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Archive for the 'Cultural Studies' Category

Wednesday, April 23rd, 2014

RV-topia: Gatornationals at the Gainesville Raceway

James Twitchell, Winnebago Nation

The following post is by James Twitchell, author of Winnebago Nation: The RV in American Culture:

“The democracy of the RV parking lot may be the last of the much-eulogized American Exceptionalism.”—James Twitchell

Every March the small north Florida town where I live is overrun by swarms of drag-racers and their enthusiastic fans. On the Gainesville Raceway, a quarter-mile track a few miles out of town, everything on wheels that can have an engine attached is raced. You can watch rubber laid by motorcycles, old cars, new cars, a special category called “funny cars,” and, of course, the main attraction, the Brobdingnagian 8,000 horsepower top-fuel dragsters.

You don’t just watch these big rigs roar down the track, you feel them. They shake the spectator stands and scorch your eyes with a potent mix of burning tires, nitromethane, and exhaust. This particular event is called the Gatornationals and it’s a major stop along the National Hot Rod Association’s traveling circus.

Since the show lasts for three days, the parking lot is filled with another kind of machine—the recreational vehicle. During the day, many spectators, amped up by speed, fumes, beer, and no shade, get pooped. Hence many of them retire to the parking lot, get in the RV, rest up, and then return later. The races often run well into the night.

RVs are all over the place and of every conceivable kind: pick-up truck slide-in campers, van conversions, school-bus retrofit, and lots of what are called class A rigs in various conditions. Fans can park their RVs out in the woods, near the track, or rent a space in the parking lot.

The closer you camp to the hot asphalt, the more expensive it is. If you want to be at the finish line, the RV space will cost you $675 for the three days. But you can “camp” in the Motorhome Corral for $450. Or in the dirt parking lot with the, ugh, cars, for $75. What I find interesting is that various rigs from different economic strata park side-by-side in these lots as if Richie Rich and Hobo Hank are united by both this spectacle and love spending lots of time in what is essentially a motorized tent.

In Winnebago Nation I found the same mixing-up of social and economic status in the parking lots of football games, the NASCAR infield, the desert of Quartzsite, as well as on the Wal-Mart tarmac, or in the generic off-the-interstate campgrounds.

What we separate in our “sticks and bricks” communities, we dispense with when parking the RV. Occupy Wall Streeters take note: the democracy of the RV parking lot may be the last of the much-eulogized American Exceptionalism.

That said, there is the exception to this Exceptionalism. At Gatornationals there is a “gated community” where the royalty of Dragland assert their separation by erecting orange plastic fencing. This restricted parking lot is where the owners, drivers, and mechanics park their rigs. Like their racecars, these huge RVs are flashy and festooned with bling. These are the black-windowed monsters with the psychedelic paint jobs that you see whizzing past you on the interstate. Many of them are conversions of Prevost buses and can cost well over a million dollars. In the RV world, this is what the one-percenters look like.

James Twitchell, Winnebago Nation

Friday, April 18th, 2014

The Future of the RV — James Twitchell

Winnebago Nation

In “The Rise and Fall of the RV in America,” the concluding chapter to Winnebago Nation: The RV in American Culture, James Twitchell looks at the future of the RV, its need to change and its continuing promise to offer a new way of living:

“Our cars are smart, our clothing is smart, our food is smart, our temperature controls are smart, but our RVs are stupid.”—James Twitchell


The RV is also going to have to change its form. No more box. It needs a new outline. The gypsy wagon went from horse-drawn to engine-driven, then from looking like a parlor on wheels to looking like a ranch house on wheels. Let’s face it: Most RVs today look dreary, which may be why they get those flashy paint jobs. To get a better form, the RV needs a new consumer. The current consumers are too old and dull. Moving from empty nests, they want a mimic of what they are leaving behind (washer/dryer, ice maker, drop-down televisions, comfy chairs…). Sociologists call this “compensatory domesticity.”

And that may explain why the contemporary RV looks the way it does: It’s trying to get it both ways, home away from home. It’s simply too homey. That’s why the awning that can be extended to welcome neighbors, why the green indoor/outdoor carpeting often spread near the doorway, why the ersatz fireplaces, potted plants, massive couches, twinkle lights, and, most perplexingly, the huge television set that comes sliding out of the cargo bay so it can be watched from lawn chairs. What’s happening is that the old-time home has been dehydrated and then reconstituted so that it is essentially a split-level ranch house compressed and then expanded thanks to the slide-outs and yard art.

But as the demographics change, the mobile-nest prototype may change as well. The Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA) asserts that the fastest-growing group of RV owners is now made up of young families between eighteen and thirty-four years old. If the RV really is moving out of what’s called Phase 3 (retirement) consumers and into Phase 2 (active individuals), then the lines of thing itself should change. No longer will “getting away from it all” mean “taking it all with you.” Something else may happen, something more experimental. And the outlines for this change may well come from the places where RV life is just taking hold—Australia and China as well as the American Southwest.

There’s precedent for this flux. Architects have long dreamed of unbolting their buildings from the earth. In the early twentieth century, Le Corbusier and the Italian futurists went gaga over steam trains, ocean liners, biplanes, and anything that moved. Why should housing always be fastened to the ground? After all, humans for centuries have lived in yurts, hogans, teepees, pods, and desert tents. The French Utopie group experimented with pneumatic architecture that could be blown up and deflated. Archigram, in London, responded with the Walking City, which literally got up on its legs and wandered about. Both of these groups took movement as a necessary part of interesting housing.

