Louise Shelley on Dark Commerce

ShelleyThough mankind has traded tangible goods for millennia, recent technology has changed the fundamentals of trade, in both legitimate and illegal economies. In the past three decades, the most advanced forms of illicit trade have broken with all historical precedents and, as Dark Commerce shows, now operate as if on steroids, tied to computers and social media. In this new world of illicit commerce, which benefits states and diverse participants, trade is impersonal and anonymized, and vast profits are made in short periods with limited accountability to sellers, intermediaries, and purchasers. Demonstrating that illicit trade is a business the global community cannot afford to ignore and must work together to address, Dark Commerce considers diverse ways of responding to this increasing challenge.

What led you to write this book?

My last book, Dirty Entanglements: Corruption, Crime and Terrorism, pointed to the centrality of illicit trade as a funding mechanism for terrorism and transnational crime. As I finished that work, I realized that illicit trade was at the core of many of our most critical contemporary problems—the perpetuation of conflict, environmental degradation, and the destruction of human life. I wanted readers to understand that there are many who profit from this dark commerce, not just those associated with traditional crime groups. I wrote this book as a wake up call to the existential challenges that we now face from the many diverse participants in illicit trade.

How has illicit trade changed profoundly with the advent of computers and social media?

In the last three decades, the most advanced forms of illicit trade have broken with all historical precedents. Old forms of illicit trade persist that have been in place for millennia, but the newest forms operate as if on steroids, tied to computers and social media. Illicit trade is developing rapidly in all sectors. No area of this trade has diminished in its volume or its geographic reach, as technology is a driver of the growth of illicit trade.

In this new world of illicit commerce, trade is impersonal, anonymized, and vast profits are made in relatively short periods. There is limited accountability to sellers, intermediaries, and purchasers. New technology, communications, and globalization fuel the exponential growth of many of the most dangerous forms of illegal trade—the massive sales of narcotics and child pornography online; the escalation of sex trafficking through web and social media-based advertisements; and the sale of endangered species for which revenues now total in the hundreds of millions of dollars.[1]

In the cyberworld—particularly its most hidden part, the Dark Web (entered only through special anonymizing software such as TOR)—payments no longer occur with state-backed currencies, as customers pay for their purchases in a plethora of new anonymizing cryptocurrencies of which Bitcoin is the best-known. Moreover, in this illicit world, the very commodities have changed— many can no longer be touched or exchanged through human hands. Rather, many of the most pernicious illicit traders buy commodities based only on algorithms, including malware, Trojans, botnets, and/or ransomware (denies users access to their data), marketed by malicious suppliers in both the developing and developed world.[2]

Is illicit trade less of a problem in developed countries such as in the West, or is it a problem everywhere? Many potential readers may think of illicit trade as something that is far removed from them in their everyday lives. To what extent, if at all, is this an illusion? 

Many think that the problems of illicit trade are most pronounced in the developing world, and that the developed world is largely exempt. Clearly the markets of less industrialized countries are filled with numerous types of harmful counterfeit goods such as medicines, pesticides, and electronic parts. But dangerous counterfeit medicines have penetrated the supply chain of developed countries as well. Deadly drugs such as fentanyl are readily accessible through the web and the Dark Web, and they contributed to the death of over 72,000 Americans from drug overdoses in 2017. Consumers in the developed world purchase large quantities of fish that have been caught outside of approved catches, and timber that has been cut illegally and then transformed into furniture or plywood.

The changes brought by technology are most evident in the G7 countries—the largest economies in the world—but they are by no means confined to them. Investigations of computer-facilitated crime have identified their impact in the vast preponderance of the world’s countries. For example, in one recent online ransom attack victims were identified in over 180 countries.[3]

How has illicit trade contributed to current global conflicts?

Illicit trade plays a significant role in global conflicts, one example being the crisis in Syria. The Syrian crisis started with a drought. The subsequent illicit trade in water rights that made agricultural life impossible resulted in millions migrating to marginal communities on the fringes of cities where they were neglected by the state. To give you an idea of scale, there were 8.9 million Syrians city dwellers before the American invasion of Iraq in 2002. By 2010, 13.8 million. Of this almost 5 million person rural exodus, approximately 1.5 million were fleeing the drought.[4] The story of the Syrian drought refugees does not end with the beginning of the Arab Spring. Rather, it is the beginning of a “domino effect.” The Syrians departure from rural areas was the first phase of a longer trajectory that then took a more tragic course. These rural to urban migrants had to then flee civil war and destruction, many becoming illegal migrants relying on smugglers. The Syrian case is one of the worst examples of the growth of regional conflicts that has characterized the post-Cold War period. Illicit trade has funded many of the most important disputes and clashes of recent decades in the Middle East, Africa, Latin America, Asia, and between Russia and Ukraine.[5] The illicit goods associated with conflict include not only arms, drugs, and humans, but also consumer goods, counterfeits, and natural resources such as oil, minerals, gold, and coltan—ubiquitous in mobile phones and laptops.

What do you hope readers will take away from reading this book?

Illicit trade has survived for millennia, but it has expanded in recent decades as the financial advantage grows in an ever more competitive and globalized world. The profit from this trade can be more than financial. States obtain political advantage as a result of illicit commerce, a phenomenon as old as the raids on the pirate ships of antiquity and the theft of new technologies. Yet its costs today are even higher and command greater priority from the global community.

Is there any good news in this story? Are we finding ways to combat illicit trade?

Countering illicit trade requires serious and concerted action by different sectors of society working together. We need a multilateral approach that encompasses governments, organizations, businesses, community groups, NGOs, journalists, and others working together to find effective ways to combat illicit trade. Already, exceptional individuals risk their lives for this objective, including activists and investigative journalists who counter human trafficking, the drug trade, illegal timber harvesting, and illicit financial flows. Many honest members of law enforcement are on the front lines against illicit trade, dying in the line of duty annually as they try to save human lives and protected species. New technology and data analytics tools are being developed by the government and the private sector to counter the growth of illicit trade, particularly in the cyberworld. Many individuals are involved at the local level in their communities to prevent harm to all forms of life. All these efforts must be enhanced and coordinated. Finally, citizens as consumers have an important role to play as individuals demanding more of corporations to counter the abuse of the new technology they control.

Louise I. Shelley is the Omer L. and Nancy Hirst Professor of Public Policy and University Professor at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government, and founder and director of its Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center. Her many books include Human Trafficking and Dirty Entanglements. She lives in Washington, DC.

