Valerie Olson


On her book Into the Extreme: U.S. Environmental Systems and Politics beyond Earth

Cover Interview of June 25, 2018

In a nutshell

Into the Extreme offers an unusual look into the vast domain of U.S. human spaceflight. I wrote it after doing years of fieldwork in its workplaces that are off-limits to the public. Usually, social and historical studies of human spaceflight focus on rocketry or international relation-building. Instead, my exposure to the everyday work of sending people beyond Earth prompted me to focus on the two basic cultural ideas that spaceflight depends on and extends into the universe: “system” and “environment.”

These are humble everyday terms. But they are also historically loaded concepts of relationality that have come to empower Western thought, technical practice, and global interactions. The “system” concept emerged as a theoretical organizing principle during the Enlightenment, when it became clear to astronomers gazing through telescopes and biologists peering into microscopes that it wasn’t just important to know what things are but how they are interrelated. “System” became the official term for designating parts in relation to kinds of wholes, and for presenting those wholes as connected or separate from one another. “Environment” emerged in the nineteenth century as a term with which to think about the exterior forces that form systems.

Today, the “system” and “environment” concepts influence how people speak about and question what is included or excluded from worlds that matter: social, political, ecological. People speak of joining systems and beating them; people love environments and fight over them. Spaceflight elaborates and extends these concepts more intensively than most other types of social practice. I did fieldwork for my book in sites where living systems are being experimented on, artificial environments are being built, and far-off unEarthly environments are being connected to U.S. institutions through modes of occupation and remote sensing.

The book is therefore grounded in the anthropological understanding that social groups have different ideas about how things are connected. Such ideas can be extremely powerful but can also be completely taken for granted. People may not question how such concepts are cultivated or how they shape the worlds they live in. As an anthropologist, I have been pursuing this question: What are some basic concepts of relatedness that motivate thought, action, and power?

As a result, the chapters of the book engage a few key questions: What can spaceflight practices and social activities teach us about these basic relational ideas that inform diverse U.S. political perspectives, technical practices, and imaginations of futures? Or about how experts control what counts as “in” or “out” of relation? Or about how modern cosmologies get produced? I attempt to answer these questions by taking the U.S. relationships with the solar system as its object of study.



Theodore M. Porter


On his book Genetics in the Madhouse: The Unknown History of Human Heredity

Cover Interview of June 18, 2018

In a nutshell

Genetics in the Madhouse examines the study of human heredity historically, from the ground up. The gene eventually comes into the story, as anyone would expect, but in an odd and inglorious role. That is partly because the story takes off more than a century before anyone ever spoke of “genes” or “genetics,” about 1789. I focus on problems and places that mattered for those who first labored to establish rules of hereditary transmission in humans. Their chief concern, as I have tried to demonstrate, was the terrible problem of madness. The science of human heredity first took form in insane asylums.

Then, as now, heredity was a data science. The treatment of mental illness underwent a radical reform beginning in the 1790s. The new moral treatment aspired not to drive out demons but to cultivate the elements of rationality that were retained even by the mad. Old forms of treatment were now condemned as senseless and cruel. Insanity, the reformers proclaimed, was a disease, whose victims were not to be blamed. The new asylum, replacing the old “madhouse,” was to be scrupulously ordered and regulated. The public expense to support these new institutions demanded scrupulous patient records, as well as financial ones; annual reports were organized mainly around statistics. The most important of these numbers, apart from demographic information on admissions and outcomes, was the statistics of causes: appropriate tables made heredity visible and even measurable.

It seems that the idea of inherited insanity was not really new, not even in 1789. The tables of causes, which almost always showed heredity in a lead role, were based mainly on what family members told the asylum doctors in an admission interview. Inheritance of insanity was a familiar folk belief. About 1840, passive recording began to give way to determined investigation of family members similarly affected. Instead of simply tallying the causes supplied to them, doctors constructed increasingly elaborate tables to link causes with disease forms and cure rates. By this time, a few doctors were using institutionalized patients as a point of entry for investigations of insanity as a family disease. Later in the century, they began calculating probabilities of mental illness in the offspring based on the health status of the progenitors. The documentation of causes now took on increasing urgency. Insanity rates did not diminish in the face of new treatment ideals but expanded unremittingly right through the nineteenth century and beyond. Soon it was impossible to believe that medical treatment could turn back the insanity explosion. Eugenics (as it came to be called), the effort to combat insanity by preventing its victims from reproducing, arose very early as part of the program.