Winnebago Nation

Now a new generation of designers is experimenting with varia­tions on the gypsy architecture. All kinds of unfolding mini-homes with fewer than 1,000 square feet are on the market. Nils Moormann’s Walden, Sustain Design’s Bunkie, and Tumbleweed’s Tiny Houses are all moveable compressions. You buy the kit and then assemble it, but then you’ll need a crane to move it about. Other innovations are parasitic dwellings, such as the Loftcube, which you assemble on a rooftop, stay in for a while, and then take apart (or hire a helicopter). And there’s a little aluminum-clad box called a Micro Compact Home, which opens up like Origami. To assemble, you plug it into an electrical outlet and up it goes. A selling point is that Micros fit together like Legos. You can attach ten of them and have a little apartment house like the famous Habitat of the 1967 World’s Fair.

But why do the wheels have to come off? Maybe it’s time that we pay more attention to one of the real visionaries in small-space architec­ture, Wally Byam, who back in the 1930s also realized the importance of wheels. The designer of the Airstream trailer, Byam was also a suc­cessful lawyer and publisher of do-it-yourself magazines. Ironically, because his reputation never transcended his signature product, he has never really been appreciated. His vision was for far more than the single sculpted trailer. He imagined putting these trailers together to make a self-contained habitat, a moveable city. He never got to that stage, but his idea of these things moving separately in a caravan by day and then hooking up at night was a step in the right direction. The Airstream trailer, like its cousin the RV, got stuck in the rut of the independent self-contained mimic of home. And that rut was not of Byam’s making; it is a function of who was buying them.


Wednesday, April 16th, 2014

Slab City

Winnebago Nation

“Slabs is Burning Man with a vulture overhead. It looked to me like the end of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.”—James Twitchell

As described in Winnebago Nation: The RV in American Culture, the camping site is an important part of the lure and the mythology of the RV lifestyle. In the chapter, “Park It,” Twitchell describes “Slab City,” located in California, and one of the more distinct RV Parks in the country. The following is an excerpt from the chapter:

The Slabs is the largest free camping site in the country. As a utopia of “do your own thing,” it is well worth a trip for those Panglossians who promulgate the faith in “least government is best government.” This place does not celebrate the more famous Burning Man joy in an untethered world; it lives it. Burning Man tries to find new order in the desert for a week or so; the Slabs tries to get away from order by going into the desert for an indefinite time. Burning Man is intensely self-conscious: How’m I doin’ takin’ my clothes off? It’s recreation. Slabs is more pragmatic: I’m naked; my clothes are worn out. It’s survival. Slabs is Burning Man with a vulture overhead. It looked to me like the end of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.

I was repeatedly told that the Slabs has changed. In the early 1960s, this was a place where you could see the $300,000 rig parked in peaceful tranquility next to the dilapidated school bus. Here was boondocking in its idyllic form. Snowbirds could fire up their generators while Slabbers could harvest battery power from solar cells. Potable water was trucked in, and sewage was either dumped down the gopher holes or trucked out. The community was connected by CB radio, which broadcast a nightly program of local events, including dances, pot-luck dinners, book clubs, and board games. To the people who first observed this New Harmony and reported on it in the LA Times, New York Times, Harper’s, and Time magazine, the magic was palpable. In the wake of such good press, the Slabs also started appearing on the endless lists of cheap places to retire. It was part of what easterners call “Weird California,” by which they often meant Belmont and Fishtown side by side.

Winnebago Nation

After all, the Slabs was, in a sense, the apogee of American Roman­ticism, each person finding salvation on his own slab, hoeing his own bean row, as Thoreau supposed, and coming together only when it fitted individual needs, not group demands. What law there was was the law of unreflecting generosity. The limits of individual freedom were indeed the edges of one’s desire. Sure, the state was hovering over the slabs, but there was so much confusion as to who actually owned the land that no one knew who could legally kick the squatters out, or even force them to pay for their “externalities.” (There were a few kids going to school in Niland, there was a continual ambulance service to hospital, and there was the garbage problem.)

No wonder that in Sean Penn’s 2007 adaptation of Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, a central scene takes place in the Slabs. Here we see Chris­topher McCandless meeting other RV vagabonds who will induct him into the fraternity of enlightened earth wanderers. The Slabs is por­trayed as utopian, an unfettered life in discarded school buses under the warming sun. At the Slabs, Christopher changes his name to Alexander Supertramp, and he is finally with his own people. But, alas, he must push on to his fate, which just happens to be a strange turn on his time at Slabs: He spends his final days holed up and freezing in a discarded school bus in Denali National Park.

Perhaps it was the attraction of the movie that caused a shift in clientele at the Slabs. For a while younger people came, stayed, and then moved on. Gray hair notwithstanding, there is a deep strain of adolescence in the RV life, as there is in American Transcendentalism. Experiments in American utopia from Brook Farm, Amana, Fruitlands, and the Shakers all bump up against the fact that finally someone has to take out the trash. The City on the Hill, or, in this case, the City in the Sand, slowly started to crack from underneath. Of course the Slabs was never self-consciously constituted as a commune of freedom-loving individuals. It had no manifesto other than, “If you don’t like it, move out.”


Tuesday, April 15th, 2014

The RV Through History — Images from Winnebago Nation

The following are images that illuminate the evolution of the RV from the “Gypsy Van” at the beginning of the twentieth century to the iconic Winnebago. The images, of course, come from this week’s featured book Winnebago Nation: The RV in American Culture by James Twitchell:

Winnebago Nation
Superior Truck, aka “Gypsy Van,” owned by Conklins of Huntington, NY 1915 (Huntington Historical Society).

Winnebago Nation
Zaglemeyer Kampkar, 1921 (Al Hesselbart collection at the RV/MH Hall of Fame and Museum).

