching entanglements. Much contemporary social theory describes the networks or webs of humans and things that constitute the modern world, but there has been less focus on how humans become entrapped by these material webs so that movement is channeled down certain pathways. This path dependency lies behind specific historical trajectories and it underpins the global movement towards a directional increase in the human dependence on things.

In the book I use archaeological examples, such as housing or the wheel, but also historical examples such as cotton or opium, to show how material things play an active role in pushing entanglements in particular directions. Much social theory has accepted the agency of things, but I argue that it is not the individual things but the systems of things (that is the thing-thing dependencies) that are crucial. When house walls collapse or spinning technologies can no longer achieve their purpose, new things are brought in to fix the problem. These new things often require further human intervention. Thus, humans are caught in a double bind, depending on things that depend on them so that humans are drawn into yet further dependence on things. Once this process has occurred it is difficult to go back – too much has already become caught up in the new entanglements. So, in our arguments about evolution, I want to replace teleology with irreversibility. The direction is always, over the long term, towards greater human-thing entanglement.