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Archive for the 'Literary Studies' Category

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

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.

*

(more…)

Tuesday, July 12th, 2016

3 Questions for Anna Katharina Schaffner, author of “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

The following is an interview with Anna Katharina Schaffner, author of Exhaustion: A History:

Q: What inspired you to write a book on exhaustion?

Anna Katharina Schaffner: Like many people, I have experienced exhaustion in its various mental and physical modalities first-hand. I understand exhaustion as a state of being that can be broken down into a range of mental and physical symptoms, including weariness, hopelessness, and disillusionment; and weakness, lethargy, and fatigue. Exhaustion can also be manifest in behaviors such as restlessness, irritability, and the waning of engagement. In my book I am not so much concerned with purely physical exhaustion that is the result of bodily exertion and that can be alleviated by resting, but with chronic, less straightforward cases of exhaustion that are caused by a combination of mental, physical, and wider social phenomena.

A few years ago, I also noticed a significant increase in media debates about stress, burnout, and depression—diagnoses which are all structured around core exhaustion symptoms. Most commentators on exhaustion-related syndromes argue that modernity and its discontents are responsible for our collective exhaustion. They blame acceleration, the spread of new communication technologies such as the Internet, our 24/7 consumer culture, and a radically transformed neoliberal working environment for the vampiric depletion of our energies. They all seem to believe that ours is the most exhausting period in history, and tend nostalgically to glorify the past as a less energy-draining time in which people lived less taxing lives in harmony with nature and the seasons.

I wondered whether that was really the case, and started researching other historical periods in search of earlier discourses on exhaustion. 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. In fact, I found that anxieties about the exhaustion of our energies is a concern that reaches back all the way to the age of classical antiquity. The causes and effects of exhaustion are theorized in medical, theological, philosophical, popular, and literary sources in virtually every historical period.

Q: Why is the idea of the exhaustion of our energies so disconcerting?

AKS: Fears about the depletion of our energies are related to deep-seated and timeless anxieties about ageing, the waning of our engagement with the world, and death. These fears remain constant through history. What differs is how the causes and effects of exhaustion are explained. Exhaustion is a phenomenon that involves the mind, the body, and socio-political factors, and narratives about exhaustion can reveal very interesting insights into how the interplay of these forces is theorized at a given historical moment. Moreover, the theorists of exhaustion often blame very specific social, political, or technological developments for the perceived rise in exhaustion symptoms. In the eighteenth century, the consumption of exotic foods, spices, and other luxury goods was held responsible for an increase in exhaustion among the people, while in the late nineteenth century, it was attributed to a faster pace of life as a result of trains, steam boats, electricity, and telegraphy. Today, we tend to blame our exhaustion on the erosion of the boundaries between work and leisure brought about by smart phones, which render us perpetually reachable and which make it impossible for us properly to “switch off”. The technologies that were supposed to make our lives easier and to save our energies have brought in their wake a whole new range of psycho-social stressors that undo their benefits.

(more…)

Monday, July 11th, 2016

Book Giveaway! Win a Free Copy of “Exhaustion: A History”

This week we are featuring Exhuastion: A History, by Anna Katharina Schaffner.

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 Exhuastion: A History 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, July 15th at 1:00 pm.

Edward Shorter, author of How Everyone Became Depressed: The Rise and Fall of the Nervous Breakdown, writes, “Exhaustion is fluently written and brilliantly argued, and it will provoke thoughtful minds with the suggestion that exhaustion has a history.”