Winnebago Nation
Covered wagon trailer, 1930s (RV/MH Hall of Fame and Museum).

Winnebago Nation

Winnebago Nation
Frank/Dodge motorhome before (late 1950s) and after (1963) application of the French curve (Al Hesselbart collection at the RV/MH Hall of Fame and Museum and Dodge ad).


Monday, April 14th, 2014

Book Giveaway: Winnebago Nation: The RV in American Culture, by James Twitchell

Winnebago Nation: The RV in American Culture, James Twitchell

This week we will be featuring Winnebago Nation: The RV in American Culture, by James Twitchell on our blog, twitter, and facebook.

We are also offering a FREE copy of Winnebago Nation to a lucky winner. To enter the contest please e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu and indicate your name and address. The winner will be selected Friday, April 18 at 3:00 pm.

In Winnebago Nation, James B. Twitchell takes a light-hearted look at the culture and industry behind the yearning to spend the night in one’s car. For the young the roadtrip is a coming-of-age ceremony; for those later in life it is the realization of a lifelong desire to be spontaneous, nomadic, and free. Informed by his own experiences on the road, Twitchell recounts the RV’s origins and evolution over the twentieth century; its rise, fall, and rebirth as a cultural icon; its growing mechanical complexity as it evolved from an estate wagon to a converted bus to a mobile home; and its role in bolstering and challenging conceptions of American identity.

For more on the book, read the book’s first chapter, Thoreau at 29¢ $4.00 a Gallon,” .

Thursday, March 13th, 2014

LINCOLN: Sacrifice, Family, and Politics

Finding Ourselves at the Movies: Philosophy for a New Generation, Paul W. Kahn

As part of our ongoing feature of Paul W. Kahn’s Finding Ourselves at the Movies, we’re delighted to share a guest post from the author himself on Steven Spielberg’s 2012 film Lincoln. Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Finding Ourselves at the Movies!

Lincoln: Sacrifice, Family, and Politics

Had my writing of Finding Ourselves at the Movies extended over one more year, Steve Spielberg’s Lincoln would no doubt have had a central place in my discussion of the narrative of politics that we find in American films. I would have placed a discussion of the film alongside that of Gran Torino, which places an act of sacrificial love at the foundation of law. Lincoln too is about sacrifice and love at the foundation of the state. To see this, we must look past the film’s immediate focus on low politics. To secure House passage of the bill making way for the 13th Amendment, prohibiting slavery, Lincoln was not above trading patronage positions for votes. We also see that he could be less than honest, as in his representation of southern peace overtures. To be sure the use of political tactics to pursue principled ends raises interesting questions, but the meaning of the film does not lie in this direction.

Lincoln is a great example of the first rule of American film: There is no political movie that is not also a film about family. A disturbance in the political order is a disturbance in the familial order – and vice versa. We cannot say whether Lincoln is a film about family or state. The crossing of the familial and the political is the meaning of the White House – both family residence and office – a theme beautifully illustrated in Lincoln’s late night wanderings.

This theme is powerfully portrayed in the subplot involving the radical Republican, Thaddeus Stevens. Stevens, who had spent 30 years fighting for racial equality, must compromise his rhetoric to obtain passage of the bill. He restrains himself to the disappointment of his radical followers, but he succeeds politically. In the only truly surprising moment in the film, he returns home, bill in hand, to share the event with his black housekeeper, who is also his lover and companion. The political and the familial are inseparable.

Political and familial success should go hand in hand for Lincoln too. Instead, he is assassinated. We do see, after passage of the bill, a moment of domestic happiness, as President and wife dream of future travels. It never happens. There is no family recovery, but only endless pain at the death of husband, father, President.

Lincoln’s death represents the great unsettled moment in American history. Without family reconciliation, there is no political reconciliation. Reconstruction fails; we continue to live with many of the same divisions of race and region at issue in the War. Lincoln’s assassination is the rend in the fabric of American life.

The greatness of the film, and its deepest lesson, is in the portrayal of Lincoln as a figure of love. He is, in Thadeus Stevens’s words, “the purest man in American politics.” From the opening scene in which Lincoln speaks with black and white soldiers, to his constant companionship with his young son, to his conversations with an ex-slave, to his visit to a hospital, he is a figure of overwhelming compassion. He quite literally touches all those with whom he comes in contact. This man of amazing oratory is also a man of extraordinary love.

Lincoln is, of course, the American figure of Christ. He speaks in parables, loves the least among us, embraces the enemy, and takes on to himself the nation’s pain. Like Christ, he suffers the paradox that for his faith endless numbers will kill and be killed. Love makes sacrifice possible. Lincoln knows this as the unbearable pain of the war that he must bear for the sake of the nation. The Civil War marks American politics as tragedy; Lincoln personifies that tragedy of love and sacrifice.

Love is at the center of Lincoln, and it is here that we can truly learn something about ourselves. The film constantly moves between the familial and the political, between inner life and outer practice. The family is the site of an inner pain no less grievous than the pain of the battlefield. Lincoln and Mary bear the unspeakable pain of the loss of a child, just like every other family touched by this war. The message is unmistakable: there is no line to be drawn between the family and the polity for both are expressions of love. Every soldier who dies for his country is a loss to a family. We must love the state, if we are to bear the sacrifice our loved ones. The success of the film suggests that this is a story that Americans want to hear: Ours is a project that is worthy of sacrifice because it is a project of love. Lincoln is the face of that love.

