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Archive for October, 2015

Friday, October 30th, 2015

University Press Week 2015 – Online Panels

#UPWeek

“My work as a journalist has been richly and continuously informed by the world of ideas offered by university presses over the years. I can’t imagine the life of the mind in America today without them.” —Bill Moyers

Fourth Annual University Press Week Highlights the Most Surprising Aspects of Scholarly Presses

This year the Association of American University Presses gathers both online and on campuses around the world for University Press Week from November 8-14, 2015. The AAUP is celebrating scholarly publishing concurrent with the first annual Academic Book Week (Nov. 9-16, 2015), a program of the UK-based Academic Book of the Future project.

University presses are full of surprises each year and this year we didn’t have to look hard to find the unique and special ways that these presses make their mark on the world. From University Texas Press’s James Beard winner Yucatán to Princeton University Press’s 150th Anniversary Edition of Alice in Wonderland illustrated by Salvador Dali and Ohio University Press’s illustrated, YA novel Trampoline, this has been a year of outstanding publishing from university presses. All the while, university presses continue to publish the best scholarship from the foremost thinkers working today and continue to garner awards and media attention in vast numbers for their work. University presses worldwide are proud to create these varied, often surprising, and always incredibly well researched publications for students as well as armchair scholars, librarians, journalists, booksellers, and general readers alike. (more…)

Friday, October 30th, 2015

A Guru for Our Time: Eqbal Ahmad and the Life of Dissent from Empire

Eqbal Ahmad

“Eqbal was a quirky, seminal thinker and analyst of global foreign policy. He understood and described correctly the catastrophies that would follow if the US invaded Iraq and toppled Saddam Hussein. He had met Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan in the early 1980s and predicted early on that the man would become a major enemy of the US once the Soviets were defeated.” — Stuart Schaar

For the second half of this week, our featured book is Eqbal Ahmad: Critical Outsider in a Turbulent Age, by Stuart Schaar. In the final post of the feature, we are happy to present an article by Schaar telling a number of poignant stories about Schaar’s relationship with Eqbal Ahmad and about Ahmad’s life as an activist and seminal political thinker, originally published at Juan Cole’s Informed Comment blog.

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

A Guru for Our Time: Eqbal Ahmad and the Life of Dissent from Empire
By Stuart Schaar

In the early 1960s I was living in Rabat while researching my doctoral dissertation for Princeton University. My friend, the Pakistani Eqbal Ahmad (d. 1999), who was living in Tunisia and also researching his dissertation, had just driven through Algeria as the Algerians celebrated their victory over France and gained their independence. Eqbal was euphoric after having shared celebrations with the Algerians whom he met along the way. We immediately set out for southern Morocco and the walled Saharan towns south of Marrakech.

Along the route we stopped at a town where everyone was blind. They were victims of trachoma, a fly-borne disease. I remember Eqbal biting his lower lip and bursting out in tears at the sight of people who greeted us with outstretched arms begging us to help them. We were activists and were used to organizing solutions for problems. This time, we felt absolutely helpless. Years later we learned that the World Health Organization began solving the problem of blindness in the Moroccan south, by distributing lime powder to peasants who lined the walls in the rooms under their houses, where they kept their animals, and in that way kept away infected flies.

I left this story, and several other poignant ones, out of my new book, Eqbal Ahmad: Critical Outsider in a Turbulent Age just published by Columbia University Press. Instead I concentrated on his ideas and the reasons why we should remember and read him still. Eqbal was a quirky, seminal thinker and analyst of global foreign policy. He understood and described correctly the catastrophies that would follow if the US invaded Iraq and toppled Saddam Hussein. He had met Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan in the early 1980s and predicted early on that the man would become a major enemy of the US once the Soviets were defeated. (more…)

Thursday, October 29th, 2015

Eqbal Ahmad and Edward Said

Eqbal Ahmad

“Both men [Ahmad and Said] had cosmopolitan views, and by the time they met, they had seen a considerable part of the world. Their status as refugees had made them into critical outsiders. Both of them could see the societies in which they lived from without, and they had developed sufficient yardsticks with which to gauge with some detachment and discernment what they experienced and saw.” — Stuart Schaar

This week, our featured book is Eqbal Ahmad: Critical Outsider in a Turbulent Age, by Stuart Schaar. Eqbal Ahmad and Edward Said were contemporaries who shared political views, and who also grew to be very close friends. In the excerpt below, taken from the second chapter of his biography, Schaar delves into their friendship, explains where they agreed and where they disagreed in their scholarly and political works, and mentions how Ahmad’s fervent defense of Said was both a positive and a negative factor in his professional life.

