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Archive for the 'Author Interview' Category

Friday, January 22nd, 2016

Alexandra Lutnick on Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking: Beyond Victims and Villains

Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking

Read excerpts from a Twitter Chat interview with Alexandra Lutnick, author of Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking: Beyond Victims and Villains, hosted by @DontSellBodies.

Tuesday, January 12th, 2016

An Interview with Roy J. Harris, author of “Pulitzer’s Gold”

Pulitzer's Gold, Roy Harris

The following is an interview with Roy J. Harris, author of Pulitzer’s Gold: A Century of Public Service Journalism

Question: 2016 is the 100th anniversary of the Pulitzer Prize. In looking over the winners for public service journalism, what struck you most about what has changed in journalism during this period and what has stayed the same?

Roy J. Harris: What’s very clear is how the quality of the Pulitzer winners—the depth of the reporting and the powerful change they brought about—increased sharply after the first few years the prizes began to be awarded. That suggests that the very creation of a system for honoring top-notch journalism encouraged more great reporting to be done around the country. But also, the variety of the top journalism projects—a diversity greater in public service than any other category—began to expand during that century: another major change. What’s stayed the same is that the predominant characteristic of the winning reporting has been tenacity on the part of the journalists to tell a story that others don’t want told.

Q: In recent years, there has been a lot of talk about how changes in the news industry are threatening the kind of journalism that the public service journalism prize highlights. What is your sense of the future for investigative journalism of this kind?

RJH: First the positive view: A surprising number of young journalists continue to enter the profession; they’re learning quickly, and doing great work. They also seem to value the tradition of great reporting, as I learn from the students I speak with regularly. While the digital world makes it harder to determine real news from the chaff, budding reporters also find that the Internet greatly broadens their access to valuable, verifiable resources. On the negative side, the news infrastructure to support reporters financially is seriously failing. New structures—like those created by new online sites and by privately supported programs like ProPublica and California Watch—aren’t coming online quickly enough to make up for the deterioration of traditional newspapers. New sources of financial support must be found for public service journalism, which is often the most expensive kind, if these young reporters are to be kept on the job.

Q: Much like the justly celebrated new movie, Spotlight, your book tells the story behind the story—about how journalists do their jobs. What is the value for general readers of understanding the ways in which journalists and the news industry work?

RJH: Before Spotlight, I argued that the behind-the-story approach of the Watergate movie All the President’s Men was a great model. Both that great movie and Spotlight are realistic, and take an inspirational look at what the media can do for our citizenry. And both concentrate on projects that won the Public Service Pulitzer—the subject of my book. I found in my research that less-well-known winners offer the same kind of excitement, though perhaps on a local level rather than a national or global level. That applies to non-journalists as much as to journalists, although the result of the journalism may be more local or regional than the ousting of a U.S. president or the exposure of a global Church scandal. From researching the stories in Pulitzer’s Gold I also found that to trace these Pulitzer winners through the years is to expose readers to the twists and turns of American history over the decades. What happened historically is important as is the role of the First Amendment, which keeps our system strong, and our citizenry informed.


Friday, January 8th, 2016

An Interview with Colin Dayan

With Dogs at the Edge of Life

“It’s the relation between humans and dogs that matters to me, and what that tells us over time about what we have become as a society.” — Colin Dayan

This week, our featured book is With Dogs at the Edge of Life, by Colin Dayan. In the first of two posts today, we are happy to present an interview with Colin Dayan recorded by Vanderbilt University, along with an excerpt from the article posted with the video.

Professor offers unsettling look at humanity with study of people and their dogs
By Ann Marie Deer Owens

A Vanderbilt University professor has researched true stories of people and their dogs—some tender and some disturbing—to make a compelling case for re-thinking our treatment of both of them.

Colin Dayan, the Robert Penn Warren Professor in the Humanities and professor of American studies in the College of Arts and Science, is the author of With Dogs at the Edge of Life (Columbia University Press, 2016).

Dayan, who is also a professor of law, emphasized that it’s the relationship between dogs and humans that is important to her research. The actions surrounding that relationship provide tremendous insight into what we have become as a society.

“The book is making a plea for us to think differently about our relationships because this is a time, as I see it, of extinctions,” Dayan said. “Certain groups of people and certain kinds of dogs are labeled and easily disposed of.”


Tuesday, December 1st, 2015

Interview with Brian T. Edwards, author of “After the American Century”

Brian T. Edwards, After the American Century

“Culture jumps publics all the time in the digital age, and what it means and where it goes is completely unpredictable. Diplomats are well aware of the technologies by which to spread culture in the twentieth-first century, but they have not yet caught up with the logics of the circulation of culture in the digital age.”—Brian Edwards

The following is an interview with Brian T. Edwards, author of After the American Century: The Ends of U.S. Culture in the Middle East

Question: Is that a real photo on the cover or is it photoshopped?

I took the cover photograph in Isfahan, about 200 miles south of Tehran. Isfahan was once one of the major cities of the world, twice the capital of Persia, and is filled with architectural masterpieces from the Safavid dynasty with a city square that is simply breathtaking in its scale. So when I turned a corner and came across this mural, with Mickey Mouse popping out of a jack-o-lantern and Walt Disney birds, it struck me that America was another empire that had left its mark on this city—part of the urban landscape now, with people passing by going about their daily business. Maybe it was the pumpkin, but there was something autumnal in that fading mural that hinted at the passing of the American empire.

I showed the photo to one of my Iranian students. He said it reminded him of the walls in the kindergartens and nursery schools when he was growing up, where pictures of Mickey Mouse were painted everywhere. The Simpsons were popular too, he said. It was expensive to buy notebooks and school supplies with these American cartoon characters, while the walls were free. Later in the book (page 117), I include a photo I took of a food court in a Tehran shopping mall, where you can see a similar phenomenon with Shrek, another American cartoon character who has had a profound impact in Iran.

Q: What does the book’s subtitle mean? Why “ends”? Do you mean to suggest that American culture is no longer present in the Middle East?

BE: Quite the opposite! By using the plural of the word “end,” I meant to evoke its multiple meanings—endpoints, uses, meanings, aims. I did also mean to nod at the meaning evoked by “end” in the singular (that something might come after the end of the American century). What I’m interested in discovering in this book is what it means that US culture is popular in the Middle East, almost part of the fabric of life, even while the United States as a political entity is increasingly unpopular. But unlike during the Cold War, or the so-called “American century,” when people like Henry Luce and the US State Department wanted to leverage the popularity of US culture, it now means a lot more than Coca Cola, jeans, or jazz music. Of course American culture still refers to Hollywood movies and hip hop, both of which are popular in the Middle East and have inspired local artists. But American cultural products in the digital age also include platforms like YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook, and cultural forms that are recognized by people in different parts of the world as “American”—say a movie formula, like the teen romance, or action-hero comic books, or cyberpunk. All of these end up in popular culture in the Middle East and North Africa, where they become new things, ultimately unrecognizable to American culture itself. So I’m really interested in what this all means, what the “ends” of these versions of American culture are, where they “end” up.

Q: What’s the deal with Shrek?

BE: Shrek makes two extended appearances in the book and shows different routes a particular cultural object can take in the digital age. In Tehran, I was startled to keep coming across images of the green ogre, from the food court at the shopping mall in the north part of the city to 2-by-3 foot Persian-language books retelling the Shrek story. Most interesting were the competing dubbed versions of the different Shrek movies—some of them more illegal than others—about which people had very strong feelings. I had come to Iran in part to try to understand the debate over the film director Abbas Kiarostami, but instead became obsessed with figuring out what one of my informants meant when she said that Shrek was really an Iranian movie.

I came across a very different Shrek in Morocco, where a hugely popular Moroccan video pirate artist used it in his most famous work. The video pirate, named Hamada, took a dance scene from Shrek and dubbed a popular Moroccan song over the soundtrack. The work that resulted, which became known as Miloudi after the singer whose work was dubbed over a clip of Donkey singing, started a phenomenon in Morocco in the mid 2000s and launched Hamada’s underground career.


Monday, November 30th, 2015

Marx after Marx — An Interview with Harry Harootunian

Marx After Marx, Harry Harootunian

“The role Marxism plays today is the same critical vocation and practice Marx imagined at the start. It is still the best critical strategy we have available to understanding … and grasping what must be done.”—Harry Harootunian

The following is an interview with Harry Harootunian, author of Marx After Marx: History and Time in the Expansion of Capitalism:

Question: How does Marxism look different once it is taken out of the Western framework? What does it mean to “Deprovincialize Marx”?

Harry Harootunian: The question of how Marxism looked different once it was taken out of the Western framework, once it was deprovincialized and resituated in a context constituted of a different lived historico-cultural experience is, in many ways, the central problem of my book.

At one level it was obvious that the migration of Marxism acquired a different appearance when it landed in regions outside of Western Europe. In fact, its migration showed the multiple routes to the development of capitalism. Uno Kozo, the great Japanese political economist notedthat the development of capitalism in Japan was a local inflection of a global process similar to other late developing societies since it followed the same economic laws despite the mediating contaminations exercised by specific historical and cultural circumstances. However, it should be pointed out that this observation was made by a number of previous thinkers in Eastern Europe, Rosa Luxemburg, Leon Trotsky and even Georg Lukacs, the putative founder of ‘Western Marxism.”

All of these thinkers recognized that the penetration of capital in Eastern Europe dramatically contrasted with economic practices derived from previous modes of production and in some cases were metabolized to serve capital’s quest for surplus value. Marx put it simply in Grundrisse when he remarked that capital takes what it finds useful at hand from prior forms of economic activity and subordinates it to capitalism’s production process. Lukacs sought to show how the visible disparity between co-existing different forms of practice, the then and the now, could be overcome through the agency of ideology. The bourgeois mind was made to see in these residual appropriations not practices derived from pre-capitalist presuppositions but rather from capital’s own presuppositions. With thinkers from the margins of industrial capital and the colonies, the determining factor was the moment of encounter, time and circumstances in which capital appeared in a society. What I’m suggesting is that the reason why capital looked different derived from the convergence of two different forms of historical intervention: the conditions accounting for the timing of capital’s entry and the reasons prompting its adoption and the subsequent collision with a received, lived history and cultural experience.

The movement of Marxism could only result in a deprovincialization that took on the appearance of local historical and cultural color. When Marx announced in his famous Preface of the first edition of Capital I that “the country that is more developed industrially shows, to the less developed, the image of its own future,” he was not proposing that it would look like England or even France. What he was offering was the promise of development, knowing, at the same time, that the operation of formal subsumption, as the rule and logic of capitalist development, would inevitably involve a process of appropriation of what was at hand. Imitation of a “classic” example would have been simply impossible to maintain under the rule of formal subsumption. So I propose that in terms of theory, Marxism and its general laws, will always be mediated by local historical and cultural circumstances.

Q: Building upon that how does the history of Marxism and Marxist movements look different when you begin to look beyond the Euro-American context?

This question might be answered by suggesting that much of the concerns of Marxism outside of Europe-America, beginning with Lenin, was an effort to return to some of the more fundamental considerations of the founders, namely wage labor and the production process. In Western Marxism, The Frankfurt school was preoccupied with the role played by culture, consumption and the culture industry in the domination of everyday life. This program reflected the privilege accorded to the commodity form and ultimately value was released from its relationship to labor, whose importance was diminished. In a sense, this move to the structuring force of the commodity—value theory—exemplified thinkers like H-G Backhaus and Antonio Negri and to some extent Moishe Postone. The trouble with this orientation is that it was premised on the presumption that value had invaded every pore of the social formation. In this regard, the efforts of thinkers to return to some of the principal perspectives of the founders were an attempt to return to history and politics rather than philosophy. The move to philosophy signified a withdrawal from historical considerations related to labor and production, as suchand its importance for forms of contemporary political intervention. The preoccupation with philosophy separated lived culture from politics and history by subsuming their identities instead of reuniting value and history. In this regard, one should recall Marx’s own repudiation of philosophy and rejection of the “concept” for the sensuousness of the concrete commodity. If value trumped history, culture and consumption replaced history to signal in the West capital’s completion, that is, the accomplishment of real subsumption.

In contrast, the world beyond Europe remains at an earlier stage, still dominated by the bricolage of formal subsumption, incomplete, undeveloped, a history in the making aimed at “catching up.” Hence, the stage theory of an earlier Marxism was stretched to distinguish the West from the world beyond it, even though they shared the same contemporary moment. What I’m suggesting is that the presumed stagist movement from formal to real subsumption (absolute surplus value to relative surplus value) was another way of representing the difference between the advanced West and the backwardness of underdevelopment, maintaining the trajectory of an earlier and vulgate version of Marxism evolved from the Second and Third Internationals that would explain where societies were located in the historical route to socialism. Yet, on closer examination, it is possible to discern in this evolutionary scheme how the underdeveloped society is cast into another temporal register to reveal the distance it must travel to reach the true contemporaneity of modern capitalism. It is precisely this stagism that mandates the reproduction or replication of a singular model of development that excludes other, plural possibilities.


Friday, November 20th, 2015

An interview with Sonja Arntzen

The Sarashina Diary

“[T]he advent in recent decades of ‘blogging’ makes Heian diaries and particularly The Sarashina Diary easier to appreciate as private texts directed toward a public audience. In the three years that our Sarashina Diary manuscript was experimentally shared in successive courses at the University of British Columbia, students kept mentioning that it had the feel of a blog. Although the content was personal and seemingly spontaneous as to choice of material, one could sense the author shaping her story to reach out to unspecified others who might choose to ‘tune in’ to her private world.” — Sonja Arntzen

The following is an interview with Sonja Arntzen who cotranslated and cowrote the introduction to The Sarashina Diary: A Woman’s Life in Eleventh-Century Japan, by Sugawara no Takasue no Musume.

Q. The jacket covers of both your translation of The Sarashina Diary and the 1971 translation by Ivan Morris use the same panel, Azumaya 1, from the mid-12th-Century Tale of Genji Scroll. Why is that?

Sonja Arntzen: That particular section of the scroll gestures to key elements of The Sarashina Diary. First of all, the diary bears witness to the author Sugawara Takasue no Musume’s lifelong fascination with fiction, which was centered on the great Tale of Genji. As the opening of the diary proclaims, “however it was that I first became enthralled with them, once I knew that such things as tales existed in the world, all I could think of…was how much I wanted to read them.” She goes on to relate how the oral retellings of tales by her sister and step-mother introduced her to fiction.

The scene in the Azumaya panel shows how monogatari “tales” were shared in a social context by women in the Heian period. It illustrates an episode in which Naka no Kimi, wife of Genji’s grandson Prince Niou, is meeting her half-sister Ukifune for the first time. Ukifune, having been raised in the distant Eastern province of Hitachi, has just come back to the capital seeking to make contact with distant kin. Naka no Kimi did not receive Ukifune immediately on her arrival because it turned out to be an auspicious day for Naka no Kimi to have her hair washed, a task of considerable effort when one’s hair was the length of one’s own height, the typical fashion for aristocratic women of the period. Naka no Kimi is shown in the lower left corner of the panel with a servant combing out her wet hair. While Ukifune was waiting to meet her sister, Prince Niou had happened upon this new woman in his wife’s apartment and immediately attempted to seduce her. (Prince Niou’s impetuous and lustful nature propels important plot-lines in the latter chapters of the Tale of Genji.) Ukifune is mortified; Naka no Kimi knows from her servants what has occurred, all of which makes this an awkward social moment. To smooth things over, Naka no Kimi has one of her attendants read from the text of a tale (see the figure immediately to Naka no Kimi’s right holding a book) while Ukifune (figure at the top right) peruses the illustrations. It was the 11th century equivalent of turning on the TV to defuse embarrassment. In short, this panel gives remarkable insight into the consumption of tale literature as part of women’s social interaction in the period and therefore why Takasue no Musume would choose addiction to fiction as one theme for her life. (more…)

Tuesday, October 20th, 2015

Interview with Carol Jacobs, author of “Sebald’s Vision”

Sebald's Vision, Carol Jacobs

“In many of [Sebald's] works one is drawn along in elaborate sentences that get you to a destination with only the remotest connections to where they began. It’s like traveling on a train whose tracks are constantly encountering a switch, so there is no predicting where one will end up, and almost no remembering how one could have gotten there.”—Carol Jacobs

The following is an interview with Carol Jacobs, author of Sebald’s Vision:

Question: W. G. Sebald is a vastly popular literary figure. Can you say something about the kind of audience he has drawn?

Carol Jacobs: Writing in 2000 Susan Sontag had this to say of the contemporary literary scene: “Is literary greatness still possible? . . . One of the few answers available to English-language readers is the work of W. G. Sebald.” J. M. Coetzee, too, recognized and eloquently celebrated his work. The New York Times, the New Yorker, The Guardian, The Telegraph—all hinted at what had seemed the inevitability of his becoming a Nobel laureate prior to his tragic death. There is no question that he is a writer’s writer. His work has elicited an astonishing critical response from academics on both sides of the Atlantic. But he is no less a writer who appeals to a very wide range of devoted readers. I have seen them in the New York subway, on planes, and (this has its ironies, given a scene in Austerlitz in which the narrator visits an ophthalmologist) also at my eye doctor’s.

Q: Why the title Sebald’s Vision?

CJ: The awe that Sebald’s writing inspires is no doubt linked to his singular ethical stance, his moral vision. This commitment comes to us by way of a pained melancholy concerning the Holocaust, in Austerlitz and The Emigrants and also in After Nature and Rings of Saturn where he turns to a host of other historical and natural disasters.That commitment comes to us as righteous outrage in “Air War and Literature” in which Sebald had challenged not only the German nation for its failure to deal with its past but also post-war German writers for their refusal to document the bombings of German cities. He also had the courage to expose the military uselessness of that violence. So his is a voice that calls us to attention, that stops us in our tracks with its factual materials and yet sweeps us along with a remarkably compelling narrative at the same time, a narrative that Sebald often insisted on calling fiction.


Thursday, October 15th, 2015

Interview with Gillian Barker, author of “Beyond Biofatalism”

Beyond Biofatalism, Gillian Barker

“To get beyond [biofatalism] is to begin to explore the evidence that human cognition and behavior are much more flexible in certain ways than [biofatalism] suggests, and so human societies are much more open to a range of possibilities than we often tend to think.”—Gillian Barker

The following is an interview with Gillian Barker, author of Beyond Biofatalism: Human Nature for an Evolving World

Question: What do you mean by “biofatalism”, and what does it mean to get beyond it?

Gillian Barker: When people are discussing aspects of today’s societies that seem to call for change—problems like racism, sexism, violence, economic inequality, and global warming—a certain form of pessimism is very common. We’ll never escape these problems, many people say, because they are an expression of tendencies that are “in our genes” or “hardwired” as a result of our evolutionary history. Sometimes this view is criticized as a form of genetic determinism, but that isn’t really a good label.

Most people who make claims like this aren’t genetic determinists; they think that environment makes a difference to human behavior. But they think that the environmental changes that would be required to create more peaceful, egalitarian, or ecologically sound societies would be extreme, requiring intolerable sacrifices. So according to this picture, our nature—the set of cognitive capacities and behavioral tendencies built by our evolutionary past—traps us in social arrangements that are unjust, unhappy, and ultimately unsafe. Not because environmental interventions are ineffective, but because we can’t stand the kinds of environments that would be needed to create better societies: no environmental change can save us from ourselves. That is biofatalism. To get beyond it is to begin to explore the evidence that human cognition and behavior are much more flexible in certain ways than this picture suggests, and so human societies are much more open to a range of possibilities than we often tend to think.

Q: Are you saying that evolutionary psychology is wrong about human nature?

GB: We can learn a great deal from human evolutionary history, but efforts to draw lessons from evolution for our thinking about human social and political choices have drawn on too narrow a selection of evidence. It is time to broaden our perspective to include insights from evolutionary biology more generally, from ecology and developmental biology, and from social psychology. These sciences can offer a picture of human nature that is quite different from the one most familiar in mainstream evolutionary psychology, and can give us reasons to expect that individual human behavior and human societies may both be surprisingly responsive to certain kinds of environmental intervention.

Q: Do you mean that nurture wins out over nature in shaping our psychology?

GB: No—as many others have also noted, these old metaphors of “nurture” acting to shape the material provided by “nature,” or of “nature” resisting the forces of “nurture,” are not very useful ones any more. The interaction between genes and environment is far more complex than they suggest. We are evolved to have “adaptive plasticity,” the capacity to adjust our own developmental patterns and behavior to enable us to succeed in different environments. But we are also evolved to modify our own environments, and each other’s—to engage in what some evolutionists call “niche construction.” The combination of these two evolved tendencies means that we should expect that human social behavior can be remarkably sensitive to some kinds of environmental variation, and remarkably resistant to others. We are only just starting to learn about these patterns of social response, but what is apparent that there is a lot to learn! The picture is much more subtle and interesting than the older “nature-vs-nurture” debate suggested.


Monday, October 5th, 2015

An Interview with Steven S. Lee, author of “The Ethnic Avant-Garde”

The Ethnic Avant-Garde

“Up until Black Lives Matter, there was a lot of talk about ‘post-race’ and ‘post-identity,’ which now seems awfully naïve. I think my book helps us to grasp the ongoing salience of racial and ethnic divides, namely, by explaining how these divides were reinforced after the interwar years.”—Steven S. Lee

The following is an interview with Steven S. Lee, author of The Ethnic Avant-Garde: Minority Cultures and World Revolution:

Q: What do you mean by “the ethnic avant-garde”?

Steven S. Lee: Two things. First, it’s a historical grouping comprised of minority writers and artists from around the world who, particularly in the 1920s and 30s, drew inspiration from the Soviet Union. They saw interwar Moscow as a beacon of both world revolution and cultural experimentation—Moscow as a center for both the Communist International (Comintern) and the international avant-garde. Rather than shared phenotype or descent, what bound this group were the forms in which it trafficked, namely, the defining techniques of the Soviet avant-garde—montage, fragment, interruption. For instance, the ethnic avant-garde encompasses Langston Hughes’s translations of Vladimir Mayakovsky; abstract suprematist shapes depicting the Bolshevik Revolution as Jewish messianic arrest; and a Soviet futurist play about China that became Broadway’s first major production with a predominantly Asian American cast.

But I also present the ethnic avant-garde as a utopian aspiration, one that exceeds the interwar years and the Soviet Union and that persists into the present. It’s the dream of advancing simultaneously ethnic particularism, political radicalism, and ar¬tistic experimentation—a dream largely crushed by Stalinism and the Cold War, but which I trace forward to Red China, 1960s activism, and contemporary American writing. As a result, we get to see the global scope and experimental potential of minority cultures, debunking the notion that particularism yields provincialism.

Q: How did you arrive at this grouping?

SSL: It’s been a roundabout journey. The project began in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, where I spent a year comparing Soviet Korean and Korean American literature. In 1937, Stalin deported approximately 180,000 Koreans from the Russian Far East to Central Asia, suspecting that they might serve as Japanese spies. And yet this wasn’t only a tragedy. The strides that Soviet Koreans made and continue to make, particularly in the cultural and political spheres, are just astounding. For instance, the Soviet Union’s greatest cult rock star, Viktor Tsoi, was half-Korean.

While working on this project in Tashkent, a friend told me about Langston Hughes’s 1932 visit to Uzbekistan and about his little-known, Moscow-published book that favorably compared the Soviet “East” to the American South. From there, the project began to grow broader in scope—from Soviet Koreans to Soviet “national minorities” as a whole, and to the contrasts between American multiculturalism and its Soviet counterparts. I became particularly interested in the long, troubled history of American minorities who saw the USSR as a “frontier of hope” (to quote the Jewish American philosopher Horace Kallen).

Of course, many of the figures I follow eventually became disillusioned with Soviet policies; some of them perished during the Stalinist terrors. However, in trying to understand the allure of what Claude McKay called the “magic pilgrimage” to the USSR, it’s important to keep in mind that these writers and artists weren’t just interested in official policies. They were also drawn to the creative possibilities opened by the likes of Sergei Eisenstein and Vladimir Mayakovsky—this lionized branch of the international avant-garde which, as Slavists well know, had itself long been fascinated by minority and non-Western cultures.

Q: How does the ethnic avant-garde change our understanding of the historical avant-garde of the interwar years?

SSL: One of my aims has been to highlight the interwar avant-garde’s inclusive, decolonizing potential, and the key has been to think about avant-gardism as the estrangement of time and history. Following the lead of Walter Benjamin and Peter Osborne, as well as Slavists like Masha Salazkina and Jane Sharp, the book uses “ethnicity” (with its connotations of the past and descent) to highlight the avant-garde’s ability to interrupt linear progress.

Allow me to elaborate. Typically, we see the avant-garde as future-oriented—the revolutionary vanguard and artistic avant-garde as agents of progress—but of course, there are plenty of instances of cutting-edge artists and writers looking to the past for inspiration. Picasso’s incorporation of African masks, Pound’s interest in Confucianism, and Eisenstein’s Mexican film project are well-known examples. The book adds several more to the mix: for instance, we see the futurist Mayakovsky attempting poetry in an “Afro-Cuban” voice, praising Diego Rivera for painting the “world’s first Communist mural,” and then relaxing at a leftist Jewish summer camp on the Hudson.

What I argue is that Mayakovsky and his fellow Soviet avant-gardists embraced (and often identified with) minority peoples and cultures in order to rethink linear progress, and in the context of the Comintern such efforts had a uniquely radical, decolonizing function. This is because the Soviet avant-garde’s efforts to estrange history complemented the Comintern’s efforts to do the same—to coordinate a world revolution that would include peoples of all backgrounds and all stages of historical development.


Thursday, October 1st, 2015

Interview with Jill Stauffer, author of Ethical Loneliness

Ethical Loneliness

“We live in a world where every relatively privileged life relies on the use of misery: the clothes we wear and the food we eat come from abusive labor conditions, the super-wealthy hide their money in tax havens to avoid contributing to larger social benefit, powerful nations pay corrupt elites in underdeveloped nations for natural resources at rates that benefit everyone except the people living in those underdeveloped nations, and it is all legal.” — Jill Stauffer

The following is an interview with Jill Stauffer, author of Ethical Loneliness: The Injustice of Not Being Heard.

What made you write a book about political repair that focused on loneliness rather than on politics or the work of institutions?

Jill Stauffer: I wrote Ethical Loneliness in response to a gap I felt in discussions people were having in various settings about how to respond to harm. Political reconciliation, transitional justice, political forgiveness and apology, legal adjudication of mass violence, truth commissions, international courts—all these are ways of responding to harm, focused to varying degrees on a discourse of repair. And yet it seemed to me that often, in conversations about these important forms of response, some things were being left unsaid. Forests were being discussed, but trees neglected, I might say. In all these discussions of repair, I kept finding too many moments where institutions designed to hear failed to listen well, and so also failed those they were most meant to serve.

So I set out to try to put a name to this thing that seemed to slip through the cracks of current conversation. I found my way to an answer when I started reading the writings Jean Améry, a holocaust and concentration camp survivor famous for defending the political value of resentment over forgiveness. Reading his work while thinking about Emmanuel Levinas’ early phenomenology—written while held in a forced labor camp during WWII—led me to come up with the term “ethical loneliness,” a name for a double abandonment. Ethical loneliness is the experience of being abandoned by humanity compounded by the experience of not being heard when you testify to what happened.

Can you offer an example of how “ethical loneliness” gets produced?