Thursday, April 28th, 2016

Minae Mizumura and Rebecca Walkowitz on World Literature and the Dominance of English

Minae Mizumura, The Fall of Language in the Age of English

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

This week we’ve been featuring works of world literature that we’ve recently published. World literature and translation have also emerged as topics of critical and scholarly interest as is evident in two books we’ve published over the last couple of years. The first is The Fall of Language in the Age of English by Minae Mizumura and translated by Mari Yoshihara and Juliet Winters Carpenter. In the book, the novelist and critic Mizumura examines what it lost for humanity when one language begins to dominate. For more on the book you can read an excerpt from the introduction, “Under the Blue Sky of Iowa”. We were also lucky enough to have the opportunity to interview Mizumura, in which she discusses, among other things, translations of her own work, the controversial reception her book received in Japan, and her experiences in the United States. The interview concludes with her advice to authors, who write in languages besides English:

I’m inclined to give two totally opposite pieces of advice. Let us say that you are a young Japanese writer. On the one hand, if your ultimate goal is to be translated into English and be known outside Japan, it might be best to read contemporary American novels in translation (or in the original, if you can) and model your work on them. Throwing in some discernible Japanese exotica would be helpful: cherry blossoms, ramen, or robots, for example. On the other hand, if your ultimate goal is to work with all the potential the Japanese language offers, and to give a fresh understanding of the world in which you live through that language, I would first recommend reading and rereading invaluable works written in Japanese.

The question of translation is also taken up by Rebecca Walkowitz in her book Born Translated: The Contemporary Novel in an Age of World Literature. Like Mizumura, Walkowitz acknowledges the ubiquity of English and and examines how major contemporary writers, including J. M. Coetzee, Junot Díaz, Jonathan Safran Foer, Mohsin Hamid, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Jamaica Kincaid, challenge this dominance. She also examines the ways in which the creation and reception of literature changes in an age where works are almost instantaneously published in translation.

Here is an excerpt from the introduction, Theory of World Literature Now. In our interview with Rebecca Walkowitz, she defines the concept of “born-translated”:

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

Monday, April 25th, 2016

An Interview with M. A. Orthofer, author of The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction

The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction

“There does seem to have been a definite move from larger publishers dominating publishing translations into English to smaller, more nimble independents and non-profits taking the lead in the field, and I think the future success of fiction in translation depends on their continued viability.”—M. A. Orthofer

The following is an interview with Michael Orthofer, author of The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction:

Question: Your site has become legendary in its ability to stay on top and find the most exciting new works in global fiction. How do you do it?

M. A. Orthofer: It all starts with reading as much as possible—though ironically, working on the site cuts into my reading-time (though I think I would complain about finding too little time to read, even if that’s all I did all day). I’ve also always read very widely—fiction in every category, from every corner of the world, from any language—and have always been eager to seek out new and different voices, approaches, stories. Many readers seem to find specific areas or periods or styles or genres they’re most comfortable with and concentrate much of their reading on these, but I’ll read pretty much anything, and I think that has made a big difference, as the site (and now the book) reflect that and offer something for everyone.

And while I’ve always tried to look beyond the merely local and familiar, the internet, with its easy access to information and writing from everywhere in the world, has obviously helped expand my own horizons tremendously.

Q: What are you seeing as some of the most noteworthy trends in global fiction?

MAO: One of the great things about international literature is that there is such incredible variety, and so not even hot trends like magical realism, “Da Vinci Code”-type thrillers, “Harry Potter”-like fantasy, or Nordic crime fiction can completely crowd out everything else. Success does breed a lot of imitation, locally and internationally, and there are certainly still too many instances of foreign writers trying to follow the formula of the biggest American and British best sellers, but I think there has been a distinct move back towards relying on local strengths—be that language, history, mythology, tradition—in foreign writing too. Crime fiction is probably where this is most visible, with other countries and cultures putting more of a local spin on stories again—which has certainly worked for writers from the Scandinavian countries.

A curious trend as far as books in translation in America (and the UK) goes does seem to be the rise of the short work of fiction, as I can’t remember ever seeing as many translated novels and even story-collections in the hundred-page range. There are still lots of big works being published—not least the multi-volume epics by Karl Ove Knausgaard and Elena Ferrante—but the small, slim volume of fiction in translation has become much more common. I don’t think this is a real global trend—it seems limited to the US and Britain—and I assume one reason for it is simply that publishers are more willing to take on short works because they are considerably cheaper to translate.