All of this took place with very little involvement of scientific academies or universities. About 1900, when Mendelian genetics and a new biological statistics appeared on the scene as rival approaches to the medical and statistical science of heredity, their practitioners looked around and discovered that asylum doctors already commanded the expertise to analyze their unmatched data reserves.


Craig Stanford


On his book The New Chimpanzee: A Twenty-First-Century Portrait of Our Closest Kin

Cover Interview of June 10, 2018

In a nutshell

This book is about the lives of chimpanzees living in the tropical forests of Africa. Over the past two decades, scientists have made dramatic discoveries about chimpanzees that will change the way we understand both human nature and the apes themselves. Although there is a rich history of chimpanzee field research that goes back nearly sixty years, almost all of the findings discussed in The New Chimpanzee have been made just since the turn of the millennium. From genomics to cultural traditions, I consider our close kin in a new light and ask what this new information may mean for a new and improved understanding of human nature.

Studying wild chimpanzees is the profession of a very small number of people in the world. At any one time there are probably fewer than a hundred scientists and their students actively engaged in chimpanzee field observation and study. The number of full-time professors in American universities whose careers are focused mainly on wild chimpanzee research is perhaps a dozen. Add in the scholars and conservationists doing work in related areas, and the global army of chimpanzee-watchers is a few hundred strong. The available funding for the work they do is a miniscule fraction of that given to scientists in other scientific endeavors. Yet the results of new studies are front-page news and are rightly touted in the international media for the clues they provide about human nature.



David Webber


On his book The Rise of the Working-Class Shareholder: Labor’s Last Best Weapon

Cover Interview of June 04, 2018

In a nutshell

The Rise of the Working-Class Shareholder tells the story of labor’s unheralded shareholder activism. That activism weaponizes the $3 trillion in labor’s capital, which is vested in the pensions of state and local government workers and unionized private sector workers, to advance the interests of their worker-contributors. The activists who do this work are almost totally invisible. But it is crucial to tell their story now, in a bleak time for labor unions and other working-class institutions. The purpose of the book is not to cheer up otherwise depressed labor advocates, though it does offer a rare glimpse into activists fighting and winning assorted confrontations with companies, hedge funds, private equity funds—all, using shareholder power. In telling their stories, my aim is to demonstrate how and why shareholder activism is a critical tool for workers to advance their interests in the twenty-first century. Workers should have more capital than they do, more ownership than they do. But, at the same time, they already have enough through their pension funds to meaningfully bend all-powerful global capital markets in their direction. Three-quarters of the book are dedicated to proving that proposition, primarily by telling the stories of these invisible activists.

That said, the book also offers two critically important legal and policy takeaways. The first relates to the question of what types of factors these pension funds should consider in making investments. The second major takeaway relates to pension reform. There is an extremely well-funded, comprehensive, right-wing attack on public pension funds in particular that has been going on for some time. That campaign, financed by the Koch Brothers, the Arnold Foundation, and others, aims to break up these pension funds and convert them into tens of millions of individually managed 401ks or the like. If successful, that will kill the activism described in the book. Labor’s shareholder activism is dependent on the existence of large, pooled sources of workers’ capital, like the California Public Employees’ Retirement System ($350 billion in assets) or the California State Teachers’ Retirement System ($225 billion) or New York City’s pension funds ($190 billion). Convert those into individually managed accounts, and these funds become like the rest of us 401k holders, atomized and unable to protect ourselves. I analogize a pension fund to a union, and a 401(k) to “right to work”. A pooled pension fund speaks with a powerful collective voice. I believe the subversion of that voice is a key aspect of pension reform. Such reform is not just about the question of underfunding. It is a form of economic voter suppression designed to silence working-class shareholder voice; voice that is critically dependent upon being collective.

In making these arguments, I also aim to overcome the objections of some ideological purists who view labor’s capital as inherently compromising. Does labor’s capital occasionally lead labor to act against its own interests? It certainly does. I offer examples of this and address them squarely in the book. But to me, to abandon labor’s capital because of these conflicts is like abandoning powerful unions because they grew too close to the power structure, or, giving up on electoral politics because of its inevitable compromises. The key is to master these problems through training and raising awareness that can tip the balance in labor’s favor.

