Larry Wolff


On his book The Singing Turk: Ottoman Power and Operatic Emotions on the European Stage from the Siege of Vienna to the Age of Napoleon

Cover Interview of March 22, 2017

In a nutshell

The Singing Turk explores the huge cultural phenomenon of European operas about Turks, flourishing especially during the eighteenth century, in the European age of Enlightenment. Though most people interested in opera are familiar with Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio, this was just one among hundreds of operas about Turks — most of them forgotten — which were staged all over Europe from the 1680s to the 1820s. The Singing Turk, first of all, attempts to recover the dimensions of this lost repertory — including works by Handel, Vivaldi, Rameau, Gluck, Haydn, Mozart, and Rossini, but also many other lesser known composers. While my research ranges around the opera houses of Europe, particularly important foci for me were the operatic centers of Venice, Milan, Vienna, and Paris.

The Ottoman empire was a great empire on three continents — including North Africa, the Middle East, and Southeastern Europe — and operas about Ottoman Turks in the eighteenth century were relevant to international relations; they were not just works of theatrical fantasy and entertainment. I try to place these operas in the context of European-Ottoman relations: relations of intermittent military warfare, but also of ongoing cultural and commercial exchange. I analyze how the figure of the singing Turk on the European stage illuminated certain issues that seemed particularly interesting to the enlightened European public — especially political issues concerning absolute rule, in the monarchical state and in the patriarchal family (or harem), but also issues concerning the control and display of extreme emotions in civilized society. Singing Turks on stage were seen and heard as the vocal avatars of absolute power and, at the same time, the emblematic voices of extreme emotion.

I’m interested in the ways that Ottoman Turkish instrumentation — especially “Janissary” percussion — was adapted to European orchestras for these operas, to mark their Turkishness, and I also study the special significance of the basso voice in expressing a sort of Turkish hyper-masculinity on stage. I explore how the singing Turk first came to the stage in the 1680s, immediately following the defeat of the Turkish army at the siege of Vienna in 1683. The Ottoman armies were then driven back into southeastern Europe, and this was the moment at which Ottoman power no longer seemed invincible, so that Turkish scenarios became plausibly entertaining on stage. I spend a significant part of the book reflecting on Rossini, the last great composer of “singing Turk” operas, and I’m especially interested in how Rossini’s Turks intersect with the Napoleonic and post-Napoleonic moment in Europe. Rossini’s Maometto Secondo, his daring opera about Mohammed the Conqueror, the Ottoman sultan who conquered Constantinople and toppled the Byzantine empire, was certainly also a post-mortem musical reflection on the Napoleonic project of continental conquest.  Finally, I consider how the phenomenon of the singing Turk vanished from the European operatic repertory after the 1820s, such that the standard nineteenth-century repertory includes no singing Turks at all.


Mark V. Tushnet


On his (and Alan Chen’s and Joseph Blocher’s) book Free Speech Beyond Words: The Surprising Reach of the First Amendment

Cover Interview of March 15, 2017

In a nutshell

The First Amendment says that “freedom of speech” shall not be abridged. The Supreme Court has said that the First Amendment unquestionably covers Jackson Pollock’s paintings, Arnold Schoenberg’s music, and Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky.” Why do these forms of expression get constitutional protection? The paintings and the music aren’t “speech” at all, and nonsense is basically a string of meaningless sounds. So, the Constitution’s text can’t give us the answer.

Professors Blocher, Chen, and I tried to figure out that answer in Free Speech Beyond Words, and, to our surprise, we found that providing the answer is harder than most people think. We look at constitutional doctrine, academic theories seeking to explain why the Constitution protects free speech, and philosophical accounts of meaning. We examine those theories to see whether they apply to art, instrumental music, and nonsense.

The Supreme Court is clear about its conclusion that those things are covered by the First Amendment. The doctrines it deploys in First Amendment cases, though, really don’t support that conclusion. Or, at least, they don’t support that conclusion without a fair amount of tugging and hauling. The chapter on abstract art grapples with these doctrinal problems.

The chapter on instrumental music deals with theories of the First Amendment. One prominent theory says that free speech is protected because it allows us to discover truth – factual, moral, or political. But it’s hard to see how looking at an abstract painting or listening to a Beethoven string quartet leads to the discovery of truth. Or, at least, it’s hard to see how those activities have that effect any more than a host of other activities – running a small business, for example – would. But of course we have no serious problems – and certainly no First Amendment problems – with a host of business regulations.

Another prominent theory seems more promising. Artistic activities are expressions of a person’s autonomy, and freedom of speech is often defended because expression is one of the ways people use to be themselves. Here too the problem is that lots of other activities – again, running a small business is an example – are ways people express themselves.

Free speech is important for making sure our government is truly democratic: If you can’t criticize the government, how can we ever change the direction our nation is moving? But, again, the connection between democratic self-government and abstract art, instrumental music, and nonsense turns out to be really hard to figure out.