Q: What is your sense of what and how much of international fiction is the English-speaking world missing? Are there many authors and books that English-language readers don’t have access to because of lack of translations

The number of books published in English translation is still so low—less than five hundred new works of fiction in 2015, according to the Three Percent database—that it’s impossible not to conclude that we are missing a tremendous amount. It looks to me very much like a tip-of-the-iceberg situation—compounded by an uneven distribution of what gets translated. BecauseAmerican publishers are so reliant on outside financial support for the additional cost of translating works, those countries that are able and willing to subsidize the translation of their literature are far-better represented in translation. As a result, fiction from many European countries, or South Korea and Japan, is much better-represented than that from countries and languages that haven’t invested in subsidizing translation—or aren’t able to.

(more…)

Monday, April 25th, 2016

Weekly Feature and Book Giveaway: World Literature Week

World Literature Week

This week, in conjunction with the PEN World Voices Festival, we will be highlighting our wide range of books of and about world literature here on the Columbia University Press blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page.

Here’s a quick summary of books we’ll have posts for this week (we’ll add the posts, as well, as they arrive!):

Monday

  • An interview with M. A. Orthofer, highlighting his thorough and fascinating new guide to contemporary fiction around the world, The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction
  • Tuesday

  • An interview with translator Julia Lovell and “The Apprentice,” an excerpted short story from The Matchmaker, the Apprentice, and the Football Fan, a collection of short stories about everyday life in China in the late 1980s by Zhu Wen (following up his previous collection, I Love Dollars)
  • An excerpt on writing a book composed from notes in the margins of history, from Hideo Furukawa’s novel/history/memoir of the 3/11 disaster at Fukushima, Horses, Horses, in the End the Light Remains Pure, translated by Doug Slaymaker with Akiko Takenaka. Hideo Furukawa will be in New York for the PEN World Voices festival! For more details, click here.
  • Wednesday

  • “The Disappearance of M,” the first story in Ng Kim Chew’s collection of short fiction, Slow Boat to China and Other Stories, translated and edited by Carlos Rojas
  • Watch novelist Li Ang discuss The Lost Garden, her eloquent and beautiful exploration of contemporary Taiwan, with translators Sylvia Li-chun Lin and Howard Goldblatt, and Columbia University Press Director Jennifer Crewe, and then read “When the Incident Occurred,” an excerpt from Part 1
  • Thursday

  • A quick critical look at the dominance of English and its effect on world literature from Born Translated: The Contemporary Novel in an Age of World Literature, by Rebecca L. Walkowitz, and The Fall of Language in the Age of English, by Minae Mizumura, translated by Mari Yoshihara and Juliet Winters Carpenter
  • Editor Christine Dunbar introduces our new Russian Library series, with a particular focus on its first three books: Between Dog and Wolf, by Sasha Sokolov, translated by Alexander Boguslawski; Fourteen Little Red Huts and Other Plays, by Andrei Platonov, edited by Robert Chandler, translated by Robert Chandler, Jesse Irwin, and Susan Larsen; and Strolls with Pushkin, by Andrei Sinyavsky, translated by Catherine Theimer Nepomnyashchy and Slava I. Yastremski
  • Friday

  • Take a closer look at Chinese University Press’s extensive collection of drama from Nobel Prize for Literature winner Gao Xingjian, including, among others, The Other Shore, Snow in August, and, most recently, City of the Dead and Ballade Nocturne
  • A wonderful selection of poetry from Chinese University Press’s series of International Poetry Nights in Hong Kong anthologies, particularly the most recent installment, Poetry and Conflict, Edited by Bei Dao, Shelby K. Y. Chan, Gilbert C. F. Fong, Lucas Klein, Christopher Mattison, and Chris Song
  • Book Giveaway

    We are also offering a FREE selection of titles discussed in the feature: The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction, by M. A. Orthofer; Horses, Horses, in the End the Light Remains Pure, by Hideo Furukawa; The Lost Garden, by Li Ang; and The Matchmaker, the Apprentice, and the Football Fan, by Zhu Wen. 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, April 29th at 1:00 pm. Good luck, and spread the word!