**

[1] Larry Greenmeier, “Human Traffickers Caught on Hidden Internet,” February 8, 2015,  https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/human-traffickers-caught-on-hidden-internet/ and also the accompanying visualization that reveals the international links, Scientific American Exclusive: DARPA Memex Data Map. Accessed July 13, 2017, https://www.scientificamerican.com/slideshow/scientific-american-exclusive-darpa-memex-data-maps/; Channing May, Transnational Crime and the Developing World (Washington, D.C.: Global Financial Integrity, 2017), xi.

[2] Ransomware is extensively used in India, see CSIS, “Net Losses Estimating the Global Cost of Cybercrime: Economic Impact of Cybercrime II,” June 2014, 15, http://www.mcafee.com/us/resources/reports/rp-economic-impact-cybercrime2.pdf, accessed Jan. 23, 2017. A major analyst of the Dark Web suggests that ten percent of the content of the dark web consists of this stolen material.

[3] Investigators identified 189. Joe Mandak, “Prosecutor’s Office Paid Bitcoin Ransom in Cyberattack,” December 5, 2016. Accessed July 15, 2017,  https://phys.org/news/2016-12-prosecutor-office-paid-bitcoin-ransom.html; Complaint U.S. Government vs. flux and flux 2, filed November 28, 2016. Accessed July 15, 2017, https://www.justice.gov/opa/page/file/915216/download; “Avalanche” Network Disrupted in International Cyber Operation,” December 1, 2016.Accessed Feb. 1, 2017,https://www.europol.europa.eu/newsroom/news/%E2%80%98avalanche%E2%80%99-network-dismantled-in-international-cyber-operation This is the Avalanche case discussed in chapter five.

[4] Ibid.; Collin Kelley et. al. “Climate change in the Fertile Crescent and implications of the recent Syrian drought,” pnas,  vol. 112 no. 11, 3241-46; http://www.pnas.org/content/112/11/3241.full, accessed March 6, 2016.

[5] Paul J. Smith, The Terrorism Ahead: Confronting Transnational Violence in the 21st Century, (London and New York: Routledge, 2015), 151-2.

Rebecca Bedell on Moved to Tears

Rebecca Bedell Moved to Tears book coverIn her new book Moved to Tears, Rebecca Bedell overturns received ideas about sentimental art, arguing that major American artists—from John Trumbull and Charles Willson Peale in the eighteenth century and Asher Durand and Winslow Homer in the nineteenth to Henry Ossawa Tanner and Frank Lloyd Wright in the early twentieth—produced what was understood in their time as sentimental art. This was art intended to develop empathetic bonds and to express or elicit social affections, including sympathy, compassion, nostalgia, and patriotism. In this Q&A, she discusses the ways sentimental art has been misunderstood, and why it is important today.

What is new in the book? What did you hope to accomplish?

I hope both to uproot the still tenacious modernist prejudice against sentimental art and to transform our understanding of it. So many art critics, art historians, artists, and others regard “sentimental art” as a synonym for “bad art.” I want to redefine and complicate ideas about sentimental art: what it looks like, who made it, the cultural work it does.

Isn’t there bad sentimental art?

Yes, of course. There’s also bad abstract art, bad Impressionist art, bad portraits—but we don’t dismiss those entire categories of art because of that.

I associate sentimental art with Victorian genre painting. Is that what you focus on?

No. I do not associate sentimental art with particular subject matter, nor do I locate it in the Victorian era alone. I’ve tried to suggest in the book the extent to which the sentimental pervaded artistic production (and reception) from the later eighteenth century onward. It touched nearly all categories of subject matter: portraits, history painting, religious imagery, landscape, and so on. It affected the creation not only of painting, sculpture, prints, and photography, but also architecture, landscape design, and public spectacles.

Who are the key figures in the book?

The artists I address range from John Trumbull and Charles Willson Peale in the late eighteenth century, to Andrew Jackson Downing, Thomas Cole, Winslow Homer, Mary Cassatt, John Singer Sargent, and others in the nineteenth, to Henry Ossawa Tanner and Frank Lloyd Wright in the early twentieth.

So, what is sentimental art?

Sentimental art has fundamentally to do with connectedness, with our connectedness to others, to place, to the conditions of our existence. Sentimental art aims to develop empathetic bonds and to represent and elicit what were called in the eighteenth century the “social affections,” those emotions that bind us together, including tenderness, affection, sympathy, compassion, and patriotism.

I see sentimental art as part of the broader “sentimental project,” as historians have termed it, launched from Great Britain in the eighteenth century. Its ambition was to transform individuals and society through the cultivation of sympathy. Abolitionism, penal reform, child labor laws, and societies for the prevention of cruelty to animals were all, in some measure, parts of the project.

In working on the book, did you come upon anything that surprised you?

I began the project by combing through eighteenth- and nineteenth-century books, newspapers, and magazines for the use of the word “sentimental” in relation to art. The first instance I found of this was a surprise to me. A writer for a Boston newspaper in the 1780s described John Trumbull’s Revolutionary War paintings as sentimental, and in a very positive way. That was my first hint that sentimental art’s early associations were not with the feminine and the domestic, but with the masculine, the public, and the political.

Where did the book begin? What launched you on this project?

As an art historian and teacher, I have been thinking about these issues and themes for a long time. But in a way, this project began in a big way for me during Barack Obama’s presidency, when he was selecting a new Supreme Court justice. He said that one of the qualities that he valued in jurists was empathy. The backlash against that statement was so intense and powerful that it shocked me. To me, empathy, an ability to think oneself into the subject position of someone different from oneself, seems a critically important quality in a judge.  Where did this angry, visceral reaction against the connective emotions of the sentimental come from?

At the same time, in my readings in my field of American art, I was continually coming upon statements such as, “Winslow Homer was never sentimental,” “John Singer Sargent’s paintings of children are never sentimental.” Yet their works—at least some of them—looked sentimental to me.  Why this need to deny the presence of the sentimental in the works of artists we admire?

All of this came together to launch me on this project. I had become conscious of a broad societal aversion to and rejection of the sentimental in both art and public life, and I wanted to understand it historically. What caused this aversion? Where did it come from? When did it begin?

Is sentimental art still being made today?

Certainly.  Steven Spielberg is one of the great sentimental filmmakers of our time. Ken Burns too. Much of the environmental art being created today is deeply concerned with our connectedness to the natural world. Some of the most powerful art associated with the Black Lives Matter movement, such as Carrie Mae Weems’s recent work, is, in my understanding of the term, sentimental. In fact, I think it is difficult to identify any artists whose work excludes the sentimental completely. Its emotions—compassion, sympathy, affection, pity, concern—are fundamental to our human identities. I don’t think they can ever be wholly suppressed, and indeed one of my discoveries in my research and writing is that the sentimental is at the core of much of the art we admire and enjoy the most.

Rebecca Bedell is associate professor of art and chair of the Art Department at Wellesley College. She is the author of The Anatomy of Nature: Geology and American Landscape Painting, 1825–1875 (Princeton). She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Adrienne Mayor on Gods and Robots

Adrienne Mayor Gods and Robots coverThe first robot to walk the earth was a bronze giant called Talos. This wondrous machine was created not by MIT Robotics Lab, but by Hephaestus, the Greek god of invention. More than 2,500 years ago, long before medieval automata, and centuries before technology made self-moving devices possible, Greek mythology was exploring ideas about creating artificial life—and grappling with still-unresolved ethical concerns about biotechne, “life through craft.” In the compelling, richly illustrated Gods and Robots, Adrienne Mayor tells the fascinating story of how ancient Greek, Roman, Indian, and Chinese myths envisioned artificial life, automata, self-moving devices, and human enhancements—and how these visions relate to and reflect the ancient invention of real animated machines.

Mayor answered some questions for us about robots, mythology, and her research.

Who first imagined the concept of robots? 

Most historians of science trace the first automatons to the Middle Ages. But I wondered, Was it possible that that ideas about creating artificial life were thinkable long before technology made such enterprises possible? Remarkably, as early as the time of Homer, ancient Greek myths were envisioning how to imitate, augment, and surpass nature, by means of bio-techne, “life through craft”—what we now call biotechnology. Beings described as fabricated, “made, not born,” appeared in myths about Jason and the Argonauts, the sorceress Medea, the bronze robot Talos, the ingenious craftsman Daedalus, the fire-bringer Prometheus, and Pandora, the female android created by Hephaestus, god of invention. These vivid stories were ancient thought experiments set in an alternate world where technology was marvelously advanced.

What makes these ancient stories so compelling today?

Time-traveling back into the past more than two millennia to study what are essentially some of the first-ever science fiction stories by a pre-industrial society may seem strange. But I think the sophistication and relevance of these ancient dreams of technology might help us understand the timeless link between imagination and science. Some of the imaginary self-propelled devices and lifelike androids in the myths foreshadow some of today’s technological inventions of driverless cars, automated machines, and humanoid automatons. There are even mythic versions of Artificial Intelligence and ancient parallels to the modern “Uncanny Valley” effect—that eerie sensation when people encounter hyper-realistic robots. Notably, some of the doubts about creating artificial life expressed in antiquity anticipate our own practical and ethical dilemmas about AI and playing god by improving on nature. Taken together, the ancient narratives really represent a kind of “Mythology for the Age of Artificial Intelligence.”

Why were these perceptive myths about artificial life overlooked until now?

Historians of science tend to assume that automatons featured in classical myths were simply inert matter brought to life by a fiat or a magical spell, like Adam and Eve and Pygmalion’s ivory statue of Galatea. But many of the self-moving devices and automata described in myths were not merely lifeless things animated by magic or divine command. My book focuses on the myths of androids and automatons visualized as products of technology, designed and constructed with the same materials and methods that human artisans used to make tools, structures, and statues in antiquity, but with awesome results beyond what was technologically possible at the time. Some philosophers of science claim it was impossible in antiquity to imagine technology beyond what already existed, until mechanics was formalized as a discipline. But imagination has always driven innovation. Where science fiction goes, technology often follows. The last chapter of Gods and Robots traces the relationship between classical myths and real historical automata that began to proliferate in the Hellenistic era, when Alexandria in Egypt became the hub of learning and innovation and engineers designed self-moving machines and lifelike animated statues.

Modern sci-fi movies pop up in several chapters. How do they relate to ancient myths?

Some 2,500 years before movies were invented, ancient Greek vase painters illustrated popular stories of the bronze robot warrior Talos, the techno-wizard Medea, and the fembot Pandora dispatched to earth on an evil mission, in ways that seem very “cinematic.” Echoes of those classical myths reverberate in cult films like Metropolis (1927), Frankenstein (1931), Jason and the Argonauts (1963), Blade Runner (1982 and 2017), and recent sci-fi movies and TV shows such as Ex Machina and Westworld.

Movies and myths about imagined technology are cultural dreams. Like contemporary science fiction tales, the myths show how the power of imagination allows humans to ponder how artificial life might be created—if only one possessed sublime technology and genius. We can see “futuristic” thinking in the myths’ automated machines and tools, self-driving chariots, self-navigating ships, metal robots powered by special fluids, and AI servants made of gold and silver. Another similarity to sci-fi tales is that the myths warn about disturbing consequences of creating artificial life.

There are 75 extraordinary illustrations in Gods and Robots. Any ancient images that surprised you?

A small museum in Italy has an amazing Greek vase painted in the fifth century BC. It shows Medea and Jason using a tool to destroy the formidable bronze robot Talos. Here is proof that more than 2,500 years ago, an automaton was not only imagined as a machine with internal workings, but that its destruction required technology. Pandora appears on a magnificent amphora from the same time. The artist portrays Pandora as life-sized doll about to be wound up, standing stiffly with a weird grin. The vase’s decorative border design is made up of Hephaestus’s tools to underscore her constructed nature. Another astonishing find was a group of carved cameos depicting the myth of Prometheus creating the first human beings. Instead of merely molding clay figures, Prometheus is shown using different tools to build the first human starting from the inside out, with the skeleton as the framework.

Have you come across any unexpected legends about automatons?

A little-known legend translated from Sanskrit claims that after his death, Buddha’s bodily remains were guarded by robotic warriors in a secret underground chamber in India.

Is there anything about ancient automatons that you would like to know more about?

It would be fascinating to gather automaton traditions from India, China, and Japan, to compare Eastern and Western perspectives on artificial life, AI, and robots.

Adrienne Mayor is the author, most recently, of The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World and The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy, which was a finalist for the National Book Award (both Princeton). She is a research scholar in classics and the history of science at Stanford University and lives in Palo Alto, California.

Brian Kernighan on Millions, Billions, Zillions

KernighanNumbers are often intimidating, confusing, and even deliberately deceptive—especially when they are really big. The media loves to report on millions, billions, and trillions, but frequently makes basic mistakes or presents such numbers in misleading ways. And misunderstanding numbers can have serious consequences, since they can deceive us in many of our most important decisions, including how to vote, what to buy, and whether to make a financial investment. In this short, accessible, enlightening, and entertaining book, leading computer scientist Brian Kernighan teaches anyone—even diehard math-phobes—how to demystify the numbers that assault us every day. Giving you the simple tools you need to avoid being fooled by dubious numbers, Millions, Billions, Zillions is an essential survival guide for a world drowning in big—and often bad—data.

Why is it so important to be able to spot “bad statistics?”

We use statistical estimates all the time to decide where to invest, or what to buy, or what politicians to believe. Does a college education pay off financially? Is marijuana safer than alcohol? What brands of cars are most reliable? Do guns make society more dangerous? We make major personal and societal decisions about such topics, based on numbers that might be wrong or biased or cherry-picked. The better the statistics, the more accurately we can make good decisions based on them.

Can you give a recent example of numbers being presented in the media in a misleading way?

“No safe level of alcohol, new study concludes.” There were quite a few variants of this headline in late August. There’s no doubt whatsoever that heavy drinking is bad for you, but this study was actually a meta-analysis that combined the results of nearly 700 studies covering millions of people.  By combining results, it concluded that there was a tiny increase in risk in going from zero drinks a day to one drink, and more risk for higher numbers. But the result is based on correlation, not necessarily causation, and ignores potentially related factors like smoking, occupational hazards, and who knows what else. Fortunately, quite a few news stories pointed out flaws in the study’s conclusion.  To quote from an excellent review at the New York Times, “[The study] found that, over all, harms increased with each additional drink per day, and that the overall harms were lowest at zero. That’s how you get the headlines.”

What is an example of how a person could spot potential errors in big numbers?

One of the most effective techniques for dealing with big numbers is to ask, “How would that affect me personally?” For example, a few months ago a news story said that a proposed bill in California would offer free medical care for every resident, at a cost of $330 million per year. The population of California is nearly 40 million, so each person’s share of the cost would be less than $10. Sounds like a real bargain, doesn’t it? Given what we know about the endlessly rising costs of health care, it can’t possibly be right. In fact, the story was subsequently corrected; the cost of the bill would be $330 *billion* dollars, so each person’s share would be more like $10,000. Asking “What’s my share?” is a good way to assess big numbers.

In your book you talk about Little’s Law. Can you please describe it and explain why it’s useful?

Little’s Law is a kind of conservation law that can help you assess the accuracy of statements like “every week, 10,000 Americans turn 65.” Little’s Law describes the relationship between the time period (every week), the number of things involved (10,000 Americans), and the event (turning 65). Suppose there are 320 million Americans, each of whom is born, lives to age 80, then dies. Then 4 million people are born each year, 4 million die, and in fact there are 4 million at any particular age. Now divide by 365 days in a year, to see that about 11,000 people turn 65 on any particular day. So the original statement can’t be right—it should have said “per day,” not “per week.” Of course this ignores birth rate, life expectancy, and immigration, but Little’s Law is plenty good enough for spotting significant errors, like using weeks instead of days.

Is presenting numbers in ways designed to mislead more prevalent in the era of “alternative facts” than in the past?

I don’t know whether deceptive presentations are more prevalent today than they might have been, say, 20 years ago, but it’s not hard to find presentations that could mislead someone who isn’t paying attention. The technology for producing deceptive graphs and charts is better than it used to be, and social media makes it all too easy to spread them rapidly and widely.

Brian W. Kernighan is professor of computer science at Princeton University. His many books include Understanding the Digital World: What You Need to Know about Computers, the Internet, Privacy, and Security. He lives in Princeton, New Jersey.

William R. Newman on Newton the Alchemist

When Isaac Newton’s alchemical papers surfaced at a Sotheby’s auction in 1936, the quantity and seeming incoherence of the manuscripts were shocking. No longer the exemplar of Enlightenment rationality, the legendary physicist suddenly became “the last of the magicians.” Newton the Alchemist unlocks the secrets of Newton’s alchemical quest, providing a radically new understanding of the uncommon genius who probed nature at its deepest levels in pursuit of empirical knowledge.

People often say that Isaac Newton was not only a great physicist, but also an alchemist. This seems astonishing, given his huge role in the development of science. Is it true, and if so, what is the evidence for it?

The astonishment that Newton was an alchemist stems mostly from the derisive opinion that many moderns hold of alchemy. How could the man who discovered the law of universal gravitation, who co-invented calculus, and who was the first to realize the compound nature of white light also engage in the seeming pseudo-science of alchemy? There are many ways to answer this question, but the first thing is to consider the evidence of Newton’s alchemical undertaking. We now know that at least a million words in Newton’s hand survive in which he addresses alchemical themes. Much of this material has been edited in the last decade, and is available on the Chymistry of Isaac Newton site at www.chymistry.org. Newton wrote synopses of alchemical texts, analyzed their content in the form of reading notes and commentaries, composed florilegia or anthologies made up of snippets from his sources, kept experimental laboratory notebooks that recorded his alchemical research over a period of decades, and even put together a succession of concordances called the Index chemicus in which he compared the sayings of different authors to one another. The extent of his dedication to alchemy was almost unprecedented. Newton was not just an alchemist, he was an alchemist’s alchemist.  

What did Newton hope to gain by studying alchemy? Did he actually believe in the philosophers’ stone, and if so, why? And what was the philosophers’ stone exactly?

Newton’s involvement in alchemy was polyvalent, as befits a pursuit that engaged him intensively for more than three decades and which traditionally included multiple goals. The term “alchemy” in the early modern period was largely coextensive with “chymistry,” a field that included distilling, pigment-making, salt-refining, and the manufacture of drugs alongside the perennial attempt to transmute metals. Beyond an interest in all these technical pursuits, Newton employed alchemical themes in his physics, particularly in the area of optics. Newton’s theory that white light is a mixture of unaltered spectral colors was bolstered by techniques of material analysis and synthesis that had a long prehistory in the domain of alchemy. But at the same time, he hoped to attain the grand secret that would make it possible to perform radical changes in matter. The philosophers’ stone as described by alchemical authors was a material that could transmute base metals into gold and silver and “perfect” certain other materials as well. At the same time, many authors believed that the philosophers’ stone could cure human ailments and extend life to the maximum limit that God would allow. Some of Newton’s sources even claim that the philosophers’ stone would allow its possessors to contact angels and to communicate telephatically with one another. Did Newton believe all of this? Suffice it to say that nowhere in his voluminous notes does he dispute these assertions, even while recounting them. Although he may have been exercising a suspension of disbelief in the case of the more extravagant claims for the philosophers’ stone, his long involvement in the aurific art implies that he must at least have thought the alchemists were on to something when they discussed transmutation.      

