Cultural Studies

New Books in December

As the weather cools and the holiday season approaches, treat yourself to one of our great new December titles!

Cover of On Paradox: The Claims of Theory by Elizabeth S. Anker. Cover features the title in large all-caps blue font against a plain white background.

In On Paradox, Elizabeth S. Anker contends that the faith in the logic of paradox has been the watermark of left intellectualism since the second half of the twentieth century, showing how paradox generates the very exclusions it critiques and undercuts theory’s commitment to social justice.

Piro Rexhepi explores the overlapping postsocialist and postcolonial border regimes in the Balkans that are designed to protect whiteness and exclude Muslim, Roma, and migrant communities in White Enclosures.

The contributors to Turning Archival, edited by Daniel Marshall and Zeb Tortorici, trace the rise of “the archive” as an object of historical desire and study within queer studies and examine how it fosters historical imagination and knowledge.

In Feltness, Stephanie Springgay considers socially engaged art as a practice of research-creation that germinates a radical pedagogy she calls feltness—a set of intimate practices of creating art based on touch, affect, relationality, love, and responsibility.

Cover of Ain't But a Few of Us: Black Music Writiers Tell Their Stories by Willard Jenkins. Cover features pink spotted border on left with purple background to the right. Various sized rectangles across the center feature pictures of hands, somone writing, and instruments. Orange subtitle is bottom-right of images, white title is above, and word US in captial pink. Author's name is below-right images in yellow.

Ain’t But a Few of Us, edited by Willard Jenkins, presents over two dozen candid dialogues with Black jazz critics and journalists who discuss the barriers to access for Black jazz critics and how they contend with the world of jazz writing dominated by white men.

In Poverty and Wealth in East Africa, Rhiannon Stephens offers a conceptual history of how people living in eastern Uganda have sustained and changed their ways of thinking about wealth and poverty over the past two thousand years.

Examining a wide range of photography from across the global South, the contributors to Cold War Camera, edited by Thy Phu, Erina Duganne, and Andrea Noble, explore the visual mediation of the Cold War, illuminating how photography shaped how it was prosecuted and experienced.

In Memory Construction and the Politics of Time in Neoliberal South Korea, Namhee Lee explores how social memory and neoliberal governance in post-1987 South Korea have disavowed the revolutionary politics of the past.

Cover of New Growth: The Art and Texture of Black Hair by Jasmine Nichole Cobb. Cover is red with black and white lettering and features a historical picture of a Black woman in a low-cut dress in the middle. Where her hair would be is a collection of black brush strokes so that she looks like she is wearing a large wig or hat. Underneath her image, upside down, text reads "the strange sit-in that changed a city."

Through close readings of slave narratives, scrapbooks, travel illustration, documentary film and photography, as well as collage, craft, and sculpture, Jasmine Nichole Cobb explores Black hair as a visual material through which to reimagine the sensual experience of Blackness in New Growth.

The contributors to New World Orderings, edited by Lisa Rofel and Carlos Rojas, demonstrate that China’s twenty-first-century rise occurs not only through economics and state politics, but equally through its relationships and interactions with the Global South.

Focusing on his personal day to day experiences of the “shelter-in-place” period during the first months of the coronavirus pandemic, Alberto Moreiras offers a meditation on intellectual life and the nature of thought under the suspension of time and conditions of isolation in Uncanny Rest.

Cover of Ruderal City: Ecologies of Migration, Race, and Urban Nature in Berlin by Bettina Stoetzer. Cover is a photograph focused on a small patch of a yellow flower bush. In the background past the bush is an out of focus bridge with a yellow train on it. The sky is blue.

In Ruderal City, Bettina Stoetzer traces the more-than-human relationships between people, plants, and animals in contemporary Berlin, showing how Berlin’s “urban nature” becomes a key site in which notions of citizenship and belonging as well as racialized, gendered, and classed inequalities become apparent.

Veit Erlmann examines the role of copyright law in post-apartheid South Africa and its impact on the South African music industry in Lion’s Share, showing how copyright is inextricably entwined with race, popular music, postcolonial governance, indigenous rights, and the struggle to create a more equitable society.

Rumya Sree Putcha uses the figure of the Indian classical dancer to explore the complex dynamics of contemporary transnational Indian womanhood in The Dancer′s Voice.

In Feminism in Coalition Liza Taylor examines how U.S. women of color feminists’ coalitional collective politics of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s is an indispensable resource to contemporary political theory, feminist studies, and intersectional social justice activism.

Cover of Cooling the Tropics: Ice, Indigeneity, and Hawaiian Refreshment by Hi'ilei Julia Kawehipuaakahaopulani Hobart. White title centered and transparent with "the" centered left and transparent white subtitle to the right. Background features a blue tinged picture of girl eating ice cream in front of light blue, purple, pink, and orange/yellow blended background. Author name in all caps in blue along bottom.

Hiʻilei Julia Kawehipuaakahaopulani Hobart charts the social history of ice in Hawaiʻi in Cooling the Tropics, showing how ice and refrigeration underpinned settler colonial ideas about race, environment, and the senses.

The contributors to Siting Postcoloniality, edited by Pheng Cheah and Caroline S. Hau, reevaluate the notion of the postcolonial by focusing on the Sino-sphere—the region of East and Southeast Asia that has been significantly shaped by relations with China throughout history.

Rupal Oza follows the social life of rape in rural northwest India to reveal how rape is a language through which issues ranging from caste to justice to land are contested in Semiotics of Rape.

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A Playlist for Marcus Boon’s The Politics of Vibration

Marcus Boon is Professor of English at York University, author of In Praise of Copying and The Road of Excess: A History of Writers on Drugs, and coauthor of Nothing: Three Inquiries in Buddhism. His new book The Politics of Vibration: Music as a Cosmopolitical Practice explores music as a material practice of vibration in which different historical and geographical scenes, negotiating the political limits of the worlds they inhabit, attempt to creat a vibrational space of individual and collective transformation.

The Politics of Vibration sets out new ways of thinking about what music is. It proposes that music should be thought of as the generation of particular types of vibrational space. The book focuses on the work of three musicians who produce such vibrational spaces—they might seem to belong to very different worlds: Hindustani raga singer Pandit Pran Nath, Swedish drone composer and mathematician Catherine Christer Hennix, and Houston based hip hop originator of the chopped and screwed sound, DJ Screw. What these musicians have in common is an interest in slowing music—and therefore time—down. When you slow music and time down, you start to become aware of space, vibrational space. You also start to exit the dominant time regime—which is where, perhaps surprisingly, the politics of vibration comes in. Following Isabelle Stengers I use the word “cosmopolitics” to describe the kinds of political disputes that ensue concerning the ontology of music. And following my mentor, Catherine Christer Hennix, I consider what kinds of music, sound and vibration are permissible in a society? In other words, what music is allowed to be.

If you are exposed to the richness of vibrational space via music, your sense of ontology changes—vibrational space gathers scenes, musical scenes around it, the way a flower gathers bees in the summertime. These scenes can tell us something about how to live, how we might live, according to what is most valuable, what transforms us. That’s the wager of my book. I’m not sure to capture all of that in a video clip, but it’s all there in probably my favorite film about music, Mani Kaul’s 1983 Dhrupad, an experimental documentary about the Indian Dhrupad masters, the Dagar Brothers:

Composing a playlist for my book is a challenging thing to do because the vibrational spaces in which music’s power unfolds cannot be reduced to recordings or YouTube clips (although those things may play a role!). Nonetheless, recordings can point us in important directions — and as with DJ Screw or the Jamaican dancehall scene that Julian Henriques explored in wonderful detail in his book Sonic Bodies—powerful vibrational spaces can be created around recordings. This is captured wonderfully in John Akomfrah’s 1986 documentary Handsworth Songs about the Black community in Handsworth, UK, for example in this clip of the mighty Jah Shaka sound system:

I didn’t set out to write a book about slow music, but Pandit Pran Nath, Catherine Christer Hennix and DJ Screw all make music that is slow: Pran Nath’s focus on the alaap section of the raga, Hennix’s drones and Screw’s chopped and screwed mixtapes are all concerned with slowing time down and what happens when you do this, something psychotropic, something in which a new kind of space—vibrational space—opens up to perception. That space is not there only for slow music—but slowing things down can help us attune ourselves to its existence.