Chapter Three connects nonsense to several philosophical accounts of meaning – and meaninglessness. It suggests that we have come to understand the word “speech” to encompass nonsense. Once we do, that social understanding properly informs how we apply “speech” in practice.

In the end, we don’t disagree with the Court’s conclusion. We do devote some space to ask whether other forms of expression – artistic dance, sports like mixed martial arts, cooking with unique recipes, designing parks, and more – should be covered by the First Amendment. Our primary goal, though, is to show that the answer to the question “Why does the First Amendment cover art, music, and nonsense” is easy, but that defending the answer is quite difficult.


Harvey Cox


On his book The Market as God

Cover Interview of March 08, 2017

In a nutshell

The global capitalist=consumerist economy has an entire faith system, which has its own hierarchy, its own institutions, its own marble palaces. It has its own mythology, doctrine of the creation, doctrine of the Fall, doctrine of redemption, even a kind of eschatology, where history is going where it ought to be going – all interpreted and presented in terms of a consumer capitalist economy. It has its own heretics, its own schisms. It encourages us to trust in the god of the system: to trust, even though the god of the economic system doesn’t seem to know what he is doing at times, when things go very wrong. But we are still supposed to trust that in the long run the wisdom of this market god will make things right. There is an old American religious song called “Farther along we will understand why.” There may be a mystery now that the trickle-down theory of economics is not reaching everyone, as Pope Francis reminds us, but if we only wait, if we are only patient, in the long run the market knows best. In other words, to use a term taken directly from theology, the market is omniscient.

It may not appear omniscient, but it certainly claims to be. So we must have confidence that it is omniscient. So I am talking about an entire symbol system here, of myths and stories and narratives, that are parallel to but very different from those of traditional religions such as Christianity or Judaism or Islam – very different and in some ways contradictory.


Jack Hamilton


On his book Just around Midnight: Rock and Roll and the Racial Imagination

Cover Interview of March 01, 2017

In a nutshell

Just around Midnight is about the entanglements of popular music and racial thought during the 1960s, and particularly the question of how rock and roll music “became white.” By the time Jimi Hendrix died in 1970, many of his obituarists found it remarkable that a black man would be playing electric rock and roll guitar, in a way that no one would have thought odd when Chuck Berry was doing it just a decade earlier. My book is about how this happened, and also about how it happened during a decade that’s often thought to be marked by unprecedented amounts of commercial crossover and aesthetic exchange. For instance, you have the extraordinary rise of Motown and Southern soul on one side of the Atlantic, and on the other side of the Atlantic a whole host of bands who “invade” America while having spent their formative years deeply steeped in black American musical traditions, most famously the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. And of course there were individual stars like Sam Cooke, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, and Jimi Hendrix himself, all of whom crossed racial boundaries in both their music and their audiences.

All of these artists and entities were described as “rock” or “rock and roll” performers at various points in the 1960s; how, then, did we end up with a notion that rock music is something that only white people do? My book charts this shift, and argues that the real story is one of reception rather than production: in other words, “rock” didn’t become white because of choices musicians made, or because white musicians “stole” the music, or because black musicians chose to leave it behind. Rather, it happened due to the way audiences and writers and, subsequently, marketers and radio programmers and the music industry generally decided that different kinds of people made different kinds of music. The book is an academic book but I’ve tried to write it in a lively and readable style, so that it can reach as many readers as possible. This is music that a lot of people really love—I myself really love it—and at best I’d like to think my book offers us a chance to hear it differently than we often do, and also to correct some of the more tired and ill-founded myths about Sixties musical culture.



Caroline Ford


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

Cover Interview of February 22, 2017

In a nutshell

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



Ousmane Oumar Kane


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

Cover Interview of February 15, 2017

In a nutshell

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

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

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

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



Renée L. Beard


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

Cover Interview of February 08, 2017

In a nutshell

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

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

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

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

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



Mary Roberts


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

Cover Interview of February 01, 2017

In a nutshell

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

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

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

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


Neil J. Sullivan


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

Cover Interview of January 25, 2017

In a nutshell

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

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

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

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

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

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



Aihwa Ong


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

Cover Interview of January 18, 2017

In a nutshell

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

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

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

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

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

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



Miles A. Powell


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

Cover Interview of January 11, 2017

In a nutshell

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

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

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

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



Jinting Wu


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

Cover Interview of January 04, 2017

In a nutshell

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

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



Jennifer Gabrys


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

Cover Interview of December 28, 2016

In a nutshell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Elspeth Probyn


On her book Eating the Ocean

Cover Interview of December 21, 2016

In a nutshell

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

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

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

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


Andrew Scull


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

Cover Interview of December 14, 2016

In a nutshell

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

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

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