None of this means that labor’s capital is the solution to all of labor’s problems. Traditional tools like legislation, litigation, electoral politics, and organizing still matter. But in my view, capital markets are the most powerful force on the planet. The facts on the ground are often established there. By the time you’re getting to your election or legislative drive, it is often too late. Worker voice needs to be heard in the markets themselves, and these funds are the mechanism for projecting that voice.



Mary E. Stuckey


On her book Political Vocabularies: FDR, the Clergy Letters, and the Elements of Political Argument

Cover Interview of May 28, 2018

In a nutshell

Political Vocabularies is about how Americans can agree on general political principles such as freedom and equality and at the same time disagree so vehemently about how to put those principles to work. We may experience the same political events, institutions, and people, but develop very different understandings of them. These differences are, at times, predictable and stable, but sometimes, especially during eras of political change, they can shift and transform. This happened in the 1930s, which is the period covered in the book, as the Roosevelt administration captured the allegiance of many of those who had been loyal Republicans and lost the allegiance of some who had been loyal Democrats. This New Deal coalition has been teetering for many years and may now be in the process of crumbling. I argue that by looking at the ways people created their political realities then, we can better understand not only that era but also our own.

I argue that these political realities are composed of five elements: First, they involve rhetorical authority. Each political reality locates political authority in different places: one part of the nation might want to see federal power strengthened, while another might want to see more power given to the states. And so political authority is very much a site of dispute between differing political vocabularies at any moment in time. Second, opposing political vocabularies are grounded in opposing characterizations of the specific political moment, its central issues, and its citizens, for we cannot imagine a political community without populating it and giving it purpose. Third, these issues and people are hierarchically ordered, which provides each reality with a sense of internal cohesion and which is also a central point of disputation between competing realities in a specific epoch. Fourth, each vocabulary is grounded in political tradition, read through our national myths which authorize the visions of national identity and purpose. Finally, each political vocabulary contains significant deliberative aspects, for each vision of the nation impels distinct policy imperatives. They are, in fact, our political priorities in action.

In the book, I tease out the ways in which the supporters and the opponents of FDR understood the nation, using a set of letters written to the president in 1935-1936.



Jenny Anger


On her book Four Metaphors of Modernism: From Der Sturm to the Société Anonyme

Cover Interview of May 21, 2018

In a nutshell

Four Metaphors of Modernism follows artists, who participated in the German organization Der Sturm (the storm) and the American organization Société Anonyme (anonymous society), and who found inspiration in metaphor. Beginning with Herwarth Walden’s Der Sturm (the journal, gallery, performance venue, press, theater, bookstore, and art school in Berlin, 1910-1932), I trace Walden’s aesthetic and intellectual roots to the composer Franz Liszt and the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche—forbears who led him to embrace a literal and figurative mixing of the arts. Then I follow many artists across the Atlantic to Marcel Duchamp and Katherine Dreier’s Société Anonyme in New York (1920-50), for it is a little-known fact that the founders of the Société Anonyme based their organization’s practices on those of Der Sturm.

The book is a chronological excavation of the histories of these intertwined arts organizations and at the same time an exploration of the metaphors central to their creative output. Each chapter considers one of four metaphors—piano, water, glass, and home—as it evolves at Der Sturm and then at the Société Anonyme. Each of the chapters retells the history of the organizations from the perspective of a different metaphor. They can be read in any order, although piano came to prominence first, followed by water, etc.

More specifically, we learn in “Piano” that Walden’s earliest piano compositions, written for the poet Else Lasker-Schüler, demonstrate his penchant for an aesthetics of empathy and response. Walden admired the painter Wassily Kandinsky, who himself wrote about artistic communication with the extended metaphor of the piano. Marcel Duchamp and Katherine Dreier used the piano to mediate and problematize relationships.

“Water” features Alfred Döblin’s Conversations with Calypso, a foundational aesthetic of Der Sturm, in which music is likened to water. Kandinsky, Gabriele Münter, Kurt Schwitters, Duchamp, and Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven reveal their joy and ambivalence about autonomy and relationship in their aqueous works in Germany and the United States.