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

Wednesday, October 28th, 2015

Book Giveaway! Eqbal Ahmad: Critical Outsider in a Turbulent Age

Eqbal Ahmad

“This book is full of remarkable original primary material on the life and writings of an intellectual and activist well deserving of a biography.” — Rashid Khalidi, Columbia University

This week, our featured book is Eqbal Ahmad: Critical Outsider in a Turbulent Age, by Stuart Schaar. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the book and its authors on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page.

We are also offering a FREE copy of Eqbal Ahmad. 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, October 30th at 1:00 pm. Good luck, and spread the word!

Wednesday, October 28th, 2015

International Climate Negotiations

Green Capital

“Over the years, the agendas for climate conferences have tackled new issues, even though the negotiations may have been at a standstill or even backsliding in terms of coordinating actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. New topics, such as climate change adaptation, the transfer of low-carbon technology, and innovative financial mechanisms, have been introduced through ad hoc working groups without really opening up new perspectives. The march toward increased cooperation in reducing emissions will be facilitated if these general categories are linked to specific questions that participants have raised, by suggesting they join concrete action programs to come up with solutions.” — de Perthuis and Jouvet

This week, our featured book is Green Capital: A New Perspective on Growth, by Christian de Perthuis and Pierre-André Jouvet, translated by Michael Westlake. The 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference will be held in Paris from November 30 to December 11 of this year. De Perthuis and Jouvet look back at the complicated history of international climate negotiations and try to outline the contours of the “ideal” future climate agreement in the thirteenth chapter of their book, which we have excerpted here.

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

Tuesday, October 27th, 2015

Introducing Green Capital

Green Capital

“Despite the supportive discourse of international organizations like the OECD and the World Bank, which has lent credibility to the idea of “green growth,” these new environmental concerns remain on the periphery of political and economic decision making. Worse, following the deep recession of 2008–2009, the outlook of decision makers has shortened: what counts now is a rapid return to growth and the reduction of unemployment. As for the color of growth, they seem to say, we’ll think about that later!” — de Perthuis and Jouvet

This week, our featured book is Green Capital: A New Perspective on Growth, by Christian de Perthuis and Pierre-André Jouvet, translated by Michael Westlake. Today, we are happy to present the introduction to Green Capital, in which de Perthuis and Jouvet explain the necessity and possibility of including and prioritizing climate policy in larger policy discussions, as well as giving a quick run-through of the topics that their book covers.

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

Tuesday, October 27th, 2015

New Book Tuesday: The Foundations of U.S. Policy in the Middle East, Taiwanese Fiction, and More!

Dying to Forget

Our weekly listing of new titles:

Dying to Forget: Oil, Power, Palestine, and the Foundations of U.S. Policy in the Middle East
Irene L. Gendzier

The Lost Garden: A Novel
Li Ang. Translated by Sylvia Li-chun Lin with Howard Goldblatt

The Dissolution of Buildings
Angelo Bucci. With an essay by Kenneth Frampton
(Columbia Books on Architecture and the City)

The Cinema of Sean Penn: In and Out of Place
Deane Williams
(Wallflower Press)

Monday, October 26th, 2015

Book Giveaway! Green Capital: A New Perspective on Growth

Green Capital

Green Capital takes us on a salutary journey through biodiversity, water shortages, the energy transition, and much more to stress the importance of ‘natural capital.’ The book provides an accessible discussion of the economic value of the environment and of the tragedy of the commons, and it explains why, despite our reluctance to employ them, price signals are necessary to create the right incentives. A call for greater environmental awareness and more common sense, Green Capital is a must-read for all those interested in environmental policy issues.” — Jean Tirole, Toulouse School of Economics and Nobel Laureate in Economics

This week, our featured book is Green Capital: A New Perspective on Growth, by Christian de Perthuis and Pierre-André Jouvet, translated by Michael Westlake. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the book and its authors on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page.

We are also offering a FREE copy of Green Capital. 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 Wednesday, October 28th at 5:00 pm. Good luck, and spread the word!

Friday, October 23rd, 2015

Carol Jacobs on the Style of W. G. Sebald

W. G. Sebald

“Sebald insistently refuses to call his works nov­els. Prose book, prose text, prose literature: just not novel.”—Carol Jacobs

In the following excerpt from Sebald’s Vision, Carol Jacobs examines Sebald’s distinct style, his famous use of photographs, and his mixing of fact and fiction:

Yet even before he embarked on his literary path in the mid eight­ies, Sebald will insist, he was already on the path from science or scholarship to fiction. “Yes, it was about the middle of the 80’s. And one needs to mention first that already as a literary scholar actually I was working in an unorthodox manner and I always went to the limits of what was possible or acceptable in literary schol­arship. This rather essayistic procedure moved then, I believe, more or less naturally in the direction of the more fictive.” To be sure, he explains, while frequently calling into play the same image, his current work, it too, requires research; but this research is hardly academic. It never goes straight forward, its path can never be retraced, and it places him in the role of a dog.

When I do research for my books, I don’t do it according to academic methods. One follows rather a diffused instinct; the trajectory of the research can then no longer be replicated because it looks like the way a dog runs across a field to follow a scent. That is a rather primi­tive form of research, always with the nose or muzzle on the ground.

In this way one always finds very peculiar things which one would never have reckoned on, things which you can never find in a ratio­nal way, that is when you do research as you learned to do it at the university, always straight ahead, right, left, right angles, and so on. One has to search in a diffuse way. It should be a matter of discovering precisely in the manner that a dog seeks, back and forth, coming out and going back down, sometimes slowly, sometimes fast.

If Sebald’s manner of research isn’t precisely rational, if it is a bit all over the place, we, his readers, know at least what he collects: photos, documents, citations. Their function, however, Sebald readily admits, is ambiguous. Photographs, he says, are the “true documents,” they make it possible to hold onto things. “It’s necessary to hold onto these things somehow or other. Of course you can do that by writing, but the written is no true document. The photograph is the true document par excellence. People let themselves be convinced by a photograph.” And yet holding onto things and convincing the reader is not quite or not all that Sebald is after. For what interests him more than a document that seems incontrovert­ibly “true” is the suggestion of the faint, the dim, the indistinct. “I don’t want to mount pictures of high photographic quality into the texts, rather they are simply documents of found material, something secondary. It is actually very nice when this lack of clarity enters into the photos” Photographs are there­fore at once “the true document par excellence” that convinces the onlooker, and yet they are also there to unnerve the reader: they right­fully introduce irritation and insecurity. “Thus many of these docu­ments are in fact documents. . . . On the other hand there is the one or the other of the photographs, one or other of the documents that is put in with another end in view, where, really . . . that is the falsi. ca­tion theme, which is to say: it is also a matter of making the reader uncertain. The reader should indeed think about: what is true in these stories, no?”

(more…)

Friday, October 23rd, 2015

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Between Men at 30

Between Men, Eve Sedgwick

We’re very excited to be participating in an event today at the Graduate Center at CUNY to celebrate the 30th anniversary edition of Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire, by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick.

The Conference will be live streamed from the 10 am start through 5:30 pm. The Center for Humanities at CUNY will be live tweeting the event at @HumanitiesGC; and the hashtag for the conference is #BetweenMen30

The one-day, interdisciplinary and international conference will address both the singular impact of Sedgwick’s ground-breaking work and its multiple and on-going ramifications. the symposium features a series of short papers engaging with the text, its reception, and its relevance to the evolving field of queer studies. Additionally, a panel of editors, including our own Jennifer Crewe, who have published, and continue to publish, Sedgwick’s writing will discuss working with her and the nature of her authorship as its image or significance changed over the decades.

In addition to our thirtieth anniversary edition of Sedgwick’s Between Men, with a new foreword by Wayne Koestenbaum, the conference will also celebrate the publication of and a chapbook by Guillotine Press of a previously unpublished 1990 essay of Sedgwick’s, Censorship & Homophobia, with a foreword and notes by Sarah McCarry.

