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1. August excerpt: What Is a Dog?


“Why Do Village Dogs All Look Alike?”*

Of the billion dogs in the world, three-quarters of them look as much alike as do the individuals of any other species.

A few years ago we asked a Navajo shepherd what a Navajo sheepdog looked like. He said, “A Navajo sheepdog is not too big and not too small.” To us the Navajo sheepdogs were identical in size and shape and color variations with the sheepdogs of Sonora and the village dogs in the mountains of Venezuela or the ones we worked with in eastern and South Africa or saw in India and China.

That is true of the majority of dogs in the world—they are not too big and they are not too small. One of the most fascinating details about that 85 percent of the dogs in the world that control their own reproductive life is: they all look alike.

The similarity between the pigeon world and dog world continues. Pigeons, in some sense, all look alike. The pigeons in the Mexico City dump fly and look just like the pigeons in Trafalgar Square, like the pigeons in Istanbul, like the pigeons in Central Park, like the pigeons in Milan. Wherever you go, the pigeons in the park look like the pigeons in every other park.

No two pigeons are the same, of course. No two pigeons are exactly the same color or size or shape. At the same time, they all look pigeon-like. They have an essence that evokes pigeons. “I know one when I see one.”

It is true for every species. The chickadees at our feeders all look very much alike, and it takes practice to see the little differences that distinguish them. They all can get into the bottle feeder as far as we know. The same is true with blue jays and squirrels. The squirrels are intriguing because around here you sometimes see a black one or a brown one, but it still looks like a squirrel. At one time we lived on a small island of nesting seagulls. After a few years, we could distinguish the boys from the girls because of subtle differences in their head shapes.

All wolves look alike. But the wolves also show small variations of a neutral monotone. It could be that wolves vary more in coat color than squirrels do. Thus, a pack of grey wolves (Canis lupis) might have mostly gray animals except for an anomalous white one or black one. In some regions, the wolves are mostly white. Right now there seems to be an increase in frequency of black wolves in Yellowstone National Park. Color variations appear in certain subspecies of the gray wolf: the red wolf (Canis lupus rufus), the Arctic wolf (Canis lupus arctos), and the Mexican wolf (Canis lupus baileyi). Yet even with a color difference, they still look like wolves. (Taxonomists are confused about which scientific name to give to some of these wolves, but they recognize the essence of wolf in all the variations.)

In any given area, the wolves tend to be the same size. From the far north to the east of the Mediterranean, they will grade in size from larger to smaller. A biologist would say this gradation is a cline, that the species follows Bergmann’s rule: it grades from a large animal in the north to a smaller size on the equator. Ecologist Val Geist once pointed out that the cline isn’t always perfect. Wild sheep also exhibit these clines. For example, the bighorn sheep (140–300 pounds, 3–3.5 feet) of the northern Canadian Rocky Mountains grade down to the smaller mouflon of the Iranian desert (90–120 pounds, up to 2–4 feet at shoulder height) with smooth coats. What’s noteworthy is that all those different “species” of sheep along the cline are interfertile from north to south—including domestic sheep. As with the dogs, the spot on the cline from which the domestic sheep evolved is difficult to pinpoint. The big gray wolves in the north are interfertile with all the other members of the genus, all the way to little jackals in equatorial Africa. The genus Canis appears to us to be a single species cline.

Free-ranging street and village dogs, also, tend to be bigger regionally in the north and up into the mountains, and smaller in equatorial regions. In Greenland, on Baffin Island, and over in the Hudson Bay area, the village dogs we have observed can weigh as much as sixty pounds, whereas equatorial dogs are basenji-like and weigh less than twenty-five pounds. With increasing latitude and altitude, dogs tend toward being rough coated.

So, if the village dogs range from twenty to sixty pounds and from smooth coats to rough, how could we say they all look alike? It is a good question. For us, the population density of dogs weighs heavily on our thinking. The farther you get from the equator, or the higher in the mountains, the fewer the street or village dogs. In the warm climates, the density can be substantial. When we want to study village dogs, our preference is to go south (toward the equator) rather than north. Those regional warm-weather dogs, all about the thirty-pound, lion-colored variety, are usually prevalent. This strongly indicates that the overall size and color of the local dog is an adaptation to the local geography, the climate, and the prey base—in other words, the niche in which they make their living.

Every once in a while we will see a report that scientists have discovered a new species of mammal. That means they have discovered a new shape in a population of animals that are sexually isolated from all other species (well, maybe sexually isolated, but not always). They name it with a Latin binomial indicating the genus and species. It might not be a bad system if the biologists stuck to the rules. many people contend that dogs and wolves are in the same species (Canis lupus lupus). The classification of any species should be mostly about biology/evolution but it can also be about beliefs, culture, politics, and numerous other factors. When a wild canid was first discovered in New Hampshire in 1944, after a lot of talk and measurements it was a classified as a coyote (Canis latran). The animals were bigger than the well-known western coyote (also of course Canis latrans). Barbara Lawrence and William Bossert at Harvard measured skulls of wolves, coyotes, and the New England canid and concluded that the New England animal was, although not exactly the same as the coyotes, closer physically to them than to wolves. Well, those of us who had studied with Professor Wood did not believe skull measurements to be accurate indicators of species, and our research, done later with our student, Michael Sands, revealed histologically (shape) that the sweat glands in their feet resembled those of gray wolves in Alaska and not those of western coyotes, although few people seem ever to have read that paper, published in the Journal of Mammalogy in 1976.

It was always suspicious that had the New England canid been classified as a gray wolf it would have fallen under the Endangered Species Act. That would have led to any number of management restrictions about how fish and game scientists in New England states could manage this population. We now have lots of these wild canids in this region. The discussion is heating up as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decides whether it is time to take the gray wolf off the Endangered Species list because its population is increasing. If the eastern coyote really is a gray wolf, then it is not rare and not endangered. Again it looks like whatever species it is, the discussion is more political than scientific.

Interested people have debated the ancestry of the dog since the late 1800s. Not only have wolves, jackals, or dingoes been suggested as an ancestor of dogs, but several people argued that dogs were the result of hybridization between wolves and jackals. There were astonishing theories about big dogs (breeds) evolving from the Chinese wolves. The Nobel Prize–winner Konrad Lorenz at one point suggested that some “breeds” of dogs descended from wolves and others from golden jackals. When we met him in 1978, he started the conversation by saying, “Everything I have written about the dog is wrong—but it was better that I discovered it rather than someone else.”

*This excerpt has been adapted (without endnotes) from What Is a Dog? by Raymond Coppinger and Lorna Coppinger (2016).


To read more about What Is a Dog?, click here.

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2. August excerpt: Science, Conservation, and National Parks


“Parks, Biodiversity, and Education” by Edward O. Wilson*

This is a very important meeting and book, and I’m grateful to be part of it. First, I’ll summarize what scientists have learned about biodiversity and extinction, especially during the past 20 years. Then I’ll suggest what I believe is the only viable solution to stanch the continuing high and growing rate of species extinction. Then, finally, I’ll make the point already obvious to many of you, that our national parks are logical centers for both scientific research and education for many domains of science, but especially and critically biodiversity and conservation of the living part of the environment.

The world is turning green, albeit pastel green, but humanity’s focus remains on the physical environment—on pollution, the shortage of fresh water, the shrinkage of arable land, and on that great, wrathful demon, climate change. In contrast, Earth’s biodiversity, and the wildlands on which biodiversity is concentrated, have continued to receive relatively little attention. This is a huge strategic mistake. Consider the following rule of our environmental responsibility: If we save the living environment of Earth, we will also save the physical nonliving environment, because each depends intimately on the other. But if we save only the physical environment, as we seem bent on doing, we will lose them both.

So, what is the condition of the living environment, in particular its diversity and stability? How are we handling this critical element of Earth’s sustainability? Let me summarize the basic information that scientists have assembled up to the present time, most of it during the last decade.

First, what is biodiversity? It’s the collectivity of all inherited variation in any given place, whether a vacant lot in a city, an island in the Pacific, or the entire planet. Biodiversity consists of three levels: an ecosystem such as a pond, a forest patch, or coral reef; then the species composing the ecosystem; and finally at the base, the genes that prescribe the traits that distinguish the species that compose the living part of the ecosystem.

How many species are known in the whole world? At the present time, almost exactly two million. How many are there actually, both known and unknown? Excluding bacteria and the archaea, which I like to call the dark matter of biology because so little is known of their biodiversity, the best estimate of the diversity of the remainder (that is, the fungi, algae, plants, and animals) is nine million, give or take a million. Except for the big animals, the vertebrates, comprising 63,000 known species collectively of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fishes, and 270,000 species of flowering plants, very little to nothing is known of the remaining millions of kinds of fungi and invertebrates. These are the foundation of the biosphere, the mostly neglected little things that run the planet.

To put the whole matter in a nutshell, we live on a little-known planet. At the present rate of elementary exploration, in which about 18,000 additional new species are described and given a Latinized name each year, biologists will complete a census of Earth’s biodiversity only sometime in the 23rd century.

I’m aware of only three national parks in the world at the present time in which complete censuses have been undertaken: the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Boston Harbor National Park and Recreation Area, and the Gorongosa National Park of Mozambique. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most advanced, with 50,000 hours of fieldwork by experts and assistants completed, about 18,000 species recorded, and a rough estimate of 40,000 to 60,000 species considered likely when all transient, rare, or undescribed species have been registered. Fewer than 1%, let me repeat, 1%, of the species have been studied beyond this first roll call. (Incidentally, the largest biodiversity in a North American park would be the one under consideration for the Mobile Alabama Delta and Red Hills immediately to its north.)

Next, what is the extinction rate? With the data sets of the best-known vertebrate animal species, and additional information from paleontology and genetics, we can put the extinction rate, to the closest power of 10, at 1,000 times greater than the extinction rate that existed before the coming of humans. For example, from 1895 to 2006, 57 species and distinct geographic subspecies of freshwater fishes were driven to extinction in the United States by human activity. These losses have removed roughly 10% of the total previously alive. The extinction rate is estimated to be just under 900 times the level thought to have existed before the coming of humans.

This brings us to the effectiveness of the global conservation moment, a contribution to world culture pioneered by the United States. It has raised public awareness and stimulated a great deal of research. But what has it accomplished in saving species, hence biodiversity? The answer is that it has slowed the rate of species extinction but is still nowhere close to stopping it. A study made by experts on different groups of land vertebrates, species by species, found that the rate in these most favored groups has been cut by about 20% worldwide. Furthermore, the Endangered Species Act of 1973, by focusing on recognized endangered vertebrates in the United States, with legal process and processes designed for each species in turn, has brought 10 times more species back to health than have been lost to extinction.

Nevertheless, the species, and with them the whole of biodiversity, thus continue to hemorrhage. The prospects for the rest of the century are grim. All have heard of the 2C threshold, 2°C (or 3.6°F), the increase in the ground average temperature above which the planet will enter a regime of dangerous climate changes. A parallel circumstance exists in the living world.

Earth is at or approaching an extinction rate of 1,000 times above prehuman levels, and the rate is accelerating. Somewhere between a rate of 1,000 times and 10,000 times, Earth’s natural ecosystems will reach the equivalent of the 2C global warming threshold and begin to disintegrate as half or more of the species pass into extinction.

We’re in the situation of surgeons in an emergency room who’ve brilliantly slowed the bleeding of an accident patient to 50%. You can say, “Congratulations! The patient will be dead by morning.”

There is a momentous moral decision confronting us here today. It can be put in the form of a question: What kind of a species, what kind of an entity, are we to treat the rest of life so cheaply? What will future generations think of those now alive who are making an irreversible decision of this magnitude so carelessly? The five previous such mass extinctions, the last one 65 million years ago that ended the Age of Reptiles, required variously 5–40 million years to recover.

Does any serious person really believe that we can just let the other eight million species drain away, and our descendants will be smart enough to take over the planet and ride it like the crew of a real space ship? That they will find the way to equilibrate the land, sea, and air in the biosphere, on which we absolutely depend, in the absence of most of the biosphere?

Many of us, I believe, here present understand that only by taking global conservation to a new level can the hemorrhaging of species be brought down to near the original baseline rate, which in prehuman times was one species extinction per 1–10 million species per year. Loss of natural habitat is the primary cause of biodiversity extinction—ecosystem, species, and genes, all of it. Only by the preservation of much more natural habitat than hitherto envisioned can extinction be brought close to a sustainable level. The number of species sustainable in a habitat increases somewhere between the third and fifth root of the area of the habitat, in most cases close to the fourth root. At the fourth root, a 90% loss in area, which has frequently occurred in present-day practice, will be accompanied by an automatic loss of one-half of the number of species.

At the present time, about 15% of the global land surface and 3% of the global ocean surface are protected in nature reserves. Not only will most of them continue to suffer diminishment of their faunas and floras, but extinction will accelerate overall as the remaining wildlands and marine habitats shrink because of human activity.

The only way to save the rest of life is to increase the area of protected, inviolable habitat to a safe level. The safe level that can be managed with a stabilized global population of about 10 billion people is approximately half of Earth’s land surface plus half of the surface of the sea. Before you start making a list of why it can’t be done, that half can’t be set aside for the other 10 million or so species sharing the planet with us, let me explain why I believe it most certainly can be done—if enough people wish it to be so.

Think of humanity in this century, if you will, as passing through a bottleneck of overpopulation and environmental destruction. At the other end, if we pass through safely and take most of the rest of the life forms with us, human existence could be a paradise compared to today, and virtual immortality of our species could be ensured—again, if enough wish it to be.

The reason for using the metaphor of a bottleneck instead of a precipice is that four unintended consequences of human behavior provide an opening for the rest of the century. The first unintended consequence is the dramatic drop in fertility at or below zero population growth whenever women gain a modicum of social and economic independence. Population growth is slowing worldwide, and the world population has been predicted most recently by the United Nations to reach between 9.6 billion and 12.3 billion by the end of the century. This assumes that the peoples of sub-Saharan Africa will pass through the demographic transition and fertility rates there will drop to levels consistent with the rest of the world.

The second unintended consequence is from the ongoing abandonment of rural, primitive agricultural economies by the implosion of people into cities, freeing land for both better agriculture and the conservation of natural environments by restoration. It’s worth noting also that the present daily production of food globally is 2,800 calories per person. The problem is not food production but transportation and the poor quality of artisanal agriculture. We can fix that. Present-day agriculture is still primitive, with a lot of wriggle room.

The third unintended consequence is the reduction of the human ecological footprint by the evolution of the economy itself. The ecological footprint is the amount of space required for all the needs of each person on average. The idea that the planet can safely support only two to three billion people overlooks the circumstance that the global economy is evolving during the digital revolution, and at a fast rate. The trend is overwhelmingly toward manufacture of products that use less materials and energy, and require less to use and repair. Information technology is improving at almost warp speed. The result is a shrinkage of the ecological footprint. We need an analysis of the trend and its impact. If economists have thought of analyzing this effect and its meaning for the environment, instead of stumbling around in the fever-swamp parameters of the early 21st century, I haven’t seen it.

The fourth unintended consequence is the easing of demand on the natural environment inherent in the evolutionary shift now occurring from an extensive economy to an intensive economy, one that focuses—in the manner of Moore’s law—on improvements of existing classes of products instead of acquisition of new and bigger projects, expanding physical development, and promotion of capital growth based on land acquisition. Humanity may be shifting toward a nongrowth economy focused on quality of life instead of capital and economic power as the premier measure of success.

This brings me to the focal issue of the conference. Inevitably, biodiversity and ecosystem science will move toward parity with molecular, cell, and brain science among the biological disciplines. They have equal challenges. They have equal importance to our daily lives. As this expansion occurs, national parks and other reserves will be the logical centers for fundamental research. They are our ready-made laboratories, in which the experiments have been largely performed. They will also be among the best places to introduce students at all levels to science. We already know that is the case for geology, earth chemistry, and water systems studies. Soon it will be obviously true also for studies of the living environment. Students and teachers alike will have the advantage of hands-on science at all levels. Even at the most elementary level, they are soon caught up in original discoveries of citizen science. After 42 years of teaching experience at Harvard, I believe that natural ecosystems are by far the most open and effective door to science education.

*This excerpt has been adapted (without endnotes) from Science, Conservation, and National Parks (edited by Steven R. Beissinger, David D. Ackerly, Holly Doremus, and Gary E. Machlis; 2016).


To read more about Science, Conservation, and National Parks, click here.

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3. August excerpt: The Restless Clock


“William Harvey’s Restless Clock”*

Against this passivity, however, there were those who struggled to hold matter, feeling, and will together: to keep the machinery not just alive but active, life-like. These holdouts accordingly had something very different in mind when they talked about the “animal-machine.” William Harvey, whom we have already seen comparing the heart to a pump or other kind of hydraulic machinery, also invoked automata to describe the process of animal generation. Observing the development of a chick embryo, Harvey noted that a great many things happened in a certain order “in the same way as we see one wheel moving another in automata,and other pieces of mechanism.” But, Harvey wrote, adopting Aristotle’s view, the parts of the mechanism were not moving in the sense of “changing their places,” pushing on another like the gears of a clock set in motion by the clockmaker winding the spring. Rather, the parts were remaining in place, but transforming in qualities, “in hardness, softness, colour, &ce.” It was a mechanism made of changing parts.

This was an idea to which Harvey returned regularly. Animals, he surmised, were like automata whose parts were perpetually transforming: expanding and contracting in response to heat and cold, imagination and sensation and ideas. These changes took place as a succession of connected developments that were also, somehow, all occurring at once. Similarly, Harvey wrote with regard to the heart that its consecutive action of auricles and ventricles was like “in a piece of machinery, in which, though one wheel gives motion to another, yet all the wheels seem to move simultaneously.” Geared mechanisms represented constellations of motions that seemed at once sequential and simultaneous, a congress of mutual causes and effects.

The first appearance of life, as Harvey described it, seemed to happen both all at once and as a sequence of events. Harvey wrote of seeing the chick first as a “little cloud,” and then, “in the midst of the cloudlet in question,” the heart appeared as a tiny bloody point, like the point of a pin, so small that it disappeared altogether during contraction, then reappeared again “so that betwixt the visible and the invisible, betwixt being and not being, as it were, it gave by its pulses a kind of representation of the commencement of life.” A gathering cloud and, in the midst, a barely perceptible movement between being and not being: the origin of life. Harvey invoked clockwork and firearm mechanisms to model a defining feature of this cloudy pulse that was the beginning of life: causes and effects happening all at once, together.


In addition to geared mechanisms and firearms, Harvey invoked another analogy that would become commonplace by the end of the century—we have seen Descartes and his followers invoke it—the analogy between an animal body and a church organ. Muscles, Harvey suggested, worked like “play on the organ, virginals.” Under James I, English churches had resumed the use of organs in services, so they were once again a feature of the landscape and available as a source of models for living systems. The organ signified to Harvey something more like what it meant in the ancient and medieval tradition of animal machinery, rather than the intricate sequence of contrived movements of parts that it later came to signify. Harvey wrote that the muscles performed their actions by “harmony and rhythm,” a kind of “silent music.” Mind, he said, was the “master of the choir”: “mind sets the mass in motion.”

The particular ways in which Harvey invoked artificial mechanisms make it difficult to classify him, as historians have been inclined to do, either as a “mechanist” or otherwise, the problem being that the meaning of “mechanism” and related terms was very much in flux. Lecturing at the College of Physicians in London in April 1616, Harvey told his anatomy and surgery students that anatomy was “philosophical, medical and mechanical.”But what did he mean, and what did his students understand, by “mechanical”?

In part, he likely meant that there was no need to invoke ethereal or celestial substances in explaining physiological phenomena, because the mundane elements seemed to transcend their own limits when they acted. The “air and water, the winds and the ocean” could “waft navies to either India and round this globe.” The terrestrial elements could also “grind, bake, dig, pump, saw timber, sustain fire, support some things, overwhelm others.” Fire could cook, heat, soften, harden, melt, sublime, transform, set in motion, and produce iron itself. The compass pointing north, the clock indicating the hours, all were accomplished simply by means of the ordinary elements, each of which “exceeded its own proper powers in action.” This was a form of mechanism that was not reductive, but really the reverse: a rising of mechanical parts to new powers, which could conceivably include the power to produce life.

Similarly, Harvey elsewhere defined “mechanics” as “that which overcame things by which Nature is overcome.” His examples were things having “little power of movement” in themselves that were nonetheless able to move great weights, such as a pulley. Mechanics, understood in this way, could include natural phenomena that overcame the usual course of nature, not just artificial ones. Harvey again mentioned the muscles. When he said that the muscles worked mechanically in this instance he meant that the muscles, like artificial devices such as a pulley, overcame the usual course of nature and moved great weights without themselves being weighty.

Motion, relatedly, was a term with various meanings, as Harvey himself emphasized. He noted many different kinds of local movement: the movement of a nigh-blooming tree and that of a heliotrope; the movements caused by a magnet and those caused by a rubbed piece of jet. In what were likely some notes for a treatise on the physiology of movement, he jotted down any form of local movement that came to mind, such as the presumably peristaltic and undeniably graphic “shit by degrees not by squirts.” He identified too, as a distinct form of movement, a kind of controlled escalation, as “in going forward, mounting up, with the consent of the intellect in a state of emotion.”

Harvey drew upon another form of casual motion to resolve another critical mystery in the generation of life: how did the sperm act upon the egg once it was no longer in contact with the egg? Like the apparently simultaneous occurrence of causally connected events, this quandary seemed to pose a problem for a properly “mechanical”anatomy. Invoking Aristotle, Harvey proposed that embryos arose form a kind of contagion, “a vital virus,” with which the sperm infected the egg. But after the initial moment of contact, once the contaminating element had disappeared and become “a nonentity,” Harvey wondered, how did the process continue? “How, I ask, does a nonentity act?” How could something no longer extant continue to act on a material entity? The process seemed to involve too a kind of action at a distance: “How does a thing which is not in contact fashion another thing like itself?”

Aristotle had invoked “automatic puppets” to explain precisely this seeming mystery. He had surmised that the initial contact at conception set off a succession of linked motions that constituted the development of the embryo. According to this model, as Harvey explained, the seed formed the fetus “by motion” transmitted through a kind of automatic mechanism. Harvey rejected this explanation along with a whole host of other traditional explanations by analogy: to clocks, to kingdoms governed by the mandates of their sovereigns, and to instruments used to produce works of art. All, he thought, were insufficient.

In their place, Harvey proposed a different analogy: one between the uterus and the brain. The two, he observed, were strikingly similar in structure and a mechanical anatomy should correlate structures with physiological functions: “Where the same structure exists,” Harvey reasoned,there must be “the same function implanted.” The uterus, when ready to conceive, strongly resembled the “ventricles” of the brain and the functions of each were called “conceptions.” Perhaps, then, these were essentially the same sort of process.

Harvey taught his anatomy and surgery students that the brain was a kind of workshop, a “manufactory.” Brains produced works of art by bringing an immaterial idea or form to matter. Perhaps a uterus produced an embryo in the same way, by means of a “plastic art” capable of bringing an idea or form to flesh. The form of an embryo existed in the uterus of the mother just as the form of a house existed in the brain of the builder. This would solve the apparent problems of action at a distance and nonentities acting upon material entities. The moment of insemination endowed the uterus with an ability to conceive embryos in the same way that education endowed the brain with the ability to conceive ideas. Once the seed disappeared, it no longer needed to act: the uterus itself took over the task of fashioning the embryo.

