Sara Blaylock


On her book Parallel Public: Experimental Art in Late East Germany

Cover Interview of March 15, 2023

In a nutshell

Parallel Public examines experimental art from the final years of East Germany in relation to state power. In the book, I argue that these artists did not practice their art in the shadows, on the margins, hiding away from the eyes of authorities. In fact, many artists cultivated a critical influence over the very bureaucracies meant to keep them in line, undermining state authority through forthright rather than covert projects. In Parallel Public, I describe how the experimental art scene was a form of counter public life that represented an alternative to the crumbling collective underpinnings of the state.

The book explores the work of artists who used body-based practices–including performance, film, and photography–to create new vocabularies of representation, sharing their projects through independent networks of dissemination and display. The examples I selected for the book exemplify the material innovation as well as the community-building aspects of the GDR’s small experimental art scene. Gundula Schulze Eldowy’s photographs of exhausted laborers challenged the wooden image of an emancipated proletarian advanced by state culture. The filmmaker Gino Hahnemann who set nudes alight in city parks and imagined a homosocial world for Germany’s cultural heroes fostered a safe creative community for East Berlin’s gay youth. The Leipzig-based independent publication Anschlag collaborated with the exhibition space EIGEN+ART to share the work of experimental artists and writers in public platforms that ultimately reached across the wall to West Germany. In a country that proclaimed but scarcely delivered equality of the sexes, the collective films and fashion shows of Erfurt’s Women Artists Group Exterra XX fused art with feminist political action to compensate for the GDR’s foundational misogyny.

Importantly, these creators were as bold in their ventures as they were indifferent to state power. I approach that discussion in a few ways, both of which seek to remedy traditional ways of thinking about life in the Eastern Bloc, which tend to exaggerate state authority over individual life. First, the majority of the examples I explore in the book reveal a clear connection to state apparatuses of culture. The GDR’s experimental artists studied at the country’s art schools; the degrees they received gave them access to membership in the Union of Fine Artists. This means that across their trajectories, from student to professional, artists found ways to use official platforms to publicize or even financially support their efforts. My historicization challenges the traditional dichotomies of official and unofficial art that not only undermine the art of the GDR in broad strokes, but also reinforce narratives of the Cold War that define citizens as either oppressors or oppressed.

The image of a victimized citizenry is particularly exaggerated in the mythologies that surround the GDR’s surveillance system, the Stasi. While I demonstrate that the Stasi had an outsized (and largely unanticipated) presence of state security, rather than dwelling on the presumed impacts of the Stasi, I actually demonstrate the agency’s ineffectiveness at curtailing the experimental culture that was its frequent target. The cover of my book reveals this approach most succinctly; I will reflect on the photograph, taken from a Stasi surveillance file, a bit below.

In terms of audience, I wrote Parallel Public with an eye toward vivid description, that complements its many reproductions. From original artworks to documentation of events to excerpts from Stasi surveillance files, Parallel Public reveals its archive as much to highlight the subjects I wrote about as to inspire future research or display. I also wrote with a measured and intentional pacing that leads readers from typical impressions of the GDR (oppressed, frustrated) to a more expansive view of the period (collaborative and innovative). The chapters are relatively short and subject heads break the reading in order to accommodate the breaks I personally find necessary when reading. Picture of the author holding her book at the MoMA bookshop in New York City. Photo by Ace Lehner, 2023.



Arnold Weinstein


On his book The Lives of Literature: Reading, Teaching, Knowing

Cover Interview of March 08, 2023

In a nutshell

The Lives of Literature tackles the central, all-too-unasked, question that undergirds my teaching and writing career: why read literature? It’s the question all students ponder—why read these books?—and it seems especially urgent today, given the ever greater prestige of the STEM fields and the shrinking enrollments in the Humanities throughout higher education.

The surprising word in my book’s title is “knowing.” What do we “know” after we’ve read a novel or poem or play? From an informational point of view: nothing verifiable or easily testable. Certainly nothing comparable to the theorems and truths of the sciences and even the social sciences. But there’s the rub: literature’s truths are of a different sort altogether. Just as life’s truths are. I know that 2 + 2 = 4; I know my wife and children. Both statements are true, but they are radically different. One is factual, objective; the other is existential, subjective. My argument is that literature both illuminates and engenders a different kind of knowing: existential, but also experiential, moral, neural, sentient. And I think that’s why we read it. We experience—safely, at a distance, only vicariously, and ‘exitably’—the crises and feelings of Oedipus, Lear, Cathy and Heathcliff, Huckleberry Finn, Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, Faulkner’s Quentin Compson, Morrison’s Sethe.

As an identical twin who was often mistaken for his brother during our childhood, I have always had a rather porous sense of people’s outlines and identities. Most people don’t. But only now do I realize how much that basic experience has shaped my understanding of books. Not only can our outward forms be illusory or subject to change, but there is something at once deeply promiscuous and deeply ethical in all this: are we capable of seeing others as ourselves (as the Good Book says)? Shape-shifting happens. President Obama said of Trayvon Martin: he could have been my son. Readers might—must?—intuit, at some unexamined level, in the books they read: this could be, could have been, me.

And nothing here is easy. So many of our greatest books are about people discovering, with horror, that much of what they have believed true (about themselves, about others, about the world) is bogus, turned inside-out. It is often unsurvivable. This is what I call “the cost of knowing.” But the reader, who is a fellow-traveler in this journey toward dark knowing, does not bleed or die. Long ago Aristotle claimed that watching tragedy onstage was for the audience “cathartic,” purgative. I think reading literature can—should—be seen in just this light. It is more than a lesson: it is an experience. And the role of the teacher is to help students discover just how potent and far-reaching this encounter can be.



George W. Breslauer


On his book The Rise and Demise of World Communism

Cover Interview of March 01, 2023

In a nutshell

The rise and demise of world communism was one of the great dramas of the 20th century. It was born in wars (World War I, World II), and offered an alternative vision of peace and modernity to that of the capitalist world. It was joined together for decades by a common commitment to “anti-imperialist struggle” under Moscow’s leadership. Ultimately, however, most of the sixteen states covered in this book succumbed to the pressures of the Cold War, capitalist globalization, the Sino-Soviet split, and popular disaffection. The result was either systemic collapse (the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe), fundamental economic reforms (China, Vietnam, Laos), or recalcitrant and brittle regimes (North Korea and Cuba). What lessons can be learned from the evolution and fates of communist regimes over the past century?

The book traces communism’s arc: its origins in Marxism and Leninism; its victory in the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917; its construction of an international sub-system (the “world communist movement”); its spread throughout Europe and Asia (plus Cuba); and its ultimate demise, alteration, or stagnation. I focus on the sixteen states that were ruled by single-party, Leninist regimes that were initially committed to comprehensive social, economic, cultural, and political transformation of their societies.

What, then, did communist revolutions and states have in common, in both their domestic and international orientations? How did they differ from each other? What were the appeals of communism that allowed them to come to power? Why did international communism fracture into competing models of domestic and foreign relations? Why did the Soviet Union and, with it, the world communist system ultimately collapse? Is there a future for new communist states?

Informed by both a “comparative politics” and an “international relations” perspective, the book examines the relationships between regimes and their societies, the relationships among communist regimes, and the relations of these regimes with the United States and other capitalist powers. It is the interaction among these three sets of relations that is key to understanding one of the most tumultuous periods, and most powerful ideas, in modern history.

One theme that runs throughout the book is the “drive to difference” among communist regimes after the death of Stalin. The Stalinist template for “building socialism” after the consolidation of power was either imposed or emulated—albeit to varying degrees—by all communist regimes. But after Stalin’s death in 1953, differentiation among communist regimes set in and intensified. These differences appeared in their internal policies, in their societies’ self-assertion, in their relations with each other, and in their relations with the capitalist world. The book categorizes these differing types of post-Stalinist and post-Maoist regimes, with special attention to the difference between “Bureaucratic Leninism” and “Market Leninism.”



Jason M. Kelly


On his book Market Maoists: The Communist Origins of China’s Capitalist Ascent

Cover Interview of February 22, 2023

In a nutshell

Market Maoists tells the story of the commercial relationships that linked the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to various capitalist firms, traders, and markets around the world during the Mao era. Some readers may not have realized prior to reading the book that Mao’s China even had ties to international capitalism. This is an understandable misconception given how we typically think about China in the world during the Mao years as railing against foreign capitalists rather than negotiating contracts with them. But as the book shows, alongside public denunciations of capitalism, Chinese Communist traders scoured markets in Europe, Japan, Hong Kong, and elsewhere for imports, everything from medicines to whole factories. They also sought buyers for a menagerie of Chinese products, from hog bristles and soybeans to radios and bicycles.

The total value of these deals reached into the hundreds of millions of dollars each year. That is not an overwhelming figure given the size of China’s economy. But a core claim of the book is that trade is about more than just sums in a ledger. Each deal required contact, mutual intelligibility, accommodation, and trust between Mao’s traders and their capitalist counterparts. Over time, these exchanges influenced how Chinese leaders and working-level traders understood the relationship between the Chinese revolution and global capitalism. They began to see that China could pursue capitalist trade abroad without sacrificing China’s claims to socialist modernization, a lesson that helped lay the groundwork for China’s historic turn toward global capitalism in the post-Mao era.

Others have written about China’s trade with the capitalist world during this period, but nobody has delved into the personalities and experiences behind the statistics and policies. I tried to bring these dimensions to life by telling an engaging story, which is how I hope people will read the book. I want readers to step into the shoes of the women and men who faced the ambiguities and felt the thrills and terrors of working on the border between capitalism and socialism in Mao’s China.



Jacob Darwin Hamblin


On his book The Wretched Atom: America's Global Gamble with Peaceful Nuclear Technology

Cover Interview of February 15, 2023

In a nutshell

The Wretched Atom is a global history of so-called peaceful nuclear technologies. It asks provocative questions about how we frame these as an escape from environmental pressures and as a path to accelerated economic growth. I describe it as “America’s gamble” in the subtitle because, in the 1950s, the United States offered to share civilian technologies with the rest of the world. It did so before anyone in the US had even built a civilian nuclear power plant, and before having an idea of what “peaceful” nuclear programs might look like. Lots of countries took the US up on that promise, with unexpected consequences!

Here’s a disclaimer, though. It’s a global history but it focuses mostly on areas that today are called the Global South. American propaganda targeted the developing world, where people were threatened by famine, drought, and disease. These countries were comprised largely of non-white peoples, many of them former colonies or recently under military occupation (such as Japan). So I’m very interested in the perceived racial dimensions of nuclear technology. I explore the embrace of nuclear technology in large and populous former colonies such as India and Brazil, but also smaller ones such as Ghana and other African states. I focus a lot on the period from decolonization, in the 1950s and 1960s, to the emergence of the Middle East and South Asia as flashpoints of concern about nuclear weapons, in the 1970s and 1980s.

What do I mean by nuclear technology? That part is complicated. Perhaps surprisingly, for countries of the developing world, it often did not mean nuclear power plants. The US and other nuclear weapons states promised to cure diseases, produce new foods, and make deserts bloom. In practice, it meant launching programs on mutation plant breeding, food and grain irradiation, water treatment plants, and more. In other words, these were technologies that utilized materials from reactors, and were not reactors themselves.

It turns out, though, that most countries wanted electric power plants, not just agricultural applications. That became a bone of contention, especially as critics pointed out that it seemed like a familiar colonial relationship, with “white” atomic energy aimed at electricity generation and “colored” atomic energy aimed at agriculture and medicine.

One of the themes of The Wretched Atom is the “cornucopian” promise of atomic energy. This is a term used a lot in the 1970s by those who wanted to harness technology to increase food production, mitigate environmental problems, and cure diseases. It hearkens back to an image from ancient Greece, the horn of plenty. What I’m trying to show is how the cornucopian promise started out as a powerful propaganda tool but then was adopted by many different political actors around the world for a variety of purposes. Sometimes that purpose was to achieve energy independence. Sometimes it was to modernize the economy. Sometimes it was to hide bomb programs.



Mark Osteen


On his book Fake It: Fictions of Forgery

Cover Interview of February 08, 2023

In a nutshell

Fake It investigates a set of fictional literary and art forgeries and hoaxes alongside their real-life inspirations that range from the 1660s to the twenty-first century. In the prologue, I present fifteen theses that distill the book’s conclusions and are designed to inspire other scholars to review their assumptions, refine their techniques, and reconsider their objections to the creative activities and artefacts that we call forgeries.

The book demonstrates how forgeries foster fresh authorial identities for writers seeking to break from previous practices or trying to get published (thesis 2). It shows how any forgery or hoax is only as good as its authenticating story, and that forgeries are the seeds from which other fictions grow (thesis 3). It describes how forgeries and impostures involve a conflict between erasure and exposure (thesis 4), suggesting that forgers and hoaxers want to be unmasked, so that the world can appreciate their craft. Fake It shows in detail that forgeries are deeply intertextual, scholarly, and frequently original (thesis 9). Ultimately, I propose that forgeries challenge the norms we use to classify art works and creators: that they are beyond category.