    Friday, April 22nd, 2016

    Remembering Slavery: Passover, Caribbean Literature and Black-Jewish Relations

    Calypso Jews

    “Like the Caribbean literature I examine, the Passover seder encourages us to make connections between different histories of oppression.”—Sarah Phillips Casteel

    The following post is by Sarah Phillips Casteel, author of Calypso Jews: Jewishness in the Caribbean Literary Imagination.

    The annual Jewish ritual of the Passover seder transports its participants back to the time of Egyptian slavery. During the seder, ancient history is reanimated through storytelling and eating symbolic foods. The Haggadah (or “telling”) instructs Jews that it is incumbent upon them to narrate their suffering in Egypt and liberation from bondage: “In every generation each individual is bound to regard himself as if he had gone personally forth from Egypt, as it is said, ‘And thou shalt relate to thy son on that day saying, this is on account of what the Eternal did for me, when I went forth from Egypt.’” At Passover, Jews transmit this story from one generation to the next through a process in which, in the words of Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, “we not only remember that we were slaves but also re-experience ourselves as slaves.”

    As a scholar of Caribbean literature, I am interested in how contemporary writers also use narrative to engage and reactivate the past. Just as the Passover seder compels its participants to actively recall the Israelites’ journey from slavery to freedom in order to shape the consciousness of the next generation, contemporary Caribbean writers transport us back into the slavery past in order to help us make sense of the present. Part of the power of this act of literary imagination is that it brings forgotten histories to light. As I explore in my new book, one of the lost histories recovered by Caribbean writers is that of the resettlement of Jewish refugees in the Caribbean from the seventeenth century onward.

    Several years ago, while wandering through the Jewish cemetery in Bridgetown, Barbados, I was excited to come across a tombstone bearing the name Benjamin C. d’Azevedo. I immediately recognized this name, which is shared by the Jewish protagonist of I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem, by the Guadeloupean author Maryse Condé. In Condé’s 1986 novel, which is set in Barbados and New England during the Salem Witch Trials, the Jewish merchant Benjamin Cohen d’Azevedo purchases the slavewoman Tituba and eventually frees her, securing her passage back to the Caribbean. Had Condé visited the Bridgetown cemetery and found her Jewish protagonist here, I wondered? Why was she so drawn to the Sephardic Caribbean story?

    (more…)

    Wednesday, April 13th, 2016

    “One of the Things We Need to Rethink Weirdly Is Time.” — Timothy Morton

    Dark Ecology, Timothy Morton

    “One of the things we need to rethink weirdly is time. If future coexistence includes nonhumans—and Dark Ecology is showing why this must be the case—it might be best to see history as a nested series of catastrophes that are still playing out rather than as a sequence of events based on a conception of time as a succession of atomic instants.”—Timothy Morton, Dark Ecology

    We continue our week-long feature on Dark Ecology: For a Logic of Future Coexistence, by Timothy Morton, with an excerpt from the book’s “Second Thread”. In the excerpt below, Morton considers the necessity for rethinking our conceptions of time as we grapple with ecological concerns and the posthuman:

    Tuesday, April 12th, 2016

    Timothy Morton and Olafur Eliasson

    The intellectual range of Timothy Morton, author of Dark Ecology: For a Logic of Future Coexistence, is rare among today’s academic. In addition to his important theoretical and philosophical work, he has also collaborated with visual artists and musicians, including Bjork. In the following video, Morton talks with noted contemporary artist Olafur Eliasson.