“Glass” reveals that Der Sturm published Paul Scheerbart’s groundbreaking treatise Glass Architecture and supported Bruno Taut’s revolutionary Glashaus (glass house). However, neither project subscribed to modernism’s purported ideal of transparency. Rather, the metaphorical possibilities of translucent glass inspired Scheerbart, Taut, Sonia and Robert Delaunay, Paul Klee, and László Moholy-Nagy—the latter two also at the Société Anonyme.

Finally, in “Home” we learn that sociologist Georg Simmel formulated some ideas about gender, art, and home while lecturing for Walden. Adolf Loos’s homes shuffled public and private, and the First German Autumn Salon highlighted Sonia Delaunay’s domestic art in Berlin in 1913. Is it any wonder that the Société Anonyme’s 1926 Brooklyn exhibition included staged “rooms” for art? A “Reprise” finds startling and unexpected resonances in the work of later American modernist Jackson Pollock.



Martyn Frampton


On his book The Muslim Brotherhood and the West: A History of Enmity and Engagement

Cover Interview of May 14, 2018

In a nutshell

This book examines the history of the relationship between the Muslim Brotherhood—the world’s most important Islamist movement—and the Western powers that have dominated the Middle East over the last century—the British and the Americans. The subject, which is touched upon in other works, but here is made the central prism of analysis, continues to have contemporary resonance; the conspiracy theories that surrounded Brotherhood-western relations during the Arab Spring, for example. But, to be clear, this is not a book about the Arab Spring per se. My narrative arc reaches from the founding of the Brotherhood in 1928 down to 2010; the entire history of the relationship is crucial for understanding events that came after 2011.

For a brief period, it seemed as if the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist movements would emerge as the real “winners” from the Arab Spring. The question of their relationship with “the West”, both at a practical and intellectual level, rose to the top of the political agenda. Both sides came to this issue with accumulated historical baggage that explains some of the choices they made.

The Brotherhood, from its beginnings, saw the West as the critical “other” by which it defined its own “self”. The founder of the Brothers, Hasan al-Banna, was really a man of his time. His writings reveal that he saw changes around him in Egyptian society, and that he associated those changes with “the West”. Al-Banna, it seems clear, was profoundly disturbed by the broader process of socio-cultural change—what we tend to label ‘modernization’—and in particular, by the growing secularization of his country. To his mind, this process had been unleashed by the western powers, with the deliberate intention of destroying Islam, so as to cement their own power. Al-Banna created the Muslim Brotherhood in order to challenge this process. Its worldview comprised a unique form of anti-imperialism, which blended opposition to western political power, with a socio-cultural project centered on the politics of authenticity. In the context of 1930s and 1940s Egypt, this proved to be a potent admixture (for reasons explained in the book); and from then on, the Brothers have been a critical part of the Egyptian, and wider Middle Eastern, socio-political fabric.

The western powers that exerted primary influence over Egypt and the wider region could not, for those very reasons, ignore the Brotherhood. The British and later the Americans paid close attention to the movement and debated its character and role. The book traces the contours of that debate as it evolved over the years down to the Arab Spring and provides an important case study of Anglo-American policy-making, both in the Middle East and more broadly. In all this, I would hope readers find an empirically rich, yet engaging account of a story that, until now, has reached only marginal attention.



David A. Weintraub


On his book Life on Mars: What to Know Before We Go

Cover Interview of May 07, 2018

In a nutshell

Life on Mars is about both the astronomers who have made claims about the existence of past or present life on Mars and about those discoveries themselves. It is about exactly how much we know about possible life on Mars and how certain we are about what we think we know.

Life on Mars is also about two more things. First, some important ethical and moral issues arise should we contemplate the possible human colonization of Mars in the near future. Would our views regarding human colonization of Mars change if we knew the red planet were already home to a native biology? Second, how should big science, in particular space exploration and planetary science, be done when under the intense scrutiny of the national and international media? NASA just launched the TESS mission (to find planets around nearby stars) and the InSight mission (to study Mars). Through their tax dollars, Life on Mars readers together are paying billions of dollars to fund these missions, and therefore all discoveries made via these and similar missions are and should be public knowledge. As a result, the tax-paying public quite justifiably wants to know what scientists discover. And they want to know now, not in three years when scientists and the public have moved on to the next big thing.

