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Archive for the 'History' Category

Thursday, February 16th, 2017

Boom and bust returns as oil market loses its swing

Crude Volatility

“While it is possible the unmanaged interplay of supply and demand will yield more stable prices in coming years and decades, it is more likely future trends will resemble the past, featuring surprising shifts, sustained imbalances, and upheaval.” — Robert McNally

This week, our featured book is Crude Volatility: The History and the Future of Boom-Bust Oil Prices, by Robert McNally. Today, we are happy to repost an article by Robert McNally that “>originally appeared in the Financial Times:

Boom and bust returns as oil market loses its swing: For the first time in years, the global oil market is lacking a swing producer
By Robert McNally

Even in these hyper-partisan times, loathing for Opec still unites most Americans. Yet paradoxically, over four decades from the early 1930s to early 1970s, the United States was Opec, and much better at oil supply manipulation and price fixing than today’s Opec ever was.

Up until 1972, independent US oilmen and oil states like Texas acquiesced to heavyhanded government regulations over oil, imposing monthly quotas on producers. This was all done to vanquish chronic booms and busts that vexed the oil industry, consumers, investors, and officials.

This paradox bears directly on the epic, structural shift currently under way in the global oil market, with far-reaching repercussions not only for oil and energy, but also economic growth, security, and the environment. Wildly gyrating oil prices over the past decade mark the demise of Opec as an effective supply manager and the return of free crude oil markets. The resulting unwelcome and likely protracted return of boom-bust oil prices constitutes a major and under-appreciated financial, economic, and geopolitical risk to consumers, businesses, the incoming administration and governments worldwide. (more…)

Wednesday, February 15th, 2017

Old Numbers, New Data

Crude Volatility

“I decided to write this book to explore more deeply how oil’s history can clarify recent trends and shed light on tomorrow’s path, and to present my findings to the general reader as well as the energy expert.” — Robert McNally

This week, our featured book is Crude Volatility: The History and the Future of Boom-Bust Oil Prices, by Robert McNally. In today’s post, we feature an excerpt from the preface to Crude Volatility, with some illuminating graphs. (Click on the images to see them full-size!)

Tackling this topic presented formidable challenges, not the least of which was getting good historical data and information. For “barrel counters,” the search for better data is a never-ending and arduous quest. Historical data on prices and spare production capacity—central to this book—are especially scarce and patchy. I am therefore delighted and proud that my able research assistant Fernando Ferreira and I were able to unearth historical data and present two novel data sets, neither of which (to my knowledge) existed until now.

The first data set is a continuous, market-based price series for U.S. crude prices extending back to 1859 and continuing to the present on a monthly basis. Constructing this series entailed digging up prices based on field quotations, exchange-traded pipeline certificates (a proxy for crude oil prices), prices paid by Standard Oil’s purchasing agency, and data from the American Petroleum Institute and the Energy Information Administration.

The key issue here is frequency of the data. BP helpfully publishes historical crude oil prices back to 1859 on an annual basis. But annual averages fall short of illustrating boom-bust price trends as more frequent and dramatic price swings—daily, weekly, monthly—get lost in the annual average. Unless otherwise noted, all prices cited in this book, including this new monthly historical price series, are in nominal instead of real or inflation-adjusted terms. Using real prices would not change the story from a volatility perspective, but I decided to use nominal prices to better connect the prevailing historical narrative with price changes…

The second unique data set developed for this book is for U.S. spare production capacity extending back to 1940 and continuous data on U.S. and global spare capacity since 1955 (that is, including the Seven Sisters until the early 1970s and OPEC afterward). This entailed exhuming information from various government and industry reports and publications. Currently, EIA’s published OPEC spare production capacity extends back to 2003.

My goal is to contribute to our understanding of the economic and political forces that shaped oil prices in history so as to better understand them today and tomorrow. Whether I have succeeded I leave to you, dear reader, to judge…

(Click on the images to see them full-size!)

Oil Disruptions, Spare Capacity, and Crude Prices

Nominal Crude Oil Prices

Monthly Crude Oil Price Ranges

Tuesday, February 14th, 2017

The Texas Paradox

Crude Volatility

“By beginning the story of oil prices with the birth of the industry, we can better appreciate why oil prices are naturally volatile and why that volatility has posed an enormous problem not only for the oil industry but broader economy, causing oilmen and officials to go to great lengths to stabilize oil prices.” — Robert McNally

This week, our featured book is Crude Volatility: The History and the Future of Boom-Bust Oil Prices, by Robert McNally. To start the week’s feature, we are happy to present an excerpt from the book’s introduction, in which McNally examines the uncomfortable relationship tension between our desire to avoid a situation where monopolies dictate oil prices and a situation where oil prices fluctuate wildly.

Monday, February 13th, 2017

Book Giveaway! Crude Volatility: The History and the Future of Boom-Bust Oil Prices

Crude Volatility

“Robert McNally has written an excellent biography of a world-famous character, known for volatility and violent mood swings, sometimes reviled but always a player in the world economy and politics—the oil price. Insightful and timely, Crude Volatility explores the clash over many decades between “boom and bust” prices and the efforts to harness them. In the current market, McNally explains why volatility is likely to win out over stability—highly significant for what will remain the world’s most important commodity for many years to come.” — Daniel Yergin, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Prize and The Quest and Vice Chairman of IHS Markit

This week, our featured book is Crude Volatility: The History and the Future of Boom-Bust Oil Prices, by Robert McNally. 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.

Friday, November 18th, 2016

Richard Plunz on Housing in New York City

A History of Housing, Richard Plunz

We conclude our week-long feature on New York City books with A History of Housing in New York City, by Richard Plunz, who recently appeared on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show to discuss the book.

In the interview, Plunz discussed the unique historical situation that New York City confronts today with a combination of a housing shortage and an affordability crisis. As Plunz explains, the efforts of Mayors Bloomberg and DeBlasio have largely been frustrated for a variety of political and economic reasons. With new little land in the City to build upon, solutions to the problem are somewhat elusive.

Plunz also talked about the future of public housing and ways in which neighborhood can become more integrated. Needless to say, the city’s most famous real-estate figure was also discussed and Plunz expressed skepticism that the president-elect would pay much attention to housing for those not in the upper classes.

Finally, Plunz considers his favorite part of the book, which was Bronx in the 1920s. It was during this period that many immigrants moved out of the Lower East Side and built great housing in the Bronx and created a vibrant community of associations and neighborhoods.

Thursday, November 3rd, 2016

Rolling the Dice

A Brief History of Entrepreneurship

“To paraphrase Virgil, both fortune and misfortune tend to favor the bold. In other words, the surest route to avoiding misfortune is certainly not by starting one’s own business. Those who are motivated primarily by a fear of discomfort, uncertainty, and the like will find a safer way to earn a living. Of course, in many instances, such people will fare better economically over the long run than the perennial risk-taker. Nonetheless, those looking for the safe route are not likely to become entrepreneurs, successful or otherwise.” — Joe Carlen

This week, our featured book is A Brief History of Entrepreneurship: The Pioneers, Profiteers, and Racketeers Who Shaped Our World, by Joe Carlen. For today’s post, Carlen discusses the traits that are most commonly shared by successful entrepreneurs throughout history.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of A Brief History of Entrepreneurship!

Rolling the Dice
By Joe Carlen

During a recent radio interview about A Brief History of Entrepreneurship, the host asked me about those traits that are most commonly found among successful entrepreneurs. Having recently written a book that traces entrepreneurship from the dawn of civilization to the nascent space tourism industry, three initial answers sprung to mind. In this piece, I will review each of them, and discuss my personal choice for the single most important trait shared by successful entrepreneurs.

Ingenuity? Certainly, some of history’s greatest entrepreneurs, especially those of recent centuries, were distinguished by their ingenuity. Yet, many more, equally successful, were not especially innovative, at least in the technological sense. Moreover, some of the most creative ones – like Samuel Crompton, the brilliant industrial innovator who failed to adequately protect his intellectual property – never attained significant financial success. Meanwhile, even some of today’s largest technology companies were not founded on particularly original ideas. Rather, some are enterprises that grew out of tweaking existing concepts and promoting them far more aggressively and effectively than the original innovators ever did. (more…)

Wednesday, November 2nd, 2016

Introducing “A Brief History of Entrepreneurship”

A Brief History of Entrepreneurship

“Throughout history, the entrepreneur’s ceaseless quest to discover and/or develop new markets has been pursued through a variety of means, all of which have had an enormous impact on society…. So while this book does not posit a moral argument for or against entrepreneurship, it does argue that it has been a “prime mover,” an instigator of seminal transformations that have altered the course of history.” — Joe Carlen

This week, our featured book is A Brief History of Entrepreneurship: The Pioneers, Profiteers, and Racketeers Who Shaped Our World, by Joe Carlen. Today, we are happy to present an excerpt from Carlen’s Introduction, in which he traces the term “entrepreneur” back to its invention, and explains what made him investigate the history of economic invention.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of A Brief History of Entrepreneurship!

In 1985, Peter Drucker, the late management expert, defined entrepreneurship as “the act that endows resources with a new capacity to create wealth,” among the most specific and meaningful definitions of the term. More literally, the words “entrepreneurship” and “enterprise” both derive from the Old French word for “an undertaking,” entrependre. Yet even in French, the related word entrepreneur did not take on its current meaning until the economist Jean-Baptiste Say so imbued it in 1800.

In the English language, until the mid-nineteenth century, when the French term entrepreneur began to enjoy common usage outside France, the term undertaker (a literal translation of the French word) was sometimes used in its stead. More frequently, however, the more evocative term “adventurer” was preferred. In this vein, the American economist William Baumol once defined the entrepreneur as “the individual willing to embark on adventure in pursuit of economic goals.” These individuals and the often unintended impact of their adventures on the course of world history are the focus of this book. (more…)

Tuesday, November 1st, 2016

Flying Money and Capitalist Monks

A Brief History of Entrepreneurship

“Living in the land where paper had been invented several centuries earlier, these Chinese entrepreneurs began using paper bills of credit representing and exchangeable for a certain sum of guan. Upon selling their shipments of tea in the city, usually the dynasty capital Chang’an, they would receive paper IOUs…. The lightness of paper money, especially in comparison with copper coinage, inspired the name fei-qian, ‘flying money.’” — Joe Carlen

This week, our featured book is A Brief History of Entrepreneurship: The Pioneers, Profiteers, and Racketeers Who Shaped Our World, by Joe Carlen. To start the feature, we are happy to present an excerpt from “Flying Money and Capitalist Monks,” Carlen’s chapter on entrepreneurship in Tang and Song China.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of A Brief History of Entrepreneurship!

Monday, October 31st, 2016

Book Giveaway! A Brief History of Entrepreneurship, by Joe Carlen

A Brief History of Entrepreneurship

“Joe Carlen delves in primary and secondary sources, including texts on modern management, and presents them in readable and attractive prose. A Brief History of Entrepreneurship is a light and enjoyable read.” — Ali Kahn, Abram Hutzler Professor of Political Economy, Johns Hopkins University

This week, our featured book is A Brief History of Entrepreneurship: The Pioneers, Profiteers, and Racketeers Who Shaped Our World, by Joe Carlen. 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.

Wednesday, September 28th, 2016

William Guynn on Film’s Depiction of Historical Trauma

Unspeakable Histories. William Guynn

“Recovery of experience can be harrowing and is particularly so in films that speak about traumatic events in the catastrophic twentieth century. All the films evoke unresolved historical situations—unresolved for the communities that experienced them and for the historians who attempt to understand them—situations that continue to inflict individual and collective pain.”—William Guynn

The following is an interview with William Guynn, author of Unspeakable Histories: Film and the Experience of Catastrophe

Question: How does film portray history in ways that are unavailable to more conventional historical accounts

William Guynn: Unspeakable Histories is my second book on historical film. In the first, Writing History in Film, I wanted to show that film is capable of representing historical events, authentically and in its own terms. A good many historians are loath to take seriously any historical representation in film. Historical films, they contend, always lapse into the mode of fiction, and historians have plenty of evidence in the historical film genre to support their allegations. To make my argument, I selected a body of historical films to analyze which did not adhere to fictional models and did not fall back on the easy tactic of a dominant voice-over narration. What I found was that, unlike written history, these films used symbolic strategies and artful editing to transform the concrete images and sounds of film into the basic characters of historical narration: social groups, not individuals, involved in collective actions that occur in a space and time that is more cognitive than material.

I was very much aware that film does not lend itself easily to historical representation. Images are not words and have none of the discursive power of language. Indeed, the innovative forms developed by the filmmakers I studied subverted, so to speak, the relatively effortless narration of the fiction film. I began to ask myself: Is there another way that film can relate to the historical past? Is the medium, with its tangible connection to the world it “captures,” capable of depicting the past in modes that are even more authentic than what historical interpretation can give us?

Q: What was the role of Frank Ankersmit’s work in shaping your view of film’s possibility to represent history

WG: In Sublime Historical Experience, Ankersmit makes a radical gesture: he sections off the two putative components of historical discourse that historians had always considered inseparable. On one side he places historical interpretation—historiography proper—in which the historian, from his “objective” perspective, produces finished narratives extracted from bodies of facts. On the other side he exposes what supposedly lies “underneath”: raw experience, that immense domain infused with emotion and mood, historical sensation, to use Johan Huizinga’s concept. Liberated from the constraints of interpretation, Ankersmit suggests that experience can speak its own “language.” Indeed, that is what I found in the films discussed in Unspeakable Histories—where the return of the past occurs in fragmentary images and sounds, embedded in concrete places and subjected to the unfolding of time. Historical experience speaks in intuitive flashes, disturbingly primal and atavistic.

Q: Why did you choose to focus on films that speak about the catastrophic events of the twentieth century?

WG: Because those events are still alive! Despite the passage of time, the gradual disappearance of witnesses, and all that historians have written, the Holocaust, Stalinist atrocities in the West and the East, the brutal Pinochet coup d’état, the Cambodian and Indonesian genocides are still massively unresolved. Not only for those who experienced them directly but for the generations that inherit them. Historically speaking, trauma is a social possession. Footage of the Warsaw Ghetto shot by Nazi propagandists, for example, reawakens terror and desire in the hearts of survivors, who are driven to recover their experience through the concrete traces the images provide. And trauma can be contagious. Subsequent generations of Jews often share the victims’ sense of dread when confronted with the traces of a still living history. Moreover, these same images may burn in the consciousness of the spectator who is exposed to something like an unmediated experience of the past. Historiography orders and classifies events, but it cannot neutralize those events that continue to smolder in collective consciousness.

As W.G. Sebald eloquently suggests, the past is not over and done with; it lies in wait for us. It is enough to enter a courtyard in Paris neglected by time to be struck by objects from the past that protrude into our present—this Sebald gives as an example of a triggering experience. The films I study are full of objects that trigger such uncanny moments: a desacralized monastic church alive with the spiritual yearnings of Polish officers held prisoner there; solitary women combing the Atacama desert for the bones of their massacred loved ones; the desolate walls and the neon lights of a Khmer Rouge prison; the rooftop terrace where Indonesian gangsters murdered countless victims by garrottage.


Thursday, August 18th, 2016

A Lost World of Socialism

Karl Polanyi

“One reason why thinking through Polanyi’s life is a rewarding exercise is that it enables us to think through the experience of reformist socialism, to explore a world that now appears marginal, even lost, and yet which only two or three generations ago was carving deep and distinctive tracks across the political and cultural landscape.” — Gareth Dale

This week, our featured book is Karl Polanyi: A Life on the Left, by Gareth Dale. Today, we have excerpted Dale’s epilogue, in which he considers the ways in which Polanyi’s legacy has changed over time.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Karl Polanyi!

Wednesday, August 17th, 2016

Diagnosing the Virus: Karl Polanyi Against Fascism

Karl Polanyi

“With this, Polanyi had arrived at the essence of fascism. It lay not in Spann’s utopia but in what it sought to obscure: the construction of an ultracapitalist regime dedicated to reducing workers to commodity-producing automata, for which their exclusion from the political sphere is a prerequisite.” — Gareth Dale

This week, our featured book is Karl Polanyi: A Life on the Left, by Gareth Dale. Today, we have an excerpt from the book’s fourth chapter, “Challenges and Responses,” in which Dale describes Polanyi’s opposition to fascism.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Karl Polanyi!

Tuesday, August 16th, 2016

Introducing “Karl Polanyi: A Life on the Left”

Karl Polanyi

“Although sometimes considered a thinker of gemeinschaft, Polanyi is better understood as a synthesizer, a freethinking humanist on a quest for community. As such, he was destined to tease out, and become entangled in, the contradictions between liberal and communitarian (and socialist) thought that formed (and form) the dominant creative tension within political philosophy— the seemingly contrary pulls of responsibility to individual and to community; the divergent demands of adherence to the doctrine of individual integrity and the duty of maintaining and developing community life.” — Gareth Dale

This week, our featured book is Karl Polanyi: A Life on the Left, by Gareth Dale. Today, to kick off the feature, we are happy to present Dale’s introduction to the book.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Karl Polanyi!

Monday, August 15th, 2016

Book Giveaway! Karl Polanyi: A Life on the Left

Karl Polanyi

“One of the best biographies ever written of any intellectual emerging from the horrors of mid-twentieth-century Europe. It meticulously covers the whole ground—from the Jewish roots in Budapest through the First War, brilliantly reconstructs the milieu and debates of interwar Vienna, and adds enormously to our understanding of The Great Transformation. A compelling portrait, it is successful not just as an intellectual biography but as a personal one as well.” — John A. Hall, author of Ernest Gellner: An Intellectual Biography

This week, our featured book is Karl Polanyi: A Life on the Left, by Gareth Dale. 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 Karl Polanyi: A Life on the Left. To enter our book giveaway, simply fill out the form below with your name and preferred mailing address. We will randomly select our winners on Friday, August 19th at 1:00 pm. Good luck, and spread the word!

Wednesday, July 20th, 2016

Conjectural Thinking in Oncology and the Classics

States of Nature, Stages of Society

The following is a post by Frank Palmeri, author of State of Nature, Stages of Society: Enlightenment Conjectural History and Modern Social Discourse:

Conjectural Thinking in Oncology and the Classics
By Frank Palmeri

Conjectural history, beginning in the second half of the eighteenth century, sought to provide plausible accounts of periods for which no documentary or material evidence existed; it primarily depicted the earliest stages of society and the succession of those stages. Such speculative thinking enabled reconstructions of what might have happened in times about which no certainty was possible. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, conjectural history provided a model for the early development of the social sciences, especially anthropology, sociology, and political economy.

Today, conjectural thinking is experiencing a resurgence in fields as diverse as oncology and the classics. It is proving more productive than the positivist and scientistic notion that either we have certainty through knowledge of facts, or we know nothing of the matter in question. The alternative is not belief, but speculation, conjecture, trial-and error.

For example, in a recent piece, Siddhartha Mukherjee discusses a movement in the treatment of cancer in the last decade that is turning away from the standard protocols of chemotherapy developed in the late sixties and seventies. These forms of treatment attacked each kind of cancer, depending on where it was first located, with a certain mixture of toxic, indiscriminately cell-killing drugs. Although most cancer patients are still treated that way, oncologists now realize that every cancer is characterized by distinctive marks, by an individual combination of gene mutations. They are increasingly seeing a need to find more discerning medicines, molecules that can attack the cancer and cut off its growth by various pathways. (more…)

Friday, July 15th, 2016

A Media Roundup for “Exhaustion: A History”

Exhaustion: A History, Anna Katharina Schaffner

“To my surprise, I found that ours is far from being the only age to have perceived itself as the most exhausted—many people in the past have felt exactly as we do now…. anxieties about the exhaustion of our energies is a concern that reaches back all the way to the age of classical antiquity.”—Anna Katharina Schaffner

We conclude our week-long feature on Exhaustion: A History, by Anna Katharina Schaffner with links to some of the reviews of the book and interviews with and posts by Anna Katharina Schaffner:

First, you can read her essay in Aeon Why exhaustion is not unique to our overstimulated age:

Analyzing the history of exhaustion, one can find historically specific theories of what causes exhaustion, as well as a tendency to look back nostalgically to a supposedly simpler time. However, the continual production of theories about the loss of human energy is also an expression of timeless anxieties about death, ageing and the dangers of waning engagement. Theorising about exhaustion, and proposing cures and therapeutics for its effects, is a tactic to counteract the awareness of our helplessness in the face of our mortality. It is, in other words, a terror-management strategy designed to hold at bay our most existential fears – fears that are in no way peculiar to today.

There was an excellent interview with Anna Katharina Schaffner in Psychology Today in which she ties the concept of exhaustion to our current environmental crisis:

The concept of exhaustion means that a limited quantity of something—usually something non-renewable—is used up in its entirety. In the context of mental and physical exhaustion, the entity that is being depleted is human energy. Current ecological debates about sustainability center around the idea that our planetary resources are being depleted at an ever more rapid rate, and that a critical point is being reached such that the planet will not be able to replenish them or repair the ecological damage. The greatest threat now is a terminally exhausted planet, a habitat that has become uninhabitable because it has been stripped of its vital resources, just like a worn-out human body. What is unique to our age is that the fear of exhaustion has for the first time been extended beyond the individual or the social to the environment. And unlike other anxieties about exhaustion, the threat of the irrevocable exhaustion of our environmental resources is one that would include everyone, young and old.

The book also received a very positive review in Psychology Today. In the following excerpt, the reviewer looks at Schaffner’s treatment of the fear and pride we associate with exhaustion:

Schaffner highlights not just what we’ve known about exhaustion at various points in history but why we’ve feared it, epitomized in her discussion of Bram Stoker’s symbolism-laden Dracula of 1897 and other Victorian vampire narratives. The villainous protagonists of these stories, she reminds us, were aligned with necrophilia, homosexuality, polygamy, fetishism, gynophobia, and oral sex, but their aristocratic mien and ability to suck the precious life energy from their victims led many observers, including Marx, to link them to capitalist exploiters.

Exhaustion astutely focuses on one particular wrinkle of energy depletion that modern readers will immediately recognize—the pride certain people have long taken in their alleged burnout symptoms. We all know people who insist on telling us every time we meet how worn out they are, how much they have to do—and, implicitly, how important and in demand they are

Friday, July 15th, 2016

Writing “States of Nature, Stages of Society”

States of Nature, Stages of Society

The following post is an interview with Frank Palmeri, author of State of Nature, Stages of Society: Enlightenment Conjectural History and Modern Social Discourse:

What did you find most interesting in the course of your research for State of Nature, Stages of Society? Did you find anything that surprised you in the documents and texts you consulted?

I was able to consult many fascinating texts in my research—including scores of articles from the earliest anthropology journals in the 1860s. But the documents I found most compelling were the notes Charles Darwin made when he was preparing his thoughts and materials for writing the Descent of Man, which was published in 1871. Darwin left all his papers to Cambridge University, and they are still kept in the library there, in the boxes in which they originally arrived. I needed to go through box numbers 81-83 for his notes and papers from 1868-69.

In the first place, Darwin’s writing is extremely difficult to read, so it took me a couple of weeks to learn how to make out what he was saying in these notes. I was trying to see if there was any record that he was thinking of the conjectural historians as he wrote his own history of the early transition of mankind from our ape-like ancestors to human beings. As soon as I began looking, I was actually surprised to find that he had indeed been thinking about the conjectural historical thinkers, some of whom he had read earlier in his education—for example, in his time at Cambridge. He referred many times to Bernard Mandeville, David Hume, and Adam Smith, as well as the eccentric Lord Monboddo, who believed that chimpanzees (he called them orangutans) were the same species as humans and were capable of speech. (more…)

Thursday, July 14th, 2016

When the Empire Struck Back

Nation at Play

“Mid way through the discussion, the moderator asked how many in the audience had heard about the historic victory in 1911 of an Indian team over a British regimental team in the final of what was then India’s premier soccer tournament, the IFA Shield. To my surprise only a few hands went up.”—Ronojoy Sen

The following is a post by Ronojoy Sen, author of Nation at Play: A History of Sport in India:

When the Empire Struck Back
By Ronojoy Sen

It was a crisp winter afternoon and the setting was Asia’s, if not the world’s, largest literary festival. I was one of the speakers for the panel titled, India at Play, at the 2016 edition of Jaipur Literary Festival. The panel’s title was borrowed from my new book, Nation at Play: A History of Sport in India. My co-panelists included two former captains of the Indian soccer and cricket teams. Not surprisingly, it was standing room only at the open-air venue where the event was being held. Mid way through the discussion, the moderator asked how many in the audience had heard about the historic victory in 1911 of an Indian team over a British regimental team in the final of what was then India’s premier soccer tournament, the IFA Shield. To my surprise only a few hands went up.

The 1911 event is one event that I highlight in my book. The two teams that battled it out in the final were Calcutta’s Mohun Bagan and the East Yorkshire Regiment. Under the stewardship of Sailen Bose and the captain, Shibdas Bhaduri, a remarkable student of the game, Mohun Bagan formed a team that could challenge the best of the British teams in India. Curiously, the team played precisely eleven players in the IFA Shield; that is, it had no bench strength in case of injuries. This was a real gamble, since ten players of the Mohun Bagan XI played barefoot, with, oddly enough, the only non-Hindu in the team, left back Rev. Sudhir Chatterjee, wearing boots. It is tempting to link Chatterjee’s religion and his boots, but it was more likely that he picked up the habit when studying abroad. Besides, if popular accounts are to be believed, every effort was made to deter the Bagan players, working in British-run organizations, from training for their team. (more…)

Thursday, July 14th, 2016

Is Not Ours The Most Exhausted Age in History?

Exhaustion: A History, Anna Katharina Schaffner

We continue our week-long feature on Exhaustion: A History, by Anna Katharina Schaffner, at the beginning with the introduction to the book (see below).

Schaffner argues that while today’s world might seem particularly stressful or pressured, we have felt exhausted throughout history. The introduction lays out some of the key questions she considers in the book:

There is no doubt that the specter of exhaustion shapes both public debates and lived experience in the early twenty-first century, chiming eerily with our weary zeitgeist. Is not ours the most exhausted age in history? And does the current epidemic of exhaustion not threaten the very future of the human animal? There are many who believe this to be the case.9 Yet before simply assenting to this assessment of our times, there is another question that needs to be asked: What do we really mean when we speak of exhaustion? In spite of the ubiquity and the metaphorical potency of the term, and its many applications in medical, psychological, economic, and political debates, exhaustion is a slippery concept, one that borders on, and often overlaps with, various others. How can we define exhaustion, and how can we demarcate it from related ideas and diagnoses? Is exhaustion a state that we can quantify scientifically, or is it a wholly subjective experience? Is it primarily a physical or a mental condition? Is it predominantly an individual or a wider sociocultural experience? Is it really the bane of our age, something that is intimately bound up with modernity and its discontents, or have other historical periods also seen themselves as the most exhausted?

Schaffner also examines the central contradiction that makes exhaustion so central and difficult to avoid both as a state and a concept, particularly in today’s world:

Finally, exhaustion is bound up with two contradictory desires: the concept chimes with us because, on the one hand, we all long for rest and the permanent cessation of exertion and struggle. A part of us wishes to return to an earthly paradise, from which work is banished—a state that resembles childhood, in which we are relieved of all responsibilities, and where everything revolves around pleasure. Yet, on the other hand, work is crucial not only for our survival but also for the shaping of our identity. It is bound up with self-realization and autonomy. In our age, moreover, work is particularly overdetermined: boundaries between public and private selves, between work and leisure, and profession and calling, are becoming ever more blurred.

Wednesday, July 13th, 2016

On Exhaustion and Human Energy

Exhaustion: A History, Anna Katharina Schaffner

The following is a post by Anna Katharina Schaffner, author of Exhaustion: A History:

Exhaustion is frequently represented as a distinctly modern phenomenon caused by acceleration, new modes of communication and transportation, and changes in the nature and organization of work. Our own age, many commentators claim, is the most exhausting in history: having become slaves to our gadgets and victims of neoliberal techno-capitalist competition, more people than ever suffer from exhaustion-related syndromes such as burnout, stress, and depression. Commentators arguing that our levels of exhaustion are unprecedented in human history imagine the past as a much less energy-draining time in which people lived life at a slower pace in harmony with nature and the seasons.

However, I asked myself whether that was really the case, and decided to research other historical periods in search of exhaustion discourses. To my surprise, I found that writers in virtually every period have reflected on exhaustion and theorized its causes. The mental and physical symptoms of exhaustion feature prominently in a range of historical diagnoses from classical antiquity to the present day. These diagnoses include acedia in the medieval period, melancholia in classical antiquity, the Renaissance, and the eighteenth century, neurasthenia in the nineteenth century, and depression, stress, burnout, and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Exhaustion, it seems, is in fact a perennial human concern, related to our anxieties about illness, ageing, the waning of our engagement with the world, and death.

Yet in each period the causes and effects of exhaustion are theorized in radically different ways. The kind of exhaustion in which I am interested (not merely physical exhaustion resulting from exertion or somatic illnesses that can be alleviated by resting) involves the mind, the body, and the social. In each period, the interplay between these three forces is imagined in different ways. Sometimes, a biological explanation is privileged, sometimes the explanation is psychological or spiritual, and sometimes it is psychosocial or cultural.

The causal explanations of exhaustion are diverse, ranging from biochemical imbalances, somatic ailments, and viral diseases to spiritual failings (monks suffering from acedia were seen as weak in their faith). In the past, exhaustion has also been linked to loss, the alignment of the planets, a perverse desire for death, and socio-economic disruption. Being exhausted has also frequently been associated with individual exceptionality, and qualities such as sensitivity, creativity, high intelligence, and, more recently, a strong work ethic. To say that one is stressed or burnt out implies that one works hard and is much in demand. To be exhausted can thus become a badge of honor.

Each theory of exhaustion also involves conceptions of agency, willpower, and responsibility for one’s state of well-being. In the Middle Ages, for example, giving in to exhaustion was considered a grave spiritual failing, a result of weak faith. Often, the causes of exhaustion are thought to be external, such as the hustle and bustle of urban life, over-stimulation of the senses, stressful working environments, or viral diseases. Frequently, it is also assumed that one’s mental state plays a major role in states of exhaustion, either as a cause or as a consequence of exhaustion. Hopelessness, weariness, disillusionment, and lack of engagement can all be both symptoms and exhaustion-generators. Social factors, too, can impact on an individual’s energy levels, such as optimism about the political future of a country or wide-ranging cultural pessimism.