The idea that the uterus functioned like a brain, actively fashioning an embryo the way a brain fleshes out an idea, was for Harvey not only within the bounds of the “mechanical,” but a model that could actually rescue mechanism by eliminating the need for action at a distance.

*This excerpt has been adapted (without endnotes) from The Restless Clock: A History of the Centuries-Long Argument over What Makes Living Things Tick        by Jessica Riskin (2016).


To read more about The Restless Clock, click here.

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4. August excerpt: Looking for “The Stranger”


“Existentialist Twins”*

Although few Americans had read The Stranger in French—it had been hard enough to find a copy in wartime France—word of the novel had crossed the ocean. Blanche Knopf had founded the US publishing  house Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., with her husband Alfred in 1945, and she had a special interest in publishing English translations of contemporary European literature. She had been cut off from France for the duration of the war, but by February 1945 she was back in touch with Jenny Bradley, Knopf’s agent in Paris. Sartre had lauded a new Camus novel, still in manuscript, called The Plague, in a lecture he gave at Harvard, and Blanche Knopf cabled Bradley, asking to see the proofs. The Plague, with its link to the suffering and heroism of France during the German occupation, was bound to make a splash, and she understood that Knopf might also have to buy The Stranger in order to get it. Alfred Knopf cabled Bradley in February, eager to acquire The Plague, although Camus hadn’t yet finished it, but he was still hesitating about The Stranger. In March 1945, he made up his mind and offered $350 for it.


Not an ideological or interpretive divide, not even an aesthetic quarrel, but rather a question of timing and marketing explains why L’Étranger and The Outsider were born into the English language as fraternal twins—same text, different typography, covers, and titles. The doubling has continued to this day, even as new translations have replaced Gilbert’s: no matter who is translating, the British edition is called The Outsider, the American edition The Stranger. Books about The Stranger/The Outsider, when they’re published in both the United States and England, have to keep the titles straight for each country or risk disorienting readers. If you ask someone, English or American, which title they prefer, chances are they will answer: “the one I’m used to.”

In England, Jamie Hamilton was certain he had a bestseller on his hands, and he planned a first print run of 10,000 copies—over twice Gallimard’s wartime print run on 4,400. At Knopf, there was much more hesitation. In-house readers’ reports were less than stellar.

Herbert Weinstock, a specialist in nineteenth-century opera and a Knopf advisor, had this to say about the novel: “This extended short story (the translation does not exceed 30,000 words) is a pleasant, unexciting reading. It seems to me neither very important nor very memorable—and it also seems to me to be padded with extraneous detail.” He attributed the piling up of details, the flat tone, and what he called “deliberate artlessness” to a “philosophic theory called existentialism,” of which The Stranger could be considered a demonstration: “My best guess is that it will appeal to very few readers and produce something less than a sensation”

Knopf’s publicists had a formidable task. As The Stranger was about to go on sale in American bookstores, the publisher placed a full-page advertisement in Publishers Weekly (an American trade magazine for publishers, librarians, booksellers, and literary agents). It was signed by Blanche Knopf and entitled “On the New Literature of France.” Jamie Hamilton referred to it as “Blanche’s existentialist ad.” She was going to do everything possible to make The Stranger accessible and exciting.

The advertisement began by sympathizing with the average reader’s dilemma: “There is no use trying to talk about new French literature unless you are willing to tackle ‘existentialism.’ Now this is a frightening word. . . . Everyone likes to show that he can pronounce it, but no one enjoys undertaking to define it. Well, here goes.”

Existentialism, the ad continued, is the notion that a consciousness of the universe’s meaninglessness can make us free. Passing mention was then made of the fact that Camus, whose somber countenance gazed out from the upper right of the page, refused to be classified with the existentialists, because their emphasis on meaninglessness was at odds with his belief in political justice. The author of The Stranger was introduced as a man who had lived a double life during the Occupation—publishing with the approval of the Nazi censor while editing a Resistance newspaper underground. The Stranger was then presented in a few words—a novel as simple and straightforward as John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.

Pitching The Stranger as both a lofty existentialist work and a straightforward populist novel was clever, since reviewers could take up either strand, high or low. Pitching Camus as an existentialist and a champion for social justice was also a good idea—here was an author both intelligent and heroic. After a month of what Blanche Knopf considered “fantastic” press, 2,500 copies of the novel had sold. In 1946, The Stranger was not yet a bestseller. In the long run, the ad accomplished something more important than immediate sales: it introduced Camus to American magazine and newspaper publishers as a leading figure of a school of French literature called “existentialist,” and it established that school as the most important new intellectual current coming out of France.

You would have to read the advertisement in Publishers Weekly more than once to glean that Camus disavowed the existentialist label, and that in fact he detested it. He joked in an interview with a French magazine that he and Sartre decided they ought to put out their own ad “stating that the undersigned have nothing in common and refuse to respond to any debts they might have incurred mutually.” Yet it was Sartre who prepared the way for Camus’s New York welcome.

New York had been a privileged refuge for exiled intellectuals during the Occupation years, and as of 1945, when travel became possible once again on the big liberty and cargo ships, Sartre, Camus, and Beauvoir all made the trip. Sartre was first. In spring 1945, he filed stories from New York for both Combat and Le Figaro, and he returned in 1946 to speak to American universities about the literary scene in Paris.

In Vogue magazine, in 1945, Sartre described Camus as the emblematic writer to emerge from the Resistance—the only writer who corresponded to his theory of a “committed literature” essential to France’s renewal. Sartre had read an early version of Camus’s forthcoming novel, The Plague, in manuscript, and he was ready to vouch that the world was about to see a new Camus: the absurdity of the world in The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus gave way in this new work to positive revolt and struggle. The Plague, based on Camus’s own commitment to the Resistance, demonstrated that the human spirit could come to rule over “the absurd world.” Sartre described, as he had done in the Cahiers du Sud essay in 1943, Camus’s somberness and his debt to the classical moralists, though now he underlined the potential of those qualities for a literature to come: “It is likely that in the somber, pure work of Camus are discernible the principal traits of the French letters of the future.”

For Sartre, Camus represented most vividly the aspirations of postwar literature at a shining moment when writers and intellectuals felt the world was theirs to remake. No other writer could have fit the bill for Sartre: Malraux was too much of an individualist; Guéhenno and Mauriac, much older men, had refused to publish above ground, and the Communists were indebted to their own masters. Camus had done exactly what needed to be done during the Occupation: he had marked time but he hadn’t accepted the oppression; he had chosen struggle rather than silence. At thirty-two years old in 1945, he had reached the perfect age when youth meets maturity.

In January 1946, speaking to students at Yale about the French view of the American novel, Sartre singled out The Stranger as “the French novel which caused the greatest furor between 1940 and 1945.” He placed his emphasis differently in this American context than he had in his Cahiers du Sud essay of 1943. Gone in his American lecture are references to Voltaire and the eighteenth-century morality tale. His focus now was on Camus’s debt to Hemingway, the short disruptive sentences that in Hemingway were a feature of the writer’s temperament but in Camus were rather a deliberate technique for expressing a philosophy of the absurd. Sartre entertained his audience with stories of the symbolic value of American literature when France was under German Occupation. He described the Café de Flore as the headquarters for a black market in American books. Not only did reading Faulkner and Hemingway novels become a symbol of resistance, he claimed, it was even the case—he couldn’t resist a joke—that secretaries “believed they could demonstrate against the Germans by reading Gone with the Wind in the Metro.” Sartre promised his audience, three months before the English-language publication of The Stranger, that French novels written during the Occupation would start to appear in translation. He was rolling out a thick red carpet for his friend.

*This excerpt has been adapted from Looking for “The Stranger”: Albert Camus and the Life of a Literary Classic by Alice Kaplan (2016).


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5. August excerpt: Artificial Darkness


“Artificial Darkness Was Not a Medium”*

Artificial Darkness does not advance the medium of darkness in place of the medium of painting or the medium of film. The histories of art and film presented here demonstrate not only that artificial darkness could operate between media but, more so, that it could only operate between media. Implicit in these histories, therefore, is a more radical proposition—asserted expansively by media theorists like Eva Horn—that there are no media. That is, there are no media “in a substantial and historically stable sense.” Joseph Vogl elaborates:

“Media are not reducible to representations such as theater or film or to techniques such as printing or telegraphy. Nor are they reducible to symbols such as letters or numbers. Nevertheless, media are present in all of these things. They cannot be comprehended simply as a method for the processing, storing, or transmission of data. One can, however, reach their historical mode of existence through a special form of questioning: by asking how media determine the conditions they themselves created for what they store, process, and transmit.”

Artificial darkness was not a medium. Instead, it was a “thoroughly heterogeneous ensemble consisting of discourses, institutions, architectural forms, regulatory decisions, laws, administrative measures, scientific statements, philosophical, moral and philanthropic propositions—in short, the said as much as the unsaid. Such are the elements of the apparatus [dispositif]. The dispositif itself is the system of relations that can be established between these elements.” Michel Foucault’s conceptualization of the dispositif—the French, as addressed below, is decisively more accurate than “apparatus” or “mechanism”—encapsulates the workings of artificial darkness in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But in order to transpose Foucault’s verbal genealogy to our visual one, his definition must be extended from the said and the unsaid to the seen and the unseen. For artificial darkness was, above all, a technology of visibility and invisibility. At Bayreuth and in the spaceless darkness of the cinema, spectators “disappeared from the auditorium.” Black-clad subjects similarly vanished before Marey’s black screen. Pepper, Méliès, Schlemmer, Man Ray, and countless others mobilized artificial darkness to render bodies invisible, in whole or in parts. The invisibility engendered by artificial darkness required specific architectures, insensitivities to specific light spectra, specific physiological thresholds, or the reflectivity of specific paints. But it was not medium specific. A matter of ontics rather than ontology, invisibility was among several qualities and subject effects endemic to artificial darkness that were not only the product of any one medium but rather the product of heterogeneous elements assembled in a certain order—in short, the product of a dispositif.

The term dispositif can be traced back millennia. I will limit this inquiry to two centuries. In its modern technological usage, a dispositif is an arrangement of devices or apparatuses (appareil). In nineteenth-century manuals of photography, science, or magic, for example, a camera might be called an appareil, whereas a black screen, photographic darkroom, or theatrical attraction was more likely to be described as a disposition or dispositif. Controlled darkness was almost always an arrangement, a dispositif, rather than a self-contained device. At its most modest, a dispositif is neither more nor less than a proper arrangement. The term’s two other modern meanings, however, point toward the broader network of relations central to this study. In military use, the dispositif is the proper arrangement of equipment and troops. In a juridical context, it is the legal decision, independent of the opinion. At its most forceful, a dispositif disciplines bodies and shapes discourses.But just as there are no media  in a substantial and historically stable sense, a dispositif is always provisional, strategic, and historically specific.There was no dispositif of artificial darkness independent of the architectural and artistic forms, regulatory and administrative decisions, scientific and philosophical statements, discourses, institutions, and subjects that produced it and that were produced by it. The recursion inherent in this definition serves as a firewall against axiomatic first causes,such as the autonomy, specificity, and ontology tirelessly—and tiresomely—claimed for modernist arts. Artificial darkness was exploited by modern artists and filmmakers but it was not a modernist medium. In other words, this study of artificial darkness is anchored not in the false bedrock of ontology but in an ocean of discourse and praxis, tethered to a historically contingent dispositif.