    Morton and Eliasson’s interests intersect in many ways, ranging from man’s evolving relationship to nature to the role of art in such a society. In the following talk, Morton and Eliasson discuss these issues and more:

    Monday, April 11th, 2016

    Book Giveaway! “Dark Ecology,” by Timothy Morton

    Timothy Morton, Dark Ecology

    This week our featured book is Dark Ecology
    For a Logic of Future Coexistence
    , by Timothy Morton.

    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 Dark Ecology 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 15th at 1:00 pm.

    Imre Szeman writes, “Timothy Morton’s Dark Ecology is a brave, brilliant interrogation of the presumptions that have driven our approach to the ecological and environmental challenges of our era.”

    For more on the book, here is the chapter “The First Thread”:

    Monday, March 28th, 2016

    What Kate Did — On the Legacy of Kate Millett’s “Sexual Politics”

    Sexual Politics, Kate Millett

    “What Millett’s work showed were the ways that political action and cultural expression interpenetrate. Both sites of struggle were necessary to bringing about the “altered consciousness” that, for Millett, would mark a sexual revolution and bring ‘a world we can bear out of the desert we inhabit.’ We’re not out of this desert yet; in some ways we are more lost than ever. But culture, Millett taught us, may help us find our way to a better land.”—Maggie Doherty, from her article “What Kate Did,” published in The New Republic

    In reviewing the new edition of Sexual Politics, by Kate Millett, Maggie Doherty comments in The New Republic on the intense and immediate reaction to the book by both the mainstream press and her fellow radical feminists when it was first published in 1970:

    The reactions of both camps went beyond anything Millett could have anticipated. Suddenly, she was wanted on every college campus. She was invited onto daytime talk shows. (Her Minnesotan mother warned her against appearing onscreen with unwashed hair.) Her book appeared in editorial cartoons. Her phone rang constantly. Her portrait, by the painter Alice Neel, graced the cover of Time; the magazine crowned her “the Mao Tse-tung of Women’s Liberation.”

    As Maggie Doherty explains, Sexual Politics, which was Millett’s revised dissertation for a literature PhD., reflected her belief that “reading could produce a better way to live.” Millett’s analysis of the ways in which four writers—D. H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, Norman Mailer, and Jean Genet— shaped, or in Genet’s case, challenged, patriarchy offered a powerful critique of the existing political, cultural, and social views and treatment of women. Millett’s revolutionary work, presented with scholarly rigor, articulated ideas within the radical feminist movement regarding the sexual revolution, homosexuality, and monogamy and brought them to a mainstream readership.

    Millett was somewhat unprepared for the intense reaction her book received and never saw herself as a public figure in the way that Gloria Steinem or Betty Friedan did. Her book came under criticism from those who faulted it for not sufficiently addressing issues of class or race but as Doherty argues, the book’s ideas continue to resonate. Doherty concludes by speculating on the singularity of Millett’s achievement and its continuing legacy:

    It’s hard to imagine any work of literary scholarship—let alone a Ph.D. dissertation—landing its author on the cover of Time today. While the contemporary academy has its share of public intellectuals, most of its scholars write for audiences of specialists (after all, they are employed to do just that). Millett, by contrast, was writing in the waning years of what Louis Menand has called the age of “heroic criticism,” a time when the stakes of literary debate seemed high. The books you preferred said something about your politics, even your morals. If you wanted to change the way people lived and loved, you might very well set out to change the way they read.

    This faith in literature—in particular, this faith in the academic study of literature—is perhaps the thing that most marks Millett’s work as the product of another time. It’s striking that in the years after her first book’s release, when she was spending much of her time advocating for “gay liberation,” it occurred to her that the best thing she could do was not speak, or organize, or teach, but write a book of literary criticism, a “SexPol of gay and straight, a scholarly objective approach more convincing to the authorities.” She mapped it out one night at her farm-cum-feminist artist colony in Poughkeepsie: “First lay down a theory about the two cultures, our segregated society. Then find in homosexual literature the emotional truth of the experience as it was lived.” The book never came to be, but the dream of it tells us something about what it meant to be a literary scholar, and a radical feminist, in the early 1970s.

