Caroline Ford


On her book Natural Interests: The Contest over Environment in Modern France

Cover Interview of February 22, 2017

In a nutshell

Natural Interests explores the appearance of an impressive range of environmental initiatives in France and its overseas colonial empire between the late eighteenth and early twentieth century as well as the emergence of a new “environmental consciousness” that underpinned them. These initiatives included flood control, efforts to address climate change, reforestation, the protection of natural landscapes and resources, the “greening” of urban spaces, and the convocation of the world’s first two international congresses devoted to the protection of nature, which took place in Paris in 1923 and 1931 respectively. The book takes up the larger question of why the natural environment became an object of concern in French civil society in a way it had not been in previous centuries and how various actors began to argue that it should be conserved, preserved and protected for future generations. It argues that the driving forces behind environmental protection were anxiety over the pressing dangers of environmental degradation and nostalgia for a vanishing pastoral countryside. What distinguishes this book from other studies is its focus on the pathways and the circulation of ideas and practices between different social groups and historical actors, between metropolitan France and its empire beyond the borders of Europe, and between France and other nations of the world.



Ousmane Oumar Kane


On his book Beyond Timbuktu: An Intellectual History of Muslim West Africa

Cover Interview of February 15, 2017

In a nutshell

Beyond Timbuktu is about the literary cultures of West Africa. The old West African city of Timbuktu is famous as a great center of Muslim learning from Islam’s Golden Age. It is renowned for its madrassas and archives of rare Arabic manuscripts. Yet Timbuktu is not unique. It was one among many scholarly centers to exist in precolonial West Africa. Beyond Timbuktu charts the rise of Muslim learning in West Africa from the beginning of Islam to the present day, examining the shifting contexts that have influenced the production and dissemination of Islamic knowledge—and shaped the sometime conflicting interpretations of Muslim intellectuals—over the course of centuries.

Highlighting the significant breadth and versatility of the Muslim intellectual tradition in sub-Saharan Africa, Beyond Timbuktu corrects lingering misconceptions in both the West and the Middle East that Sub-Saharan Africa’s Muslim heritage represents a minor thread in Islam’s larger tapestry. West African Muslims have never been isolated. To the contrary, their connection with Muslims worldwide is robust and longstanding. The Sahara was not an insurmountable barrier but a bridge that allowed the Arabo-Berbers of the North to sustain relations with West African Muslims through trade, diplomacy, and intellectual and spiritual exchange.

The West African tradition of Islamic learning has grown in tandem with the spread of Arabic literacy, making Arabic the most widely spoken language in Africa today. In the postcolonial period, dramatic transformations in West African education, together with the rise of media technologies and the ever-evolving public roles of African Muslim intellectuals, continue to spread knowledge of Islam throughout the continent.

Unfortunately, the Western public and academy have been largely ignorant of this vibrant intellectual and religious tradition. Beyond Timbuktu provides an accessible account of the development of this tradition from the earliest stages through its complex interactions with colonialism and present fascinating engagements with modernity. I hope Western readers will enjoy discovering a rich scholarly tradition that is likely to be new to them, and that those who are already familiar with the tradition will appreciate the historical perspective and analysis of the various dynamics that have shaped West Africa’s impressive Islamic tradition.



Renée L. Beard


On her book Living with Alzheimer’s: Managing Memory Loss, Identity, and Illness

Cover Interview of February 08, 2017

In a nutshell

Living with Alzheimer’s is about what it is like to be evaluated, diagnosed, and to live with Alzheimer’s from the perspective of those most directly affected. I talked primarily with seniors, people over 65, who were in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease (AD). Ultimately, this is a story about living with Alzheimer’s; that is, how life continues long after diagnosis.

Unfortunately, the majority of the challenges faced by the diagnosed individuals I spoke with were caused by cultural blindness and intolerance in contemporary US society. We have been socialized to mistrust people with dementia and, thus, assume they are incapable of navigating their own lives. As a result, we are reticent to meet them on their own terms and instead try to change them to conform to our narrow expectations of social interactions or outright dismiss them. This is based in a deep-seated ageism, the conflation of our brains and personhood in the western world, and bias against those who deviate from the normative expectations of social engagements and language.

