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Archive for the 'History' Category

Friday, September 11th, 2015

Memory in a World of Fast Capitalism — Gary Cross

Consumed Nostalgia

“We all live in and are shaped by a world of fast capitalism, and therefore of consumed nostalgia, but we need not be consumed by it.”—Gary Cross

In this excerpt from the conclusion to Consumed Nostalgia: Memory in the Age of Fast Capitalism, Gary Cross examines how our fascination with and fetishization of consumer goods from our youth both enhances and distorts our understanding of the past and the ways in which memory brings us together and divides us:

It’s clear that for practically all of us, memory requires things of mem­ory. But these things are means that become ends, that is, fetishes or projections of ourselves. They can and should, I think, instead be instruments to reach fresh insights and understandings. Ulti­mately, is this not what a collection of old toys or watching old TV should do for us?

This can happen when we use things of memory to engage with the past but not regress into the past, especially into a childhood of lost adventure and/or simplicity. If we converse with that past, bring a full and honest consciousness of our present lives into the encounter with what has gone before, nostalgia can reveal some­thing about ourselves now. And through “repetition”—going back to where we came and thus to whom we have been—we can make our understanding of ourselves clearer and more accurate. This may happen if we are willing to let that past tell us something we hadn’t expected, to allow a new standpoint to emerge.36 Such a return might even lead to an acceptance of self (finally getting over our obsessions with the pains and resentments that go along with many childhoods or longings to return to the good ol’ days), and there is no reason why it might not also lead to what the famous psychologist Erik Erikson called “ego integrity,” a self at peace with its past selves.

But again this will take place only if we allow those objects of memory to go beyond their materiality and to tell us something about our relationships. I repeatedly saw the revered old car or toy (especially in men) disguise a shared experience with a dad or brother, positive or not. But this need not be the case. Returning to a teenage memory through the teenage car can lead to a deeper self-understanding. And what we may learn about our relation­ships may take us beyond the tribalism of modern consumption.


Thursday, September 10th, 2015

Gary Cross on the 5 Characteristics of Consumed Nostalgia

Gary Cross, Consumed Nostalgia

In the following excerpt from his introduction to Consumed Nostalgia: Memory in the Age of Fast Capitalism, Gary Cross defines five elements that make today’s “consumed nostalgia” so distinct and contradictory.

1. Today nostalgia binds together not community or families but scattered individuals around seemingly ephemeral things that are meaningful to them personally. How many of our holiday rituals today are really about religious or national ideas? Few of us cele­brate ancestors, even our departed parents. Much contemporary nostalgia is built on briefly popular consumer goods that unify, however loosely, narrow age groups. Instead of places or events shaping these brief “generations,” goods link otherwise separated our nostalgic novelty culture individuals. Nostalgia today is increasingly about microidentities. In fact, consumed nostalgia lets us “put on” multiplicities of iden­tities across the movement through life. It has been fashionable for a long time to call this postmodern, but what I am describing goes beyond plural identities and denial of universal “narratives” and national identity. These “postmodern” nostalgias are even more fragmented and ephemeral, constructed as they are around things, often very silly ones, and the memories and sensualities that these things evoke. They create personal meanings, but they also isolate and divide us.

2. Today’s nostalgia is less about preserving an “unchanging golden era” than it is about capturing the fleeting and the particular in its “authenticity.” In everything from our snapshots to our strange attempts to reenact the Civil War experience, we try to make the “there and then” into the “here and now” in pristine specificity and accuracy. We preserve that unguarded “cute” moment of our former toddlers in snapshots, not iconic family-portrait photo­graphs shot by professionals. Reenactors wear wool uniforms in July encampments at Gettysburg, and some insist on not wear­ing underwear to capture the authentic experience. These activi­ties have replaced the rituals of building monuments, attending ceremonies, and hearing inspired speeches as the reenactors’ predecessors did a hundred years ago. We have substituted the “authentic” for the symbolic. Even more germane here: we no longer seek heirlooms (literally “a device for interweaving genera­tions”) as a gesture of family or group continuity. Because of weak­ened family bonds and the transience of things, fewer of us hand down household treasures to children. And these remembrances are far less standardized—gone are the stylized family photo­graphic portraits, Victorian china cabinets, and ancestors’ needle­work. Something new has happened. Instead of symbols that link us across generations, we seek exact and personal remembrances of our own pasts or at least “authentic” representations of our families—informal snapshots and children’s artwork, for exam­ple. This quest for the authentic is how we moderns cope with the fleeting—not by denying change and death in dreams of a timeless age but by capturing “our moment” in our snapshots, songs, dolls, and cars. All this satisfies our longings for the personal connec­tion, but it often is an authenticity impossible to share with others or to pass down to our children. And, I suspect, for many it is a poor substitute for the “eternal.”


