Commentary

Yuliya Komska: Can civilians make borders better?

February 22, 2017
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Yuliya Komska: Can civilians make borders better?

“Can civilians make borders better?” by Yuliya Komska, author of The Icon Curtain: The Cold War’s Quiet Border (2015) *** Received wisdom contends that borders and walls are the work of states and supra-national bodies eager to regulate security, the movement of populations, and the flow of commodities. Not surprisingly, the construction and enforcement of these zones rely on weaponized technologies, substantial armed presence, and the use of surplus materials. Whether skimming the European Union’s southeastern edge, snaking between Israel and the West Bank, or cementing the line between the United States and Mexico, borders coalesce as militarized spaces, ostensibly antithetical to those inhabited by civilians in peacetime. The concomitant impression is that civilians can humanize borders by channeling creative energies to subversive effect. Think of the colorful graffiti on the western side of the Berlin Wall, or the works of the elusive artist Banksy, who brought the divided German city’s visual motifs (such as the iconic trompe-l’oeil barrier breech or the make-belief scenic vista) to Gaza in 2005. Consider also the shrines and crosses at the Mexican border, which commemorate the thousands who died in US Border Patrol operations, or the more choreographed incentives that reimagine this emergent border wall, several . . .

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An American Conscience: The Reinhold Niebuhr Story

February 20, 2017
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This April, Emmy Award–winning filmmaker Martin Doblmeier’s documentary about the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971), An American Conscience: The Reinhold Niebuhr Story, debuts on public television. The film explores the life of Niebuhr, theological liberalism’s best-known promoter (author of the “Serenity Prayer”), and how he positioned himself as a voice of conscience during some of the twentieth-century’s most potent times of racial unrest, depression, and global conflict. Hal Holbrook reads as Niebuhr, and the film includes interviews with Jimmy Carter, Andrew Young, David Brooks, Cornel West, and others. You can read more at the Journey Films website, and in the interim, here’s a list of works by and about Niebuhr, published by the University of Chicago Press. *** The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness: A Vindication of Democracy and a Critique of Its Traditional Defense, first published in 1944, is considered the standard bearer of Niebuhr’s philosophy, which took up the timely question of how democracy as a political system could best be defended. The Irony of American History, cited by politicians as diverse as Hillary Clinton and John McCain, posits the incongruity between personal ideals and political reality as both an indictment of American moral complacency and a warning against . . .

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The Great Derangement: On fiction and climate change

February 15, 2017
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The Great Derangement: On fiction and climate change

From Lawrence Lenhart’s  recent review of The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, at the Rumpus: The largest section of The Great Derangement examines “Story” (the consignment and suppression of literary forms), but Ghosh also looks at the impact of alternate histories and global politics on climate change discourse. He wags his finger at those who would blame Indian and Chinese modernization for bringing us to the tipping point; instead he points to western idealism and technophilia that created the myth that everyone can have two cars, a washing machine, and refrigerator, when in fact “modernity can only be practiced by a small minority of the world’s population… not because of technical or economic limitations but because the earth would asphyxiate in the process.” What’s more, Ghosh directs our attention to the irony that “the Anthropocene has reversed the temporal order of modernity: those at the margins,” Tuvaluans and southern Bangladeshis for example, “are now the first to experience the future that awaits all of us.” Elsewhere Ghosh takes exception to John Updike’s description of the novel as an “individual moral adventure.” This conception makes us more likely to tell stories about the fall of the Berlin Wall or the . . .

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1971: A Year in the Life of Color

February 13, 2017
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1971: A Year in the Life of Color

Darby English’s 1971: A Year in the Life of Color points to a moment when the self-representation of black American artists working in the wake of modernism manifested in two shows staged during a tumultuous period of cultural, political, and aesthetic change—Contemporary Black Artists in America, at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and The DeLuxe Show, “a racially integrated abstract art exhibition presented in a renovated movie theater in a Houston ghetto.” *** Hyperallergic (in a piece by Jessica Bell Brown) has more commentary on what the convergence of these two shows meant for dismantling a homogeneous narrative of black modernist expression: Enter 1971, which takes as its starting point a most urgent year in aesthetic and racial politics. English’s object of study are two exhibitions essential to the ongoing relationship between black American artists and modernism: The Deluxe Show and the Contemporary Black Artists in America exhibition at the Whitney Museum, preceding Deluxe in the spring of 1971. In his book, English magnifies “an unprecedented brief swell of dissent within black political culture” that year, centering his study on the status and relevance of “color” as an aesthetic and social obsession. For so long, historians of African American art were unable . . .

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RIP Tzvetan Todorov (1939–2017)

February 9, 2017
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RIP Tzvetan Todorov (1939–2017)

Tzvetan Todorov (1939–2017)—literary theorist, intellectual historian, and philosopher—died earlier this week; in particularly uncanny circumstances, our free e-book of the month happens to be his The Fear of Barbarians. Rather than link to an obit, we’re going to reblog a conversation between Todorov and media scholar WJT Mitchell—who had never met in person or previously exchanged correspondence—that unfolded over three days on our blog, back in December 2010, on the heels of the then-recent publications of Barbarians and Mitchell’s Cloning Terror. Little more than six years ago, and the topics they discuss—the politics of occupation, the war on terror, the then-emergent Wikileaks, Goya, the US State Department’s penchant for torture, Guantanamo, cloning—feel both like prescient observations from a time now past, and nearly enraging in their unfortunate contemporaneity. Below, you’ll find links to Parts II and III. Download your free copy of The Fear of Barbarians here. ** We’re kicking things off with a series of letters between Tzvetan Todorov, author of The Fear of Barbarians: Beyond the Clash of Civilizations and W. J. T. Mitchell, author of Cloning Terror: The War of Images, 9/11 to the Present on the visual imagery of the war on terror, our current global political climate, and the role of . . .

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Alice Kaplan on the origins of “Meursault”

February 8, 2017
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Alice Kaplan on the origins of “Meursault”

Meursault, the protagonist (or anti-hero) of Albert Camus’s The Stranger, is one of literature’s all-time classic characters—a French-Algerian, emotionally detached drifter who murders an Arab in a griefless rage. Below, Alice Kaplan, author of the National Book Critics Circle-nominated Looking for The Stranger: Albert Camus and the Life of a Literary Classic, writes at Wonders and Marvels on the origins of the character’s name, and her theory as to why Camus picked the epithet he did. *** For any French reader, that name can only signify the delicious and expensive white Burgundy wine. I was really shocked when I looked at the only surviving manuscript of The Stranger and discovered that Camus writes his character’s name without a “u” throughout. Where did that “u” come from? Some Camus experts claim he thought of the name change at a dinner party where he was served an especially good bottle of the Burgundy wine. Then there’s the story of the contest. Every November, a literary prize of 3,000 bottles of Meursault wine was awarded to a book celebrating the glory of the land. An ad for the prize appeared in the French press in November, 1941, as Camus was putting finishing touches on his novel. Although Meursault isn’t a very funny . . .

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Molly Haskell: From Reverence to Rape

October 27, 2016
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Molly Haskell: From Reverence to Rape

In a piece for TCM’s blog Movie Morlocks, critic Susan Doll posted a tribute to the new edition of Molly Haskell’s classic feminist takedown of the female cinematic imaginary, From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women at the Movies (3rd edition; with a new foreword by Manohla Dargis), complete with outstanding captions, such as, ON ROSALIND RUSSELL: “NOT A FAVORITE WITH MEN.” Here’s a choice excerpt, which gives you a taste of Haskell’s contribution to writing film, a mix of ferociously idiosyncratic critical insight and bona fide enthusiasm that ran across taste, time, and genre: TCM viewers who are enjoying “Trailblazing Women” should check out the new, third edition of From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies by film historian Molly Haskell. Haskell, who sometimes cohosts on TCM, covers the silent era to the late 20th century, the same time frame as “Trailblazing Women.” While there is some overlap between the series and the book, Haskell’s focus is on the image of women in the movies, the stars who embodied these images, and the relationship of these images to women in society. Long ago, when I was in film school, I was introduced to feminist film theory, particularly the work . . .

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RIP Mary D. Sheriff (1950–2016)

October 25, 2016
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RIP Mary D. Sheriff (1950–2016)

Mary D. Sheriff, internationally celebrated art historian and educator, died on October 19, 2016, at the age of 66. From Susan Bielstein, executive editor at the University of Chicago Press: We’re sad to report that our beloved author Mary Sheriff died on October 19, 2016, after a short, intense fight with pancreatic cancer. Sheriff was the W.R. Kenan, Jr. Distinguished Professor of Art History in the Art Department of the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. A leader in the study of eighteenth-century art, she published three books with the Press: Fragonard: Art and Eroticism (1990), The Exceptional Woman: Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun and the Cultural Politics of Art (1996), and Moved by Love: Inspired Artists and Deviant Women in Eighteenth-Century France (2004). We expect to publish her new book, Enchanted Islands: Picturing the Allure of Conquest in Eighteenth-Century France, and will announce a publication date in due course. From Sheriff’s partner, Keith Luria: specialized in eighteenth-century French art and transformed the field by re-evaluating rococo painting, introducing feminist perspectives, and examining European art in a global context. She published widely on artists such as Fragonard and Vigée-Lebrun, as well as on questions of art and gender. She taught at the . . .

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RIP Jacob Neusner (1932–2016)

October 24, 2016
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RIP Jacob Neusner (1932–2016)

Jacob Neusner (1932-2016), one of the world’s premier scholars of Jewish rabbinical texts, died earlier this month, on October 8, 2016. Neusner was the author or editor of more than 900 books for students, scholars, and general readers in Judaism, comparative religion, and the history and analysis of rabbinic texts, including the landmark, 35-volume The Talmud of the Land of Israel, published by the University of Chicago Press. Among those institutions he taught at during his distinguished academic career were Dartmouth College, Brown University, the University of South Florida, and Bard College. Below follow some remembrances of Nesuner’s life and works. From Aaron Hughes for the American Academy of Religion: Jacob Neusner was born to Samuel and Lee Neusner on July 12, 1932, in West Hartford, Connecticut. His father owned the Connecticut Jewish Ledger, a Jewish weekly that continues to serve the Connecticut region and western Massachusetts. The young Neusner received his first typewriter at age twelve and, by his junior year in high school, could do all the jobs associated with a newspaper. From a young age he could write both quickly and to make deadlines. Neusner grew up attending public school as opposed to Jewish day school, and his values . . .

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October 4: Happy World Animal Day!

October 4, 2016
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October 4: Happy World Animal Day!

In honor of World Animal Day and to raise awareness of its significance, University of Chicago Press author Marc Bekoff dedicated his recurring Huffington Post column to the event, which originated in 1925 (and whose fascinating history you can read here). The purpose of World Animal Day? From the mission statement: Raise the status of animals in order to improve welfare standards around the globe. Building the celebration of World Animal Day unites the animal welfare movement, mobilising it into a global force to make the world a better place for all animals.  It’s celebrated in different ways in every country, irrespective of nationality, religion, faith or political ideology.  Through increased awareness and education we can create a world where animals are always recognised as sentient beings and full regard is always paid to their welfare. Bekoff’s post considers the ongoing relevance of a day devoted to invoking awareness around animal needs and welfare, including the hyperlink-filled excerpt below, which connects to just a few of the concerns worth our attention, chief among them the continued role we play in animal abuse, and what we can do about it: There’s no shortage of examples in which billions of nonhuman animals (animals) are abused by humans . . .

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