Throughout Artificial Darkness we will encounter individuals, techniques, and sites that advanced the positive value of modern darkness. At this introductory stage, however, artificial darkness may be most legible as a negative image of its ancient counterpart. These negations are nuanced throughout the book but warrant brief and schematic summary here. Not total darkness. Not night. Not shadows. Not black. Not race. Not artificial light.

Not total darkness. As a technology of controlled darkness, artificial darkness was incompatible with total darkness. When black screen techniques were exploited for magic performances, for instance, the stage was ringed with dazzlers—gas or electric lights with reflectors directed at the audience—to intensify the contrast and enhance the illusion. Audiences recalled bright lights rather than darkness.

Not night. Artificial darkness was divorced from its natural counterpart, night, and representations thereof in nocturnes or nightscapes—subjects with extensive historiographies of their own. Early seminal manifestations of artificial darkness—such as the Diorama or Marey’s black screen—functioned exclusively by daylight. Others, like cinemas,were essentially blind to nocturnal and diurnal cycles.

Not shadows. Artificial darkness demanded the concentrated presence and strict separation of light and darkness and so suffered few shadows—a penumbral phenomenon with a massive historiography that rarely overlaps with the phenomena in question here.

Not black. Artificial darkness was distinct from the color black and its abundant symbolism. Black monochromes were irreverent jokes or aesthetic provocations that marked the limits of established art, but they rarely channeled the operations of artificial darkness. What is more, the products of artificial darkness were often iridescent. Méliès regularly shot trick films before the black screen only to have them hand colored for distribution. And while most of Schlemmer’s costumes were sewn from light-absorbent black fabrics, they invariably included glistening blue-green-silver overlay, cardinal red tucking, or dazzling yellow spheres. Techniques of artificial darkness often produced variegated, even gaudy color images.

Not race. The history of artificial darkness unfolded by and large independently from discourses on race. Nevertheless, a promising avenue for further critical scholarship is the uncomfortable union of artificial darkness and race instantiated only sporadically in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries but explored potently by a number of contemporary artists. Darby English establishes the terms through which any such discussion would have to unfold in his analysis of David Hammons’s Concerto in Black and Blue (2002): “How to see a work of art in total darkness? One cannot, of course, except in the most extraordinary of circumstances, such as when darkness itself forms the condition of the work’s visibility.”

Not artificial light.In name and in practice, artificial darkness was much more proximate to artificial light than to other forms of darkness. Substantial scholarship has chronicled the industrialization of light in the nineteenth century and the use of artificial lighting in art, architecture, and theater. But these histories, too, must be disentangled from that of artificial darkness. At a technical level, artificial darkness could and did function independently of artificial light; as already mentioned, sunlight powered many of the early dispositifs of artificial darkness, not least Marey’s Physiological Station. More interestingly, photographic and cinematic studios erected in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were consistent in their deployment of artificial darkness, even as they amalgamated or alternated between natural and artificial light. The histories of artificial light and artificial darkness overlap at important junctures; but ultimately they are distinct.

Nevertheless, the history of artificial darkness cannot be hermetically sealed off from total darkness, night, shadows, black, race, or artificial light. Commonalities could certainly be found in baroque tenebrism; Étienne-Louis Boullée’s Temple of Death; the Claude glass or “black mirror”; the mutual imbrication of gothic tropes and modern media; James Whistler’s nocturnes and “black portraits”; blue tinting or day-f0r-night shooting (nuit américaine); and hosts of recent projects in and around the ascendent black box gallery. (This book’s coda makes a few preliminary gestures in this direction.) Artificial Darkness focuses on the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century rise and consolidation of artificial darkness around a specific circuit—black screens and dark theaters—and certain of the art, media, and subjects formed therein. Artificial Darkness does not endeavor, however, to be the last word on artificial darkness.

*This excerpt was adapted (without endnotes) from Artificial Darkness: An Obscure History of Modern Art and Media by Noam M. Elcott (2016).


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6. August excerpt: Live Form


“Craft as Collective Practice”*

One way of characterizing the social turn in contemporary artistic practice is to foreground its history in the pedagogical practices of previous generations, in this case, women ceramists whose careers throughout the mid-twentieth century expand and enrich our current understanding of what socially engaged artistic practice is today. This book argues that is was modern craft and not modern art that spearheaded nonhierarchical and participatory experiences, through the experiential properties endemic to craft practices and, in particular, ceramics. This runs counter to the existing genealogies of participatory art charted by Claire Bishop and Boris Groys, which are wholly tied to a European model of performance and non-object avant-garde practice. Today, many artistic practices focus heavily on “socially engaged art,” “institutional transformations,” and “knowledge-exchange” between artist and audience. Mid-century craft is an important but unacknowledged antecedent to the activist principles that service such contemporary ideologies. Moreover, it was women artists, many of whom were affiliated with social reform movements and spearheaded radical educational initiatives, who performed the teaching and transmission of craft skills and ideologies at midcentury.

This study is a thematic and gendered history of postwar American ceramics, which resituates a presently isolated and self-contained field as a malleable medium that could be manipulated to suit simultaneously avant-garde, nationalist, and regionalist constituencies. The tensions between these competing interests are compelling not just for their historical significance but for the prominent role craft has played in the political economy throughout the twentieth century.

Accordingly, the perpetuity of the art/craft divide is better understood politically, rather than aesthetically: craft is most often linked to fiscal policy, a redistribution of labor, production, and skill resulting in improved economic conditions, while avant-garde art is linked to social policy and its ensuing debates of morality.The circulation of handmade goods, no matter how expensive or inefficient their production, have markedly more potential for bestowing pride upon a nation through mass ownership and collection. In both formats of production, it is public efficacy that is a t stake, turning on questions not of usefulness but of use, as political propaganda, the inherent attributes of craft’s materialism, its sustainability and durability, is potent as a metaphor for community and nation-building. In this way, craft becomes the ultimate service discipline, its utopian and communal values both politically alluring and easily appropriated by ethnic, religious, diasporic, or cultural nationalisms.

In the book, I focus on three American women ceramicists: Marguerite Wildenhain (1898–1985), a Bauhaus-trained potter who taught form as process without product at her summer craft school Pond Form; Mary Caroline (M. C.) Richards (1916–1999), who renounced formalism at Black Mountain College in favor of a therapeutic model she pursued outside academia; and Susan Peterson (1925–2009), who popularized ceramics through live throwing demonstrations on public television in 1964. These three artists were chosen in part for their direct relationship to teaching and writing—all left behind written legacies—and for their heavy involvement in the creation of alternative circuits and new forms of pedagogy.

At a time when women were virtually excluded from both the teaching and making of painting and sculpture, craft provided a vital arena as teachers, thinkers, and makers. It became a viable alternative to the mainstream, urban art worlds of New York City and Los Angeles, a space in which women could innovate, teach, and create lasting pedagogical structures. Ceramics in particular, with its emphasis on self-sufficient rural living, offered women unprecedented social freedoms, with the opportunity to live and teach in nontraditional settings, such as cooperative, experimental, or self-initiated communities. This unorthodox, largely rural livelihood was beholden to the formal requirements of their craft: the making, storage, and most importantly, firing of ceramics. Due to the strict fire codes and zoning laws that made kilns illegal in most cities, the medium itself was ill-suited to an urban setting. Infinitely more private, these off-the-grid situations were more conducive to alternative lifestyles and sexualities, minimizing the social pressure, judgment, and community policing endemic to the sexist and repressive 1950s. Able to barter their unique wares and skills sets, women, too, found varying degrees of financial autonomy in the informal economies of exchange that existed through pottery’s social and pedagogical networks.

But to have chosen craft at that moment required a heightened awareness and rejection of conventional artistic structures, institutions, and hierarchies. As women foregrounded in both pedagogical and theoretical constructions of their shared discipline, Richards, Wildenhain, and Peterson were craftswomen engaged not just in highly skilled labor but, moreover, in the language of that labor. Their stories prefigure, or parallel, the masterful male pedagogical narratives now so well known—the ABCs, in effect—to scholars and students of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries: Josef Albers, Joseph Beuys, John Cage. In studio ceramics, as well, a version of this narrative has also been propagated, centered firmly on Peter Voulkos and his cadre of all-male students in the mid-1950s. As a parallel medium, ceramics offered a tantalizing proximity to the avant-garde movements of the era, including, but not limited to, abstract expressionism, Happenings, experimental music, minimalism, and, as I will argue, even early video art.

Indeed, its artists engaged in similar midcentury tactics: the expression of form through a suppression of narrative content, the embattled and sometimes exalted status of the artist as a maverick, the ambivalent relationship between artist and industry, and the increasing disregard for traditional artistic skills such as draftsmanship. In my project, the ceramic vessel becomes, in one sense, a foil, the shell object loaded with metaphorical and symbolic values of female labor, and, on the other hand, dematerialized, in tandem with the larger conceptual practices of the 1960s and 1970s, in which artists saw fit to engage with different forms of aesthetic experiences not limited to traditional object making.

The similarities between the formation of craft and media discourses during the postwar era are striking. As a hand-based, ancient technology, ceramic became a powerful metaphor for encouraging critical awareness and adaptation in the face of new technologies such as radio and television,and its performativity developed alongside, not in spite of, this sensoria. If one of the criteria for newer media is remediation, that is, the ability to generate an adaptation, translating from one format to another, ceramics itself is marked by variability and transformation, no more consigned to its basic materiality than is a computer chip, originally derived from metals and sand (silica). Beyond art and aesthetics, clay consistently transforms into media formats that seem unimaginable, at the forefront of advanced technological innovation in fields such as dentistry, automotive, oil and gas, solar, industrial, electronics, and defense industries.

*This excerpt has been adapted (without endnotes) from Live Form: Women, Ceramics, and Community by Jenni Sorkin (2016).


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7. August excerpt: Confident Pluralism


“Doctrinal Problems”*

It may seem odd that we see so many constraints on expression in traditional public forums in light of today’s generally permissive First Amendment landscape. In recent years, the Supreme Court has upheld the First Amendment rights of video gamers, liars, and people with weird animal fetishes. But in most cases involving the public forum—cases where speech and assembly might actually matter to public discourse and social change—courts have been far less protective of civil liberties.

Part of the reason for this more tepid judicial treatment of the public forum is a formalistic doctrinal analysis that has emerged over the past half-century. Courts allow governmental actors to impose time, place, and manner restrictions in public forums. These restrictions must be “reasonable” and “neutral,” and they must “leave open ample alternative channels for communication of the information.”

The reasonableness requirement is an inherently squishy standard that can almost always be met. The neutrality requirement means that restrictions on a public forum must avoid singling out a particular topic or viewpoint. For example, they cannot limit only political speech or only religious speech (content-based restrictions0. And they cannot limit only political speech expressing Republican values or only religious speech expressing Jewish beliefs (viewpoint-based restrictions). It turns out to be pretty easy for government officials to satisfy the neutrality requirement.

The requirement of “ample alternative channels” introduces another highly subjective standard. Lower courts have found that an alternative is not sufficiently ample “if the speaker is not permitted to reach the intended audience” or if the distance between speaker and audience is so great that only those “with the sharpest eyesight and most acute hearing have any chance of getting the message.” But the ampleness standard is otherwise underspecified. At least one federal appellate court has concluded that an alternative venue need not be within “sight and sound” of the intended audience.

The Supreme Court’s only recent consideration of the ampleness standard came in its deeply divided opinion in Hill v. Colorado, which upheld a public forum restriction that had been challenged by anti-abortion protestors. The majority opinion concluded that the restriction left open “ample alternative channels for communication” and did “not entirely foreclose any means of communication.” Justice Anthony Kennedy warned in dissent that “our foundational First Amendment cases are based on the recognition that citizens, subject to rare exceptions, must be able to discuss issues, great or small, through the means of expression they deem best suited to their purpose.” Kennedy insisted “it is for the speaker, not the government, to choose the best means of expressing a message.” That sentiment echoes Justice William Brennan’s assertion in an earlier case: “The government, even with the purest of motives, may not substitute its judgment as to how best to speak for that of speakers and listeners; free and robust debate cannot thrive if directed by the government.” The underspecified ampleness standard can substantially hinder these goals.

As long as the requirements of reasonableness, neutrality, and ample alternative channels are met, officials can limit the duration and time of day when public forums can be used, the location of an expressive event, and the way in which ideas are conveyed. In principle, these restrictions make sense. In practice, they have been used to control and mute expression and voice.

Consider, for example, how restrictions on time can sever the link between message and moment. Closing a public forum for periods of time that encompassed symbolic days of the year like September 11, August 6 (the day the United States detonated an atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima), or June 28 (the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots) could stifle political dissent. Time restrictions that closed the public sidewalks outside of prisons on days of executions, outside of legislative buildings on days of votes, or outside of courthouses on days that decisions are announced, would raise similar concerns. Yet all of these restrictions are arguably permissible under current doctrine.

Restrictions on place that preclude access to symbolic settings can be similarly distorting. As law professor Timothy Zick has noted, “Speakers like abortion clinic sidewalk counselors, petition gatherers, solicitors, and beggars seek the critical expressive benefits of proximity and immediacy.” Zick observes that current doctrine means “individuals who wish to engage in speech, assembly, and petition activities are too often displaced by a variety of regulatory mechanisms, including the construction of ‘speech zones.'” Take, for example, a labor protest. A strike that occurs in front of an employer’s business rather than blocks or miles away not only communicates to a different audience but also conveys different meanings.

Restrictions on manner can drain an expressive message of its emotive content. A ban on singing could weaken the significance of a civil rights march, a funeral procession, or a memorial celebration. Manner restrictions can also eliminate certain classes of people from the forum altogether. That might be true of a requirement that all expression be conveyed by handbills or leaflets rather than by posters. As Supreme Court Justice William Brennan once observed, “The average cost of communicating by handbill is . . . likely to be far higher than the average cost of communication by poster. For that reason, signs posted on public property are doubtless ‘essential to the poorly financed causes of little people.'”

Under current doctrine, the state’s regulation of public spaces through time, place, and manner restrictions is too easily justified apart from serious inquiry into the implications of those restrictions. A government official can usually come up with some reason to regulate expressive activity, some explanation of neutrality, and some argument that an ample alternative for communication exists. But the First Amendment should require more than just any justification to overcome its presumptive constraint against government action.

Sometimes the government can go to even greater extremes than the latitude afforded under time, place, and manner restrictions. Under an evolving doctrine known as government speech, the government can characterize some expression as distinctively its own and not subject to any First Amendment review.

Not all applications of the government speech doctrine are problematic; some cases are easy to understand. When the City of Pawnee hosts a tribute to black history on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, it is “speaking” a message consistent with Dr. King’s values. To that end, it need not ensure that members of the Ku Klux Klan have an opportunity to present their perspective. The event is premised on government speech rather than on facilitating a diversity of viewpoints and ideas.

Even though we can readily grasp the easy cases, the government speech doctrine is fiercely contested by courts and legal scholars because the line drawing it requires beyond those easy cases is impossible to configure. And without any lines—if the government could claim its own speech in any possible forum—the doctrine would swallow the First Amendment.

The Supreme Court unwisely gestured toward the possibility of the unrestricted government speech doctrine in its 2009 decision Pleasant Grove v. Summum. In that case, an obscure religious group called Summum wanted to erect a stone monument in a city park in Pleasant Grove City, Utah. Summum argued that because Pleasant Grove’s park was a traditional public forum, the city could not limit the privately donated monuments in the park to those representing certain mainstream groups, like a statue of the Ten Commandments. The city responded that the park space was a limited resource that could only accommodate a limited number of monuments, and insisted that it could choose which ones to include. In some ways the city’s argument makes sense—public parks are finite resources and cannot possibly accommodate every monument that every person wanted to contribute. But rather than addressing that issue within a public forum analysis, the Supreme Court ducked the issue by designating the monuments in the city par as government speech. That meant Pleasant Grove could decide which monuments to allow and which ones to prohibit. Sidestepping the public forum analysis avoided the hard work that courts and officials should be required to undertake in these settings.

*This excerpt has been adapted (without endnotes) from Confident Pluralism: Surviving and Thriving through Deep Difference by John D. Inazu (2016).


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8. August excerpt: Beethoven for a Later Age


“Opus 18, no. 1: Beethoven’s Painful Secret”*

From his earliest days in Vienna Beethoven associated some of his compositions with friendship—a means by which to repair a disagreement or cement a relationship threatened by separation. One year after his arrival in Vienna, the twenty-three-year-old composer wrote to Eleonore von Breuning, his piano student and close childhood friend in Bonn. Beethoven blamed himself for a quarrel between them and hoped he could make amends by dedicating a short piano piece to her. In a lighter vein Beethoven composed his duet for viola and cello, ‘With Two Eyeglasses Obbligato,’ to play with his friend, the amateur Viennese cellist Nikolaus Zsemskall—both men were short-sighted.

In the second half of 1798, the Bohemian Prince Franz Joseph Maximilian von Lobkowitz—himself a competent singer, violinist and cellist—commissioned both the aging Haydn and his talented student to write six string quartets. Haydn would compose only the two Opus 77s and the unfinished Opus 103, hindered by other obligations and failing health. Towards the end of 1798 Beethoven began work on what would become his six Opus 18 quartets, and had probably finished them by 18 October 1800, when he received the second installment of a fee totaling four hundred florins from Prince Lobkowitz. This was a significant sum,more than half the amount it is estimated that someone in Beethoven’s situation would have needed to support himself for a year.

Beethoven’s work on his new quartets became intertwined with old and new relationships. By 25 June 1799, he had finished the first version of Opus 18, no. 1 and gave it as ‘a small token’ of friendship to Karl Amenda, a violinist with whom he had become friends following Amenda’s arrival in Vienna in spring 1798. Amenda was a year older than Beethoven and had trained in Lutheran theology at the University of Jena. After he moved to Vienna, he became the music teacher of Mozart’s children. Later in the summer of 1799, the death of his brother forced Amenda to return to his home town of Courland, in Latvia. In honor of their friendship Beethoven made him a gift of Opus 18, no. 1, entreating him to remember the times they had spent together.

Beethoven complained to Amenda at this time of a broken heart, likely caused not so much by Amenda’s imminent departure as by the marriage plans of one of Beethoven’s piano students, Joesphine von Brunsvik. In May that year, Josephine’s mother Anna had brought Josephine and her sister Therese to Vienna and persuaded Beethoven to give them piano lessons. Beethoven’s acquaintance with the family and possible infatuation with Josephine seems to have caused an interruption to his work on Opus 18, no. 1. Five years later, after the death of Josephine’s first husband, Beethoven would repeatedly declare his love for her, recalling that when he had first met her in 1799 he had been determined not to let himself fall in love. It seems rather more likely that Josephine was responsible for discouraging his overtures than that the young musician heroically repressed the desires of his heart. Whether or not her impending marriage was the cause of Beethoven’s distress in the summer of 1799, Beethoven fell in love easily and frequently: a broken heart was a common emotional state for the sensitive composer who craved depth and intensity in his relationships.

Amenda’s departure from Vienna may have contributed to Beethoven’s anguish. Over a year later, Amenda wrote to Beethoven explaining that he had fallen in love and was likely to settle for good in Courtland, but that when he played or listened to Beethoven’s music, ‘All of the ardent feelings awaken in me in the liveliest manner, [feelings] that your company itself inspired in me. It seems to me as if I must then get away from here and go to you, to the source of my most tender and most animated sentiments.’ Amenda feared—correctly—that hey might never see each other again, and entreated Beethoven never to forget him.

The overt emotion in Amenda’s letter was reciprocated. In the summer of 1801 Beethoven shared a painful secret with him:

How often would I like to have you here with me, for your B is leading a very              unhappy life and is at variance with Nature and his Creator. Many times already        I have cursed Him for exposing His creatures to the slightest hazard, so that the        most beautiful blossom is thereby often crushed and destroyed. Let me tell you          that my most prized possession, my hearing , has greatly deteriorated. When you      were still with me, I already felt the symptoms; but I said nothing about them.          Now they have become very much worse.

Franz Wegeler was another of only a few close friends in whom Beethoven confided: ‘For almost two years I have ceased to attend any social functions, just because I find it impossible to say to people: I am deaf.’

Beethoven’s professional situation, however, was now much better than it had been during his first years in Vienna. Publishers competed to publish his works, and as a result he was able to charge a higher fee for his compositions. He could now afford his own apartment and servant, although the increased independence was itself facilitated by Prince Lichnowsky, who paid him an annuity of six hundred gulden (or florins).

Some time after the composition and publication of Opus 18, Lichnowsky further demonstrated his belief in Beethoven’s string quartet projects by purchasing a quartet of Italian string instruments for him: violins by Joseph Guarnerius and Nicolò Amati, a viola by Vincenzo Rugeri and a cello by Andreas Guarnerius. The seal of Beethoven, stamped under the neck of the instruments, must have not seemed adequate proof of ownership: Beethoven took matters into his own hands, scratching a big B on the back of each instrument. Although Beethoven himself played the violin and viola, given his hearing problems it seems most likely that the primary beneficiaries of this purchase would have been Schuppanzigh and his quartet colleagues.

Thus Beethoven composed his Opus 18 quartets at a time when considerable professional recognition could not keep at bay feelings of social isolation, caused in a large part by his increased deafness and frustrations about his Viennese friends, many of whom he dared not to tell about his condition. To Amenda he worried not so much about the danger to his professional abilities as about the devastating effect on the his social interactions. In 1824 Goethe would describe a string quartet as ‘four rational people conversing with each other.’ Grieving the loss of companionship, Beethoven created his own ideal dialogues in his Opus 18 quartets, conversations in which he held complete control.

*This excerpt has been adapted (without endnotes) from Beethoven for a Later Age: Living with the String Quartets by Edward Dusinberre (2016).


To read more about Beethoven for a Later Age, click here.

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9. Publishers Weekly on Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement


Though perhaps best known in the United States for his fiction, Bengali writer Amitav Ghosh has previously published several acclaimed works of non-fiction. His latest book The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable tackles an inescapably global theme: the violent wrath global warming will inflict on our civilization and generations to come, and the duty of fiction—as the cultural form most capable of imagining alternative futures and insisting another world is possible—to take action.

From a recent starred review in Publishers Weekly:

In his first work of long-form nonfiction in over 20 years, celebrated novelist Ghosh (Flood of Fire) addresses “perhaps the most important question ever to confront culture”: how can writers, scholars, and policy makers combat the collective inability to grasp the dangers of today’s climate crisis? Ghosh’s choice of genre is hardly incidental; among the chief sources of the “imaginative and cultural failure that lies at the heart of the climate crisis,” he argues, is the resistance of modern linguistic and narrative traditions—particularly the 20th-century novel—to events so cataclysmic and heretofore improbable that they exceed the purview of serious literary fiction. Ghosh ascribes this “Great Derangement” not only to modernity’s emphasis on this “calculus of probability” but also to notions of empire, capitalism, and democratic freedom. Asia in particular is “conceptually critical to every aspect of global warming,” Ghosh attests, outlining the continent’s role in engendering, conceptualizing, and mitigating ecological disasters in language that both thoroughly convinces the reader and runs refreshingly counter to prevailing Eurocentric climate discourse. In this concise and utterly enlightening volume, Ghosh urges the public to find new artistic and political frameworks to understand and reduce the effects of human-caused climate change, sharing his own visionary perspective as a novelist, scholar, and citizen of our imperiled world.
To read more about The Great Derangement, click here.

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11. On the anniversary of the Mann Gulch wildfire


Reader’s note: last year, to honor the anniversary of the Mann Gulch wildfire, we posted the below note, along with an excerpt from Norman Maclean’s Young Men and Fire. Today marks 67 years since the events of August 5, 1949, so in tribute, we repost the excerpt and its accompanying introduction. More on the matter, of course, can be gleaned from Maclean’s singular work, while additional background on its author can be found in this weekend’s New York Times Magazine, where a piece on fly-fishing in Montana turns into a meditation on Maclean’s writing and life.


August 5, 2015, marks the 66th anniversary of the Mann Gulch wildfire, which eventually spread to cover 4,500 acres of Montana’s Gates of the Mountain Wilderness in Helena National Forest, and claimed the lives of 12 of the 15 elite US Forest Service Smokejumpers, who acted as first responders in the moments before the blaze jumped up a slope and “blew up” its surrounding grass. Haunted by the event, Montana native, author, and former University of Chicago professor Norman Maclean devoted much of his life’s work to researching and writing an account of the events that unfolded that first week of August 1949, which would met publication posthumously two years after Maclean’s death as Young Men and FireThe book, now considered a classic reconstruction of an American tragedy and a premier piece of elegiac memoir qua historical non-fiction, went on to win a National Book Critics Circle Award in 1992. Below follows an excerpt.


Then Dodge saw it. Rumsey and Sallee didn’t, and probably none of the rest of the crew did either. Dodge was thirty-three and foreman and was supposed to see; he was in front where he could see. Besides, he hadn’t liked what he had seen when he looked down the canyon after he and Harrison had returned to the landing area to get something to eat, so his seeing powers were doubly on the alert. Rumsey and Sallee were young and they were crew and were carrying tools and rubbernecking at the fire across the gulch. Dodge takes only a few words to say what the “it” was he saw next: “We continued down the canyon for approximately five minutes before I could see that the fire had crossed Mann Gulch and was coming up the ridge toward us.”

Neither Rumsey nor Sallee could see the fire that was now on their side of the gulch, but both could see smoke coming toward them over a hogback directly in front. As for the main fire across the gulch, it still looked about the same to them, “confined to the upper third of the slope.”

At the Review, Dodge estimated they had a 150- to 200-yard head start on the fire coming at them on the north side of the gulch. He immediately reversed direction and started back up the canyon, angling toward the top of the ridge on a steep grade. When asked why he didn’t go straight for the top there and then, he answered that the ground was too rocky and steep and the fire was coming too fast to dare to go at right angles to it.

You may ask yourself how it was that of the crew only Rumsey and Sallee survived. If you had known ahead of time that only two would survive, you probably never would have picked these two—they were first-year jumpers, this was the first fire they had ever jumped on, Sallee was one year younger than the minimum age, and around the base they were known as roommates who had a pretty good time for themselves. They both became big operators in the world of the woods and prairies, and part of this story will be to find them and ask them why they think they alone survived, but even if ultimately your answer or theirs seems incomplete, this seems a good place to start asking the question. In their statements soon after the fire, both say that the moment Dodge reversed the route of the crew they became alarmed, for, even if they couldn’t see the fire, Dodge’s order was to run from one. They reacted in seconds or less. They had been traveling at the end of the line because they were carrying unsheathed saws. When the head of the line started its switchback, Rumsey and Sallee left their positions at the end of the line, put on extra speed, and headed straight uphill, connecting with the front of the line to drop into it right behind Dodge.

They were all traveling at top speed, all except Navon. He was stopping to take snapshots.

The world was getting faster, smaller, and louder, so much faster that for the first time there are random differences among the survivors about how far apart things were. Dodge says it wasn’t until one thousand to fifteen hundred feet after the crew had changed directions that he gave the order for the heavy tools to be dropped. Sallee says it was only two hundred yards, and Rumsey can remember. Whether they had traveled five hundred yards or two hundred yards, the new fire coming up the gulch toward them was coming faster than they had been going. Sallee says, “By the time we dropped our packs and tools the fire was probably not much over a hundred yards behind us, and it seemed to me that it was getting ahead of us both above and below.” If the fire was only a hundred yards behind now it had gained a lot of ground on them since they had reversed directions, and Rumsey says he could never remember going faster in his life than he had for the last five hundred yards.

Dodge testifies that this was the first time he had tried to communicate with his men since rejoining them at the head of the gulch, and he is reported as saying—for the second time—something about “getting out of this death trap.” When asked by the Board of Review if he had explained to the men the danger they were in, he looked at the Board in amazement, as if the Board had never been outside the city limits and wouldn’t know sawdust if they saw it in a pile. It was getting late for talk anyway. What could anybody hear? It roared from behind, below, and across, and the crew, inside it, was shut out from all but a small piece of the outside world.

They had come to the station of the cross where something you want to see and can’t shuts out the sight of everything that otherwise could be seen. Rumsey says again and again what the something was he couldn’t see. “The top of the ridge, the top of the ridge.

“I had noticed that a fire will wear out when it reaches the top of a ridge. I started putting on steam thinking if I could get to the top of the ridge I would be safe.

“I kept thinking the ridge—if I can make it. On the ridge I will be safe… I forgot to mention I could not definitely see the ridge from where we were. We kept running up since it had to be there somewhere. Might be a mile and a half or a hundred feet—I had no idea.”

The survivors say they weren’t panicked, and something like that is probably true. Smokejumpers are selected for being tough, but Dodge’s men were very young and, as he testified, none of them had been on a blowup before and they were getting exhausted and confused. The world roared at them—there was no safe place inside and there was almost no outside. By now they were short of breath from the exertion of their climbing and their lungs were being seared by the heat. A world was coming where no organ of the body had consciousness but the lungs.

Dodge’s order was to throw away just their packs and heavy tools, but to his surprise some of them had already thrown away all their equipment. On the other hand, some of them wouldn’t abandon their heavy tools, even after Dodge’s order. Diettert, one of the most intelligent of the crew, continued carrying both his tools until Rumsey caught up with him, took his shovel, and leaned it against a pine tree. Just a little farther on, Rumsey and Sallee passed the recreation guard, Jim Harrison, who, having been on the fire all afternoon, was now exhausted. He was sitting with his heavy pack on and was making no effort to take it off, and Rumsey and Sallee wondered numbly why he didn’t but no one stopped to suggest he get on his feet or gave him a hand to help him up. It was even too late to pray for him. Afterwards, his ranger wrote his mother and, struggling for something to say that would comfort her, told her that her son always attended mass when he could.

It was way over one hundred degrees. Except for some scattered timber, the slope was mostly hot rock slides and grass dried to hay.

It was becoming a world where thought that could be described as such was done largely by fixations. Thought consisted in repeating over and over something that had been said in a training course or at least by somebody older than you.

Critical distances shortened. It had been a quarter of a mile from where Dodge had rejoined his crew to where he had the crew reverse direction. From there they had gone only five hundred yards at the most before he realized the fire was gaining on them so rapidly that the men should discard whatever was heavy.

The next station of the cross was only seventy-five yards ahead. There they came to the edge of scattered timber with a grassy slope ahead. There they could see what is really not possible to see: the center of a blowup. It is really not possible to see the center of a blowup because the smoke only occasionally lifts, and when it does all that can be seen are pieces, pieces of death flying around looking for you—burning cones, branches circling on wings, a log in flight without a propeller. Below in the bottom of the gulch was a great roar without visible flames but blown with winds on fire. Now, for the first time, they could have seen to the head of the gulch if they had been looking that way. And now, for the first time, to their left the top of the ridge was visible, looking when the smoke parted to be not more than two hundred yards away.

Navon had already left the line and on his own was angling for the top. Having been at Bastogne, he thought he had come to know the deepest of secrets—how death can be avoided—and, as if he did, he had put away his camera. But if he really knew at that moment how death could be avoided, he would have had to know the answers to two questions: How could fires be burning in all directions and be burning right at you? And how could those invisible and present only by a roar all be roaring at you?

On the open slope ahead of the timber Dodge was lighting a fire in the bunch grass with a “gofer” match. He was to say later at the Review that he did not think he or his crew could make the two hundred yards to the top of the ridge. He was also to estimate that the men had about thirty seconds before the fire would roar over them.

Dodge’s fire did not disturb Rumsey’s fixation. Speaking of Dodge lighting his own fire, Rumsey said, “I remember thinking that that was a very good idea, but I don’t remember what I thought it was good for.… I kept thinking the ridge—if I can make it. On the ridge I will be safe.”

Sallee was with Rumsey. Diettert, who before being called to the fire had been working on a project with Rumsey, was the third in the bunch that reached Dodge. On a summer day in 1978, twenty-nine years later, Sallee and I stood on what we thought was the same spot. Sallee said, “I saw him bend over and light a fire with a match. I thought, With the fire almost on our back, what the hell is the boss doing lighting another fire in front of us?”

It shouldn’t be hard to imagine just what most of the crew must have thought when they first looked across the open hill-side and saw their boss seemingly playing with a matchbook in dry grass. Although the Mann Gulch fire occurred early in the history of the Smokejumpers, it is still their special tragedy, the one in which their crew suffered almost a total loss and the only one in which their loss came from the fire itself. It is also the only fire any member of the Forest Service had ever seen or heard of in which the foreman got out ahead of his crew only to light a fire in advance of the fire he and his crew were trying to escape. In case I hadn’t understood him the first time, Sallee repeated, “We thought he must have gone nuts.” A few minutes later his fire became more spectacular still, when Sallee, having reached the top of the ridge, looked back and saw the foreman enter his own fire and lie down in its hot ashes to let the main fire pass over him.


To read more about Young Men and Fire, click here.

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12. Our free e-book for August: Rising Up from Indian Country


Our free e-book for August is Ann Durkin Keating’s
Rising Up from Indian Country: The Battle of Fort Dearborn and the Birth of Chicago.
Download your copy here.


In August 1812, under threat from the Potawatomi, Captain Nathan Heald began the evacuation of ninety-four people from the isolated outpost of Fort Dearborn to Fort Wayne, hundreds of miles away. The group included several dozen soldiers, as well as nine women and eighteen children. After traveling only a mile and a half, they were attacked by five hundred Potawatomi warriors. In under an hour, fifty-two members of Heald’s party were killed, and the rest were taken prisoner; the Potawatomi then burned Fort Dearborn before returning to their villages.

These events are now seen as a foundational moment in Chicago’s storied past. With Rising up from Indian Country, noted historian Ann Durkin Keating richly recounts the Battle of Fort Dearborn while situating it within the context of several wider histories that span the nearly four decades between the 1795 Treaty of Greenville, in which Native Americans gave up a square mile at the mouth of the Chicago River, and the 1833 Treaty of Chicago, in which the American government and the Potawatomi exchanged five million acres of land west of the Mississippi River for a tract of the same size in northeast Illinois and southeast Wisconsin.
In the first book devoted entirely to this crucial period, Keating tells a story not only of military conquest but of the lives of people on all sides of the conflict. She highlights such figures as Jean Baptiste Point de Sable and John Kinzie and demonstrates that early Chicago was a place of cross-cultural reliance among the French, the Americans, and the Native Americans. Published to commemorate the bicentennial of the Battle of Fort Dearborn, this gripping account of the birth of Chicago will become required reading for anyone seeking to understand the city and its complex origins.

To download your free copy, click here.

To read more about Rising Up from Indian Country, click here.

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13. Barbara J. King on whale grief

9780226155203From National Geographic:

More than six species of the marine mammals have been seen clinging to the body of a dead compatriot, probably a podmate or relative, scientists say in a new study.

The most likely explanation for the animals’ refusal to let go of the corpses: grief.

“They are mourning,” says study co-author Melissa Reggente, a biologist at the University of Milano-Bicocca in Italy. “They are in pain and stressed. They know something is wrong.”

Scientists have found a growing number of species, from giraffes to chimps, that behave as if stricken with grief. Elephants, for example, return again and again to the body of a dead companion.

Such findings add to the debate about whether animals feel emotion—and, if they do, how such emotions should influence human treatment of other creatures. (See “Do Crows Hold Funerals for Their Dead?”)

Animal grief can be defined as emotional distress coupled with a disruption of usual behavior, according to Barbara King, emeritus professor of anthropology at William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, and author of the book How Animals Grieve.
Barbara J. King has long positioned her scholarship at the forefront of our study of animal emotions—in works like How Animals Grieve and in her criticism, which regularly appears in the TLS, King pushes us to understand the complex inner lives of animals, neither wholly similar nor dissimilar to the realm of human affects. The National Geographic piece makes a compelling case for the importance of King’s work on animal grief, which she refuses to anthropomorphize, while at the same time, grounding her findings in observations of marine animal life. Warning though: it will make you feel your own feelings.
To read more about How Animals Grieve, click here.
To read the National Geographic piece in full, click here.

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14. Blowin’ Up at Pop Matters



From a recent review of Jooyoung Lee’s Blowin’ Up: Rap Dreams in South Central, at Pop Matters:

One of the many powers of hip-hop, of course, is the intimacy it offers. Spend enough time listening to a certain rapper, and you begin to feel like you know that person as well as you do your own friends. Chuck D’s famous pronouncement that hip-hop is “CNN for black people”, pointed though it is, seems to miss part of the story. Hip-hop is CNN for white people, too, if you acknowledge the media’s systematic neglect of America’s black population. Through hip-hop, rappers are telling the stories that many journalists, and their publications, couldn’t be bothered to cover.

As a white hip-hop fan, there’s a seductive tendency to congratulate one’s self for gaining cultural competencies in African American culture, as if memorizing Tupac lyrics and attending Wu-Tang concerts confers a master’s degree in black studies. But the truth is that even in its rawest, most detailed form, hip-hop gives only what is at best a keyhole-sized view of the African American experience.

Jooyoung Lee’s Blowin’ Up: Rap Dreams in South Central represents a jump through the keyhole into the world of hip-hop as it is lived by some of the art form’s most dedicated practitioners.

To read more about Blowin’ Up, click here.

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15. Sara Goldrick-Rab and the United States of Debt


Sara Goldrick-Rab’s game-changing book Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream publishes this September. To understand part of the urgency behind its central claim—that college is far too costly, and the confusing mix of federal, state, institutional, and private financial aid leaves countless students without the resources they need to pay for it—tune in to the most recent United States of Debt podcast from the folks at Slate.

Tackling the student loan crisis, Slate asks: “Just how many of us are really burdened by the cost of pursuing a higher education, and is there a way out? Are student loans more common now, and why? Why are student loans such a mess in the United States, compared to other countries? And what do for-profit schools have to do with all of this?” Listen in for more about Goldrick-Rab and the stakes of living with suffocating student debt—and what we might do about it.

To read more about Paying the Price, click here.

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16. In memoriam: William H. McNeill (1917–2016)


William H. McNeill (1917–2016)—historian, professor emeritus at the University of Chicago (where he began teaching in 1947), and prolific scholar—died July 8, 2016, at age 98. One of his most notable works, The Rise of the West: A History of Human Community, was the first University of Chicago Press title to win a National Book Award, and is often considered a major force in resituating “western” civilization in a more global context.

From the New York Times:

Professor McNeill’s opus, The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community (1963), took 10 years to write. It became a bestseller, won the National Book Award for history and biography and was lauded in the New York Times Book Review by the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper. “This is not only the most learned and the most intelligent,” he wrote, “it is also the most stimulating and fascinating book that has ever set out to recount and explain the whole history of mankind.”

McNeill went on to write several books for the University of Chicago Press, including Venice: The Hinge of Europe, 1081–1797The Pursuit of Power: Technology, Armed Force, and Society since A.D. 1000; The Islamic World (coedited with Marilyn Robinson Waldman); Hutchins’ University: A Memoir of the University of Chicago, 1929–1950History of Western Civilization: A Handbook; and Europe’s Steppe Frontier: 1500–1800His honors included a National Humanities Medal for his work as a teacher, scholar, and author.

From the University of Chicago:

In a 1987 interview at the time of his retirement, McNeill said it was important for historians not to be too narrow in their outlook. “History has to look at the whole world,” he said. “And that means you have to know how the rest of the world is, how it got to be the way it is.”

McNeill was critical in launching the field of world history at a time when the discipline was narrowly focused on the history of Europe and its past and present colonies. In his work, he emphasized the connections and exchanges between civilizations rather than placing them in a vacuum.

“Bill McNeill was a scholar of extraordinary boldness, range and high creativity,” said John W. Boyer, the Martin A. Ryerson Professor in History and dean of the College. “He was able to see patterns and relationships among highly complex and disparate historical phenomena on a global level in ways that enabled him to write magnificent and courageous books of large intellectual compass.”

The NYT’s obit concludes with an prescient excerpt from McNeill’s 1992 review of Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man:

“I do not believe that human nature is uniform and unchanging. Rather, whatever penchants and capabilities we inherit with our genes are so malleable that their expression takes infinitely diverse forms.”

“When Asian models of social and economic efficiency seem to be gaining ground every day, and when millions of Muslims are at pains to sustain the differences, great and small, that distinguish them from Americans,” he continued, “it is hard to believe that all the world is destined to imitate us.”

To read more about McNeill’s work, click here.

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17. Natasha Kumar Warikoo on affirmative action


Natasha Kumar Warikoo’s The Diversity Bargain and Other Dilemmas of Race, Admissions, and Meritocracy at Elite Universities, which publishes this fall, examines how both white students and students of color understand race and privilege at three top-tier universities—Harvard, Yale, and Oxford. Culminating in what Warikoo calls “the diversity bargain”—white students agree with affirmative action abstractly as long as it benefits them personally—the book argues that the slippery notions that sustain social inequalities on college campuses are hugely impacted not only by the student body, but also by the practices of universities themselves.

In a recent piece for the Boston Globe, Warikoo expanded on her findings:

However, in my research with undergraduates at Ivy League universities, I have found that this narrow justification shapes students’ conceptions of fairness and equity in admissions. Many white students at elite colleges agree with affirmative action only because they understand it benefits them through interaction with their minority peers. As a result, some are upset when they see tables of black peers in the cafeteria, when their black peers join the Black Students Association, or when Latino peers spend their time at Centers for Students of Color. What they don’t understand is that those organizations can be lifelines for students unfamiliar with the culture of elite, predominantly white universities, and who share experiences with racial injustice.

The sole emphasis on benefits to themselves also leads many white students to fear that affirmative action may in the future limit their opportunities. Affirmative action becomes an easy scapegoat when they fail in competitive processes like graduate school admission, summer internships, and jobs. One student at Harvard shared his worries about what some call reverse discrimination: “If I hadn’t gotten into Harvard I would have felt that I’d been discriminated against. If someone else that I knew and was equally qualified who was an ethnic minority had gotten in above me.” Affirmative action is an easy target when its only justification is the benefit of whites.

The diversity-of-voices lens misses the point. Affirmative action is about expanding opportunity and recalibrating our imprecise measures of merit so that they take our nation’s legacy of systemic and institutional racism into consideration. And we adults feed white students’ anxiety when we do not say so.

To read Warikoo’s piece at the Boston Globe in full, click here.

To read more about The Diversity Bargain, click here.

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18. Free e-book for July: Bigfoot


Our free e-book for July is Bigfoot: The Life and Times of a Legend by Joshua Blu Buhs—
download your copy here!


In August 2009, two men in rural Georgia announced that they had killed Bigfoot. The claim drew instant, feverish attention, leading to more than 1,000 news stories worldwide—despite the fact that nearly everyone knew it was a hoax. Though Bigfoot may not exist, there’s no denying Bigfoot mania.

With Bigfoot, Joshua Blu Buhs traces the wild and wooly story of America’s favorite homegrown monster. He begins with nineteenth-century accounts of wildmen roaming the forests of America, treks to the Himalayas to reckon with the Abominable Snowman, then takes us to northern California in 1958, when reports of a hairy hominid loping through remote woodlands marked Bigfoot’s emergence as a modern marvel. Buhs delves deeply into the trove of lore and misinformation that has sprung up around Bigfoot in the ensuing half century. We meet charlatans, pseudo-scientists, and dedicated hunters of the beast—and with Buhs as our guide, the focus is always less on evaluating their claims than on understanding why Bigfoot has inspired all this drama and devotion in the first place. What does our fascination with this monster say about our modern relationship to wilderness, individuality, class, consumerism, and the media?

Writing with a scientist’s skepticism but an enthusiast’s deep engagement, Buhs invests the story of Bigfoot with the detail and power of a novel, offering the definitive take on this elusive beast.

To download your free copy, click here.

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19. In Memoriam: Yves Bonnefoy (1923–2016)


French poet, translator, and critic Yves Bonnefoy (1923–2016) died on July 1, 2016. Professor emeritus and former chair of the comparative study of poetry (following the death of Roland Barthes) at the Collège de France, Bonnefoy was regarded by many, including the French president François Hollande and the Encyclopedia Britannica, as one of the most important poets of the second half of the twentieth century. Frequently speculated to be a candidate for the Nobel Prize, Bonnefoy was the recipient of many prizes in his lifetime, including the Prix Goncourt and the Griffin Lifetime Recognition Award.

Bonnefoy was the author of more than 100 books, among them original collections of poetry, art and literary criticism, compilations on mythology, and works in translation (those of Shakespeare and Yeats, most prominently).

The University of Chicago Press published four of those books—The Act and the Place of Poetry: Selected Essays (1989), In the Shadow’s Light (1991), New and Selected Poems (1995), Shakespeare and the French Poet (2004)—along with several volumes in his Mythologies series. In recent years, Seagull Books has published several additional works, including The Arrière-Pays (2012), The Present Hour (2013), Rue Traversière (1972; 2015), The Digamma (2014), The Anchor’s Long Chain (2015), and Ursa Major (forthcoming 2016).

From the BBC:

In his writing, he said he tried to capture some of primal emotions that he associated with his own happy childhood. In his poetry, he tried to seek “what is immediate in life” by staying faithful to the “truth of language.”

“A poet’s job is to show us a tree, before our mind tells us what a tree is,” said Bonnefoy.

To read more about Bonnefoy’s works published or distributed by the University of Chicago Press, click here.

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20. In Memoriam: Alison Winter (1965–2016)




Alison Winter (1965–2016), historian of the mind, as well as professor of history, the conceptual and historical studies of science, and the college at the University of Chicago, passed away last week from complications related to a brain tumor. A formidable scholar, teacher, and friend, Winter counted among her contributions to the history of sciences of mind two books published by the University of Chicago Press, Memory: Fragments of a Modern History (2012), winner of the 2014 Gordon J. Laing Prize for a book published in the previous three years by a Chicago faculty member that brings the Press the greatest distinction, and Mesmerized: Powers of Mind in Victorian Britain (2000). As noted by her colleague, Emilio Kourí, chair of the Department of History: “We will all miss her uncommon intelligence, her boundless curiosity, and her joie de vivre.”

From the Department of History at the University of Chicago:

The Guggenheim, Andrew W. Mellon, and National Science foundations awarded Winter fellowships to research her second book, Memory: Fragments of a Modern History (2012). Memory received a Gordon J. Laing Prize in 2014 for most distinguished book published by the University of Chicago Press. Daniel Kevles of Yale University called the book an “original history of the intertwined theories of memory and attempts to recall past experience. Winter writes with engaging discernment about the clinic and the courtroom, trauma and therapy, neuroscience and neurospeculation.” In a 2012 Australian Broadcast Corporation interview Winter discussed how scientists groped for metaphors to explain “such an elusive thing” as memory, and how these metaphors evolved in the twentieth century to reflect changing technology—from memory as a filing cabinet to a photograph to the rewind button on a tape recorder. Hearkening back to her undergraduate curiosity to combine ideas from the sciences and humanities, Winter explained: “We are remaking how we think about the mind and the brain. . . . I think it’s an extraordinarily interesting time right now because so many different fields are talking to each other in ways that they never did before.”

Winter taught historical topics in ethics to medical students and enjoyed welcoming undergraduates and graduate students into intensive seminars on Victorian science or the uses of film in the sciences. Each year she taught Science, Culture, and Society in Western Civilization, which was the same core sequence she had taken as a student in the College. She served on thirteen dissertation committees in the Department of History, the Committee on Conceptual and Historical Studies of Science, and the Pritzker School of Medicine. Caitjan Gainty, PhD’12 (history), lecturer in the history of science, technology, and medicine at King’s College, said of Winter: “She had confidence in me as a scholar before I even understood what it meant to do that kind of work.”

To read more about Winter’s work, click here.

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21. Responses to the New York Times on Chicago’s problem with gun violence


Photo by Joshua Lott for the New York Times.

Earlier this month, the New York Times published a blockbuster piece of investigative reporting that involved sending a team of journalists and photographers to Chicago to cover the unfolding events of a Memorial Day weekend that culminated in 64 shootings and 6 deaths in just under 72 hours. As the violence escalated, reporters on the scene followed the blotter, interviewing those injured, witnesses on the scene, and community members, many of whom live on the city’s South and Southwest sides, leading to a portrait in real time not only the weekend’s events, but also how these bloody circumstances significantly impact the neighborhoods in which they continue to occur. The coverage comes on the heels of several other recent pieces by the NYT on Chicago’s ongoing problems with gun-related bloodshed, including “Chicago’s Murder Problem” (May 27, 2016), “Pleading for Peace in Chicago Amid Fears of a Bloody Summer” (May 28, 2016), and “When Violence Hits Home in Chicago,” a feature from the Lens Blog, on the photos that accompanied that major piece, “A Weekend in Chicago” (June 4, 2016).

We asked Robert J. Sampson, a sociologist whose work on crime, civic engagement, inequality, and the neighborhood effect was used as research by the NYT in the piece, and Susan A. Phillips, an anthropologist who focuses on urban violence, criminal justice, and the relationship between gangs and the state, to respond to what the coverage emphasized or reaffirmed, missed or undermined, and what that indicates about broader concerns for the city and its residents, whose daily lives remain impacted by a particularly terrifying reality—an already jolting homicide rate, up 62 percent already this year. Their responses follow after the jump.


Below, Robert J. Sampson, author of Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effectweighs in on the deep structural disadvantage that promotes neighborhood inequality, particularly in Chicago.

The New York Times series on Chicago was remarkable for the intensity of its focus both at the neighborhood level and in the detailed portrayal of lives lost over the Memorial Day weekend. Drawing attention to the recent upswing in murder exposes what in years past was often ignored by the press—the disproportionate toll that violence takes on our most disadvantaged populations.

Nonetheless, we should not lose sight of two important facts. First, murders in Chicago remain significantly below levels of recent decades. In the early 1990s, for example, homicides approached 1,000 per year. The rate of violence has declined dramatically since then, and even if the current pace continues, the number of murders in 2016 will be much less. The problem of murder is still severe, but Chicago today is safer overall, hard as that is to believe given the enormous press attention.

The second fact is that homicides are driven by the same set of social conditions as the past, and in many cases are occurring in identical places. Maps of violence over the years reveal a reoccurring concentration in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty and segregation, especially on the west and south sides of the city. As I have shown in Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect, low-income minority neighborhoods have a long history of linked adversities, not just violence but incarceration, physical disinvestment, family instability, and poor health. The persistent concentration of social disadvantage goes beyond any one indicator and breeds institutional cynicism.

Violence, then, is part of a cycle of disadvantage in deeply distressed communities. This is not a problem unique to Chicago—all cities show similar concentrations of violence. Neighborhood inequality is deeper and more durable in Chicago, however, and it is there our attention should be paid.

Robert J. Sampson is the Henry Ford II Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard University and Director of the Boston Area Research Initiative. Prior to Harvard, he was chair of the department of sociology and taught at the University of Chicago for twelve years. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.


Susan A. Phillips, author of Operation Fly Trap: L. A. Gangs, Drugs, and the Lawsituates the NYT‘s coverage as part of a larger dynamic in contemporary journalism that needs to emphasize not only the effects of aggressive policing, but also the difficulty communities face in creating alternative forms of public safety.

The recent New York Times coverage of violence within the City of Chicago is powerful journalism, tweaked a bit by the exigencies of the Black Lives Matter movement. But the coverage stops short of creating a form of journalism that either mirrors transformative anti-violence work or that is, in itself, transformative.

The portraits in each article begin to blur lines between categories of victim and perpetrator, but this is only partially successful. The stream of images in the online version contributes to the pornography of pain surrounding black communities. This visual accompaniment may create momentary sympathy, but it also replays a familiar entrenchment of difference that ultimately undermines the articles’ humanizing goals. The coverage also demonstrates little understanding of gangs, which are pitched as something you can “get out of” or that, if we could just put the right people in prison (maybe the 140 mentioned in the gang sweep), we might be getting somewhere.

Chicago has historically had the most corrupt police force in the country. Aggressive policing has moved in lockstep with gang violence in the City of Chicago for generations. Entrenched racism in the United States has helped make Chicago neighborhoods into militarized zones. Gangs within these zones are both perpetrators and victims of violence. As direct arbiters of global inequality, gangs have become fundamentally intertwined with neighborhood life. Removing gang members in sweeps can create leadership vacuums that contribute to rises in violence, just as relying on punitive punishment can weaken families and communities.

Many Chicago organizations have done good work to decrease violence in the past. From 2009 to 2012, Youth Advocate Programs conducted over 1,000 gang conflict mediations, and created programs that both kept youth safe and that minimized reliance on punitive measures like suspension and expulsion. More recently, Cheryl Graves of the Community Justice for Youth Institute began creating “Restorative Justice Hubs” in Chicago. For Graves, restorative justice is both philosophy and daily practice that demonstrates the power of people to identify and heal their own problems.

In the articles we get hints of people’s thoughts to this end: the idea that kids needs jobs, or that there are few educational opportunities. To turn in guns as a salve to the violence is a symbolic gesture rather than a demonstration of serious commitment to the youth of Chicago.

To understand Chicago’s rampant violence, we need stories that examine not only the publicized harms of police brutality, but that look at what has compromised community members’ abilities to create lateral forms of public safety in the first place. We need to question assumptions about the effectiveness of policing and to understand the unpublicized harms of incarceration on families. Most important, we need journalists to write about the successful programs and transformational ideologies that address violence based on people’s own capacity to make change.

Susan A. Phillips is associate professor of environmental analysis at Pitzer College, and an urban ethnographer who studies gangs, violence, and incarceration in the United States. Phillips was named a Soros Justice Media Fellow in 2008, and received a Harry Frank Guggenheim research grant in 2005 to fund her fieldwork. Previous to that she was a fellow at the Getty Research Institute from 1996–97, during the scholar year on Los Angeles.


To read the NYT coverage of Chicago’s Memorial Day weekend in full, click here.

To see more from UCP on sociology and urban anthropology, click here.

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22. Hélio Oiticica: Folding the Frame launch at e-flux


Irene V. Small recently launched her much-anticipated book Hélio Oiticica: Folding the Framea critical examination of the Brazilian conceptualist’s works, set against a backdrop of the nation’s dramatic postwar push for modernization—via a conversation with Sofia Hernández Chong Cuy at New York’s e-flux in late May. We’re late to the party with the photos, but not the swagger:

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To read more about Hélio Oiticica, click here.


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23. Sonia Sotomayor cites Pulled Over in her Supreme Court dissent


From Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s dissent to this week’s Supreme Court verdict in Utah vs. Strieff, which twice cited Pulled Over: How Police Stops Define Race and Citizenshipincluding its core argument about how police stops deleteriously convey messages about citizenship and racial disparity:

Writing only for myself, and drawing on my professional experiences, I would add that unlawful “stops” have severe consequences much greater than the inconvenience suggested by the name. This Court has given officers an array of instruments to probe and examine you. When we condone officers’ use of these devices without adequate cause, we give them reason to target pedestrians in an arbitrary manner. We also risk treating members of our communities as second-class citizens. Although many Americans have been stopped for speeding or jaywalking, few may realize how degrading a stop can be when the officer is looking for more. This Court has allowed an officer to stop you for whatever reason he wants—so long as he can point to a pretextual justification after the fact. . . . The indignity of the stop is not limited to an officer telling you that you look like a criminal (See Epp, Pulled Over, at 5).

To read more about Pulled Over, click here.

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24. The Book of Frogs lights the internet aflame


I mean, truly—here’s a positively radiant review, by Jesse Nee-Vogelman for Spectrum Culture:

Review 1
I’m not an expert on frogs. In all likelihood neither are you. If you desire to remedy this ignorance, The Book of Frogs contains a significant amount of information about frogs. Two thumbs up.

Review 2
I don’t think I’ve ever cared for anything the way Tim Halliday cares for frogs. By comparison, I am emotionally barren. I can barely handle a single romantic relationship. Batrachophilia is a much more work-intensive ardor.

The Book of Frogs details over 600 species of frogs, which, mind-bogglingly, comprises less than one-tenth of total frog species. Tim Halliday writes about each one as if it were his lover. Consider his description of the Atlantic Coast Leopard Frog, a “slim, athletic frog with…long, muscular legs,” which isn’t even one of the prettier frogs in the catalog. Halliday is an emotional cosmonaut, exploring the outermost reaches of human feeling. He has breached the extremities of passion. Should not we all hope to touch, if briefly, such fondness for the world and its creatures? . . . [another 300 or so words that are LOL funny and incisive, critical in the best sense of the term]

All in all, Halliday captures both the extraordinary and ordinary of frogs in the same breathless prose that you wrote in love notes to your eighth-grade crush. Couple that with six hundred beautifully composed pictures of sometimes beautiful animals, and you’ve got yourself one hell of a novelty book. In its several months as the centerpiece of my coffee table, The Book of Frogs has generated more conversation than any other item in my apartment. It’s an aesthetic pleasure as an art object, informative as a reference guide, and gives me hope that one day, just like Tim Halliday, I will learn to love.

To read more about The Book of Frogs, click here.

To vote Jesse Nee-Vogelman for president of Nature, etc., click here.

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25. Jellyfish (in nature—the other Nature)

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Just in time for this weekend’s unofficial “start of summer” gong, Nature (yea, that Nature—though also, ostensibly, “nature,” the wilder of nouns, not that other one qua Lucretius’s De rerum natura) came through with a review of Lisa-ann Gershwin’s Jellyfish: A Natural History. Stuck behind a paywall? Here it is in its glory, for your holiday reads:

One resembles an exquisitely ruffled and pleated confection of pale silk chiffon; another, a tangle of bioluminescent necklaces cascading from a bauble. Both marine drifters (Desmonema glaciale and Physalia) feature in jellyfish expert Gershwin’s absorbing coffee-table book on this transparent group with three evolutionary lineages. Succinct science is intercut with surreal portraiture — from the twinkling Santa’s hat jellyfish (Periphylla periphylla) to the delicate blue by-the-wind sailor (Velella velella).

To read more about Jellyfish, click here.

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