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Archive for September, 2017

Tuesday, September 26th, 2017

Low-Brow Culture and the Art of Deception in Ming China

The Book of Swindles

If your first association with Ming China is delicate blue-and-white vases or the dreamy landscape paintings of Shen Zhou and others, The Book of Swindles will give you a very different idea of the period. This book reveals the seedy, funny, cruel and absurd aspects of a culture dominated by a complex government bureaucracy, on the one hand, and rampant commerce, on the other. While in its thoroughness it stands on par with, say, canonical Chinese writings on warfare, The Book of Swindles is a classic of a different kind. This is a treatise on one of the less dignified aspects of human nature: the art of deception.

The experience of reading Zhang Yingyu is comparable to that of Boccaccio’s Decameron. While the buildings and frescoes of fourteenth-century Florence are a testament to the Renaissance city’s loftiest aspirations, Boccaccio’s tales show a world of widespread corruption, illicit sexual exploits, strong passions, and shameless scams. Perhaps human nature has not changed all that much since then. Writers like Zhang Yingyu and Boccaccio show us the darker, funnier, and more human side of even the most glorious historical periods.

In the case of Ming China, scams and deception are also reflected in some of the visual art of the period. The handscroll painting on the cover of The Book of Swindles shows a busy market in which a visitor is being given false assurances by an insistent salesman. The new edition’s translators, Christopher Rea and Bruce Rusk, explain:

“The cover illustration shows detail from ‘Bustling Nanjing’ 南都繁繪圖卷, a long handscroll painting by an anonymous Ming dynasty artist (formerly attributed to Qiu Ying 仇英, 1494?–1552) currently held in the National Museum of China. This scene of a marketplace in the capital features in the foreground a row of shops, including the Yonghe Fabric Emporium; a money changer, identifiable even to the illiterate by the silver ingot and bronze coin depicted on the top of its two signs; and what appears to be a candle vendor. An itinerant musician—a quintessential figure of the Rivers and Lakes—walks by on the left, carrying a lute on his back. Across the street, we see a vendor of ceramic dishware on the left and, on the right, a man selling tea or warmed wine. Drawing our attention at the center is a man gesturing toward a restaurant called ‘Zhang’s Place’. Yet the animals flanking the passerby suggest he should be wary of accepting the tout’s invitation: this establishment is probably one that ‘hangs a lamb’s head out front while selling dog meat in the back’, as a common expression for bait-and-switch would have it. This roadside scene thus depicts a cultural tableau of commercial institutions, itinerant characters, and deceptive practices similar to what we find in Zhang Yingyu’s work.”

The Book of Swindles includes some forty-odd tales of deception, from the daft to the elaborate, with each one ending poorly for either the potential victim or the scammer. Stay tuned for an excerpt from the book, which will be published on the blog tomorrow.

Monday, September 25th, 2017

Book Giveaway! The Book of Swindles

Book of Swindles

“In The Book of Swindles, Rea and Rusk give us hilarious and sobering proof that swindling isn’t just a contemporary concern but has been around for centuries. We are treated to stories of porters cheating officials who cheat porters, of conniving Taoists and gullible officials, of lusty widows who provoke their husbands’ death, and of debauched gentry who prey on poor locals. Yet many of these tales sound eerily familiar to today’s world, and especially today’s China. We are confronted with a widespread, ambient feeling of social mistrust in which people across the land feel that they are constantly being cheated. Besides giving insight into deep societal concerns, The Book of Swindles is a great read.” — Ian Johnson, author of The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao

This week, our featured book is The Book of Swindles, by Zhang Yingyu, translated by Christopher Rea and Bruce Rusk. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the book on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page.

Tuesday, September 19th, 2017

New Book Tuesday: Hidden Atrocities, Charlie Munger, and More!

Hidden Atrocities

Our weekly listing of new books now available:

Hidden Atrocities: Japanese Germ Warfare and American Obstruction of Justice at the Tokyo Trial
Jeanne Guillemin

Now available in paperback:
Charlie Munger: The Complete Investor
Tren Griffin

The Films of Terence Fisher: Hammer Horror and Beyond
Wheeler Winston Dixon
(Auteur)

Folk Horror: Hours Dreadful and Things Strange
Adam Scovell
(Auteur)

And Now: Architecture Against a Developer Presidency (Essays on the Occasion of Trump’s Inauguration)
Edited by James Graham, Alissa Anderson, Caitlin Blanchfield, Jordan Carver, Jacob Moore, and Isabelle Kirkham-Lewitt
(Columbia Books on Architecture and the City)

Saturday, September 16th, 2017

Why Only Art Can Save Us, Part II

Why Only Art Can Save Us

The following is part II of an interview with Santiago Zabala, author of Why Only Art Can Save Us: Aesthetics and the Absence of Emergency. You can read part I here.