We will miss this point if we think the 13th Amendment is about a theory of equality or that liberal politics is about keeping the government out of our private lives. Before we can have a government, we must have a state; before we can apply a theory, we must have a community. To have either, we must be bound to each other. Americans believe – or want to believe – that the ties that bind us are elements of our very being. Lincoln speaks to a common faith that these are ties of love, and that for this love we will give everything.

Can we translate love into a political program? Because the American love of nation is a sacrificial love, war has occupied much of our history. The narrative of sacrifice often comes easier than a political program of charity. Yet, the final words of the film – Lincoln’s words – are precisely on point: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on . . . to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” Lincoln’s words call us still to heal the nation’s divisions. He left us no instruction book, and the film offers none. Lincoln shows us the stakes, but the burden of politics is our own.

Friday, July 26th, 2013

Frederick Cooper: How Global Do We Want Our Intellectual History to Be?

Global Intellectual History

This week our featured book is Global Intellectual History, edited by Samuel Moyn and Andrew Sartori. Today, the final day of this week’s feature, we have an excerpt from Frederick Cooper’s chapter in Global Intellectual History: “How Global Do We Want Our Intellectual History to Be?” Cooper argues that “the concepts of ‘global’ and ‘modern’ are two-edged swords when it comes to understanding the world.”

Be sure to enter our book giveaway for Global Intellectual History!

Thursday, July 25th, 2013

Cemil Aydin: Globalizing the Intellectual History of the Idea of the “Muslim World”

Global Intellectual History

This week our featured book is Global Intellectual History, edited by Samuel Moyn and Andrew Sartori. Today, we have an excerpt from Cemil Aydin’s chapter in Global Intellectual History: “Globalizing the Intellectual History of the Idea of the ‘Muslim World.’” In his essay, Aydin “revisit[s] the period from the 1880s to the 1920s that was retrospectively characterized as the high age of both global Westernization and Muslim intellectual modernism and Pan-Islamic nationalism, to discuss global ideas and values, such as the caliphate, that did not originate in Europe.”

Be sure to enter our book giveaway for Global Intellectual History!

Wednesday, July 24th, 2013

Samuel Moyn: Global Intellectual Life Past and Present

Global Intellectual History

This week our featured book is Global Intellectual History, edited by Samuel Moyn and Andrew Sartori. Today, we are cross-posting a short article by Samuel Moyn, originally published on Interdisciplines, which uses David Mitchell’s novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet as an interesting portrayal of global intellectual relationships.

Be sure to enter our book giveaway for Global Intellectual History!

Global Intellectual Life Past and Present
Samuel Moyn

Adam Smith in Nagasaki

In his bestselling recent novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, David Mitchell provides a vignette of global intellectual history, as he imagines it took place in the last years of the eighteenth century at Dejima, the manmade island in Nagasaki’s harbor, which was the sole contact point between Japan and “the West” for more than two hundred years.

In Mitchell’s portrait, however, the intended isolation of the country that Dejima is supposed to secure is not working perfectly. The novel begins with the title character’s success in smuggling in his Bible – which in spite of a wave of Japanese conversion long before is now banned. He has help in doing so, thanks to the connivance of a young Japanese translator, Ogawa, with whom he strikes up a nervous friendship.

When the two first meet, instead of calling de Zoet on his illegal smuggling, the Japanese translator asks him about another book in his chest, “book of Mr. … Adamu Sumissu.” Jacob de Zoet replies: “Adam Smith?” It turns out that he is carrying a Dutch translation of Smith’s 1776 Wealth of Nations, a copy of which Ogawa had borrowed from someone else four years ago. But he had had to return it to its owner in the midst of translating it. Now he has a new copy at hand, and can finish the job.

The presence of Smith at the outset of the novel seems right, for it reminds the reader of the history of capitalism that Smith portrayed, one of whose effects was the creation of new global relationships, such as those Mitchell imagines in his depiction of Dutch commerce.

Tuesday, July 23rd, 2013

Samuel Moyn and Andrew Sartori: Approaches to Global Intellectual History

Global Intellectual History

This week our featured book is Global Intellectual History, edited by Samuel Moyn and Andrew Sartori. Today, we have an excerpt from Samuel Moyn and Andrew Sartori’s first chapter of Global Intellectual History: “Approaches to Global Intellectual History.” In their essay, Moyn and Sartori discuss the turn toward “global history” among historians generally, and among intellectual historians in particular, as well as discussing the things a global intellectual history might be concerned with.

Be sure to enter our book giveaway for Global Intellectual History!

Monday, July 22nd, 2013

Book Giveaway: Global Intellectual History, edited by Samuel Moyn and Andrew Sartori

Global Intellectual History

This week our featured book is Global Intellectual History, edited by Samuel Moyn and Andrew Sartori. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content from and about the book and its editors here on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page.

We are also offering a FREE copy of Global Intellectual History. To enter our Book Giveaway, simply fill out the form below with your name and preferred mailing address. We will randomly select one winner on July 26th at 1:00 pm. Good luck, and spread the word!

Thursday, March 28th, 2013

Katerina Kolozova on The Real in Contemporary Philosophy

The Philosopher in Meditation by Rembrandt

This week we are featuring the Insurrections: Critical Studies in Religion, Politics, and Culture series, edited by Clayton Crockett, Creston Davis, Jeffrey Robbins, and Slavoj Zizek. Remember to enter our Book Giveaway to win FREE copies of The Incident at Antioch by Alain Badiou, Rage and Time by Peter Sloterdijk, and Hermeneutic Communism by Gianni Vattimo and Santiago Zabala. Also check out Insurrections on Pinterest!

