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.


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.