To participate in the playful spirit that forgeries promote (thesis 11), each chapter borrows its form from the texts under discussion. For example, Arthur Phillips’s 2011 novel The Tragedy of Arthur begins with an “introduction” to the newly “discovered” eponymous Shakespeare play. The introduction is actually a bildungsroman about a fictional Arthur Phillips and his forger father, also named Arthur Phillips, in which young Arthur argues that the play is a fake. The play follows. Which do we read first, the play or the introduction? To solve this problem (and to mirror the novel’s twins motif), I divide the page into columns, with the left side devoted to the introduction and the right side focusing on the play. In short, I try in this book to offer an erudite, yet witty and imaginative approach to literary and art criticism that imitates the playful, unorthodox, and uniquely creative works that I discuss.

Beginning with the eighteenth-century teenaged poet and forger Thomas Chatterton and ending with the contemporary novelist Siri Hustvedt, Fake It demonstrates that a forgery is not only a crime, a sin, and a con game; it may also be a prank, a paradox, a provocation, a performance, a self-portrait, a weapon of revenge, a cultural critique, an imposture, an erasure, and a resurrection—or many of these things at once. But it is first and foremost a story. Fake It reads, relates, and analyzes these stories of falsehoods to find within them kernels of truth and authenticity.


Andie Tucher


On her book Not Exactly Lying: Fake News and Fake Journalism in American History

Cover Interview of February 01, 2023

In a nutshell

Not Exactly Lying stands apart from the flood of recent writing on the phenomena of misinformation, disinformation, and journalistic deception. Donald Trump did not, as he claimed, invent the term “fake news.” But most scholars and commentators have acted as if he did, focusing overwhelmingly on the present and on the damage that false information has done to contemporary public life.

While that damage is very real, I take a longer and wider view, drawing on case studies to analyze how we got where we are today. I explore how the complex relationships between truth, journalism, newsmakers, and readers/audiences evolved over the centuries since 1690 when America’s first known newspaper, Publick Occurrences of Boston, included in its inaugural (and only) issue a fake news item claiming that Louis XIV of France was sleeping with his daughter-in-law. And I argue that the true danger to public life lies less in the fashionable scapegoat of fake news than in what I call “fake journalism”—the appropriation and exploitation by partisans or activists of the outward forms of authentic journalistic practice in order to lend credibility to falsehood.

For 200 years after Publick Occurrences there was no such thing as “authentic journalistic practice,” and newspapers played a variety of roles, only some of which had anything to do with information. Accurate intelligence about current events nestled in their columns alongside hyperpartisan disputation, humbugs, tall tales, fake interviews, propaganda, fiction, poetry, and the kind of reader-friendly embellishment that journalists themselves liked to call “faking.” No one expected that everything they read in the varied and jam-packed columns of a newspaper was true, but they usually felt more entertained than deceived when it wasn’t.

Around the beginning of the twentieth century, however, it became increasingly clear to news organizations, citizens, reformers, and others that journalism was failing to serve the public good. They began working to establish the principles and expectations that to this day define “real,” credible, professional journalism. They didn’t always live up to their own standards, of course; journalists did, and do, make mistakes, sometimes dire ones. But they sought to make the rules clear and to hold transgressors accountable. In a talk to students at the brand-new Columbia Journalism School in 1912, Ralph Pulitzer sought both to publicize those rules—a newspaper that prints a deliberate fake, he said, becomes a “degenerate and perverted monstrosity”—and to enlist the aspiring reporters to uphold the ideals of the profession they were about to enter.

Paradoxically, the birth of real journalism has also allowed for the growth and spread of fake journalism, as partisans, propagandists, and fraudsters figured out they could dress themselves up in their counterparts’ conventions, pretend to embrace their standards, and by their very presence undermine the credibility of good-faith journalistic work. As the mass media have grown ever more strongly entwined in the political system and as social media have penetrated ever deeper into our daily lives, so too has fake journalism, to the point where it has become an essential driver of the political polarization of public life.



Jennifer Hochschild


On her book Genomic Politics: How the Revolution in Genomic Science Is Shaping American Society

Cover Interview of January 25, 2023

In a nutshell

Knowledgeable observers suggest that, just as physics shaped the twentieth century for both good (space flight) and ill (atomic bombs), so biology will shape the twenty-first century. As with physics in the 1920s, we in the 2020s literally cannot envision the impacts of biological innovation over the next decades. But we can confidently predict that some impacts will benefit, and some will harm, humankind or parts of it. We can also predict that people will vary as to whether a given impact is beneficial or harmful. Genomic Politics maps the transformation now being created by three components of this biological revolution, all in genomic science: individual ancestry testing, use of DNA in the criminal justice system to help determine guilt or innocence, and medical use to understand, prescribe for, and eventually eliminate human genetic diseases.

Unlike most non-biologists who write about genomics, I do not seek to persuade readers that social uses of genomics will help or hurt them. My goal lies at a more “meta”-level – to explain how people come to different views of genomics’ innovations, why people hold one or another view, and what the societal and policy consequences will be of accepting one or another stance. (I reserve my own view for the end of the book, and even there I tread lightly.)

Genomic Politics explores four stances toward each of the three genomics innovations. Enthusiasts believe genetic influence on human phenotypes to be strong (though few are determinists), and they believe that genomic science is overall a force for good. They are, paradigmatically, genomic scientists. Skeptics also perceive genetic influence on human phenotypes to be strong, but in contrast to Enthusiasts, they believe that genomic science may generate more harm than good. They are, perhaps, fatalists. The Hopeful and Rejectors both perceive genetic influence on human phenotypes to be weak; the Hopeful see that fact as an invitation to social activism in order to solve social problems, while Rejectors proclaim a pox on both the houses of genomic science and social activism.

Using this simple typology, I investigate how occupants of each cell encourage or contest genomics’ use in, respectively, self-understanding, the courts, and health care. I examine how experts, public officials, the general public, and specific groups (e.g. African Americans, police, or disability advocates) use or castigate genomics, and how all of this might develop. I also discuss the concrete policies and practices in each of the three arenas, and conclude by explaining why I am a cautious Enthusiast.



Alison Peck


On her book The Accidental History of the U.S. Immigration Courts: War, Fear, and the Roots of Dysfunction

Cover Interview of January 18, 2023

In a nutshell

The immigration courts are dysfunctional. As of November 2022, there were more than 2 million cases pending nationwide. Many people wait years to have their cases heard, while others (as of this writing) are forced to “remain in Mexico” pending a hearing.

These controversial policies make daily headlines, but few people are aware of a structural issue that undergirds all these politicized wranglings: The immigration courts are not really “courts” at all, at least not in the conventional understanding of the term. They are not part of the federal judicial branch, created under Article III of the Constitution. Structurally speaking, the immigration courts are simply an office in the Department of Justice—the nation’s chief law enforcement agency.

Immigration judges are lawyers who work for DOJ. They are subject to DOJ personnel policies with respect to hiring, performance standards, and termination. That means that an individual in immigration court finds that their case will be decided by a lawyer who works for the United States—the very party that is suing them. The point is not merely esoteric; a regulatory power called “self-referral” provides that the attorney general—the nation’s chief law enforcement officer—has the authority to re-decide any case in immigration court at any time for any reason. No matter how impartial any individual immigration judge may strive to be, the system ensures that the immigration courts remain under the control of a politically-appointed law enforcement officer who answers directly to the president.

This system is, as Senator Edward Kennedy once said, “a recipe for mistakes and abuse.” How did the United States arrive at this highly manipulable system for deciding immigration cases, which can often be a matter of life or death for the individual standing before the immigration court?

The Accidental History of the U.S. Immigration Courts explores the history behind the creation of the immigration court system and uncovers a surprising answer: At the outbreak of World War II, officials in the Department of State feared that a “fifth column” of Nazi spies who looked like locals would infiltrate the government. Postwar research has revealed that there was no “fifth column,” just a Nazi hoax to undermine Allied morale. President Roosevelt responded by hastily moving the immigration services to DOJ, where they could work closely with the FBI to catch would-be spies. More than eighty years later, the effect of that propaganda lingers in U.S. policy in the form of an immigration court system that remains under the thumb of law enforcement.



David Livingstone Smith


On his book Making Monsters: The Uncanny Power of Dehumanization

Cover Interview of January 11, 2023

In a nutshell

Making Monsters is about the phenomenon of dehumanization, a phenomenon that is implicated in the most hideous acts that human beings have inflicted upon one another. Perpetrators of mass violence often dehumanize their victims. They think of them as less-than-human entities that must be oppressed, enslaved, or even exterminated.

The term “dehumanization” is used in many different ways. Some use it as just another term for inhumane or degrading treatment. Others think of it as something verbal: the metaphorical likening of others to nonhuman animals. Still others think that when we dehumanize others, we picture them as mindless, inanimate objects. Making Monsters makes the case that these conceptions of dehumanization are unsatisfactory, and that dehumanization should be understood as the attitude of regarding others as subhuman creatures. It is a very particular phenomenon that needs to be distinguished from other, related attitudes such as racism, misogyny, ableism, xenophobia, and transphobia.