Today, we have a guest post from Professor Katerina Kolozova, in which she discusses what she sees as the state of The Real today and outlines some ideas in her forthcoming book Cut of the Real, to be published by Columbia University Press in the Fall:

What Baudrillard called the perfect crime has become the malaise of the global(ized) intellectual of the beginning of the 21’st century. The “perfect crime” in question is the murder of the real, carried out in such way as to create the conviction it never existed and that the traces of its erased existence were mere symptom of its implacable originary absence. The era of postmodernism has been one of oversaturation with signification as a reality in its own right and also as the only possible reality. In 1995, with the publication of The Perfect Crime, Baudrillard declared full realization of the danger he warned against as early as in 1976 in his book The Symbolic Exchange and Death. The latter book centered on the plea to affirm reality in its form of negativity, i.e., as death and the trauma of interrupted life. And he did not write of some static idea of the “Negative,” of “the constitutive lack” or “absence” as conceived by postmodernism and epistemological poststructuralism. The fact that, within the poststructuralist theoretical tradition, the real has been treated as the “inaccessible” and “the unthinkable” has caused “freezing” of the category (of the real) as immutable, univocal and bracketed out of discursiveness as an unspoken axiom.


Wednesday, March 27th, 2013

A Q&A with Insurrections Series Editor Jeffrey Robbins

Radical Democracy and Political Theology

This week we are featuring the Insurrections: Critical Studies in Religion, Politics, and Culture series, edited by Clayton Crockett, Creston Davis, Jeffrey Robbins, and Slavoj Zizek. Also check out Insurrections on Pinterest!

Today, we have a Q & A with Professor Jeffrey Robbins, in which he discusses some of the essential components of the Insurrections series and their importance today.

Question: Clayton Crockett wrote that insurrectionist theology is not politically neutral and is critical of corporate capitalism. Can you elaborate on the insurrectionist critique of contemporary corporatism?
Jeffrey Robbins: Perhaps it is important to distinguish between insurrectionist theology as named and employed by Crockett (together with myself, Creston Davis, and Ward Blanton), and the Insurrections series.  An insurrectionist theology, as we conceive it, is a materialist political theology that takes seriously the emancipatory potential of religion.  Instead of relying on the concept of transcendence or the notion of a transcendent God, it accepts Wittgenstein’s maxim that “the world is all that is the case,” and thus expresses itself in the form of an immanent critique. 
Beginning from this point, we can say of the insurrectionist critique that contemporary corporatism is today’s undeniable hegemon.  Consider the story from today’s New York Times:  After protests erupted in Cyprus over the European Union’s planned austerity measures that would seize funds from individual Cypriot savings accounts, Gazprom, the Russian energy behemoth, offered its own private bailout to rescue the Cyprus economy.  As the story puts it, “The fate of this proposal is uncertain. . . But it illustrates how a sprawling, wealthy company so deeply entwined with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia that it is often called a state within a state is willing to seize an opportunity and exploit weaknesses and divisions within Europe to cement its position and power.”
While certain corporations operate as a state within a state (consider here, as well, an entity such as the company formerly known as Blackwater whose CEO admitted it worked as a “virtual extension of the CIA”), marshaling the mechanisms of the state for its own private gain, there are others operating as transnational corporations without respect to national boundaries.  At a minimum, this suggests a new, alternative form of political sovereignty.  Further, when the flow of capital is not only global, but instantaneous, this demands new forms of political organization and new means of political resistance.  And finally, contemporary corporatism’s reign can be considered complete when it becomes the logic—or better, the rubric—by which we determine even educational and philanthropic success.


Tuesday, March 26th, 2013

An Editorial and Ontological Insurrection, by Santiago Zabala

Hermeneutic Communism

This week we are featuring the Insurrections: Critical Studies in Religion, Politics, and Culture series, edited by Clayton Crockett, Creston Davis, Jeffrey Robbins, and Slavoj Zizek. Remember to enter our Book Giveaway to win FREE copies of The Incident at Antioch by Alain Badiou, Rage and Time by Peter Sloterdijk, and Hermeneutic Communism by Gianni Vattimo and Santiago Zabala. Also check out Insurrections on Pinterest!

Today, we have a guest post from Professor Santiago Zabala, in which he discusses the unique nature and success of the Insurrections series, and its significance in critical studies today.

In order for any scholarly series to work there are three indispensable components: a distinguished academic press, a long-term philosophical project, and, most of all, passionate editors. CUP’s Insurrections series not only has all of these, but also has become a model for series from other presses. A few weeks ago I was at a conference in New Delhi called On World Religions: Diversity, Not Dissension (which took place at the Indian Council for Cultural Relations and was organized by the distinguished Indian philosopher Anindita Balslev and attended by intellectuals from all over the world, including the His Holiness the Dalai Lama). I was asked by a group of students whether I knew what would be the next titles in Insurrections. I must confess I was not completely surprised to be asked because these researchers, in keeping with the intellectual environment of the event, were already interested in the intersection of religion, politics, and culture. However, the series is known not only within the intellectual circle of political theology as I have discovered elsewhere in Asia and South America over the past years. I’m not interested in writing a report on the series’ editorial success, even though it’s clear the editors (Slavoj Žižek, Clayton Crockett, Creston Davis, and Jeffrey W. Robbins) have managed to create a true editorial insurrection, but rather in pointing out the ontological nature of the series. In order to do this, it is first important to understand who these editors are.

