As I get ready for another fall semester at the University of South Carolina—finishing a dissertation and teaching a course on “the New South” of late 19th century and 20th century America—I decided to finally complete a book I have longed to read on my coffee table. James McBride’s Kill ‘Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul was released to considerable fanfare earlier this year. About the life and legacy of the musical legend, McBride’s book is a meditation on African American life during and after the age of segregation and Jim Crow (which, by the way, is a reminder that Tim Lacy’s series on Jesse Jackson is another reflection on that history). But beyond that, Kill ‘Em and Leave should leave any reader—certainly any historian—thinking about the places within America left behind by modern American history.
Jedediah Purdy. After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015.
The centuries-old objective, more recently taken up by postmodernists, to bridge the divide between nature and culture has finally been met, it appears. No, the success didn’t come, as many thought it might, from a breakthrough in the cognitive sciences. Nor was there a mass conversion to some New Age spiritual creed. Rather, it’s simply that nature has become so fully infiltrated by the processes of culture that nature no longer has any place to hide. We mark this success by christening our era the Anthropocene and maybe even finding a new name for our planet (environmentalist Bill McKibbon suggests “Eaarth.”)
This is a conclusion largely accepted by Jedediah Purdy in After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene (Harvard UP, 2015), though he would not put it quite this way. If you know Purdy’s writing, you know he can be lighthearted but not reckless. You know his measured tone and how he strives to play fair with the opposition. One of the reasons I was looking forward to reading this book was because I’ve used his book, A Tolerable Anarchy, numerous times with undergraduates. That book’s argument – that experimenting with order is an American tradition — speaks to the whole of a US history survey course, draws on sources students know from textbook and lecture, and addresses political matters relevant to the present day. After Nature shares these strengths.
This weekend’s festivities in Rio De Janeiro in celebration of the 2016 Summer Olympics are an occasion for me to combine two of my favorite fields of history: sport history and intellectual history. It is both a professional and personal connection. Down the road in my academic career, I want to pivot towards sport history and use it as a lens to understand American—and specifically Southern—history since the late 1960s. While this should include an analysis of college athletics, and the rise of pro sports in the region, Atlanta’s hosting of the 1996 Olympic Games should not be forgotten. And being a native Georgian, it means studying those games takes on a personal outlook as well.
As with any era of intellectual history, the post-civil rights period (or whatever future historians will call this era) requires significant scrutiny of its works of art, literature, and general culture. Several novels have been released in the last year that offer great detail of the black experience across the African Diaspora. Covering genres as vast as literary fiction, science fiction, and alternate history, these novels will no doubt be studied by intellectual and cultural historians for what they say about what it means to be black in the early 21st century.
Peters, Justin. The Idealist: Aaron Swartz and the Rise of Free Culture on the Internet. New York: Scribner, 2016. 337 pages.
Review by Scott Richard St. Louis
Late in September 2010, a skilled programmer accessed a computer network at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and executed a script designed to download JSTOR articles at alarming speed. Known as scraping, this process violated JSTOR’s terms of service and threatened to overwhelm the JSTOR servers in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Staffers at JSTOR responded by banning the scraper’s MIT IP address. However, the scraping resumed early the next morning at a different MIT IP address, and a game of tit-for-tat ensued between the JSTOR team and the MIT scraper. The problem ceased the following month, when JSTOR blocked the entire MIT campus from accessing the database on October 9. Service was restored on October 12, and the scraping ceased.
However, the problem returned late in December. A few days into the new year, engineers at MIT tracked the downloads to a network switch in the wiring closet of Building 16. There, one of the engineers discovered a laptop plugged directly into the network. The school responded by installing a surveillance camera in the closet. By January 6, the camera had captured images of a young man entering the closet to check on the laptop. Later that day, Aaron Swartz – a celebrated free culture advocate and fellow in the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University – was arrested on felony charges of breaking and entering (195-219).
Guest Post by Professor Tyler D. Parry and Clayton Finn. Part One of this post was posted on the African American Intellectual History Society’s blog. Thanks to Christopher Cameron and the good people at AAIHS for running part one.
Americans are often guilty in assuming that N-word usage only applies to populations in the United States. Reconsidering the Buzzfeed video’s inquiry, a better question might entail: “How should the black community respond to the N-word’s global dissemination through hip-hop?” For instance, should we be concerned when a white, French hip-hop fan quotes “Niggas in Paris” indiscriminately? Does one immediately condemn a non-American for employing what is, for them, a term associated with American rap music? Perhaps, hip-hop, alongside the globalization of media, is better attributed for explaining the term’s international dispersion and adoption. It’s easy to find British, South American, or even African hip-hop artists implementing the term into their music. Uprooted from their geographical and cultural birthplace in the Americas, current discussions of the term are often limited in scope or polarized by contested opinions.
Today, I had planned on writing a piece about Frederick Douglass’ well-known “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” speech. It’s quickly noticeable that, every July Fourth, many friends and acquaintances of mine on social media post the speech. A stirring indictment of American society’s complete complicity with slavery in 1852, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” is one of the most important speeches in laying out a moral and political critique of American society from one of the most important intellectuals in American history. It is worth noting, however, that Douglass constantly debated the meaning and purpose of America during his lengthy public career.
Guest Post by Ryan Donovan Purcell, Assistant Book Review Editor
I had no expectations when I visited Fales Library at New York University to look at Richard Hell’s papers. The punk rock pioneer deposited his materials there in 2004, and I had since been curious to explore their contents. His journals and notebooks were among the most intruding items listed in the online guide. I suspected they would contain reflections of New York City during the early 1970s, and how urban decay might have influenced his art. That was my hope, not expectation.
By Richard H. King
It is a rare privilege to get to respond directly to a cluster of reviews and to have them be so well-considered and interesting to engage with. Thanks to Mira Siegelberg, Neil Roberts, John Burt and Seyla Benhabib for taking the time to respond to my book and for making this happen. Lilian Calles Barger did the hard work of organizing this whole process and she deserves the credit for the fact that four reviews plus my response appeared together at all. Finally, thanks to S-USIH for creating such an interesting blog. RHK
By John Burt
Richard H. King’s Arendt in America is such a thorough, thoughtful, clear-sighted, and balanced treatment of Hannah Arendt’s thirty-four year engagement with American politics, culture, thought and society that it is hard to single out which of its strains of argument demand the most attention. King shows how, even as she shared many common European prejudices about the United States, Arendt nevertheless saw in America a tradition of practical republicanism of considerable power. Arendt learned from America, but she also taught America, and some of the things she taught America were aspects of American political culture that Americans of her own generation had not clearly understood.