Making Monsters is the third book that I have about dehumanization, and offers my most detailed and sophisticated treatment of this topic. Using historical examples, such as the Holocaust and anti-Black violence in the United States, it gives an account both of what dehumanization is and how it works, both psychologically and politically.

Making Monsters focuses on the transformation of dehumanized people in the eyes of their persecutors not simply as animals such as rats, cockroaches, and lice, but as monstrous or demonic beings—an issue that is neglected in the social psychological literature. In my view, this occurs because when people are dehumanized, they are seen as human and as subhuman simultaneously. For example, perpetrators of the Holocaust genocide did not regard their victims simply as vermin, but conceived of them as human vermin, monstrous, uncanny fusions of rats and human beings. I argue that it is part of our legacy as ultrasocial primates that we automatically perceive others as fellow human beings. However, we are also inclined to defer to people in positions of power and authority who tell us that these others are not really human, but only appear to be human. They are, so to speak, counterfeit human beings. This leaves us with two contradictory representations of the other as wholly human and wholly subhuman, the superimposition of which transforms them into monsters.

I wrote Making Monsters to be accessible and engaging to the general reader, while also packing a strong academic punch. I wrote the book this way because I believe that dehumanization is too serious a problem to be left to the putative experts. It should be of concern to all of us, and it is up to all of us to do something about.



Richard Scholar


On his book Émigrés: French Words That Turned English

Cover Interview of July 14, 2021

In a nutshell

George W. Bush is said to have claimed that “the problem with the French is that they don’t have a word for entrepreneur.” Whether or not it is true, that anecdote illustrates a deeper truth, which is that many in the English-speaking world turn to French more than they would like to think they do.

English has borrowed more words from French than from any other modern foreign language. Many borrowings from French have been seamlessly absorbed into English, like the word entrepreneur. They’ve become part of the fixtures and fittings. Other French borrowings in English leave no room for confusion about their provenance. They assert their identity as French migrants—as émigrés. Think of phrases like je ne sais quoi and à la mode. Phrases such as these and words like naïveté, ennui, and caprice have been widely available in English since the later part of the seventeenth century. They have struck many speakers and writers of English as being uniquely expressive. What role, I wanted to ask, have émigrés played in the making of modern English as it has developed over centuries and as it is spoken and written all over the world today?

Émigrés is my answer to that question.

The book explores the emergence in Restoration English of particular émigré words and phrases. It traces the later trajectories of these words across the English-speaking world. It reveals how such émigrés inspire receptivity in some Anglophones, resistance in others, and ambivalence in most. It shows how they can occasion extraordinary creativity even as they remain visibly caught up in a power relation between neighboring cultures—English- and French-speaking—that is never perceived as equal. Moving from opera to ice cream, the book shows how migrant French words are never the same again for having ventured abroad, and how they take on new lives in the material and visual cultures of the English-speaking world. Ennui depicted as a beer glass half filled with nothing but water. An emblem inspired by the London impressionist Walter Sickert’s 1914 painting Ennui. Illustration by John Barnett in Richard Scholar, Émigrés: French Words That Turned English, p. 130. © Princeton University Press.

French migrant words fascinate me as a writer above all, perhaps, because they seem to complete English as a language by elegantly recalling its fundamental incompleteness. They reveal its relation to the languages that surround it. They mark out things it cannot immediately express while also creating for it new possibilities of expression. And it is above all in the myriad of practices we call literature that we see these possibilities of expression variously realized.



Henry M. Cowles


On his book The Scientific Method: An Evolution of Thinking from Darwin to Dewey

Cover Interview of July 07, 2021

In a nutshell

What the book is all about is right there in the title! Well, sort of.

The book isn’t about the scientific method—since it starts by pointing out that there’s no such thing. Scientists already know this: if you try to reduce science to a single set of steps, the result will either be too narrow (leaving out scientific fields that do things a bit differently) or too broad (including approaches that nobody thinks are scientific). Science is too big (and too diverse) to boil down to a method shared across specialties but limited to science alone.

What the book is about is the idea of a single, shared scientific method. Specifically, it offers a history of the five-step method that is still taught in classrooms around the world—anchored by asking a question and then testing hypothetical answers to it.