For more than a century, feedback between some media-savvy scientists who depend on public money to support their projects and friendly reporters has created a Mars mania. That mania may have led both scientists and the lay public to expect more of Mars than Mars may have to offer. At times, under the heat of television lights and the pressure from real-time interviewers, the mania has led eager scientists to speculate and draw profound conclusions from their research that might be true but which also might lie beyond the limits of their data and their actual knowledge. In calmer circumstances, for example on the pages of carefully written papers in refereed, scientific journals, they often have drawn different, or more nuanced, conclusions. By knowing more about Mars, readers will become wiser consumers of new discoveries that will be reported about Mars.

I think this book is unusual in that it does more than discuss the science and the scientists involved in studying Mars. Teasing apart the real Mars from an imagined Mars is difficult. I am, at heart, a teacher and so my intent is to help readers with this, but I also ask my readers to think about the issues and make their own judgments.

My readers should prepare to go on a journey with me to telescopes on high mountains scattered around the surface of Earth, to telescopes in Earth orbit and in Mars orbit, and even down to the surface of Mars. When our journey is finished, readers will have become knowledgeable about Mars. I hope they also will have become curious to know more about Mars. In fact, readers should demand that NASA, ESA, and the astronomy community continue to dedicate significant resources to learning more about Mars. The answers we hope to obtain are simply too important to not pursue.



Bernardo Zacka


On his book When the State Meets the Street: Public Service and Moral Agency

Cover Interview of April 30, 2018

In a nutshell

When we encounter the state, we do not meet with the text of the law but with a particular person—a case manager at a welfare office, a frontline worker at the DMV, a local counselor, or perhaps a law enforcement officer. These workers are known as street-level bureaucrats, and their unflattering reputation precedes them. Cold, distant, and unconcerned, they are often described as automata who merely apply rules.

And yet the nature of everyday work at the frontlines of public service is not quite what it seems from the outside. It is neither as simple, repetitive, nor rule-governed as one might believe. Combining political theory with eight months of ethnographic fieldwork in an anti-poverty agency in the Northeastern United States, I try to shed light on what it is like to be the face of a chronically under-staffed and under-resourced state. What does the job do to you as a moral person?

Public service agencies are responsible for implementing public policy. The directives they inherit, however, are often vague, ambiguous, and conflicting. This indeterminacy trickles all the way down to the frontlines of public service, leaving street-level bureaucrats with a considerable margin of discretion.

In using that discretion, we expect such bureaucrats—as agents of the democratic state—to remain sensitive to a plurality of values that are central to our democratic political culture. They must be efficient in the provision of services; fair in dealing with clients; responsive to the needs of particular individuals; and respectful of them.

Taken individually, each of these demands is sensible. Put together, however, they often yield conflicting guidance, especially when resources are scarce. Attending to one frequently means falling short on others. This gives rise to endless moral dilemmas.

Do you listen attentively when a client opens up about a sensitive personal problem, or do you cut their story short because the waiting room is full and the clock is ticking fast? Do you go out of your way to assist a particularly disadvantaged client, or do you only offer a level of service you can realistically replicate for all?

With the lives and dignity of vulnerable clients in the balance, these dilemmas are not just cognitively demanding, but emotionally draining too. It’s hard not to agonize over them and not to feel complicit in the shortcomings of the system one embodies.

Over time, the psychological pressure builds and, if left unchecked, takes its toll. Some street-level bureaucrats put up with it by compartmentalizing. Others burn out. I argue that a great many, however, respond just as social psychologists would have us expect: through cognitive distortions that simplify the moral landscape and reduce the sense of conflict they experience.

Since they cannot live up to the full demands of the role, street-level bureaucrats are driven, often unconsciously, to narrow their understanding of these demands so as to be able to live up to them. They commit themselves to one dimension of the role at the expense of others. Moral specialization emerges as a cop­ing response to the pressures of everyday work.

We thus find ourselves in a predicament. The proper implementation of public policy in a democratic context depends on street-level bureaucrat’s capacity to remain attuned to a plurality of values, yet the nature of everyday work at the frontlines of public service rewards narrow specialization.

How does this predicament come about? What can we do to remedy it? These are the questions I take up in When the State Meets the Street.