Question: Heidegger’s Schwarze Hefte (Black Notebooks) have an important place in your book. Can you explain why? Aren’t you afraid of the anti-Semitic passages of this book?

Santiago Zabala: The reason I used these books is that they contain, as his other writing of the same epoch, a number of statements on emergency and its absence that are central for my research. As far as the anti-Semitic passages: I obviously condemn them, but they don’t have much to do with his philosophy. Let’s please remember Heidegger is not the only great philosopher to have racist and antidemocratic views: Aristotle justified slavery, Hume considered black people to be naturally inferior to whites, and Frege also sympathized with fascism and anti-Semitism. Although Heidegger’s involvement with the Nazi Party has been known since the late 1980s, the recent publication of his Black Notebooks offered more evidence of his racist (anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic) views, triggering a backlash. If Jürgen Habermas, among others, has recently expressed perplexities regarding the ongoing fascination with Heidegger’s Black Notebooks, it’s because the attempt to channel his anti-Semitism into the history of Being is absurd. It’s part of what David Farrell Krell calls the “Heidegger scandal industry.” Together with other Heideggerians such as Krell, Richard Polt, and Gregory Fried, I think it’s important to continue to both read and criticize his philosophy despite his unacceptable racist views.

Q: Besides Heidegger, which other philosophers help you to create this new aesthetics?

SZ: Arthur C. Danto, Jacques Rancière, Gianni Vattimo, and Michael Kelly have all contributed in different ways. Danto, through his theory of the end of art, has helped me understand how truth has become more important than beauty; Rancière showed me that aesthetics is irreducibly political in its distribution and imposition of the sensible; and Vattimo indicated the hermeneutic consequences of art’s ontological status. Kelly, it could be said, triggered the whole project. In A Hunger for Aesthetics he writes that “the main goal of aesthetics today is to explain how the transformation of demands on art to demands by art is already a reality in some contemporary art.” These demands are linked to the absence of emergencies produced by our metaphysical condition. This is why aesthetics must be capable of interpreting these demands rather than “reality.”

Q: By “reality” you are referring to so-called speculative or new realist aesthetics that seek to judge or describe works of art independently of their effects, environment, and relations?

SZ: Yes, although I would not call “new realism” a new philosophy but the latest descriptive metaphysics. The adherents of this movement are brilliant at marketing it through book series, conferences, and blogs, making the public believe it’s something new, but they embody the absence of emergency we discussed earlier. Although these “new” philosophers justify their theoretical beliefs in different ways, seeking to demonstrate—despite Thomas Kuhn—the supposed stability of a particular scientific understanding of the world, their work is part of a global call to order or, as Boris Groys recently pointed this out in E-Flux, a return to psychology and psychologism. It is curious, as Simon Critchley rightly pointed out, that just “when a certain strand of Anglo-American philosophy (think of John McDowell or Robert Brandom) is making domestic the insights of Kant, Hegel and Heidegger and even allowing philosophers to flirt with forms of idealism, the latest development in Continental philosophy is seeking to return to a Cartesian realism that was believed to be dead and buried.” If, as Graham Harman suggests, aesthetics ought to become “first philosophy,” it is not because it can understand the “cryptic inner reality” that makes the effects of art possible, but rather because aesthetics can provide a way to interpret the emergency of art’s existential disclosures. After all, as Žižek says, “there is no ‘neutral’ reality within which gaps occur, within which frames isolate domains of appearances. Every field of ‘reality’ (every ‘world’) is always-already enframed, seen through an invisible frame.”

Q: Is this “invisible frame” what you call hermeneutics? What role does the philosophy of interpretation have in the book?

SZ: Yes, interpretation is the invisible frame through which we understand the world, and ignoring it is simply silly at this point of the history of philosophy. Hermeneutics is a philosophical stance focused upon the interpretative nature of human beings. Although juridical and biblical hermeneutics played a significant role throughout the history of hermeneutics, Hans-Georg Gadamer, in Truth and Method, decided to emphasize its aesthetic nature. Instead of its aesthetic nature I stress interpretation’s anarchic nature. The interpretation required to draw us closer to genuine appearance must be anarchic and existential, that is, suited to “venture into the untrodden and unformed realm of the opening of the emergency” as Heidegger says. If we can save ourselves through art’s existential claims it’s because interpretation is a vital practice where the interpreter, as Vattimo says, “must also become, fatally, a militant.” In sum, this book develops a radical hermeneutic conception of art and aesthetics by way of a philosophical and political engagement with Heidegger, as well as with contemporary artists who help demonstrate and apply this vision.

