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.



Michael A. Haedicke


On his book Organizing Organic: Conflict and Compromise in an Emerging Market

Cover Interview of November 09, 2016

In a nutshell

Organic farming is inspired by visions of harmony between human beings and the natural world. These days, however, many people who reflect about organic foods think instead of struggle.

Activists and scholarly observers have pointed out that food conglomerates and mass-market retailers are hungry for a slice of the organic market. Mega-farms growing acres of irrigated organic tomatoes in the Mexican desert (no one’s idea of sustainability) have made national news headlines. In his 2006 bestseller The Omnivore’s Dilemma, writer Michael Pollan questioned whether these growing numbers of market-oriented farmers and large food corporations have “cost organic its soul.”

In the rush to the barricades, few people have paused to explore the different ways that participants in the organic sector interpret the goal of farming in harmony with the natural world. My book focuses squarely on these diverse cultural understandings of organic foods and agriculture.

I show that conflicts within the organic sector often take shape around competing visions of sustainability, each of which lays claim to a mantle of moral virtue. Rather than following the well-worn cultural trope of struggle between God and mammon, these conflicts pit against one another the two warring gods of idealism and pragmatism.

At the book’s heart lies an analysis of two cultural visions of organic agriculture. The first of these visions, which I label transformative, positions organic agriculture as an alternative system of food production characterized by small-scale farms, community-based businesses, and egalitarian social relationships. Farming organically, in this vision, involves commitment to wide-ranging social and cultural change.

The second vision, which I label expansionary, identifies organic instead as a collection of environmentally-benign agricultural techniques and methodologies. From this perspective, the market-driven growth of the organic sector is a good thing, because it causes more land to be managed organically. More organic land, in turn, means reduced human impacts on the environment.

Using unique archival documents and extensive interviews with leaders in the organic sector, my book traces the development of these two visions at key moments in the organic sector’s history. I describe conditions under which the contradictions between these visions have fueled social conflict, but this is not the whole story.

I also show myriad ways – ranging from the design of national regulatory policies to the micro-politics of independent organic retail stores – in which organic sector members have created compromises between these two visions. Although they appear less dramatic than conflicts, the character of these compromises has set the course for the organic sector’s long-term development.


Martin Hogue


On his book Thirtyfour Campgrounds

Cover Interview of November 02, 2016

In a nutshell

Thirtyfour Campgrounds examines the standardization and modernization of the contemporary campground as a familiar setting in the American landscape.

Campgrounds celebrate a unique form of American ingenuity in which intersecting narratives and desires (wilderness, individuality, access, speed, comfort, nostalgia, profit) find themselves strangely and powerfully hybridized. Thirtyfour Campgrounds traces the 150 year evolution of this unique landscape type. More broadly, however, the book poses important questions about the relationship between landscape and data: with a few clicks, taps or swipes, prospective campers now visit dozens of campgrounds and potentially hundreds of individual campsites in a single seating, comparing their advantages and disadvantages. How did we go from brave hikers setting up camp from scratch in the wilderness of the Adirondacks, to remotely browsing, shopping for, and reserving campsites in real time, often weeks or months in advance of arrival? How does the consumption of vast amounts of information through maps and websites shape our experience of campgrounds as landscapes? Are these landscapes themselves shaped by this information?

The book is a highly visual undertaking that features a combination of original drawings, archival materials and field documentation. The core of the book consists of a survey of color photographs of nearly 6,500 individual campsites retrieved from online reservation services like and These photographs, arrayed into orderly girds and sequenced by zipcode and site number, span 200 pages. Taken together, these photos document 34 whole campgrounds of every stripe (federal, state, private) across the United States.

As a work of landscape and photography, Thirtyfour Campgrounds offers a nod to important artists who have expressed an interest for documenting similar generic settings: the title of the book is a direct reference to Ed Ruscha’s classic 1967 Thirtyfour Parking Lots (down to the idiosyncratic spelling of its title), which features aerial views of empty parking lots of all shapes and sizes in the Los Angeles area. The neutral, systematic arrangement of the thousands of campsite images in the book into grid form owes to German photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher’s typological studies of blast furnaces, cooling towers, grain elevators and other industrial structures, and whose work are staples of contemporary art collections.

More methodical in its approach than conventional campground literature, Thirtyfour Campgrounds calls the very nature of research, the survey and the inventory, into question.


Christopher Rea


On his book The Age of Irreverence: A New History of Laughter in China

Cover Interview of October 26, 2016

In a nutshell

The early twentieth century changed the ways people in China talked about what’s funny.  The Age of Irreverence is about how and why.

Part of the focus is historical: What changed? How did Chinese humor become modern? This thread of the story traces the effects of forces like urban migration, an expanding popular press, translation of foreign works, political instability, and the advent of forms like cartoons and cinema. Shanghai became an industrial hub, drawing internal migrants, fueling advertising, and, before long, giving rise to a farcical sensibility focused on hoaxes, get-rich-quick schemes, and media swindles. Stage comedians pooled their resources to buy a second-hand movie camera and produce slapstick shorts. Amusement halls popped up in major cities, drawing in the man on the street with an attraction imported from the Netherlands: the ha-ha (or funhouse) mirror. We find plenty of changes like these in the quantity, quality, and expressions of Chinese humor.

Then there’s the inverse question: How did humor change modern China? Jokes sold newspapers. Public ridicule caused celebrities and politicians to change their behavior. A vogue for “humor literature” in the 1930s generated a crop of humorists or, in the words of one skeptic, “multiplied the number of clowns playing with brush and ink.” Satirists unwittingly supplied caricaturing techniques and categorical logic to later political campaigns of the Mao era.

Underlying all of this is my interest in language. The early twentieth century was China’s vernacular moment, when using classical Chinese gave way to writing as one spoke. The resulting chaos and democratization of discourse were both a boon to humorists of all stripes. The period I focus on—roughly the 1890s to the 1930s—saw the emergence of a variety of comic cultures; I focus on five, each symbolized by a particular term for humor used in China at that time. I argue that amidst the trauma and unruliness, a spirit of irreverence—meaning an insouciant attitude toward convention and authority—helped to usher China into the modern age. And I explain why it matters that one term, youmo, came to symbolize the new gold standard for humor.


Robert L. Bettinger


On his book Orderly Anarchy: Sociopolitical Evolution in Aboriginal California

Cover Interview of October 19, 2016

In a nutshell

Orderly Anarchy places the Indians of California in modern evolutionary perspective. It disputes the traditional, stage by stage, cultural evolutionary interpretation in which hunter-gatherers represent a primitive, unevolved stage of a developmental sequence that advances with the development of agriculture, the widening of social inequality, and emergence of ever more complex hierarchical social systems, eventually to civilization and the state. In that view, the simpler forms of social organization centered on the nuclear family or a few such families that characterize many California groups represent the earliest form of human sociopolitical development. Orderly Anarchy shows the opposite: these small social groups are a highly evolved organizational form that appeared quite recently, triggering development of an orderly anarchy: a beneficial arrangement between otherwise autonomous, wholly self-interested family-based units in the absence of a higher level of authority to guarantee their good faith interaction. A question immediately raised is why the California version of orderly anarchy developed so late in time, within the last 1500 years?

Orderly Anarchy argues that this was the result of a major technological breakthrough, the development of bow and arrow technology, which made hunters much more efficient food providers. While this could have encouraged the formation of larger social groupings, in California and the adjacent Great Basin it often had the opposite effect. Groups that once needed to be large, to pool and share scarce resources owing to the inefficiencies of ill-equipped hunters, could now be smaller. Quite surprisingly, this had the effect of incentivizing more intensive plant procurement, which had formerly been discouraged by what is known as the “freeloader problem”, the tendency of individuals to limit their contribution to collective enterprises (in this case the acquisition of costly plant foods), for fear that others will contribute less while enjoying an equal share of the proceeds. The smaller, more closely related groups that developed with the introduction of the bow ended the freeloader problem, and the subsistence balance quickly shifted toward abundant, albeit costly to procure and process, plant foods, the acorn (Quercus spp., Lithocarpus) specifically.

The key development following this shift was the privatization of plant food; the convention that collected plant food was a private, not public, good. This permitted small groups, which had formerly lived in isolation, to pursue intensive plant procurement while co-residing with other groups, secure in the knowledge that the hard work they expended would go to their families exclusively. The capstone development in this trajectory was the development of money, which facilitated on the spot transfer of resources between individuals and families without compromising their autonomy. That gathered food could be sold and the proceeds used to buy other things (dowry, tools, ornaments) further encouraged subsistence intensification. In the upshot of these developments, California became more densely settled than any other place in aboriginal North America - hunter-gatherer or agricultural - while group size remained remarkably small, as shown by the remarkable linguistic diversity one sees in California, which accounts for only 2% of the land, yet nearly a third of all the native languages spoken north of Mexico.


Pamela Robertson Wojcik


On her book Fantasies of Neglect: Imagining the Urban Child in American Film and Fiction

Cover Interview of October 12, 2016

In a nutshell

Fantasies of Neglect is at once a work of cultural criticism and an account of changing ideas of childhood, parenting, and the urban from the 1930s to the present.  It examines representations of the urban child in a wide range of films and fiction, including films starring Shirley Temple and the Dead End Kids, The Champ and its 1970s’ remake, Mary Poppins, The Cool World, Kramer vs. Kramer, and The Hunger Games; as well as novels like Ann Petrie’s The Street and Joanthan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close; and children’s books Harriet the Spy, Eloise and The Planet of Junior Brown.

I focus especially on children’s mobility and autonomy in the city as they are framed by fantasies of neglect.  The fantasy of neglect consists of two conjoined fantasies. There is, on the one hand, the fantasy that the urban child is a figure of neglect and, on the other, the fantasy for the child of being neglected, or let alone. On the one hand, the child appears to be unmoored, unsupervised, and unprotected. On the other hand, the notion of neglect points to the positive thrill and possible risk of the child’s freedom, independence and movement. These conjoined fantasies bring together a host of ideas about the urban, children, space, parenting, neglect, poverty, reform, and more; and they shift over time.

Taking up Miriam Hansen’s invitation to investigate cinema history in order to discover “different futures whose potentialities may be buried in the past” (Cinema and Experience xvii), Fantasies of Neglect examines earlier representations of and discourses around urban children both to chart how our ideas about the urban child have changed and also how we might re-imagine childhood.  From our current context of helicopter parenting and stranger danger, films and fiction of the early twentieth century provide a now-strange, because historically distant, vantage on modernity, urbanism, and childhood. Insofar as kids’ real life mobility contracts, and children disappear from city streets, representations of the urban child serve not only as a nostalgic reminder of the past, but also as a prompt for the future, to rediscover and revive the child in urban space. These representations of the urban child’s social space are not merely reflections of childhood or nostalgic images we return to as adults, but crucially de-familiarize and denaturalize our ideas about childhood and urban encounters.