Other participants include: Wayne Koestenbaum, CUNY Graduate Center; Michael Moon, Emory University; William Germano, Cooper Union; Nancy K. Miller, CUNY Graduate Center; Ken Wissoker, Duke University Press and CUNY Graduate Center; Carolyn Williams, Rutgers University; Cathy Davidson, CUNY Graduate Center; Sharon Marcus, Columbia University; and Jonathan Goldberg, Emory University.

Thursday, October 22nd, 2015

Sebald’s “Air War and Literature”

Sebald's Vision, Carol Jacobs

“Sebald demands a language that closely follows upon the events of destruction and brings them into our memory … Sebald calls for a language that makes one see.”—Carol Jacobs

In the following excerpt from Sebald’s Vision, Carol Jacobs discusses Sebald’s controversial “Air War and Literature,” and his call to remember German victims of the allied bombing:

Five years after the first publication of The Emigrants in 1992, Sebald gives a series of lectures entitled “Air War and Literature” (“Luftkrieg und Literatur”). The Emigrants closed with the judgment of Genewein, the would-be documentarian of the Lódz Ghetto who imagined, no doubt, he was fixing reality in place. “Air War and Lit­erature,” as it opens, demands an aesthetic (or anti-aesthetic) that turns that suspicion of the documentary on its head. It sets us up for a theory and practice of “concrete memory.” Representation is clearly called upon to serve reality. Still, the shift from the earlier prose fiction to the “Air War” lectures is no symmetrical displace­ment, no difference as extreme or easy to grasp as that between night and day. It is no move, say, from the frivolities of art to the gravity of history. Sebald’s ultimate refusal to be the vehicle of a déjà vu, the writer’s fundamental skepticism by the end of the lectures with regard to what has been seen, establishes a kinship between his commentary on German postwar literature and his earlier liter­ary publication. And yet this is hardly evident at the outset of those lectures.

In 1997 Sebald holds forth from the other side of the German bor­der, from that no-man’s-land of what is, from a certain geopolitical viewpoint, regarded as Swiss neutrality. With his two lectures deliv­ered in Zurich, Sebald drops something of a bomb. What he ostensi­bly speaks of is literature—literature of a particular historical place and time. “Air War and Literature” castigates the failure of a genera­tion of German writers “for their incapacity to record and bring into our memory that which they had seen.” He dreams of a language of immediacy that unproblemati­cally names the experience of the observer, which then, somewhat magically, might become that of the reader as well. Sebald writes of an aesthetic imperative arising out of a “moral imperative,” imposed, in turn, by the particular object to be portrayed: in this case the utter destruction of the German cities by the Allied bombing attacks in the late years of World War II. But here, already, lies something of the well-recognized scandal of his text. The au­thor of those genre-bending volumes about (and yet not always quite about) the Holocaust—The Emigrants and Austerlitz, to name those now most familiar to Sebald’s audi­ence, came to Switzerland in the name of another, the other victim. It is no longer the murdered and expatriated victims of European his­tory and the Third Reich in the thirties and forties, both Jews and non-Jews, but those who by choice or fate remained on German soil. What would they, could they, have to say for themselves, of them­selves? How does their speech or silence relate to their particular po­litical and (thus) moral position and to the more generalizable situa­tion of trauma?

(more…)

Thursday, October 22nd, 2015

What’s Wrong with Nostalgia — Gary Cross

Consumed Nostalgia, Gary Cross

“The problem with modern nostalgia isn’t that it longs for the past rather than the present or future; the trouble is that it fixates on stuff and thus short-circuits what memory can do for us.”—Gary Cross

Earlier this week, the History News Network published an essay by Gary Cross entitled It’s Ok to Love Your ’64 Mustang but Here’s What You’re Missing. The essay builds upon Cross’s recent book Consumed Nostalgia: Memory in the Age of Fast Capitalism, which examines the ways in which nostalgia separates and divides us across generational lines.

In the essay for the History News Network, Cross argues that people often become nostalgic as a result of anxiety about rapid change and they feel a need to reclaim a sense of of childhood wonder or teenage freedom. He argues that a kind of consumer modern nostalgia began in the United States in the 1930s and then accelerated in the 1970s with a renewed interest in the 1950s. While Cross argues that “objects of memory certainly meet a need by helping people recover the past; and collecting can bring together those who have little else in common but a shared memory.” He concludes his essay by expressing concern about what has become a commercialized nostalgia:

The problem with modern nostalgia isn’t that it longs for the past rather than the present or future; the trouble is that it fixates on stuff and thus short-circuits what memory can do for us. Some of this is probably inevitable. Few of us are mystics and, as in religion, most of us require “relics” to share and help us reach back to the past. But, in the end can commercialized nostalgia meet our needs? My obsession with the commodities of my childhood cannot be shared with my younger brother, much less with my children; they are just different. This longing separates me from communities and pasts beyond my personal experience.