    “Will future historians say that I blew it?” Millett asked in Flying. The answer has to be no. Sexual Politics may have its intellectual and political flaws, like any text that documents a way of thinking proper to the past. But what Millett’s work showed were the ways that political action and cultural expression interpenetrate. Both sites of struggle were necessary to bringing about the “altered consciousness” that, for Millett, would mark a sexual revolution and bring “a world we can bear out of the desert we inhabit.” We’re not out of this desert yet; in some ways we are more lost than ever. But culture, Millett taught us, may help us find our way to a better land.

    Thursday, March 3rd, 2016

    James Davis on the Life and Work of Harlem Renaissance Writer Eric Walrond

    Eric Walrond

    The always worthwhile New Books Network recently posted a fascinating interview with James Davis about his new book Eric Walrond: A Life in the Harlem Renaissance and the Transatlantic Caribbean.

    In the interview with Alejandra Bronfman , Davis discusses the mystery of Eric Walrond as a writer who was very much in the thick of the Harlem Renaissance but had been somewhat forgotten by history. In addition to reinstating Walrond as a pivotal figure in the development of the Harlem Renaissance, Davis also discusses the transnational nature of his life and work as he worked and lived in Guyana, Barbados, Panama, Harlem, Paris, and London. Davis and Bronfman also consider the exceptional and distinctive nature of Walrond’s writing and its mixture of modernist techniques with Caribbean dialogue and locales.

    Their discussion also provided a compelling look at the challenges of writing a biography and transforming an archive into a gripping narrative. Davis also considers the ways in which Walrond’s writing reveals aspects of his life.

    You can listen to the full interview here and for more on the book, here is an excerpt from the book:

    Friday, February 26th, 2016

    Images from “How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?”

    How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?

    We conclude our week-long feature on “How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses”: Women and Jewish American Identity in Contemporary Graphic Memoirs,” by Tahneer Oksman by sharing some of the extraordinary images from her book:

    Aline Kominsky Crumb
    Aline Kominsky Crumb, top of title panel from “Nose Job,” 1989

    Lauren Weinstein
    Lauren Weinstein, “The Best We Can Hope For,” 2008

    Aline Kominsky Crumb
    Aline Kominsky Crumb, untitled cartoon. In Need More Love

    Vanessa Davis
    Vanessa Davis, full-page color drawing. In Make Me a Woman

    (more…)

    Thursday, February 25th, 2016

    Tahneer Oksman on Writing a Jewish Book

    “Why did I write a Jewish book? Because I was trying to reclaim my Jewish self, however unfamiliar its now ragged shape.”—Tahneer Oksman, author of “How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?”

    When Tahneer Oksman, author of “How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?”: Women and Jewish American Identity in Contemporary Graphic Memoirs, first began as PhD. student in literature, focusing on Jewish women’s comics was not on the horizon As she explains in a recent essay in Lilith, while women’s literature was of great interest to her, she had decided to put her Jewish upbringing behind her:

    Somewhere between my upbringing in a Modern Orthodox Jewish day school in the Bronx, and the years of slowly replacing that orthodoxy with new modes of belief and practice — feminism, writing, literature and, yes, yoga — I decided that my Jewish history would never figure, could never figure, in my life as it — as I — had been remade. It would certainly never become a centerpiece.

    However, as she pursued her studies, she found herself drawn to the lives of such Jewish writers as Anzia Yezierska, Sara Smolinsky, and Grace Paley. This shift to concentrating Jewish women writers was not necessarily the best career move. Oksman explains:

    Writing about a Jewish topic also meant transforming myself into the very worst thing you could become as a graduate student: unmarketable. I was now too Jewish for English Literature programs, and I would never be Jewish enough for jobs in Jewish programs. This left me, as usual, between worlds; if you write your first book on a Jewish topic, after all, you’ve pigeonholed yourself: you’re a Jewish writer. Haven’t you seen how so many of those popular “canonical” Jewish writers (and actors, and painters, and critics) reject that title? Write about something else; take the word Jewish out of your title, for heaven’s sake!

