Richard Ned Lebow

 

On his book The Politics and Ethics of Identity: In Search of Ourselves

Cover Interview of February 15, 2013

In a nutshell

We are multiple, fragmented, and evolving selves who, nevertheless, believe we have unique and consistent identities.

What accounts for this illusion?  Why has the problem of identity become so central to post-war scholarship, fiction and popular culture?

I contend that the defining psychological feature of modernity is the tension between our reflective and social selves.

To address this problem, Westerners have developed four generic strategies of identity construction that are associated with four distinct political orientations: conservatism, totalitarianism, liberalism and anarchism.

I develop my argument through the reading of ancient and modern literary, philosophical and musical texts.






 

Carl Wennerlind

 

On his book Casualties of Credit: The English Financial Revolution, 1620-1720

Cover Interview of December 06, 2012

In a nutshell

Casualties of Credit offers a cultural history of early modern money. In exploring the intellectual underpinnings of the seventeenth-century English Financial Revolution, I uncover how people conceived of money and how their understanding was grounded in the prevailing thinking about science, philosophy, politics, commerce, law, and colonialism. While Casualties of Credit’s most immediate focus is on a series of unexpected connections between money and alchemy, slavery, and the death penalty, its more general aim is to illuminate the deep cultural and political embeddedness of credit. Moreover, I also explore the tension between credit’s marvelous productive potential and the integral role repressive violence played during the Financial Revolution.

I begin the book by arguing that the Scientific Revolution played a central role in the epistemic turn that paved the way for the development of a radically new culture of credit. In particular, I focus on how the Hartlib Circle—the period’s premier scientific and social reform group—embraced Baconian and alchemical thinking in developing a vision for the universal reformation of humanity. Armed with proper knowledge, they believed that it was possible for mankind to transmute nature, society, and people for utilitarian ends—and thus launch what they referred to as an “infinite improvement” process.

Money played an essential role in the Hartlibian reform project. But for money to be able to ignite industry and activate hidden resources, as well as mediate an ever-expanding world of goods, it was necessary to find a way to expand the quantity of money in society. After discussing how the Hartlib Society ambitiously sought to use their alchemical knowledge to turn lead into gold, I explore how they switched their attention to the development of a generally circulating credit currency once their transmutational efforts failed. Moving from a metallic currency to a paper currency did not strike them as that great of a leap considering their understanding that all forms of money are based on credit. Trust, not materiality, was thus the most essential ingredient in money. While silver and gold had successfully enabled trust in the past, the Hartlibians argued that value-less paper notes could also operate as money, granted they fulfilled certain criteria.

Casualties of Credit then proceeds to explore the ideas and practices associated with the formation of trust. Drawing on new models for probabilistic thinking developed by John Locke and other philosophers, political economists derived a set of principles for how to create the most confidence-inducing currency. In addition to solid assets securing the paper notes, transparent institutional designs and accounting practices, and honest and honorable directors, one of the most important conditions for the development a credit currency was that anyone who undermined trust and confidence was harshly punished. In exploring how these criteria informed the creation of the Bank of England in 1694, Casualties of Credit turns to its second primary focus: the role of violence in the English Financial Revolution.

The rest of the book engages with the debates surrounding, firstly, the use of the death penalty to protect the new credit currency against forgers and counterfeiters and, secondly, the initiative to use anticipated profits from the African slave trade to bolster trust in the nation’s public credit. In both instances, repression and violence played essential roles in protecting and promoting trust in the new culture of credit. While John Locke, Christopher Wren, and Isaac Newton played prominent roles in the debates about the use of the death penalty against monetary criminals, Daniel Defoe and Jonathan Swift actively and enthusiastically promoted the scheme to use profits from the slave trade to bolster public credit.






 

Lauren Berlant

 

On her book Cruel Optimism

Cover Interview of June 05, 2012

In a nutshell

Cruel Optimismis a book about living within crisis, and about the destruction of our collective genres of what a “life” is; it is about dramas of adjustment to the pressures that wear people out in the everyday and the longue durée; it is about the blow of discovering that the world can no longer sustain one’s organizing fantasies of the good life.