The four editors of Insurrections are truly postmetaphysical philosophers, that is, concerned with what Michel Foucault called the “ontology of actuality,” where existence is not given beforehand but rather disclosed through its own historical disruptions. This is evident not only in the work of Slavoj Žižek but also in that of the other three editors, who merit as much attention as the Slovenian philosopher. While Creston Davis, a long-time disciple and collaborator of Žižek, has been articulating a refreshing materialist-immanent theology for years now, Clayton Crockett and Jeffrey W. Robbins have contributed in a unique way to political theology’s democratic effort to overcome conservative theological articulations (unfortunately expressed by the newly elected Pope Francis in Rome). What unites these editors and what they bring to the intersection between politics and theology is the vision that the truth of political theology in the twenty-first century can no longer be imagined through liberal reforms or anarchic events but only by reconsidering democracy as a form of religious practice and political thought. This new democracy is not simply unconstrained by modern liberal capitalism but actually its greatest enemy, that is, a true insurrection. The fact these editors have so much in common is perhaps the reason why the series, only seven years after its inception, is so successful. Certainly, the books in the series have sold, which is important, but much more significant are its consequences, that is, the issues it has given form to.


Monday, March 25th, 2013

Insurrections on Pinterest

This week we are featuring the Insurrections: Critical Studies in Religion, Politics, and Culture series, edited by Clayton Crockett, Creston Davis, Jeffrey Robbins, and Slavoj Zizek. Remember to enter our Book Giveaway to win FREE copies of The Incident at Antioch by Alain Badiou, Rage and Time by Peter Sloterdijk, and Hermeneutic Communism by Gianni Vattimo and Santiago Zabala.Throughout this week, we will be hosting a number of posts and interviews from the editors and authors of the Insurrections series, and we will also feature the series on Twitter feed, and on our Facebook page.

The Insurrection Series is on Pinterest! Take a minute to browse through the titles and covers, and maybe even our page devoted to the life and works of Alain Badiou, a prominent author in the series.

Thursday, January 17th, 2013

Jonathan Kahn – Is the Patent Office Forcing Race into Biotechnology Patents?

One of the most significant things you’ll learn from Jonathan Kahn’s new book, Race in a Bottle: The Story of BiDil and Racialized Medicine in a Post-Genomic Age, is that racial discourse surfaces within most all of the vertically integrated components of the medical industry, from research grants to drug advertisement and sales. In the following post, Kahn focuses in on one of these components: the acquisition of medical patents, and provides some provocative evidence of how racial categories continue to be manipulated within the patent process.

A review of recent patent applications to the United States Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) has uncovered a highly problematic new practice: PTO examiners are requiring applicants to include racial categories in the claims sections of some biotechnology patent submissions, where they provide the basis for subsequent research, development, and marketing of products developed from the patent.

This phenomenon first came to light in a December 2008 presentation by PTO Quality Assurance Specialist Kathleen Bragdon titled “A Look at Personalized Medicine.” Taking an example of a treatment for breast cancer, the presentation argued that in cases where effectiveness for all races was not established, “a scope of enablement rejection must be considered.” The message here was that a patent only covered those racial groups included in the underlying study, implying that race must be considered a genetically salient factor in biotechnology patent applications.

The critical responses Bragdon’s presentation prompted could have led the PTO to reconsider the relevance of race to biotechnology patent claims. But despite the push-back, the PTO’s practice of requiring race continues, apparently unabated. This matters a lot – not only to inventors seeking to draft viable patent applications, but more broadly for our understandings of how racial categories are coming to play an increasingly significant role in biotechnology research and development. It also casts light on a great irony: As we claim to be making progress toward a promised land of personalized medicine, group categories of race seem to be gaining salience in both law and science.

The presentation involved only a hypothetical, but at the very time it was being made, a number of cases quite similar to it were making their way through the PTO process. One, pending before the Board of Patent Appeals and Interferences (BPAI), was contesting a patent examiner’s race-based rejection of an application covering a method of screening for a gene mutation that indicates an increased risk for prostate cancer. In that case the examiner had rejected an application, among other things, for failure to “enable the full scope” of the claimed method because it “has not [been] shown that the correlation between the claimed mutations and the risk of both sporadic and hereditary prostate cancers is significant in all populations.” This finding, in turn, was apparently based on the application’s disclosure that one of the relevant mutations was found in Caucasians, while another was found African Americans.

For the examiner, this meant that the same level of risk was not present in all racial populations, hence a lack of enablement. The examiner rejected the patent claims because they did not differentiate risk by racial group but simply covered “a method of screening a subject.” This is a real-life example of the exact same logic evident in Bragdon’s presentation. The examiner here was denying a patent application for its failure to use race as a biological construct. In order to succeed, the applicants would either have to add race in a manner they did not think valid, or take the time and money to appeal the decision. In this case, they appealed – and won.


Wednesday, January 16th, 2013

An Interview with Race in a Bottle author Jonathan Kahn

Earlier this week, we posted on BiDil, the first FDA-approved drug with a race-specific indication on its label. In the following interview with Columbia University Press, Jonathan Kahn, author of Race in a Bottle: The Story of BiDil and Racialized Medicine in a Post-Genomic Age, places BiDil in context. He provides some compelling examples of how “personalized” medicine is being “racialized” and makes an argument for why this needs to be stopped.

CUP: Generally, can genetics be reliably used to determine the efficacy of a drug?

JK: Using genetics to determine the efficacy of a drug is very different from using race. A lot of progress has been made in using genetics to identify how a person may metabolize a particular drug. This is not quite the same thing as efficacy, but it is important. There are several steps to using a drug to treat a disease. Once you decide that a person needs a drug, you then need to determine what the appropriate dose is for that person. Many factors can influence this – height, weight, age, and, of course, genetics. You would not want to give an infant the same dose of Tylenol that you would give an adult. Similarly, some people have genetic variations that make them metabolize certain drugs more quickly or more slowly than others. If you are a slow metabolizer, then the drug is going to present in your system for a longer time, and you may not need as a high a dose as someone who is a faster metabolizer, and so forth. Many of these variations have been identified and can be tested. In some circumstances this can improve treatment outcomes; in others, it does not seem to be significantly more effective than the old-fashioned way of having your physician monitor your response to a particular dose and adjusting as needed.