    (more…)

    Wednesday, February 24th, 2016

    Tahneer Oksman Recommends Recent Graphic Memoirs

    Turning Japanese

    The following is a post by Tahneer Oksman, author of “How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?”: Women and Jewish American Identity in Contemporary Graphic Memoirs

    In “How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?” I examine the complex and exciting ways identity can be mapped out and pictured on the comics page. I chose to focus on autobiographical Jewish women cartoonists in particular because I found their ambivalence about Jewish identity—their desire to often simultaneously identify as insiders and outsiders—a captivating example of how comics can help visualize incongruity, paradox, and conflict alongside connection, acceptance, and recognition.

    One of the (happy) frustrations I encountered in writing this book was that I kept stumbling across powerful works of graphic memoir that didn’t necessarily fit into the set of themes I was grappling with in the book. In other words, they weren’t particularly Jewish. Here I offer a brief glance at four works, three recently published and one forthcoming, that caught my attention and merit a closer look.

    Jennifer’s Journal: The Life of a Suburban Girl, Volume 1
    Jennifer Cruté
    (Rosarium Publishing, 2015)
    From its bubbly and enticing cover, which pictures a young girl playing with dolls in her room as a devil smoking a cigarette grins in the corner, to its sincere depictions of a serious artist focused on painting and creating, Jennifer Cruté’s Jennifer’s Journals is often startling in its unexpected juxtapositions. The book is partly the story of becoming an adult and artist and partly a family history, with amusingly jarring interludes featuring moments in the childhood of the author/artist’s friends. Cruté offers her readers a motley of such unusual narrative techniques, including punch lines, an adult translator who occasionally appears, and sometimes the simple but forceful confusion of a sequence of painful memories offered without explanation. Her characters are cartoonish, bubbly; but that doesn’t lessen the sting when, for example, in a sequence recalling distant family history (“Georgia, circa 1915″), her great-grandfather matter-of-factly tells her grandma Faye, “Aww, don’t worry, baby. Dead people can’t lynch us.” If anything, the book’s style catches its readers off-guard, offering an unpredictable, open-ended self portrait of a life still unfolding.

    Turning Japanese: A Graphic Memoir
    MariNaomi
    (2d Cloud, forthcoming in spring 2016)
    I’ve long been a fan of MariNaomi’s autobiographical comics, from her early collection Kiss & Tell, which documents a range of romantic (mis)adventures, to Dragon’s Breath and Other True Stories, an episodic compilation on family, work, and love. In Turning Japanese, MariNaomi brings her understated, often deadpan narrative voice to life with spare, fluid lines. On the surface, the book traces two seemingly unrelated threads: a new relationship weathering the ins-and-outs of everyday life; and the search for connection with a place and culture that the protagonist, who calls herself a “mutt,” has been distanced from. Born to a Japanese mother who fled home to marry and raise a family in America, MariNaomi reveals, over the course of the narrative, how the search for a future, with or without a partner, is inevitably, if sometimes vaguely, tied to one’s personal history, one’s past. Like the texts that I write about in How Come Boys?, this book reflects the complicated nature of identification and disidentification, of the ways we can paradoxically come to find who we are through our rejections and rebellions.

    (more…)

    Tuesday, February 23rd, 2016

    An Interview with Tahneer Oksman, author of “How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?”

    Tahneer Oksman,

    “What’s interesting about comics is that you have artists drawing versions of themselves over and over on the same page. You can actually see their serial selves, their past, present, and future self-portraits in relation to one another.”—Tahneer Oksman

    The following is an interview with Tahneer Oksman, author of “How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?”" Women and Jewish American Identity in Contemporary Graphic Memoirs:

    Question: The graphic memoirists you write about in your book have complicated relationships to Jewish identity. What are some of the ways they express or articulate their ambivalence?