Q: For the cover you chose an image of The Ninth Hour, the most celebrated sculpture by the Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan, which represents Pope John Paul II lying on the ground after being struck by a meteorite. Can you explain how it relates to the book?

SZ: The sculpture’s title alludes to the ninth hour of darkness that fell upon all the land when Christ cried out “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?”—“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This alludes to this book’s title, which paraphrases Heidegger’s famous statement that “only a God can still save us” when he was asked whether we could still have any influence now that we are so overpowered by technology. Heidegger alludes not to God’s representative on earth, as portrayed in Cattelan’s work, but rather the absence of Being, which in our technological world has become the essential emergency. The goal of this book is to thrust us into this emergency as it is revealed through works of art. I was very happy to see this sculpture also used in the opening credits of Paolo Sorrentino’s The Young Pope series, which I enjoyed very much.

Q: Beside Cattelan’s work on the cover, there are twelve works in your book by artists from all over the world. Can you talk a little about why you chose these particular artists? Aren’t you afraid, as Mark C. Taylor said, that art often “loses its critical function and ends up reinforcing the very structures and systems it ought to be questioning.”

SZ: I agree with Taylor. But the same goes for philosophy or other intellectual activities. In order to challenge the lack of emergency in today’s society it is necessary to understand that these emergencies concern all of us. I’m referring not only to climate change but also to social media and global terror. I do not think that among artists there is greater freedom than among philosophers. How framed we are within the “very structures and systems” we should question does not depend on our field of research but rather how much we are inclined to disclose the absence of emergency. This is why I agree with Heidegger when he said the “artist remains something inconsequential in comparison with the work—almost like a passageway which, in the creative process, destroys itself for the sake of the coming forth of the work.” My choice of these artists or, better, their works, is not based on their nationality but rather in these emergencies. I think most of the artists were quite surprised by my request to use their work in the book as I’m not in the art world, a curator or an art critic. Either way, I’m very grateful they allowed the reproduction of their work.

Q: Why did you only present visual works or art?

SZ: Because they were easier to reproduce in a book. They are not necessarily better at disclosing the essential emergency than other forms of art such as dance, music, or cinema. I do refer to TV series (Hung), theater (Young Jean Lee’s plays), and songs (Tom Waits’s “The Road to Peace”) that also disclose emergencies.

Q: Some critics believe “relational aesthetics” is over. Has the time arrived for an “emergency aesthetics”?

SZ: I’m not certain whether the time is right as I’m not an art historian. Either way. I took my chances as I think the works of art I discuss disclose “an emergency turn” or “sensibility” in contemporary art. The problem is what we understand as an emergency. What is important for me is that the traditional relationship among the art object, the artist, and the audience is not simply overturned, as in relational aesthetics, but also disturbed, agitated into new action by the danger revealed by art’s ability to thrust the viewer into emergency. This move toward emergency art has also given rise to similar aesthetics theories, such as Jill Bennett’s “practical aesthetics,” Veronica Tello’s “counter-memorial aesthetics,” and Malcolm Miles’s “eco-aesthetics,” where emergencies also play a central role. The theoretical proposals of Bennett, Tello, and Miles, like my own emergency aesthetics, do not simply regenerate aesthetics through artistic practices but also respond to current vital issues. Hal Foster’s latest book, Bad New Days: Art, Criticism, Emergency, confronts the problem of emergency, but he does not distinguish between emergency and absence of emergency.

Q: Does your book have anything to do with the Emergency Biennale?

SZ: I don’t think so. I learned about the biennale while I was writing the section on Jota Castro work’s in chapter 2. He created the biennale together with the curator and critic Evelyne Jouanno in order to draw attention to the suffering in Chechnya. While I find their biennale interesting, I’m concerned with a variety of emergencies, not only the one in Chechnya. But events like this biennale are important as they embody the “globalization of the art world” that Danto talks about.

Friday, September 15th, 2017

Why Only Art Can Save Us, Part I

Why Only Art Can Save Us

The following is part I of an interview with Santiago Zabala, author of Why Only Art Can Save Us: Aesthetics and the Absence of Emergency. Part II of the interview will appear tomorrow.

Question: Is this book for the philosophical community or the art world?

Santiago Zabala: It’s for both. I’m more interested to know what the art world will have to say about it as I can predict the philosophical community’s reactions to theories such as the one I explore here. A philosopher who posits that only those who thrust us into the “absence of emergency” are intellectually free today risks being marginalized as a radical who is surpassing the limits of rationality or common sense. But the problem is precisely this common sense. To be intellectually free today means disclosing the emergency at the core of the current absence of emergency, thrusting us into knowledge of those political, technological, and cultural impositions that frame our lives. I think the art world (from artists to curators and art historians) is better prepared for challenges, change, and even emergencies.

