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October 17th, 2017

Introducing Tunisia: An Arab Anomaly



Tunisia: An Arab Anomaly

“Therein lies one of the most common and misguided propositions about Tunisia—namely, that its successful transition to democracy can serve as a model for the rest of the Arab world and that the factors that led to Tunisia’s democracy could be, if not easily, replicated. This theory is based on a set of assumptions, some explicit and others less so, that I argue are flawed.” — Safwan Masri

This week, our featured book is Tunisia: An Arab Anomaly, by Safwan M. Masri, with a foreword by Lisa Anderson. In today’s post, read a set of excerpts hand-selected by Masri that provide an excellent introduction to the book’s ideas.

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

October 17th, 2017

New Book Tuesday: Darwin’s Theory, Implicit Bias, Film Openings, and More!



The Theory That Changed Everything

Our weekly listing of new books now available:

The Theory That Changed Everything: “On the Origin of Species” as a Work in Progress
Philip Lieberman

Race on the Brain: What Implicit Bias Gets Wrong About the Struggle for Racial Justice
Jonathan Kahn

Cinematic Overtures: How to Read Opening Scenes
Annette Insdorf

Mary and the Art of Prayer: The Hours of the Virgin in Medieval Christian Life and Thought
Rachel Fulton Brown

Now available in paperback:
Recognition or Disagreement: A Critical Encounter on the Politics of Freedom, Equality, and Identity
Axel Honneth, Jacques Rancière, Katia Genel, and Jean-Philippe Deranty

Civilizing the Chinese, Competing with the West: Study Societies in Late Qing China
Chen Hon Fai
(The Chinese University Press)

Play Therapy in Asia
Edited by Angela F. Y. Siu and Alicia K. L. Pon
(The Chinese University Press)

October 16th, 2017

Book Giveaway! Tunisia: An Arab Anomaly



Tunisia: An Arab Anomaly

“A wise and carefully drawn analysis of one of the mysteries of the Arab Spring. Safwan M. Masri explains why Tunisia, where the revolt germinated, has been the only country to give birth to a real democracy. In examining why Tunisia succeeded, Masri shows why other Arab countries failed. They lacked Tunisia’s culture of tolerance, moderation, and coexistence, which had been nurtured by decades of educational and social policy. Bottom line: Democracy needs deep roots, which sadly don’t exist in most of the Arab world.” — David Ignatius, Washington Post

This week, our featured book is Tunisia: An Arab Anomaly, by Safwan M. Masri, with a foreword by Lisa Anderson. 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.

October 10th, 2017

New Book Tuesday: Inside Private Prisons and More!



Inside Private Prisons

Our weekly listing of new books now available:

Inside Private Prisons: An American Dilemma in the Age of Mass Incarceration
Lauren-Brooke Eisen

Democracy and the Welfare State: The Two Wests in the Age of Austerity
Edited by Alice Kessler-Harris and Maurizio Vaudagna

Erotic Poems from the Sanskrit: An Anthology
Edited and translated by R. Parthasarathy

The Habermas Handbook
Edited by Hauke Brunkhorst, Regina Kreide, and Cristina Lafont

Now available in paperback:
Plots
Robert L. Belknap. Introduction by Robin Feuer Miller.

The Paradox of Risk: Leaving the Monetary Policy Comfort Zone
Ángel Ubide
(Peterson Institute for International Economics)

Gate of Mercy: Family Secrets and the History of Modern Israel
Dorit Silverman. Translated by Sondra Silverston.
(ibidem Press)

Joining a Prestigious Club: Cooperation with Europarties and Its Impact on Party Development in Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine 2004–2015
Maria Shagina. Foreword by Kataryna Wolczuk.
(ibidem Press)

Kind Words, Cruise Missiles, and Everything in Between: The Use of Power Resources in U.S. Policies towards Poland, Ukraine, and Belarus 1989–2008
Barbara Kunz. Foreword by William Hill.
(ibidem Press)

The Mongol Conquests in the Novels of Vasily Yan: An Intellectual Biography
Dmitry Shlapentokh
(ibidem Press)