    Tahneer Oksman: For someone like Aline Kominsky Crumb, her reflections on Jewish identity read, at least initially, like a general distaste for the Jewish Long Island community that she grew up in. Her memoir is saturated with visual and verbal stereotypes about Jews, and Jewish women in particular. But the more closely you examine her work, the more you recognize its complex push-pull: she incorporates those stereotypes in order to fully explore her own sense of self. In a way, she is continually mocking her own mockery.

    Some of the other cartoonists I write about tend to be more overtly ambivalent. Vanessa Davis, for instance, expresses a clear adoration for various tenets of her Jewish identity, many of these associated with childhood and family. But within images portraying precious memories—of her Bat Mitzvah, for example—she incorporates words or body language that contradict the celebratory, engaged atmosphere depicted around her. Other artists, like Lauren Weinstein, express ambivalence indirectly, as when her young persona writes a letter to Mattel, complaining about how “All your Barbies look like Aryans!,” and then later laments her own so-called Jewish looks (including her nose).

    Q: How does this differ from the ways in which Jewish male graphic artists might grapple with these questions in their own work?

    TO: I don’t believe there’s any essential difference in the ways that Jewish women and men—or women and men more generally—portray identity in comics. In the book, I selected seven memoirists who, to my mind, successfully model this ambivalent Jewish identity that I set out to explore. There are plenty of other Jewish cartoonists who didn’t make it into the book, not because they don’t fit into this model but because I had to set limitations in order to effectively develop my ideas. The book is meant to introduce a way to start thinking about how identity functions in comics, and not as any kind of end point.

    To my mind, crucial differences emerge when it comes to how different kinds of comics (and artistic and literary works more generally) are perceived. Certain subjects and styles are still considered amateur or frivolous both in and out of academic contexts. It’s still a very male-dominated medium in this way, no matter how many women skillfully assert themselves in various forms of print and online. This reception ultimately influences the ways that comics get made. In other words, there’s going to be an awareness, for artists and writers who have been marginalized, of certain critical tones, and that will inevitably find its way into the work, for better or worse.

    (more…)

    Monday, February 22nd, 2016

    Umberto Eco on Language and Lunacy and the Force of Falsity

    Umberto Eco

    We were very saddened to learn of the recent passing of noted linguist and novelist Umberto Eco. We were fortunate enough to have the opportunity to publish Serendipities: Language and Lunacy, one of Eco’s works, which The Atlantic called “Erudite, wide-ranging, and slyly humorous…. The literary examples Eco employs range from Dante to Dumas, from Sterne to Spillane. His text is thought-provoking, often outright funny, and full of surprising juxtapositions.”

    In the book, Eco unlocks the riddles of history in an exploration of the “linguistics of the lunatic,” stories told by scholars, scientists, poets, fanatics, and ordinary people in order to make sense of the world. Exploring the “Force of the False,” Eco uncovers layers of mistakes that have shaped human history, such as Columbus’s assumption that the world was much smaller than it is, leading him to seek out a quick route to the East via the West and thus fortuitously “discovering” America. Like his other other works, Serendipities is a masterful combination of erudition and wit, bewildering anecdotes and scholarly rigor.

    Below is the book’s first chapter, “The Force of Falsity”:

    Monday, February 22nd, 2016

    Book Giveaway! “How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?”

    This week we are featuring “How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?”: Women and Jewish American Identity in Contemporary Graphic Memoirs, by Tahneer Oksman.

    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 “How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?” 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 26th at 1:00 pm.

    Jeremy Dauber, Director, Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies, Columbia University, writes:

    “A careful and nuanced exploration of the complexities of identity and identification, “How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?” is an excellent and ground-breaking work.”

    Below is the introduction, “To Unaffiliate Jewishly”: