In its commitment to promoting research, teaching and intellectual exchange on the historical study of American thought, the Society for U.S. Intellectual History offers a book review section that identifies new and significant historical monographs in the field of U.S. intellectual history. Book reviews facilitate informed dialogue on the current state of the field and raise interest in the political, cultural and intellectual project of writing history. Historical scholarship is the foundation of our profession and teaching its heartbeat; book reviews introduce our diverse readership to the creative and original questions and methodologies of scholars dedicated to the dissemination of historical knowledge and understanding. Thus, book reviews play an integral part in the collective intellectual project that is the writing and teaching of U.S. intellectual 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.
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).
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.
By Mira Siegelberg
Richard King describes his masterful new book Arendt and America as an attempt to remedy the “lack of understanding of the impact of Arendt’s thought on American thought and culture and of the impact of the New World on her thought.” This is ultimately a too-modest assessment of the ambitions of the work since King’s unstated theme is historical judgment itself. Over the course of the study King demonstrates how comprehending Arendt’s efforts to think in time provides a critical perspective on Arendt’s thought at the same that it illuminates the broader relationship between historical interpretation and moral evaluation.
By Seyla Benhabib
In 1975, the year of her death, Hannah Arendt’s (b. 1906) last essay appeared in the New York Review of Books with the title, “Home to Roost.” Anticipating the American bicentennial, the essay is not joyous but rather full of “fear and trembling,” expressing severe doubts as to “whether our form of government would be able to withstand the onslaught of this century’s inimical forces and survive the year 2000.” The Watergate scandal which signaled the introduction of tactics of “petty criminality” into the business of government; the Vietnam debacle, which Arendt calls “an outright humiliating defeat;” the deceptions induced by public relations strategists of Madison Avenue to further dupe a public lulled by the seductions of consumerism; rising inflation, unemployment and growing crime in urban centers lead Arendt to issue what her friend, the philosopher Glenn Gray, calls a “Cassandra-like” warning (King, 296): “While we now slowly emerge from under the rubble of the events of the last few years,” she concludes, “let us not forget these years of aberration, lest we become wholly unworthy of the glorious beginnings of two hundred years ago.”