But can’t the modern nostalgic impulse transcend all this? It can if we use things of memory to engage with the past, not merely regress into a romantic memory of childhood “innocence.” If we converse with that past, and bring a full and honest consciousness of our present lives into our encounter with the past, nostalgia can reveal something about ourselves as we are now and also show us how the world has actually changed. Such a conversation with the past might help us get over our obsessions with our childhoods. In fact, nostalgia need not be childish; it can bring us the pleasure of growing in our understanding of ourselves and of the larger world from the vantage point of grown-ups.

Wednesday, October 21st, 2015

“In Sebald one encounters an ethics of melancholy outrage” — Carol Jacobs on W. G. Sebald

Sebald's Vision, Carol Jacobs

“In Sebald one encounters an ethics of melancholy outrage, but he also sets forth his moral position with an astonishing sense of self-certitude.”—Carol Jacobs

In the following excerpt from the preface to Sebald’s Vision, Carol Jacobs details some of the distinctive features of W. G. Sebald’s fiction:

Three aspects of Sebald’s writing must inevitably strike every reader. To begin with, it is a question of a postwar German author addressing the Holocaust (and other historico-political and ecologi­cal disasters) in a manner the reading public had never before wit­nessed. In Sebald one encounters an ethics of melancholy outrage, but he also sets forth his moral position with an astonishing sense of self-certitude.

Second: every reader is struck by the visual oddity of literary and essayistic works peppered with images: photographs, documents, diagrams, sketches, and reproductions of artworks. The temptation, of course, is to assume that, given the ethical stance, the visual materials are there as illustrations. In Sebald’s writings one soon notices that this assumption is particularly vexed, since he openly plays with the purposeful uncertainty of what he places be­fore our eyes. The visual materials, as Sebald admits in an interview, often serve the purpose of readerly disorientation. And then one en­counters in each of his writings an astonishingly innovative writing style. Given his performances of meandering detours, his shatter­ing of frames, crossing borders, writing tangentially, disintegrating the name, surreptitiously citing, and announcing blindness, what is called for is a careful analysis of the highly unusual literary practices of his texts. How to reconcile such a radical stylistics with moral cer­titude? This is the question. How to understand, as Sebald will assert in interviews, that he can only speak indirectly? The task in reading Sebald, then, is to account for a whole range of concepts: what Sebald called our moral capacity alongside the vagaries of perception and, more generally, how representation in art and literature relates to the epistemological crises that he shows us arising out of the juxtaposi­tion of all these.

That his writings are about vision as the ability to see can escape no reader. Alongside the unusual, interspersed visual materials that rightfully engage so many Sebald scholars a theme of sight is oft en woven into the text. In “Air War and Literature” Sebald reproves those writers who directly witnessed the Allied bombings. What was called for was a steady gaze at what was before them (“Air War”) rendered in a concrete prose that might make the reader see. Still in The Rings of Saturn the narrator will celebrate not only Rembrandt’s verisimilitude but also his rebellion against mimesis. That refusal to copy nature emerges as Rembrandt’s social commentary. Sebald also writes of the remark­able realism of the art of Jan Peter Tripp, while nevertheless insisting that it is less its identity with reality that is worth considering than the “far less apparent points of divergence and difference”. In a late interview, Sebald will go on to insist that the Holocaust, which so concerned him, can only be spoken of indirectly: “So the only way in which one can approach these things, in my view, is obliquely, tangentially, by reference rather than by di­rect confrontation.” These are atrocities, he often takes the opportu­nity to remind us, that he himself, in any case, born in 1944, could not possibly have experienced head-on.

The degree to which written texts are called upon to see and report a factual or historical world of the artist’s experience fluctuates wildly in Sebald’s works and, more crucially, also within each individual work. In the texts we are about to read, neat conclusions about vision-of-the-eye are impossible. And then we encounter the prolific acts of citation, both visual and verbal, that are bound to seem twenty-twenty from a certain point of view. As we all know, however—and no one better than Sebald—the play of montage alters the incorporated material and puts it into new relations that cause us to see and read otherwise.