Q: How does this new book relate to your previous books?

SZ: Why Only Art can Save Us, like Hermeneutic Communism (coauthored with Gianni Vattimo), further develops my ontology of remnants, which I first illustrated in The Remains of Being. While in Hermeneutic Communism we tried to respond to what remains of Being through politics, here I attempt to respond to what remains through art, that is, how existence discloses itself in works of art. As with other post-metaphysical questions there is no straightforward response here, but simply an indication or sign from the future that we are compelled to interpret. In this book I’m interested in not only the signs but also the obligation this question implies, that is, the existential responsibility. This is why I agree with Slavoj Žižek when he calls for “a refined search for ‘signs coming from the future,’ for indications of this new radical questioning of the system … the least we can do is to look for traces of the new communist collective in already existing social or even artistic movements.” Recently, Vattimo and I explained why hermeneutic communism is still the most viable way to confront political emergencies such as the refuges crisis, ISIS attacks, or Trump’s presidency. Now the point is to tackle other emergencies that politics does not reach.

Q: You say that politics does not reach these emergencies because “the absence of emergency… has become the greatest emergency.” Can you explain the difference between “emergencies” and “essential emergencies”?

SZ: In order to explain this difference, it is first necessary to distinguish Heidegger’s “absence of emergency” (“Notlosigkeit”) from the popular “state of emergency” (“Ausnahmezustand”) of Walter Benjamin, Carl Schmidt, and Giorgio Agamben. The latter is a consequence of the former. Heidegger’s emergency does not refer to the “sovereign who decides on the exceptional case,” but rather to “Being’s abandonment,” which also includes the decision of a ruler to announce an emergency. If a political leader can decide upon a state of exception or emergency when Being has been abandoned, then the epoch’s metaphysical condition is its greatest emergency, and this condition explains the rise of the term “emergency” in the work of Bonnie Honig, Elaine Scarry, Janet Roitman, and many others. When Heidegger, in various texts of the 1940s pointed out how “lack of a sense of emergency is greatest where self-certainty has become unsurpassable, where everything is held to be calculable, and especially where it has been decided, with no previous questioning, who we are and what we are supposed to do,” he was concerned with this metaphysical condition. For example, we now live in a world where we are constantly under surveillance, and even the future is becoming predictable through online data mining. The problem has become not the emergencies we confront but rather the ones we are missing. These are the essential emergencies.

Q: Is the Trump presidency an emergency or an essential emergency?

SZ: He is an essential emergency. The fact that we did not predict he could win the presidency does not constitute an emergency per se; we all knew that whoever won the election would pursue or intensify the previous administration’s policies. Unfortunately, Trump is intensifying them and concealing even more the essential emergencies of climate change, civil rights, human rights, and others, which are now hidden behind his new appeal to order. He seems to be the incarnation of the absence of emergencies, determined to deny the most obvious emergencies by creating a condition that defines an emergency as anyone’s saying he is wrong. If the greatest emergency has become the lack of a sense of emergency, then art’s alterations of imposed reality, the new interpretations it can demand, disclose this emergency and demand a different aesthetics. The goal of this book is to outline this aesthetics of emergency or an ontology that posits art as fundamental to saving humanity from annihilation.

Q: And how can art save us from this?

SZ: Even though a work of art, such as a song or a photograph, is not that different from other objects in the world, it often works better than commercial media or historical reconstructions as a way to express emergency. The difference is one of degree, intensity, and depth. Media photographs can be truthful, but they are rarely as powerful as a photographic work of art. The series Soldiers Stories from Iraq and Afghanistan by Jennifer Karady or the Rwanda Project of Alfredo Jaar are paradigmatic examples here. Genuine art has the ability to disclose this emergency and help us grapple with it practically and theoretically. This is why Heidegger believes there is a fundamental difference between “those who rescue us from emergency” and the “rescuers into emergency.” The former are a means for “cultural politics,” that is, a way to conceal the emergency of Being; the latter are events that thrust us into this emergency. This distinction between artists and creators does not define who is more original but rather what is more essential: the emergency or its absence? If many artists have lost touch with the absence of emergency it’s not only because they are framed within cultural politics but also because as professional artists they have become the means of such culture. This is probably why Heidegger emphasized how the “growing ‘affability’ of the ‘profession of art’ . . . coincides with the secure rhythm that originates from within the predominance of technicity and shapes everything that is instable and organizable.” While some may consider this aesthetic theory a simple contribution to the discipline, its primary aim is ontological, that is, to specify how Being and existence are no longer givens but are rather the points of departure to overcome oblivion or annihilation. In sum, art should not simply be treated as an aesthetic object, but rather as an existential event that can save us from the essential emergencies.

Q: Is this why you call for the overcoming of aesthetics?

SZ: Yes, but this does not mean aesthetics must disappear. Rather, it has to surpass those metaphysical frames that conceal the absence of emergency. Against the ahistorical mode of aesthetics, which represents, orders, and manipulates beings and leaves us without a sense of emergency, emergency aesthetics dwells in this emergency. Contemplations of indifferent beauty, which rest on the correspondence between propositions and facts, are overcome in favor of interpretation and interventions that retrieve what is ignored by this traditional reflection. The emergency aesthetics I present does not simply overcome measurable representations and indifferent beauty but most of all creates the conditions to respond to the existential call of art in the twenty-first century. Only art can save us because, as Hölderlin pointed out “where danger is, also grows the saving power.”

Q: How is the book structured?

SZ: The book is divided into three chapters, each of which responds to the others. So while the last chapter, “Emergency Aesthetics,” outlines how to answer the ontological call of art in the twenty-fist century through hermeneutics, the second chapter responds to the “Emergency of Aesthetics” that I begin with. This emergency consists in the “indifference” that characterizes beauty as well as its “measurable” contemplation. Given that each chapter responds to the others, the reader is invited to read the book forward or backward as long as the works of art considered are interpreted as representing the possibility of salvation from metaphysics, that is, as revealing an aesthetics of emergency.

Q: Chapter 2 is divided into four sections that analyze contemporary social, urban, environmental, and historical emergencies through twelve works of art. Did the works of art suggest the emergencies or the other way around?

SZ: The artworks suggested or, better, “thrust” me into essential emergencies. So, for example, when I confront the works of Néle Azevedo, Mandy Barker, and Michael Sailstorfer, who create works out of melting ice, ocean pollution, and trees, we are thrust into environmental emergencies caused by global warming, ocean pollution, and deforestation. The same occurs with the “social paradoxes” generated by the political, financial, and technological frames that contain us: the “urban discharge” of slums and plastic and electronic wastes and the “historical accounts” of invisible, ignored, and denied events. These are not addressed properly in the public realm and have become essential emergencies.

Q: And in addition to the aesthetic examination, how do you document the nature and history of each emergency?

SZ: There is a lot of research behind my discussion each emergency, and I rely on the work of renowned economists, political scientists, and investigative journalists. In the case of social media, represented by Filippo Minelli’s Contradictions series, the investigations of Jose van Dijck, Lev Manovich, and Evgeny Morozov were very useful as they also indirectly explained how the artist’s work emerged in the first place. I also use the work of the political scientist as Georg Sorensen, the urban theorists David Harvey, and the historian Ilan Pappé. The reconstruction of these emergencies through renowned thinkers allows the reader to see how serious the concern of the artist is. If truth in art has become more important than beauty, as Arthur C. Danto once said, its because artists “have become what philosophers used to be, guiding us to think about what their works express. With this, art is really about those who experience it. It is about who we are and how we live.”

Part II of the interview will appear tomorrow.

Tuesday, September 12th, 2017

New Book Tuesday: Law and the Wealth of Nations, the Origins of Darwin’s Evolution, and More!

Law and the Wealth of Nations

Our weekly listing of new books now available:

Law and the Wealth of Nations: Finance, Prosperity, and Democracy
Tamara Lothian

Origins of Darwin’s Evolution: Solving the Species Puzzle Through Time and Place
J. David Archibald

And Now: Architecture Against a Developer Presidency (Essays on the Occasion of Trump’s Inauguration)
Edited by James Graham, Alissa Anderson, Caitlin Blanchfield, Jordan Carver, Jacob Moore, and Isabelle Kirkham-Lewitt
(Columbia Books on Architecture and the City)

Friday, September 8th, 2017

A Media Roundup for Making Sense of the Alt-Right

Making Sense of the Alt-Right

“In my experience with the alt-right, I encountered a surprisingly common narrative: Alt-right supporters did not, for the most part, come from overtly racist families. Alt-right media platforms have actually been pushing this meme aggressively in recent months. Far from defending the ideas and institutions they inherited, the alt-right—which is overwhelmingly a movement of white millennials—forcefully condemns their parents’ generation. They do so because they do not believe their parents are racist enough.” — George Hawley

This week, our featured book is Making Sense of the Alt-Right, by George Hawley. For the final post of the feature, we have pulled short excerpts from some of the many articles and interviews in which Hawley has appeared over the past few weeks, as newspapers, radio stations, and media outlets around the world have tried to make sense of the Alt-Right following the events in Charlottesville over the summer.

