Brandon L. Garrett


On his book Autopsy of a Crime Lab: Exposing the Flaws in Forensics

Cover Interview of March 29, 2023


Back in 2009, the National Academy of Sciences concluded: “With the exception of nuclear DNA analysis … no forensic method has been rigorously shown to have the capacity to consistently, and with a high degree of certainty, demonstrate a connection between evidence and a specific individual or source.” The system implications of this critique of common forensic methodologies used by law enforcement have never been fully grappled with. As this book describes, there is a need for an overhaul of forensics to restore the faith placed in forensic analysis by the criminal justice system.

The National Academy of Sciences report warned that a “lack of independence” in crime labs can damage the objectivity of forensic science. Yet very few labs in the United States are independent. We need to regulate crime labs, to make them independent of law enforcement, with sound quality controls, and accountability to the public. This book describes examples where labs have made the leap to embrace scientific methods and accountability. Forensic science has received a wake-up call, due to wrongful convictions, lab audits and scandals, and scathing reports by the broader scientific community. Fortunately, there is now a clear a path to reform.



Ian Merkel


On his book Terms of Exchange: Brazilian Intellectuals and the French Social Sciences

Cover Interview of March 22, 2023


In the humanities and the social sciences, we are truly at a crossroads. For very good reasons, scholars—young scholars in particular—are calling for an overhaul of curricula. We need to rethink the Western canon and provide space to new voices outside of Europe and North America. In my view, this requires a two-fold approach. On the one hand, we need to multiply our knowledge of alternative ways of thinking and being in the past and in other parts of the world. On the other, we need to break through the mold of area studies to better see connections—connections that destabilize assumptions about the vectors of knowledge and culture. I tried to do both in the Terms of Exchange.

The book highlights the role of Brazilians both in understanding the empirical reality of Brazil but also in the development of theory. Brazilian thinkers, as I show, were crucial partners in the construction of two of the twentieth century’s most significant intellectual paradigms: structuralism and the longue durée. As many of us continue to resurface thinkers from what is often considered the “Global South,” I think we need to work hard to listen to the ways in which these intellectuals thought beyond themselves— to highlight not just their local knowledge but also their contributions to global intellectual life that extended beyond their geographic or cultural or ethnic specificity. What I hope to convince readers of is that this is not a polemical exercise but one based on historical reality and archival research.



Sara Blaylock


On her book Parallel Public: Experimental Art in Late East Germany

Cover Interview of March 15, 2023


The history explored in Parallel Public stands on its own merit, even if it has scarcely been explored previously, especially in the English-language context. I should note that even in Germany, the approach I take, which unites a multiplicity of sources and examples that have not been previously studied together, is likewise pretty unique. Extant studies have also presented the GDR’s artists in divisions based on region, gender, and/or medium. The experimental artists of the late GDR were committed to working autonomously and without fear of recrimination from a government that had historically not been very generous with citizens who refused to conform. It is inspiring to read about their efforts, both on an individual and a cumulative level. We can see from this history that persistence, in this case a demand for artistic freedom, can lead to tangible change even in the most intransigent of contexts.

The ways that these artistic practices could build community or bring greater representation to marginalized subjects translates to efforts that have been significant to art histories since the 19th century. The absence of these stories from a global history, especially in relation to post-WW2 art histories which have been so readily explored using American or Western European examples, reflects not the value of the art, but rather the prejudices that continue to skew people’s impressions of life in the Cold War East.

Importantly, by the Cold War’s final decade, the East German government’s inability to produce a collective public significantly frayed its power. The work of experimental artists was not only an antidote for, but also a diagnosis of a weakening state: a foil and a mirror to official culture. The GDR’s experimental scene produced an alternative public—a parallel public—with commitments to culture, community, and interdisciplinarity that state socialism had sought, but failed to inspire. This irony, really an inversion of state socialist principle, lies at the heart of this book.



Arnold Weinstein


On his book The Lives of Literature: Reading, Teaching, Knowing

Cover Interview of March 08, 2023


My expectations for The Lives of Literature are uncertain. This is my 9th—or 10th, depending on how you count—book, and it is very possibly my last. But it comes out at a tricky time. Our culture today is riven, in more ways than one. I am concerned about the reception that may await a book dealing with the Western canon, written by an old white male. In some quarters such credentials and aims are dicey, perhaps even toxic. There is a widespread (and, yes, justifiable) suspicion that my demographic has hogged the stage for quite some time now. Time for other voices.

This is especially distressing, because the book itself is timely: it addresses the diminishing prestige of the Humanities, and it offers up a view of literature that has broad appeal to the larger reading public, well beyond the academy. The existence of countless reading groups and book clubs throughout our country testifies to the ongoing vitality and reach of great books, from long ago to the present. And to a hunger to plumb those books, to derive nutrients from them. I believe The Lives of Literature meets that hunger, that demand. Further, I know I could not have written it earlier, because it has taken this many years in the academy (54, to be exact) to gain a fuller, more longitudinal sighting of what a career of teaching literature signifies: what I tried to do, why I did so, what I wrought, and whether it matters.

All this is why I appreciate the unusual opportunity to shape this Rorotoko Interview myself. It gives me the last word. And I guess that is, in a nutshell, what my book is: a literature professor’s last words about what he has spent his life doing.



George W. Breslauer


On his book The Rise and Demise of World Communism

Cover Interview of March 01, 2023


How, then, did I come to write this book? I have had a long career as a professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley (since 1971). My first publication was a co-authored book in the field of “comparative communist studies”; it appeared in 1970. Thereafter, I concentrated my research on Soviet and post-Soviet politics and foreign relations. But all along, I kept an eye on what was happening in other communist regimes.

When the field of “comparative communism” hit its stride in the late-1960s, the time that China’s mystifying “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” was ongoing, the concern was principally to understand the difference between Stalinism and post-Stalinism in the USSR and East Europe, the difference between the Soviet and Maoist models of rule, and the ability of “minor” economic reforms in European communism to provide material well-being and political stability. At the time, however, few people could anticipate the dramatic events to come in subsequent decades: rapprochement between the United States and China; Gorbachev’s radical political reforms that unraveled European communism; Deng Xiaoping’s radical economic reforms that unraveled Maoism and led eventually to China’s rise as an economic power; the United States’ military defeat in Vietnam; Vietnam’s and Laos’s emulation of China’s “Market Leninism”; the emergence of a family dynasty in a nuclearized North Korea; or the durability of Castro’s Cuban revolution.

Now that we can look back on both the collapse of European communism and thirty years of the evolution of Asian and Cuban communism, I saw this as a good moment for providing a synthesis that addresses key questions of explanation, evaluation, and—in the cases of the five remaining communist states—speculation as to where they might be headed. Thirty years after the collapse of European communism, much is now clear about the origins and evolution of communist regimes in their many variants. Less clear, of course, is the ultimate fate of those regimes that remain.

I have pitched this book to the educated reader, though specialists on the topic will hopefully recognize the novelty of my interpretations. I have avoided using jargon that might engage specialists in the social sciences while putting off the non-specialist. In all candor, my hope was that professors would assign this book to their undergraduate students in lecture courses on this topic. I pitched the narrative accordingly: insightful and nuanced, but accessible and engaging. I also hoped that the broader, educated public would appreciate an accessible book, of reasonable length, that made sense for them of the nature of communism.



Jason M. Kelly


On his book Market Maoists: The Communist Origins of China’s Capitalist Ascent

Cover Interview of February 22, 2023


I hope the book can help a wide range of readers develop a deeper, more nuanced understanding of how legacies of the past continue to shape the way the Chinese Communist Party sees the world today. I wrote the book to be accessible to non-specialists, including busy policymakers, partly because I worry about the flattening of the public conversation about China in the United States and elsewhere. Diminished contact between China and the rest of the world explains some of this trend. Covid eliminated many of the personal connections that have long been critical to understanding China and Chinese foreign policy. Rising tension between China and the United States hasn’t helped.

Reading this book is no substitute for meaningful exchanges, but it can add depth to the debate about China’s changing place in the world. This is a worthwhile pursuit given the stakes involved for all of us, whether we are China specialists or not.



Jacob Darwin Hamblin


On his book The Wretched Atom: America's Global Gamble with Peaceful Nuclear Technology

Cover Interview of February 15, 2023


The rhetoric I write about in this book still appears in public discourse today. The promise of nuclear cornucopia is alive and well, especially in regard to climate change. Some would encourage us to believe that with a little bit of faith, nuclear technologies will pull us out of the mess we are in. We can rebuild nature, find a future of abundance, and outrun environmental pressures—so the argument goes.

The goal of the book isn’t to extinguish such hopes. I’d rather challenge the reader to see them as familiar arguments that have been deployed routinely over the past seven decades, not simply by the nuclear industry, but by governments. We often lose sight of how important such arguments are for governments who use the cornucopian promise of atomic energy to achieve strategic goals.

While we debate whether nuclear reactors are capable of mitigating climate change, we should not lose sight of how and why nuclear technologies continue to be endorsed by governments around the world. Just as the United States has used the cornucopian promise of the atom to protect is nuclear weapons program and its nonproliferation goals, so too have countries such as Japan, France, and Sweden because of their deep commitments to nuclear power in the pursuit of energy security. And so too did countries such as Israel, India, and other states that have longstanding multipurpose nuclear programs. And it shouldn’t surprise us that every emergent nuclear weapons state has deployed the rhetoric of lifting themselves out of poverty, reshaping nature, and providing abundant energy.

Despite such contemporary lessons, I think the value of the book is primarily as a history—not as a weapon to be wielded in debates about nuclear power. The Wretched Atom reveals like no previous book the extraordinary range of American propaganda in favor of civilian atomic energy. It traces the atom’s ever-increasing importance in the exercise of American power, from Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan. It unveils the acrimonious controversies about convincing poor countries to invest in atomic energy to improve agriculture and prevent disease. It also reveals how deeply entrenched the idea of peaceful atomic energy is in global politics, and how difficult it would be for any country—especially the United States—to give it up.



Mark Osteen


On his book Fake It: Fictions of Forgery

Cover Interview of February 08, 2023


I hope that Fake It spurs scholars, artists and writers to rethink their attitudes about forgeries and to recognize the many gray areas involved in creative production. I also hope, perhaps quixotically, that the fifteen theses will serve as both a group of guidelines and a posse of provocations that will prompt others to rebut or reinforce them.

In addition to the tropes and themes outlined above, one pattern I noted repeatedly is particularly relevant to the contemporary world: how credulity is persistent and contagious (thesis 13). Even when the duped are shown that they’ve been hoodwinked, they cling to their belief against reason; such credulity spreads in groups like a virus. We have seen countless examples of such “thinking” in the past few years.

In addition to offering new looks at texts by well-known artists such as Peter Ackroyd, Peter Carey, Everett, Gaddis, and Welles, I also seek to draw more attention to the novels of Phillips and Hustvedt, and to the work of nearly forgotten writers such as Margaret Cavendish, George Meredith (and his wife, Mary Ellen).

Finally, I hope that, unlike most academic monographs, Fake It provides entertainment! I intentionally wrote it in a non-academic style (one anonymous reader described it as “breezy”) that displays wit, creativity, and humor. I eschewed jargon and academese to appeal to a broader public and to model the truth that we academic writers don’t have to be incomprehensible or dull to create serious criticism.



Andie Tucher


On her book Not Exactly Lying: Fake News and Fake Journalism in American History

Cover Interview of February 01, 2023


In these hyperpolarized times it’s easy—and, yes, sometimes appropriate—to focus on journalism’s flaws and failures. It’s also easy to forget there’s a more affirmative view of journalism: as an essential tool of democracy that provides citizens with the information they need to understand what their government and their elected officials are doing and to hold them accountable. That view acknowledges the idealism of the First Amendment, the landmark exposés by courageous investigative reporters, the gutsy coverage of war and crisis, the dogged daily slog to get things right.

And now the pervasive fake claims by fake journalists that they are the only ones upholding traditional principles have made it more important than ever for the true professionals—the ones who strive to do honest work—to reclaim and repair the crucial distinction between themselves and the fakers. Not Exactly Lying ends with a robust defense of the increasingly beleaguered tradition of true objectivity, arguing that mainstream “real” media must publicly recommit themselves to the rigorous, fact-based, intellectually honest search for truth—wherever the evidence might lead.



Jennifer Hochschild


On her book Genomic Politics: How the Revolution in Genomic Science Is Shaping American Society

Cover Interview of January 25, 2023


I hope readers take away three messages. First, as I noted at the beginning of these comments, humans are just beginning to learn about and come to grips with the potentially vast impact of biological science that is yet to come in this century. Biology may shape everything from climate change to the survival of species, the criminal justice system, the nature of war, the possibility of privacy, and the capacity to enhance traits and cure diseases. Some changes will benefit all or some people; some will harm all or some people; some will benefit some and harm others.

Second, governance of science and technology will be as controversial and difficult as the actual use of that science and technology. People disagree on who should govern, or even whether anyone should govern individuals’ choices about the use of technology. They also disagree (not necessarily in partisan ways) about whether policies should tilt toward promoting benefits at the cost of risks or protection from risks at the cost of losing benefits. There is no clearly correct answer to the governance question, or clear pathway to arrive at a correct answer to the governance question.

Finally, genomics is fascinating. I am not a scientist, but I became enamored with the people working to promote or stop genomics innovations and with the innovations themselves. Ending with a cliché is not ideal, but in this case the old saw about “the more you know, the more you want to know more” is apt. I hope readers find these issues and actors as mesmerizing as I do.



Alison Peck


On her book The Accidental History of the U.S. Immigration Courts: War, Fear, and the Roots of Dysfunction

Cover Interview of January 18, 2023


FDR’s fateful decision to move the immigration services to DOJ has had lasting consequences. Federal officials have long recognized that combining immigration law enforcement and adjudication functions in a law enforcement agency implicated due process and separation of powers concerns, and a few corrective efforts have been made. In 1983, DOJ by regulation created its Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) and placed all immigration judges and adjudication functions within it. This created some separation between the immigration investigation and prosecution functions, which remained in DOJ’s Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), and the adjudication functions of EOIR.

In the late 1990s, Congress commissioned a study on immigration reform, which noted the anomaly of having adjudication within a law enforcement agency and recommended that the immigration courts be moved to a new and independent agency. Then 9/11 occurred. In the wake of the terrorist attacks, momentum in Washington shifted toward the creation of a national security agency. In the frenzied drafting and negotiation of the Homeland Security Act, the George W. Bush administration pressured Senate Republicans to vote to move the immigration courts into the new Department of Homeland Security (DHS), essentially doubling down on the Roosevelt administration’s policy of coordination between immigration enforcement and national security. Only the vote of one senator—Sam Brownback of Kansas, an evangelical Christian with a concern for refugees and ranking member of the Senate Subcommittee on Immigration—prevented the move. Instead, the 2002 act legislatively fixed the location of EOIR within DOJ, while the investigation and prosecution functions of INS moved to the new DHS.

While that 2002 legislation ensured that immigration investigation and adjudication would be done by separate agencies, the aggressive self-referral record of the Trump attorneys general has raised renewed concerns about the location of adjudication within DOJ. In 2022, Representative Zoe Lofgren introduced H.R. 6577, the Real Courts, Rule of Law Act of 2022, which would have moved immigration adjudication to a new Article I court system, akin to the U.S. Tax Courts. The bill was reported by the Committee on the Judiciary and discharged from the Committee on the Budget on December 20, 2022. The fate of such efforts in the 118th Congress is uncertain.

If Article I immigration courts were created, immigration adjudication would technically remain within the executive branch, but with much greater independence from the president and without the self-referral power of the attorney general. Such a move would not change the underlying immigration laws—whether or how those laws need to change is a separate issue. The creation of Article I immigration courts would simply ensure that the United States moves toward its ideal of an impartial justice system for all.



David Livingstone Smith


On his book Making Monsters: The Uncanny Power of Dehumanization

Cover Interview of January 11, 2023


As is evident from everything that I have said, dehumanization is an immensely destructive force. At any given moment, including the moment that I am writing these words and you are reading them, there is some place in the world where dehumanizing rhetoric is fanning the flames of violence. It is easy to imagine that you are not vulnerable to such rhetoric, and that if you had been a German citizen in 1942 or a Rwandan Hutu in 1994, you would not have supported much less perpetrated atrocities. If you think this, I hope that reading Making Monsters will cause you to revise your views. The psychological dispositions that underpin dehumanization are pervasive and powerful, and none of us should assume that we are immune to them.

The looming threat of catastrophic climate change makes understanding dehumanization especially urgent. There is no doubt that global warming will have huge social and political consequences. There will be vast numbers of people seeking refuge as areas of the world become uninhabitable for them. The gap between haves and have-nots will widen precipitously, infrastructures will collapse and centers of power will shift. These conditions are a perfect storm for the proliferation of the most dangerous kinds of dehumanizing beliefs, and the horrific acts that so often flow from them.



Richard Scholar


On his book Émigrés: French Words That Turned English

Cover Interview of July 14, 2021


Words that cross languages and cultures are my subject. Why concern myself and readers with these? Such words matter to me, not as self-sufficient objects, but for the stories they tell of what it is to live a human life in history and for the role they play in the making of concepts, practices, and forms in and across cultures. I’m endlessly fascinated by these interactions, particularly as these are found in literature, which shapes and is shaped by language, of course, in unique ways.

I write not so much in defense as in illumination of French émigré words as they have been received and recycled—used, abused, and reused—in Anglophone culture. I treat the particular words I study in detail—words like caprice, naïveté, and ennui—as points of access into a wider exploration of the processes of translingual and transcultural migration in literature and its sister arts. This, then, is a book about translation and its other. Above all, however, it casts light on those untranslated French words that have ‘turned’ English in their movement between languages and their powers of cultural transformation.

We live at a time, of course, when many more English words are ‘turning’ French than the reverse. The historical reasons for this are obvious. After the British empire spread English across the world, the United States entrenched English as a global lingua franca, causing the unprecedented amount of lexical borrowing from English that is currently taking place in French and other languages. The response in the Francophone world to this process of Anglicization is an unresolved mixture of receptivity and resistance. It largely mirrors the Anglophone attitudes I explore in the book towards Frenchification.

What I want to suggest to my readers, above all, is that the current dominant position of English in relation to French ought not to be allowed to conceal a longer and more complex story of linguistic and cultural interaction. Anglophones have borrowed words from French for centuries. Why and how they do, and revealing what attitudes in the process towards French and the foreign, are questions at the heart of Émigrés.

To existing studies I bring an approach that is innovative, in that it yokes together keywords and creolization, two hitherto unrelated concepts in cultural criticism. When combined with due care, I contend, these concepts make unique sense of the processes that have entangled and enriched English and French language and culture in history. For they show untranslated French words not only ‘turning’ English, but making it anew, causing ambivalence and controversy in the process.

The result is an experiment in a cosmopolitan cultural criticism that is sensitive to language, to the vexed social and cultural questions that language raises, and to the dialogue between the arts.

I recognize that the book is, in many ways, a caprice. I will leave it to others to judge whether or not it is also a naïveté. Perhaps my greatest hope is that the book does not cause too much ennui.



Henry M. Cowles


On his book The Scientific Method: An Evolution of Thinking from Darwin to Dewey

Cover Interview of July 07, 2021


History has a lot to teach us. We know that. The hard part is making the leap from past to present, or more generally from “is” to “ought.”

One way to use history is as a map of paths not taken. I think that’s the most obvious implication of the book: it shows what a generation of scientists thought they were doing by reflecting on method by studying other minds—before their work was taken in a different direction. If we go back to their original vision, we might find some lessons for shoring up expertise today.

There are other implications I wish I’d brought out more explicitly in the book. One has to do with politics. The move to naturalize science paved the way for insisting that it was apolitical. This idea has been used (unsuccessfully, in many cases) to shield science from politics.

But as I show in Chapter 2, this research program actually began with politics—specifically, with the desire to define science as both radical and conservative. Science, in this view, encompasses politics. If we thought of it that way today, we might have different strategies for building trust in it.

The other implication that’s mostly latent in the book has to do with objectivity. Attempting to find a least common denominator for science, something so general you could find it in any animal, these scientists framed it as an objective tool—usable in any context, on any problem.

But there’s another way to think about objectivity, one that builds our identities into science, rather than separating them out. Feminist arguments for “Strong Objectivity” or what Donna Haraway has called “situated knowledges,” adopt this view—and it has immense potential for repairing our sense of science as a human activity, as something we do together, fallibly.

I’m drawn to this view of objectivity, and I think some of the figures in my book would’ve been too. One of them, William James, was actually the source of my epigraph. I think it makes as much sense as a conclusion as it did as an opening: “Theories thus become instruments, not answers to enigmas, in which we can rest. We don’t lie back upon them, we move forward, and, on occasion, make nature over again by their aid.”



Marni Reva Kessler


On her book Discomfort Food: The Culinary Imagination in Late Nineteenth-Century French Art

Cover Interview of June 30, 2021


I hope that Discomfort Food will convince readers that representations of food—those created in late nineteenth-century France and otherwise—should not be relegated to the category still life. While I recognize the works’ connections to seventeenth-century Dutch and eighteenth-century French still life precedents, with this project I seek to amplify and deepen our understanding of images of things that we consume by demonstrating that they should instead be appreciated in more generous historical, archival, theoretical, material, and visceral ways. We might savor their many and multifaceted resonances as we would a fine meal, relished for the complexity and richness inherent in them.

If the theories of academic practice establish the armature of this study, my own history lies at its beating heart. I didn’t know this when I started out, but during the years in which I worked on the book, I came to understand more about why the pictures upon which I focus matter so much to me. Why, for example, the mullet in Manet’s painting seemed to be so melancholy; why his eel disturbed me enough to think that I couldn’t write about the image; and why that unbearably beautiful lemon and those clattery oysters lured me back to the painting, unfurling memories of my mother making stuffed clams in our kitchen in Brooklyn. And something of the wedge of raw meat on the ground beside the sorrowful man in Degas’s painting led me, however circuitously, to my family’s holiday dinner table, to the brisket that we have eaten for generations, simmered for hours in that particular heady fusion of onions and garlic and cranberries and raspberry preserves. Such memories drove me, whether I always realized it or not, to search for these images’ most expansive resonances and material depths. Braiding the strands of personal experience and scholarly analysis, melding them as one would the ingredients in a recipe, I hope my book demonstrates, enriches and makes more complex the quality of the proverbial final dish. For, images of food, like their analogues in our world, touch us deeply. They are decidedly evocative and always personal—for the artist then as for the viewer now—and their sensory and conceptual dimensions seemingly endless in ways both concrete and ineffable.

Finally, I hope that this book will appeal to a broad range of readers. Blending academic writing and research with evocative and suggestive prose, I took certain risks that I couldn’t have taken as a young assistant professor. It’s quite liberating to be able to do the kind of writing and research that gives me the most pleasure and that also makes the book accessible to a wide readership. We all eat, no matter who we are or where or when we live(d). I sincerely hope that Discomfort Food will contribute to the many and varied conversations about food and its instability, historically and today, and that in so doing, it might expand our understanding of representations of one of the most fundamental things that unites as human beings.