October 6th, 2017

Remembering Adam McKeown



Adam McKeown

Adam McKeown, a former editor of the series Columbia Studies in International and Global History, passed away recently. Together with Matthew Connelly, Adam founded this book series with Columbia University Press in 2007 and was behind its remarkable growth for a decade. Adam also contributed as an author to the series: his scholarly work Melancholy Order: Asian Migration and the Globalization of Borders was published in 2008 and quickly hailed as a masterpiece. Among other important interventions, Adam invited us to rethink the history of border control. In his eyes, state efforts to control migration mentally, physically and administratively, were first and foremost a result of globalization. As he showed, they were particularly related to nineteenth- and twentieth-century Asian migration flows in an increasingly hierarchical world.

Also in many other writings, Adam McKeown chose migration history and the history of statehood as the chain and thread to weave Asian history and global history into new fabrics. The outcome was grand and colorful – large-scale, daring writing rooted in deep local knowledge and a concomitant love for details. It is small wonder that already as a young scholar, Adam had a strong impact on a variety of research fields. He quickly made the transition from a graduate student to an influential scholar whose publications are being read around the world.

Adam McKeown was a humble person and at the same time a bold and powerful thinker. He loved academia for its intellectual environments but he felt definitely not equally passionate about institutional politics. He chose early retirement at a young age, and it is deeply saddening that a tragic accident ended this new period in his life so quickly and unexpectedly. His memory and his work remain deeply inspiring to us. As the current editors of Columbia Studies in International and Global History, we feel honored to continue at least some aspects of his work.

Cemil Aydin, Timothy Nunan, and Dominic Sachsenmaier
Series editors, Columbia Studies in International and Global History

October 3rd, 2017

New Book Tuesday: Neither Ghost nor Machine, Birth of a New Earth, Hunting Girls, and More!



Neither Ghost nor Machine

Our weekly listing of new books now available:

Neither Ghost nor Machine: The Emergence and Nature of Selves
Jeremy Sherman. Foreword by Terrence Deacon.

Now available in paperback:
Birth of a New Earth: The Radical Politics of Environmentalism
Adrian Parr

Now available in paperback:
Hunting Girls: Sexual Violence from The Hunger Games to Campus Rape
Kelly Oliver

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

September 29th, 2017

Trickster Tales and “True Crime”: An Interview with Christopher Rea and Bruce Rusk, translators of The Book of Swindles



Book of Swindles
This week, we introduced The Book of Swindles, a chronicle of scams and deception from Ming China. These stories of fortunes made and lost, of cunning crooks and unsolved crimes make us ask: was swindling so widespread in 1600s China? What caused the profound social changes and moral anxiety at the time?

To learn more about the stories’ background, we talked to Christopher Rea and Bruce Rusk, professors at the University of British Columbia and translators of The Book of Swindles. They told us about rising consumer culture in the early modern period, parallels with American literature, and Zhang Yingyu’s “delight in criminal cleverness.”

Question: You write in the introduction to The Book of Swindles that Zhang Yingyu’s time, the early 1600s, was one of rapid social and economic change. Why was the Ming empire suddenly so commercialized and its roads and rivers busy with itinerant merchants? Many of Zhang’s stories are set in coastal provinces like Fujian. If we were to travel with him across late-Ming Fujian, what would we see that was new and different?

BR: First, we’d see a lot of merchants—and even more porters and boatmen—carrying goods over long distances, some for domestic markets and some coming from, or bound for, overseas. We’d encounter other travelers of many kinds, such as opera troupes, itinerant doctors, and even some we could classify as tourists, male and female, going to see famous sights, to perform pilgrimages to holy mountains, or to do a little of both. More than ever before, we’d pass through villages devoted to the production of a single commodity such as fruit or ceramics, whose producers would use the revenue to buy their staples, such as grain produced in other areas. And in the towns and villages we would see many signs of rising prosperity, people of middling status who owned works of art, books, and fancy clothes; some had hobbies such as goldfish-raising or bonsai. Many contemporary writers remarked on these changes, often seeing them as illustrating a decline from the ideal social order. To them, one of the ills of the age was a new fluidity of social status resulting not only from new wealth but also the increasing need to interact with strangers of uncertain background either in populous cities or “on the road,” in inns, taverns, and on boats. These anonymous and transitory spaces were perfect settings for the shape-shifting swindler.

Modern economic historians disagree about exactly what factors caused these broader economic developments. Some point to favorable climate trends. Others emphasize the role of huge amounts of silver—the main form of money in the period—coming in from new mines in Japan and the New World. Foreign traders used silver to purchase Chinese goods such as tea, silk, and porcelain and this trade increased the money supply in the late Ming economy. Internal factors include a long period of relative stability that allowed local, regional, and long-distance trade networks to develop, which fostered more efficient, specialized production in agriculture and industry. Swindlers and other criminals were all too ready to siphon off these new flows of goods and money.

Q: Zhang ends each tale with a moral lesson, yet the stories are clearly also meant to entertain. As you point out, a story like “A Eunuch Cooks Boys to Make a Tonic of Male Essence” is long on scandal and social criticism and short on helpful advice. Who was The Book of Swindles written for, and what would you say is its closest contemporary equivalent in terms of genre?

CR: Well, the “Male Essence” story does teach people with sons not to sell them to eunuchs—who in the late Ming numbered in the tens of thousands and who did purchase boy servants—but my hunch is that at-risk readers of that particular swindle were few. Zhang often panders to popular prejudices about eunuchs, monks, women, and government underlings. You could say his commentary is a mix of moral posturing and earnestness. Still, his stories do educate as they entertain. “Male Essence” is a good example: its sensationalism notwithstanding, it actually begins with a polemic about taxation.

As for audience, most of the stories involve merchants, and Zhang discusses their interests extensively, so it seems likely that they were his primary intended readership. He expresses sympathy with men who get lonely on the road, and notes that this makes them vulnerable to false friends. He gives detailed advice about the handling of silver. He suggests ways to vet potential business partners. But he also offers a much wider variety of scenarios of how people perpetrate and foil fraud at home, on the road, in the marketplace, in court and in courtship. As we mention in our introduction, one of the fun things about this book is that it can be read for fun and profit.

BR: One additional hint to the audience is the language of the stories: it’s simple, but it follows the syntax of Literary Chinese (aka Classical Chinese), not the more colloquial language of some novels and stories of the same period. But it is also short on the sort of allusions and historical references a more scholarly work would contain. So it was probably aimed at readers with the kind of literacy that many merchants at the time would have had, enough to write letters, keep accounts, draw up contracts, and make use of books for practical and religious purposes as well as for entertainment.

CR: As for genre, works like The Book of Swindles are easy to find in China nowadays. Some collections actually pair stories about contemporary scams with stories about historical swindles under titles like Panorama of Swindles Old and New, and even include story-end commentaries à la Zhang Yingyu. So, you can find pretty exact genre equivalents in the Chinese-language book market today. “True crime” stories would be an approximate genre category in English, and there are links to folklore such as trickster tales. You also have a similar impulse to compile stories of trickery in anthologies like Michael Farquhar’s A Treasury of Deception: Liars, Misleaders, Hoodwinkers, and the Extraordinary True Stories of History’s Greatest Hoaxes, Fakes, and Frauds (2005).

BR: Entertainment is definitely one of the “hooks” of the Book of Swindles, even when it purports to teach a moral lesson. This is true of much Chinese fiction of the period, however tenuous the link between story and moral might be. It’s also true of a lot of writing about swindles from around the world—for example, American novels like Melville’s The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade, and of course much of Mark Twain. The Book of Swindles shares a delight in criminal cleverness with these works and with other Ming dynasty collections of stories about ingenious officials who catch often equally ingenious lawbreakers. Unlike that kind of “case fiction” (gong’an xiaoshuo), however, the Book of Swindles usually has the criminal outsmart the detective, or makes it a merchant or other unofficial party who gets to the bottom of the case. In this way it’s strikingly different from most of the fiction of its time.

Q: Several stories concern scams perpetrated by women. As you summarize in the introduction, “Women seduce merchants far from home, prostitute female relatives, frame innocent men, steal horses on the highway, and enter into sham marriages for purposes of murder and extortion.” How does Zhang portray gender? Does the book show any changes in, or anxieties about gender roles in Ming China?

CR: The Book of Swindles is about how to recognize tell-tale signs that you’re being had, so its main concern is with showing typical scenarios and behaviors. Characters do have names, but they tend appear less as individuals than as representatives of certain social types. Women, scholars, government clerks, brokers, Daoist priests—Zhang objectifies them all. He does make admiring comments about the brilliant schemes in the first two stories of the “Women” swindles section, especially in the excellent “Three Women Ride Off on Three Horses.” But then we have categorical statements like this one: Even the chastest of women, without exception, will be led into sin if she encounters and is enticed by a licentious woman.

Zhang’s representations of women, prejudicial though they are, don’t represent the main anxiety about changing social roles in his collection. Looming much larger, to me anyway, is his sense that merchants are being too cavalier in handling their money and in trusting people they encounter while traveling. While the courts sometimes do help a dupe obtain restitution, in most stories it’s clear that a man going out on business has to rely mostly on his wits—and the accumulated vicarious knowledge offered by The Book of Swindles—to keep him safe.

Q: Which is your favorite story in the book, and why?

CR: The two in the “Poetry” swindles section were a delight to translate; see especially the pleasure boat poem in “Chen Quan Scams His Way into the Arms of a Famous Courtesan.” Plus, I like the idea of poets as swindlers. I enjoy Zhang’s comment on the “painless scam” in “Forged Letters from the Education Intendant Report Auspicious Dreams,” which was based on a true story. And the four-in-one appearing under the title “A Geomancer Uses His Wife to Steal a Good Seed” made me rethink what it means to be the victim of a swindle.

BR: I am taken with the audacity of the monk in “A Buddhist Monk Identifies a Cow as His Mother,” in which the cleric uses simple, even childish, tricks to spin yarns about past lives and promises of a better rebirth.

September 28th, 2017

Thursday Fiction Corner: The Conflict between North and South Korea, on an Intimate Scale



Meeting with My Brother
Welcome to the Columbia University Press Thursday Fiction Corner! This week Ani Kodzhabasheva, a PhD candidate at Columbia University, reflects on Yi Mun-yol’s novel Meeting with My Brother and current events.

Are you confused by the barrage of threats launched daily from North Korea towards the United States, and vice versa? Following the news on the issue has shown me that I’m not the only one. Even policy analysts and military strategists can seem at a loss.

One of this week’s attempts to explain the situation in Northeast Asia is a New York Times piece that takes us to Yanji and Dandong, two cities on North Korea’s border with China. The reporter, Chris Buckley, talks to locals and tourists in an attempt to gauge their mood. What do they think of North Korea? Of the United States? His brief conversations reveal some of the anxieties that those in the region deal with on a daily basis.

But, as is often the case, there is more to the story than one can glean from the news. In fact, the people of Yanji have been affected by North and South Korea’s political fluctuations for decades, and the precariousness of international relations in the region has more or less persisted since the onset of the Korean War. Yi Mun-yol’s novel Meeting with My Brother, set in Yanji in the early 1990s, shows that the city has long been subject to secret police spying, as well as a base for legal or not-so-legal cross-border exchange. In Yi Mun-yol’s novella, the South Korean narrator encounters his half-brother from the North for the first time, and the traumas of Korea’s division play out on an intimate scale.

The plot of Meeting with My Brother unfolds over just a few days in Yanji—in a hotel, a couple of restaurants, and on the bank of the Tumen River, which separates North Korea and China. Within this tightly delineated setting, Yi weaves together multiple narratives that create a microcosm of whole societies torn apart by military and ideological conflict. In addition to the two long-lost brothers, Yi populates his novella with a Chinese Korean woman from Yanji who is bitter about the prejudice she experienced in the South; the overly zealous “Mr. Reunification,” who often bores his companions with his utopian pronouncements; and a cynical businessman engaged in mysterious trade with the North.

Struggling to make the best of their predicaments, Yi’s flawed characters can sometimes make you laugh, although the overwhelming mood is one of reflection and mourning. Yi shows to what extent our lives are shaped by historical events much larger than us and how, at the same time, these events demand of us that we take a moral stand. During his stay in Yanji, the narrator, who first approaches his long-lost brother with a sense of pity, is forced to reckon with his own life choices.

The little book is written in a dispassionate, reportage-like tone (the narrator is a professor of history in Seoul), yet it carries a surprising emotional heft. Several characters who boast a certain ideology—be it capitalism or communism, nationalism or pro-American beliefs—are brought by the events in Yanji to a new sense of humility. Nobody leaves without any scars, or a bit of redemption. Fiery rhetoric gives way to self-doubt, as the encounters in Yanji make clear that the Korean War has left no absolute winners and losers. Hyeok, the North Korean brother, struggles with jealousy; the narrator, Professor Yi, begins to confront his suppressed guilt about the way he achieved his success. The struggle to communicate leads to many dramatic reversals, as certain words or memories elicit pain or misunderstanding.

The book provides no clear answers about politics, diplomacy, or the future of the Korean Peninsula. It is these very conflicts, which are once again crowding the news today, that are being dramatized in Meeting with My Brother. Philip Gourevitch wrote in The New Yorker that “There is no moral to Yi’s story.” That is essentially true. Yet, in the end, the moral is that political divisions have a human dimension and that, in order to understand history and how it shapes current events, we need to look beyond the political agendas of the day.

At this historical moment, Meeting with My Brother’s finely crafted story gives us an occasion to ask ourselves, What would it be like to empathize with people in North Korea? Yi Mun-yol’s narrator, through his self-exploration, serves as an example of how that radical question might be answered.

September 27th, 2017

New Book Wednesday: The Philosophy of the Zhuangzi, Reassembling Motherhood, and More!



Genuine Pretending

Our weekly listing of new books now available:

Genuine Pretending: On the Philosophy of the Zhuangzi
Hans-Georg Moeller and Paul J. D’Ambrosio

Reassembling Motherhood: Procreation and Care in a Globalized World
Edited by Yasmine Ergas, Jane Jenson, and Sonya Michel

Now available in paperback:
Eqbal Ahmad: Critical Outsider in a Turbulent Age
Stuart Schaar

Reduced to a Symbolical Scale: The Evacuation of British Women and Children from Hong Kong to Australia in 1940
Tony Banham
(Hong Kong University Press)

Boys’ Love, Cosplay, and Androgynous Idols: Queer Fan Cultures in Mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan
Edited by Maud Lavin, Ling Yang, and Jing Jamie Zhao
(Hong Kong University Press)

Chinese-English Contrastive Grammar
An Introduction

David C. S. Li and Zoe Pei-sui Luk
(Hong Kong University Press)

Change in Use of Land: A Practical Guide to Development in Hong Kong, third edition
Lawrence Wai-chung Lai, Daniel Chi-wing Ho, and Hing-fung Leung
(Hong Kong University Press)

Construction Contract Essentials in Hong Kong
Edited by Gary Soo
(Hong Kong University Press)

Neurology in Practice, fifth edition
Y. L. Yu, J. K. Y. Fong, S. L. Ho, R. T. F. Cheung, and K. H. Chan
(Hong Kong University Press)

Problem-Based Medical Case Management, second edition
Edited by Kathryn Tan
(Hong Kong University Press)

September 27th, 2017

Read the Story “Pilfering Green Cloth by Pretending to Steal a Goose”



Book of Swindles
“‘I won’t lie to you,’ he said in a low voice. ‘I’m a petty thief… I’ve got a plan, and I just need your help to pull it off.’” — Zhang Yingyu

Today we are happy to present an excerpt from The Book of Swindles: one of the over forty stories of scams and deception in Ming China featured in the volume.

Stay tuned for an interview with the translators, Christopher Rea and Bruce Rusk, to be published on Friday. Rea and Rusk talk about changing social norms and other reasons why theft and scams were on the rise.

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.

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.

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)

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.

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.

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)

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.”

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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!

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.

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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) Read the rest of this entry »