Front Table - 1/28/2019

January 27th, 2019

On our Front Table this week, start with new translations from two giants of critical theory. Then find disciplinary power in the historically intertwined institutions of the monastery, the penitentiary, and the surveillance state. Find the following titles and more at

Ganges: The Many Pasts of an Indian River (Yale University Press)
Sudipta Sen

Originating in the Himalayas and flowing into the Bay of Bengal, the Ganges is India's most important and sacred river. In this unprecedented work, historian Sudipta Sen tells a sweeping, interdisciplinary story of the Ganges, from the communities that arose on its banks to the merchants that navigated its waters, and the way it came to occupy center stage in the history and culture of the subcontinent. Sen begins his chronicle in prehistoric India, tracing the river's first settlers, its myths of origin in the Hindu tradition, and its significance during the ascendancy of popular Buddhism. In the following centuries, Indian empires, Central Asian regimes, European merchants, the British Empire, and the Indian nation-state all shaped the identity and ecology of the river. Weaving together geography, environmental politics, and religious history, Sen offers in this lavishly illustrated volume a remarkable portrait of one of the world's largest and most densely populated river basins.

Hardly Children: Stories (FSG Originals)
Laura Adamczyk

A man hangs from the ceiling of an art gallery. A woman spells out messages to her sister using her own hair. Children deemed "bad" are stolen from their homes. In Hardly Children, Laura Adamczyk's rich and eccentric debut collection of stories, familiar worlds - bars, hotel rooms, cities that could very well be our own - hum with uncanny dread. The characters in Hardly Children are keyed up, on the verge, full of desire. They're lost, they're in love with someone they shouldn't be, they're denying uncomfortable truths using sex or humor. They are children waking up to the threats of adulthood, and adults living with childlike abandon. With command, caution, and subtle terror, Adamczyk shapes a world where death and the possibility of loss always emerge. Yet the shape of this loss is never fully revealed. Instead, it looms in the periphery of these stories, like an uncomfortable scene viewed out of the corner of one's eye.

More than Medicine: The Broken Promise of American Health
(Harvard University Press)
Robert M. Kaplan

Robert Kaplan draws on a lifetime of research and experience guiding the NIH, as well as a wealth of statistical data, to argue that health care priorities in the United States are sorely misplaced. America's medical system is invested in the promise of high-tech diagnostics and miracle treatments, while ignoring strong evidence that many of the most significant pathways to health are nonmedical - i.e., the social, behavioral, and environmental problems that engender disease in the first place. For example, Americans spend millions on drugs to treat high cholesterol, which increase life expectancy by six to eight months on average. But they underfund education, which might extend life expectancy by as much as twelve years. America's failure to take prevention seriously costs lives. More than Medicine argues that we need a shake-up in how we invest resources, and it offers a bold new vision for longer, healthier living.

Origin of the German Trauerspiel (Harvard University Press)
Walter Benjamin, trans. Howard Eiland

Origin of the German Trauerspiel was Walter Benjamin’s first full, historically oriented analysis of modernity. Focusing on the extravagant seventeenth-century theatrical genre of the Trauerspiel, precursor of the opera, Benjamin identifies allegory as the constitutive trope of the Baroque and of modernity itself. Allegorical perception bespeaks a world of mutability and equivocation, a melancholy sense of eternal transience without access to the transcendentals of the medieval mystery plays - though no less haunted and bedeviled. The prologue is one of his most important and difficult pieces of writing: lays out his method of indirection and his idea of the “constellation” as a key means of grasping the world, making dynamic unities out of the myriad bits of daily life. Howard Eiland’s new English translation, the first since 1977, is closer to the German text and more consistent with Benjamin’s philosophical idiom. It is thoroughly annotated with a philological and historical introduction and other supplementary material that brings fresh understanding to a cardinal work by one of the twentieth century’s greatest literary critics. (Also note that Illuminations and Reflections are now available from Mariner Books.)

Avicenna and the Aristotelian Left (Columbia University Press)
Ernst Bloch, trans. Loren Goldman and Peter Thompson

While Ernst Bloch's engagement with utopianism and religious thought is well known, he also wrote incisively about ontological questions. In this short masterpiece, Bloch gives a striking account of materialism, arguing that the great medieval Islamic philosopher Avicenna (Ibn Sina) planted the seeds of a radical, emancipatory materialism that is still relevant for critical theory today. He contrasts Avicenna's and Aquinas's interpretations of Aristotle and argues that Avicenna's reading democratizes power, undermines clerical and political authority, and points towards radical social transformation. He then blazes an original path through the history of ideas, including Averroes (Ibn Rushd), Spinoza, and Marx as well as lesser-known figures. Here translated into English for the first time, Avicenna and the Aristotelian Left is at once a succinct summation of Bloch's own idiosyncratic materialism, a provocative reconstruction of the Western philosophical tradition in light of its exchanges with Islamic thought, and a vital resource for contemporary debates about materialism in critical theory.

Going Stealth: Transgender Politics and U.S. Surveillance Practices
(Duke University Press)
Toby Beauchamp

Going Stealth explores the links between the enforcement of gender conformity and state surveillance practices that identify threats based on racial, gender, national, and ableist categories of difference. Toby Beauchamp examines a range of issues, from bathroom bills and TSA screening practices to Chelsea Manning's trial. He brings the fields of disability, science and technology, and surveillance studies into conversation with transgender studies, arguing that the scrutinization of gender nonconformity is motivated by the perceived threat that it poses to the U.S. racial and security state, and that disciplinary power attempts to produce conformist citizens and regulate difference through discourses of security. At the same time, he contends that greater visibility and recognition for gender nonconformity, while sometimes beneficial, might actually enable the surveillance state to more effectively track, measure, and control trans bodies and identities.

Silence: A Social History of One of the Least Understood Elements of Our Lives (Houghton Mifflin)
Jane Brox

This is a history of silence, from the author of Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light. Through her focus on the penitentiary and the monastery (intertwined per Foucault), Jane Brox illuminates the complexity of silence and its influence on ideas of the self, soul, and society. She traces its place as a transformative power in the monastic world from Medieval Europe to the very public life of twentieth century monk Thomas Merton. She further explores the influence the monastic cell had on one of society's darkest experiments in silence: Eastern State Penitentiary, on the outskirts of Philadelphia. The penitentiary's early promulgators imagined redemption in imposed isolation, but they badly misapprehended the dangers of silence. Finally, Brox's rich exploration of the complex and competing meanings of silence leads us to imagine how we might rethink our relationship with it in our own lives today.

Posted in: