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Archive for the 'Cultural Studies' Category

Monday, January 11th, 2016

Donald Trump and the Destruction of the American Century — Brian Edwards

Brian Edwards, After the American Century

In a recent article in Salon, They’ve destroyed us worldwide: Donald Trump, George W. Bush and the destruction of the American century, Brian Edwards, author of After the American Century: The Ends of U.S. Culture in the Middle East, examines what has happened to the more hopeful version of America that the country once exported. While acknowledging that the idea of “The American Century,” always had the ulterior motive to strengthen the United States militarily, economically, and politically, there was also a sense that American culture was infused with a sense of hope and innovation that could be taken up by others. Edwards writes, “The American century was built on a positive aura, not hate. From the romantic comedies of classic Hollywood to Coke’s ‘I’d like to teach the world to sing,’ America exported the promise of love.”

Even during the “American Century,” anti-Americanism, of course existed, but the recent events surrounding Donald Trump’s comments about Muslims coupled with recent U.S. policies have presented a very different portrait of the United Stated, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa. As Edwards suggests, “Trump’s bearing is all swagger, but he and his zealous supporters project a weak and defensive stance to the world. They have redefined the United States as hostile and fearful.”

Recent developments also represent a shift from the post-9/11 period Edwards explores in his book. In the wake of the terrorist attacks, many advocated for and implemented initiatives that resurrected the cultural cold war policies:

So, Hillary Clinton could be found championing the hip-hop initiatives that looked a lot like the jazz tours of a half-century earlier. In 2011, commenting on a state-sponsored trip of a hip-hop artist to Damascus, she said: ‘Hip-hop is America. . . . I think we have to use every tool at our disposal.’ As secretary of state, she was early to embrace what was called digital diplomacy, with young staffers leading the charge.

Over the past decade and a half, I have been charting the fate of American cultural products in the Middle East and North Africa, with extensive research in the region during a remarkable time. From Fez to Tehran, young Arabs and Iranians are intimately familiar with American popular culture. As I argue in my new book, After the American Century: The Ends of U.S. Culture in the Middle East, a newer generation across the Middle East and North Africa made a distinction between America as a creator of cultural products and the United States as a geopolitical entity. That meant that through the 1990s and 2000s, they could continue to enjoy and consume our attractive culture without contradicting their increasing dismay regarding our policies in their region.

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Friday, December 4th, 2015

The Resurgence of American Orientalism — Brian T. Edwards

After the American Century, Brian Edwards

“The persistence of Orientalist patterns of representing the Middle East and North Africa is visible in a staggering quantity of representations of the region in contemporary U.S. literature, television serials, comedy, and consumer culture … American Orientalism has been not only renewed but also extended and exaggerated.”—Brian T. Edwards

In After the American Century: The Ends of U.S. Culture in the Middle East, Brian Edwards considers what happens to American culture as it circulates in the Middle East. In the book’s epilogue, “Embracing Orientalism in the Homeland,” Edwards discusses the ways in which Middle Eastern and North African culture is received in the United States, and how they reflect a renewal of Orientalism.:

So what does make it back to the United States? What works do U.S. publishers and distributors circulate? The sad truth is that when creative works by authors from the Middle East and North Africa have reached larger audiences in the United States during the first decade and a half of the twenty-first century, they have tended to confirm prevailing and debilitating stereotypes about the region. As noted in earlier chapters, Ali Behdad and Juliet Williams identify a recent phenomenon they call “neo-Orientalism”: texts about the Middle East published in English by writers with origins in the region whose “self-proclaimed authenticity sanctions and authorizes their discourse.” In their important essay, Behdad and Williams focus on the high number of memoirs by Iranian women published in English in the first decade of the twenty-first century, such as the best-selling Reading Lolita in Tehran (2003) by Azar Nafisi and Journey from the Land of No: A Girlhood Caught in Revolutionary Iran (2004) by Roya Hakakian. Such works are explicitly political in their intent and either explicitly or implicitly justify U.S. intervention in the region through what Behdad and Williams call their “ahistorical historicism.” Namely, these authors purport to teach American readers the history of some aspect of the region that has gone wrong while at the same time making historical errors or misleading statements—say, Nafisi’s inaccurate history of veiling in Iran before the revolution—and suggest that outside assistance is required to set Iran back on its correct course.

For Behdad and Williams, Marjane Satrapi’s wonderful graphic novel Persepolis—written and first published in Paris in 2000—was the excep­tion that proved the rule in large part (in their analysis) because of the ways in which Satrapi refused a New York Times reporter’s attempt to essentialize her as a Muslim invested in “denounc[ing] Islamic fanaticism.” (In her interview with Deborah Solomon in the New York Times Magazine, Satrapi turned Solomon’s questions on themselves. Solomon disagreed with Satrapi when the latter claimed that Iranian veiling and Western unveiling of women are “equally reductive” of women. Satrapi then called out the West­ern hypocrisy around body image and plastic surgery: “If in Muslim coun­tries they try to cover the woman, in America they try to make them look like a piece of meat.”) One might go further and note that within her comics themselves, Satrapi is able efficiently to critique both Iranian contradictions in the obsession with the dangers of American culture and the shallow ways in which the West regards Iran. Her simple, even naive style of draw­ing allows her, via her autobiographical character Marji, to reveal the par­adoxes inherent in both Iran’s and the West’s regard of each other.

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Wednesday, December 2nd, 2015

Why Culture? — Brian Edwards, Author of “After the American Century”

After the American Century, Brian T. Edwards

“Analysts of foreign affairs tend to relegate understanding culture as irrelevant to the hard work of political science and international relations…. I am increasingly convinced that this is an error—and a costly one. Cultural products and debates over them help to explain the world we live in.”—Brian T. Edwards

The following is a post by Brian T. Edwards, author of After the American Century: The Ends of U.S. Culture in the Middle East:

The devastating acts of murder and violence in France last month targeted a rock concert, a soccer match, and cafés in Paris’s dynamic 10th arrondissement. This past January, a satirical magazine most famous for its cartoons was attacked. The sites where these terrible crimes took place were not simply gathering places. They were locations where people go to consume or produce “culture.”

In the general hysteria of our times, we tend to reduce cultural products and their consumption to simple rather than complex things. Rushing to keep up with an ever more dire geopolitical landscape, an easy binarism prevails: us versus them, civilization versus barbarism. Paris becomes simply the romantic city of lights under attack, the debate over Charlie Hebdo a simple question of freedom of speech.

But this replaces a more nuanced sense of how culture is both contested and how cultural products can offer a window onto the complexities of life in various parts of the planet during a time of global transformation.

Many analysts of foreign affairs tend to relegate understanding culture as irrelevant to the hard work of political science and international relations. The humanities and humanistic social sciences (such as cultural anthropology) are all well and good, from this perspective, but secondary when it comes to understanding or negotiating international relations.

I am increasingly convinced that this is an error—and a costly one. Cultural products and debates over them help to explain the world we live in with a nuance that is missing from social science formulas or the distant perspective that media talking heads take.

When I read or listen to accounts of the great and ancient tensions between Sunni and Shia, or analysts who chart the national rivalries between states like a giant game of Risk, I feel that the discussion is too abstract and fails to reflect the realities as I have come to understand them based on more than two decades of discussions with people in the Middle East and North Africa.

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Friday, May 2nd, 2014

Blood Online

Blood

This week our featured book is Blood: A Critique of Christianity, by Gil Anidjar. In this final post of our feature, we’ve collected a few additional Blood-themed links that we’d like to share. Be sure to enter our book giveaway by 1 PM today for a chance to win a free copy of Blood!

blood
By Gil Anidjar

Via freq.uenci.es

But blood is a metaphor, is it not? It cannot—more precisely, it should not—be read literally in most of the instances I have recalled. The domains of its operations are not to be over-interpreted, as if one could find bits of flesh and drops of blood in the law or in the economy. Besides, blood is a universal! I have begged to differ on a number of counts here, locating these very claims, along with other moments and practices, in a larger, American hematology. I will now content myself with the following remark: the possibility of reading blood spiritually, the insistence on its metaphoricity, rather than on a literality to be exposed and interrogated—in reading the Old Testament, for instance—is precisely what the formulation I offer here seeks to make explicit.