The historian of education, John Rudolph, has shown how these steps were copied into science textbooks from the work of John Dewey—with a twist. While Dewey saw his steps as something science shared with everyday thinking, others seized on them as a way to set science apart from other ways of knowing. The rest, as they say, is history.

I set out to see where Dewey’s steps came from. What I found was a nesting series of debates, from Dewey’s study of children and stretching backward through experiments on animals to the work of Charles Darwin almost a century earlier.

The story I tell in The Scientific Method is about how the lines between the human and natural worlds, and specifically between human and animal minds, got blurred over the nineteenth century. All this blurring led to Dewey’s search for a natural history of thinking, shared by any organism with a mind.

The fact that this project ultimately produced, in the hands of others, an account of human-specific scientific reasoning—and not the naturalistic project Dewey had planned—is ironic, if not tragic.



Marni Reva Kessler


On her book Discomfort Food: The Culinary Imagination in Late Nineteenth-Century French Art

Cover Interview of June 30, 2021

In a nutshell

In Discomfort Food, I argue that representations of food are profoundly evocative, able to convey material and immaterial possibilities that are inconsistent with their seemingly mundane subject matter. Depictions of the alimentary resonate far beyond the physical bounds of the picture plane, tying us to both the sensory present and the fullness of the past, to our memories, our families, our traditions, our happinesses, and our losses. And these works are, of course, fixed, too, to the artists who created them, to sentient beings who lived and ate, who loved and experienced sadness.

At the center of my study are works by Édouard Manet, Antoine Vollon, Gustave Caillebotte, and Edgar Degas that, for most, conjure unbroken narratives of gustatory pleasures. But, as I show, each of these works also engage more nuanced and even unsettling associations. These pictures of fish, fruit, butter, and meat, things so apparently anodyne, are, in my analysis, haunted by anxiety, nostalgia, and melancholy for and about family, home, and the past. Rooted in histories, these images immerse us, too, in the present, in the smell and taste and feel of what we see portrayed. Our visceral responses, I thus suggest, matter deeply to our experience of representations of food, and this sensitivity to their affective qualities helps us to construe their utter capaciousness, their tensions and contradictory effects, their abilities to signify across a spectrum of unalloyed beauty and base disgust. These pictures of things so quotidian and that we associate with a range of culinary pleasures, each in their own unique ways demonstrate, too, their own inherent displeasures.

In considering—along with the scholarly—such subjective nuances and how they might be articulated in depictions of food, I shift away from the prevailing tendency to categorize them simply as still lifes and toward more analytic scrutiny of them as representations containing tangible critical capacities and expressive force that we more readily associate with real food. With this project, I thus seek to augment our study of images of edible things by demonstrating that certain linear models and classifications fail to do justice to the ways in which they are singularly suggestive, engendering distinctly visceral reactions of the sort that we may have in relation to a painting of, say, flowers, insects, books, or shells. Depictions of food are deeply complex and individual. They inevitably summon not just some of the more fugitive aspects of everyday life but also the intricate webs that constitute our memories and the myriad pleasures and discomforts that may accompany our thoughts of them. They are always richly evocative, capable of conveying delight and the promise of culinary satisfaction even as they sublimate their corollary. By introducing the transgressive power of food into analysis of representations of it, I thus expose the profoundly personal and messier aspects of images that take as their subject something so fundamental to human experience.



Charles Camic


On his book Veblen: The Making of an Economist Who Unmade Economics

Cover Interview of June 23, 2021

In a nutshell

The book, Veblen, is about intellectual innovation, and how originality is shaped by the accumulation of schooling experiences. It examines a great American original, Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929), a heterodox economist who became famous at the turn of the last century for his 1899 book The Theory of the Leisure Class. Here and in several companion works, many now neglected, Veblen exposed the defects of what we now call “mainstream economics” and proposed a bold alternative theory centered on problems of economic inequality which continue to haunt our own time.

My book examines the roots of Veblen’s ideas. This is a question scholars and others have written about since the time of Veblen’s death. With few exceptions, these accounts have offered a storyline that everyone is familiar with, whether or not they have ever heard of Thorstein Veblen.

I call this storyline the “outsider thesis.” It is the notion that creative individuals in nearly all walks of life enter the field where they will innovate from a place at the remote margins of the field or from entirely outside of it. This marginality gives them a creative edge over insiders, who are mired in the conventions of the field and cannot think outside the box. Yet that is precisely what innovators do; coming from the margins or the outside, they see things in a fresh light that enables them to discover new pathways beyond the imagination of insiders.