My book draws on the narratives of those with memory loss themselves, something heretofore largely neglected in book-length projects within the social sciences and considered impossible in the public imagination. My respondents depict a keen awareness of their struggles and an impressive ability to manage their identities and interactions. Both of these are commonly assumed impossible or at least severely diminished in those affected by AD. My book also questions the utility and ethics of increasingly earlier diagnoses when definitive diagnosis does not exist, efficacious medications are lacking, and postmortem results suggest both false positives and negatives, that is, people are diagnosed who do not have it and others have the brain pathology but were never diagnosed.

Importantly, I also add to these first-person accounts the views of practitioners at specialty memory clinics and staff from the Alzheimer’s Association. The ability to triangulate rich data from the subjective experiences of “patients” as well as clinicians and staff from the Association is the foundation upon which I base my ultimate claim that AD is a social artifact. I am in no way suggesting that Alzheimer’s is fake, but rather socially constructed and/or created in specialty clinics and voluntary organizations by well-intended actors who operate under the constraints of the organizational norms and ethos where they work and live (as we all do).

I hope that people will read my book with a willingness to put themselves in the shoes of the respondents I spoke with, especially those living with Alzheimer’s, but also those professionals aiming to serve them.  At the end of the day, I would like readers to walk away with a better understanding of our shared humanity in the plight of facing forgetfulness. If readers left being able to imagine a life with Alzheimer’s that was still worth living and better understood some of the complexities of diagnosing, treating and serving the affected population, I would deem the book a success.



Mary Roberts


On her book Istanbul Exchanges: Ottomans, Orientalists, and Nineteenth-Century Visual Culture

Cover Interview of February 01, 2017

In a nutshell

In “The Painter of Modern Life” (1863) Charles Baudelaire writes about the great “operatic shores of the Bosporus.” More recently Orhan Pamuk reflects with melancholy on Istanbul’s former multiethnic vibrancy in the nineteenth century. Istanbul Exchanges, too, is inspired by the Ottoman capital and its cosmopolitan artistic milieu in that century. The cultural exchanges that occurred in the city cannot be contained by a narrow national history of Turkish art because the players within these art circles were far more diverse. Nor is this cultural geography explicable through a polarized theory of Orientalism where we simply address Europe’s representation of cultures of the Islamic world.

Few of us think of Istanbul when we recall Baudelaire’s famous essay of 1863 and yet the city is at the heart of Baudelaire’s lyrical paean to nineteenth-century modernity. In the Istanbul sketches of Constantin Guys, Baudelaire found signs of modernity in contingent details that conveyed a disjunctive encounter between East and West. The cosmopolitan Ottoman capital may have been occluded from histories of nineteenth-century modern art in our own time, yet Istanbul, like Paris, was one of Baudelaire’s key sites of modernity. Osman Hamdi Bey, Women in Feraces, 1887, Oil on Canvas, 81 x 131 cm. Yapı Kredi Painting Collection, Istanbul.

Baudelaire didn’t write about Ottoman art, yet Paris-trained Osman Hamdi Bey was a painter of modern life whose work resonates with Charles Baudelaire’s formulations about contemporary art. Osman Hamdi’s painting, Women in Feraces, 1887, is but one of many works by European-trained Ottoman painters discussed in my book that challenge us to think about the modernity of this art. This painting renders the public space of Istanbul as a site of modernity through the hybrid fashions of elite Ottoman women.  The contours of the bustle, an index of modishness in international women’s fashion, are evident underneath the ferace, and translucent face veils are modishly combined with matching and contrasting parasols. The beauty of this fashion pageant, that mixes eastern and western influences, is conveyed through the syncopated rhythms of colour as the eye moves laterally across the surface of Osman Hamdi’s painting. This is not a timeless orient – it’s a quintessentially modern spectacle.

The cultural traffic between Istanbul and Paris is but one of the geographic vectors that my book analyses. Webs of art and patronage connected Istanbul to numerous art circles across Western Europe; they operated between the capital and other cities within the Ottoman Empire and also encompassed links between minority Armenian communities in Istanbul and within the Russian Empire in the Caucasus. Mapping these diverse networks of artistic exchange has presented a particular research challenge. The patterns of movement over the century resulted in a centrifugal distribution of artworks and documents from Istanbul to archives, museums, and private collections in Poland, Armenia, Denmark, Italy, France, England, and Turkey. I hope the reader will derive pleasure from many of these works of art that are drawn together for the first time and perhaps be surprised by the complex narratives of their cross-cultural production and reception.