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

From an article by George Hawley himself in The American Conservative:

In my experience with the alt-right, I encountered a surprisingly common narrative: Alt-right supporters did not, for the most part, come from overtly racist families. Alt-right media platforms have actually been pushing this meme aggressively in recent months. Far from defending the ideas and institutions they inherited, the alt-right—which is overwhelmingly a movement of white millennials—forcefully condemns their parents’ generation. They do so because they do not believe their parents are racist enough.

In an inverse of the left-wing protest movements of the 1960s, the youthful alt-right bitterly lambast the “boomers” for their lack of explicit ethnocentrism, their rejection of patriarchy, and their failure to maintain America’s old demographic characteristics and racial hierarchy. In the alt-right’s vision, even older conservatives are useless “cucks” who focus on tax policies and forcefully deny that they are driven by racial animus.

From “Far-Right Groups Surge Into National View in Charlottesville,” in The New York Times:

George Hawley, a University of Alabama political science professor who studies white supremacists, said that many of the far-right members he had interviewed did not inherit their racism from their parents, but developed it online. Many of them had never heard of, say, David Duke, the former Louisiana politician and former leader of the Ku Klux Klan.

Dr. Hawley said he believed the far-left activists, known as antifa, were welcomed by the white nationalists. “I think to an extent the alt-right loves the antifa because they see them as being the perfect foil,” he said.

NPR’s Audie Cornish talks with Hawley on All Things Considered:

CORNISH: You’ve interviewed many people who consider themselves part of the alt-right. Can you give us a profile? Who does this ideology appeal to?

HAWLEY: I would say it is definitely a young movement. I’d say that it is predominantly white millennial men. It is not sort of stereotypically conservative in its profile. I’d say that probably it is a more secular population than the country overall. That is, there are a lot of agnostics and atheists or people who are just generally indifferent to religion. And I think that it is a fairly well-educated movement on average, that as I think that probably the model alt-right member has at least some college education.

From “What’s the ‘alt-left’? Experts say it’s a ‘made-up term,’” via CNN Politics:

George Hawley, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Alabama, said the “alt-left” term has been most aggressively pushed by Fox News Channel’s Sean Hannity, but it’s not a label anyone or group has adopted for themselves.

“There is no such movement as the alt-left. Obviously, there are left-wing extremists but there is no congruence between the far-left and the alt-right.”

(more…)

Thursday, September 7th, 2017

The “Alt-Lite”

Making Sense of the Alt-Right

“A new term that appeared in mid-2016 is quite helpful: ‘Alt-Lite.’ I am aware of no one who uses the term as a self-description, and is it used as a derogatory term by the Alt-Right. Despite its origin, Alt-Lite is an appropriate description of people whose views on immigration and race relations partially overlap with those on the Alt-Right yet do not cross the line into open white nationalism.” — George Hawley

This week, our featured book is Making Sense of the Alt-Right, by George Hawley. In today’s post, Hawley takes a look at the “fellow travelers” of the Alt-Right movement, dubbed the “Alt-Lite,” and explains why making this distinction is crucial in coming to an accurate view of the Alt-Right.

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

Wednesday, September 6th, 2017

The Long History of White Nationalism in America

Making Sense of the Alt-Right

“The issue of tone is important. Rage and hate were the primary emotions associated with the older white-nationalist movement. Even when it dabbled in popular culture, such as with the record label Resistance Records (which released punk and heavy-metal albums with white-nationalist lyrics), it was a movement transparently driven by resentment…. The Alt-Right offers something more attractive to potential supporters: edginess and fun.” — George Hawley

This week, our featured book is Making Sense of the Alt-Right, by George Hawley. To start the feature, we are happy to present an excerpt, originally featured at LitHub, in which Hawley discusses the legacy of white nationalism in the United States, and the difficulty in tracing the lineage of the Alt-Right. You can read the article in full at LitHub.

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

The Long History of White Nationalism in America
By George Hawley

Detailing the history of white nationalism in America is trickier than it first appears. This is because, despite the egalitarian rhetoric of the Declaration of Independence, the United States operated as a de facto white-supremacist nation for most of its history. This has been a subject of controversy for decades. No one disputes that slavery poses a problem for the narrative that America is, and always was, a beacon for freedom and equality. But debates continue as to what the most important Founding Fathers “really” thought about race and the future of equality.

(more…)

Tuesday, September 5th, 2017

New Book Tuesday: Olivier Roy, Jacques Derrida, Chinese Short-Short Stories, and More!

In Search of the Lost Orient

Our weekly listing of new books now available:

In Search of the Lost Orient: An Interview
Olivier Roy. Translated by C. Jon Delogu. Foreword by Jean-Louis Schlegel and Olivier Mongin.