This outsider thesis is the centerpiece of previous explanations of Veblen’s originality. His interpreters portray him as the archetypal outsider, whose characteristics relegated him to the outer margins of the academic world where he spent his career. Among these alleged characteristics, scholars have especially emphasized Veblen’s impoverished upbringing on a farm of Norwegian immigrants, his late start speaking English, his sexual exploits, and his withdrawn personality.

Historical evidence strongly counters this narrative. Not only is every one of these descriptors simply wrong; my book refutes that whole notion of Veblen as an outsider. Archival documents, and other primary-source material I uncovered, demonstrate just the opposite. In the academic milieu where he was situated, Veblen was an insider par excellence.

Still further, my book shows that many of Veblen’s intellectual innovations actually derived from his position as an insider to the world of American higher education, which was undergoing major transformations at his time. These included the emergence of European-style research universities and the resulting rise of professional opportunities for young Americans who aspired to careers in one of the specialized academic disciplines then taking shape.

My book is the first to situate Veblen in this context and to demonstrate the connection between his later economic theorizing and his membership in the first homebred generation of American academics, who would build the modern university. In this building project, these young scholars were anticipated by their teachers, who had received advanced degrees in Europe and then carried back to the United States new ideas in philosophy, psychology, history, and economics (or “political economy,” as they called it).

This was the world inside which Veblen came of intellectual age in the 1880s and early 1890s. Beginning graduate study at John Hopkins University, Veblen earned a doctorate in philosophy at Yale University. Thereafter, he nearly earned a second doctorate in political economy at Cornell University, before his advisor departed to join the political economy department at the University of Chicago, where he also secured a faculty position for Veblen.

In my book, I follow Veblen’s educational path step by step. I demonstrate how his studies with a dozen different mentors accustomed him to a distinctive set of ideas about phenomena such as social evolution and social institutions. Because these ideas were continually reinforced by Veblen’s experiences as he moved across universities, disciplines, and mentors, they became second nature to him. As such, they provided tools he could adapt to the theoretical and practical problems he found when he turned to the agenda of contemporary economists.

Topping this agenda was the issue of wealth distribution, and the question of why some people receive larger shares of a nation’s wealth than others do. To this question, neoclassical economists of the time answered by asserting that people receive economic rewards in proportion to their productive contributions. To Veblen this theory was shot full of holes; and his writings upended it by creatively recrafting and repurposing the intellectual tools that his professors had previously plied in other contexts. According to Veblen’s theory, the individuals who receive the greatest economic rewards make no productive contributions, whereas productive men and women are continually bled dry by means of ever-changing parasitic institutions. In this far-reaching transposition of the lessons learned during his schooling lay Veblen’s originality.



Dennis C. Rasmussen


On his book Fears of a Setting Sun: The Disillusionment of America's Founders

Cover Interview of June 16, 2021

In a nutshell

Fears of a Setting Sun tells the story of how most of the American founders came to feel deep anxiety, disappointment, and even despair about the government and the nation that they had helped to create. The title alludes to a quip from Benjamin Franklin on the last day of the Constitutional Convention. As the last of the framers affixed their names to the Constitution, Franklin called attention to the high-backed mahogany chair that the president of the Convention, George Washington, had occupied at the head of the room all summer; it had a decorative half-sunburst carved into the crest. He remarked that painters often found it difficult to differentiate, in their compositions, a rising sun from a setting sun. “I have,” he said, “often and often, in the course of the session, and the vicissitudes of my hopes and fears as to its issue, looked at that [sun on the chair] behind the President, without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting: but now at length, I have the happiness to know, that it is a rising and not a setting sun.”

This anecdote is often taken to be emblematic of the optimism that the founders felt at the new government’s birth. But my book shows that almost none of them carried that sense of hope to their graves. Franklin survived to see the government formed by the Constitution in action for only a single year, but most of the founders who lived into the nineteenth century—or even to the dawn of the new century, like Washington—eventually grew disillusioned with what they had wrought.

The book focuses principally on four of the preeminent figures of the period: George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson. These four lost their faith in the American experiment at different times and for different reasons, and each has his own unique story. In a nutshell, Washington became disillusioned above all because of the rise of parties and partisanship, Hamilton because he felt that the federal government was not sufficiently vigorous or energetic, Adams because he believed that the American people lacked the requisite civic virtue for republican government, and Jefferson because of sectional divisions that were laid bare by conflict over the spread of slavery.