Did Newton also believe, as many contemporary alchemists did, that the totality of Greek and Roman mythology was just encoded alchemy?

It’s certainly true that Newton’s favorite sources thought Greek and Roman mythology to contain valuable alchemical secrets. Ovid’s Metamorphoses was a particularly popular target of interpretation, since the whole book deals with radical transformations of one thing into another. Newton himself decoded the story of Cadmus and the founding of Thebes, one of Ovid’s myths, into practical laboratory instructions in one of his notebooks. In Newton’s early reading, Cadmus becomes the iron required to reduce the metalloid antimony from its ore stibnite, and the dragon who attacks Cadmus is the stibnite itself. But does this mean that Newton believed the originators of the myth to have meant it as a veiled alchemical recipe? If so, this would run contrary to Newton’s extensive interpretations of ancient mythology and religion that occur alongside his studies of biblical chronology. In these texts, which occupy about four million words and are thus even more extensive than his alchemical writings, Newton argues that the famous figures of ancient mythology were actual people whose lives were later embellished by mythologizing writers. It is likely, then, that Newton’s alchemical decoding of mythology is actually an attempt to interpret early modern writers who used ancient myth as a way of wrapping their processes in enigma rather than signifying that he himself believed Ovid, for example, to have been an alchemist.    

What did Newton make of the bizarre language that alchemists traditionally used for their secrets, including terms like “the Babylonian Dragon,” “the Caduceus of Mercury,” and “the Green Lion”?

Newton spent decades trying to decipher the enigmatic terminology of the alchemists. In reality, exotic Decknamen (cover-names) were only part of an extensive and well-developed set of tools that alchemists had long employed for the purpose of revealing and concealing their knowledge. Other techniques included syncope (leaving out steps and materials), parathesis (adding in unnecessary terms and processes), and dispersion of knowledge, which consisted of dividing up processes and distributing them over different parts of a text or even putting the parts in entirely different texts.   The bulk of Newton’s reading notes consist of his attempts to arrive at the correct meaning of terms, and he was aware of the fact that the same term often meant different things to different authors. His Index chemicus, for example, lists multiple different meanings for the term “Green Lion,” which Newton links to specific writers. In a word, Newton’s alchemy is as much about the literary decipherment of riddles as it is about putting his interpretation to the test in the laboratory.

Did Newton consider himself to be an “adept,” that is, one of the masters of alchemy who had acquired the great secret of the art?

Although Newton occasionally records eureka moments in his laboratory notebooks such as “I saw the sophic sal ammoniac” or “I have understood the luciferous Venus,” he never records that he found the philosophers’ stone or performed an actual transmutation. He seems to have viewed himself as being on the way to finding the philosophers’ stone, but not to have ever thought that he had attained it. Nonetheless, his rapport with the adepts is clear. Several of his manuscripts record instances where he copied the early modern alchemical practice of encoding one’s name in a phrase that could be interpreted as an anagram. Michael Sendivogius, for example, a celebrated Polish adept, became “Divi Leschi Genus Amo” (“I love the race of the divine Lech”). The most famous of these anagrams in Newton’s case is “Jeova sanctus unus,” which can be rearranged to yield “Isaacus Neuutonus,” Latin for Isaac Newton. This is not the only such anagram in his alchemical papers. One manuscript in fact contains over thirty different phrases in which Newton concealed his name. Along with other clues in his papers, this suggests strongly that Newton believed himself to belong rightly to the band of the adepts, even if he was only an aspirant to their ranks.        

How does your book Newton the Alchemist change what we already knew about Newton’s alchemical quest?

Thanks to scholarly work done in the last third of the twentieth century, there is currently a widespread “master narrative” of Newton’s alchemy, though one with which I disagree. The major scholars of the subject at that time argued that alchemy for Newton was above all a religious quest, and that its impact on his more mainstream science lay in his emphasis on invisible forces that could act at a distance, such as gravitational attraction. Contemporary sources ranging from popular outlets such as Wikipedia to serious scholarly monographs echo these themes. In reality, however, there is little to no evidence to support either view.  Although there was a constant bleed-through from his alchemical research to his public science, Newton pursued the philosophers’ stone neither for the sake of God nor for the sake of physics. Instead, he practiced alchemy as an alchemist. In a word, the celebrated scientist aimed his bolt at the marvelous menstrua and volatile spirits of the sages, the instruments required for making the philosophers’ stone. Difficult as it may be for moderns to accept that the most influential physicist before Einstein dreamed of becoming an alchemical adept, the gargantuan labor that Newton devoted to experimental chrysopoeia speaks for itself.

A common view of Newton’s alchemy is that he kept it a secret from the world. Is this true, and if so, why was he so secretive? Did he think that alchemy was somehow dangerous? Or was it disreputable?

Newton generally kept quiet about his alchemical research, though he did engage in collaborations with select individuals such as his friend Nicolas Fatio de Duillier, and later, the Dutch distiller William Yworth. The main reason for his caution lay in his concern that alchemy might lay claim to secrets that could be dangerous if revealed to the world at large. The social order would be turned topsy-turvy if gold and silver lost their value as a result of the philosophers’ stone falling into the hands of the hoi polloi, and other disastrous consequences might result as well. Newton’s anxiety emerges quite clearly from a letter that he sent to the Secretary of the Royal Society, Henry Oldenburg, in 1676. The occasion was a publication by another alchemical researcher, Robert Boyle, who had recently published a paper on a special “sophic” mercury that would grow hot if mixed with gold. Newton was alarmed at Boyle’s candor, and suggested to Oldenburg that the author of The Sceptical Chymist should in the future revert to a “high silence” in order to avoid revealing secrets that the “true Hermetick Philosopher” must keep hidden lest they cause “immense dammage to ye world.”

You argue in your book that it’s not enough to read about Newton’s alchemical experiments, but that historians actually need to do them in a laboratory. Tell us what you have found by repeating Newton’s experiments and why this is important.