Wednesday, September 9th, 2015

Guys Toys and “Girls” Dolls — Gary Cross on Consumed Nostalgia

Chewbacca, Consumed Nostalgia

Star Wars was a boys’ peer-group fantasy, continually changing, as did the boys (mostly), who quickly entered and left the target age group. Unlike the westerns, whose stock characters and plots were shared by multiple generations of American males, Star Wars belonged primarily to the kids of that time.”—Gary Cross

As the Star Wars franchise ramps up for the new movie and what will surely be a new bonanza in action figures and merchandise, we turn to Gary Cross’s Consumed Nostalgia: Memory in the Age of Fast Capitalism. In the following excerpt from the book, Cross examines the history of action figures and their gendered nature:

At the beginning of the 1960s, novelty toys and dolls for both boys and girls were dominated by diverse action figures, led by G.I. Joe and the long but forever changing Barbie fashion dolls. Although Hasbro’s G.I. Joe appeared first in 1964 as a miniature of the real soldier that most American boys expected to grow up to become (in an era of general military conscription), by the mid­1970s the Joes had become fantasy figures that changed continu­ously (first in the 1970s to “Adventure Teams,” abandoning military themes during the unpopular Vietnam War, and then to miniature “Super Joes,” science-fiction action figures in 1976).

G.I. Joe’s transformation was followed by a generation of action figures, beginning with the miniatures and props of George Lucas’s Star Wars trilogy (1977–1983). Even more than the sci-fi play of the 1930s, Star Wars was a boys’ peer-group fantasy, continually changing, as did the boys (mostly), who quickly entered and left the target age group. Unlike the westerns, whose stock characters and plots were shared by multiple generations of American males, Star Wars belonged primarily to the kids of that time.

The action figure was not only a peer-driven kids’ obsession, but it emerged from the quintessential ephemerality of a movie series. Though seen repeatedly by millions of children, the Star Wars mov­ies were set in a particular time—a media moment in the fast capi­talism of modern entertainment (that could be repeated in rere­leases in theaters and on TV as well as on VCR/DVD copies), not a socioeconomic era. This was even truer of a new spate of TV action cartoons that, like Star Wars, spun off action figures and play sets: He-Man and the Masters of the Universe and the Transformers appeared in 1983, followed by the Dino Riders and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in 1988. It is toys like these, taken from the media moments of a generation ago, that draw the Gen-Xers to today’s toy shows. Tomorrow’s shows will be different. Fathers and sons may strive for shared obsessions … but the narrow duration of the media moment of each fad limits cross-generational sharing.

The girl’s story after 1960 differed in many ways. In 1959, Ruth Handler of Mattel introduced a doll in Barbie that has dominated girls’ play worlds over the past half-century far more thoroughly than did G.I. Joe. Handler found that when she abandoned moth­ers’ memories of their own dolls and images of the ideal child, she could appeal directly to the modern girl’s fantasy of freedom and fun. Barbie liberated the girl’s play from maternal standards and introduced her to the wider world of peer consumerism.16 Bar­bie continually changed her wardrobe, furnishings, vehicles, and “friends,” resulting in a rich array of novelty for successive gen­erations of girls. All this created an endless demand for Mattel’s Barbie products, taking the doll line (as tentatively practiced in the Patsy dolls of the 1920s) to new heights of fast-capitalism sophisti­cation. Even when she faced competition from Jem/Jerrica, Bratz, and the American Girl collection, these doll lines too (eventually) imitated the Barbie model.


Tuesday, September 8th, 2015

Book Giveaway! “Consumed Nostalgia,” by Gary Cross

This week our featured book is Consumed Nostalgia: Memory in the Age of Fast Capitalism by Gary Cross.

In addition to featuring the book and the author on the blog, we will also be posting about the book on twitter, and facebook.

We are also offering a FREE copy of Consumed Nostalgia to one winner. To enter the contest please e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu and include your name and address. The winner will be selected Friday, September 11 at 1:00 pm.

