Tolerance in Two Recitations

The prompt for this paper asks students to compare the cultures of toleration in Heda Margolius Kovály’s Under A Cruel Star: A Life in Prague, 1941-1968 and Ian Burma’s Murder in Amsterdam: Liberal Europe, Islam, and the Limits of Tolerance.[1] Assumed in this directive is a definition of tolerance,[2] but exactly what definition that is remains to be interpreted. At one level, tolerance can be read as “sympathy or indulgence for beliefs or practices differing from or conflicting with one’s own.” On another level, tolerance can be interpreted as the “capacity to endure pain or hardship.”[3] Because both definitions are equally valid interpretations of tolerance in Kovály’s and Buruma’s book, it makes it difficult (and perhaps detrimental) to read for only one of them. “Read for” is appropriate here because it requires a conscious attempt to recognize the different registers of tolerance in the texts. It is because of this nuance that, for this paper, I have also decided to analyze different registers of tolerance. However, because of the detail inherent in an analysis of this kind, I have decided to focus on only one text—Under a Cruel Star. Rather than a slight to or dodge of Buruma, this decision is a reflection of my belief that analyzing tolerance on two levels in one book is equivalent to analyzing tolerance on one level in two books. Choosing the former method not only allows for a deeper understanding of one text, but it also prevents a superficial understanding of two extremely rich ones. In the end, I hope to show that life in Prague between 1941 and 1968 was one of social intolerance as well as one of individual tolerance (an individual’s ability to withstand pain and hardship).

First, I want to look at the representation of social intolerance in Under A Cruel Star. Social intolerance is present throughout the entire book, but the first major wave of it comes after Kovály escapes from the Germans and returns to Prague to attempt to restart her life. The first person she visits is an old friend named Jenda, who, prior to the deportations, told Kovály, “whatever happens, I shall be your anchor. If you can, send me your messages. Should you be separated, count on meeting again at my place. If anything happens to me, I’ll find a replacement. I’ll never stop waiting for you to come back. You’ll always have somewhere to come back to.”[4] Yet, when Kovály shows up at Jenda’s apartment, he was anything but the anchor he promised to be. As Kovály writes, “I saw that he felt ashamed of himself and guilty, but that his fear was stronger than anything else. All he could think of was the deadly danger that had walked in with me: Was I sure no one had seen me on the stairs? He wanted not to know me, to know nothing about me and live. Live in peace and quiet in the middle of death and deportation.”[5] If I term this social intolerance, some will no doubt object that it is too harsh a reading of Jenda and his actions, but let us remember that tolerance can be defined as sympathy for someone with beliefs and practices that conflict with one’s own. Kovály, who believed Jenda would help her and attempted to practice that belief, represented for Jenda a life in conflict with his own. The resulting fear paralyzed Jenda, as he did not offer help to Kovály or run after her when she left his apartment, realizing as she had that she was not going to find a helping hand in Jenda. In not wanting to know Kovály and “to know nothing about [her] and live,” he was practicing social intolerance, for voicing hatred or disagreement is not the only way to be intolerant. In fact, one could argue that the “silent treatment” is the cruelest form of intolerance because it is an attempt to erase the person with whom you conflict from existence. After all, engagement, even if conflictual, is tacitly an act of tolerance.

Unfortunately, Kovály’s encounter with social intolerance did not end after the particular fears of the Second World War wore off. After her husband Rudolf was arrested in 1952 in connection to his alleged role in conspiring against the state, she once again came up against fierce social intolerance. As Kovály describes it,

By that time, I had become like a leper, to be avoided by anyone who valued his life. Even the most casual encounter with me could arouse suspicion and invite disaster. I could understand that and could bear the situation better than most people in the same situation. The war inured me to it and, besides, I knew that I had no right to expose other people to danger. Why should anyone risk his job or the safety of his family or, perhaps, his freedom, just to talk to me? It is natural for people to think first of those for whom they are responsible. If everyone were a hero, what would courage be worth? And so it was largely without bitterness that I watched people suddenly cross the street when they saw me coming or, if they spotted me too late to cross, avert their eyes. To those few who insisted on continuing their acquaintance with me, I myself would say, “Don’t stop. Don’t talk to me. It makes no sense.”[6]

Although this is a long quote, it needs to be shown in full if we are to get a sense of the full meaning behind what is being said. Because Rudolf was accused of conspiring against the state, he was considered a traitor politically as well as socially. Kovály, by marital association, was also considered a traitor, and, therefore, she was treated “like a leper, to be avoided by anyone who valued his life.” Notwithstanding Rudolph’s probable brush with torture and eventual death, Kovály perhaps suffered a harsher punishment: the shunting of a society with which she had unavoidable contact every day. Because contact with Kovály “could arouse suspicion and invite disaster,” people avoided her and ignored her in the most casual ways and circumstances. Indeed, one could reasonably claim that, given the political and social climate, these people had no choice but to avoid her, lest they too would attract the state’s suspicion and its resulting consequences. But they did have a choice—they just chose to ignore her. They chose the path of intolerance. Fear may have been the cause of this choice, but that doesn’t make it any less intolerant. Even if it can be shown that political intolerance breeds social intolerance, the burden of toleration rests not on fear but on sympathy and indulgence.

At this juncture, I would like to address the second definition of tolerance: the capacity to withstand pain or hardship. You’ll notice that the long paragraph quoted and analyzed above has more to it than examples of social intolerance. Imbedded in it also are expressions of Kovály withstanding hardship. For instance, notice that every description of social intolerance is coupled with an example of Kovály withstanding social intolerance. After comparing herself to a leper, she states, “I could understand that and could bear the situation better than most people in the same situation. The war inured me to it and, besides, I knew that I had no right to expose other people to danger.” From this, we see that Kovály’s experience in concentration camps during the Second World War gave her a high level of tolerance for hardship, specifically the pain that comes with social intolerance. However, we also see what I am going to call her tolerance for intolerance. Kovály “understands” why people are avoiding her, and she asserts “that I had no right to expose other people to danger.” She goes on to ask, “why should anyone risk his job or the safety of his family or, perhaps, his freedom, just to talk to me? It is natural for people to think first of those for whom they are responsible. If everyone were a hero, what would courage be worth?” Kovály, the victim of intolerance, is here practicing tolerance in the manner of our first definition, which is about having sympathy for those with conflicting beliefs and practices. She sympathizes with those who are putting their own lives before hers. Even though their beliefs and practices conflict with hers and, because of sheer numbers, have a greater effect on her than hers has on them, she responds with indulgence. In fact, she was so indulgent that “to those few who insisted on continuing their acquaintance with [her, she herself] would say, ‘Don’t stop. Don’t talk to me. It makes no sense.’” At this point in Kovály’s recollection, the two forms of tolerance—sympathy for views different from one’s own and withstanding hardship—have fused into one. That is, tolerance defined as the “capacity to endure pain or hardship” becomes tolerance defined as “sympathy or indulgence for beliefs or practices differing from or conflicting with one’s own.”

Although there are other examples in Under A Cruel Star of both readings of tolerance, it seems appropriate to end the paper with that last analysis—and even inappropriate to continue beyond it—given that it leaves us with what is perhaps the ultimate lesson of the book: the two registers of tolerance are simply, and perhaps unexpectedly, two sides of the same coin. Social intolerance requires of an individual the ability to with withstand hardship, which can then in turn lead to social tolerance. This is not to suggest that social intolerance is necessary for social tolerance, but rather that social intolerance does not inevitably lead to only more intolerance. There exists a constant tension between tolerance and intolerance in the book, and this tension played itself out in the history of twentieth-century Europe. It even haunts twenty-first-century Europe, as Buruma demonstrates in Murder in Amsterdam. However, although social intolerance remains a specter over Europe, Kovály shows us that social tolerance in such an environment is not only possible but also worthwhile.


[1] Heda Margolius Kovály, Under A Cruel Star: A Life in Prague 1941-1968 (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1986) and Ian Buruma, Murder in Amsterdam: Liberal Europe, Islam, and the Limits of Tolerance (New York: Penguin Books, 2007).

[2] Toleration is a more limiting noun than tolerance, so, admittedly, I am taking some creative license here, but I think it is a freeing and therefore, necessary maneuver.

[3] Both definitions of tolerance come from the entry for tolerance (noun) at merriam-webster.com: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/tolerance.

[4] Kovály, Under A Cruel Star, 26.

[5] Ibid., 27.

[6] Kovály, 117.

Influencing the Young Albert Camus: Perspectives on Jean Grenier

In the family of historical subfields, intellectual history is often treated as a shunned stepchild among blood-related siblings. This happens for many reasons, but one main reason is that intellectual history is simply misunderstood. Most people think intellectual history is the study of a specific idea’s development over time, which is indeed one way of doing intellectual history but certainly not the only one. In fact, this way of doing intellectual history has fallen out of favor, since it has the tendency to look at ideas without regard for their interaction with other phenomena. (I am avoiding the word “context” because genealogy is a form of context.) This type of analysis is referred to as “vertical”; however, “horizontal” analysis has come to replace it. As the historian Stefan Collini explains the change, “instead of works which cut a ‘vertical’ (and often teleological) slice through the past… the tendency of recent work has been towards excavating a more ‘horizontal’ site, exploring the idioms and preoccupations of a past period as they manifest themselves in thought and discussion about various issues that cannot readily be assigned to current academic pigeon-holes.”[1] Horizontal thinking, then, allows for a more ecumenical analysis, one that goes beyond a discussion of an idea’s development to maturity. It is with this horizontal mode of analysis that I want to frame my discussion of Albert Camus, one of the France’s most famous writer-philosophers in the twentieth century.

What does this mean for my historiography, you may ask? Well, it means that I had to get creative when choosing a topic in order to avoid, for example, looking at how different authors interpret absurdity in Camus’ thought generally or in one of his texts. This would be vertical history, or an interpretation of it, and that is something I wanted to avoid. I knew I wanted to use Alice Kaplan’s Looking for the Stranger: Albert Camus and the Life of a Literary Classic,[2] but it was not until I read a few essays in The Cambridge Companion to Camus that I arrived at an effectual topic:[3] Jean Grenier’s intellectual influence on Camus before the publication of The Stranger in May 1942. Jean Grenier was one of Camus’ mentors as a young writer,[4] and his influence on can be seen in much of his writing; however, I am focusing on the years before The Stranger because that is where the literature focuses its interpretive energy. Admittedly, this takes me away from Camus himself, but focusing on Grenier allows me to avoid falling into literary criticism or biography. It also allows me to cover something related to Camus that is not so “been there, done that.” Ultimately, I hope to show that, although opinion differs about Jean Grenier’s influence on Camus—for example, with regard to extent and effects—the authors agree that Grenier did have a noticeable influence on Albert Camus’ intellectual upbringing.

Perhaps it is obvious that one’s mentor is tagged as one of their main intellectual influences, but it is not something that it often discussed. More often than not, discussions of an author’s intellectual influences center on canonical writers that that person reads; often that person responds to those influences in their own writing. Rarely, however, is an author’s teacher or mentor discussed, for, in the intellectual history most people imagine, an idea is studied hermetically, without regard for context. In this intellectual history, Camus can be studied without knowledge of his teacher, in the mode of literary criticism. But to understand Camus prior to the birth of The Stranger and at least some of the ideas that run through it, we need to learn about the man who shaped Camus’ intellectual world to a great extent. Camus met Jean Grenier in 1930, the same year he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Although he was seventeen, and had already been influenced in some way by his primary school teacher Louis German and his uncle Gustave Acault, it was Jean Grenier who really set Camus up for a life of the mind. As Kaplan summarizes it, “In 1930, Camus met Jean Grenier, his lycée and then his university teacher, who guided his early reading and encouraged him to take the double path of literature and philosophy.”[5] It may be too much to say that Grenier is responsible for giving us Camus, but as someone who is in graduate school because his own mentor encouraged it, I would suggest that it might also be accurate. After all, not only did Grenier introduce Camus to the thinkers he would grapple with throughout his life as a writer (e.g. Schopenhauer, Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche & Bergson),[6] he also recommended the book that convinced the young Camus that he could be a writer: La Douleur (grief), by André de Richaud. As Kaplan puts it, “[Camus] considered La Douleur his license to write,”[7] because it showed that one didn’t need to write about bourgeois concerns like André Gide or Marcel Proust to become a successful writer.

Toby Garfitt’s “Situating Camus: the formative years,” chapter two of The Cambridge Companion to Camus,[8] is devoted entirely to Grenier’s influence on Camus, with special attention focused on the early nineteen thirties. Although Garfitt mentions early influences in Camus’ life,[9] he, like Kaplan, sees Grenier as a distinct moment in the development of Camus’ intellectual life. And yet, Garfitt speaks about Grenier’s early influence on Camus in a slightly different way than Kaplan. For example, after quoting Camus at age sixteen, Garfitt writes, “It was in the following year, 1930-1, that Camus encountered the man who was to unlock the world of books and ideas for him. The man was Jean Grenier, who at the ago of thirty-two arrived back in Algiers (where he had already taught for a year in 1923-4) to teach philosophy at the Lycée.”[10] Whereas Kaplan points to Grenier as a teacher who “guided” and “encouraged” Camus’ intellectual passions, Garfitt calls him “the man who was to unlock the world of books and ideas” for Camus. If this doesn’t reveal a big enough difference, Garfitt’s next sentences should. As if anticipating someone questioning Grenier’s mentor credentials, Garfitt writes,

But Grenier was not only a teacher of philosophy and a practicing philosopher himself; he had recently begun to publish essays in the Nouvelle Review Française (NRF), and he had even worked for a while for the publishers Editions de la NRF (Gallimard), so that he brought with him all the prestige of the Parisian literary world. His aim was less to teach the official syllabus than to open his pupils’ minds to culture in a broad sense.[11]

Grenier was a teacher, yes, but he was much more than that, according to Garfitt: he was a practicing philosopher, a published writer in one of France’s most prestigious literary magazines, and an employee of Gallimard, one of the literary world’s top publishers. While Garfitt writes that Grenier “brought with him all the prestige of the Parisian literary world,” it seems that what he really wants to suggest is that Grenier brought the Parisian literary world to Camus. That is, Garfitt believes Grenier gave Camus a Parisian literary education, or at least as much of a Parisian literary education as he could expect to receive in French Algeria. However, as the last sentence in the quoted passage demonstrates, Grenier also gave Camus a cultural education that went beyond the official syllabus dictated by Paris. In other words, Garfitt maintains that Grenier was more than just Camus’ teacher: he was the person who set in motion the intellectual curiosities that would allow Camus to one day write some of the most stunning pieces of writing, including his first breakthrough novel The Stranger, and he while doing this, he represented the possibilities of intellectual life. As Garfitt puts it in the conclusion to his chapter, “The period 1931-4 was crucial for Camus’s intellectual development, and it is clear that many of the elements that he absorbed in those three years were introduced to him, and mediated, by Grenier.”[12]

Significantly, Grenier was to have a more direct impact on The Stranger. Garfitt, for one, points out that Grenier noticed his influence in The Stranger. Grenier recommended Dostoyevsky to Camus during the period 1931-4, and, as Garfitt tells it, “He later noticed that Dostoyevsky’s analysis, in Notes from the Underground, of man’s awareness of his total impotence within a blind, even absurd world, was very similar to that found in L’Etranger: it may well have been his own teaching that got Camus thinking along those lines.”[13] We would never be able to prove definitively that this specific Dostoyevsky piece was on Camus’ mind while he was writing The Stranger unless he had written it down in his journal, which he apparently did not, since Garfitt makes no mention of it. (Even if he had written it down, we would still need to handle the claim with caution, less we make the mistake of taking autobiographical claims at face value.) But the suggestion by both Grenier and Garfitt is enough to show that Grenier’s teaching stayed with Camus in some noticeable way, at least until The Stranger.

If this is not direct enough for you, Kaplan does one better by providing an example of how Grenier influenced The Stranger in a more tangible way. After writing a novel titled A Happy Death, which contains elements that would eventually end up in The Stranger, Camus sent Grenier the manuscript for feedback. Grenier’s feedback was not good, and Camus took it to heart. As Kaplan writes, “Camus burned Grenier’s response with the rest of his correspondence in October 1939—burned the harsh words of reproach. We know how harsh the letter must have been because the fussy and often disapproving teacher carefully saved Camus’s response.”[14] Kaplan quotes Camus’ response to Grenier at length, but for our purposes, the beginning of the response is enough to get an idea of how Camus reacted to Grenier’s harsh criticism: “First of all, thank you. Yours is the only voice that I can heed with profit. What you say always revolts me for a few hours. But this forces me to reflect and to understand. . . . Today what you are saying is absolutely right.”[15] Clearly, Grenier’s opinion carries great weight with Camus, and Kaplan does a good job of showing this. After the quote, the remainder of which being full of dejection, Kaplan adds, “Then as he poured out his heart for many pages, Camus asked Grenier a question that gave his teacher enormous power over his future: ‘Before going back to work, there is one thing I’d like to know from you because you’re the only one who can tell me straight: Do you sincerely believe I should continue writing?’”[16] As if pouring his heart out for pages was not enough, Camus asks Grenier to decide his future for him. Grenier’s response was apparently so harsh that Camus felt he was not even qualified to make the decision himself. Kaplan informs the reader that “Camus realized he could only answer the question for himself,” but she leaves us with no doubt that Grenier is an important figure in Camus’ life intellectual life. If fact, in the next chapter, Kaplan informs the reader that Camus, although he attempted rewrites, abandoned A Happy Death; furthermore, character and plot points of the novel that would become The Stranger began to emerge in noticeable form during this time, after Camus abandoned A Happy Death. If The Stranger emerged in the period following Grenier’s letter, then the proposition that Grenier set the novel in motion is not that ludicrous; this is exactly the proposition Kaplan makes by telling the story in this way. To be clear, I do not think Kaplan is suggesting the Grenier is the sole cause of The Stranger; rather, I think she is suggesting that Grenier was integral to its development. In this way, Grenier was also integral to Camus’ intellectual development as a thinker and writer.

Interestingly, Grenier had a less obvious impact on Camus’s intellectual development prior to The Stranger: he persuaded Camus to join the Algerian Communist Party (PCA) in the late nineteen thirties. Ieme van der Poel mentions this aspect of Grenier’s influence in her Cambridge Companion to Camus chapter “Camus: a life lived in critical times,”[17] which attempts to provide the larger historical context to Camus’ life while giving the reader insight into how Camus negotiated that context in his writing. As Poel notes, “From 1935-1937, Camus was a member of the Algerian Communist Party. In his choice of membership, he was certainly influenced by his former teacher and mentor, the writer Jean Grenier. It is less obvious why, after a relatively short period of time, Camus was struck off the party’s register.”[18] Grenier appears and disappears in one sentence, which is probably not surprising in a chapter devoted to the larger historical context of Camus’ life, but it is significant that Grenier gets a mention in the years before The Stranger was published. Kaplan, too, mentions Grenier’s role in Camus’ decision to join the PCA, though her language is his a bit harsher than Poel’s. As she puts it, “[Camus] joined the Communist Party in 1935, urged on rather cynically by Grenier, who hated the Communists but thought party membership was a rite of passage, and by a school friend, Claude Fréminville.”[19] Although the language is slightly different, Kaplan and Poel agree that Grenier had a hand in getting Camus to join the Communist Party. Garfitt agrees as well, but his take is a little different. “In terms of political commitment,” writes Garfitt, “Camus was under pressure in 1934 to join the Communist Party, but he wanted to keep his eyes open and avoid being ‘blinded by short-term convictions’; in the course of the next year Grenier was to encourage his pupil to follow his natural inclinations and join the party.”[20] Garfitt makes it known that Camus was indeed under pressure to join the Community Party, but he believes Grenier’s influence was one of encouragement, not of pressure. Regardless of the differences in interpretation among the three authors, they all believe that Grenier influenced Camus’ decision to join the Algerian Communist Party in some capacity. To what degree communism had a lasting or even short-term impact on Camus is less important for our purposes than acknowledging that during his time with the Communist Party, Camus was not under Grenier’s tutelage as much as he had been when not in the party. According to Garfitt, this and other breaks from Grenier “had a positive value in helping Camus to establish his intellectual independence.”[21] Thus, Grenier persuading Camus to join the Communist Party may be one of his most important (indirect) influences on Camus in the years leading up to The Stranger.

The Stranger is one of Albert Camus’ most well known pieces of writing, if not the most well known. Those of us who have read the novel can easily see why this book was the one that launched Camus’ career as a literary star. What most readers do not know, however, is that the story behind The Stranger is a fascinating one, filled with hardship and a lot of determination.[22] Even less known is that Jean Grenier, Camus’ first mentor, influenced his intellectual makeup in profound ways. Some of this influence made it into The Stranger, some of it made it into his other writing, and some of it influenced Camus in more general ways that manifest at the level of worldview. Regardless of the exact influence, the authors discussed in this paper seem to believe that Grenier had a significant influence on the young Camus. Looking at their points, it is hard to disagree with them.


[1] Stefan Collini, “Intellectual History,” Making History, 2008, accessed January 2, 2017, http://www.history.ac.uk/makinghistory/resources/articles/intellectual_history.html.

[2] Alice Kaplan, Albert Camus and the Life of a Literary Classic (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2016).

[3] Edward J. Hughes, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Camus (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

[4] Camus’ other mentor was Pascal Pia.

[5] Kaplan, Looking for The Stranger, 9.

[6] Kaplan writes that “Nietzsche was the philosopher who counted most for Camus during those years [at university], in style and substance; he admired Nietzsche, he wrote, as a poet-philosopher ‘susceptible of engaging in contradictions’” (Kaplan 10).

[7] Kaplan, Looking for The Stranger, 10.

[8] Toby Garfitt, “Situating Camus: the formative years,” in The Cambridge Companion to Camus (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007): 26-38.

[9] Garfitt mentions German and Acault, as well as Schopenhauer, Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche and Bergson, but he also mentions Molière. His comments on Molière are relevant and worth quoting. He writes, “At the Grand Lycée in Algiers, where Camus discovered a totally different world from that of the rough working-class district of Belcourt where he grew up, the author who appealed most to him was probably Molière. The implications of that are still to be explored, both for his dramatic practice and for his often unrecognized humour” (Garfitt 26).

[10] Ibid. Emphasis mine.

[11] Garfitt, “Situating Camus,” 26-27.

[12] Ibid., 37.

[13] Garfitt, “Situating Camus,” 29.

[14] Kaplan, Looking for The Stranger, 26.

[15] Kaplan, Looking for The Stranger, 27. The quote continues, “I took great pains over this book. . . . I am still happy that certain parts please you, happy to have made progress. I have to confess that I am not indifferent to this failure. I don’t need to tell you that I am not satisfied with the life I’m leading. And so I had given great importance to the novel. Clearly I was wrong.”

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ieme van der Poel, “Camus: a life lived in critical times,” in The Cambridge Companion to Albert Camus (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007): 13-25.

[18] Ibid., 16.

[19] Kaplan, Looking for The Stranger, 19.

[20] Garfitt, “Situating Camus,” 34.

[21] Ibid., 37.

[22] See Kaplan’s Looking for The Stranger for this story.

Review: Discipline & Punish

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage Books, 1995.

What can you say about Michel Foucault that hasn’t already been said? No other thinker since Foucault has had more of an impact on history, literature, cultural studies, and a number of other disciplines that comprise the humanities and social sciences, if not the gamut of them. This goes without saying. No other thinker has caused so much debate and division within history in the past few decades as has Foucault. Again, this goes without saying. Yet, precisely because of Foucault’s influence, these things must be said and acknowledged time and again. That one individual could have such a huge impact is astounding, and it begs the question:[1] how did he do it? Discipline and Punish (hereafter Discipline) possibly offers the best avenue for answering this question because it is a blend of his theoretical and practical work in a way that was new even for Foucault. Specifically, it was the first time he attempted to employ what he called genealogy. Previously, in The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences and The Archaeology of Knowledge: And the Discourse on Language, Foucault laid out archaeology, a method of analysis aimed at deciphering the discourses that structure discursive formations for a given episteme, or period of knowledge. However, archaeology had a major flaw: it could not account for change. As the Foucault-scholar Gary Gutting writes, “genealogy, the new method first deployed in Discipline and Punish, was intended to remedy this deficiency.”[2] In particular, genealogy was meant to address the deficiencies of archaeology by showing how one episteme became another; in other words, genealogy was about transition and transformation. Discipline, then, is perhaps the most Foucauldian text in all of Foucault’s oeuvre because of its unique place in the development of his methodology. After all, Foucault cannot be separated from his methodology, for, in the end, it was his methodological innovations that allowed him to make his most successful arguments on discourse.

In four parts (Torture, Punishment, Discipline, and Prison), using a variety of French and English sources, Foucault attempts to show how and why punishment moved from being inflicted on the body to being inflicted upon the soul. Another way to say this is, the book is about the transition from one mode of punishment to another. Each mode of punishment comes from a different episteme, according to Foucault, with punishment upon the soul coming from our modern or current episteme and punishment on the body coming from the episteme just before that. What is the soul in relation to punishment? What does it mean to punish the soul? If punishment in our current episteme is the manifestation of the formulation that “punishment … should strike the soul rather than the body” (16), then how did it come to be? And why? These are the guiding questions of the book. Note that Foucault’s focus is on the soul, which indicates that he is primarily interested in the current episteme, and specifically, the transition to the current episteme. As Foucault writes of Discipline, “this book is intended as a correlative history of the modern soul and of a new power to judge; a genealogy of the present scientifico-legal complex from which the power to punish derives its bases, justifications and rules, from which it extends its effects and by which it masks its exorbitant singularity” (23). In Discipline, there is a Point A and a Point B. Point A is punishment of the body. Point B is punishment of the soul under “the present scientifico-legal complex.” Point A interests Foucault only insofar as it represents the beginning of the genealogy; Point B interests Foucault only insofar as it represents the end of the genealogy. Foucault’s main interest is in the genealogy of the soul as the victim of discipline and punishment.

But genealogy is more than an academic rendering of photojournalist Dan Eldon’s oft-quoted adage “the journey is the destination.”[3] Looking at Foucault’s argument a little closer allows us to get a better understanding of just what exactly genealogy was intended to do. In Discipline, Foucault argues that, contrary to what Enlightenment narratives and its dutiful histories would suggest, the move to punishing the soul was a consequence not of humanistic impulses or any newfound revulsion to the mutilated body, but rather of “epistemologico-juridical” changes and relations that evolved together. Contingent legal and scientific developments wove into one another, which led to a power structure that disciplined and punished the soul instead of the body. From this, we see that genealogy is not simply about transition but specifically about “the causes of the transition from one way of thinking to another.”[4] Some scholars and students new to Foucault will no doubt wonder what makes genealogy different from other historical methodologies, which, they may say, are also interested in change over time. Even though genealogy is about change over time, however, it is unique because it is concerned with change at the discursive level, and this change, Foucault argues, is contingent rather than intentional. Whether Foucault demonstrates this adequately in Discipline is how most readers will judge the success of the book and of genealogy. I, on the other hand, challenge the reader to judge success based on the answers to these two questions: first, could Foucault have written Discipline without genealogy? Second, would we have wanted him to? In his attempt, Foucault gave us a book that is both insightful and innovative and, because of that, a book that is now indispensable.


[1] Like Foucault, the phrase “begs the question” is controversial. The philosophical meaning of begs the question does not mean “raises the question,” which is how the phrase is used colloquially. Nevertheless, it has become acceptable to use begs the question to mean raises the question in academic writing, and I have chosen to do so here.

[2] Gary Gutting, “Michel Foucault”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2014/entries/foucault/>. Note that I consulted this piece for the contextual information in this paragraph.

[3] http://www.daneldon.org

[4] Gutting, Gary, “Michel Foucault.”

Empire or Umpire?

Prior to 2003, American empire was but an appellation of the left used to describe US foreign policy and entanglements abroad. Since the United States invaded Iraq in March 2003, however, scholars from across the political spectrum have come around to the idea that the US is in fact an empire, whether it wants to admit it or not. The surge in those claiming empire has only caused those denying empire to be more vociferous, bringing new life to the debate surrounding the existence of an American empire. To some, such as Niall Ferguson, the imperial character of the US is undeniable; to others, it is questionable and misleading. Enter Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman. In her book American Umpire, she argues that the US is not an empire but an “umpire”—that is, a referee, a rule keeper and a supervisor. Making this claim, Hoffman makes it her burden to show that empire is the wrong moniker for the US’s role in global affairs. To do this, she first has to define empire, since her argument depends entirely on what one means by this word. As Hoffman sees it, history demonstrates that empire can take two forms: “The oldest type was that which subordinated multiple ethnic groups in a contiguous territory, like the Mongol, Ottoman, Roman, and Aztec Empires, as well as more recent ones like the Soviet Union. The second, newer type of empire was one that ruled multiple peoples from afar in scattered colonies, like those of the British, Dutch, French, and Spanish, sometimes called saltwater empires” (12). These two forms of empire demonstrate “two ubiquitous forms of government that incorporated and commanded obedience from people who generally did not wish to yield and who continued to seek political release after their annexation” (12). Therefore, besides a brief period between 1898 and 1946, when the US engaged in the second type, Hoffman claims that the US cannot be considered an empire.

An integral part of Hoffman’s definition is that people under imperial authority “generally did not wish to yield [to it] and … continued to seek political release after their annexation.” Whereas this feature can be used to describe the people under both types of empire defined, Hoffman contends that it cannot, as is sometimes argued, be used to describe the nations of the world under the US umperium. Since the rise of the US on the global stage, but even since its birth, other nations have looked to it as an example and guarantor of the economic, political and ideological assumptions undergirding democratic capitalism. Specifically, Hoffman points out three traits that not only made the US an example to the world but also its most natural leader: “access to opportunity, arbitration of disputes, and transparency in government and business” (6, emphasis in original). The larger argument Hoffman makes, then, is that peoples and nations looked to the US for guidance, assistance, and, when necessary, order, because they too wanted access, arbitration, and transparency; in other words, because they wanted those things, they yielded to the US and its desires. Nations yielding to the US by choice is what makes the US an umpire not an empire. As Hoffman states, “the United States acted not as an empire in modern foreign relations, but as a kind of umpire, to compel acquiescence as necessary with rules that had earned broad legitimacy” (17, emphasis in original). Hoffman will surely ruffle feathers with this argument, but that should not keep scholars of American Empire from reading her stimulating book.

Review: Debtor Nation

Hyman, Louis. Debtor Nation: The History of America in Red Ink. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011.

In Debtor Nation, Louis Hyman provides a history of personal debt in America. His story begins in the early twentieth century, when debt was first institutionalized in the United States, and ends in the late twentieth century, when debt took on its contemporary form. Hyman’s thesis can be divided into two parts: first, he argues that the transformation of personal debt into a “legal, sellable, and profitable” enterprise, made possible by credit, was central in shaping the contemporary economic system (1); second, he insists this transformation was the result of individual decisions that led to both intended and unintended consequences. In other words, he argues that the economic system of debt that we have today, characterized as it is by indebtedness, was not a foregone conclusion; rather, it was the product of government policy, the need to make credit profitable, and consumer desires. As Hyman puts it, “this dependence on credit was the creation, intentional and unintentional, of the sometimes unlikely choices of government, business, and consumers” (281). In a sense, then, the history of debt as presented in the book is a history composed of opposing forces—of intention and accident, of action and reaction, of wealth and debt. Understanding this history and its consequences is the larger project of Debtor Nation. As Hyman affirms, “to understand today’s credit system requires understanding the history of how consumer credit and twentieth-century American capitalism co-evolved to create both our prosperity and our insecurity” (9).

The story unfolds in seven chapters supported by an introduction and an epilogue. Each chapter is overflowing not only with history but also with the encyclopedic and sometimes technical vocabulary of finance. This is not so much a critique of the book as it is a warning to the unsuspecting history student who may be unfamiliar or uncomfortable with the language of finance; nor is it a suggestion to that same student to avoid the book. In fact, the finance jargon, if I must call it that, is indispensable to the book, just as mathematical jargon would be indispensable to any history of mathematics. Hyman has a firm understanding of the vocabulary he uses, and he integrates it into his history as seamlessly as financial terms can be integrated into an engaging historical narrative. If this seems a small point, I encourage any of the book’s readers to attempt to integrate discussions of rate caps, option accounts, asset-backed securities and adjustable-rate mortgages into their next books in a similarly readable manner. It is not at all surprising that the seasoned journalists at the Wall Street Journal and The Economist are able to do so, but it is surprising when historians do it, even economic historians. It is the unfortunate burden of economic historians to weave the emphatically unliterary terminology of economics into a story that is at once informative and captivating—a burden political and social historians surely take for granted. Hyman handles the burden well, and this book should be used as a writer’s reference for any economically inclined historians.

Hyman also does a good job at utilizing his sources to narrate debt’s complex history. He pulls from newspapers, financial magazines, annual reports, economic reports, surveys, and speeches, to name just a few of his sources, to tell the story of debt’s development over time. However, although his source usage is good, two aspects of the book stand out above the rest. The first is Hyman’s use of his footnotes. In a book like this, heady as it is, it is imperative that the author keeps the argument in the main part of the text as tight as possible, yet that same headiness also necessitates a judicious use of footnotes, which allow the author to explain concepts further or extend his argument in important ways that cannot or do not necessarily contribute to the argument as constructed in narrative form. For example, after writing in the body of the text that “the average length of a mortgage [in the 1920s] was three to five years, and was not amortized” (47), he clarifies this in the footnote:

To amortize a loan means that every month the borrower pays back both the interest on the loan as well as some fraction of the principal. “Un-amortized” means that there is no structured way for borrowers to repay the borrowed funds. Borrowers have to exert discipline and save up the principal. It is standard today, but in this period was primarily found in installment purchasing plans, as made clear in Chapter 1(303n10).

This is not insignificant material. Although Hyman does define amortize in the body of the text, the information in the note is clearer and expanded. This footnote is representative of the type that Hyman writes for all his chapters, which are unique for their clarity and relevance for understanding the main topic.

The second aspect of the book that stands out is Hyman’s use of statistics. It is no secret that historians have a certain allergy to quantitative methods, so it is quite shocking when a historian not only uses statistics, but also uses them extensively. Justifying his use of statistical analysis, Hyman writes (in what is hands down the best footnote in the text), “while quantitative methods have fallen into disfavor among historians, I think that when used as part of a historian’s tool kit they can answer questions other methods cannot” (330). Indeed they can. Nonetheless, recognizing that some readers may not be comfortable or knowledgeable in statistics, Hyman explains that “for the less technically inclined reader, explanations of some of the statistical methods will be in the notes. For the more technically inclined reader, p-values of relevant tests and regressions have generally been put in the notes” (330-331). Obtaining meaning from large amounts of raw data is one of the powers of statistics, and Hyman’s use on this power helps him in ways unimaginable without it, especially in Chapter Five. Debtor Nation could have been written without statistical analysis, of course, but it would have been a lesser book without it. Read the book for its in-depth history of institutionalized debt, or read it for a lesson in the craft of financial history; either way, you will learn a great deal.

Review: Tangible Things

Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher, Ivan Gaskell, Sara J. Schechner, and Sarah Anne Carter, with photographs by Samantha S.B. Van Gerbig. Tangible Things: Making History Through Objects. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.

A common refrain heard in history departments across the country today is that historians fetishize the written text. The authors of Tangible Things: Making History Through Objects—Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Ivan Gaskell, Sara J. Schechner, and Sarah Anne Carter—take it upon themselves to defetishize the text by focusing attention on physical objects, or things. They are also interested in showing how material things shape the past and how they can be used to understand and reconstruct it. Specifically, they are interested in answering four basic questions, which they lay out in the very opening paragraph of the book:

how can we approach aspects of the past that written words do not record? How can we mobilize not just a few kinds of things that have survived from earlier times, but many, to create history? If we acknowledge that material things of many kinds are traces of the past, how can we make use of them to understand the past? What are the circumstances that shape our encounters with them, and how do those circumstances affect—perhaps even determine—how we might use them? (1)

In other words, the authors want to show that objects are more than just static bits of history or artifacts representative of a time period, mediated and understood by written sources. Objects, in their minds, can give texture to history, in the way, for example, nuts give texture to a bowl of oatmeal or produce gives life to an otherwise one-dimensional sandwich. “We believe,” affirm the authors, “that the mobilization of material things can enhance any comprehensive historical inquiry and that the procedures we advocate will enhance knowledge of the past that is too often constrained by reliance on written texts” (3). Like nuts in oatmeal or produce in sandwiches, material things don’t just add to the historical experience, they complete the experience—that is, they allow it to reach its full potential. Written sources can only take history so far, but written sources along with material things can unleash innumerable possibilities.

The authors don’t stop there, however, for they further argue that material things can do more than simply play a secondary role in driving and writing history: objects can be lead actors. They can tell a story on their own terms, without the need or help of their more-favored written siblings. And this, it turns out, is the thesis of the book. As the authors state, “we want to argue here that just about any tangible thing can be pressed into service as primary historical evidence. Our purpose is not to offer comprehensive accounts of each field to which these sources might relate, but to demonstrate that attention to singular, physical things can reveal connections among people, processes, and forms of inquiry that might otherwise remain unnoticed” (2). The fact that any object can be a primary source is precisely what allows the authors to argue that objects themselves can be actors in history. It is also what makes it possible for objects to “reveal connections” that may be hidden by a reliance on written sources alone. Objects at once reveal unnoticed connections within history as well as between academic disciplines. This, uncoincidentally, leads to the book’s purpose, which is to show that taking material things seriously and interrogating them innovatively establishes connections between academic disciplines and challenges their established ways of thinking about and organizing human culture, society, and history.

Back to that refrain, or the book’s raison d’être. For whatever the claims to establishing the plausibility of material things as primary sources, the central assumption of the book is that written sources are fetishized. It is hard to deny the concern undergirding the refrain, given that written sources exclude as much as (if not more than) they include. “Only a minority of human societies has used writing systems,” explain the authors. “Even within those that have, many people left few traces, if any, in written form” (4). Written sources, in other words, favor certain societies and certain groups within those societies. And oral sources unavoidably favor memory, which is exclusionary in its own way. Thus, conclude the authors, an attention to other sources is necessary. All in all, “with appropriate skills to exploit a wider range of sources—material and visual, as well as word-based culture—historians may uncover what would otherwise be undetectable lives, often of the socially disadvantaged; they will also enrich knowledge of those who have been known to a greater or lesser extent solely from written texts” (4). As necessary as this may be, the authors would benefit from asking themselves a few questions before patting themselves on the back too much. First, does the introduction of more types of sources defetishize the written word in historical scholarship? Or does it actually refetishize it? After all, any desire to defetishize ironically fixates attention on the fetish only more intensely. Second, is it actually possible to escape the centrality of the written word in any form of scholarship? Regardless of the source type—written, oral, material, or visual—academia requires written analysis of all objects of study. Why are scholars so critical and suspicious of writing when it is the object of analysis but not when it is doing the analysis? Is it possible to make history through objects when, in the end, that history is told in writing? Are the objects making history, or are they still just puppets of the written word? Ulrich, Gaskell, Schechner, and Carter make a commendable effort, but they fail to show that objects can tell their own story. The written word must do it for them, and, as such, the written word remains king.

Review: Quagmire

Biggs, David. Quagmire: Nation-Building and Nature in the Mekong Delta. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2010.

The word “quagmire” in history is used most often to describe what are probably the two most infamous anticolonial wars in the twentieth century: the Algerian War (1954-1962) and the Vietnam War (1965-1973).[1] When attached to these wars, quagmire refers to a political situation faced by the colonial powers—France in the case of Algeria and the United States in the case of Vietnam. In his book Quagmire: Nation-Building and Nature in the Mekong Delta, however, David Biggs attempts to reimagine the word and its frame of reference vis-à-vis Vietnam. Quagmire indeed describes the political events that are commonly associated with the term, he argues, but it also describes the environmental quagmire inherent in attempting to build a nation on the Mekong Delta’s muddy, “unsolid surfaces.” (6). As Biggs elaborates, “by exploring the quagmire as both a natural and a political place, this book challenges a prevailing tendency among writers to stretch Vietnam’s history across an invisible national map that ignores its variable, complex terrains” (7). Environment is central to the project and experience of nation-building in Vietnam, not a sideshow or an afterthought. Furthermore, the political and environmental quagmires, along with their social and economic consequences, are intertwined. Understanding this is the only way to a fuller, more nuanced history of nation-building in Indochina.

Biggs is quick to note that his history “is less a critique of the modern philosophy of nation-building or state-centered development than a study of the ways that nature figured into these designs” (8). This is a unique stance in historiography today, when critiquing nation-building is à la mode, but it is an essential stance if the author’s project of recentering the environment in the history of nation-building in Indochina is to be achieved. Critiquing state-centered development as his point of departure would have put politics at the center of Biggs’s study; therefore, decentering that critique allows him to focus his (and the reader’s) attention to the environment. Of course, a critique of nation-building is inescapable in any discussion of the environment, and one need only read this book to know why, but the critique alone does not allow a full appreciation of the environment’s relationship to the work of nation-building and development. Additionally, using the critique as a starting point would prompt Biggs to use the periodization schema of the nation-state in discussing the environmental history of the Mekong Delta. Starting from the delta environment is a way to overcome this. Suggests Biggs, “as a new addition to the genres of both frontier and war literature, this book employs a different approach, one that considers the delta’s colonial and postcolonial pasts as continuous pasts inscribed into the landscape” (10). The periodization schema of the nation-state imposes artificial divisions on all areas of historical inquiry, including the environment, which causes historians to view the environment through the lens of the nation-state. Biggs suggests that historians flip this and view the formation of nation-state through the environment.

Given the constraints of a monograph as a method of presenting information, the author’s success at making his case may come as a surprise. Biggs makes his argument chronologically, which is almost required in a history of nation-building, and organizes his chapters thematically. Indeed, the chronological unfolding of the argument along with the thematic organization of chapters would seem to suggest that each theme is associated with a specific time period, but Biggs does a good job of using the narrative device of history to suggest the continuity of quagmire, overcoming the organizational requirements the discipline believes are inherent in the presentation of historical knowledge. He also does a good job of using a wide variety of sources to make a coherent argument that would almost surely overwhelm other scholars attempting the same project. With knowledge of French, English, and Vietnamese, Biggs is able to write a history of nation-building from many different perspectives and several different time periods. His synthesis of all the language sources is impeccable, but it is his ability to integrate each language into his history that is truly exceptional. No less a feat is his ability to pull from a myriad of source materials, perhaps more skillfully than most can from a handful. Along with accounts, histories, reports, newspapers, and journals, Biggs also uses interviews, geological surveys, photos, maps (contemporaneous and reconstructed) and first-hand observations. In Biggs’s care, nothing is superfluous; each source adds texture to the argument and avoids becoming extraneous information.

Perhaps the most praiseworthy aspect of Quagmire is Biggs’s mastery of the scientific material. It is one thing for a historian to become fluent in the language of the human sciences; however, it is an entirely different undertaking to learn the language of the natural sciences. Not only does a project undertaken like the one in this book require a sound knowledge of the science, but it also requires an ability to explain the science in a way that experts and non-experts alike find satisfying. Furthermore, and perhaps most challenging, the writer has to integrate the science into the history in a way that adds to the argument in a way that doesn’t overburden it. Biggs overcomes all these challenges. His handling of the science never feels forced or uninformed, and his ability to keep it central to the history without it becoming overwhelming is a skill the reader comes to envy by the end of the book. How Biggs was able to learn the science, conduct research in different languages in different countries, construct a convincing argument, and produce a coherent history with what appears to be relative ease is a question all readers will close the book asking. Biggs’s attempt to recenter the environment in the history of nation-building in the Mekong Delta is not only successful, but also a model that the rest of the historical community would do well to follow.


[1] Both wars go by other names, but the reader is probably most familiar with the ones used here.

Review: How Race Is Made

Smith, Mark M. How Race Is Made: Slavery, Segregation, and the Senses. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2006.

It is perhaps best to start a discussion of Mark M. Smith’s creative book with some of his own words: “Modern discussions of ‘race’ and racial identity are hostage to the eye” (2). Although not the thesis of the book, this short statement is the book’s raison d’être. In How Race Is Made, it is Smith’s goal to expand our understanding of race to include the totality of senses: sight, sound, scent, taste, and touch. His argument, then, is that race is not made simply through sight but through all the senses. This may seem counterintuitive to many readers, given that most people associate race with skin color, but Smith reminds us that “the preference for ‘seeing’ race is as much a social construction as ‘race’ itself” (2). Only when we are able to conceptualize race as a rounded sensory construction, Smith maintains, can we fully understand the history of race in America. (Although the argument could easily be made for the construction of race globally, Smith’s evidence makes the case primarily for the United States. Naturally, it is also focused on the south.) To be sure, Smith warns, “seeing remains—and always has been—extraordinarily important for locating racial identity. But remembering that race was mediated and articulated in ways in addition to seeing helps profile ordinarily hidden dimensions of racial thought and racism” (3, emphasis mine). All the senses play a role in making race, and recognizing this reveals how race is made in ways we are not aware of. Each sense makes race in its own way, but it is the sum of the sensorial effects that creates the language of race and the grammar of racism.

Central to Smith’s argument is the claim that “nonvisual senses indexed viscera and emotion more than thought and reason” (2), which benefitted white people. As Smith elaborates, “the senses facilitated the rule of feeling and made men and women unthinkingly comfortable with their racial worlds. . . . The sensory underpinnings of slavery and especially segregation took on a visceral quality that relieved most white southerners of the discomfort of thinking, levied no tax on the mind, and allowed white conceits about blackness to go unchecked” (4). The larger point Smith makes with this idea is that the construction of race and the development of racism were not logical phenomena but emotional ones, and it is for this reason that racism was so pervasive and stubbornly resistant in American society. Although this claim—that the nonvisual senses led whites to be “unthinkingly comfortable with their racial worlds”—seems plausible, Smith isn’t able to sustain it through argument. We might ask, for example, if the senses signify the absence of thinking, how is it that whites “used the putatively premodern, proximate, nonvisual senses to invent ‘modern’ racial stereotypes” (4, emphasis mine)? The verb “invent” connotes thinking and taking thoughtful action to achieve some purpose (even if the purpose is unknown), not emotional reaction. This may be a harsh reading, but I would hope someone making this argument would be mindful of such nuances. Even if we give Smith the benefit of the doubt and say that he meant the sensory stereotypes were invented to facilitate the unthinking, emotional reactions of whites, the ontology of the sense experience comes from whites thinking during the process of invention. Furthermore, if sight—the sense most associated with reason and logic—was used to construct race along with the other senses, then reason and logic were always apart of the race equation, even if only partially.

I am not trying to suggest that Smith’s argument about the senses constructing race is entirely unconvincing; rather, I am saying the argument is unconvincing when he puts too much emphasis on the binary of feeling/emotion and logic/reason. For if white people’s “senses had stolen their capacity for reasoned thinking” (139), then the suggestion that race was constructed in “a fit of absence of mind” is only a few logical steps away.[1] But I don’t think this is the argument Smith is making, nor do I think his lack of attentiveness to logical conclusions ruins his larger point. In fact, the larger point about the role all the senses played in the construction of race and the development of racism is quite successfully made. In other words, although his argument about the emotionality of the senses isn’t quite convincing, his contention about the culpability of all the senses, visual and nonvisual, in the construction of race is.

Part of the success of Smith’s argument comes from the way he presents and navigates the material in six chapters (not including the introduction). The book takes as its starting point the first British encounter with West Africans in the sixteenth century and continues chronologically until the landmark United States Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka in the 1950s. Although this is quite a stretch of time, he focuses mainly on slavery and segregation, as the title suggests, showing how the senses worked to construct race in unique ways during both eras. His sources comprise autobiographies, letters, periodicals, sociological accounts, memoirs, and even a few prints—practically all the sources traditionally used to write history. Though many of the sources have been used by other scholars, Smith’s innovation comes from his culling of the material for sensory qualities. This, avers Smith, is the way to a full understanding of the history of race in America: “Part and parcel of thinking beyond race entails coming to terms with the historical construction of race in all its forms and in all its senses” (10). How Race Is Made allows us to do this, and this is perhaps its greatest strength.


[1] The phrase “in a fit of absence of mind” comes from John Robert Seeley, but he was referring to the British Empire: “We seem, as it were, to have conquered and peopled half the world in a fit of absence of mind.” J. R. Seeley, The Expansion of England: Two Courses of Lectures (Boston, Roberts Brothers, 1883): 8.

Review: Provincializing Europe

Chakrabarty, Dipesh. Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000.

Dipesh Chakrabarty’s Provincializing Europe (hereafter PE) is an intellectual tour de force, and it takes but a few pages to recognize why it is considered a seminal work in postcolonial theory and history. What on first reading seems like an impossible undertaking for any scholar to accomplish in one book becomes a stunning achievement, all the more so because the author’s project is quite consequential. But consequential does not mean convoluted. In fact, in its most basic rendering, Chakrabarty’s project is fairly straightforward: provincializing Europe means decentering Europe from the historical narrative of non-European societies and their political modernity. This is necessary, he argues, because “the phenomenon of ‘political modernity’—namely, the rule by modern institutions of the state, bureaucracy, and capitalist enterprise—is impossible to think of anywhere in the world without invoking certain categories and concepts, the genealogies of which go deep into the intellectual and even theological traditions of Europe” (4, emphasis in original), and these categories and concepts are inadequate for thinking about political modernity in the non-West. However, this is only one part of the argument, and the second part is really what gives PE its analytical traction. Chakrabarty proposes that these concepts are at once inadequate and indispensable in discussing political modernity in the non-West. How can this be? As he puts it, “What historically enables a project such as that of ‘provincializing Europe’ is the experience of political modernity in a country like India. European thought has a contradictory relationship to such an instance of political modernity. It is both indispensable and inadequate in helping us to think through the various life practices that constitute the political and the historical in India” (6). Any discussion of political modernity must take place in the language of Enlightenment universals, but because of their European origin, they are insufficient for grappling with political modernities outside of Europe. In other words, we cannot talk about political modernity in non-European countries only in the language of European thought; we must discuss political modernity in the universals that originated in Europe while also heeding the particulars (historical difference) of non-European cultures.

This is quite theoretical, and, predictably, this is one of the main criticisms historians and students lodge against PE. Specifically, these readers claim that there is too much theory and not enough history. This critique, however, misunderstands the book’s purpose, which is to posit an initial theoretical framework for provincializing Europe and to demonstrate a possible usage of that framework. Furthermore, not only are theory and history built into the book’s raison d’être, but they are also built into the book’s organization. PE is divided into equal haves, with the first half devoted to theory and the second half devoted to history. This history is primarily devoted to the study of middle-class, upper-caste Hindu Bengalis in colonial India, and it is quite successful in its use of Bengali (and a few English) sources, especially if one reads it through the theoretical lens forged by Chakrabarty in the first half of the book. Yet this is perhaps where the book’s organization falls short; in splitting the book in half, with the theory coming first, Chakrabarty forces the reader to make the transition from theory to history. If the book were not organized as a dichotomy, one could argue, it would be harder to highlight. Of course, anyone who reads the book and takes its claims seriously will have to abandon the notion that the physical division of the book is a thoughtful critique, or that calling attention to an apparent imbalance in the ratio between theory and history is any more reflective. Just as one could argue that the theory-to-history format is shortsighted, one could also argue that this format challenges the reader to read disjuncture into the supposedly static categories of theory and history. The latter interpretation would mean the book’s organization is actually a physical manifestation of one of the book’s premises.

A more convincing critique of the theory-history dichotomy—if we want to stick this “problem”—is that the theory is more successful than the history. Readers of the book will no doubt have varying opinions on Chakrabarty’s writing style, but although the passion undergirding the project remains present throughout, the theoretical pieces are clearly better argued. (Chapter Two: Two Histories of Capital, what the author refers to as the “theoretical pivot” of the book, is a true feat of rhetoric.) This does not mean the theoretical pieces are completely successful, nor does it mean that the historical pieces are unsuccessful; rather, it means that an imbalance exists between the theoretical and historical that leads one to distinguish between these two aspects of the text. That Chakrabarty’s rhetoric in the theory-focused section of the book is more successful than the history-focused section may be surprising, given that the theoretical work of the Subaltern Studies collective is considered to be less successful than its practical work, but remembering the book’s thesis should remove any surprise one feels about the theory’s success. Recognizing the inadequacy of European categories of thought for understanding political modernity in non-European countries, while at the same time recognizing their indispensability, is both the central argument and the defining feature of PE. It is also the central tension of the book and, therefore, what propels it forward. Defining the book’s purpose in his own words, Chakrabarty writes, “Provincializing Europe both begins and ends by acknowledging the indispensability of European political thought to representations of non-European political modernities, and yet struggles with the problems of representation that this indispensability invariably creates” (22, emphasis mine). That is, PE begins and ends in struggle—a struggle to recognize and maneuver, both in theory and in practice, the contradictions that resulted from colonialism. This struggle is a distinct characteristic of postcolonial thought, of which this book and its author are representatives, and it is surely one reason postcolonialism remains a thriving field of study.

Review: Arc of Empire

Hunt, Michael H., and Levine, Steven I. Arc of Empire: America’s Wars in Asia from the Philippines to Vietnam. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2012.

It is difficult nowadays to find a book on United States history that is both informative and substantive. It is even harder to find a book on the same subject that is informative, substantive, and engaging. So, when you come across a book that checks all three boxes, you know are reading a good book. Arc of Empire, by historians Michael Hunt and Steven Levine, is one of those books. (This should not come as a surprise, given that Hunt and Levine are longtime colleagues with three decades of professional experience with the material, but it does, because books this grounded are rare.) The book’s central argument is quite simple (in a good way) and can be ascertained from its title: America’s wars in Asia delineate an arc of American empire. In this formulation, “America’s wars in Asia” are the wars the U.S. fought against the Philippines, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam throughout the twentieth century. But the simplicity is deceiving, for the argument is a bit shrewder than the title suggests. As the authors unfold it, “These four wars—in the Philippines, against Japan, in Korea, and in Vietnam—were not separate and unconnected, although they are often treated as such. They were phases in a U.S. attempt to establish and maintain a dominant position is eastern Asia sustained over some seven decades against considerable resistance” (1). Each war makes up one part of a larger whole, both spatially and temporally, and that larger whole is Empire.

The success of an argument of this sort depends on a clear definition of empire, of which the authors are fully aware, and their definition is just that: “Empire is fundamentally a centrally directed political enterprise in which a state employs coercion (violence or at least the threat of violence) to subjugate an alien population within a territorially delimited area governed by another state or organized political force” (3). This is not the end of their definition, but it is the centerpiece of it. Of course, the authors anticipate the unease and protest that will almost surely result from their using the term empire in connection with America, so they offer a detailed explanation about their decision. After defining empire, Hunt and Levine make plain that “this notion of empire helps make sense of the long U.S. transpacific encounter. Americans followed a familiar imperial path marked by four features” (4). The four features were 1) believing in an American-version of the European “civilizing mission,” 2) encountering anti-colonial nationalisms that saw the U.S. as just another face of (or the heir to) European colonialism, 3) increasing the use of violence against insubordinates, and 4) witnessing the emergence of prosperous postcolonial Asia. Hunt and Levine highlight these points to tie American imperialism in eastern Asia—a fusion, in this book, of east Asia and southeast Asia—to imperial/colonial projects that preceded them, existed alongside them, or disintegrated in spite of them. This is key, for it sharpens the meaning of empire they use to make their case for an arc of American empire.

Overall, Arc of Empire is a very sensible piece of scholarship. Because of the temporal progression built into the thesis, the book’s organization is fairly straightforward. The wars are covered chronologically, beginning with the Philippines and ending with Vietnam, and discretely, with each war getting its own chapter. The chapters are similarly organized along chronological lines, with sections devoted to background, the war proper, and aftermath. The arc, therefore, is built into the structure of the book, and this not only makes for a pleasant reading experience, but also reinforces the book’s thesis. This is one of the best examples of a book’s organization supporting the author’s thesis. However, and this is the great irony, this reinforcing arc is also one of the book’s biggest weaknesses, for, at times, it has the effect of making the central argument seem too simple (in a bad way) and too contrived. Many readers will no doubt feel that Hunt and Levine are making a fairly intuitive argument; as such, the book reads less like an exegesis and more like a description. The reinforcing arc, in other words, is making the argument for them. This effect is compounded by the fact that the authors do little in the way of critical analysis. Perhaps unwittingly, the authors favor implicit interpretation, which works well in many cases but not in this book. Because of the constant reoccurrence of the arc motif, Hunt and Levine would have benefitted from more explicit interpretive work.

The analytical deficiency points to another weakness of the book: its use of sources. The authors use very little secondary sources in the chapters covering the wars, which closes out the possibility of engaging with other scholars on several important issues. This would not have been as bad if they had used their primary sources well, but there too did they miss an opportunity at analysis. Most quotes are short; many feel forced. It is unfortunate, because the book is a pleasure to read. The writing is fluid and clear, and the authors pack the book with information. They also do a good job at tying events together and relating them to the present. Without question, though, the book’s greatest strength is its ability to define (American) empire and demonstrate that phenomenon explicitly. Anyone looking for a clear and coherent discussion about American empire will find solace in Hunt and Levine’s Arc of Empire.