Arturo Escobar


On his book Designs for the Pluriverse: Radical Interdependence, Autonomy, and the Making of Worlds

Cover Interview of April 23, 2018

In a nutshell

Designs for the Pluriverse is, succinctly stated, about the potential for redesigning design and, in so doing, contribute to redesigning the world. Why? To me, the answer is simple: because we are literally destroying the world at an alarming rate, and I am not just talking about the disappearance of species and the manifold and increasingly destructive effects of climate change. I am also talking about the disruption of basic human sociality, the breakdown of social relations, the proliferation of wars and violence, massive displacement of peoples and nonhumans, abhorrent inequality, and the difficulty many young people face today in crafting lives of meaning for themselves. So much suffering and devastation is becoming unbearable for those who are genuinely attentive to the Earth and to the fate of their fellow humans. The book argues that design is central to the current crisis and that it may be a crucial factor in confronting such a crisis imaginatively and effectively. The book is a plea for us all to look deeply into the world around us so that we perceive anew the devastation that surrounds us, near and far, reaching out to our innermost selves for the strength to face it with utmost care, courage, and hope. This is why the book is dedicated to exemplary figures of struggle for a better, and different, world.

Let me now present a more analytical description of the book. Designs for the Pluriverse offers a novel design vision, based on a reorientation of design from its largely functionalist and commercially-driven applications within globalized capitalist societies towards a view of design in tune with the radical interdependence of all life. The book’s approach is ontological, which simply means that, in designing tools, objects, and institutions, we are designing ways of being. The argument stems from two sources: trends in critical design studies emphasizing participatory, collaborative, situated, and socially and ecologically responsible design; and cultural-political mobilizations by social movements, particularly but not only in the Global South, which are responding to the crisis on the basis of deeply relational conceptions of life, such as those found among Latin American Afrodescendant, peasant, and indigenous groups engaged in the defense of their territories against extractive operations conducted in the name of so-called development. Designs for the Pluriverse brings to the fore the ecological, social, and cultural – in the last instance, civilizational – transitions called forth in order to address the interrelated crises of climate, energy, poverty, inequality, and meaning. It adumbrates a post-patriarchal and post-capitalist pluriverse (defined as a world where many worlds fit, contrary to the current model of a single, market-driven globalized civilization), beyond the supremacy of the modern patriarchal capitalist ontologies of separation, domination, and control. The book provides an in-depth analysis of the most farsighted proposals within the design profession, such as design for social innovation and transition design, and develops a framework for a design praxis intended to strengthen the communal basis of life from the perspective of territorial struggles for autonomy.



Jerry Z. Muller


On his book The Tyranny of Metrics

Cover Interview of April 16, 2018

In a nutshell

We increasingly live in a culture of metric fixation: the belief of so many organizations that scientific management means replacing judgment based upon experience and talent with standardized measures of performance, and then rewarding or punishing individuals and organizations based upon those measures. The buzzwords of metric fixation are all around us: “metrics,” “accountability,” “assessment,” and “transparency.”

The Tyranny of Metrics treats metric fixation as the organizational equivalent of The Emperor’s New Clothes. Though often characterized as “best practice,” metric fixation is in fact often counterproductive, with costs to individual satisfaction with work, organizational effectiveness, and economic growth. The book helps explain why metric fixation has become so popular, why it is so often counterproductive, and why some people have an interest in promoting it. It is a book that analyzes and critiques a dominant fashion in contemporary organizational culture, with an eye to making life in organizations more satisfying and productive. It’s a book about management broadly construed. But unlike most authors who write about management, it also tries to see organizations from the perspective of the managed.



Sarah E. Igo


On her book The Known Citizen: A History of Privacy in Modern America

Cover Interview of April 09, 2018

In a nutshell

Privacy—I probably need convince no one—looms large in the United States today, sparked by concerns about NSA spying as well as social media profiling, facial recognition software as well as genetic testing. It is the vocabulary Americans reach for to mark the boundary between themselves and the society at large: the government, of course, but also corporations, researchers, marketers, employers, schools, and neighbors. Indeed, for something we think of as by definition cordoned off from public life, privacy courses through U.S. political culture.

My book charts how and why privacy became a fixture—even fixation—of the U.S. public sphere in the twentieth century. The growth of the central state and social institutions is part of the answer, along with the creation of ever-more sophisticated technologies of surveillance. But the larger story I tell is the emergence of a “knowing society,” one that sought to understand, govern, and minister to its members by scrutinizing them in fuller and finer detail—often with the support and cooperation of those same citizens. By pursuing the problem of how Americans would, and should, be known by their own society, I hope to offer a new angle on the contentious career of privacy in modern life.

