Commentary

Can We Fill Our Empty Streets?: Brian Ladd on the Role of Streets in City Life

July 9, 2020
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Can We Fill Our Empty Streets?: Brian Ladd on the Role of Streets in City Life

With social distancing protocols in place and many businesses temporarily closed, the current pandemic has drastically changed the public lives of our cities. Eerie videos of cities like New York show a world with fewer cars, cyclists, and pedestrians, while many of us wonder how and when public interactions might resume. Brian Ladd, author of The Streets of Europe, considers not only our current state of lockdown, but also the history and future of city streets, looking at the ways they have changed from pedestrian hubs to high-speed thoroughfares and how we might reconsider their role in city life. In our coronavirus quarantines, many of us miss not only particular people, but also people in general. Pictures of empty streets remind us that we cannot, like the French poet Charles Baudelaire, “melt into the crowd” to “take a bath of multitude” with its “feverish ecstasies.” Will our current feelings of deprivation renew an enthusiasm for the daily throng? Only if we don’t succumb to fear of city life. This pandemic does make it easy to believe that the proximity of other people is primarily a threat. When will it be safe to gather in public again? Never, say pundits who . . .

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Pandemic Participation: Christopher M. Kelty on Isolation and Participation in a Public Health Crisis

May 28, 2020
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Drawing from ideas in his book, The Participant: A Century of Participation in Four Stories, Christopher M. Kelty discusses how participation changes during a pandemic and what it means for the future. I make a provocative claim in The Participant: To treat participation as general—and democracy as a more specific apparatus to which it responds—amounts to asserting that participation is prior to democracy. Participation is not a simple component of democracy, but something problematic enough that things like representative parliamentary democracy, federal constitutions, secret ballots, and regimes of audit and regulation are oriented toward dealing with too much, too little, or the wrong kind of participation. This is not a conventional way of looking at democracy, and it will not fit well with a political theory tradition in which participation plays only a bit part in the great historical drama of democracy. I think, however, there is something to be gained by reversing this relation. Instead, one can view participation as a longstanding problem of the relation between persons and collectives, and see liberal democracy as existing in an intermediate temporality where institutions, theories, constitutions, legal systems are in a process of steady transformation. The apparatus we call “liberal representative . . .

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Guilty Until Proven Innocent?: Marianne Mason, editor of “The Discourse of Police Interviews,” on the Guilt-Presumptive Nature of Interrogations

May 7, 2020
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“Step up and tell the truth.” “No more lies.” “This is your chance to tell us what really happened.” Who hasn’t rooted for a TV detective when they’ve said these lines in an interrogation or when the detective managed to convince someone not to seek counsel? While these lines and manipulations have been played off on procedural shows as fairly benign, they actually represent an interrogation method that, instead of presuming innocence like the US justice system is meant to, actually presumes guilt and focuses on soliciting a confession. In her chapter in The Discourse of Police Interviews, “The Guilt-Presumptive Nature of Custodial Interrogations in the United States,” editor Marianne Mason investigates this interrogation style’s history, techniques, and tactics as well as loopholes past the Miranda warning and suggests areas for further research. We invited her to reflect on her chapter and bring to light its key points and place it within The Discourse of Police Interviews as a whole. It is past time that police interviews undergo such analysis and scrutiny. Since the early 2000s I have been researching language and the law. I have examined language use in covertly-taped conversations of drug cartel members, such as the Cali Cartel, the bilingual . . .

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Price V. Fishback on Werner Troesken’s “The Pox of Liberty” and Our Current Tradeoffs between Quarantines and Economic Freedom

April 21, 2020
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Economist and Press author Price V. Fishback shared with us recently his thoughts on a previous Press book that speaks to our current situation and looks at the political and economic history of how the US government has responded to other pandemics. The current crisis has brought into focus the tradeoffs between quarantines and economic freedom.  For an excellent book about the history of these tradeoffs in the United States, read Werner Troesken’s The Pox of Liberty:  How the Constitution Left Americans Rich, Free, and Prone to Infection (University of Chicago Press, 2015). Werner traces the history of how governments at all levels of the American federal system dealt with three deadly and recurring diseases:  smallpox, yellow fever, and typhoid. All of the issues the world is facing today to avoid horrid deaths are discussed in Werner’s book:  inadequate testing, the absence of vaccines, attempts to develop vaccines, tradeoffs between economic losses and quarantines, the uncertainties that the disease might return in the future, and inadequate medical facilities.  The situations developed in the nineteenth-century societies when there were much higher death rates, lower incomes, and at best rudimentary medical care.  In his preface, Werner says that he started out trying to . . .

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Zachary Dorner, author of “Merchants of Medicine,” on the Coronavirus and Black Americans

April 15, 2020
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The death of black Americans due to coronavirus at a disproportionately high rate recalls the ways differential mortality reflects and has shaped ideas of inherent bodily difference in the past. Zachary Dorner discusses this connection using ideas and examples from his book Merchants of Medicines: The Commerce and Coercion of Health in Britain’s Long Eighteenth Century (available in May). Data recently collected by The Washington Post (link) point to stark disparities in morbidity and mortality during the current pandemic between black and white Americans. While upsetting, such a finding does not come as a particular surprise to a historian of medicine and empire. (Nor, for that matter, does it to scholars of race or to people whose lived experience is one of unequal health). Such health outcomes are often the result, intended and not, of longstanding policies and practices used to construct the economic and political realities we live with today. Notably, U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams has attributed his own cardiovascular issues, and therefore susceptibility to the virus, to the “legacy of growing up poor and black in America.” Structural disparities not only contribute to disparate health outcomes as starkly demonstrated this year by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, but historically . . .

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RIP, Stanley Cavell (1926–2018)

June 21, 2018
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RIP, Stanley Cavell (1926–2018)

    The passing of philosopher Stanley Cavell has brought praise and reminiscences from all quarters. “An air of improvisation and fun hung over everything he did,” wrote Christopher Benfey for the New York Review of Books, while Martha C. Nussbaum told the New York Times that he “brought to philosophy a human depth and subtlety that it had all too often lacked.” Our editorial director, Alan Thomas, meanwhile, shared these thoughts on Cavell and his legacy: We will miss Stanley Cavell. His connection to the University of Chicago Press began in 1988, when he delivered the Carpenter Lectures. The lectures were sponsored, tellingly, by Chicago’s English department; Stanley was the most literary of philosophers. The Press went on to publish six of his books, including reissues of Themes out of School and Senses of Walden, and brought out Michael Fischer’s fine study, Stanley Cavell and Literary Skepticism.  Stanley influenced countless of our authors, including Charles Bernstein, who has written that “Cavell does not put forward assertions. The truth of what he says is finally left to whether it holds for you.” I remember best working with Stanley In Contesting Tears, his study of the film genre he called “the melodrama of . . .

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Synthetic: An ethnography of life

June 30, 2017
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Synthetic: An ethnography of life

Reposting this fabulous review and commentary by Christina Agapakis at New Scientist on Sophia Roosh’s Synthetic: How Life Got Made—after the jump. *** What is synthetic biology? This question has vexed synthetic biologists and journalists alike since the discipline was named at MIT more than 15 years ago. Is synthetic biology a technique? A goal? A state of mind? In her ethnography of the field, Synthetic, Sophia Roosth offers a useful answer. “Synthetic biologists, by a pragmatic definition, are people who identify as synthetic biologists… at a methodological level what unites this diverse cast of characters is sociology,” she says. The social life of synthetic biologists is just as important to understanding the field as its technical content; it’s the beliefs, ambitions and relationships of these people that make the field what it is. Roosth dives into the history, anthropology and peculiar society of synthetic biologists – of which I consider myself a member, having been trained in a synthetic biology lab across the river from the labs Roosth describes. Synthetic is a traditional anthropological monograph: there are chapters on religion, kinship, property, labour, the household and origin myths. Roosth grounds each chapter in her long-term engagement with the community, and her historical . . .

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Paying the Price: Should College Be Free?

June 26, 2017
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Paying the Price: Should College Be Free?

Just a soundbite from a recent New York Times Magazine piece on free college, fueled by Sara Goldrick-Rab’s efficacious research in Paying the Price, follows below. *** Sara Goldrick-Rab, a self-described “scholar-activist” who teaches higher education policy at Temple University, has a more expansive idea: Make the first two years free for everyone who attends a community college (all of which are public) or four-year state school. Directing more resources to the first two years of college would help people from lower-income families overcome the biggest barrier to their success, which is the living costs associated with housing, food, transportation and books while they attend school. “When students are able to focus on college, and not work, they graduate,” Goldrick-Rab told me recently. The federal government currently gives tens of billions of dollars in grants and subsidies each year to private colleges and for-profit trade schools in the United States, despite the fact that public colleges educate three-quarters of the students pursuing a postsecondary degree. “I say let the privates and for-profits fend for themselves,” Goldrick-Rab says, and put that money instead toward what she sometimes calls Grades 13 and 14. Finishing high school might once have provided enough education to find employment that pays well. . . .

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Natasha K. Warikoo on college admissions (and its flaws)

June 19, 2017
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Natasha K. Warikoo on college admissions (and its flaws)

Below follows a recent op-ed by Natasha K. Warikoo at Inside Higher Ed on our flawed college admissions process—and how it gets personal—drawn from her work and research for The Diversity Bargain. *** I recently participated in two admissions processes. At Harvard University, I chaired a committee that admitted students to one of our doctoral programs. At home, I prepared an application for my son to attend private school next year. Having just written a book about college admissions, I understood all too well that these processes are inherently flawed. I knew before the processes even started, for example, that students admitted in both instances would be more likely than the average young American to have parents with college degrees. I also knew that there would be a disproportionate number of white admits. And, I knew that participation in the process would confirm for most decision-makers and those admitted that these are fair processes that select the “best” candidates. For my son, I had a wealth of knowledge to craft his application. The writing skills I developed as a student at Brown University, my social network of elite college graduates, and my husband’s training at the University of Oxford, surely helped us craft . . .

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Barbara J. King on the legal status of animals

June 16, 2017
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Barbara J. King on the legal status of animals

From an interview with Barbara J. King at Nonhuman Rights Blog: So far in our litigation, no court has challenged the idea that chimpanzees are self-aware, autonomous beings; a New York appellate court judge even called the NhRP’s affidavits from scientists “very impressive.” And yet, all the same, our chimpanzee clients remain legal “things” with no rights even though science and law suggest they should be recognized as legal “persons” with fundamental rights. How might you account for this gap between the science of animal cognition and emotion and animals’ legal status? Why do you think the law is still lagging behind the science as far as animals are concerned? The idea of animals as property or as things is so deeply entrenched in Western systems of law;  it’s hard to shake that loose from what years of animal-behavior, anthropology, and psychology studies tell us about chimpanzees as able to reason, remember, plan, suffer, and take into account factors that affect their own well-being. In thinking about the “why,” I remember Steve talking so movingly about this: we know about the not-so-distant past in which human beings other than white men were considered as property or less-than-human in our legal systems. As . . .

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