In terms of a slowed down sound, it’s worth listening to Pandit Pran Nath’s teacher/guru, master of the Kirana gharana, Abdul Wahid Khan. Waheed Khan was a reclusive man and not many recordings by him exist. One of the recordings he made for All India Radio is here:

Singer Salamat Ali Khan said of him that “he would begin to improvise in Lahore, and you could travel to Delhi and back, and he would still be improvising.” According to master sarod-player Ali Akbar Khan, when most singers went to the radio station, they would sing their ragas and go home. Abdul Wahid Khan would continue for another 20 hours or so. Once, a disciple asked Abdul Wahid Khan why he only sang two ragas, Todi, a morning raga, and Darbari, an evening raga. Abdul Wahid Khan responded that he would have dropped the latter, if the morning would last forever.

You can hear Wahid Khan’s style if you listen to maybe his most famous student Hirabai Barodekar — and you can hear it when you listen to Pandit Pran Nath — for example his remarkable version of Raga Malkauns, as recorded by minimalist OG La Monte Young in 1976 in New York:

Note the rich and dense sound of the tamburas—recorded in such a way that minimalism and rock are somehow there even as the recording stays true to tradition. For Pandit Pran Nath music’s core was a matter of practice, of taking care of the voice and of attunement to the raga’s unfolding in the contingency and necessity of the moment. Probably the best way to start understanding Pran Nath’s approach to music is via William Farley’s beautiful short 1986 documentary In Between the Notes: A Portrait of Pandit Pran Nath, with its scenes of Pran Nath practicing in various places outdoors.

Swedish composer and mathematician Catherine Christer Hennix, whose work is discussed in chapter 2 of the book, was instructed by Pran Nath to continue her research into the mathematical and other possibilities of vibrational space, as her musical contribution. Her most famous recording, The Electric Harpsichord, made in 1976 at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm during her ten day festival of sounds, is apparently built around the scale for Raga Multani—but it exists in a very different sound world to traditional Indian music:

In my years of conversations with Hennix, I gradually came to understand an entirely new kind of philosophy of music that she was setting out—and I try to track that in my book in both the chapter on her sound works, and the chapter entitled “Music and the Continuum.” I can’t really unpack it all here, but fundamental to the book is the idea of target states, something that Hennix discusses: music can aspire to states of elevation, spiritual transformation that are both individual and collective. While many musicians and listeners might agree with that, Hennix has pursued the question of whether there are particular kinds of logic, practice or musical procedure that can generate these states – in fact that for her is a meaningful definition of composition, a “Deontic Miracle” to use the name of one of her bands from the 1970s … “deontic” … a set of logical rules governing an ethics of permission and/or prohibition … “miracle” … something that happens despite its impossibility … “deontic miracle” … a set of logical rules that generate a miracle. You can hear this at work in this 2014 live recording of Hennix’s Chora(s)san Time-Court Mirage performing Blues Alif Lam Mim—but you have to listen through and allow the sound to open up and engage you:

While Hennix insists that it is only perhaps a very limited number of musics that actually pursue these ideas with complete rigor—my own feeling is that all music worth the name pursues this kind of “deontic miracle” to varying degrees. It doesn’t necessarily require knowledge of advanced mathematics—it requires the ability to improvise a sonic or vibrational pattern out of the social, political and environmental possibilities of the moment in such a way that it moves people. The idea that there are mathematical aspects to such improvisation is an intriguing one—and in the chapter “Music and the Continuum” I pursue the idea by comparing Hennix’s ideas with those of Guerino Mazzola, whose epic book The Topos of Music presents an expansive and nuanced take on music and mathematics—and through thinking about Julian Henriques aforementioned work in Sonic Bodies, in which he explores the various vibrational bandwidths involved in a successful Jamaican sound system session. From this I develop the mathematical/philosophical idea of a topos as a model for vibrational space—a space in which transformations can happen. I look at different musics, from Philip Corner’s metallophone experiments, to waterfalls, Keiji Haino’s sound experiments, Sri Karunamayee’s impossible singing scales, to raga folk guitarist Peter Walker’s recent performances and the Toronto based Prince cover band Snow in April.

I love this footage of Walker from 2009—a music that is all improvisational nuance and a beautiful example of what Mazzola means when he talks about music as involving a gestural topos, the music not just the notes, but the gestures which are the necessary condition of the sounds that emerge. Indeed: emerges, in the sense that Walker himself looks surprised and delighted when certainly note sequences occur, and sometimes looks towards the audience to see if they heard it too. For listening is gestural too.

Juxtaposing Houston based DJ Screw with Pandit Pran Nath and Catherine Christer Hennix might seem like a strange thing to do. Honestly, these were the sounds that I found myself listening to again and again over the last decade—and it is only when I started to write about Screw that I started to feel the connections and commonalities in terms of a slowed down sound, a radical experiment with time and vibration, and a very underappreciated one, thus also one with its own politics. Screw was a hip hop DJ, and used the variable speed controller on his turntables and cassette recorder to slow the music he played down. Screw created vibrational spaces … they appear like a miracle when he slows things down — listen for example to the stunning mix he made of Erykah Badu’s “Otherside of the Game:”

It might seem like for Screw, whose almost entire oeuvre consists of a series of 300 plus mixtapes, music was “nothing but the recordings,” yet the gatherings of MCs nightly in the “wood room” of his house in south side Houston in the 1990s also generated a powerful vibrational space that was then transmitted to the massed car stereos of Texas, slowing down time under the most hostile and racialized conditions. In terms of long form slowed music, Screw’s most famous track the 37 minute collective freestyle often just known as “June 27th” on the mixtape Screw made for Demo Sherman on his birthday in 1996 has a powerful sense of social space as vibrational space:

These are all tracks about time, about time that gets suspended, stretched, or compressed, as Fred Moten says in his essay “Black Topological Existence,” into a “topological existence” based on “a mechanics of distress”. That’s particularly the case with Screw’s version of UGK’s “One Day”—especially the 14 minute version to be found on Chapter 70, Endonesia, with its reciting of many friends and family deceased, doing time or elsewhere.

Those who want to know more should read Lance Scott Walker’s excellent new biography of Screw, or his oral history of Houston hip hop, Houston Rap Tapes.

There’s maybe no easy exit to space the way the white avant gardes tried to imagine it. But that then is the politics of vibration as someone like Sun Ra meant when he said “space is the place”. In fact, I don’t think there’s an easy exit to space for anyone — powerful though variable chains, mental and otherwise, block this for all of us today, and thus we have music in the reified and packaged state that we mostly experience it as. But music can be and often is a project for undoing this, and that is what the musicians in my book do. In my book, I conclude with some lessons learnt by talking with and listening to Canadian indigenous hiphop crew until recently named A Tribe Called Red, now known as The Halluci Nation. Listen to their synthesis of electronics, sound system culture and traditional indigenous pow wow music, as on “Electric Pow Wow Drum” with its Cree war cry and pow wow rhythms from their first record:

Bear Witness, a member of the crew, reminds us that music sound and vibration emerge from the land, from our own living heartbeats no matter how this is obscured in settler colonial cultures. That is what we mean by cosmopolitics and music as a cosmopolitical practice. We all come to music from different positionalities, and in a sense all human societies improvise the object/event called music out of the environment’s possibilities. This is true of traditional musics—but it is also prospectively true, in the sense that new arrangements, new articulations can and will happen, and our work (and joy) is to amplify and deepen the possibility of those new sounds and the forms of life that gather around them.

You can order The Politics of Vibration for 30% off with coupon E22BOON.

A Playlist to Accompany No Machos or Pop Stars by Gavin Butt

Gavin Butt is  Professor of Fine Art at Northumbria University, author of Between You and Me: Queer Disclosures in the New York Art World, 1948–1963 and coeditor of Post-Punk Then and Now. His new book No Machos or Pop Stars: When the Leeds Art Experiment Went Punk tells the story of the post-punk scene in the northern English city of Leeds, showing how bands ranging from Gang of Four, Soft Cell, and Delta 5 to Mekons, Scritti Politti, and Fad Gadget drew on their university art school education to push the boundaries of pop music. Here he offers a playlist to accompany the book.

The Three Johns were one of my favorite bands in the mid-1980s. Hailing from Leeds, this late period post-punk outfit held my teenage imagination because they made beatbox-driven, Captain Beefheart-esque music with lyrics that as a burgeoning young Marxist I really got lost in. My head was full of the fictions etched in lead singer John Hyatt’s sometimes opaque and absurd, other times more directly political lyrics. “Oh the mob expects malnutrition,” Hyatt sings, “Robots are guarding that old ribcage fashion / Flamin’ torches, pick axe handles / Looking down the water-cannon of pop music,” before then going on to chorus “Rock and roll, rock and roll, rock n roll / is an ideological product” and – genius I thought – “Rock and roll is pop music / For the credit card hospital.” I really loved the irony of these lines. The Johnnies were holding up their sullied hands, signalling how the capitalist entertainment business could be treacherous and betray the intentions of even the most ardent Lefty rockers.