“A provocative, interesting, and well-written work that will make an important contribution to studies of memory and modern culture and will illuminate Americans’ evolving relationships with their past.” — Susan Matt, Weber State University, author of Homesickness: An American History

For more on the book you can read the introduction Our Nostalgic Novelty Culture:

Thursday, July 9th, 2015

Thursday Fiction Corner: Henry George and Leo Tolstoy

A Portrait of Henry George, Owned by Leo Tolstoy

Welcome to the Columbia University Press Thursday Fiction Corner! This week, in honor of our new series of Russian literature in translation, the Russian Library, editorial intern Beatrice Collison has delved into the fascinating connections between Leo Tolstoy and the subject of a recent Columbia UP book: Henry George.

Henry George and Leo Tolstoy
By Beatrice Collison

Last month’s feature on the book Henry George and the Crisis of Inequality: Progress and Poverty in the Gilded Age, by Edward T. O’Donnell, emphasized the similarities between contemporary America and that of the “Gilded Age” of the late 19th century, an era marked by rapid progress at the same time as crippling poverty. In 1879, Henry George’s bestselling book Progress and Poverty called out this inequality as unjust, and went on to propose a solution. As 21st century America continues to face many of the same problems as the “Gilded Age,” some scholars and biographers find themselves looking back to Progress and Poverty and to its author for lessons, or even answers. As O’Donnell urges us to reexamine George, perhaps it is fitting to consider other great thinkers of that era, who dealt with persisting questions about inequality, individualism, and laissez-faire government, to name a few. Besides George, there are many American names of that age that come to mind, from Mark Twain (who coined the term “gilded age”) to John D. Rockefeller. As we were reminded earlier this month during a visit to Russia to promote our new series of Russian translations, another, somewhat unexpected name comes up in conjunction with George; this would be Leo Tolstoy, who owned a portrait of George. He also happened to be one of George’s most devoted supporters and admirers—and the admiration was mutual.

It is not too difficult to see some basic similarities in both men’s lives and experiences that may have contributed to this reciprocal fondness. Though they lived through the “Gilded Age” in different countries—George in the US, and Tolstoy in Russia—both George and Tolstoy were highly attuned to similar forms of social and economic inequality in their respective societies; the same hypocrisy appeared to them, though different events. George lived through some of the United States’ greatest feats of the century (the unveiling of the Statue of Liberty, the completion of the Atlantic Cable, and the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge, for instance), but also saw the extreme poverty that lay just beneath the surface, a poverty that the privileged attempted to justify by arguments ranging from religious to scientific (social Darwinism comes to mind). Tolstoy lived through similar times of inequality, including many years of political, economic, and social unrest in Russia. He was alive when serfdom was still legal, as well as when it was outlawed—though many of the same injustices persisted even after the emancipation of serfs in 1861. Tolstoy in fact writes about George’s political philosophy in relation to the politics and immorality of serfdom. Clearly, he believed that Russia experienced many similar problems to the US, and that George’s philosophy could be useful not just to Americans. (more…)

Friday, July 3rd, 2015

The Father-Daughter Relationship in Early China

Exemplary Women of Early China

“Referring to the prevailing concept of the ruler as fulfilling a parental role, ‘How indeed,’ [the Emperor] asked when contemplating the cruelty of corporal punishment, ‘can I be called the father and mother of the people?’ He then declared, ‘Let the corporal punishments be abolished!’” — Anne Behnke Kinney

The following is a guest post from Anne Behnke Kinney, author of Exemplary Women of Early China: The Lienü zhuan of Liu Xiang:

If Fathers’ Day cards are any indication of how Americans idealize the father-daughter bond, we honor our fathers as wise, strong, and encouraging, extolling these virtues in verses set against images of golf clubs, neckties, and for some reason, mallard ducks. The cards are purchased by sons and daughters alike. But in early China, daughters were afforded a status well beneath their brothers because, as females, they could not carry on the family line or the sacrifices necessary to nurture ancestors in the other world. (more…)

Wednesday, July 1st, 2015

The New York Times on New York Books from Columbia University Press

Race and Real Estate

The New York Times Sunday edition includes a regular feature by Sam Roberts on books about New York City. We’ve been fortunate to have three of our own titles reviewed, each of which explores a distinct period in New York City’s nineteenth and early-twentieth-century history.