Anyone who tries to wade through Newton’s laboratory notebooks will be struck at once by the multitude of obscure expressions that he employs for materials. Although terms such as “the Green Lion,” “sophic sal ammoniac,” and “liquor of antimony” already existed in the literature of alchemy, they meant different things to different authors. In order to determine what their precise meaning was to Newton, one must look carefully at the properties that he ascribes to each material and to the protocols that he applies when he uses it in the laboratory. A good example may be found in the case of liquor of antimony, which Newton also refers to as vinegar, spirit, and salt of antimony. Extensive examination of these terms in his notebooks shows that they were interchangeable for Newton, and that they referred to a solution of crude antimony (mostly antimony sulfide) in a special aqua regia. Having made this material in the laboratory, I was then able to use it to make other Newtonian products, such a “vitriol of Venus,” a crystalline copper compound produced from the dried solution of copper or a copper ore in liquor of vitriol. This product is volatile at relatively low temperatures and can be used to volatilize other metals, which helps explain why Newton thought he was on the path to alchemical success. He hoped to liberate the internal principle of metallic activity by subtilizing the heavy metals and freeing them from what he saw as their gross accretions.      

Was alchemy considered a deviant or “occult” practice in Newton’s day? Did doing alchemy make Newton a sorceror or witch?  

It is a popular modern misconception that alchemy, astrology, and magic were all part and parcel of the same “occult” enterprise. To most medieval and early modern thinkers, these were distinct areas of practice, despite the currently reigning stereotypes. Newton had little or no interest in astrology, which did not distinguish him from most European alchemists. If by “magic” one means sorcery or witchcraft, this too was an area quite distinct from alchemy, and entirely alien to Newton’s interests. There was an overlap with alchemy in the domain of “natural magic,” however, and Newton evinced a marked interest in this field in his adolescence. One of the things that I have been able to show is that his earliest interest in alchemy, as revealed by his copying and reworking of an anonymous Treatise of Chymistry in the 1660s, may have grown out of his youthful fascination with works on natural magic and “books of secrets.” But natural magic was considered a legitimate field of endeavor by most experimental scientists in the seventeenth century, not a transgressive or deviant activity.

William R. Newman is Distinguished Professor and Ruth N. Halls Professor in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science and Medicine at Indiana University. His many books include Atoms and Alchemy: Chymistry and the Experimental Origins of the Scientific Revolution and Promethean Ambitions: Alchemy and the Quest to Perfect Nature. He lives in Bloomington, Indiana.

Jack Zipes: The Rise of Édouard Laboulaye from the Dead

I am not certain when the urge or itch began, but about ten years ago, when I founded the series of Oddly Modern Fairy Tales with Hanne Winarsky, then senior editor at Princeton University Press, I began to “rebel” against the classical well-known fairy tales, not to mention the insipid Disney fairy-tale films. I realized that they had become stale and commodified and had no historical relevance. The fairy tale is a mysterious hybrid genre and has secrets about our past to reveal if you value each tale’s historical idiosyncrasies. As a scholar of these tales, I realized you cannot deal with present socio-political-cultural conditions unless you have a firm grasp on historical transformation. Consequently, all my concerns as a scholar of folklore and fairy-tale studies and, also as a writer and translator of tales, made a huge U-Turn. Indeed, I began to search and research the gaps of the past that we needed to fill and still need to fill to make the present more substantial and pave the way for a better future.

In the particular case of folk and fairy tales, this led me to discover and uncover highly significant writers and illustrators of fairy tales in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Since I have always been a library nerd, a used book pack rat, and a flea market junky, it was not difficult for me to sniff out numerous neglected authors and their works. In the course of ten years, I have been fortunate not only to find amazing collections of fairy tales written by Kurt Schwitters, Bela Balázs, Naomi Mitchison, Walter De La Mare, Lafacadio Hearn, but also numerous unusual fairy tales by British writers of the 1930s, workers’ tales of the early twentieth century, and “decadent” French fairy tales of the late nineteenth century. Moreover, the books in the series have been edited by superb scholars and writers such as Maria Tatar, Marina Warner, Philip Pullman, Gretchen Schulz, Lewis Seifert, and Michael Rosen. Thanks to these works – with more to come – we now know that the popular fairy tale did not end and will not end in a homogenized form of happily ever after. Rather, the fairy tale as genre has never ended as a fraudulent happy end, it continues to startle us through diverse and extraordinary versions throughout the world.

The plans for the future include fabulous Japanese fairy tales by Lafcadio Hearn, Chinese stories of the early twentieth century during the onset of communism, Jewish tales by Nister, a somewhat bizarre rabbi, radical fairy tales written by Hermynjia zur Mühlen, an Austrian aristocrat, turned communist, provocative and dazzling Italian fairy tales from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Lisa Tetzner’s fairy-tale novel Hans Sees the World, about a boy’s adventures during the 1929 depression, and Yuri Olesha’s Three Fat Men, which concerns an upside-down world in Russia during the 1930s.

What makes Édouard Laboulaye’s political fairy tales of the late nineteenth century significant for today and for history is that he was truly the foremost writer of political fairy tales in all of Europe. In fact, I know of no other writer or politician in the nineteenth century who used the fairy tale so deftly and ironically to oppose tyranny. In addition, Laboulaye was very much an internationalist. He know many foreign languages and had an extraordinary knowledge of folk tales from oral traditions in Italy, Senegal, Egypt, Estonia, Russia, Germany, Iceland, and other countries, and he adapted them to sharpen their political implications and make them more acute. Furthermore, he was certainly a proto feminist: almost all of his tales have feisty female protagonists who courageously oppose stupid fathers, unjust husbands, and corrupt male courts of power. The major tale in my current collection, “Slap-Bam, or The Art of Governing Men,” is a wonderfully humorous narrative that argues for the importance of women in shaping the politics of a country.

Is such relevance reflected, then, in the nature of our current study of folklore and fairy tales at universities? How is it possible for such a writer like Édouard Laboulaye to escape the eyes of university students and their professors? Although political scientists in France are well aware of Laboulaye’s importance – a recent conference in France was dedicated to his work in jurisprudence and history – I have not read one single essay or book about his work in literature and folklore. Is this the fault of French literary scholars caught in the barbed wire and babble of French critical theory all over the world? Is this the fault of most universities in the world that do not have folklore programs, or which have eliminated them? I am not certain. But I have a certain urge and itch to find out why.

Şevket Pamuk discusses the first comprehensive history of the Turkish economy

The population and economy of the area within the present-day borders of Turkey has consistently been among the largest in the developing world, yet there has been no authoritative economic history of Turkey until now. In Uneven Centuries, Şevket Pamuk examines the economic growth and human development of Turkey over the past two hundred years.

Taking a comparative global perspective, Pamuk investigates Turkey’s economic history through four periods: the open economy during the nineteenth-century Ottoman era, the transition from empire to nation-state that spanned the two world wars and the Great Depression, the continued protectionism and import-substituting industrialization after World War II, and the neoliberal policies and the opening of the economy after 1980. Making use of indices of GDP per capita, trade, wages, health, and education, Pamuk argues that Turkey’s long-term economic trends cannot be explained only by immediate causes such as economic policies, rates of investment, productivity growth, and structural change.

What did you try to do in this book ? / What does this book try to do?

This book examines economic growth and human development in Turkey during the last two centuries from a comparative global perspective. It establishes in both absolute and relative terms Turkey’s record in economic growth and human development and evaluates both the proximate and deeper causes of this record.

Why did you choose to focus on the last two centuries?

The Industrial Revolution that began in Great Britain in the second half of the eighteenth century had far reaching consequences not only for Western Europe but also for the rest of the world. During the next two centuries, along with industrial capitalism, modern economic growth spread unevenly across the globe. Most of the patterns of development as well as the disparities we observe around the world today have emerged during the last two centuries.

What is your main argument?

After studying the case of Turkey, I came to the conclusion that economic variables are necessary for understanding long term economic development but they do not tell the whole story. Long term economic development cannot be fully understood without taking into account the social and political environment as well as the historical causes.

What relevance does the book have for those interested in the developing countries and the economic history of developing countries?

Turkey is one of the larger developing countries. Like other developing countries, Turkey’s institutions and economy have received their share of influences from the outside. In each of the four historical periods I examine in the book, governments in Turkey pursued economic policies similar to those of other developing countries. Moreover, Turkey’s long term economic performance has been close to both the world and developing country averages during the last two centuries. For these reasons and in contrast to the more successful developing countries, Turkey is a more representative case and offers more insights into the experiences of other developing countries. Yet, in contrast to the more successful cases, Turkey’s long term economic development has not been studied well. An economic history of Turkey during the last two centuries has not previously been available in any language.

What are Turkey’s special features, in your opinion?

As is the case of other developing countries, Turkey’s institutions and economy have certainly been influenced by global forces and institutions. One of the special features of Turkey is that it has not experienced colonial rule in history. The area within the present borders of Turkey was part of a large multi-ethnic empire until the end of World War I and modern Turkey emerged as one of the successor states after the end of the Ottoman Empire. As a result, Turkey’s institutions during the last two centuries were shaped, in addition to the global influences, by the interaction between the new institutions shaped by the elites of the new nation state and those that existed, including the Islamic-Ottoman institutions of the earlier era.

Şevket Pamuk is professor of economics and economics history at Bogaziçi University in Istanbul. His books include A Monetary History of the Ottoman Empire and The Ottoman Empire and European Capitalism, 1820–1913.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dale Dyer on the Art of Illustrating Field Guides

I’ve been drawing and painting birds for books for about 25 years now. It seems like a long time, but it took me a while to get there. When I was a kid, Don Eckelberry was my hero – he was the illustrator for the Audubon Field Guide and the Guide to Birds of the West Indies by James Bond (real, not fictional) – and my dream was to become a bird illustrator. By the time I went to art school, however, I was enthralled by the great painting of the past and was determined to find a way to make great art in the present. Birdwatching and bird drawing were set aside. Perhaps the accompanying studio self-portrait (left) shows the ambition and angst associated with that preoccupation.

I eventually found myself back in the woods, the shore and the mudflats with my binoculars anyway. More than expressing myself, I wanted to express something about the world. I started to teach myself the birds by drawing them.

I’m interested in communicating not only the experience of an encounter with nature, but also a scientific understanding of it. Though I have no formal training in ornithology, I have always had a serious interest in taxonomy and biodiversity. I am currently a Field Associate of the Ornithology Department of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and have been working in that collection for fifteen years. That is an education in of itself, and I have had the privilege of meeting and talking with ornithologists from all over the world.

A field guide is a portrait of the biodiversity of a region. When the illustrations are designed well, and combined with accurate range maps, biogeographic patterns emerge with special clarity. Thorough review of bird specimens from across Central America, as well as a review of ornithological literature, is what gives me an understanding of what needs to be said, and inspires me to get to the drawing board.

The only way to study geographic variation in a species is by placing specimens from far apart places side by side. A great collection like that at the AMNH gives one an opportunity to study species and species relationships in a way that watching birds in the field can not. Nevertheless, it necessary to combine field experience with museum experience to create a vivid and accurate image of a species.

Over the ten-year course of working on Birds of Central America, I traveled nearly every year. I wish it could have be more – some of my experience with a species feels like just a little taste, and there are quite a few species in the book that I have never seen. Bird illustration, however, requires not only observation and reproduction skills, but research and re-creation skills. I’d love to see them all, but work which requires a lifetime of preparation never gets done. Painting a book requires a tremendous amount of time just sitting in your chair working.

Leafing through a field guide gives one a sense of what exists, what is fragile, what needs to be preserved, and also fills the traveling birder with an excitement in anticipation of what they may encounter. I like making art for books because books are affordable, accessible to all, and because I know how intently birders look at the pictures. No one painting for gallery exhibitions can depend on the kind of focused attention to their work that I get.

 

Dale Dyer  is an ornithological illustrator who has contributed to many books on birds, including Birds of Peru and All the Birds of North America. Dyer, along with his co-author Andrew C. Vallely, are currently field associates in the Department of Ornithology at the American Museum of Natural History.

A. A. Long on How to Be Free An Ancient Guide to the Stoic Life (according to Epictetus)

How-to-be-free-epictetus-ancient-romeHow to be Free is a book for every place and occasion. I can say this without any pride or self-promotion because the ideas of the book are not my own but those of the ancient Stoic philosopher Epictetus, and they have stood the test of time. In fact his guide to life, which I translate and introduce here, is more relevant and needful today than at any period in its long and salutary history. I say this because the freedom that Epictetus promises and justifies—freedom to take charge of one’s own individual thoughts and actions—is under attack by market capitalism, commercial advertising, social media, and cyber aggression. By manipulating desires and infiltrating mindsets, these powerful forces are undermining autonomy and personal independence with disastrous results. They are a main cause of the anxiety and depression that oppresses so many people, through the fear of falling short in health, wealth, personal success, relationships, appearance, and status.