JS: It might happen when interviewers taking testimony from holocaust survivors want to hear stories of resilience and so cannot hear tales of a self’s destruction; at a truth commission where a political concern with forgiveness means stories of justified resentment go unheard; or in a court of law where the need to establish the facts of a case pushes to the side a larger story of harms caused and worlds destroyed. It might also arise when testimony about a complex story of disrespect and abuse is reduced to a standard rape story due to selective listening or political goals; or when academic discourse analysis takes testimony aiming to demonstrate strength and loss and transforms it into a story only about pain; when the legalized goal of isolating victims from perpetrators fails to see how porous the lines between the two can be in protracted complex conflict; or when those empowered to judge do not adequately understand the context in which histories and stories are conveyed, or the forms they might take, for indigenous or other minority communities. These are all sites where even people who very much want to hear well, do justice and create a better future may fail to do any of that. And that will leave many people feeling unheard, invisible, lonely or worse.

What causes ethical loneliness?

JS: Well, it’s a failure of hearing, but you’re asking why people fail. Reasons for it are just as varied as the occasions where it occurs. Those who fail to hear well may be focused on the facts of the case or the established laws and procedures. They may have a political interest in a restorative discourse. They may be overwhelmed by how far the demand for help exceeds their capacity to offer assistance. Or they may be protecting themselves from the trauma of hearing.

But I think it goes beyond that as well. As I wrote the book, I asked myself how it could be that “bad hearing” was so widespread. And I came to the thought that at least part of the problem resides in the stories we (those of us who care about justice and believe it ought to be fairly equally distributed) tell ourselves about what we owe and how we come to owe it. We want to believe in liberal political theory’s tale of autonomy not only because, for many of us, we find it all around us as we get formed as people—it is a prevalent story. But we also want to believe in a simplified autonomy because it can be too frightening to admit that, just as we were made into who we are by lots of forces beyond our control, including our fellow human beings, we can be destroyed by other human beings. Meaningful autonomy only exists where there are others who will respect its boundaries. And much of what keeps some safe while others get harmed is moral luck, nothing earned or deserved. It can be terrifying to think it, but I see no way out of that truth.
And so we tell ourselves that we are only responsible for what we’ve done and intended, and perhaps we also believe that people get what’s coming to them. But we forget to reason our way to the conclusion that comes from that starting point: that our aspirations toward a better justice will remain unrealized if that’s the story we tell ourselves about responsibility.

How does that follow?

JS: Well, let’s admit up front that sometimes it does work to say that a person is responsible for something she has done, and that the balance disturbed by that bad act can be set aright by some kind of punishment or paying of compensation. That probably works for some kinds of harms. But that story of legal culpability does not correspond to most of the forms of harm discussed in the book: where what causes harm and destroys worlds is not (or not only) individual people who set out to do harm, but also whole ideologies rallied around supporting that harm, supported actively or passively by large populations—nearby or distant, sometimes even the whole world—standing by and doing nothing to resist them. We might like to call these “innocent” wielders of harm bystanders and beneficiaries, but I’m not sure those terms are rich enough to communicate a sense of what actually builds or destroys a world.

But how does believing I’m only responsible for what I’ve set out to do mean that there won’t be better justice?

JS: We live in a world where every relatively privileged life relies on the use of misery: the clothes we wear and the food we eat come from abusive labor conditions, the super-wealthy hide their money in tax havens to avoid contributing to larger social benefit, powerful nations pay corrupt elites in underdeveloped nations for natural resources at rates that benefit everyone except the people living in those underdeveloped nations, and it is all legal. Most individuals benefiting from that misery have not participated directly in imposing oppressive or violent conditions. And so they may think they cannot be responsible for what happens. My point: many will be left unprotected and without recourse even in a world where everyone lives up to their legitimate legal duties and does nothing more than that. More is needed. But in order to see that you have to tell yourself a different story about where responsibility comes from and who bears it. If you believe in a justice beyond bare legal culpability, then you have to accept responsibility for more than what you’ve done and intended.

And how do you tell that story in the book?

JS: To get at where a sense of responsibility beyond bare culpability could come from, I had to work through a phenomenology of how selves get built not as autonomous units but in a dependence on others. I show how that is true not only in dire situations where human vulnerability is exploited, but in daily life, where one’s own possibilities and daily actions are made easier or more difficult by a variety of human-made contexts. Only that story makes sense of how human beings can be destroyed by other human beings, with or without violence (that is, destruction is not only physical but can also be emotional or social). And it begins to dismantle the attachment many of us might have to current ideas self, autonomy and responsibility that only tell half of the story. I don’t discard autonomy (it is a valuable possession!), but rather put it back in relationship with the vulnerability that also defines us as human beings. That vulnerability is not all bad! It brings us love and various kinds of pleasure along with the danger of harm and loss.

OK. So if I care about justice in way that transcends legal institutions, I have to give up my attachment to my limited-version story of responsibility. Is that all?

JS: That’s a step. The book doesn’t just gut you of your autonomy and leave you there. It also gestures at ways out of this deeply rooted impasse. I suggest renewed attention to the human capacity for revision, and a revision of our limited ideas about desert. For anyone living in the wake of an unjust past that should have been otherwise, revision can be a life-saving talent. But it is rarely accomplished by one person acting alone.

What do you mean by revision?

JS: It doesn’t mean denying that the past happened (it isn’t “revisionist”). But it reckons with the different kinds of stories each of us can tell ourselves about the past, over time. We all know that the meaning of past events changes for us over time as we age and/or as our lived context changes. That’s revision. I argue in the book that this, also, is the source of a broad social responsibility. For someone living in a community where what happened to her is widely acknowledged as a wrong that should not have been permitted and will not be allowed in the future, it will be easier for her to narrate the past as over rather than continuing into the present moment than it will be for someone whose losses aren’t acknowledged or who is still surrounded by people who do not treat her with respect or care. In that case the past will not be past. In the wake of massive violence or longstanding oppression, it is everyone’s job to contribute to building a world where positive rather than negative revisions are possible.

So the book sets out a phenomenology of ethical loneliness, discusses how current discourses about truth commissions, international tribunals, political reconciliation and transitional justice contribute to furthering justice but leave important goals unthought, collects together testimony from diverse institutions and a wide range of persons whose worlds have been further destroyed when their words were not properly heard, thinks carefully about the human capacity for revision—for remaking the world—and asks what desert could mean in the wake of all that.

Thursday, September 17th, 2015

Ky Trang Ho talks to Tren Griffin about Charlie Munger

Charlie Munger

“There are many great investments that Munger has made, but arguably none was more important than the purchase of See’s Candies. It was the first investment made by Munger and Buffett for which they paid a purchase price reflecting a bargain based on qualitative factors.” — Tren Griffin

This week our featured book is Charlie Munger: The Complete Investor, by Tren Griffin. Today, we are happy to present an excerpt from an interview with Tren Griffin, conducted by Ky Trang Ho and originally posted at Forbes. In the interview, Griffin and Ho discuss the inspiration behind the book, some of Charlie Munger’s greatest investment hits, Munger’s greatest investment failures, and much more!

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Charlie Munger: The Complete Investor!

Berkshire’s Charlie Munger: The Legendary Investor’s Strategy And Best ETF, Mutual Fund Picks
Ky Trang Ho and Tren Griffin

Ho: What inspired you to write a book about Charlie Munger?

Griffin: During the peak of the Internet bubble I began to search for an explanation of what was happening in the world since it made little sense to me at that time. Far too much paper wealth was being created far too quickly for what was happening during this bubble to be real. I had for many years been aware of the work and writing of Warren Buffett but decided at that time to re-read his work and think about it much more deeply.

I took off a full week from work to re-read everything he had ever written and think about it. As part of that process I was attracted more and more to the ideas and methods of Charlie Munger who was mentioned and talked about in this material written by and about Buffett. To understand Munger better I decided to compile his work from various sources into a private book written just for me. Writing about anything helps you understand the topic better. It forces you to think everything through from start to finish.

Warren Buffett has said that if you can’t write it down, you have not thought it through. As I compiled the material and wrote about Munger I began to understand his methods better and that they are applicable far beyond investing. (more…)

Tuesday, September 1st, 2015

An Interview with Emanuel Levy, author of “Gay Directors, Gay Films?”

Gay Directors? Gay Films?

The following is an interview with Emanuel Levy, author of Gay Directors, Gay Films?: Pedro Almodóvar, Terence Davies, Todd Haynes, Gus Van Sant, John Waters

Question: What was your motivation for writing this book?

Emanuel Levy: The notion that a distinctly gay gaze and a distinctly gay sensibility are reflected in the work of openly gay directors has not been thoroughly explored in the fields of cinema studies. Gay Directors, Gay Films? deals with one central issue: the effects of sexual orientation on the career, film output, and sensibility of five homosexual directors: Pedro Almodóvar, Terence Davies, Todd Haynes, Gus Van Sant, and John Waters. I wanted to show that these directors have perceived their sexual identities as outsiders in complex and varied ways, that the impact of sexual orientation may differ from one director to another and from one phase to another within the career of the same director.

Q: Please explain the book’s title and the question mark at the end?

EL: The book centers on five openly gay directors and their work, from the first film to the present. It raises a series of interesting, not easily answerable questions. Is there a distinctly gay mode of looking—gay gaze as it were—at social reality, at sexual politics? Do gay directors make specifically gay-themed films that are targeted at mostly gay audiences? How do we define a film as gay? By its explicit contents (text) and/or by its implicit meanings (subtext)? If a film contains one gay character, surrounded by straight figures, and does not deal with the standard issue of coming out (very popular in films of the 1980s and 1990s). These are some of the intriguing questions, which are theoretically-infused an and have pragmatic implications, that have guided me in this book, and are still at the center of film, feminist, and gay and queer studies.

Q: What was the perspective guiding your research and writing?

EL: I chose a comparative socio-cultural perspective, namely, placing these directors, their films, and their careers in the sociopolitical, ideological, and economic settings in which they have lived and worked. The five directors share two things in common, sexual orientation (they are all openly gay) and biological age, all five directors were born after World War II and thus belong to the same age cohort. At 69, Davies is the oldest, and Haynes, 53, is the youngest. In between, there are Van Sant, 62; Almodóvar, 65; and Waters, 68.

Q: Why did you choose these, and not other, directors?

EL: I wanted to examine the impact of national identity and indigenous culture on the film oeuvre of these directors, three of whom are American (Waters, Van Sant, and Haynes) and two European (Almodóvar (Spanish) and Davies(British)). Originally, the book proposal also included the gifted French director, Francois Ozon (Swimming Pool, 8 Women), but the scope of the research and space consideration (the book’s length) have presented some constraints.


Monday, August 31st, 2015

Interview with Robert Boyers, author of “The Fate of Ideas”

The Fate of Ideas, Robert Boyers

In The Fate of Ideas: Seductions, Betrayals, Appraisals, Robert Boyers strikes an unusual balance between cultural criticism and the personal or memoiristic essay. Examining a wide range of ideas—from pleasure and fidelity to “the other” and authority—he argues that people often use ideas to deceive themselves and to deny what is most real about their own experience of the world. Drawing on colorful characters and events in his own life, Boyers tests his sense of particular ideas and considers how their meanings change over time and how we can resist being violated by them. The following is an interview with Boyers:

Q: Usually we think of ideas as the sort of thing that belongs to philosophers and thinkers, and yet yours is a book that often addresses issues that belong to ordinary life and ordinary people. Did you aim, in writing your book, to rescue ideas from philosophers and academics?

Robert Boyers: “Rescue” isn’t quite the word I would use. But I have often felt that in academic discussions of ideas the issues that matter most to all of us are largely ignored. Who would not be disappointed by what passes for serious discussion of an idea like “identity” in the current academic climate? I wanted in my book to demonstrate what it might really mean to take an idea seriously by evoking situations in my own life and in the lives of actual others and then looking closely at the playing out of those ideas.

One such idea I engage in my new book is realism. When I hear academics talk about it, I find, almost invariably, that they don’t begin to do justice to what should be an enormously attractive idea. My students tend to think of so-called realists as sober, not especially interesting people who consider only the given facts of any given case as they labor to arrive at a fair-minded assessment. But for me reality is not the stone we stub our toe on. On the contrary, it’s nothing we ought to associate with the objectively obvious or indisputable. I’ve always been drawn to writers who can never look at a so-called fact without wondering what it might be, or ought to be, who know that what is “real” can only be discovered by imagining alternatives to the established reality most of us believe is all there is. In the chapter of my book devoted to the subject I tried to portray realism as an urgent and embattled attitude to experience, and I tried to identify moments in my life when my own struggle to avoid an easy submission to the obvious saved me from yielding too comfortably to the going view of things.

Q: Are there ideas you take up in your book that seem to you especially dangerous?

RB: Any idea can seem dangerous when you consider how it may be abused. The idea that it’s good to know as much as you can about the author of a novel if you hope to interpret it correctly is, on the face of it, not at all a dangerous idea. Who would not want to know something at least about the background or identity of an author as an aid to interpretation of a book or artwork? And yet, in the chapter of my book devoted to that very question, I argue that there are serious dangers entailed in imposing upon a work of fiction, or a painting, or a poem, expectations drawn from your knowledge of a given writer or artist. Which dangers? For example, those having to do with expecting a black woman writer—based on your idea of what her authorial identity entails—to say in her novel what a black woman writer is supposed to say, and then being disappointed to find that her novel offers something else entirely, something unpredictable and honest and elusive. Something you can’t reduce to a program or a grievance.


Tuesday, August 25th, 2015

Interview with Donald R. Prothero, Author of The Story of Life in 25 Fossils

The Story of Life in 25 Fossils, by Donald R. Prothero

The following interview is with Donald R. Prothero, author of The Story of Life in 25 Fossils: Tales of Intrepid Fossil Hunters and the Wonders of Evolution:

Question: How do you summarize the history of life in just 25 fossils?

Donald R. Prothero: That was an incredibly difficult decision, since there are millions of species and thousands of different known fossil species. I tried to focus on fossils that represented important landmarks in the history of life, important transitional fossils that demonstrated the macroevolution of one group from another, and some of the most extreme examples of life illustrated by the fossil record: the largest marine reptiles and dinosaurs, the largest sharks, the largest land mammals, and so on.

Q: What does the fossil record tell us about evolution?

DRP: In the book, I describe many examples of “transitional fossils” (incorrectly called “missing links”) that demonstrate the evolution of one major group from another. This is sometimes called macroevolution, and its existence is denied by 40% of Americans who don’t accept the reality of evolution. We now have snakes with legs (including a four-legged snake fossil that was just published last month, too late for our book), turtles with half a shell (including a new transitional reptile more primitive than the turtles in our book, also published too recently for our book), a creature that is the link between frogs and salamanders, many fossils that show how fish crawled out on land to become amphibians, and many feathered dinosaurs that showed how birds originated from creatures like Velociraptor. These examples could go on and on, so the new book just discusses a few of them. Many more examples are given in my book Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters (Columbia University Press, 2007).

Q: What does the fossil record tell us about the origin of animals?

DRP: In Darwin’s time, there were no fossils that showed how the oldest known fossils, such as trilobites, evolved from more primitive creatures. But in several chapters of this book, I talk about the first known fossils (primitive bacteria forming mats and domes called stromatolites, over 3.5 billion years old), the first multicellular animals from 600 million years ago, the first tiny, shelled fossils from 550 million years ago, and the earliest trilobites from 525 million years ago. Contrary to people who argue that the “Cambrian explosion” was an instantaneous event that required divine intervention, we now know it was a “Cambrian long fuse,” with all the stages from single cells to soft-bodied multicellular life to tiny shells to the first large shelled animals, all stretched out over tens of millions of years.


Tuesday, July 28th, 2015

Interview with Rebecca Walkowitz, author of Born Translated

Born Translated, by Rebecca Walkowitz

“For a long time, we’ve assumed that all books begin in one language, often called a ‘native language,’ and then travel out to other languages. This is how we’ve expected ‘world literature’ to work. But today, many books begin in several languages—they start as world literature…”—Rebecca Walkowitz

In Born Translated: The Contemporary Novel in an Age of World Literature, Rebecca L. Walkowitz argues that translation should be understood as the engine rather than the caboose of literary history. She analyzes the ways in which contemporary novelists such as J. M. Coetzee and Jamaica Kincaid incorporate the themes, forms, structure, and visual devices of translation in their works to tell this story.

Question: What is a “born-translated” novel?

Rebecca Walkowitz: I call some contemporary novels “born-translated” because they have been published simultaneously, or almost simultaneously (within a few weeks or months), in several different languages. For a long time, we’ve assumed that all books begin in one language, often called a “native language,” and then travel out to other languages. This is how we’ve expected “world literature” to work. But today, many books begin in several languages—they start as world literature—and this is especially true for novels that are written in English. In my book, I am interested in how Anglophone novels have begun to reflect on this situation, embedding their existence as translated works into the stories they tell and even into their structure and style.

Q: How does this affect the way contemporary novels are written?

RW: From the perspective of fiction-writing, the fact that novels will appear in translation right away has changed the way writers use language. Kazuo Ishiguro has talked about his efforts to design his books around structure and narrative architecture rather than around individual phrases or puns. David Mitchell’s novels often tell us about the presence of foreign languages on the page rather than representing them directly (through direct quotation or inflected dialogue). We can see in Ishiguro’s and Mitchell’s novels a focus on narrating languages—describing their relationship to other languages, explaining how they circulate and who can use them, observing which characters understand them and which don’t—rather than a focus on playing with them or reproducing their characteristics on the page. Ben Lerner has noted that his novel Leaving the Atocha Station, about a young American’s experience of learning Spanish in Madrid, emphasizes the encounter with a language one does not understand rather than the “surface effects” of that language. In Jamaica Kincaid’s work, the reader is asked to think about the words they are not reading, because they have been spoken or thought by someone who does not have access to literacy or publication. These novels represent the different ways that characters speak English and other languages by explaining those differences, by telling us about the historical and political conditions of language education, and by developing generic, syntactical, and visual cues that can communicate multilingualism in multiple languages.


Thursday, July 16th, 2015

Women’s Rights Around the World

The Hillary Doctrine

“Decades of research reveal that the subjugation of women is directly linked with state and non-state armed violence. When women are left out of peace building—as in Iraq, Afghanistan and South Sudan—the likelihood of a country sliding back into armed violence increases dramatically.” — Valerie M. Hudson and Patricia Leidl

This week our featured book is The Hillary Doctrine: Sex and American Foreign Policy, by Valerie M. Hudson and Patricia Leidl, with a foreword by Swanee Hunt. In this post, we have excerpted parts from two pieces that have recently appeared in the World Politics Review: first, an interview with Patricia Leidl about government responses to crime against women in Latin America; and second, an article by Leidl and Valerie M. Hudson on the status of women’s rights in Yemen.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of The Hillary Doctrine!

Latin America: “Latin America’s Uneven Response to Growing Violence Against Women”
An interview with Patricia Leidl

WPR: What has prompted the recent public outcry against violence against women in Latin America?

Patricia Leidl: The “recent” outcry over violence against Latin American women is in fact not recent at all. Since the early 1990s, human and women’s rights defenders have been raising the alarm over steadily climbing rates of gender-based violence in Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, with the sharpest increases beginning in 2006 and escalating by as much as 21 percent each year. In South America, human rights observatories have likewise reported steadily rising rates of violence against women—but most particularly in Brazil, Bolivia and Colombia. According to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, of the 25 countries that are home to the highest femicide rates in the world, more than half are located in Latin America.

It is perhaps no coincidence that many of these Latin American countries were embroiled in the “dirty wars” of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. These wars were characterized by the proliferation of small arms and extreme and systematic violence against women, which many scholars now believe set the stage for today’s epidemic of femicide. Human rights activists also speculate that women’s greater economic independence—in the form of low-paying and unskilled factory jobs in the wake of free trade agreements with North America, Asia and Europe—could be contributing to a climate of violence against women in a region whose culture of “machismo” traditionally relegates women to the domestic sphere. (more…)

Tuesday, June 2nd, 2015

Interview with Matthew Smith, author of Another Person’s Poison: A History of Food Allergy

“Do we really need to eat peanuts at AC/DC concerts? Of course not. We accommodate our society to be more livable for other vulnerable people, so I don’t see why we can’t for the severely allergic.”—Matthew Smith

The following is an interview with Matthew Smith, author of Another Person’s Poison: A History of Food Allergy

Question: What is a food allergy?

Matthew Smith: Well, that depends on who you ask. Allergy was originally defined in 1906 by Austrian pediatrician as “any form of altered reactivity,” a broad definition if there ever was. Early food allergists—and many still today—embraced this definition and described a wide variety of reactions to food, ranging from asthma and eczema to migraine headaches and hyperactivity, as allergy. More conservative allergists, however, chose to limit their definition of allergy to instances in which evidence of the immune system reacting against a foreign substance could be proven definitively. Since this is difficult to do for many food allergies, they believed that food allergy was much less common than their food allergists colleagues. Debates about this precise definition have fueled debates about food allergy for over a century.

Q: Do you have any food allergies?

MS: No, not a one. My children seem to get hives if they eat too many strawberries and my wife is allergic to penicillin, but I am, thankfully, food allergy-free. Unlike my previous books on hyperactivity, where I had a strong, personal connection to the topic, I was drawn to the history of food allergy primarily because it is so fascinating. I loved learning about immunology, not least because it is such a deeply personal facet of human physiology. On the surface, we all have immune systems that protect us from the same sorts of pathogens that we encounter in the environment. But at a deeper level, immunology is all about how the body distinguishes self from non-self, as Nobel Laureate Frank Macfarlane Burnet put it. For most people, the immune system sees food as “self” and takes no interest. But for the allergic, food is perceived as “non-self,” a threat that must be countered at all costs. The meaning of it all is bemusing, but also compelling.

Q: Why are rates of food allergy, and especially peanut allergy, increasing?

MS: No one knows. Many hypotheses have been put forth, but none have been conclusively proven, let alone explored in much depth, unfortunately. A few seem more plausible than others. If you think of when von Pirquet defined allergy, this was a time when children were getting vaccinated against once endemic infectious diseases and when improvements in water quality and sanitation mean that people weren’t habitually infected with helminthic parasites (worms). Perhaps with less to cope with, immune systems turned to something else. Similarly, the hygiene hypothesis speculates that children grow up in overly hygienic environments, meaning that their immune systems aren’t exposed to as many pathogens as before. More controversial theories implicate the peanut oil found in some vaccines and environmental pollutants. Of course, genetics play a role, too. I suspect that many factors are at play, as they are in other chronic conditions, but also believe that we need to spend more time investigating them.


Monday, June 1st, 2015

Jeffrey Sachs Discusses “The Age of Sustainable Development” on Charlie Rose

Last week, Jeffrey Sachs appeared on Charlie Rose to discuss his new book The Age of Sustainable Development and the urgent need for global action on climate change:

Wednesday, May 6th, 2015

An interview with Kirsten Shepherd-Barr, Author of Theatre and Evolution from Ibsen to Beckett

Theatre and Evolution, Kirsten Shepherd-Barr

The following is an interview with Kirsten Shepherd-Barr, author of Theatre and Evolution from Ibsen to Beckett:

Question: What initially struck the connection between the theatrical arts and evolutionary theory? What specifically drew you to evolutionary theory as a lens?

Kirsten Shepherd-Barr: I had written about it before for my book Science on Stage in 2006, where I devoted each chapter to an area of science, such as physics, evolution, math, medicine, etc. After I finished it, the chapter I really wanted to pursue in a lot more depth was the one on evolution. Then around 2009 everyone was gearing up for the 150th anniversary of On the Origin of Species and Darwin’s 200th birthday so there was this massive worldwide interest in Darwin. I was asked to do a panel on “Darwin and the Theater” for the International Darwin Festival in Cambridge. I brought together two playwrights and a neuroscientist who had been a theater director earlier in his career. I did a lot of research for the panel and it revealed to me how much there was to still delve into. And the other piece of the puzzle was that I had come across fantastically interesting books on Darwin and the novel, but nothing on Darwin and drama. It struck me that there was so much to say about theater and evolution and it became very clear to me that it was going to go way beyond Darwin. It’s not just a 19th century phenomenon, either; it’s looking over the past 200 years at evolutionary theory’s development.

At the festival in Cambridge, there was a wonderful exhibition on Darwin and the visual arts. They had mounted these huge canvases by famous painters of wildlife and scenes of survival and great drama in the natural world. There was a kind of underlying message there, a more oblique engagement with Darwin, not necessarily obvious, but doing it in a more subtle way. You have to sniff it out. It’s not necessarily going to be this overt reference to Darwin. It’s about the texture of the play rather than the direct references.

Q: What does theatre specifically ask from evolution that establishes a relationship different from other art forms?

KSB: The number one thing that struck me in the broader field in literature and science is that generally there is a sense that George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, and other novelists of the time had a real understanding of Darwin’s work and incorporated it in a more or less positive way. There is almost the opposite reaction in theater. The plays I was studying tended to be questioning. There was much more probing skepticism going on. Why would that be? Theater is a live art form. And the potential there in terms of evolution is just so great. You’re putting a human body on stage, a physical signifier of evolution. When you stick an actor on stage you’re signaling physiological processes that all humans have in common. You have an evolutionary process in front of you. Evolution is such a long-term 19th century spectacle, you have these huge dramatic scenes, waterfalls on stage even, and they are all part of a larger process.

In many ways my real starting point is the discoveries of Lyell, whose work Darwin was reading during his voyage on the Beagle, seeing the things he’s reading about. He is absorbing this concept of deep time and is then incorporating that as he formulates his own evolutionary ideas. The connection is this idea of the spectacle, particularly seen in British theaters in the mid-19th century, where effects, machinery, sophisticated and ambitious stagings, displaying natural settings like waterfalls, are pointing to what’s going on in the sciences, telling us the earth is much older than we thought. There really has to be a connection there, it’s not a coincidence.


Tuesday, April 21st, 2015

An Interview with Nessa Carey, Author of “Junk DNA”

Junk DNA, Nessa Carey

The following is an interview with Nessa Carey, author of Junk DNA: A Journey Through the Dark Matter of the Genome:

Question: Junk DNA explores the massive amount of excess DNA that do not directly create genes and make up proteins. Your last book, The Epigenetics Revolution focused on all of the different influences that can affect our genome as it is being written. Would you say you have a fascination with the imperfectness or the vulnerability of our own biology?

Nessa Carey: I think what I am drawn to are the areas of biology that are ambiguous. The ambiguity is both in terms of the biology itself, but also in how we view it. So I love that epigenetics is a discipline that takes us aware from genetic determinism and into situations where the genome can be affected by the environment but also by random fluctuations. With junk DNA I like that there is a vast network of subtly interacting factors that work together but are very hard to predict. But I am also drawn to what these areas tell us about the way scientists think—particularly how we create terms to describe things of which we have a very incomplete understanding, and then we get trapped in defending these inappropriate terms.

Q: In Junk DNA, you write that only 2% of our DNA is devoted to coding amino acids while the rest is “junk.” You ask the question, “What on earth is the other 98% doing?” Is this question and its prospect of the unknown ever terrifying to you? Or is it one that simply fuels more curiosity?

NC: That’s the fun bit. When I was choosing what to specialize in for my degree—biochemistry, microbiology or immunology—I chose immunology because it was the topic where my questions most often got the response of “we don’t know”.