TRACK 1: The Three Johns, Sun of Mud, 1984

But I wasn’t drawn to The Three Johns solely because of their avowed political stance, nor even simply because I liked jumping around to their music, usually while drunk. They loomed large for me then because I also knew from reading the NME that two of the Three Johns went to art school. The art connection was unmistakably present on the band’s record covers which featured paintings by Hyatt, drawings by Jon Langford, and work by the post-conceptual British artist Terry Atkinson. Atkinson was then teaching in the Fine Art studios at the University of Leeds where Hyatt and Langford had been his students.

No Machos or Pop Stars explores the impact and significance of UK art education upon the course of popular music around the time of punk rock. Focusing upon the overlooked history of radical art school pedagogy and music in Leeds, the book shows how England’s state-funded education policy brought together art students from different social classes to create a fertile ground for musical experimentation. It delineates the conditions of possibility which birthed The Three Johns alongside Gang of Four, Delta 5, Soft Cell, Mekons, Scritti Politti, Fad Gadget and other post-punk, electro-pop and art-punk bands – and ultimately shows the subversive influence of art school in a regional music scene of lasting international significance.

Students at the University of Leeds in the mid-1970s found themselves in a visual art department with an unusually radical outlook. Spearheaded by department chair, and social historian of art, T.J. Clark alongside feminist scholar Griselda Pollock and post-conceptual artist Terry Atkinson, such students were steeped in forms of critical thinking about art that soon found unlikely expression in music. After seeing the Sex Pistols and other punk bands at Leeds Polytechnic in December 1976, soon-to-be-members of Gang of Four, Mekons and Delta 5 started to make music that showed a debt to its art school origins.

TRACK 2: Gang of Four, At Home He’s a Tourist, 1979

‘At Home He’s Tourist’ was conceived and recorded at the same time as guitarist Andy Gill and vocalist Jon King were completing their history of art dissertations on Manet and Carl Andre respectively at the Leeds department. The thematic preoccupations of the song with alienated pleasures (“At home he feels like a tourist / He fills his head with culture / He gives himself an ulcer”), alongside its “dislocated” musical composition, bears the imprint of social analyses by Marx and Simmel read by members of the band at the time. As Gill has said: “A lot of the ideas that we talked about, that TJ Clark was talking about […] informed the attitudes and words of Gang of Four.”

TRACK 3: Scritti Politti, Skank Block Bologna, 1978

Meanwhile, Green Gartside, then a student of visual art at nearby Leeds Polytechnic, took the link between critical theory and music production even further. Influenced by the conceptual art collective Art & Language, he took it upon himself to read the work of theorists and philosophers not included in the studio teaching of the university’s sister organisation. Staying away from his studio space for long periods of time, preferring instead the sanctuary of the library or his student flat, Gartside sought to inform himself of the intellectual resources to question the habitual beliefs that surrounded art-making in the mid-seventies. After punk, and joined by fellow art student Tom Morley and old friend Nial Jinks, he founded band Scritti Politti which soon took this theorising from art to music. The band’s first single, the dissonant Skank Bloc Bologna, can be heard as a musical expression straining to find the language to represent – and hold together – the tensions and contradictions of revolutionary agency as theorised in the writings of Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci. The song flirts with different musical genres, without committing wholeheartedly to any single one: there is a rudimentary dub feel to the rhythm, to the looping bass and rimshots, but the insistent use of the open “hi-hat” (actually empty metal film cans), the unruly almost maniacally untutored glockenspiel (or what sounds like a glockenspiel), even some anomalous rock fills, create the sense of a rhythm section at odds with itself. This is even before we consider the angular-sounding chords strummed on the guitar which, on beat one, all but obliterate any skanking stroke on beats two and four. This is confusing, our expectation frustrated. Skanking, at least, appears to be at the song’s titular heart.

TRACK 4: The Mekons, Never Been in a Riot, 1979

The Mekons and Delta 5 took the art school preoccupation with formal experimentation in a slightly different direction – to the social form of the band itself. In a bid to eschew the single white male authorial voice, the Mekons decided to sport two vocalists rather than one; on the understanding, presumably, that more than one singer (or leader) secured a greater likelihood of remaining open to dissent and difference, even though effectively resulting in more white frontmen. Similarly, Delta 5 attempted to de-emphasise singular band members and the hero-worship which could follow from it by habitually swapping roles in live performances of songs like Triangle, where Julz Sale and Ros Allen would often switch places between vocals and bass playing. This was also a feature of early Gang of Four performances of tracks like ‘It’s Her Factory’.

TRACK 5, Delta 5, Triangle (John Peel session)

Destroying traditional rock band formats was an important feminist priority in the Leeds milieu. Allen has said: “Bethan (Peters) and I noted that most women who were involved [in rock bands], if they weren’t the singer, they were the bass player. We wanted to play on that by having two basses: Ros was a bass player, and Bethan was a bass player […] We wanted to take the piss out of the fact that nearly every punk band, or band around, that had a female in it, always played the bass.” Allen wanted her bass so deep that “it made you fart” when it came out of the amplifier she further recalls. Playing off a “toppy” bass against a “bottom-y” one became trademark Delta 5 sound.

TRACK 6: Delta 5, Alone, 1980

‘Alone’ was a live favourite and never released as a studio recording. The insistent assertion of a female need to be alone resonated darkly in the context of the Yorkshire Ripper’s reign of terror in West Yorkshire in the 1970s. The late Jules Sale recalled that “the first time that we played it, Andy Gill (of Gang of Four) said afterwards to change it, because it initially ended up on a hysterical note. He said you’ve got to bring it down. So that you’re not this hysterical woman. And that’s one of the best things that Gill said.” This is a recording of a performance at Hurrah in New York in 1980.

TRACK 7: Fad Gadget, Diminished Responsibility, 1981

The pedagogy of the Fine Art Department at Leeds Polytechnic drew more heavily upon European models of early-twentieth century avant-gardism than that at the university. Students who studied there were encouraged to explore the aesthetics of shock and surrealist collage, especially through forms of intermedia or performance art. To aid students in this, Polytechnic facilities included a small sound studio and performance area – somewhat unusual for a 1970s UK art college. Students that used these resources included Frank Tovey, later to become known as electro-industrial music pioneer Fad Gadget, and Dave Ball and Marc Almond who formed pop duo Soft Cell at the Fine Art Christmas Party in December 1979. ‘Diminished Responsibility’, released sometime after Tovey graduated from Leeds on 1981 album Incontinent, continues the ethos of Tovey’s experiments with unsettling drone-based sound continua whilst making performance art at the Polytechnic. Tovey was interested in the power of music and performance to shock and unsettle, and the pulsing sense of electronic unease evident here is enhanced by mechanised and whispering voices, sudden canon and gunshot sounds, and the calls to action of militaristic music and a sergeant major. The horror of diminished military responsibility?

TRACK 8: Soft Cell, The Girl with the Patent Leather Face, 1981

An early demo version of this Soft Cell track was recorded in the Leeds Polytechnic sound studio and engineered in their tutor John Darling’s home studio in Yorkshire. The song lyrically luxuriates in empathic ventriloquy of the song’s mutant heroine: “You can laugh, point at me / They do it all the time / But how would you like it if you had / A face like mine” sings Marc Almond, from the “Girl’s” point of view. The song starts with a note of sci-fi horror but it soon becomes apparent that the true horror here is the treatment the song’s protagonist receives from the normals (“A target for the freaks and creeps / A reject of the human race”). Almond’s vocals are accompanied by Dave Ball’s buzzing electronics and manipulated sounds.

TRACK 9: Graeme Miller & Steve Shill (aka The Commies From Mars)

In the 1981 BBC television documentary A Town Like New Orleans? Miller and Shill appear as The Commies From Mars, driving around post-industrial Leeds in their Morris Minor Traveller. They seem like spirit-guides for that time and place, providing its soundscape in oddball, Casio-inflected DIY electronica. Shill was a fine art student at the university, one-time bass player for art school outfit Sheeny and the Goys, and Miller studied Spanish. They made music together as the Commies but also for the theatrical productions of Impact Theatre Cooperative, of which they were members. This recording comes from the soundtrack recorded by the duo for children’s TV programme The Moomins, first screened in the UK in 1983. The track was released on vinyl by Finders Keepers in 2016.

TRACK 10: Ron Crowcroft, Gogo dancer, 1981

Crowcroft was influenced by Fluxus artists whilst an art student at Leeds and this continued to be evident in the electronic music he began to make after graduating in the early 1980s. ‘Gogo Dancer’’s charm lies in its repetitive, almost roboticized simplicity – all achieved through DIY use of cheaply available electronic instruments and pre-set drumlines. Originally released on a cassette compilation Overarm Delivery, VEC Audio Editions No. 10, 1981, it found distribution through the sharing possibilities of early eighties cassette culture, thereby by-passing the need for record companies to achieve a “release.”

Order No Machos or Pop Stars (and all our in-stock and pre-order titles) for 50% off through October 28 with coupon FL22. After October 28, you can still save 30% with coupon E22MACHO. If ordering from outside North and South America, we suggest purchasing from our UK-based distributor, Combined Academic Publishers, using the same coupon codes.

Jean-Luc Godard and the Shock of the New Wave

Jean-Luc Godard passed away on September 13, 2022. Eric Smoodin, author of Paris in the Dark, is an expert on French film culture and offers this guest post in remembrance. Smoodin is Professor of American Studies at the University of California, Davis, and also author of Regarding Frank Capra and coeditor of Looking Past the Screen.

“The camera is a living being…unstable…it’s a body trying to keep its balance……and this imbalance is the very sign of life.” That was how Pierre Marcabru, writing in Combat in March 1960, described À Bout de souffle in his perplexed, admiring, and not always positive review of Jean-Luc Godard’s first feature-length film. When Godard died last month, he left a body of work that had transformed the cinema, and he was acknowledged as one of the most important filmmakers of the last sixty years. But how was he understood at the very beginning of his career, a career so intertwined with the start of the New Wave, and so connected to a belief, among critics in France, filmmakers, and quite possibly the public, that French cinema had just been unalterably changed?

Despite the extensive bibliography about Godard and his work, the available evidence is hard to come by, at least for film historians working in the United States. Of the Bibliothèque nationale’s vast online holdings, the only daily from the period that readily can be accessed is Combat, which had been founded during the war as a Resistance newspaper, but that despite its interest in politics always gave a great deal of space to the cinema. It’s difficult to generalize from Combat, but the newspaper certainly paid attention to Godard, even before À Bout de souffle opened in Paris, perhaps a sign of the young filmmaker’s place in French film culture broadly.

A clipping from a newspaper article in French.
“A sour, aggressive…razor-sharp film.” Pierre Marcabru’s review of À Bout de souffle in Combat, March 19, 1960.

In Combat at the time, Godard typically would be mentioned in relation to the New Wave and to other young filmmakers, often as one among many and then increasingly as the first among equals. In July 1959, for instance, the newspaper’s headline acknowledged a sort of aggressive attack by a group of new directors and screenwriters; “No Respite for the New Wave’s Assault on Cinema.”  In Combat’s telling, these cineastes—all of them men—“reflected the phenomenon of the New Wave in cinema.” Combat named many of them, the movies they had made, and also how old they were. The list is familiar to us now—Claude Chabrol, 28 years old, Le Beau Serge (1958), and François Truffaut, 27 years old, Les 400 Coups (1959), for example. But it also contains names and films mostly unknown so many years later—Jean-Pierre Mocky, 30 years old, Les Dragueurs (1959), and Claude Bernard-Aubert, 28 years old, Les Tripes au soleil (1959). In this narrative, Godard is very much in the second wave of the New Wave, “among the new names on the horizon” yet to make a first feature, along with Jacques Demy and Louis Malle.

Combat continued writing about these young, exciting filmmakers, including Godard, who by that time had only made some short films. In January 1960, still a few months before the premiere of À Bout de Souffle, Roger Tailleur lauded “a new generation of cineastes,” including Godard but also Marcel Hanoun, Eric Rohmer, Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, Philippe de Broca, and many others.

By March, though, just a few days before À Bout de souffle opened, Godard and Truffaut had begun separating themselves, at least in Combat, from their contemporaries. The newspaper ran an interview with American producer Sam Spiegel, recently arrived in France, in order to frame the cinema as being in something of a generational conflict. The 58-year-old Spiegel, responsible for The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and who was in preparation for Lawrence of Arabia (1962), came from a long line of hardened veterans who believed that, “after D.W. Griffith, the director had died,” replaced in importance by the movie producer. Combat then pointed out, though, that “nevertheless, he had come to Paris to see the films of François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, those “intellectuals from Cahiers du Cinéma whose theories of…film are…the opposite of his.”

A clipping from a newspaper article in French.
“A New Generation of Filmmakers,” including Godard, in Combat, January 23, 1960.

Just a few days later, À Bout de souffle opened at four very fashionable Parisian cinémas d’exclusivité, the Vivienne in the second arrondissement, the Balzac in the eighth, the Helder in the ninth, and Scala in the tenth. Godard’s premiere stood out as a notable event in the city, even though other films beginning that week point to the astonishing film culture in Paris at the time: Fritz Lang’s Les Contrebandiers de Moonflet (Moonfleet [1955]), Blake Edwards’ Opérations jupons (Operation Petticoat [1959]), and Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali (1955), among others. Marcabru’s extensive review in Combat seemed to mirror the film itself, a series of jump cuts between emotions and reactions; “À Bout de souffle is a sour, aggressive film…a dry film with a prodigious contempt for human weakness…a razor-sharp film.” Marcabru tried to describe the experience of seeing a film that “comes towards us in fits and starts…the eye and ear never attached to continuity in vision and hearing,” providing us with a “cinema of tensions.”

After the shock of À Bout de souffle, Godard became the great star of the New Wave. Two weeks after the opening, Combat reported that the film had finished second to Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959), by one vote, for the best French film since September 1959 among the editors of the literary journal La Nouvelle Critique. The next month, Combat told readers that the Ministry of Affairs had chosen À Bout de souffle to represent France at the Cannes film festival, and then, in July, that Godard had won the best director prize at the Berlin film festival. Marcabru himself kept writing about the film, explaining in April 1960, in an article headlined Ethnologie et cinéma, that Godard was actually a sociologist, telling us more about human behavior than any expert in the field.

Combat now treated Godard, not yet thirty, as something of a mentor to other New Wave directors, and as an important model for young, serious filmmakers around the world. The newspaper wrote admiringly of the 29-year-old Jacques Demy making his first feature, Lola (1961), with “the blessing” of his “production advisor,” Jean-Luc Godard. Then, in an enthusiastic review of the just-released Shadows, an anonymous critic confidently explained that the technique of the film “was very close to that which Jean-Luc Godard utilized in À Bout de souffle,” asserting influence even though the director, John Cassavetes, had finished his 1958 film well before Godard had begun his.

A photo of three men filming in a vehicle from a French newspaper article. Two men hold camera equipment, while the third drives the car.
From Combat, April 4, 1960, Godard (in sunglasses) filming Le Petit Soldat in Geneva.

Godard consistently would be used to signify the ongoing health and vibrancy of the French cinema, and the terms here were those of continuity rather than the earlier “assault.” In August 1960, Jean-Louis Caussou reflected in Combat on “The New Film Season,” and viewed it as marked both by a welcome return of “the old guard,” with the opening of Abel Gance’s Austerlitz (1960), and by the spectacular new films by Godard, as well as Truffaut, Malle, and Claude Autant-Lara.

Combat began reporting on Godard’s second feature, Le Petit Soldat, in February 1960, even before his first, À Bout de souffle, had opened. By the time Godard had finished Le Petit Soldat, the film and the controversy around it had become a major news story. The Minister of Information, Louis Terrenoire, who oversaw the French film censorship commission, had banned this film about the Algerian war, largely because of the movie’s depiction of the French army’s use of torture against Algerian liberation fighters. Combat took up the commission’s decision in order to argue against censorship in general, and also saw Terrenoire’s action as the death knell of the New Wave, “putting an end to the ambitions of young directors who wish to bring to the screen something other” than the expected and the conventional.

Even more than Terrenoire, the man Combat named as most responsible for banning the film was Jean-Marie Le Pen. At the time a young member of the national assembly, Le Pen would become the leader of the anti-immigrant, antisemitic French ultra-right, a position now held by his daughter, Marine le Pen.  In 1960, Le Pen père demanded that Le Petit Soldat not be shown anywhere in France or elsewhere, and argued unsuccessfully that Godard himself should be expelled from the country.

A cartoon caricature of Minister of Information Louis Terrenoire.
Godard included his caricature of Minister of Information Louis Terrenoire in his article about censorship. Combat, September 22, 1960

Referring to the scenes that Terrenoire found objectionable, Combat quoted Godard as saying that “the instances of torture last three-and-a-half minutes in a 90-minute film, and therefore do not exceed that which is tolerated in detective, horror, science fiction, or spy films.” Then Combat enlisted Godard to provide a response to the controversy, and the director wrote both dismissively and humorously about the actions taken against his film. Godard insisted, first, that “I don’t think anything about censorship,” but then added that “we must say what we have to say, express what we feel without worrying about…censorship.” He went on that “if we really are of this century, we necessarily pose the problems of this century through stories,” while “censorship…aims to preserve principles fixed in the past.” Godard concluded that censorship is “like someone telling you, ‘I don’t like your belt, it’s shocking, take it off.’” Then, when you comply, “your pants fall down and that’s even more shocking…so you get put in jail.”

In just one year, at least in Combat, Godard had gone from one of many very promising young French filmmakers to a leading spokesperson for freedom of speech and expression. Reading through the newspaper’s reporting on Godard from that period, we can get a sense of the impact of his films, of the intense shock of the new. This is the recurring motif of Marcabru’s review of À Bout de Souffle, and, in fact, of so much of the writing about Godard in the decades that followed. “It is a new beginning of cinema,” Marcabru wrote. “It is crucial.”

Q&A with Donovan O. Schaefer

Donovan Schafer 5a (1)Donovan O. Schaefer is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Religious Affects: Animality, Evolution, and Power, also published by Duke University Press, and The Evolution of Affect Theory: The Humanities, the Sciences, and the Study of Power. Schaefer’s new book is Wild Experiment: Feeling Science and Secularism after Darwin. Examining the reception of evolutionary biology, the 1925 Scopes Trial, and the New Atheist movement of the 2000s, Schaefer theorizes the relationship between thinking and feeling by challenging the conventional wisdom that they are separate.

How does Wild Experiment, which is your second book, build on or diverge from your earlier book Religious Affects?

After writing Religious Affects, I had a lot of people tell me they were convinced by its core argument—that affect theory is an excellent lens for studying the relationship between religion and power. But it also ended up reaffirming a binary that I found troubling: the notion that religion is uniquely driven by affect, the emotional counterpart to secular rationality.

That’s not what I meant to put forward at all. I think affect theory offers what Lauren Berlant calls a “sensualized epistemology,” a way of defining the relationship between thinking and feeling, rather than just building out the study of feeling as a domain radically separate from thinking. So Wild Experiment goes much further than Religious Affects in setting out to show how what we think of as purely cognitive processes—including reason, science, and secular rationality—are determined by affect.

That said, a big part of what the book is up to is making the case that seeing thinking and feeling as connected doesn’t mean that we can’t learn, reflect, and build our understanding of the world around us. Knowledge-making is a process that’s shot through with affects, but as I argue in the Introduction, that’s both why it works when it works and why it gets pulled off course.

978-1-4780-1825-4_prIn your Introduction, and then throughout your book, you are interested in “the emotions that move thought” and “the way thinking feels” (3). Can you say a bit about how your book breaks down the thinking/feeling binary?

The thinking/feeling binary is what I think of as an “ambient” paradigm. It’s not necessarily something that scholars—or anyone else—says or writes down. They don’t have to. It saturates so much of our thinking that it’s everywhere, from academic monographs to social media feeds to chatting at the bar. Even some thinkers who push back on the priority of cognition will tend to reiterate the binary, reaffirming the value of the affective by assigning it priority over cognition. This is a syntax that informs a lot of affect theory, especially versions of affect theory that are most closely associated with the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze.

That doesn’t at all mean the binary is accepted across the board. The first half of the book is an extended survey of thinkers and literatures that push back on the binary from different directions. Some of that comes from within the Western philosophical tradition, but I’m especially interested in other strands of affect theory (especially as informed by queer of color theory), postcolonial critiques of secularism, science and technology studies, the post-critical turn in literary theory, and academic psychology. My hope is that putting all these conversations side by side builds a conceptual critical mass that will help destabilize the thinking/feeling binary.

In addition to being an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, you are also Core Faculty in the Program in Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies. To what extent does this book contribute to or borrow from gender/feminist studies?

I realized after I had finished the book that it had actually started in a seminar I took in grad school on feminist epistemologies with Linda Martín Alcoff. That seminar highlighted the limitations of classical epistemologies that focus exclusively on the intellectual dimension of thought. Feminist epistemologists have been interested in how to connect thinking to embodiment for decades. And feminist epistemology, as I read it, is also centrally concerned with the question of how a belief comes to seem like an expression of impartial reason. Feminists wanted an explanation for why skewed knowledges were so effective at defending themselves with appeals to “reason.” What they found is that the composition of any given political rationality is always configured by a distinct set of historical coordinates. Every reason has a genealogy. Some feminists went further, showing that these genealogies were embodied and affective.

I also draw heavily on the longstanding interest among queer and trans theorists in desire, pleasure, and feeling. The version of affect theory I’m most interested in is a direct outgrowth of these central concerns of queer critique. One of the arguments I make in Chapter 2 is that Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality, Vol. I, one of the foundational texts in queer theory, has actually been read through a prism that blocks some of its most compelling insights. Foucault spends a huge amount of time in that book elaborating what he calls “power-knowledge-pleasure.” That conceptual structure is foundational to the arguments he makes about science, politics, and sexuality. But it gets surprisingly little attention in the secondary literature, especially when Foucault is read outside of queer theory. One of my aims is to develop the conceptual link between science and feeling that has been of vital importance to queer science studies.

One of the book’s major concerns is race, and you engage with a range of figures coming from Black studies and queer of color theory to develop that analysis. What is “racialized reason”?

I’m interested in the question of how something comes to seem “reasonable” to some people in their time and place, and how oppressive regimes of knowledge are able to fortify themselves by appealing to “rationality.” Why does a racist society end up producing, validating, and recirculating racist science, for instance? I don’t think it’s adequate to say that racists create a well-packaged lie that none of them actually believe and put it into circulation to preserve existing hierarchies. I think racist ideas are genuinely believed by racists, even when they verge into absurdity. What I argue, building on queer of color theorists interested in affect, is that it’s because “reason” is not just the neutral analysis of ideas and information. It’s configured by a set of affective parameters that dictate what feels true. Racist structures of feeling configure “rationality” itself, setting the table for racist ideas to feel true.

This is where the constant Trumpist refrain of “fuck your feelings” comes from. White supremacists are able to present themselves as above the fray of “emotions” because what they call “rationality” has been fashioned within a white supremacist society. Their version of “reason” makes racist ideas feel true. Everyone who disagrees with them is dismissed as “emotional.” Sara Ahmed calls this whiteness as an orientation that is in frictionless alignment with the “white world.” The big lie underwriting all this, of course, is that what they call “rationality” has itself been configured by white supremacist structures of feeling. “Reason” has become racialized through its contamination by racist affects. So what they’re really saying is “fuck your feelings—but protect my feelings at all costs.”

Sharon Patricia Holland’s concept of racism’s “erotic life” has been a huge influence on me, too. Her work opened up for me a way of thinking about racism as something that doesn’t have to be associated with a set of functional or economic priorities. Part of what makes racism as intractable as it is—and why it’s so easy for neo-fascist movements to mobilize racism—is the pleasure dimension of racism that doesn’t necessarily reduce to a calculation of costs and benefits for racists. Constantly framing racism as an economic strategy awards way too much political intelligence to racists. Coming from another direction, Sylvia Wynter and Denise Ferreira da Silva’s challenge to a particular Euro-modern definition of “Man” as that which is autonomous and unaffected is crucial for this project.

You talk about the prevalence of misinformation, and how people are compelled not by what is “true,” necessarily, but what “feels true” given what they have already come to know/believe. How might this insight inform the way that people engage with each other across gaps in understanding and differences of thought or values?

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that there’s a global crisis of communication happening right now. One of the dimensions of that crisis, as I see it, is that we still tend to assume that good information always floats to the top, that there’s an inevitable algorithm by which “truth will out.” What I propose, instead, is that we need to see the landscape of information as defined by feeling. That doesn’t mean we’re lost at sea. The work of better understanding ourselves and the world around us is an emotional process—and it succeeds because it’s guided by feeling, what Audre Lorde calls “consciousness of living as a situation to be experienced and interacted with.” But we also need to recognize that sometimes beliefs are fastened in place because they feel good, regardless of whether they’re true. Conspiracy theory, I suggest in the book, is a perfect example of this. It’s a sprawling set of interconnected beliefs that are embraced—passionately—because they’re the most exciting possible interpretation of a situation. Conspiracy theories flourish in the social media age because they’re pitch-perfect clickbait. They explain the world in ways that are profoundly misleading—but feel good. They’re seductive ideas that people quite literally “want to believe.”

On the other hand, I think we also too often tend to assume that people are either “rational”—if they’re following what we consider the right ideas or evidence—or “irrational”—if they refuse. I don’t think that framing of the problem leads anywhere. The liberal fantasy of a rational public sphere—in which people are always and everywhere persuaded by better arguments, more evidence, more facts—is a myth; but it’s also a mistake to think that someone who isn’t persuaded by new information is fundamentally immune to facts. Both of those framings are ways of mapping persuasion according to the thinking/feeling binary. Being more thoughtful about persuasion means recognizing that persuasion is always about reshaping what feels true for someone. Understanding how that affective landscape is shaped by factors that are extrinsic to the content of what you’re saying to someone is crucial. But it’s also important to recognize that facts themselves are powerful tools of persuasion, especially when we consider how facts feel to people in different contexts and positions.

What do you hope that readers take away from Wild Experiment, if you had to sum it up in a tweet?

The thinking/feeling binary is a construct; it’s a construct with a history, but one that has been extraordinarily successful at presenting itself as a natural division. There’s no thinking that we do that isn’t affectively defined. We always feel our way along. And to understand the relationship of knowledge and power, we have to make feeling central to our analysis. As Lorde writes, “The white fathers told us: I think, therefore I am. The Black mother within each of us — the poet — whispers in our dreams: I feel, therefore I can be free. Poetry coins the language to express and charter this revolutionary demand, the implementation of that freedom.”

Read the introduction to Wild Experiment for free and save 30% on the paperback with coupon E22SCHFR.

New Books in October

Fall is in full swing, so curl up with a hot drink, a cozy sweater, and a new book! Check out our October releases.

Memories of a Gay Catholic Boyhood is John D’Emilio’s coming-of-age story in which he takes readers from his working-class Bronx neighborhood and Columbia University to New York’s hidden gay male subculture and the political and social upheavals of the late 1960s. You can catch John D’Emilio discussing his book at the Calandra Italian American Institute in New York City later this month.

Exploring her attraction to tininess and the stories of those who share it, Barbara Browning offers a series of charming short essays that plumb what it means to ponder the minuscule in The Miniaturists.

Cover of No Machos or Pop Stars: When the Leeds Art Experiment Went Punk by Gavin Butt. Cover features a group of young people dressed up for a punk showing laughing together.

Gavin Butt tells the story of the post-punk scene in the northern English city of Leeds in No Machos or Pop Stars, showing how bands ranging from Gang of Four, Soft Cell, and Delta 5 to Mekons, Scritti Politti, and Fad Gadget drew on their university art school education to push the boundaries of pop music. Butt will launch his book at an exciting event in Leeds this month, featuring performances by Scritti Politti and The Mekons77.

In Fragments of Truth, Naomi Angel analyzes the visual culture of reconciliation and memory in relation to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that Canada established in 2008 to review the history of the Indian Residential School system, a brutal colonial project that killed and injured many Indigenous children.

Drawing on the archives of the Black Panther Party and the National Black Women’s Health Project, Sami Schalk explores how issues of disability have been and continue to be central to Black activism from the 1970s to the present in Black Disability Politics. Schalk launches her book at an event at the Ford Foundation in New York City on October 26.

In Changing the Subject, Srila Roy traces the impact of neoliberalism on gender and sexuality rights movements in the Global South through queer and feminist activism in India. Roy is speaking about her book at The New School and Columbia University later this month.

Filipe Maia offers a theological reflection on hope and the future in the context of financialized capitalism in Trading Futures, arguing that the Christian vocabulary of hope can provide the means to build a future beyond the strictures of capitalism.

Cover of The Promise of Multispecies Justice by Sophie Chao, Karin Bolender, and Eben Kirksey. Cover is green with black and white pictures of a plant between wire. Title sits top left in bold white with a light blue line underlinging it. Authors' names sit bottom right in white without bold.

Coming from the worlds of cultural anthropology, geography, philosophy, science fiction, poetry, and fine art, editors Sophie Chao, Karin Bolender, and Eben Kirksey and the contributors to this volume of The Promise of Multispecies Justice consider the possibility for multispecies justice and speculate on the forms it would take. The authors have developed a multimedia website where you can learn more about this collection.

In Health in Ruins, César Ernesto Abadía-Barrero assesses neoliberalism’s devastating effects on a public hospital in Colombia and how health care workers resisted defunding.

Jovan Scott Lewis retells the history and afterlife of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre and its century-long legacy of dispossession in Violent Utopia, placing it in a larger historical and social context of widespread anti-Black racism and segregation in Tulsa and beyond.

In a new revised and expanded twentieth anniversary edition of his classic book Big Game, Small World, sportswriter Alexander Wolff travels the globe in search of what basketball can tell us about the world, and what the world can tell us about the game.

AnaLouise Keating provides a comprehensive investigation of the foundational theories, methods, and philosophies of Gloria E. Anzaldúa in The Anzaldúan Theory Handbook.

Nomenclature collects eight volumes of Dionne Brand’s poetry published between 1983 and 2010, as well as a new long poem, the titular Nomenclature for the time being.

In Obeah, Orisa, and Religious Identity in Trinidad, Volume I, Obeah, Tracey E. Hucks traces the history of the repression of Obeah practitioners in colonial Trinidad.

And in Obeah, Orisa, and Religious Identity in Trinidad, Volume II, Orisa, Dianne M. Stewart analyzes the sacred poetics, religious imagination, and African heritage of Yoruba-Orisa devotees in Trinidad from the mid-nineteenth century to the present.

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Erica Rand on Lauren Berlant’s New Book

Following Lauren Berlant’s death last summer, Erica Rand agreed to shepherd Berlant’s new book On the Inconvenience of Other People to publication. In today’s guest post Rand describes that experience and introduces the book.
Cover of On the Inconvenience of Other People by Lauren Berlant. Bright pink cover features a painted picture of the face of a black cat with one green eye open.

Today Lauren Berlant’s book On The Inconvenience of Other People is out. It appears in the series Writing Matters!, founded in 2019 by Lauren, Saidiya Hartman, Katie Stewart, and me. I’m writing to tell you a bit about the book. Not what it’s about: I invite you to encounter the book for yourself, in your own way and time. Instead, I want to share with you some things I did and learned as I helped move Inconvenience from the completed manuscript—which Lauren submitted, soon before they passed, in June 2021—to the book in print. I took on this project both as a Writing Matters! co-editor and as a close friend, two interdependent roles I mark through the use of “Lauren” and the pronouns “they/them.” Neither corresponds to one of those roles, or to a personal vs. professional relationship; I mean to sidestep the narrative that presents Lauren’s pronouns as an index of intimacy. 

As I indicate in Inconvenience’s “Note to the Reader,” I did the tasks ordinarily performed by a book’s author during the production phase. I reviewed the copyedited manuscript, responding to suggested changes and corrections, and checked the page proofs. I wrote material for the marketing department to work with—much helped by abstracts that Lauren had submitted—and interacted with people at or outside the press as they needed or wanted me and as I needed or wanted them.

My description of the process might be dispassionate, but my experience of it was anything but. Sometimes it was heart-swelling and heart-breaking at once, especially when I encountered lines I could conjure Lauren saying aloud. Like this comment on the common or commons: “The concept is so overloaded you might think that it’s empty, but you’d be wrong.” I could hear a pause after the comma, slightly longer than what a comma versus a period would suggest, then a slight shift. The second part might sound a bit quip-like, maybe with a slightly deepened or higher voice at the end, then a deliberate two-syllable laugh sound, a visible twinkle, a smile with closed lips. 

Then there was the anxiety of copyedits, which I had foolishly expected to be easier to handle than copyedits on my own work. Ordinarily, I respond to copyedits with a mix of deep, articulated gratitude and would-be savvy, treating my responses to proposed changes as components of an invented bargaining relationship. I imagine, for example, that maybe I can keep my beloved “and/or” if I give up some parentheses I liked, or that if I give up “and/or” without a fuss, maybe my desire/desperation to change “butch-femme” back to “butch/femme” will not read as dubious attachment to a slash mark. I have no evidence that anyone evaluating my responses ever thought they were in any such relationship with me, although my perception is hardly unique. When I used the term “invented” in sharing my progress on this blog post with my writing accountability group, everyone protested: No, no, that’s really how it happens! You give some, you get some, especially if you are polite. Say please and thank you. You don’t want to seem like—or be!—that writer who rejects every suggestion.

With Inconvenience, I planned to proceed differently. I certainly wouldn’t bargain away anything I thought Lauren wanted, and I knew that no editor involved wanted me to. We had a mutual, explicit goal: to produce the book that Lauren wanted, lightly edited so as to be as close as possible to the manuscript they submitted. I anticipated that I would primarily be approving obvious changes—deleting an extra space between “of” and “the,” following Duke style about using “19th” or “nineteenth,” fixing a few unintended ambiguities, relocating a stray comma.

