See what our editors have been reading this season
The Implicated Subject: Beyond Victims and Perpetrators by Michael Rothberg (Stanford, 2019). Michael Rothberg’s latest book is a staggering work of genuinely intersectional theory and global memory studies. He begins by interrogating the politics of identification pervasive today on social media—phrases such as “Je suis Charlie” and “We are all Travon Martin.” Rothberg is critical of such facile gestures of identification because they always seem to align the subject with victimization that they may not actually be subjected to. Instead, he explores ethical responses to violence that resist such trite liberal gestures of identification such as the counter-slogan “We are not Trayvon.” This refusal not only affirms the specificity of who is targeted in the racialized violence that killed Martin, namely young unarmed black men in America. It also indicates a new, complicit or implicated subject position, in this case “white Americans recounting experiences of privilege or dawning awareness of being part of a racist society.” For example, as one social media user wrote: “I am not Trayvon because I pass.” The counter-slogan “becomes an occasion to mark another kind of belonging: the speaker’s implication in the conditions that contributed to Trayvon’s murder… it creates the opportunity to claim a kind of responsibility for Martin’s death and the deaths of many others like him.”
Rothberg develops Primo Levi’s idea of the ethical “grey zone” between victims and perpetrators in Holocaust concentration camps into a nuanced ethical theory of “the implicated subject,” an involved bystander who participates in events and structures over which they often have little control. This serves as a new moral category between bystander and perpetrator that calls for political responsibility on a much broader scale than narrower legalistic categories of guilt or complicity for historical violence. It provides an ethical framework in which to make sense of Rothberg’s personal feeling of responsibility for reparations for the injustice of slavery in America even though his family immigrated to America only after the turn of the twentieth century. He and others in his position benefit from white privilege even though they are not “guilty” in a legal sense. He cites Ta-Nehisi Coates making the case for reparations to descendants of enslaved people: slavery is a “crime that implicates the entire American people.” “Structural implication” names such ethical obligation stemming from participation in or benefitting from power structures that cause violence even over long periods of time and space, such as capitalism, imperialism, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and climate change.
The book includes fascinating chapters on memory and justice in a globally interconnected and “multidirectional” world, ranging across legacies of violence from the Holocaust, to Israel/Palestine, to Kurdistan, to apartheid South Africa, to the trans-Atlantic slave trade and its legacies of racialized violence in America. It concludes with eleven theses that will be useful for scholars working on ethics and historical violence across the humanities. To share just a few: “4. Interlocking systems of oppression create dilemmas of collective political responsibility that cannot be reduced to assignations of legalistic guilt.” “6. On both [synchronic and diachronic] intertwined axes, implicated subjects—subjects who are neither purely victim not perpetrator—play essential roles in producing and reproducing violence and inequality.” “7. Many people find themselves ‘complexly’ implicated: with lines of direct or indirect connection to histories of both victimization and perpetration.” Rothberg has given us a badly needed ethical framework with which to understand and interrelate injustices both historical and contemporary.
When I tell people that I am doing a PhD in history, their immediate reaction is often to ask me what my favorite history book is. For most historians, this is a slightly difficult question to answer. There are so many books that we all love equally. We love some of them for the questions they ask, some for the sheer brilliance of writing, and some for the profound impact they have had on our own thinking. However, given how frequently I find myself answering this question, I now have a well-rehearsed script. I almost always begin by admitting that I am somewhat embarrassed by my own choice. There are two reasons for this embarrassment. First, I have only read that book once (In my defence, it is a long and complex book that deserves to be read with extreme care and patience). Second, the book is very far from my own field of interest which is early modern British political and religious history. Once I have laid the foundation of what I hope will prove to be an interesting conversation, I gently drop the name of the book that, I think, inspired, enthralled and delighted me like no other work of historical scholarship. This book is, of course, William Cronon’s magnificent 1992 study Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. The next step is to walk my interlocutor thoroughly through what the book does. This generally takes the form of a neat (or so I think) summary of the book’s key aim to break new ground in commercial and environmental history by writing a narrative of Chicago’s rise to economic power over the course of the nineteenth-century.
Almost every time I have this conversation, I sit and ask myself why is it that I loved this book so much when I first read it in 2014 and why I simply can’t stop gifting it to people. I think it had something to do with the fact that I read it when I was going through a rather difficult time in college and desperately looking for inspiration, intellectual and otherwise. I had a tough term and, at the end of it, I decided to make my way to the Seminary co-op, the truly marvelous book-store near the University of Chicago (if you are ever in town, please make a trip. It won’t disappoint) to look for that one book that would fire up my imagination like no other. Given my rather niche interests, I didn’t look much beyond the history section but that was a rather large one. To narrow down my search, I decided that I wanted to read something vastly different from my own interests. That didn’t help very much either. Ultimately, I settled on reading something about Chicago, the city that I had, by that point, lived in for about three years but whose history I knew virtually nothing about. Thankfully, my eyes caught sight of Nature’s Metropolis and, after remembering the academic legend of Cronon (he had apparently published his first book, the phenomenal Changes in the Land, while he was still a graduate student and, by his own admission, the book was based on a seminar paper he had written over the course of four sleepless nights), I purchased it and dutifully carried it back to my apartment.
It will be sufficient to say that the book simply blew my mind. I had expected a somewhat straightforward narrative of Chicago’s history as the centre of midwestern commerce. I most certainly got that but the book offered so much more that is hard to capture in a few sentences. But I’ll try. First of all, Cronon is a phenomenal writer. I never knew that grain elevators could be this exciting. However, his profound interest in explaining how nearly everything worked and then relating it back to the bigger questions that he was asking was awe-inspiring. Second, I loved how personal the book is. Cronon grew up not too far from Chicago and he goes to great lengths to explain why he wrote the book. The explanations range from his deep and abiding love for the city to a need for historians to once again integrate town and country after the two had been unfairly separated from each other by several generations of historical scholarship. Third, the book is very good at explaining why it was Chicago and not St. Louis or Columbus that emerged as the hub of mid-western commerce in the nineteenth-century. To my young and impressionable mind, this showed the great importance of never taking things for granted and always looking for more complex explanations behind the seemingly obvious.
So, if you are looking for a great book to read this winter break, please do consider Nature’s Metropolis. It will also make a fantastic gift. Speaking from experience, almost everyone, regardless of what they do for a living, will find something of interest in it. In the immortal words of my college roommate who read my copy of the book, “this sh*t is amazing.” (He has since gone down the dark path of business school but I think Nature’s Metropolis will eventually save him in the long run)
Perhaps it is the impending doom of the UK elections and, a bit further down the line, those in the US, or perhaps it is the strikes of the University and College Union (UCU) and the Harvard Graduate Student Union currently rippling across Anglophone academia—either way, there have been a number of scholarly contributions in recent weeks that seek to assess the legacy of economic thought and probe its applicability for our times of apparent political-economic crisis. See, for example, David Graeber’s “Against Economics” just published in the New York Review of Books, a take-down of monetarism and the “hard-money philosophy” fueling it that is loosely based on a review of Robert Skidelsky’s Money and Government: The Past and Future of Economics (Yale University Press, 2019). As Graeber argues along with Skidelsky, economics have long been defined by two competing theoretical frameworks that essentially hinge upon diverging definitions of money: one takes it as a physical entity, the other one as a social construct. Again and again, the story goes, the understanding of money as physical commodity, formalized in academic circles as the quantity theory of money (QTM), has won out as the dominant interpretative framework despite inevitably producing financial crises. In particular, Graeber argues that it is the „microfoundations” of this approach, i.e. the assumption of purely rational actors, that enable a certain kind of neoliberal macroeconomics and preclude theoretical alteration that he believes to be crucial for understanding contemporary economic problems and any political attempts to remedy them. “Economic theory as it exists,” he concludes, “increasingly resembles a shed full of broken tools. This is not to say there are no useful insights here, but fundamentally the existing discipline is designed to solve another century’s problems.”
Unsurprisingly, John Maynard Keynes and his rivalry with the likes of Friedrich Hayek loom large in this history of now “untimely economics.” Yet, it is useful to recall that imperialism, equally if not more so than the politics of the nation-state that Graeber explicitly frames his analysis in, offered decisive incentives for the theorization of the economy on both sides of the political spectrum, a point prominently made by Manu Goswami on Keynes in “Crisis Economics: Keynes and the End of Empire” (Constellations, 2018) and Quinn Slobodian on Hayek and the Mont Pelerin Society in Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism (Harvard University Press, 2018). Equally, as Geoff Mann argues in a piece in Foreign Policy rather polemically titled “Socialism’s Biggest Hero Is a Bourgeois British Capitalist”, there have been many appropriations of Keynesianism across the political spectrum since its rise to prominence in the mid-20th century. As the aftermath of the 2008 crisis has shown, “although virtually always associated with the left, [Keynesianism] is neither entirely welcome on the left nor entirely unwelcome on the right.”
At the same time, a number of economic thinkers have tried to move beyond the general impasse identified by Graeber. Consider, for example, the forum on Economics after Neoliberalism in the Boston Review earlier this year. Or, more contentiously, the feud between Perry Anderson and Adam Tooze, with Anderson’s indictment of the “centrist liberalism” that he sees characterizing Tooze’s work in the New Left Review and Tooze’s pending response. Following Tooze’s earlier reflections on the link between Foucault and economic thinking, the center of this debate, it would seem, is marked by the old question of epistemology. What is “the economy,” and how can it be both deconstructed and historicized on the one hand and used as a basis for progressive policies against economic inequality on the other? Katrina Forrester, meanwhile, in her review of Colin Crouch’s Will the Gig Economy Prevail? (Polity, 2019) in the London Review of Books, asks a slightly different question that aims to further investigates the inherent link between economics and politics: “What Counts as Work?” Given the changes in the structure of the economy over the past decades and the increasing casualization of employment—the very circumstances that many of the workers in academia mentioned above are protesting—we might have to rethink the terms in which economic debates are framed. “The real question, perhaps, isn’t whether stability is enough,” Forrester observes, “but whether the stabilisation of capitalism is all we want.”
The political magazine Dissent published a recent issue dedicated to the question of how left politics has been championed in rural America, and why that history has been erased from our imagination of “the country.” The introduction to the issue begins by noting how rural life has become an “increasingly obscure abstraction” as local new outlets decline and cultural cliches proliferate. Those abstractions elide real differences, but they do not stop individuals from deeply identifying with their own part of the “country” as particularly their own. Raymond Williams holds that abstraction and that particular identification with rural experience together, analyzing their historical relationship in his criticism and expressing their interactions in his prose, in The Country and the City (1974). In his opening chapter, the influential cultural theorist and critic nimbly moves between his argument about the ways English literature has depicted the relationship of the title, and this “personal pressure and commitment” to writing the book which lies “behind it, all the time.” Williams was born and raised in a working-class family near the town of Abergavenny in southeast Wales. His move from that rural community to the university town of Cambridge and his academic career there led him to reflect on how the pastoral literature he read did not represent the “many meanings” of country life as he remembered them. My own understanding of those meanings of life near the southern Welsh border with England could not be more “obscure,” but still his account resonated with me. My great-great grandparents emigrated from a small Welsh town, also near Abergavenny, in the late nineteenth century. I travelled from London to see it for the first time last year.
Their journey from a small iron-working town to the prodigious industrial city of Pittsburgh across the Atlantic is one of many such stories of the shifting economic relations between the country and the city, the dislocations they bring, and the nostalgia they foster. Williams’ book is so perceptive because he illustrates how that longing for a pre-industrial, placid countryside does not just misrepresent the history of rural communities, but often justifies the economic transformations that undermine them. Visions of pastoral escape away from the greed and double-dealing of the city, for instance, obscures how those deal-making London merchants increasingly relied on wealth extracted from the labor of agrarian workers in social relations that only poets could depict as tranquil. Williams places those visions of pastoral “Golden Ages” within the history of an agrarian capitalism that began to change the country in the seventeenth century. This critical perspective is particularly valuable for those thinking about how to respond to the “obscure abstraction” on which we increasingly rely to think about the country. It is not always enough to unmask nostalgic politics as inaccurate representations of the past, when we can ask how the particular shape of that past has made those visions feel so accurate, or so aspirational.