Neil J. Sullivan


On his book The Prometheus Bomb: The Manhattan Project and Government in the Dark

Cover Interview of January 25, 2017

In a nutshell

The Prometheus Bomb is an account of the building of the atomic bomb that ended combat in the Pacific theater of World War II. The book focuses on how breakthroughs in quantum physics, barely understood even by Nobel Prize winning scientists, were directed by nonscientists for the purpose of developing a weapon of war. The book is a case study of a larger question: How is it possible to control experts in a democracy when we don’t know what they’re talking about?

The American effort began in 1939 with a letter to Franklin Roosevelt signed by Albert Einstein that warned of the possibility that Nazi Germany would have the resources to build an atomic bomb. The letter further urged that the United States monitor developments, and respond as necessary. The Nazi threat was so ominous that it propelled the Roosevelt administration through doubts about the feasibility of an atomic bomb, concerns about the costs and reluctance to divert resources from other aspects of the war effort.

The Prometheus Bomb maintains its focus on the role of politicians and other government officials as the scientists continued to make progress. It covers the surprisingly complicated and difficult interaction with the British allies, the relative ease with which the Soviet Union placed spies at Los Alamos and elsewhere in the Manhattan Project, the limiting to only seven members of Congress that the price tag would exceed $2 billion.

The decision to bomb two Japanese cities in 1945 is another consideration of the book. In trying to look at the bombings from the perspective of President Harry Truman, the propriety of using the bombs is examined in the context of ending the war. A massive invasion of Japan was scheduled for the fall of 1945. Expectations were that casualties of an invasion of the home islands would be massive. A blockade, a demonstration explosion and other options were considered, and rejected.

Bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki accomplished the purpose of ending the war in the Pacific, but the price was horrific. Casualties were less than that of some conventional bombings both in Japan and Europe, but the effects of secrecy, expense, suspicion, spy craft and other factors continue to this day.

In the case of the atomic bomb, experts were controlled by the presidential appointment of a number of remarkable figures drawn from the military, academics, business and other professions. They were dedicated to their common purpose, and subordinated egos and professional rivalries to the larger goal. These appointees were loyal to Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, and, with that deference to the American presidents, the values of America’s constitutional democracy prevailed though in a modified form.



Aihwa Ong


On her book Fungible Life: Experiment in the Asian City of Life

Cover Interview of January 18, 2017

In a nutshell

Fungible Life looks at the entanglement of the life sciences, capitalism, politics, and ethics from the perspective of Biopolis, a new biomedical hub in Singapore.

The book asks: What would an Asian style of scientific entrepreneurialism look like? How is it related to and yet different from an American approach? What are the economic, social, political and ethical implications of genomic science expertise emerging in Asia?

Briefly, one can look at two aspects of the Singapore initiative. The external view is that Biopolis provides scientific access to "Asian" bodies, DNA, and diseases. A global city-state that upholds international "best practices" in education, research and business, Singapore is an ideal place to customize medicine for the burgeoning Asian drug markets. From the internal view, the post SARS initiative is, in a world dominated by big pharma, to orient genomic science toward the needs and interests of peoples in Asia.

How do scientists integrate particularities of human and non-human life forms in the Asian tropics into their experiments? In a field mainly focused on "Caucasian" bodies, researchers at Biopolis complete by mining genetic variations in "Asian" bodies. In multiracial Singapore, researchers quickly applied the ethnic heuristic (approved by NIH) to track health differences among Chinese, Indian, and Malay populations. By thus correlating data points on ethnic, genetic, and disease risks, scientists at Biopolis produced a code of Asian post-genomics that can be applicable to majority populations in the region.

Life is thus rendered fungible, I argue, because the alignment of ethnicity, mutation, and disease makes these elements interchangeable values across different regimes. By holding the genomic database to the continent, this tiny island draws drug companies eager to test novel drugs. At the same time, the science generates biopolitical value in that it advances the modern governance of the biological well-being of citizens. Furthermore, Asia-oriented biomedicine engenders an affective form of self-knowledge that enhances the social value of peoples in an emerging region. Making life fungible also makes it flourish.

But like all experiments, this biomedical enterprise operates in dynamic global context. Scientists grapple with different kinds of contingencies emerging from the lab, the state, the market and the unknowable future. Part I examines how scientists track prevalent health risks, map serious diseases, and create biomarkers as a foundation for an Asian-oriented genomics. Part II considers uncertainties that cannot be easily calculated. Researchers at their bench and computers also worry about the precarious funding, the place of virtue in their work, the value of their innovations and the promise of Biopolis. Part III identifies the ‘known unknowns’ that scientists can only partially prepare for, from emerging epidemics to the tsunami of aging populations and the effects of climate change. A glance at BGI Genomics in China shows a different configuration of genomic science in Asia.



Miles A. Powell


On his book Vanishing America: Species Extinction, Racial Peril, and the Origins of Conservation

Cover Interview of January 11, 2017

In a nutshell

Vanishing America examines how, between the mid-nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries, American conservationists came to connect wilderness preservation to the maintenance of a rugged white race. In surprising ways, numerous leading environmental reformers drew parallels between nature conservation and race preservation in the form of race science, eugenics, immigration restriction, and population control. For some of these figures, such as prominent eugenicist and wilderness advocate Madison Grant, these fields blurred together in a united campaign to save “the old America.”

This rising association between white America and the nation’s wilds represented a major transition in U.S. environmental and racial thinking. Earlier generations had typically connected wilderness with Native Americans, and had expected both to vanish in the wake of national development. Yet, by the early twentieth century, wild lands were firmly linked to national and racial vigor in the country’s mythic imagination. With wilderness reimagined as a font of white American strength, environmental reform became a far more powerful political force at state and federal levels.

As increasing numbers of white Americans ventured into wild lands in National Parks and Forests to offset the supposedly degenerative effects of urbanization and industrialization, some criticized the enduring presence of Native American peoples there. Groups such as the Blackfeet (Pikuni) Indians in Glacier National Park found themselves barred from subsistence activities they had engaged in for centuries and even millennia. They were, however, permitted to serve as entertainers and guides to enhance the dominant culture’s experience of these rugged places.

These developments helped ensure that U.S. environmental protection, especially outdoor nature preservation, became an overwhelmingly white movement. With many conservationists explicitly connecting their cause to race-based eugenics and immigration restriction, it was easy for the nation’s people of color to feel alienated from the campaign. Attendance figures at parks and membership rates for environmental organizations suggest that this estrangement has endured to some extent through the present. This poses challenges to environmentalists as they seek to broaden support for their movement.



Jinting Wu


On her book Fabricating an Educational Miracle: Compulsory Schooling Meets Ethnic Rural Development in Southwest China

Cover Interview of January 04, 2017

In a nutshell

In the media spotlight, ruthlessly dedicated Chinese students and their superb performance in international testing continue to fuel global interest in China’s education system. This, however, tells only a partial story. On the flip side of an educational “China rising” is a vast rural ethnic landscape trapped in educational mediocrity, stagnation, and crisis. This crisis has been deepened by China’s economic boom and optimism about development that offers abundant manufacturing jobs while also enabling a school-to-the-factory pipeline. In scholarship and the popular press, the myth of China’s educational success seems to be quickly fading, as more and more youth find themselves schooled yet prepared only for factory sweatshops.

The book laces together accounts of how compulsory education encounters rural development to produce dilemmas and possibilities in village schools in Southwest China. The study draws upon multi-sited ethnography, oral history, and archival research to investigate conflicts between education policies and modernization agendas in rural China. It starts out with a central puzzle: how do we understand the profound disenchantment and high attrition rates among rural ethnic youth despite the nationwide educational desire for success, despite the state’s relentless efforts to enforce compulsory education, and despite the folk belief in “jumping out of the village gate through academic success?” Reasons behind the disenchanted sentiment are complex, and the book ventures into the domains of policy, audit culture, tourism, labor migration, and people’s contingent life choices (or lack thereof) to highlight the complexity. The volume provides a detailed account of how an educational miracle is fabricated in everyday maneuvers in rural minority schools; and how schooling becomes increasingly penetrated by development programs, audit culture, tourism, and translocal labor migration to produce unintended consequences.



Jennifer Gabrys


On her book Program Earth: Environmental Sensing Technology and the Making of a Computational Planet

Cover Interview of December 28, 2016

In a nutshell

Program Earth addresses the rise of sensor technologies for monitoring environments. Sensors have been promoted within digital technology spaces as devices that are meant to become ubiquitous and connect up to enable new orders of efficiency, speed and environmental management.

However, while these sales pitches are now familiar to many people through Internet of Things applications, from smart refrigerators to energy meters, many of the applications for sensors are unfolding throughout wider environments, from smart cities to transport infrastructures, as well as environmental sensing for air quality, wildlife migration and citizen engagement.

Program Earth asks: Why are these technologies proliferating now? What new environments and subjects do they generate? And what practices and experiences do they enable?

I look at three distinct areas where environmental sensors are in extensive use, including “Wild Sensing,” “Pollution Sensing,” and “Urban Sensing.” These concrete examples of sensors at work traverse an experimental sensor forest in California, a biological field station in Finnish Lapland, and a smart urban zone in London, among other sensorized sites.

Across these instances of sensors at work, I consider how these technologies are generating distinct ways of programming environments and environmental relations. By “programming” I am referring less to a process of “controlling” environments, and more to the extended ways in which computational technologies inform and materialize the subjects, environments and relations that are sensed. In order to be monitored, environments and entities have to be operationalized in particular ways.

But at the same time, these monitoring programs often generate unexpected results. For instance, environmental sensors are often taken up in citizen sensing engagements, where the monitoring of air pollution, energy use and more is meant to make participants more informed environmental citizens. Yet these programs often do not go according to plan, and the collection of sensor data gives rise to a much different array of political and social effects.

In this way, I suggest that sensor technologies are co-constitutive of environments, have environmental effects, and also in-form environmentalist practices, but often in unpredictable ways.


Elspeth Probyn


On her book Eating the Ocean

Cover Interview of December 21, 2016

In a nutshell

My book explores how we eat the ocean, in many ways, every day, sometimes without knowing it. Of course we know when we consciously eat fish – battered, breaded, grilled, steamed, or raw - and when we tongue delicious health-sustaining oysters, or partake of steaming bowls of relatively sustainable mussels. What we may not be aware of is that 25% of the global ocean catch disappears into fish oil and fishmeal. In this form fish turn up in supermarket white bread fortified with omega 3, cosmetic products, pet food, and become food for farmed fish.

Humans have eaten the ocean for as long as we’ve been around. But we didn’t have the technology that now allows fishing boats to go further out, and to fish ever deeper down. Until relatively recently we thought that we could eat the ocean with impunity. Now we are at risk of eating it up, devouring it until there’s nothing left except the not-so-apocryphal jellyfish n’ chips.

While concern about the terrestrial production of protein has burgeoned over the last decades, it seems harder to get people to care about where their fish comes from. Perhaps it is because it is difficult to cuddle a cod. Though as readers will discover, there is a wacky FishLove conservationist site, which includes photographs of a naked Lizzy Jagger riding bareback on a yellowfin tuna. WWF’s campaigns resort to photoshopped images of bluefin tuna with panda or white rhino masks to trick us into caring. Fish just don’t have the anthropomorphic associations that seemingly make us care about whether our chickens are happy free-rangers or not. I think that it is also because fish inhabit a milieu that most humans find cold and wet and bewildering. What are these cold-blooded creatures for if not for human eating?

Across the book I try to engage readers in ways that will make them interested in the wondrous complexities of marine life, of the sea and her inhabitants. In my ethnographic travels to the north of Scotland, to the far south of Australia, and to points in between, I gather material about how people relate to fish, and how they tell their stories – and often deep care and love – for them. Fishers, marine scientists, fisheries managers, and people who live by and on the sea have related their concerns, which I then relate to some wider questions: how can we help fishing communities, fish, and the oceans be more sustainable? What are the gender relations in the fishing field? What are queer fish? I am deeply invested in teasing out the very different sorts of knowledge that construct what eating the ocean means. Who tells the stories, how, to whom and why is a theme that reverberates through my book.


Andrew Scull


On his book Madness in Civilization: A Cultural History of Insanity, from the Bible to Freud, from the Madhouse to Modern Medicine

Cover Interview of December 14, 2016

In a nutshell

Madness is something whose mysteries puzzle us still. The loss of reason, the sense of alienation from the common sense world the rest of us imagine we inhabit, the shattering emotional turmoil that seizes hold of some of us and will not let go: these are a part of our shared human experience down through the centuries and in every culture. Insanity haunts the human imagination. It has drawn the repeated attention of artists and writers, as well as physicians and divines. It reminds us of how tenuous our own hold on reality may sometimes be. It challenges our sense of the very limits of what it is to be human. Even in our own time, definitive answers about the condition remain almost as elusive as ever. The very boundaries that separate the mad from the sane are a matter of dispute.

Madness in Civilization examines the phenomenon of mental disturbance from Ancient Palestine to the present, looking at both Western and non-Western societies and cultures, both medical and lay perspectives, both religious and supernatural accounts and interventions. Madness extends beyond the medical grasp in other ways as well. It remains a source of recurrent fascination for writers and artists, and for their audiences. Novels, biographies, autobiographies, plays, films, paintings, sculpture - in all these realms and more, Unreason continues to haunt the imagination and to surface in powerful and unpredictable ways. All attempts to corral and contain it, to reduce it to some single essence seem doomed to disappointment. Madness continues to tease and to puzzle us, to frighten and to fascinate, to challenge us to probe its ambiguities and its depredations.

I seek to probe this vast territory in all its almost infinite variety and complexity. I’m not interested in easy answers or glib generalizations. I do not celebrate modern psychiatry, but I do try to give it its due, and I try to remain sensitive to the fact that mental troubles are the most solitary of afflictions to those who experience them, but the most social of maladies given their impact on families, on communities, and on societies. My book is enriched by almost a hundred and fifty images, many in color, and reproduced with great fidelity. These don’t merely grace or illustrate the text: they are a central part of the argument I present.



Frank L. Cioffi


On his book One Day in the Life of the English Language: A Microcosmic Usage Handbook

Cover Interview of December 06, 2016

In a nutshell

This book is a grammar handbook. It covers parts of speech, diction, and punctuation. Most grammar handbooks function as reference books, and lay out “Standard Written English” as if it were absolute truth. They present these rules as apodictic, with the implicit message LEARN THESE RULES OR ELSE.

It seems to me that this stance isn’t quite honest. In fact, linguists constantly debate rules of grammar. And these rules, too, are ever-evolving.

So I thought I’d write a grammar handbook that laid out the “fundamentals” but did so in a less reference book-like fashion than did most grammar handbooks. I wanted to make this book chatty, reader-friendly—something readers even read cover to cover. Reading it cover to cover helps a lot, given the interconnectedness of many grammatical principles. For example, if a professor or editor says, “Fix your comma splices,” one might look up comma splices in a handbook. There, the instruction might be this: “When joining main clauses, you need to use more than merely a comma; you might use a semicolon, a comma with a coordinating conjunction, or subordinate one main clause to the other.” Well, OK, but what’s a “main clause”? What’s a “coordinating conjunction”? What does “subordinate one clause to the other” mean? Just dipping into such a book can be frustrating.

Another difference between this handbook and the thousand or so others on the market is that most handbooks offer descriptions and “rules,” reinforcing them with invented “example sentences.” These sentences have a kind of pared-down quality to them, since they were fabricated with the specific purpose of illustrating a grammatical principle. In my book I quote a couple of such sentences, in this case illustrating subject-verb agreement: “A baby cries.” “The babies cry.” These show how verb forms differ with a singular subject and a plural subject. But most people have no trouble with such simple sentences. Subject-verb agreement creates difficulties when (among other instances) the sentences get complex (“John, as well as his brother Jim, who was also on board for the campaign, is [not are] fighting a tough battle”); when it’s unclear if the subject is singular or plural: “None of the pictures are [or is?] boring”; or when the verb precedes the subject (“There are many problems we’re examining”).

Thus, instead of fabricating example sentences, I decided to use actual sentences from material published on an average day, December 29, 2008. This strategy works in two ways: first, since most of these example sentences were generated by professional writers, their inclusion as suspect or wrong gives readers a bit of relief, maybe; it’s not only the average person who struggles with English; even people who write for a living make mistakes. And second, these sentences show that language has to work not just in fabricated sentences, but in an actual world, under pressure of circumstance, where it really matters what you say and how you say it. Capturing the language our newspaper/magazine writers used on a single day roots the book in history, attaches it to actuality. The book also includes some elegant, exact, and beautiful sentences that appeared that day.



Jesse LeCavalier


On his book The Rule of Logistics: Walmart and the Architecture of Fulfillment

Cover Interview of November 30, 2016

In a nutshell

In this book, I look at the back of house operations of Walmart to better understand the relationship between logistics, architecture, and urbanism. While logistics has always been a part of any large managerial effort, whether civilian or military, it was in the 1960s that a so-called “logistics revolution” prompted organizations to think about their operations in a more comprehensive way. This shift in thinking was supported by deregulations of policies and by an explosion in communications technologies like the computer, bar code, and satellite. Deregulation allowed organizations new opportunities to externalize costs and advances in computation allowed the speed and scale of operations to increase dramatically. With the revolution in logistics, a manufacturing company, for example, could begin monitoring all aspects of its enterprise in a much more precise way than ever before, from the sourcing and extraction of its raw material, to searching for new labor markets (often even more deregulated), to predicting future demands of consumers. The Rule of Logistics uses the operation of one such organization, Walmart, to focus on how this transformation affects the built environment, including buildings, cities, infrastructure, and their inhabitants. It is organized in chapters related to each scale and ties together diverse protagonists to tell its story, including people, technologies, and artifacts.

One of the primary arguments of the book is that logistics and its architecture are mutually constitutive realms. Logistics is a science of contradictions in that it relies upon the need to abstract whatever material it is handling and yet cannot escape the physicality of that same material. While this is one of the larger themes of the book, in the chapter “Buildings: A Moving System in Motion,” I look more closely at the frictions that these conditions produce in order to better understand the relationship between logistics and the built environment. In the case of retail for example, even if logisticians imagine their inventory as data to be managed and manipulated, its stubborn physicality persists, thus obliging sustained encounters with its concreteness. In other words, even if the path of a parcel is guided by optimized algorithms and tightly calibrated, it still has to be carried along its route at each step, often by someone and often under unfair conditions. These processes of transmission are supported by a collection of technologically sophisticated infrastructure elements, i.e. buildings. In Walmart’s case, the buildings within its logistical system mediate between abstraction and concreteness through a range of specific architectural techniques, possessing what I refer to as “loose” forms capable of adapting to a range of unexpected conditions while maintaining tightly scripted operations. In a certain sense, buildings within this logistical system become tools to absorb risk.

A second tension within retail logistics is evident in fantasies about the dematerialization of inventory through just-in-time and on-demand services and the physical systems they require. The more companies like Walmart try to eliminate space through the promise of instantaneous delivery, the more they must encumber vast amounts of space through their giant distribution centers. The chapter, “Location: From Intuition to Calculation” looks at how Walmart locates its buildings, including its super centers, data centers, and distribution centers, all of which are part of a vast machine for organizing material in time and space. My argument in this chapter is that Walmart’s operations at the level of territory present evidence of the coordinated capacity of buildings to act in geopolitical ways. By looking more closely at two stories of Walmart’s efforts to expand, one in Vermont and one in California, I show how the company uses its buildings and their locations to effectively create new territories that override established political boundaries. In a similar vein, the chapter “Bodies: Coping With Data Rich Environments” examines the working conditions in the spaces of logistics in which humans are entangled in an immense and often exhausting machine environment.

The last chapter, “Territory: Management City” turns to Walmart’s hometown and current headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas to explore the ways that its logistics operations are transforming the post-agricultural landscape of northwest Arkansas to provoke a form of urbanism connected to mobility and information management instead of industries of manufacturing. Even though Walmart is one of the largest companies on the planet, it remains based in Northwest Arkansas and, as a result, is transforming the region through the influx of a new and diverse managerial class. The company is using its influence to create new cultural institutions like the Crystal Bridges Museum of Art, emerging as one of the premier collections of American art anywhere. The density of managers and supplier representatives is also catalyzing specific kinds of building configurations, including high-density office parks, locally known as Vendorvilles. By looking at these transformations, I use the chapter to explore the changing understanding of what it means to be urban, especially in light of tendencies toward privatization and consolidation evident in Walmart’s operations.

The Rule of Logistics concludes on a note of cautiously optimistic speculation by developing a concept of the logistical to describe the spatial conditions and phenomena analyzed throughout the book. For me, and this is still work in progress, it was important to find a way to escape from the subject matter of the case study (i.e. of Walmart) to find ways to think logistics in a more generative way. This is a challenge and maybe not immediately possible because its sources are so fundamentally rooted in war and capitalism. By using the conclusion to make connections between consumer behavior, logistics, and the spaces produced by that intersection, I ask how infrastructural and logistical systems could instead support alternative forms of fulfillment. This is something suggested at in the end of the book but is one of the directions of my current work.



Peter H. Wilson


On his book Heart of Europe: A History of the Holy Roman Empire

Cover Interview of November 22, 2016

In a nutshell

The Holy Roman Empire’s history is central to the European experience and the question of European identity. Founded with Charlemagne’s coronation on Christmas Day 800, it lasted just over a millennium before being dissolved in August 1806 by Emperor Francis II to prevent its legacy being usurped by Napoleon. In addition to what is now Germany, it encompassed at one point or another all or part of Austria, Switzerland, Italy, France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Czech Republic, Denmark, and Poland. Other countries were linked to its history and internal affairs, such as Hungary, Croatia, Spain or Sweden. Europe’s east-west and north-south tensions intersected in the Empire’s core lands between the Alps and the Rhine, Elbe and Oder rivers, while trade, cultural exchange and military campaigns ranged across it in all directions.

Yet, the Empire scarcely figures in most histories of Europe. If it is remembered at all, it is usually through Voltaire’s famous quip that it was ‘neither holy, Roman or an empire’. Voltaire was writing at a time when history was emerging as a professional academic discipline that took the centralised national state as its primary focus. Europe’s history came to be written as a series of discrete national stories, each constructed around homelands, cultures and heroes and heroines credited with forging modern states. Many of these states emerged in direct opposition to the two predominantly German-speaking empires of the nineteenth century: Austria-Hungary and imperial Germany. Nineteenth-century nation-builders in Italy, the Netherlands or elsewhere had no use for the Empire’s history which was reduced to that of medieval Germany. Meanwhile, German writers increasingly regarded it as a source of national shame because it did not develop as the kind of powerful, centralised national monarchy that they believed necessary in their own time.



Ethan B. Katz


On his book The Burdens of Brotherhood: Jews and Muslims from North Africa to France

Cover Interview of November 16, 2016

In a nutshell

Today, headlines from France depict the country’s Muslims and Jews as ever, inevitably in conflict. Numerous commentators suggest Muslim attacks against Jews are the newest chapter in an age-old anti-Jewish struggle. Others assume that tensions between France’s Muslims and Jews are simply “spillover” from the Israeli-Arab conflict. The Burdens of Brotherhood shows that each of these accounts is far too simple. The past tells a more complex, often surprising story.

The book offers a history of social, political, and cultural interactions between Jews and Muslims in France from World War I to the present. As I say in the introduction, I encourage the reader to begin by rethinking the assumption that relations between Jews and Muslims are necessarily best understood as “Jewish-Muslim relations” and that these relations have essentially been hostile. The book shows that Jews and Muslims in France have often perceived their relations through categories other than those of ethnicity or religion. Jews and Muslims have interacted on myriad terms: as fellow migrants, political allies and opponents, citizens and subjects of the French empire, shopkeepers and clients, fellow North Africans, musicians or athletes, neighbors, friends, and even lovers and family members. The book also argues that the importance and the very meaning of Jewishness and Muslimness in their interactions has been highly contingent, or what I term “situational,” varying from person to person and context to context. For instance, being Jewish and Muslim might be relatively incidental for two neighbors exchanging pleasantries in the street. But it might be terribly important to the same neighbors if they exchange pastries on each other’s religious holidays. And Jewishness and Muslimness might also be important but carry very different meanings when these same neighbors exchange views – or avoid doing so – regarding violence between Israel and its Arab neighbors in the Middle East.

Finally, the book contends that one cannot understand Jewish-Muslim relations in France without placing France itself at the heart of the story. This has been what I term a “triangular” affair, so that the French state, French society, and notions of what it means to be French have always been at the heart of the way that Jews and Muslims perceived and interacted with each other.

Unlike other works that deal with Jewish-Muslim relations in contemporary France or in the second half of the twentieth century, my book begins with the earliest relations between large numbers of the two groups, during World War I. This long-term perspective is crucial. We see how wars, migrations, and the twinned rise of the nation-state and fall of empires transformed identity and politics for Jews and Muslims. In the process, the same developments etched new boundaries between the two groups. The book also tries to understand the consequences of these changes not only for state actors or elites but in the lived lives of ordinary people. In part, the book does this with a focus on local factors. Throughout, I compare relations between Jews and Muslims in three very different French cities – the capital and great metropolis of Paris, the country’s Mediterranean port city, Marseille, and Strasbourg, long-time commercial center in the disputed region of Alsace on the Franco-German border. We see that even rising international and national tensions did not dictate the tenor or terms of relationships between all Jews and Muslims. Readers thus hopefully can see that this is neither simply a story of ever-escalating conflict nor one of peaceful coexistence suddenly shattered in the early twenty-first century by events in the Middle East.