I’ll focus here on three matters.  The first is the concept of cruel optimism (what’s optimism, what’s cruel about it).  The second is on a particular scene—the end of the postwar good life fantasy and the rise of neoliberalism in the U.S. and Europe—in which the consequences of cruel optimism are lived collectively.  The third is about the need for a realism that embeds trauma and suffering in the ordinary rather than in a space of exception, given that the crises of exhaustion and knowing how to live are problems saturating ordinary life.

I define “cruel optimism” as a kind of relation in which one depends on objects that block the very thriving that motivates our attachment in the first place.

All attachment is optimistic.  But what makes it cruel is different than what makes something merely disappointing. When your pen breaks, you don’t think, “This is the end of writing.”  But if a relation in which you’ve invested fantasies of your own coherence and potential breaks down, the world itself feels endangered.

A destructive love affair is my favorite example: if I leave you I am not only leaving you (which would be a good thing if your love destroys my confidence) but also I leaving an anchor for my optimism about life (which is why I want to stay with you even though I’m unhappy, because I am afraid of losing the scene of my fantasy itself).

So this double bind produces conflicts in how to proceed, because massive loss is inevitable if you stay or if you go.

Cruel Optimism asks: Why is it so hard to leave those forms of life that don’t work?  Why is it that, when precariousness is spread throughout the world, people fear giving up on the institutions that have worn out their confidence in living?

This is why I am interested in seeing optimism operate in all kinds of attachment: from intimacy and sexuality to things like voting, or the belief that capitalism is a meritocracy that rewards active competence.

In all of these scenes of “the good life,” the object that you thought would bring happiness becomes an object that deteriorates the conditions for happiness.  But its presence represents the possibility of happiness as such.  And so losing the bad object might be deemed worse than being destroyed by it.  That’s a relation of cruel optimism.






 

Jini Kim Watson

 

On her book The New Asian City: Three-Dimensional Fictions of Space and Urban Form

Cover Interview of May 29, 2012

In a nutshell

This book takes a fresh look at the so-called “Asian Tiger” success stories of South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore.  While these countries have been much lauded for their incredible postwar growth rates—and are now widely viewed as the economic model for industrializing China and India—The New Asian City tells quite a different story through the dual lenses of urban development and fictional narratives.

By examining “new” spatial technologies such as the department store, the high-rise apartment block, the expressway, and the factory, The New Asian City uniquely combines a spatial history of three East Asian sites with the perspectives that literature, poetry and film offer.  In this sense, the book rereads the development of certain “model” Third World countries through narratives which depict the transformation of the built environment as a variously contested and creative encounter.

The analysis takes the reader from the colonial period of the early twentieth century, when Korea and Taiwan were part of the Japanese Empire and Singapore was a British trading post, up to the end of the 1980s and the boom years of these “Asian Miracles.”  The book is structured into three sections: the first dealing with the colonial city and its role in creating and maintaining imperial spaces, the second with postwar urban renewal and its effects, and the third with rural-to-urban migration and broader national landscapes.

Centrally, I argue that the economic and historical dimensions of these success stories must be supplemented by looking at the narratives that responded to dramatic changes in the urban environment.

For example, how was the mass participation of women in the new manufacturing industries, along with profound changes in domestic living spaces, portrayed in women’s writing across the three sites?  Why did authoritarian leaders, from South Korea’s Park Chung Hee to Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew, rely so heavily on urban renewal schemes in their visions of a modern society?  And how was the process of urban renewal perceived by workers who both helped construct such spaces, and witnessed the loss of their former home environments?  In other words, the book traces the way that certain spatial realities, taken up into narrative form, reveal the conflicts and struggles behind larger social, political and economic processes.

The book’s method of moving between urban history and fictional works thus makes an argument for the imaginative function of built form.  Ideally, however, The New Asian City can be read along both of its two axes: by people interested in the nuts and bolts of Asian urban forms and political-economic development, and by people interested in this powerful body of fictional work, which includes proletarian writing, women’s novellas, city poetry, and auteur films.






 

Nicholas D. Paige

 

On his book Before Fiction: The Ancien Regime of the Novel

Cover Interview of May 21, 2012

In a nutshell

On the face of it, my title is silly: there is no “before fiction” for humans, for we are, from the start of recorded history and from the start of our individual lives, fiction-loving animals.  Homer, say, on the one hand; and pretty much any toddler on the other.  It’s for good reason that “fiction” has become the de facto, lowest-common-denominator way of referring to vastly different products of human storytelling.  Besides: long ago Aristotle cleanly separated history from poetry—“what happened” from “what would happen.”  Whether we are talking about human history or literary history, surely fiction runs through the lot of it.

But there are other ways of looking at the matter, depending on what you want to explain.  I want to explain a predominant feature of the early novel in France and England—“early” meaning the period of what is usually known as the genre’s rise, from the late seventeenth to the late eighteenth centuries.  Readers of the period’s classics—Robinson Crusoe, Clarissa, Dangerous Liaisons—will recognize the feature:  it’s the way these novels pretended to be real documents.  They usually didn’t pretend very hard: bona-fide hoaxes were rare.  But they didn’t advertise their fictionality, in contradistinction to most novels of the following century.  Emma Woodhouse, Emma Bovary:  their creators never for one moment assert their stories as literally true.  Looking back, the early novel’s insistence on its own literal reality is hard to comprehend.  Why even bother, especially when that insistence was so often ironic and half-hearted?  Why didn’t these writers just invent as matter-of-factly as we do?

Good questions, though I can well imagine the ghosts of Richardson and Laclos asking today’s writers: How can it possibly be of no concern to you that your characters never existed?  Because if we look at Western literary history, it’s the modern position that stands out.  Even Aristotle’s Poetics argues pretty clearly that the best subject of literature is historically attested people engaged in historically attested events.  And for many centuries, historical subject matter remained at the core of most literature of any ambition.  Writers took attested heroes and events and crafted good plots, using what was known and inventing whatever was necessary.

Should we count as fiction this particular configuration of the relation between invention and history?  Are novels that ironically pretend to be real collections of letters, or memoirs, fiction, too?  It obviously depends on how one defines the term.  I’ve chosen—partially for reasons of maximum clarity, partially for polemical thrust—to talk about three distinct regimes of literary invention.  The first I call Aristotelian:  in order to make a good plot the poet adds what he needs to what’s known about this-or-that hero.  The second, for which I’ve borrowed the term “pseudofactual,” describes the eighteenth-century novel: writers pretend to offer readers real documents about otherwise unknown people.  The third regime is fiction, and it allows writers to propose novels as models of reality without advancing their protagonists as historically real.






 

Frances Guerin

 

On her book Through Amateur Eyes: Film and Photography in Nazi Germany

Cover Interview of May 14, 2012

In a nutshell

Through Amateur Eyes is all about how amateur documentary films and photographs taken primarily by Germans can be used in the memory and memorialization of World War II and the Holocaust.

All of the films and photographs I discuss are taken by Germans, ranging from high level Nazis, through unknown soldiers on the battlefield, to bystanders and civilians during World War II.  The book puts these films and photographs into a social, cultural and aesthetic context that helps to understand them as amateur films and photographs that were deeply engaged with the world around them—they are in conversation with technological developments, cultural and social events, aesthetic trends. They are so much more than documents of Nazi ideology. Effectively, my perspective on the images casts them as more than “pictures taken by the German perpetrators,” a perspective that has often led to their rejection or, at best, marginalization, because , through this lens, the images have become equated with reflections of Nazi ideology.

Because many of the images I discuss are often recycled in contemporary narratives that memorialize World War II, the book also analyses the recyclings as cues to contemporary beliefs and practices of cultural memory.  I ask: How are these films and photographs understood today?  What are the biases of the narratives into which they are woven?  What are the prejudices brought to bear on them? How are they manipulated to corroborate a certain version of World War II and the Holocaust?

The re-presentations of archival images are found everywhere: in museum exhibitions, Gallery Exhibitions, made-for-television documentaries, magazines, documentary films, and on the Web. And they have been used and reused in both mainstream and alternative media since 1995 in Europe and North America.

Ultimately, Through Amateur Eyes wants to intervene in the urgent and ongoing debates about events that took place during World War II, their visual representation, and the question of how to continue to remember them today.  And it does this by taking a radical perspective, namely to look through the eyes of Germans with cameras who were present at the events themselves.

