Front Table - 10/8/21

October 8th, 2021

On our Front Table this weekexplore the role of numbers in modern life, from the uses and abuses of public debt, to a critique of quantification and an argument that putatively "objective" statistics always encode cultural assumptions. Find the following titles and more at semcoop.com.

The Chinese Question: The Gold Rushes and Global Politics (W.W. Norton & Company)
Mae Ngai

This distinguished history of the Chinese diaspora and global capitalism chronicles how a feverish alchemy of race and money brought Chinese people to the West and reshaped the nineteenth-century world. Drawing on ten years of research across five continents, prize-winning historian Mae Ngai narrates the story of the thousands of Chinese who left their homeland in pursuit of gold, and how they formed communities and organizations to help navigate their perilous new world. Out of their encounters with whites, and the emigrants’ assertion of autonomy and humanity, arose the pernicious western myth of the “coolie” laborer, a racist stereotype used to drive anti-Chinese sentiment. By the turn of the twentieth century, the United States and the British Empire had answered “the Chinese Question” with laws that excluded Chinese people from immigration and citizenship. The Chinese Question masterfully links important themes in world history and economics, from Europe’s subjugation of China to the rise of the international gold standard and the invention of racist, anti-Chinese stereotypes that persist to this day.

 

Counting: How We Use Numbers to Decide What Matters 
(W.W. Norton & Company)
Deborah Stone

Early in her extraordinary career, Deborah Stone wrote Policy Paradox, a landmark work on politics. Now, in Counting, she revolutionises how we approach numbers and shows how counting shapes the way we see the world. Most of us think of counting as a skill so basic that we see numbers as objective, indisputable facts. Not so, says Stone. In this playful-yet-probing work, Stone reveals the inescapable link between quantifying and classifying, and explains how counting determines almost every facet of our lives—from how we are evaluated at work to how our political opinions are polled to whether we get into higher education or even out of prison. But numbers, Stone insists, need not rule our lives. Especially in this age of big data, Stone’s work is a pressing and spirited call to reclaim our authority over numbers, and to take responsibility for how we use them.


Epiphanius of Cyprus: A Cultural Biography of Late Antiquity
(University of California Press)
Andrew S. Jacobs

Epiphanius, Bishop of Constantia on Cyprus from 367 to 403 C.E., was incredibly influential in the last decades of the fourth century. Whereas his major surviving text (the Panarion, an encyclopedia of heresies) is studied for lost sources, Epiphanius himself is often dismissed as an anti-intellectual eccentric, a marginal figure of late antiquity. In this book, Andrew Jacobs moves Epiphanius from the margin back toward the center and proposes we view major cultural themes of late antiquity in a new light altogether. Through an examination of the key cultural concepts of celebrity, conversion, discipline, scripture, and salvation, Jacobs shifts our understanding of "late antiquity" from a transformational period open to new ideas and peoples toward a Christian Empire that posited a troubling, but ever-present, "otherness" at the center of its cultural production.


Fathoms: The World in the Whale  (Simon & Schuster)
Rebecca Griggs

Fathoms: The World in the Whale blends natural history, philosophy, and science to explore: How do whales experience ecological change? How has whale culture been both understood and changed by human technology? What can observing whales teach us about the complexity, splendor, and fragility of life on earth? In Fathoms, we learn about whales so rare they have never been named, whale songs that sweep across hemispheres in annual waves of popularity, and whales that have modified the chemical composition of our planet’s atmosphere. We travel to Japan to board the ships that hunt whales and delve into the deepest seas to discover how plastic pollution pervades our earth’s undersea environment. With the immediacy of Rachel Carson and the lush prose of Annie Dillard, Giggs gives us an exploration of the natural world even as she addresses what it means to write about nature at a time of environmental crisis. With depth and clarity, she outlines the challenges we face as we attempt to understand the perspectives of other living beings, and our own place on an evolving planet.


The Gallery of Miracles and Madness: Insanity, Modernism, and Hitler's War on Art  (Penquin Random House)
Charlie English

Hans Prinzhorn was a veteran of the First World War, an expert in art history and medicine, and a collector of art. The book he published inspired a new generation of modern artists, Max Ernst, André Breton, and Salvador Dalí among them. By the mid-1930s, however, Prinzhorn's collection had begun to attract the attention of a far more sinister group. Rejected from art school, a troubled young man, Adolf Hitler,  became convinced that modern art was degrading the Aryan soul, and once he had risen to power he ordered that modern works be seized and publicly shamed in “degenerate art” exhibitions. But this culture war was a mere curtain-raiser for Hitler’s next campaign, against allegedly “degenerate” humans, and Prinzhorn’s artist-patients were caught up in both. By 1941, the Nazis had murdered 70,000 psychiatric patients in killing centers that would serve as prototypes for the death camps of the Final Solution. Dozens of Prinzhorn artists were among the victims. The Gallery of Miracles and Madness is a spellbinding, emotionally resonant tale of this complex and troubling history that uncovers Hitler’s wars on modern art and the mentally ill and how they paved the way for the Holocaust. Charlie English tells an eerie story of genius, madness, and dehumanization that offers readers a fresh perspective on the brutal ideology of the Nazi regime.


In Defense of Public Debt (Oxford University Press)
Barry Eichengreen, Asmaa El-Ganainy, Rui Esteves, Kris James Mitchener

The authors argue that the ability of governments to issue debt has played a critical role in addressing emergencies—from wars and pandemics to economic and financial crises, as well as in funding essential public goods and services such as transportation, education, and healthcare. In these ways, the capacity to issue debt has been integral to state building and state survival. Transactions in public debt securities have also contributed to the development of private financial markets and, through this channel, to modern economic growth. None of this is to deny that debt problems, debt crises, and debt defaults occur. The book's arguments are developed  historically, recounting two millennia of public debt experience. A  comprehensive database is deployed  to identify the factors behind rising public debts and the circumstances under which high debts are successfully stabilized and brought down. Finally, the authors bring the story up to date, describing the role of public debt in managing the Covid-19 pandemic and recession, suggesting a way forward once governments—now more heavily indebted than before—finally emerge from the crisis.


Praxis and Revolution: A Theory of Social Transformation 
(Columbia University Press)
Eva von Redecker, tr. Lucy Duggan

Eva von Redecker reconsiders critical theory’s understanding of radical change in order to offer a bold new account of how revolution occurs. Developing a theoretical account of social transformation, Praxis and Revolution incorporates a wide range of insights, from the Frankfurt School to queer theory and intersectionality. Its revised materialism furnishes prefigurative politics with their social conditions and performative critique with its collective force. Von Redecker revisits the French Revolution to show how change arises from struggle in everyday social practice. She illustrates the argument through rich literary examples—a ménage à trois inside a prison, a radical knitting circle, a queer affinity group, and petitioners pleading with the executioner—that forge a feminist, open-ended model of revolution. Praxis and Revolution urges readers not only to understand revolutions differently but also to situate them elsewhere: in collective contexts that aim to storm manifold Bastilles—but from within.


Sick and Tired: An Intimate History of Fatigue 
(University of North Carolina Press)
Emily K. Abel

Medicine finally has discovered fatigue. Recent articles about various diseases conclude that fatigue has been underrecognized, underdiagnosed, and undertreated. Scholars in the social sciences and humanities have also ignored the phenomenon. As a result, we know little about what it means to live with this condition, especially given its diverse symptoms and causes. Emily K. Abel offers the first history of fatigue, one that is scrupulously researched but also informed by her own experiences as a cancer survivor. Abel reveals how the limits of medicine and the American cultural emphasis on productivity intersect to stigmatize those with fatigue. Without an agreed-upon approach to confirm the problem through medical diagnosis, it is difficult to convince others that it is real. When fatigue limits our ability to work, our society sees us as burdens or worse. With her engaging and informative style, Abel gives us a synthetic history of fatigue and elucidates how it has been ignored or misunderstood, not only by medical professionals but also by American society as a whole.


What Are the Humanities For?  (Cambridge University Press)
Willem B. Drees

What are the humanities for? The question has perhaps never seemed more urgent. While student numbers have grown in higher education, universities and colleges increasingly have encouraged students to opt for courses in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) or take programs in applied subjects like business and management. When tertiary learning has taken such a notably utilitarian turn, the humanities are judged to have lost their centrality. Willem B. Drees has no wish nostalgically to prioritize the humanities so as to retrieve some lost high culture. But he does urge us to adopt a clearer conception of the humanities as more than just practical vehicles for profit or education. He argues that these disciplines, while serving society, are also intrinsic to our humanity. His bold ideas about how to think with greater humanistic coherence mark this topical book out as unmissable reading for all those involved in academe, especially those in higher educational policy or leadership positions. 


The Yellow River: A Natural and Unnatural History (Yale University Press)
Ruth Mostern

Using the Yellow River to illustrate the long-term effects of environmentally significant human activity, Ruth Mostern unravels the long history of the human relationship with water and soil and the consequences, at times disastrous, of ecological transformations that resulted from human decisions. As Mostern follows the Yellow River through three millennia of history, she underlines how governments consistently ignored the dynamic interrelationships of the river’s varied ecosystems—grasslands, riparian forests, wetlands, and deserts—and the ecological and cultural impacts of their policies. With an interdisciplinary approach informed by archival research and GIS (geographical information system) records, this groundbreaking volume provides unique insight into patterns, transformations, and devastating ruptures throughout ecological history and offers profound conclusions about the way we continue to affect the natural systems upon which we depend. 

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