I was wrong. Even seemingly small decisions were often far from smooth sailing. For example, the Duke style guide rejects amidst for amid. Me, too. I find amidst needlessly elongated, like cohabitate, and weirdly archaic or up-classing, although I know it’s become more widespread than back when it began mysteriously to appear in my students’ papers, where I thought it represented an attempt to signal academic seriousness or, more interesting, a migrated convention from some time-traveling pop culture I kept trying to ferret out. Lauren’s manuscript, to my surprise, had amidst several times. I had to decide whether their usage was significant or fine to change. Since I couldn’t distinguish amidst’s contexts from the more frequent uses of amid. I went with the latter.

And what ambiguities were, indeed, unintended?  The copyeditor flagged “Paul leans on the old mattress on the wall” in Last Tango in Paris. The mattress, not Paul, was touching the wall, correct? If so, how about “propped against the wall,” more clear in referent? Sure, why not? Lauren was setting the stage. What about “this clash between wanting to be disturbed in sex and yet simpler in pleasure”? Could I clarify that? I thought I could, but every tweak I tried involved a lot of words and seemed like a gloss—too much of my interpretation.

Plus, I always kept in mind a conversation between me and Lauren early in 2021 after I read the almost penultimate draft of Inconvenience. I asked if they might spell out what they mean by writing through a series of “assays” and “in a parenthetical voice,” two key experimental aspects of the book.  OK, they said, and/but: “Here’s the difference between your writing and mine. When you anticipate the reader stumbling over something, you try to smooth it out. I don’t.”

I rarely needed that reminder to check myself. It functioned usually as an affectionate “that’s Lauren” when I came across a paragraph-length sentence that in a draft of mine might have turned into seven. The comment nagged at me most for small decisions, such as one involving this sentence:

Think of the clumsy physicality sex induces, in the body, the voice, and the face; the confusions and resignations of knowledge even in a scene of delight; the small and large breakdowns of concentration and confidence all throughout any episode, and the work of quieting that down so things can proceed.

The copy editor wanted to change “quieting that down” to “quieting those down.” Hmm. Did Lauren want to designate that the breakdowns added up to one big breakdown-to-be-quieted? In that case, keep that. Did they mean to convey quieting all of that down or want readers to decide what to agglomerate? Then this or those could work. Maybe they had barely thought about it. I finally decided “those” could accommodate “that” and left the correction. Even in anti-bargainer mode, I didn’t want to reject every suggestion. I didn’t think Lauren would want to be that writer either. I did, however, restore a comma after “induces.” Lauren sometimes used commas for rhythm, pause, or speed-up. I tried to listen for those.

I used that last example partly to entice you. Once you’ve read that gorgeous, super-smart characterization of sex, can you really bear to miss anything else? The pleasures of the text are many. So, too, were the pleasures of the process, including the chance to notice habits that I would not have recognized apart from this triangulated relationship with copyediting. For example, Lauren started many sentences “There is” or “There are,” establishing the very existence of something as part of writing about it. They also used terms, such as suicidiation, that are still heading toward Merriam-Webster, and various departures from standard usage: terms or metaphors, including Teflon, portmanteau, and laser, in ways that seemed, only at first, a bit to the side of working; a few words re-tensed or combined to function more usefully, such as beyonding or democracy-under-capitalism. None of that, maybe, is a big deal. But discerning habits as I went along felt like an unanticipated gift of new intimacies unfolding between us. Once I discerned habits I usually worked to uphold them. One exception concerns meticulous guidance in the copyediting away from subtly ableist language. I thought that Lauren would have welcomed, for example, being nudged toward alternatives to “see” as a way to convey recognize, understand, or notice. I now scrutinize my own writing accordingly, too.

That guidance is one of countless labors of editing, design, consultation, and love that went into the production of Inconvenience. Thank you Susan Albury, Andrea Klinger, Aimee Harrison, Scott Smiley, Laurie Shannon, Katie Stewart, and Courtney Berger.

As for the book itself, while I told you that I wouldn’t describe what it’s about, I leave you with Lauren’s summary at the end of the preface. I know it will grab you:  

Looking at sex, democracy, and the desire for life in a better world than the one that exists, the entire book tries narrating from the granular ordinary ways to lose, unlearn, and loosen the objects and structures that otherwise seem intractable. How not to reproduce the embedded violence of the unequal ordinary? People say, “You got this!” “We can do this!” But it’s more like, “Once you let in the deaths, all that follows is life.” A thing to be used.

Erica Rand is Professor of Art and Visual Culture and of Gender and Sexuality Studies at Bates College. She is the author of, most recently, The Small Book of Hip Checks: On Queer Gender, Race, and Writing. On the Inconvenience of Other People is available for 30% off on our website with coupon E22BRLNT.

Keywords in Caribbean Studies: A Small Axe Project

We are pleased to share a new annual special section from Small Axe: A Caribbean Journal of Criticism: “Keywords in Caribbean Studies: A Small Axe Project”, a collaborative effort to examine the genealogy and contemporary lexicon of Caribbean cultural-political terms. The featured section will be published in each July issue of Small Axe, beginning with volume 26, no. 2 (68), which covers the multiplicity of meaning and fraught history of Caribbean discourse terms zwart, negro/a/x, négre, and Black.

“Our keywords project is an exercise in critical vocabulary that is less preoccupied with the production of a singular, authoritative definition for a term than it is with a genealogy of that term’s history and usage,” write the editors about the new special section. “In an effort to synthesize the historical meanings and enduring significance of terms that define our region and guide our study, we seek to trace histories of concepts and speculate imaginatively about their future uses and directions.”

Through this annual published conversation, Small Axe provides a space for readers and scholars to remain attentive to the tension, depth, and complexity of language while invigorating creative new thinking on contemporary and future studies in the Caribbean. Read the introduction to the inaugural collection of essays, made freely available.

Introducing the Practices Book Series

Duke University Press is pleased to announce the launch of Practices, a new book series edited by Margret Grebowicz.  

Books in the Practices series are for real-life hobbyists, devotees, and enthusiasts. They are by and about amateurs in the original sense—those who engage in pursuits out of sheer love and fascination. Practices books show how an ordinary activity like fishing, running, or juggling helps us come to understand ourselves and the world around us. Sleek and incisive, they reveal the pleasures of losing oneself in doing anything that holds sway over us, no matter how common or minor it might seem. They map new places inside us. Practices books will intrigue and challenge an activity’s most ardent practitioners as well as those who never considered their appeal.

Editor Elizabeth Ault, who brought the series to the Press, says, “Practices represents the best of what Duke University Press is known for while also representing a new set of opportunities for us, highlighting distinctive and thoughtful voices from inside and outside the academy in deep and playful conversations. The books are stylish and companionable invitations to reflect on the practices they highlight as well as those that form our own ways of being in the world.”

The first Practices books will be published in March 2023. 

  •  Fly-Fishing by Christopher Schaberg. The author, who grew up fly-fishing in Northern Michigan and now casts his rod in Louisiana’s bayous, ponders his lifetime pursuit of the widely mythologized art of fly fishing.
  • Juggling by Stewart Lawrence Sinclair. Sinclair—who learned to juggle as a child and paid his way through college by busking—shares his experiences of taking up juggling after an episode of suicidal ideation, his time juggling on the streets and, ultimately, finding comfort in juggling during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Raving by McKenzie Wark. Wark takes readers into the undisclosed locations of New York’s thriving queer rave scene, showing how raving to techno is an art and technique at which queer and trans bodies might be particularly adept, but which is for anyone who lets the beat seduce them.
  • Running by Lindsey A. Freeman. Former college track athlete Freeman presents a feminist and queer handbook of running in which she considers what it means to run as a visibly queer person while exploring how running puts us in contact with ourselves and others.

We hope the books’ design will encourage collecting multiple volumes. They will be produced in a small 5×7 format and will share a similar look and feel, making it easy for booksellers to display them together.

Future books in the series will address jigsaw puzzling and foraging. Margret Grebowicz is soliciting additional books for Practices. Interested authors can send a pitch to dukepractices@gmail.com

Editorial Director Gisela Fosado says, “Duke University Press is known for publishing provocative and creative ideas and the Practices series will continue this tradition, but in the form of snappy little books with broad appeal. During these unsettling times, learning about meaning-making through life practices is a salve we all need.”

Q&A with Penny M. Von Eschen

Photo of a smiling white woman with grey chin-length hair. She is wearing oval-shaped glasses and a black top with a pink shawl. She has a necklace with two red tassles on it.
Penny M. Von Eschen

Penny M. Von Eschen is William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of American Studies and Professor of History at the University of Virginia. In her new book, Paradoxes of Nostalgia, Von Eschen offers a sweeping examination of the cold war’s afterlife and the lingering shadows it casts over geopolitics, journalism, and popular culture.

 Your introduction discusses the many ramifications of the dissolution of the Soviet Union on American domestic politics, from the rise of family-values conservatism in the 1990s to the War on Terror to Trump’s appropriation of alt-right nationalism a few years ago. What do you think it was about the American experience of the cold war that created such a lasting impact on American society?

Cold war ideology and practices encouraged an American identity structured around an enemy and a deep sense of an existential threat to the American way of life. With the disappearance of the Soviet bogeyman, prominent politicians set about the construction of new enemies at home and abroad. Looking outward, academics, policymakers, and popular culture (think of Tom Clancy and Hollywood) turned to a clash of civilizations frame where Muslim peoples in particular were seen as constituting a threat to the “West.”

Cover of Paradoxes of Nostalgia: Cold War Triumphalism and Global Disorder since 1989 by Penny M. Von Eschen. Text is in red, blue and black above a photo of a box of plates featuring images of Lenin and Gorbachev and parts of a nesting doll with the faces of Putin and former Soviet leaders.

Looking inward, with declining standards of living for the middle class and accelerating inequality in the global economy, many Americans began turning on each other. The conservative rhetoric of “family values” had long been a staple of the New Right but escalated dramatically in the early 1990s. Now that the US government (really New Deal/Great Society liberalism) was no longer held as a superior model to the Soviet state, government itself became the enemy, pitted against the family in the minds of Pat Buchanan and leaders of the Christian right. Since the late 1940s, cold war attacks against “godless communism” mobilized an anti-communist consensus premised on the idea that the US was a Christian nation. Those key conservative tenets of the Reagan era, the Christian right and antigovernment ideology, accelerated after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The roots of a later convergence between American and Russian conservatives can be seen in the early nineties. With the Soviet enemy gone, “family values” conservatives scapegoated Black Americans, immigrants, and LGBTQ people, and discredited government as protecting the lives and livelihoods of these undeserving groups. Rebooting the cold war notion that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, anti-government Americans found new, if unexpected cultural bedfellows from right wing Russians.

And critically, the lasting impact of the cold war on American society lies in the decisions made—and the roads not taken—in the years surrounding the collapse of the Eastern bloc. Widespread calls for political openness, a serious reckoning with the cold war past and proposed reforms to address the social, economic, and environmental costs of cold war policies were largely ignored. Instead, US foreign policy was defined by the projection of unipolar military force and a doubling down on the extractive and ecologically destructive industries that had sustained cold war militarism.

The cold war is commonly understood to be a conflict between American capitalism and Russian communism. Does this obscure the nature of the conflict and its aftermath? What other forces affected the development of the post-cold war world order?

Indeed, that view distorts both the conflict and its aftermath, and in both cases conflates democracy and capitalism in a way that doesn’t hold up under serious scrutiny. Capitalism, the pursuit of profit, entailed control of global resources that was inherently undemocratic, leading to  US overt and covert interventions in countries where the US access to resources was at stake. In terms of the conflict itself, the Reagan administration had justified its support of brutal right-wing dictatorships in Latin America, Asia, and Africa—one example of many is General Augusto Pinochet’s in Chile—arguing that supporting right–wing authoritarian governments was acceptable as long as they were anticommunist. Policymakers justified such anti-democratic policies by claiming that such dictatorships could be reformed from within, whereas left “totalitarian” governments could not.

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the eastern bloc, US policy makers began to justify interventions into sovereign nations in the name of “democracy.” But triumphalism’s conflation of capitalism and democracy helped justify radical deregulation of industry and banking, leading to the outsized influence of money in politics and severely undermining democratic institutions. There had been a genuinely utopian aspect to the cold war, with each side promoting universal values and claiming that its system could bring prosperity and happiness to its citizens and the world. After the collapse of the Eastern bloc, instead of viewing government as responsible for protecting the well-being of society, US state policies shifted to deregulation, privatization, and increased incarceration. As economic inequality increased, these shifts led to disinvestment in public infrastructure, underfunded public education, and media consolidation, making daily newspapers and independent media a vanishing resource. In the United States, politicians and journalists saw voter suppression as compatible with the idea of free elections. Economic inequality on a global scale set the stage for anti-democratic resentment in the United States and a global turn to the right. Cold war triumphalism fueled the hubris of American exceptionalism, free trade, and catastrophic wars in the Middle East. Before and after 9/11, anti-immigration policies fueled a politics of blame and xenophobia, distracting many Americans from examining the forces undergirding economic inequality.

You write that the vision of the cold war was and is constantly contested, both by prominent political figures but also by the public. How has one particular vision of this past come to be solidified?

The past is always being rewritten for the aims and perceived needs of the present, so in that sense, the history of the cold war has never solidified; but two dominant threads have profoundly shaped US politics. First, conservatives in the early 1990s declared that with global communism defeated, the “real cold war” has only begun. This time, the targets in what increasingly came to be viewed as a Manichean struggle, were government social programs, and in the right’s “culture wars,” all who did not fit the mold of a white, heteronormative Christian nation.

The afterlife of the cold war has shaped foreign policy, as well. Cold war triumphalist narratives—the idea that the United States “won” the cold war through military might, have shaped justifications for war from the earliest post-cold war interventions in Panama and Iraq, through the war on terror, and even to this day in Ukraine. Above all, this idea of  US “victory” though military strength has elevated military responses over diplomatic solutions. This is starkly illustrated in responses to Russia’s criminal invasion of Ukraine. The western response has shifted from the immediate goal of defending Ukraine against the Russian invasion—a strategy where diplomacy could and should have been the centerpiece—to an expansion of war aims approaching the totalizing logic of the cold war.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine seems to bring this discussion out of the realm of memory. How do you see nostalgia for the cold war affecting responses to the invasion?

The war in Ukraine is very much a contest over memory. Putin seeks to mobilize an invented and mythologized history harkening back to sixteenth century Tsarist Russia. He sees Ukraine as an integral part of Russia. Putin rewrites history, asserting a Russian, not a Soviet past. In his view, the Soviet Union betrayed Russia’s legitimate imperial claims by giving too much autonomy to Ukraine and other regions. Needless to say, his self-serving view of the past is perverse and contradictory. Putin attempts to court African countries and the global south more broadly, by claiming the legacy of past Soviet support of anti-colonial and independence movements. At the same time, he rejects the egalitarian values that these movements stood for.

It seems like, even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, tensions between Russia and NATO have been rising over the past decade. What was your experience like in writing this book during these developments?

The experience? Ongoing distress. It was claims about NATO expansion along with the US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, that prompted my investigations into triumphalism and nostalgia. Like the justifications for the  US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, calls for the expansion of NATO relied on distortions of history; both exemplify the dangers of  US triumphalism. At every juncture during the expansion of NATO, diplomatic alternatives were available. When George H. W. Bush and Gorbachev declared the end of the cold war in 1989, Gorbachev, like US Secretary of State James Baker, believed that there had been a clear understanding that NATO, viewed by both sides as a cold war creation, would not expand, and certainly not to Russia’s borders.

The expansion of NATO epitomizes the rejection of a vision of a multipolar demilitarized world in favor of the assertion of US unipolar power. Another path not taken was a burgeoning environmentalism. Instead,  US policymakers doubled down on support for fossil fuel industries. In the very same week Germans dismantled the Berlin Wall, the US denounced a global climate agreement by attacking climate scientists. As US policymakers pursued control of oil reserves in the former Soviet sphere, they sought to weaken the United Nations and other multi-national organizations. Indeed, NATO expansion and undermining the UN constituted the two foreign policy pillars of the Republican Party’s Contract With America in 1994. In the victor’s history version of the cold war, diplomacy was suspect by definition, portrayed as appeasement and weakness, leaving militarism as the only solution to conflict.

In 2014, when tensions over Ukraine led to the collapse of the Obama administration’s 2009 reset with Russia, Jack Matlock Jr., the last US Ambassador to the Soviet Union, drew an analogy between the active American role in organizing street protests in Kiev, and the hypothetical prospect of foreigners leading Occupy Wall Street movements. His point was that American policy, in expanding NATO and placing military bases near its borders, had needlessly provoked potential retaliation from Russia. None of this, of course, justifies Putin’s brutal invasion of a sovereign country. But if the United States is to have any constructive role in ending rather than expanding the conflict, it would have to begin with an honest account of its post-1989 role in the region. In addition to the tragedy for the people of Ukraine and Russia, the war highlights the utter failure of the post-cold war global order to wean itself off oil, and the failure to create strong multilateral institutions that could meaningfully address global climate, health and inequality.

Read the introduction to Paradoxes of Nostalgia for free and save 30% on the paperback with coupon E22ESCHN.