Some significant advances have also been made in targeting drugs to treat some cancers based, not on the genetics of the person, but of the cancer itself. Thus, for example, there are certain types of breast and lung cancer that respond particularly well to certain drugs. To determine whether the drug will work, doctors test the cancer cells to see if they have certain genetic variants that will make them susceptible to the drugs. In all cases, whether drug metabolizing genes or cancer genes, the relevant genetic variants are not specific to particular racial groups.

CUP: Could you define your use of the term “unstated white norm” in the book?

JK: In the realm of biomedicine, the “unstated white norm” is the common practice of thinking about the health status or conditions of white people as the normal state of affairs from which people of color are seen somehow to deviate. It becomes manifest in such practices as algorithms that use race as a variable in calculating the proper dose of a drug for a given patient. Some of these – even those using genetic information – include values for being “African American” or “Asian American” but not for being white. The idea here is that if you are white you get the “normal” dose that does not have to be adjusted for race. It is similar to the idea that somehow whites do not “have race” – only people of color do.

In the case of a drug like BiDil, the idea of the unstated white norm becomes manifest in the logic of its approval by the FDA. The approval was based primarily on data from a drug trial that enrolled only self-identified African Americans. The FDA approved BiDil with a race-specific label based on the idea that since it was only tested in African Americans it should only be approved for African Americans. But the fact of the matter is, most of the drugs on the market today were approved based on data from similarly race-specific trials – trials conducted only with white people – but these drugs were not designated as “white” drugs, nor should they be. One unfortunate implication of this dynamic is the FDA sending a message (unintentionally to be sure, but a message nonetheless) that drugs tested in black people are only good for black people but drugs tested in whites are good for everybody – that is, that whites are somehow more fully representative of humanity than are blacks.

CUP: What are your views on the future of racialized and personalized medicine?

JK: I consider racialized medicine to be the inappropriate use of racial categories in medical practice and drug development. It often involves constructing practices around mistaken assumptions of some innate genetic difference among racial groups. For me, the important issue is not whether to use race in biomedicine, but how to use it – and when. There are very real health disparities in the country that are based on a long history of social, economic, and legal practices that have consistently and deliberately subordinated groups of people based on their race. As a social and historical phenomenon the health impacts of race are very real and can only be addressed by taking race into account. The key is to recognize that in these contexts it is the social and historical practices of racism that have become manifest in racialized bodies as the very real biological differences of health disparities. That is, it is history and culture that has created these biological differences in the incidence of disease across racial groups – not genes.

The future for personalized medicine should be to focus on specific genes for disease and drug response and use new knowledge to develop more effective therapeutics. My hope is that a better understanding of the relationship between race and race-based health disparities will lead to rejection of racialized medicine and an embrace of broad-based approaches to addressing the persistent social and historical determinants of health in our country.

Tuesday, January 15th, 2013

The Story of BiDil: the FDA’s First Race-Specific Drug

Hamline University Law Professor Jonathan Kahn has become a prominent critical voice in the last decade on the controversial injection of racial discourse into American medical practice (particularly in the realm of genetically tailored drugs). In the following post, he gives us a helpful overview of BiDil, an FDA-approved drug that has in many ways become the face of this issue.

The story of BiDil begins in the 1980s when a group of researchers hypothesized that combining hydralazine and isosorbide dinitrate together might be an effective treatment for heart failure. They conducted two small, federally supported clinical trials and concluded that, indeed, the drugs did work – for everybody. At this point race was not a part of the picture. In 1989, the researchers obtained a patent on the use of the two drugs together – soon to be named “BiDil” – to treat heart failure. Again, there was no mention of race in this first patent. Patent in hand, they licensed the rights to a small pharmaceutical company, which took the necessary steps to bring the drug to the FDA for approval. In 1997, the FDA denied approval, citing inadequate statistical support from the data in the first two, small trials. Importantly, many cardiologists on the advisory committee stated clearly that they believed BiDil worked, but that they could not recommend approval because of the regulatory criteria for statistical significance in the data. The FDA said it believed the drug was approvable if a properly designed follow-up clinical trial were conducted.

Clinical trials, however, cost a lot of money. At this point the small pharmaceutical company dropped BiDil and it seemed dead in the water. By now, nearly half of the twenty year life of the first patent had elapsed. A follow up trial and return to the FDA for approval might take several more years, effectively eating up almost the entire value of the patent. It was here that race entered the picture for the first time. The researchers broke out the original data by race and argued that the BiDil combination seemed to work particularly well in the 49 African Americans place on the BiDil combination drugs in the first trial. So well, in fact, that they filed for a new race-specific patent based on using the drugs only in African Americans. This patent was granted in 2000, effectively extending monopoly control over the drug by thirteen years, until 2020. This patent was then licensed to NitroMed, which conducted the new race-specific trial that provided the basis for the FDA approval in 2005.

In order for the race-specific patent to pay off, NitroMed had to get a race-specific label approved by the FDA. If the FDA approved BiDil for use in the general population regardless of race then any pharmaceutical company would be able to market BiDil after the original patent expired in 2007. In my book, Race in a Bottle, I argue that these legal and commercial considerations drove the framing of BiDil as a racial drug – shaping which questions got asked and how the answers were interpreted and presented to the public. It is in exploring these intersections of law, commerce and science that the story of BiDil illuminates the complexities of how and why race is being used in biomedical research, practice and drug development.

Look for more posts about Kahn’s new book, Race in a Bottle, this week on the Columbia University Press blog!

Monday, December 17th, 2012

Mike Chasar — Jingle All the Way: Saint Nick and the Poetry of Santa’s Ring Toss

Mike Chasar, Everyday Reading, Christmas

In the following post, Mike Chasar, author of Everyday Reading: Poetry and Popular Culture in Modern America, explores the ways in which a poem related to a Coca-Cola holiday promotion exposes how the commercial and non-commercial aspects of the holidays are intertwined. (This post was cross-posted on Mike Chasar’s blog Poetry and Popular Culture (P&PC))

Nothing dogs the Christmas season at P&PC so much as the clash between the holiday’s commercial and non- commercial aspects—between shopping and spirit, getting and giving, worldliness and wonderment, materialism and, well, something more. This clash dogs the season’s poetry, too, as the oftentimes utopian (or at least not uniformly materialist) sentiments voiced by the season’s popular verse forms get standardized, mass produced, boxed, wrapped, shipped, and sold in and on any number of greeting cards, ornaments, advent calendars, and novelty items like the funky oversized matchbook from Hallmark (see above). For every excuse that the season offers to poetically express feelings one might view as suspect or inappropriate the rest of the year—you know, faith in ideals like love, peace, family, compassion, giving, forgiveness, and the pursuit of something other than the cynical status quo—there’s some Grinch waiting to package, market, and profit from it all.

But because we all know that the commercial and non-commercial aspects of the holidays aren’t inevitably partnered with each other—that’s not the way is has to be, right?—the marketplace has to continually entangle and re-entangle them, making the contradictions between them seem natural (even at times, like, totally fun), or else so interweaving them that it becomes nigh impossible.

SantaIt’s easy, perhaps, to see this logic at work in the big picture (“Welcome to the Spirit of Christmas Online Store!”), but it’s remarkable how much it sometimes governs—to quote Robert Frost, who for nearly thirty years partnered with printer Joseph Blumenthal to make Christmas cards for friends and associates—in a thing so small as the little artifact pictured here: a Santa “ring toss” game issued as a holiday giveaway by Coca-Cola in the 1950s that contains the following poem on its handle:

I am a Jolly old
So, if you want a Kick,
Be the first to make
A “Hit – Smash”
By swinging the Ring
That’s on the String
on Santa’s Mustache


Tuesday, December 11th, 2012

Whitney Strub — The Politics of Porn, Part 2: The Culture (Non-) Wars

“For that matter, Christian Grey of the Fifty Shades trilogy would be hard to pick out from a lineup of the ‘Opportunity Society’ wing of the GOP; I picture him with Scott Brown abs, Paul Ryan vocal inflection, and Romney hair.”—Whitney Strub

Perversion for Profit, Whitney StrubThis is the second post from Whitney Strub on porn’s place in America in 2012. In his first post, Strub focused on pornography’s place in politics, here he turns to popular culture. Whitney Strub is the author of Perversion for Profit: The Politics of Pornography and the Rise of the New Right.

I ended the first post with the suggestion that the political disinvestment in porn as a partisan issue had something to do with its cultural mainstreaming. And indeed, it’s hard to rail against obscenity when your suburban voting base is immersed in a trilogy full of spanking scenes and handcuffs and erotic shaving.

Of course, Fifty Shades of Grey isn’t the first time something vaguely smutty has carried mass appeal; Hugh Hefner was perfecting this trick over a half-century ago. And though occasional media stories highlight “new” aspects of the phenomenon, like the female audience (Candida Royalle was pioneering porn for women in the 1980s, not to mention those steamy Harlequin novels my good Catholic grandmother was always reading) or the central role of technology (Kindles and Nooks now, though VHS and Beta once before), probably the most interesting angle of the story was how Vintage Books managed to cash in on the free world of Internet fanfic that is often better written and more sexually explicit (full disclosure: it’s a pet peeve of mine when people pontificate about texts they haven’t actually read, so I bought Fifty Shades Freed, the third book and only one the South Philadelphia Target had, being sold out of the first two. I had every intention of reading it, and Reader, I tried, let’s leave it at that).

So this mainstream porn event is far from unprecedented. What’s more noteworthy is that the current scale of integration blurs boundaries until pornography itself becomes a less legible category (I can’t say less meaningful—it’s always been a semantic mess). If porn spent the last two decades of the twentieth century abandoning its outlaw status to learn the tricks of corporate capitalism, from product differentiation to branding, the twenty-first century mainstream cultural economy in turn simply absorbed pornography wholly. E.L. James’ Fifty Shades is only the most glaring recent example. Mainstream crossover, once rare, has grown commonplace enough to draw little mention. Where once Harry Reems lost a part in Grease on account of his smutty past, now porn phenom James Deen won a role alongside Lindsay Lohan in The Canyons precisely because of his. Of the two stars, he’s not even the most controversial.

It’s far from a foregone conclusion that smut challenges social norms. Fifty Shades’ (rather light) BDSM content might give it an edgy quality to some readers, but as Margot Weiss’ recent analysis of the San Francisco BDSM scene in her book Techniques of Pleasure argues, transgression is tightly bound (so to speak) with hypercapitalist tendencies. New forms of desire are always also new opportunities for monetization, and the chicken doesn’t always follow the egg. For that matter, Christian Grey of the Fifty Shades trilogy would be hard to pick out from a lineup of the “Opportunity Society” wing of the GOP; I picture him with Scott Brown abs, Paul Ryan vocal inflection, and Romney hair.