A knowing society, after all, carried rewards as well as risks. New techniques for rendering individuals legible, from credit reports and CCTV cameras to psychological testing, promised opportunity and security, even self-understanding. But being known too well—through the monitoring of one’s sexual or consumption habits, for instance—could threaten personal autonomy.

This was a delicate calibration. To remain unrecognizable to society’s authorities was in some contexts a sign of privilege. In others, it was a form of disempowerment, with recognition basic to enacting one’s membership in society. Being traceable in a national criminal or DNA database was a different matter than being identifiable to a benefits-granting program like Social Security. In this way, the question of whether one could be known accurately and authentically—and on one’s own terms—animated privacy’s prominence in American public life.

I track American debates over the known citizen, from the era of “instantaneous photography” in the late nineteenth century to our own age of big data. Across the last century and a half, tabloid journalism and new technologies, welfare bureaucracies and police tactics, market research and personality testing, scientific inquiry and computer data banks, tell-all memoirs and social media all posed profound questions about how to fix the line between the modern person and the collectivities to which she or he belonged.

These practices could not help but alter Americans’ ideas about privacy. In entertaining new understandings of what could be asked and what could be said, what could be exposed and what should be disclosed, citizens shifted the contents of “public” and “private.” By the twenty-first century, I contend, they had fundamentally redrawn the borders separating the private from the public self (for the whole story, you have to read the book).



Warren I. Cohen


On his book A Nation Like All Others: A Brief History of American Foreign Relations

Cover Interview of April 01, 2018

In a nutshell

A Nation Like All Others is a history of American foreign relations from 1776 to the present; it also a critique of the idea of American exceptionalism; and it laments the absence of moral imagination in most of the nation’s leaders. It begins with a description of the origins of empire in the 18th and 19th century, as Americans drove Native Americans out of their lands, just as ancient Chinese had overwhelmed their weaker neighbors in the creation of the Chinese Empire thousands of years before. In the course of reviewing the subsequent history of American relations with the rest of the world, I describe the United States as a frequent force for good—more so than any other nation—but demonstrate with regret the evil committed—against Native Americans, Mexicans, Filipinos, Vietnamese, Iraqis, and others—as our leaders gave priority to their concerns for the national interest over American ideals. Therein lies my conception of “a nation like all others.” I did not think that way when I enlisted in the U.S. Navy 62 years ago.

Readers, much like reviewers for the Press, will find many of my interpretations “argumentative.” I trust that will stimulate some fresh thinking about some of the actions (or inactions) I analyze. My rejection of the idea of American isolationism in the 1920s, my description of the enormously important role the United States played in world affairs from the end of World War I to the onset of the Great Depression, will probably surprise some, but my work on that subject has gained acceptance over the years among most professional diplomatic historians. My discussion of the Cold War is unavoidably long, but a bit more sympathetic to Ronald Reagan than some of my earlier books. I continue to see Mikhail Gorbachev as the key figure in ending the Soviet-American confrontation. My analysis of current Chinese-American relations, critical of those who imagined the emergence of a friendly democratic China, reflects the principal focus of my life’s research, writing, and activities.



Francesco Duina


On his book Broke and Patriotic: Why Poor Americans Love Their Country

Cover Interview of March 25, 2018

In a nutshell

America’s poorest citizens are among its most patriotic. Their love of country—and indeed, their sense that the United States is superior to other countries in the world—is according to most measures unmatched by wealthier Americans. It also exceeds the patriotism of poor citizens in most other advanced nations in the world. At the same time, America’ s least well-off have access to fewer benefits, work longer hours, face more inequality, and their chances of upward mobility are worse than is the case for poor citizens in other advanced countries. Why, then, are they so patriotic? If anything, one might expect poor Americans to feel a sense of dissatisfaction, if not outrage, towards their country. Why do they think so highly of their country?

The answer matters a lot. So much depends on their patriotism: social cohesion, military recruitment, voting behavior, political parties’ platforms (just consider, for a moment, the success of Donald Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again!’), the nation’s sense of self and place in the world, and more.

This book offers insights into this puzzle. During 2015 and 2016, I spent time in laundromats, bus stations, homeless shelters, used clothing stores, streets, and other venues in Alabama and Montana and conducted 60 in-depth interviews with poor and patriotic Americans; I also spoke with 3 poor but unpatriotic individuals. I was eager to hear their answers, give them a voice, and learn from their perspectives. I spoke to people in rural and urban settings, and of various races, genders, political orientations, religious beliefs, histories of military service, and ages.