Artaud the Moma
Jacques Derrida. Edited with an afterword by Kaira M. Cabañas. Translated by Peggy Kamuf.

Contemporary Chinese Short-Short Stories: A Parallel Text
Translated and edited by Aili Mu with Mike Smith

Behavioural Economics
Graham Mallard
(Agenda Publishing)

The Economics of Arms
Keith Hartley
(Agenda Publishing) (more…)

Tuesday, September 5th, 2017

Introducing Making Sense of the Alt-Right

Making Sense of the Alt-Right

“Despite its innocuous name, the Alt-Right is also, at its core, a racist movement. I am generally hesitant (perhaps too hesitant) to label an individual, group, or political movement as racist. But in the case of the Alt-Right, there is no other appropriate word. I furthermore doubt that anyone seriously involved with the Alt-Right will challenge that characterization.” — George Hawley

This week, our featured book is Making Sense of the Alt-Right, by George Hawley. To start the feature, we are happy to present an excerpt from Hawley’s introduction.

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

Monday, September 4th, 2017

Book Giveaway! Making Sense of the Alt-Right

Making Sense of the Alt-Right

Making Sense of the Alt-Right understands alt-right thinking from the inside. George Hawley’s erudition on the subject is evident. The work is supple in tracing out the lineage and development of the movement against the conservative establishment and in explaining its present incarnation in the form of the alt-right.” — Lawrence Rosenthal, University of California, Berkeley

This week, our featured book is Making Sense of the Alt-Right, by George Hawley. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the book and its author on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page.

Friday, September 1st, 2017

Encoding the Consumer: The Computerization of Credit Reporting and Credit Scoring

Columbia Studies in the History of U.S. Capitalism

“‘A prospective borrower is still asked the familiar questions about his age, marital status, whether he owns or rents a home, how long he has been on the present job,’ the New York Times reported. But there was a key difference in this new regime of credit evaluation. ‘By applying a scientifically determined series of weights to each factor and adding up a total score, the credit manager in thirty seconds is able to reject those applications almost certain to result in charge-offs.’ This new system was statistical credit scoring.” — Josh Lauer

This week, we are featuring two books from our exciting new Columbia Studies in the History of U.S. Capitalism series: Creditworthy: A History of Consumer Surveillance and Financial Identity in America, by Josh Lauer, and From Head Shops to Whole Foods: The Rise and Fall of Activist Entrepreneurs, by Joshua Clark Davis. For this final post of the feature, we have an excerpt from Creditworthy, in which Lauer tells the story of the rise of the rise of the automation of credit evaluation in the 1960s.

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

Friday, September 1st, 2017

The Forgotten World of Communist Bookstores

Columbia Studies in the History of U.S. Capitalism

“As avowed anticapitalists, communists made for unlikely business owners. But as entrepreneurs, their objective was to promote ideology and cover costs, not maximize profits…. Their politics were also paradoxical. Unwavering supporters of Stalin abroad, American communists were relentless champions of democracy and civil liberties at home. And their bookstores helped them circulate a domestic agenda of racial and social equality.” — Joshua Clark Davis

This week, we are featuring two books from our exciting new Columbia Studies in the History of U.S. Capitalism series: Creditworthy: A History of Consumer Surveillance and Financial Identity in America, by Josh Lauer, and From Head Shops to Whole Foods: The Rise and Fall of Activist Entrepreneurs, by Joshua Clark Davis. In today’s post, we are delighted to share an excerpt from Joshua Clark Davis’s article on communist bookstores in Jacobin Magazine. You can read the article in full at the Jacobin website.

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

The Forgotten World of Communist Bookstores
By Joshua Clark Davis

Their names proclaimed a new age: The Modern. The Progressive. The New Era. The New World. Others looked to the past, evoking American political heroes like Thomas Paine and Abraham Lincoln.

They were targets of FBI investigations and congressional hearings on “un-American activities.” J. Edgar Hoover condemned them for selling publications that “indoctrinate . . . members and sympathizers” of the Communist Party and “propagandize the non-communist masses.”

While largely forgotten today, communist bookstores were one of the most important public spaces for Marxism in the United States in the twentieth century. Most Americans didn’t personally know a communist. But in cities across the country, radicals made their presence known at unassuming bookstores. Teeming with texts by Marx, Engels, and Lenin, these stores also stocked the Daily Worker and the latest publications by party officials from the United States, the Soviet Union, and other countries around the world.

Communist bookstores provided a critical public space for radicals, operating in virtually every major American city. Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York had several apiece. Smaller and ostensibly less radical locales such as Birmingham, Houston, and Omaha, had communist bookstores, too.