This past Sunday, Roberts wrote about Nicholas Miraculous: The Amazing Career of the Redoubtable Dr. Nicholas Murray Butler, by Michael Rosentahal and now available in paperback:

In 43 years as president, Dr. Butler transformed Columbia into a first-class research university, downgrading undergraduate liberal arts programs in the process. Yet he considered himself primarily a “publicist,” whose every thought was not only spoken but also disseminated, including his compelling early opposition to Prohibition as an unenforceable government intrusion on private behavior. Few people, one observer wrote, “can leap to the front pages with the agility Dr. Butler has exhibited for so long.”

Like Butler, Henry George played an important role in the world of ideas with his surprising bestselling work of economics Progress and Poverty. George, who also became an important labor organizer and a candidate for mayor of New York City, is the subject of Edward T. O’Donnell’s new book, Henry George and the Crisis of Inequality: Progress and Poverty in the Gilded Age. In drawing some contemporary parallels, Roberts writes:

In 1886, 127 years before Bill de Blasio successfully invoked his “tale of two cities” metaphor to address income inequality, Henry George almost won the mayoralty of New York by juxtaposing the economic gains of the Gilded Age with the growth of poverty.

Strikes by streetcar workers and a bribery scandal over securing franchises (akin to the railroads’ land grab in the West) galvanized workers during the era rekindled in Edward T. O’Donnell’s timely and accessible Henry George and the Crisis of Inequality.


Friday, June 26th, 2015

Same-Sex Marriage – Game Over?

Between a Man and a Woman?

“Romantic love is thus not only a widely shared cultural idea, from Disney to Honey Maid commercials. It is a political idea: the freedom to chose one’s life-partner echoes and reinforces the freedom to bond together as a nation of equals, despite the fissures of class, race, or ethnic background.” – Ludger Viefhues-Bailey

Following today’s Supreme Court ruling that the Constitution of the United States guarantees a right to same-sex marriage, Professor Ludger Viefhues-Bailey, author of Between a Man and a Woman?: Why Conservatives Oppose Same-Sex Marriage, offers his thoughts on the decision and discusses where he thinks public debates about marriage equality go from here.

Same-Sex Marriage – Game Over?
By Ludger Viefhues-Bailey

The Supreme Court has ruled and marriage equality is now the law of the land. Yet I doubt that we have the luxury of sitting back, toasting our entry into the marriage industry, and delegating conversations about religion, marriage, and the law to the uncomfortable privacy of the Thanksgiving table.

American Evangelicals and their rumblings on marriage equality will stay with us. This resilience is not simply because of the impact of their networks and numbers but because their resistance reflects a general uneasiness with the value of equality, one that is profoundly embedded in American political culture. Evangelical marriage theology only highlights and baptizes a wider American desire for a complicated mixture of both equality and inequality in shaping our body politic.

The history of marriage in the U.S. is indeed an excellent place to study this complicated union of equality and hierarchy.

In its history and in popular culture, marriage is in fact an institution allowing for the fulfillment of romantic equality while simultaneously promoting a stratified society. On the one hand we tell the story of romantic love by imagining that we could just marry anyone and that love is blind to status, class, or race. On the other hand, we police what counts as respectable marriages and who is allowed to have them. If anyone wishes to promote marriage as a particularly traditional American institution, they would need to focus on this tension between equality and inequality. (more…)

Thursday, April 16th, 2015

“Born to Chaos” — an Excerpt from Manchu Princess, Japanese Spy

We continue our week-long feature on Manchu Princess, Japanese Spy: The Story of Kawashima Yoshiko, the Cross-Dressing Spy Who Commanded Her Own Army, by Phyllis Birnbaum with an excerpt from the book. In the chapter “Born to Chaos,” Birnbaum opens with the last days of Kawashima Yoshiko, while looking back at her exploits, her troubled upbringing and her conflicting legacies in China and Japan:

Wednesday, April 15th, 2015

Interview with Phyllis Birnbaum, author of “Manchu Princess, Japanese Spy,” Part 2

Manchu Princess, Japanese Spy

The following is part one of our interview with Phyllis Birnbaum, author of Manchu Princess, Japanese Spy: The Story of Kawashima Yoshiko, the Cross-Dressing Spy Who Commanded Her Own Army:

Q: Why begin with Yoshiko’s execution?

Phyllis Birnbaum: I didn’t want to tell Yoshiko’s story chronologically, that is, I didn’t want to write she was born, she went to school, she grew up, she died etc. I wanted to be able to jump back and forth in time, and also wanted to digress to other side issues–about what was happening in Manchuria at the time; about Emperor Puyi; about Saga Hiro, the Japanese woman married to Puyi’s brother. So telling readers about Yoshiko’s death at the very beginning is a kind of announcement that the biography is not going to be told in a “this happened, then this happened” style.

Also, as a beginning to a book, her execution is dramatic and, hopefully, catches the reader’s attention!

Q: What was Yoshiko’s attitude towards her own fame? (more…)

Tuesday, April 14th, 2015

Interview with Phyllis Birnbaum, author of “Manchu Princess, Japanese Spy,” Part 1

Manchu Princess, Japanese Spy

The following is part one of our interview with Phyllis Birnbaum, author of Manchu Princess, Japanese Spy: The Story of Kawashima Yoshiko, the Cross-Dressing Spy Who Commanded Her Own Army:

Q: How does Yoshiko Kawashima’s life inspire such divergent, polarizing views?

Phyllis Birnbaum: Yoshiko spent her life shuttling between China and Japan, and even now her reputation is very different in these two countries; this is all the result of Yoshiko’s activities during the Second Sino-Japanese War. For the Chinese, she is still held up as a case of all-purpose evil, a traitor who schemed against China and caused damage that can never be forgotten. To this day, they blame her for starting a war in Shanghai and for otherwise assisting the Japanese occupation. They emphasize the lurid sides of her biography, pointing to the alleged childhood rape by her adoptive father as the cause of an unquenchable sexual thirst and full-scale perversion.

For Japanese, her story takes on another look entirely. In Japan, she is accepted as almost one of their own since she spent much of her youth in the country. Therefore, in Japan, they take a more wistful view of Yoshiko’s escapades. The Japanese emphasize her psychological problems—childhood woes, abandonment, solitude. The Japanese tend to forgive her wartime activities and don’t dwell on the rape rumors. They see Yoshiko as a pitiable character, wronged over and over, by her birth father, her adoptive father, the entire Japanese military establishment, and other males who took advantage of her beauty and her daring.

Q: Part of the difficulty of portraying Yoshiko seems to lie in her own affinity for toying with the truth and fabricating myths. Which traits did she tend to emphasize?

PB: Yoshiko made up different stories about herself at different times of her life. Her disregard for the truth must bring despair to the heart of any biographer. In one particularly outrageous interview, she showed such a stupendous disregard for the facts that she called into question every word she had ever uttered about her personal history. Gall unremitting, falsehoods pouring forth, Yoshiko told about how she was the daughter of the last emperor of China and had been “disguised as a boy to save her from Chinese revolutionists who went to Japan to seek her life.” She was shot three times in the Shanghai Incident and “was carried away as dead, but miraculously recovered.” Her parents were killed in the Chinese revolution of 1911, and her brothers drowned or were poisoned or stabbed. She added that she piloted airplanes, was an ace with a pistol and rifle, could write magazine articles, played musical instruments, sewed, painted, and composed Japanese poetry. Also, she was ready to assume leadership of China, if summoned.

Yoshiko’s embellishments, taken together with the wild newspaper accounts about her during her lifetime, would make the work of tracking down the facts hard enough, but there’s also the 1933 best-selling Japanese novel based on her life that many people—including the judges at her trial for treason—took as her real life story. In many people’s minds, the fictional heroine was the real-life Yoshiko. To make matters worse, Yoshiko also liked to promote this idea that she and her fictional self were identical, putting more distance between herself and the truth.

Since I wanted to write a biography, not a novel, I wanted to stick to the hard facts when available, and when these were impossible to find, I tried to show what was known, what was a fabrication, and what was somewhere in between. That way, readers, along with me, could try to figure what belonged to myth and what really happened.


Monday, April 13th, 2015

Book Giveaway! Manchu Princess, Japanese Spy

This week our featured book is Manchu Princess, Japanese Spy: The Story of Kawashima Yoshiko, the Cross-Dressing Spy Who Commanded Her Own Army by Phyllis Birnbaum.

In addition to featuring the book and the author on the blog, we will also be posting about the book on twitter, and facebook.

We are also offering a FREE copy of Manchu Princess, Japanese Spy to one winner. To enter the contest please e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu and include your name and address. The winner will be selected Friday, April 17th at 1:00 pm.

Aisin Gioro Xianyu (1907-1948) was the fourteenth daughter of a Manchu prince and a legendary figure in China’s bloody struggle with Japan. After the fall of the Manchu dynasty in 1912, Xianyu’s father gave his daughter to a Japanese friend who was sympathetic to his efforts to reclaim power. This man raised Xianyu, now known as Kawashima Yoshiko, to restore the Manchus to their former glory. Her fearsome dedication to this cause ultimately got her killed.

For more on the book, here’s the chapter “Born to Chaos”:

Wednesday, March 11th, 2015

Thomas Hockenhull on the Ten Coins That Changed the World

In the following video Thomas Hockenhull, author of Symbols of Power: Ten Coins That Changed the World, discusses the book and the companion exhibit at the British Museum.

Friday, February 27th, 2015

The Legacies of Reaganism and Reagan — Doug Rossinow

The Age of Reagan, Doug Rossinow

“Reagan was not a stupid man, but he sometimes took refuge in stu­pid lies.”—Doug Rossinow

In the following excerpt, Doug Rossinow, author of The Reagan Era: A History of the 1980s, examines the legacy of Reagan and his policies:

The relationship of post-1990 conservatives to Reaganism was an ambivalent one. Some elements of the Reaganite formula lived on in the conservative movement and the Republican Party. Fiercely unapologetic patriotism and a belief in U.S. military preponderance remained funda­mental tenets for most conservatives. So did faith in unrestrained busi­ness as a source of social good, and the cherished ideal of hardy individu­alism, free from entanglements with the state. But the conservatism of Bush and his supporters departed from Reagan’s in other respects. Fis­cally, it was more responsible; politically, it was coarser. The balance of sentiment on the American right, as of 1990, was tipping away from the embrace of hedonism that had marked the 1980s, and toward cultural traditionalism. In terms of foreign policy, Americans looked back to Rea­gan for little guidance as a new age of resource wars in the Persian Gulf vi­cinity dawned. Later in the 1990s, foreign policy neoconservatives would call for “a neo-Reaganite foreign policy of military supremacy and moral confidence.” These were undeniably Reaganite values. But Americans would find it hard to say, after the Cold War’s conclusion, exactly what foreign policies those values should dictate.

Just as aspects of Reaganism lived on, so did Reagan’s personal legend. At his presidency’s end, Reagan shucked off the worst e.ects of scandal and emerged an honored figure. His farewell address in 1989 was graceful, yet self-satisfied. At one and the same time, he downplayed his own role as an individual in creating change and boasted of a nation made “more prosperous, more secure, and happier” because of his leadership. “All in all, not bad,” he said, in grading his accomplishments in office; “not bad at all.” The Reagans moved back to their ranch in the hills near Santa Barbara, but the former president ventured out in the ensuing years to make highly paid appearances before business groups. Some found this unbecoming; previously, among ex-presidents, only Gerald Ford had cashed in on his status in this way. (Americans would become accus­tomed to this habit over time, as retired presidents of both parties would follow suit.) In November 1990, Reagan’s memoir, An American Life, was published. It exuded his characteristic combination of self-effacement and complacency. Even before Reagan drifted into senescence in the mid-1990s—a victim of Alzheimer’s disease—he became a symbol of the 1980s, a totem of the conservative narrative of recent American his­tory: the man who saved the country from self-doubt and liberal failure. Conservatives emphatically identified Reagan with their creed and their movement—the way liberals long had identified their own cause with Franklin Roosevelt—and for decades would proclaim themselves Rea­gan’s heirs, even as they swore they would never do things that Reagan had done, such as raise taxes or approve an amnesty for undocumented immigrants. Understanding Reaganism is more important than knowing Reagan. But there is no interpreting the 1980s without arriving at a judg­ment on Reagan, who, it seems likely, will always be closely tied to our memories of that era.


Thursday, February 26th, 2015

The Pop Culture of the Reagan Era — Doug Rossinow

The Age of Reagan, Doug Rossinow

“There was nothing new about the search for exhilaration and satisfaction. But in the 1980s, that quest took forms shaped by Reaganism’s celebration of money, power, and fame. By the decade’s later years, the era’s quest for gratification had burned through its initial giddiness. Whether American society as a whole was ready to turn to other pursuits was not clear. But the thrill was gone.”—Doug Rossinow

In the following excerpt from The Reagan Era: A History of the 1980s, Doug Rossinow describes the rise of three of the decade’s biggest stars—Madonna, Prince, and Michael Jackson—and how they reflected the politics and ethos of the 80s:

The themes of performance and pastiche led the 1980s culturally, but not without artistic originality. While Bruce Springsteen strove for au­thenticity with his anthems and dirges of American losers yearning for comfort, the other performers who equaled or exceeded his success in the decade were the avatars of performance—Michael Jackson, Madonna, and Prince. All three were born in 1958. Each built a powerful retail brand. Madonna Ciccone and Prince Nelson simply went by their first names. They were the pure examples, masters of stage personae who toyed with gender roles in public and forthrightly rejected the racial divide that long had structured American music, like so much else in American life. In 1980 one music critic remarked, “Seldom in pop-music history has there been a larger gap between what black and white audiences are listening to than there is right now.” African Americans were becoming more in­terested in rap, while many young whites were absorbed in European technopop–influenced New Wave bands like Talking Heads and Devo. No informed observer could describe such a division in 1990. The music industry in the 1980s moved toward blockbuster albums that generated multiple hit singles, and the leading artists in this trend either were Afri­can American or drew white and black audiences together, or both.

Madonna, with a series of dance hits from her self-titled debut album of 1983 and her distinctive personal style, showcased in MTV (Music Television, a cable channel that started broadcasting in 1981) videos, in­stantly became a postfeminist icon. Her funky, layered look, “thrift store chic” (also popularized, with different inflections, by Cyndi Lauper and the Go-Go’s, other white female acts), spread like wildfire among teen­age girls. With her second album, Like a Virgin (1984), Madonna became controversial and revealed herself as a quick-change artist. For cultural conservatives, the title track’s flagrant sexuality was a sign of decadence; for feminists, the notion that a woman, presumably experienced in sex, would long to feel like a virgin was reactionary. Liberals and conservatives alike were also irritated by the other big hit from the album, “Material Girl,” in which the singer explains that she sees men as meal tickets. The video for the song was an homage to the Marilyn Monroe dance number “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” from the 1953 comedy Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. In 1989, the title song of a new album, Like a Prayer, and its accompanying video, showed an artist interested in continuing to tweak the conventions of many Americans—and with a social awareness previously hidden from view. In the video, Madonna prays to and loves a black man who appears alternately as a wooden saint and as a flesh-and-­blood innocent victimized by an implicitly racist criminal-justice system. The Detroit-area native sings and dances joyfully with an African Ameri­can gospel choir and stands dramatically in front of a range of burning crosses. Conservative Christians and those uncomfortable with interra­cial crossover—particularly between a white woman and a black man— were unhappy. At the video’s end, red stage curtains descend and the performers take a bow. It is just a show.


Wednesday, February 25th, 2015

Interview with Thomas Doherty, author of Hollywood and Hitler

Thomas Doherty, Hollywood and Hitler

“Up until 1938-1939, there were really no anti-Nazi films from the major Hollywood studios….For most of the 1930s, the major studios were missing in action.”—Thomas Doherty

The following interview with Thomas Doherty, author of Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939, which is now available in paperback:

Question: Hollywood celebrities today are associated with a variety of different social and political causes. How was the situation different then and how did it curtail film stars’ anti-Nazi activism?

Thomas Doherty: In the 1930s, motion picture stars were typically very timorous about expressing their political opinions in public, especially if the sentiments were in any way controversial or left of mainstream opinion. Why alienate a potential customer at the ticket window? For their part, the studio heads considered the stars their own personal property, not unlike the costumes and props in the studio warehouses. They didn’t want anything to deplete the value of their investments. At first, only the most stalwart and secure actors and actresses defied convention and broke ranks.

Q: What effect if any did their activism have on shaping American attitudes towards Hitler?

TD: It’s hard to say, but the anti-Nazi activism of popular stars like James Cagney, Melvyn Douglas, John Garfield, Bette Davis, and Joan Crawford not only brought publicity to the cause but served to normalize the sentiments. The mere fact that movie stars—who more typically sold their faces for commercial endorsements—were now speaking out against Nazism, for free, made at least some people think about the reasons for the transition.


Monday, February 23rd, 2015

Book Giveaway! The Reagan Era, by Doug Rossinow

This week our featured book is The Reagan Era: A History of the 1980s, by Doug Rossinow.

In addition to featuring the book and the author on the blog, we will also be posting about the book on twitter, and facebook.

We are also offering a FREE copy of The Reagan Era: A History of the 1980s to one winner. To enter the contest please e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu and include your name and address. The winner will be selected Friday, February 27 at 1:00 pm.

“”This is one of the best books on the 1980s written to date. Doug Rossinow offers a deeply researched and compelling account of the decade in its many facets: political, economic, cultural, and international.” — Jeremi Suri, University of Texas at Austin, author of Liberty’s Surest Guardian: American Nation-Building from the Founders to Obama

For more on the book, you can read the introduction:

Monday, December 15th, 2014

A Q&A with Janet Poole on Modernist Literature in Korea

When the Future Disappears

The following is an interview with Janet Poole, author of When the Future Disappears: The Modernist Imagination in Late Colonial Korea.

Q: Your book deals with an extraordinary group of writers working in Korea at the height of Japanese occupation during the Asia-Pacific War. How did you first become interested in their work?

JP: When I was first studying Korean and living in Seoul, there were these uncanny ways in which the colonial past seemed to exert an ongoing effect in the present. For instance, old people would come up to me in the street, when I was standing at a bus stop for example, and start talking to me in Japanese. Luckily I had learnt Japanese and could answer! But what really intrigued me was that they would not be surprised when I answered them in Japanese, but would just carry on having a regular conversation with me. This had never happened to me in Japan. I became interested in the history of colonialism and especially the ways in which it left traces in language and language use. Naturally—as a fiction lover—I started to read novels and short stories from that time. I had learnt that colonial occupation had been brutal and, most of all, that it had prevented Koreans writing in Korean, especially as the Asia-Pacific War intensified. But when I picked up books of canonical short stories—the best loved in the nation and the like—so many of them were written in the late 1930s. It seemed such a contradiction that the stories most heralded still today had been written when supposedly Koreans had the least possibilities for expression. That’s what got me interested. (more…)

Friday, October 17th, 2014

Around 1948 with Khalidi, Liu, Moyn, and Nelson

An event last week at the Weatherhead East Asian Institute brought together a fascinating panel to discuss the advent and the global impact of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Fittingly titled “Around 1948: Human Rights and Global Transformation,” the panel discussion included four prominent authors from a variety of fields (they also all happen to be Columbia University Press authors): Rashid Khalidi, Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies, Columbia University; Lydia H. Liu, Wun Tsun Tam Professor in the Humanities, Columbia University; Samuel Moyn, Professor of Law and History, Harvard University; and Deborah Nelson, Associate Professor of English, University of Chicago.

Here is the video from the panel discussion:

Thursday, August 7th, 2014

Househunting in the Homeland — An Essay by Wendy Law-Yone, author of “A Daughter’s Memoir of Burma”

A Daughter's Memoir of Burma, Wendy Law-YoneThe following post is part 1 of an essay by Wendy Law-Yone, author of A Daughter’s Memoir of Burma. For more on the book, you can also read our interview with Wendy Law-Yone

It was last day of my two-week tour of Burma, and the calendar was auspicious. Friday January 13th, 2012. Friday the thirteenth, at the beginning of a leap year! An excellent day to wrap up the business of househunting in Rangoon. That was how I had slugged the page in my notebook listing the homes I had once lived in and was determined to track down. HOUSEHUNTING.

I was born in Burma, but fled the country in 1967, at the age of 20. My father, Ed Law-Yone, publisher and editor of The Nation, Burma’s best known English-language newspaper, was still languishing in political prison when—desperate to escape the crushing police state my country had become—I decided to decamp. Accompanied by my brother Alban, I headed for the Thai border, choosing the “backdoor” route favored by smugglers and insurgents. Long before we reached the border, in the southern port of Moulmein, we were picked up by the secret police, and jailed for two weeks of interrogation.

Eventually, in May 1967, I was granted permission to leave the country—as a stateless person. Since then, I had been back only once: in 2001, after a 33-year prohibition. Some states are particularly pitiless toward their prodigal sons and daughters. The Burmese military regime was one of those states. Or had been.