Tuesday, October 20th, 2015

Interview with Carol Jacobs, author of “Sebald’s Vision”

Sebald's Vision, Carol Jacobs

“In many of [Sebald's] works one is drawn along in elaborate sentences that get you to a destination with only the remotest connections to where they began. It’s like traveling on a train whose tracks are constantly encountering a switch, so there is no predicting where one will end up, and almost no remembering how one could have gotten there.”—Carol Jacobs

The following is an interview with Carol Jacobs, author of Sebald’s Vision:

Question: W. G. Sebald is a vastly popular literary figure. Can you say something about the kind of audience he has drawn?

Carol Jacobs: Writing in 2000 Susan Sontag had this to say of the contemporary literary scene: “Is literary greatness still possible? . . . One of the few answers available to English-language readers is the work of W. G. Sebald.” J. M. Coetzee, too, recognized and eloquently celebrated his work. The New York Times, the New Yorker, The Guardian, The Telegraph—all hinted at what had seemed the inevitability of his becoming a Nobel laureate prior to his tragic death. There is no question that he is a writer’s writer. His work has elicited an astonishing critical response from academics on both sides of the Atlantic. But he is no less a writer who appeals to a very wide range of devoted readers. I have seen them in the New York subway, on planes, and (this has its ironies, given a scene in Austerlitz in which the narrator visits an ophthalmologist) also at my eye doctor’s.

Q: Why the title Sebald’s Vision?

CJ: The awe that Sebald’s writing inspires is no doubt linked to his singular ethical stance, his moral vision. This commitment comes to us by way of a pained melancholy concerning the Holocaust, in Austerlitz and The Emigrants and also in After Nature and Rings of Saturn where he turns to a host of other historical and natural disasters.That commitment comes to us as righteous outrage in “Air War and Literature” in which Sebald had challenged not only the German nation for its failure to deal with its past but also post-war German writers for their refusal to document the bombings of German cities. He also had the courage to expose the military uselessness of that violence. So his is a voice that calls us to attention, that stops us in our tracks with its factual materials and yet sweeps us along with a remarkably compelling narrative at the same time, a narrative that Sebald often insisted on calling fiction.

(more…)

Tuesday, October 20th, 2015

New Book Tuesday: Political Freud, The Making of Salafism, and More!

Political Freud

Our weekly listing of new titles:

Political Freud: A History
Eli Zaretsky

The Making of Salafism: Islamic Reform in the Twentieth Century
Henri Lauzière

The Avery Review: Chicago
The Avery Review
(Columbia Books on Architecture and the City)

Seven Czech Women: Portraits of Courage, Humanism, and Enlightenment
Josette Baer
(ibidem Press)

Monday, October 19th, 2015

Author Events This Week: A Celebration of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and More!

Between Men

We’ve got a great slate of author events this week:

The week kicks off with a talk on understanding climate change from Michael Mann, author of The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines.

Tuesday includes a triple-header with George Rupp discussing his book Beyond Individualism: The Challenge of Inclusive Communities at Columbia University. He will be jointed by Scott Pelley, Wayne Proudfoot, and others. Meanwhile, Alexander Butler, author of Walking the Night Road: Coming of Age in Grief, will be in conversation with poet Joan Retallack in a program entitled In Writing, In Mourning. Heading back uptown, Stuart Schaar talks about his new biography Eqbal Ahmad: Critical Outsider in a Turbulent Age, at Book Culture. Schaar will be joined by Rashid Khalidi.

Wednesday and Thursday bring discussions of the history of American wealth and the fight against inequality. On Wednesday, Edward O’Donnell will be at the Lehman Center in honor of his book Henry George and the Crisis of Inequality: Progress and Poverty in the Gilded Age. Wall Street itself is the subject of Edward Morris’s new book Wall Streeters: The Creators and Corruptors of American Finance. Morris will be at Left Bank Books to talk about the book.

Finally, on Friday, Wayne Koestenbaum, Sharon Marcus, Michael Moon, and our own Jennifer Crewe join a distinguished group of scholars and publishers in a conference at The Center for the Humanities to celebrate the thirtieth-anniversary edition of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire

Monday, October 19th, 2015

Book Giveaway! Sebald’s Vision, by Carol Jacobs

This week our featured book is Sebald’s Vision by Carol Jacobs.

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 Sebald’s Vision 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, October 23 at 1:00 pm.

Sebald’s Vision is meticulously researched, beautifully written, and certain to become the standard by which future work on this important writer is measured.” — Michael G. Levine, Rutgers University

For more on the book you can read the preface:

Friday, October 16th, 2015

How Evolutionary Psychology Can Affect Political Change — Gillian Barker

Beyond Biofatalism, Gillian Barker

“[P]o­litical discussion needs to be informed by the fullest available understanding of human patterns of development and behavior and their broader ramifications. This means that it must be grounded in a grasp of the workings of evolved and evolutionary processes of change in human development, behavior, and social arrangements. But it will benefit too from a lively dialogue with older traditions of thought about political change that look far beyond a narrow and economistic cost–benefit analogy…. Evolutionary thinking about human behavior—evolutionary psychology properly understood—can be a useful and vital part of that discussion.”—Gillian Barker

The following is an excerpt from the conclusion to Beyond Biofatalism: Human Nature for an Evolving World, by Gillian Barker. In it, Barker argues that evolutionary thinking and evolutionary psychology—properly understood—can play an important part in affecting political and social change:

The critique of the syntheses of evolutionary psychology by writers like Steven Pinker, Robert Wright, and Richard Dawkins shows that a proper understanding of the dynamics of evolution, development, and behavior does not support the conservative interactionism that they espouse. Their point of view is that the inbuilt qualities of human nature impose powerful restrictions upon the kinds of social change that are feasible and acceptable. But the arguments supporting this view make use of misleading metaphors, misapply cost–benefit thinking to the evaluation of change, and blur the distinction between fact and value in consequential ways—making assumptions about values that bias their judgments of matters of empirical fact and treating normative conclusions about what is good for humans and human societies as if they emerge straightforwardly from the facts of human evolutionary history.

If the critique calls into question the pessimistic conclusions of influential writing on evolutionary psychology, recently pub­lished research in evolutionary and developmental biology has re­vealed patterns of responsive change in behavioral capacities in humans and other species that require a very different conception of evolved human nature. The dynamics of evolution, develop­ment, and behavior that this research has uncovered indicate that there is a much more lively interaction between changes in the be­havior of an organism and its environment than mainstream evo­lutionary psychology has assumed. The mechanisms of responsive change include niche construction and the environmentally cued “switches” characteristic of adaptive developmental and behav­ioral plasticity. Together these indicate that there are sometimes key points at which a small environmental intervention may trigger a distinct new process of sustained and accumulating change. They also suggest that change can sometimes be rapid and relatively smooth. It is as if there are leverage points where an environmental change across some specific threshold opens a new pathway for behavioral change that in turn has an impact on the environment. The new pathway may lead to further change, or it may arrive at a kind of stability or resilience.

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Thursday, October 15th, 2015

Interview with Gillian Barker, author of “Beyond Biofatalism”

Beyond Biofatalism, Gillian Barker

“To get beyond [biofatalism] is to begin to explore the evidence that human cognition and behavior are much more flexible in certain ways than [biofatalism] suggests, and so human societies are much more open to a range of possibilities than we often tend to think.”—Gillian Barker

The following is an interview with Gillian Barker, author of Beyond Biofatalism: Human Nature for an Evolving World

Question: What do you mean by “biofatalism”, and what does it mean to get beyond it?

Gillian Barker: When people are discussing aspects of today’s societies that seem to call for change—problems like racism, sexism, violence, economic inequality, and global warming—a certain form of pessimism is very common. We’ll never escape these problems, many people say, because they are an expression of tendencies that are “in our genes” or “hardwired” as a result of our evolutionary history. Sometimes this view is criticized as a form of genetic determinism, but that isn’t really a good label.

Most people who make claims like this aren’t genetic determinists; they think that environment makes a difference to human behavior. But they think that the environmental changes that would be required to create more peaceful, egalitarian, or ecologically sound societies would be extreme, requiring intolerable sacrifices. So according to this picture, our nature—the set of cognitive capacities and behavioral tendencies built by our evolutionary past—traps us in social arrangements that are unjust, unhappy, and ultimately unsafe. Not because environmental interventions are ineffective, but because we can’t stand the kinds of environments that would be needed to create better societies: no environmental change can save us from ourselves. That is biofatalism. To get beyond it is to begin to explore the evidence that human cognition and behavior are much more flexible in certain ways than this picture suggests, and so human societies are much more open to a range of possibilities than we often tend to think.

Q: Are you saying that evolutionary psychology is wrong about human nature?

GB: We can learn a great deal from human evolutionary history, but efforts to draw lessons from evolution for our thinking about human social and political choices have drawn on too narrow a selection of evidence. It is time to broaden our perspective to include insights from evolutionary biology more generally, from ecology and developmental biology, and from social psychology. These sciences can offer a picture of human nature that is quite different from the one most familiar in mainstream evolutionary psychology, and can give us reasons to expect that individual human behavior and human societies may both be surprisingly responsive to certain kinds of environmental intervention.

Q: Do you mean that nurture wins out over nature in shaping our psychology?

GB: No—as many others have also noted, these old metaphors of “nurture” acting to shape the material provided by “nature,” or of “nature” resisting the forces of “nurture,” are not very useful ones any more. The interaction between genes and environment is far more complex than they suggest. We are evolved to have “adaptive plasticity,” the capacity to adjust our own developmental patterns and behavior to enable us to succeed in different environments. But we are also evolved to modify our own environments, and each other’s—to engage in what some evolutionists call “niche construction.” The combination of these two evolved tendencies means that we should expect that human social behavior can be remarkably sensitive to some kinds of environmental variation, and remarkably resistant to others. We are only just starting to learn about these patterns of social response, but what is apparent that there is a lot to learn! The picture is much more subtle and interesting than the older “nature-vs-nurture” debate suggested.

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Thursday, October 15th, 2015

Nietzsche’s Birthday Gift to Us — What Is So Terribly Wrong about Love

Friedrich Nietzsche | Love and War

“This kind of love in which men are dominant and women are subordinate, Nietzsche says, results in antagonism between men and women. Unabated and unthwarted, that dynamic leads to an all-too-familiar pattern of tragedy in heterosexual love.”—Tom Digby

The following post, in honor of Friedrich Nietzsche’s birthday, is by Tom Digby, author of Love and War: How Militarism Shapes Sexuality and Romance:

When philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s name is mentioned, often the word “controversial” is attached. But today is his birthday, and we tend to say nice things about a person on their birthday, so I want to discuss one of Nietzsche’s most wonderfully useful insights. It is about love, and it plays a fundamentally important role in my new book, Love and War: How Militarism Shapes Sexuality and Romance.

Nietzsche wrote about love toward the end of the nineteenth century, at a time when the notion of women’s equality was getting a lot of attention—and a lot of men were getting scared! In other words, it was a time like today. But Nietzsche was braver than many men, and he dove headfirst into the topic of the relationship between gender equality and heterosexual love.

One of the biggest obstacles to gender equality, according to Nietzsche, is precisely the different but complementary ways that our culture programs women and men to understand love. Through literature, music, and religion (and today, movies) the idea gets promulgated that for women love means devotion, even complete surrender. Hence, says Nietzsche, for women love is supposed to be a kind of faIth.

It is different for men, says Nietzsche. In fact, men want that kind of love from women, but they are expected not to manifest it themselves. For a man to surrender to a woman, or to be completely devoted to her, is downright unmanly, according to our culture. “A man who loves like a woman becomes thereby a slave; a woman, however, who loves like a woman becomes thereby a more perfect woman.” Nietzsche leaves for us the task of articulating the tacit conclusion: The most perfect woman is a slave.

Is Nietzsche’s description of the cultural programming of heterosexual love quaint and out of touch in the twenty-first century? To assess that, we can start with cueing the Britney Spears song, “I’m a Slave 4 U.” Then we can consider how guys who seem devoted to, or even just minimally considerate of, a girlfriend are often described as “whipped.” That pejorative connotes enslavement, and in the full version, “pussy whipped,” it is clear that the enslavement is specifically to a woman. As Nietzsche points out, such a subordinate status is culturally understood to be entirely inconsistent with being a “real man.”

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