Decades before alt-right trolls viciously attacked left-wing writers online, right-wing extremists targeted communist booksellers, accusing them of the most insidious crimes imaginable. “Visit any Communist bookstore in the United States and you will find books printed in Moscow and Peking in English for one, two, and three-year-old babies,” warned Fred Schwarz, author of the 1956 redbaiting bestseller You Can Trust the Communists (To Be Communists). “The Communists want the children. They do not care so much about the adults whom they consider as already contaminated with the disease of Capitalism and consequently of little use to them.”

It’s not entirely clear when communists first sold books in the US. But almost as soon as they split off from the Socialist Party of America to form their own parties in 1919, communists opened their own bookstores, too.

Communist booksellers immediately became targets of state repression as they faced an intense postwar backlash against so-called subversion. In 1919, the New York legislature established a committee to investigate “seditious activities” in the state. As part of the investigation, a group of fifty state police officers and right-wing volunteers led by Deputy Attorney General Samuel Berger raided the People’s House bookshop of the Rand School of Social Science, then New York’s premier radical educational center. The investigators seized communist books and papers, but prosecutors eventually failed to convict the bookstore’s employees of sedition.

As avowed anticapitalists, communists made for unlikely business owners. But as entrepreneurs, their objective was to promote ideology and cover costs, not maximize profits. Red bookstores spread rapidly as the ranks of the consolidated Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA) swelled during the Depression. By the end of the 1930s, roughly fifty communist bookstores were open for business. Their politics were also paradoxical. Unwavering supporters of Stalin abroad, American communists were relentless champions of democracy and civil liberties at home. And their bookstores helped them circulate a domestic agenda of racial and social equality.

Communists in the US were sophisticated marketers. International Publishers (IP), the official CPUSA publishing house operated by Alexander Trachtenberg, oversaw an extensive network for distributing communist publications in the US. Trachtenberg, a Ukrainian Jew who had fled Russian pogroms for the United States in 1906, managed IP since it was founded by the party and wealthy socialist A. A. Heller in 1924. The CP paid in advance for texts written by party leaders, typically placing bulk orders in the range of five thousand copies prior to publication but sometimes distributing as many as one hundred thousand. Every party branch across the country had an official “literature agent” that worked with the bookstores and IP to make sure that official texts ended up in the hands of party members (who received a discount of up to 60 percent on publications).

A 1941 advertisement in the Daily Worker suggests the CP’s sales priorities that year. The ad for the Workers Book Shop in New York announced “150,000 volumes to be sold” in “the greatest sale in our history.” In addition to classics like the collected works of Lenin and Marx and Engels’s writings on the American Civil War, the store offered less remembered (and more intimidating) titles like J. B. S. Haldane’s Marxist Philosophy and the Sciences, David Guest’s A Textbook of Dialectical Materialism, and Eugen Varga and Lev Mendelsohn’s New Data for Lenin’s Imperialism for as little as 49 cents apiece.

Despite these challenges, surviving communist bookstores enjoyed a small renaissance in the late 1960s and 1970s. The New Communist Movement — an ultra-left offshoot of the New Left — launched an array of Marxist-Leninist organizations and sought to radicalize existing unions in these years. But in the 1980s and ’90s, two unforeseen transformations overwhelmed this modest uptick in activity.

First, and most dramatically, nearly twenty Communist governments fell in a three-year-stretch. The Soviets had directed American Communists and overseen their bookstores for decades, so the Berlin Wall’s collapse and the implosion of state socialism — despite being a boon for free expression in the Eastern Bloc — had a deleterious effect on communist bookstores in the US.

Second, there was the rise of bookstore chains. As stores like Barnes & Noble and Borders aggressively expanded in the mid-to-late 1990s, they began to sell many of the books that had once been the specialty of more radical independents — not only Marxist booksellers, but also black leftist and feminist bookstores. And as online booksellers like Amazon became household names by the end of the decade, Americans could purchase virtually any book with an ISBN number with a just few clicks of a mouse. Today, many bestselling communist texts are available for free online on sites like Marxists.org.

Some radical brick-and-mortar bookstores still operate today. Few identify strictly as communist, and even fewer are associated with the CPUSA, a party that has struggled in recent decades to reach even ten thousand members. Newer independent radical bookstores such as Red Emma’s in Baltimore and Bluestockings in New York’s East Village draw customers with cafes and frequent speaker events.

Venture into one of these shops and you’ll glimpse the legacy of a bygone era, one in which communist bookstores — despite facing considerable financial and political hardships — helped their customers envision radical worlds that were often otherwise unimaginable in America.

Read the article in full at the Jacobin Magazine website.