Broke and Patriotic reports on the findings. Three primary narratives emerged. First, many of the people I met spoke of America as being the last hope for themselves and, more fundamentally, humanity. The United States represents deliverance from many of the ills that have plagued humanity from time immemorial. It celebrates the worth of each person (“Here, I am as worthy a human being as the President of the United States!”, I was told by more than one person). As such, America gives everyone a sense of dignity. For many of the people I met, this promise holds extraordinary value. Second, America is the “land of milk and honey”. Everyone wants to come here, the “roads are paved in gold”, and anyone can make it. Failure, I was reminded, is one’s own responsibility. Third, America is the land of freedom—both physical and mental. Where else, one person in Montana asked me, can one choose to be homeless? While other countries repress their people and punish them with undo process, Americans are allowed to come and go wherever they wish, and to think whatever they wish. This includes freedom of religion—a major reason why America, several people reasoned, holds a special place in God’s heart. And if the government is increasingly intrusive, this is because it has simply strayed away from the social contract. In this context, freedom means also owning guns, which is not only a means of self-defense but a necessity for hunting and therefore feeding one’s family.

While in many cases misconceptions of other countries abounded (“Only Israel and the United States”, I was told for instance, “are democracies in the world”), it became very clear to me that most of the people I met felt a genuine and reasonable sense of ownership toward their country. Americans do not belong to the country; it is the country that belongs to them. This is a bottom-up sort of patriotism. And for those who otherwise struggle so much in their daily lives such an attachment offers them a very precious psychological lifeline.


Andrea Komlosy


On her book Work: The Last 1,000 Years

Cover Interview of March 19, 2018

In a nutshell

In contrast to earlier, more inclusive ideas about work, the Western conception of work was, by the end of the nineteenth century, reduced to gainful employment. Labor studies from liberal, conservative, reformist or radical-socialist perspectives all promoted the idea of an ongoing transition towards paid, socially secured work relations. Labor movements fought capitalist exploitation, but stuck to a very narrow concept of work. Housework and subsistence work were not included in their definition of work or their conception of exploitation and appropriation. This optical illusion was due to a Western-centric perspective that equated the colonized world with backwardness, as well as to a family ideology that equated (not only female) unpaid work with nature; natural duties associated with biologically defined roles (motherhood, care for husband, children, elderly), denied non-paid, household and care activities the character of work.

This limited perspective contrasted sharply with the personal experience of most people in the world—whether in colonies, developing countries, or in the industrializing world. Reducing work and the production of value to remunerated employment is hardly convincing, not only from a feminist perspective. During the last 1,000 years, work has always consisted of paid and unpaid, free and unfree, voluntary and forced labor relations that people combined during their life-course within households and in the framework of local, regional, or global divisions of labor.

Based on historical and cross-cultural experience, this book therefore pleads for a broader understanding of work. It offers an analytical framework that categorizes work according to the beneficiaries of the product: Commodified labor produces for the market and it includes the labor power that is sold on the labor market. Reciprocal or subsistence labor is performed within family households or local neighborhoods without money as an intermediate; it delivers goods and services for immediate use. Tributary labor consists of those duties and taxes, in kind or in money, which are contributed to a landlord or to a tax-collecting polity. This framework allows us to include all types of work and labor, and compare them across history; such an approach does not reveal a linear development from reciprocal to commodified labor, but different combinations, varying across time and space.

The book consists of two parts: Part I depicts the changing perceptions of work and labor within Western discourse that resulted in the reductionist understanding of work and labor in the nineteenth century. It contains a historiographic re-evaluation of Western narratives of work and labor history, both Marxist, liberal and conservative. Instead, it develops a methodological model to assess appropriation and transfer of value, combining surplus value from paid labor with values appropriated from non-paid work. Part I also provides the analytical framework and proposes a terminology that allows assessing the different manifestations of work. Part II offers six historical cross-cuts from the thirteenth century to the twenty-first century, showing the different combinations of labor relations on a local, the European, and the global level. It offers a very short history of the interregional and international division of labor that includes the contributions of non-paid work to the making of global capitalism. Readers are encouraged to read Part I and then to proceed to Part II, if they are interested in historical examples.