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Friday, May 2nd, 2014

A Critique of Chrisitanity, by Gil Anidjar

Blood

“[T]o inquire after blood was another way to ask whether there is a Christian question, a concept of Christianity even, a manner whereby we have come to know, whereby we have established with any sense of certainty, what Christianity is.” – Gil Anidjar

This week our featured book is Blood: A Critique of Christianity, by Gil Anidjar. In this post, we have “A Critique of Christianity,” an excerpt from the conclusion of Blood, in which Anidjar explains why he chose to approach his study of Christianity through blood, and what he learned about Christianity from the experience.

Enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Blood!

Thursday, May 1st, 2014

My Thoughts Be Bloody, by Gil Anidjar

Blood

“What interested me most, though, in the case of vampires, and which turned out to be unavoidable, is that they make manifest an enduring association not so much of blood and life (this is an old and complicated matter which I try to interrogate as well in the book), but of blood and love.” – Gil Anidjar

This week our featured book is Blood: A Critique of Christianity, by Gil Anidjar. Today, we have a blog post by Gil Anidjar on the somewhat complicated relationship between vampires and blood in popular culture.

Enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Blood!

My Thoughts Be Bloody
By Gil Anidjar

I had thought I would stay away from vampires.

Which generally might seem like a good idea. Still, I have no particular investment in or animus against them. After all, they are said to be found in many ages and in all kinds of places, and not always nocturnal. Seriously though, Blood was growing, and growing (like a relentless, not necessarily battery-operated, monster), whereas I had already learned from Luise White’s wonderful book, Speaking with Vampires, which addresses the apparently fantastic and widespread stories of vampire firemen found in Africa. Why firemen? In a situation like this, one rarely asks: why vampires? White does. She compellingly argues that these stories constitute complex translations of a deep understanding of Western colonial power, leaving little doubt that there was — still is — something peculiar about Western powers and about their tenacious projections of vampirism in multifarious manifestations. I had nothing to add. Besides, one would have had to be locked away in a cave (or in a coffin) to miss the explosion of vampirism in popular culture, its recent accelerations, from Bram Stoker to Anne Rice, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Blade, from True Blood to (what else?) Twilight. By the way, I am pretty certain this was all around the time I noticed an ad for the New York Lottery that suggestively assimilated this seemingly benign form of gold lust to vampiric desire (but it was meant in a good way). But it was before another public service announcement, by the New York City Office of Emergency Management, rethought the image it had disseminated of a child hanging in a stormy sky to propose safe modes of good parenting as alternatives to throwing you into a disaster zone (“They fuck you up, your mum and dad,” wrote Philip Larkin, “They may not mean to, but they do”). If you see something . . . But I digress. Today, who would disagree that, whether ancient or modern, vampires are good to think with? (more…)

Wednesday, April 30th, 2014

Why I Am Such a Good Christian, by Gil Anidjar

Blood

“[B]efore or aside from all that, there is the task of measuring or marking the boundaries and limits of Christianity. How far does Christianity go? How wide does it spread, and what depths does it reach? What divisions does it establish or undo, within and between?” – Gil Anidjar

This week our featured book is Blood: A Critique of Christianity, by Gil Anidjar. Today, we are pleased to present “Why I Am Such a Good Christian,” Anidjar’s preface to Blood.

Enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Blood!

Tuesday, April 29th, 2014

Book Giveaway! Blood: A Critique of Christianity, by Gil Anidjar

Blood

This week our featured book is Blood: A Critique of Christianity, by Gil Anidjar. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the book and its author on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page.

We are also offering a FREE copy of Blood. 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 Friday, May 2nd at 1:00 pm. Good luck, and spread the word!

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

FUTURE FORM: NO MORE BUS BOXINESS

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.

(more…)

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.”

(more…)

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).

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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.
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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.

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