It’s important that readers understand Through Amateur Eyes as another perspective on the Holocaust and World War II.  It’s not a rewriting of this history, it’s putting forward another version that can and should sit side by side with all of those that exist already.

The same can be said about the images themselves: I offer a specific perspective, but one that nevertheless needs to be seen and known in conjunction with more familiar interpretations.  Both the films and photographs, in their archival form as well as in their contemporary recyclings, are multiple and layered, and I have tried to capture that depth.

All of this said, my visions of the films and photographs are not relative.  They begin and end with the sensuous properties of the images themselves, and for that, I hope my arguments will carry credence for many readers.






 

Edward Berenson

 

On his book The Statue of Liberty: A Transatlantic Story

Cover Interview of May 07, 2012

In a nutshell

The Statue of Liberty tells the story of America’s most beloved icon, the symbol, we like to think, of our openness to the world.  But how many Americans know that Lady Liberty had essentially nothing to do with immigration when she first went up?  That xenophobes used the statue as a symbol before pro-immigration forces did?  That Emma Lazarus’s poem about the “Huddled Masses,” written in 1883, remained little known until the 1930s?  The Statue of Liberty is at once familiar and unknown, commonplace and full of surprises.

The statue is surprising in part because its meaning has changed from one generation to the next.  Ever since the first images appeared in the mid-1870s, even before construction in Paris had begun, the colossus of New York Harbor has been an open figurative screen, a massive sculpted form onto which an endless variety of ideas, values, intentions, and emotions could be projected.  It has come to signify both liberty and subjection, immigration and xenophobia, the lure of America and its dangerous shoals, the dangers of terrorism and the resilience of New York City and the United States in the wake of 9/11.

Our extremely fluid understanding of what the statue says comes from three of its essential qualities: abstractness, artistic banality, and colossal size.

Its creator, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, intended the Statue of Liberty to last many decades, even centuries, and wanted it to express a general, universal theme.  He thus gave it a classical form, one that had endured since ancient times.  He kept it abstract and allegorical rather having it represent a particular individual or historical event.  Except for the barely-visible “July 4, 1776” inscribed on its tablet, the Statue of Liberty doesn’t even overtly refer to the United States.

Like its abstractness, the Statue of Liberty’s artistic banality—its conservatism of form—is related to its need to survive political and cultural change.  Bartholdi himself admitted that his statue “cannot be considered as a very great work of art.”  But its neutral neoclassicism allowed it to elude passionate aesthetic attack and gave it the potential to represent a great many different things.

Finally, the statue’s colossal size and strategic location guaranteed that it would continue to draw attention and thus retain the ability to encourage people to confer meaning on it, whether for political, social, or commercial purposes.






 

Matthew Kaiser

 

On his book The World in Play: Portraits of a Victorian Concept

Cover Interview of May 01, 2012

In a nutshell

The most compelling and unsettling moment for me in all of Victorian literature comes when Alice tumbles down the rabbit hole: that epistemological abyss at the heart of nineteenth-century modernity.  For all its quaintness, it is a terrifying image. A ludic microcosm swallows reality whole.  The boundary between the inside of the child’s game and the outside schizophrenically collapses.  Modern life, in the shape of a girl, loses its footing.

In this book, I lower myself into the rabbit hole.  I survey and map it.  I explore the extent to which a growing number of nineteenth-century British writers and thinkers equated modern life with the sensation of a world in play.  A world in play means two things.  It means a world in flux, an unstable cosmos with an unfixed horizon, a universe turned inside out.  But it also means a world trapped in a ludic representation of itself, a world literally inside play.

The further I made my way down this Victorian rabbit hole, the more startled I was by the ubiquity of the logic of play in nineteenth-century depictions of modernity, indeed, the centrality of play to the Victorian sense of self.  Darwin, for instance, conceives of nature, including human nature, as a competitive sport, with biological winners and losers.  Rudyard Kipling rechristens British imperialism the “Great Game.”  The Victorians invented the weekend.  They turned leisure into big business.  They built hundreds of parks and playgrounds in a normalizing effort to cultivate and manage play.  Child play acquired unprecedented ideological importance in the nineteenth century.  In myriad ways, the logic of play made the Victorian world cohere.  From the middle-class ethic of competition, through the therapeutic faith in recreation, to the political efficacy of holidays in the promotion of national identity, play made everyday life make sense.  At the same time, however, this intrinsically unstable concept betrayed the illusoriness of life’s coherence.

The idea of a world in play is not the same thing as a world at play, which is how the Victorians depicted that apocryphal epoch known as “Merry Old England.”  A world in play is not about having fun.  It is about being trapped in the funhouse mirror, in illusion, in an unsettling new reality in which “all that is solid,” to quote Marx and Engels, “melts into air.”  Our twenty-first-century fascination with virtual reality, artificial intelligence, and online communities, with dystopian computer programs that colonize consciousness itself, can be traced to the Victorian world in play.  In The Matrix, Alice-like Neo follows a woman with a rabbit tattoo down a digital hole.

This book maps the Victorian world in play—and hence our own.  In the process, it advances a new theory of Victorian literature and culture.  But the book also examines how various Victorian writers—Charles Dickens, Emily Brontë, Robert Louis Stevenson, Oscar Wilde, among others—struggled valiantly to find their footing, ethically and politically, in play, how they made a home for themselves in this unsettling world of ours.






 

Stephen J. Shoemaker

 

On his book The Death of a Prophet: The End of Muhammad's Life and the Beginnings of Islam

Cover Interview of April 24, 2012

In a nutshell

This book is an effort at the “quest for the historical Muhammad” that uses methods and perspectives borrowed from biblical and early Christian studies to investigate the beginnings of Islam.  It takes its main focus on divergent traditions about the timing of Muhammad’s death in the historical sources for the early Islamic period.

The traditional Islamic biographies of Muhammad, which were first written more than a century after his death, relate Muhammad’s death in 632 at Medina.  Nevertheless, an alternative tradition survives in earlier and more numerous Jewish, Christian, Samaritan, and even Islamic sources, in which Muhammad was still alive when his followers entered Palestine in 634-35.  Although this discrepancy in the source materials has been known for several decades, until now, it had never been investigated.

The purpose of this study, however, is not to determine when Muhammad really died.  Rather, these rival memories of the end of Muhammad’s life afford a valuable opening through which to explore the nature of earliest Islam more broadly.

The tradition of Muhammad’s leadership of the campaign in Palestine seems to be earlier than the account of his death in Medina.  The question then is what developments within early Islam could explain such a transformation in the early Islamic memory of the conclusion to Muhammad’s life.  This study argues that the basis for such “re-remembering” of Muhammad’s death lies in the rapidly changing nature of the new religious movement that he founded.  Evidence suggests earliest Islam to have been driven largely by belief that the end of the world had drawn very near: Muhammad and his followers seem to have expected this event even within their lifetimes.  The final judgment of “the Hour” was anticipated, it would appear, in Jerusalem, as it largely still is today in the Islamic tradition.

Accordingly, Jerusalem and the biblical Holy Land were of enormous religious significance for Muhammad and his earliest followers, vestiges of which can still be found in the Islamic tradition today.  There is in fact mounting evidence that Jerusalem and Palestine were at least as significant as Mecca and Medina—if not perhaps even more so—in early Islamic sacred geography.  Such a configuration would favor a memory of Muhammad’s association with the invasion of Palestine, as he led his followers to meet the final judgment in the Holy Land that was their promised inheritance as children of Abraham.

Nevertheless, Muhammad’s followers soon grew more patient regarding the end of the world and also developed a distinctive sacred geography that significantly diminished the status of Jerusalem to focus instead on the western Arabian Peninsula.  Consequently, a new tradition of Muhammad’s death in this uniquely Islamic “Holy Land” was required.  In such a way then, one can imagine the emergence of a tradition that remembered Muhammad’s death in his own sacred city, Medina, in parallel with these other developments in earliest Islam.

I hope that readers will read the book with an open mind.  As clichéd as that may sound, this is particularly a concern given the hostility that some scholars of early Islam have expressed toward prior studies of Islamic origins that use historical-critical methods on traditional materials and approach the traditional Islamic narrative of its origins with a significant measure of skepticism.  Indeed, in comparison with other areas of religious studies, the occasional but persistent antagonism to these kinds of approaches from some scholars in Islamic studies is unusual and unfortunate.






 

Paula Stephan

 

On her book How Economics Shapes Science

Cover Interview of April 18, 2012

In a nutshell

How Economics Shapes Science focuses on how costs and incentives—core concepts in economics—shape the practice of science, especially the practice of science at universities.

Costs matter:  they play a role in determining the size of equipment—Europe had to shelve plans to build the Overwhelmingly Large Telescope in favor of the smaller (and cheaper) Exceedingly Large Telescope.  Costs play a role in determining whether researchers work with male mice or female mice—females can be more expensive to study.  Costs dictate that the Large Hadron Collider not run in the winter but rather during the rest of the year when electricity is considerably less expensive.  Costs play a role when universities choose to staff labs with graduate students and postdocs, who are significantly cheaper than staff scientists.  And costs play a role in determining what is feasible:  when the first human genome was sequenced in 2003, the price tag for the entire project was estimated at $3 billion.  A genome can now be sequenced for $5,000 or less; by the end of this year, 2012, it is highly likely that a genome can be sequenced for $1,000 or less.

Incentives matter as well.  Universities went on an unprecedented building spree in the early 2000s in response to the doubling of the budget of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the major funder of research in the biomedical sciences.  Universities invest considerable resources in attracting highly cited scientists, in an effort to increase their place in the rankings.  Scientists and engineers are also highly responsive to incentives.  Money matters, as does reputation.  But it’s not all for reputation, and certainly not all for money.  Scientists enjoy the “pleasure from finding a thing out, the kick in the discovery,” to quote the Nobel laureate Richard Feynman.

Science also plays a role, an important one, in shaping the economy.  The lags between research and economic growth are long.  But the connection between research and economic growth is present and important.  Examples of how research in the public sector has contributed to new products and processes are plentiful.  Global positioning devices, which have transformed the way we navigate, would not have been possible without the development of the atomic clock.  Hybrid corn, which has done much to increase food supply, was first produced by a faculty member at (what is now) Michigan State University.  Modern high-capacity hard drives would not be possible were it not for the research of two European physicists, Albert Fert and Peter Gruenberg, who independently discovered giant magnetoresistance in the 1980s—the science behind the ability to store vast amounts of information in a small space.  Nowhere is the relationship between science and growth more obvious than in increases in life expectancy.






 

Jonathan Gottschall

 

On his book The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human

Cover Interview of April 16, 2012

In a nutshell

You might not realize it, but you are a creature of an imaginative realm called Storyland.  Storyland is your home and before you die you will spend decades there.  If you haven’t noticed this before, don’t feel bad: story is for a human as water is for a fish—all encompassing and not quite palpable.  While your body is always stuck at a particular point in space-time, your mind is always free to ramble in lands of make-believe.  And it does.

We read novels.  We go to movies.  We watch TV serials, and the faux non-fiction of reality shows and pro wrestling.  We groove to ultra-short fictions in popular songs.  We lose ourselves in video games that make us the rock-jawed heroes of action films (or fleshed-out characters in story-rich games like The World of Warcraft).

When we are not consuming stories made up by others, we are making up our own.  Our children play at story by instinct—inventing scenarios and acting them out in Neverland.  When our bodies sleep, our restless minds stay awake all night telling fevered stories.  And we don’t stop dreaming when the sun comes up.  We spend hours per day spontaneously generating daydreams in which all of our vain, dirty wishes—and all of our secret fears—come true.

Scientists and philosophers have long debated the human essence—the thing that sets us apart most fundamentally from the rest of creation.  Is it intelligence (Homo sapiens)?  Is it the sophistication of tool use (Homo habilis)?  Is it upright posture (Homo erectus)?  Is it playfulness (Homo ludens)?  Or could it be language or the complexity of our social behavior?  These factors are all important, but an equally important factor has been overlooked.  Big brains and upright posture set us apart—so does the way we live in Storyland.  I give you Homo fictus (fiction man), the great ape with the storytelling mind.






 

John Harwood

 

On his book The Interface: IBM and the Transformation of Corporate Design, 1945-1976

Cover Interview of April 11, 2012

In a nutshell

In 1956 the president of IBM, Thomas Watson Jr., hired the industrial designer and architect Eliot Noyes, charging him with reinventing IBM’s corporate image at every level, from the logo to products to buildings and beyond.  The Interface tells this story in full for the first time, showing how Noyes and his fellow consultants (Charles Eames, Paul Rand, George Nelson, Edgar Kaufmann Jr., and a host of architects from around the world) remade IBM in a way that went well beyond this particular corporation—to transform the relationships between design, computer science, and corporate culture.

This history is more significant than a mere “case study.”  It is a determining case.

IBM was the largest business machine corporation in the world; by the 1960s it was the size, in capital and employees, of Portugal and Norway combined.  As such, it completely dominated the market for computers.  Its products—and the new mode of managerial and logistical practice that came with them—impacted nearly every sphere of cultural endeavor from politics to art to science.  As its executives were fond of saying, “IBM is a business whose business is how other businesses do business.”

Thus designers themselves were hardly unaffected by the insertion of the computer into manifold aspects of everyday life. I show how, in the period stretching from the “invention” of the computer just before and during WWII to the appearance of the personal computer in the mid-1970s, disciplines once well outside the realm of architecture—information and management theory, cybernetics, ergonomics, computer science—became integral aspects of design theory and practice.

The Interface is organized according to media—which are the “interfaces” through which the corporation appears as part of the world.  It moves upward and outward in scale.  Beginning with IBM’s graphics, it then moves to consider its products, architecture, multinational expansion, and its films and spectacles.  In doing so, the book provides the first critical history of the industrial design of the computer, of Eliot Noyes’s influential career, and of some of the most important and long-forgotten work of the Office of Charles and Ray Eames.






 

Dagmar Herzog

 

On her book Sexuality in Europe: A Twentieth-Century History

Cover Interview of April 09, 2012

In a nutshell

The twentieth century is often called “the century of sex” and seen as an era of increasing liberalization. Indeed, taking the century as a whole, we have seen the erosion of the double standard, the greater acceptance of premarital sex and the eroticization of marriage, the decriminalization and mainstreaming of homosexuality, and the saturation of the public sphere with sexual imagery and talk. Without a doubt, the twentieth century witnessed a vastly intensified preoccupation with sexual matters. But this standard paradigm of liberalization conceals another huge story.

Three issues are especially important to keep in mind. The first has to do with the grassroots appeal of sexual conservatism, the recurrent backlashes against liberalization. Some of the most significant aspects of sexual rights, including access to contraception, or freedom from persecution for homosexual sex, were for extended periods extraordinarily fragile. The backlashes were sometimes coordinated at the state level—think of National Socialism in Germany and Austria, fascism in Italy, Spain, or Portugal, or Stalinism in the Soviet Union. But they were also often carried by popular movements from below.

A second matter is just as essential, and it has to do with the problems often embedded also within what were thought to be liberalizing efforts. In some cases, we can look back and see what contemporaries could not, or did not care to, see—for example, the horrifically disdainful discrimination against the disabled and against people of color in many lands that was used for much of the twentieth century to justify the promotion of contraceptives.  In other cases, we ourselves today remain challenged to make sense of such matters as the increasing commercialization of sex. And in yet other cases—for example over the connections between sex and love, or the lack thereof—the disputes over how best to organize sexual politics remain ongoing.

And third, there is the related matter of ambivalences.  Sex does not always make people happy. Quite apart from the recurring dark sides of sexuality in the form of rape, abuse, exploitation, hurt, and harassment—which also have their important histories, both with regard to what human beings have done to each other but also with respect to the campaigns fought against such pain and against the conditions that facilitate it—also sex that was mutually willed could be the site of many conflicting feelings: explosive, transformative ecstasy, delight, and excitement; serene security, satisfaction, status confirmation, the pleasures of conformity to norms; anguished longing, vulnerability, insecurity, jealousy; or habit, duty, boredom, even repulsion.

These emotions matter. It is not least because sex is complicated that human beings are so politically and socially manipulable in this area—although historians have too rarely reflected openly on this complicatedness when trying to explain how sexual cultures change.  My aim in the book was, first, to reconstruct the extraordinarily varied ways people in the past imagined sex and, second, to analyze how activists of all stripes battled over the ethics of sex, and struggled to change laws, attitudes, and practices.






 

Brian Boyd

 

On his book Why Lyrics Last

Cover Interview of April 04, 2012

In a nutshell

Why do all cultures have verse?  Why nevertheless, is poetry a minority taste, unlike stories, even among keen readers of literature?  And why, all the same, does some verse succeed in touching hearts and minds across the centuries?

What distinguishes poetry from prose, anyway, and why does that make a difference to its demands and delights?  What is special about lyric verse, verse without stories?  How can what we know of the mind explain the particular challenges and rewards of lyrics?

After I raise these questions in general terms, and try to answer them from evolutionary and cognitive viewpoints—more of this in a moment—I move on to Shakespeare.  His Sonnets rate as the most successful of lyric collections, and ten or perhaps twenty of the poems are dear to lovers of English literature.  Yet very few people read the sequence right through.  What do both the sonnets’ appeal at their best, and the resistance they offer to sustained reading, tell us about lyrics in general and about Shakespeare’s aims in this extraordinary collection?

Here’s the start of my answer: We can understand the abundant information in the world rapidly, in real time, only if it falls into patterns.

Narrative seems highly likely to be the default task orientation of the human mind: that is, if our minds can process information patterns in narrative terms, if they can interpret as events what they experience, they automatically will.  Narrative organizes experience as naturally as a magnet organizes iron filings.  Stories appeal so widely partly because their principal patterns usually converge so effortlessly.  They also hook attention by providing their own internal sense of relevance: Hamlet’s or Elizabeth Bennet’s aims, for a time, become ours.

Lyric poetry can turn the absence of story to advantage.  Precisely because it resists the automatic convergence of patterns that we normally meet in narrative, it can explore patterns of its own, patterns of experience and emotion, of image and idea, of word and structure, of set forms and found freedoms.  Because lyric poetry lacks the internal relevance a story supplies, it allows us the illusion of access to another’s thought at its least constrained by circumstance, appealing to others regardless of their circumstances.  And since a lyric forfeits the supplied circumstances of a story, it invites an expansively resonating response, appealing to our imaginations to intuit the relevance, whatever our circumstances might be.

The freedom and intensity of high lyric verse tend to offer greater challenges than stories, and different kinds of reward.  That’s why I try to show how thoroughly Shakespeare’s purposes in his Sonnets—which suggest but strongly resist narrative—differ from those of his plays and his once wildly successful narrative poems.






 

Albena Azmanova

 

On her book The Scandal of Reason: A Critical Theory of Political Judgment

Cover Interview of March 28, 2012

In a nutshell

This book defends the duty of judgment and the freedom to err. Against the modernist ambition to discover truth by the power of reason, and post-modernist flagellation of both truth and reason, it urges that we drop the crutches of ideal theory when we think about justice and act upon injustice.  The book offers a model of a pragmatic assessment of the grounds and direction of political action aiming singularly at the alleviation of existing human suffering.

The project is driven by the search for a politically useful theory of justice.

Much needed policy action is either blocked or sidetracked by hefty pondering about the grounds, goals, and preconditions for policy action.  Did we get Iraq wrong?  Should we intervene to stop the carnage in Syria? Should the wearing of the Islamic headscarf be allowed in public office in our secular republics? Should failing banks be bailed out by taxpayers?  Should the European Union impose austerity measures on the Greeks as it is saving the Greek state from bankruptcy?

While politicians, when facing hard cases, are often in need of intellectual guidance, political philosophers have hardly ever offered ideas that can help or serve a politician—as the German philosopher Karl-Otto Apel once noted in exasperation.  Indeed, for centuries learned men and women have supplied elaborate theories spelling out conflicting rights and duties and unattainable conditions for their satisfaction.

That political judgment is cursed by a perpetual wandering between vision and practicality, between high moral ideals and the pragmatics of political life, is something Aristotle already warned about. Aristotle observed that even though justice might be essential for political life, a science of politics and therefore a scientific theory of justice is unattainable. In matters political, he claimed, the particulars of our collective existence are the proper object of judgment. Therefore, practical wisdom, not general principles and theoretical reasoning, is what is needed when we judge the right organization of society.

Ironically, the design of a theory of justice seems to be as impossible as justice is essential for politics.  The book offers a way out of this conundrum by replacing the search for high-minded theory of justice with a model of practical judgment.