Epictetus counters the pressures of the external environment by making a deceptively simple distinction—between things that are up to us (call them U things) and things that are not up to us (call them N things). U things comprise our will and our motivations, our likes and dislikes, our actions and reactions, our feelings and emotions—in other words the essential person that each of us is. N things comprise everything else—the state of the world, the people around us, our work and income, even our bodies because our limbs and physical wellbeing are not absolutely under our direct control. This is a stark distinction. Its value is to highlight the notion that what we want or do not want, what matters or does not matter to us, depends primarily on our own individual decisions, and not what is done to us by others. On this view, it is we ourselves, and not outside forces, that ultimately determine our happiness and unhappiness and condition our reactions.

The freedom that this book seeks to promote has two sides: one side is freedom to act without constraint by external forces, whether people or media pressures or mistaken impressions that we have to react in certain ways; the other side is freedom from disabling emotions and anxieties that inhibit the full exercise of our will and mental capacity. Along with freedom Epictetus emphasizes self-sufficiency and competing with oneself to be as good as possible in facing the challenges of life. Read this book as you approach a cold shower. You will feel great when it is over, toned up and ready for anything.

A. A. Long is professor emeritus of classics and affiliated professor of philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley. His many books include Epictetus: A Stoic and Socratic Guide to LifeStoic Studies, and (with Margaret Graver) Seneca: Letters on Ethics. He lives in Kensington, California.

Philip Freeman: How to Be a Friend (according to Cicero)

In a world where social media, online relationships, and relentless self-absorption threaten the very idea of deep and lasting friendships, the search for true friends is more important than ever. In this short book, which is one of the greatest ever written on the subject, the famous Roman politician and philosopher Cicero offers a compelling guide to finding, keeping, and appreciating friends. With wit and wisdom, Cicero shows us not only how to build friendships but also why they must be a key part of our lives. For, as Cicero says, life without friends is not worth living. Translator Philip Freeman has taken the time to answer some questions about How to be a Friend.

Who was Cicero?

A Roman lawyer, politician, and philosopher who lived in one of the most dangerous places and important times in human history—first-century BC Rome. He was friends and sometimes enemies with Julius Caesar and almost every other key player at the end of the Roman Republic. It was an age of war, revolution, and mass slaughter, yet also a time of amazing creativity. Cicero saw it all and lived long enough to write about it until Marc Antony finally had his head cut off.

What did he write about?

Practically everything. God, religion, sex, greed, growing old—you name it. He was also a key political philosopher. The American founding fathers were huge Cicero fans. In fact, the American government as found in the US Constitution is largely based on the writings of Cicero. But one of his best little works is about the subject of friendship.

Why should we care what Cicero says about friendship? I mean, he lived over two thousand years ago. Surely in an age of social media, all the rules have changed.

Friendship—like all the important things in life—doesn’t change at all as the centuries pass. How people make and communicate with friends may have shifted in some ways, but the crucial role of friendship in our lives never will. We all hunger for the ties we make with friends whether we’re in ancient Rome or a modern California suburb. Without some form of friendship in their lives, most people would wither away and die, spiritually if not physically. We are social creatures who desperately need meaningful connections with others. Cicero is right when he says that life without friends is simply not worth living.

Cicero talks about different kind of friendships. What does he mean?

He says we all by necessity have different types of friendships, each good in its own way. There are friendships of utility such as those we have with our auto mechanic or dentist. You can have hundreds of these in your life. They are an essential part of living in any society in which you must interact with others. But you’re hopefully not going to tell your most intimate secrets to the guy who sells you bagels at the corner shop. Then there are friendships of pleasure, the dozen or more people you enjoy hanging out with at the local pub or in your neighborhood. Finally there are the deepest of friendships you have with only a handful of people—or maybe just one or two—friends you tell everything to and would take a bullet for if necessary. These last sort of friends are what Cicero calls “another self.”

What’s the best way to tell if a person can be a true friend?

Cicero would say look if they’re willing to be honest with you. Not honest in a hurtful way—plenty of people will do that—but honest because they care deeply about you. A true friend will tell you if a boyfriend you’re crazy about is bad news even if you don’t want to hear it. That kind of friend is willing to risk even the friendship for the sake of honesty. If you find friends like that, never let them go.

Can a bad person have friends?

A good way to answer this is to look at the extreme case of Voldemort in the Harry Potter books and movies. He’s a character totally focused on himself who cares nothing about others except how he can use them for his own purposes. Thankfully there are few Voldemorts in the real world, but I imagine all of us know people who seem to use others only for their what they can get from them. These selfish sorts could have friendships of utility, maybe even of pleasure, but never true friendships.

Would Cicero be on Facebook?

I think he would love Facebook. He was an accomplished letter writer, the only social medium of the day. We actually have a collection of many of his letters, especially those he sent to his best friend Atticus who lived far away in Greece. But I think Cicero would draw an important distinction between posting photos of his cat to thousands of followers and intimate interactions with his closest friends, whether written or face-to-face. Cicero would probably say that the social media universe can be a good thing if used properly and terribly harmful to the soul if not.

Philip Freeman is the editor and translator of How to Grow Old, How to Win an Election, and How to Run a Country (all Princeton). He is the author of many books, including Searching for Sappho (Norton) and Oh My Gods: A Modern Retelling of Greek and Roman Myths (Simon & Schuster). He holds the Fletcher Jones Chair of Western Culture at Pepperdine University and lives in Malibu, California.

Seyla Benhabib: Exile, Statelessness, and Migration. Playing Chess with History from Hannah Arendt to Isaiah Berlin

Exile, Statelessness, and Migration explores the intertwined lives, careers, and writings of a group of prominent Jewish intellectuals during the mid-twentieth century—in particular, Theodor Adorno, Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin, Isaiah Berlin, Albert Hirschman, and Judith Shklar, as well as Hans Kelsen, Emmanuel Levinas, Gershom Scholem, and Leo Strauss. Informed by their Jewish identity and experiences of being outsiders, these thinkers produced one of the most brilliant and effervescent intellectual movements of modernity.

The title of your book “Exile, Statelessness, and Migration” suggests many different issues that could be the subject matter of sociology, law, cultural studies, migration studies etc. Yet the book is about the “intertwinement” of the lives and ideas of some of the most significant Jewish intellectuals of the previous century: Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, Emmanuel Levinas, and a generation of thinkers younger than them such as Judith Shklar, Albert Hirschman and Isaiah Berlin.

I am fascinated by how these thinkers experienced exile, migration, and statelessness in their own lives and how this is reflected or refracted in their writings. While these themes are central to Hannah Arendt’s, and in later years, to Judith Shklar’s work, Albert Hirschman did not write about the loss of citizenship but rather about “exit, voice, and loyalty.” Yet as I show in my chapter on him, “exit” can also refer to having to exit or leave a country, a homeland, and not just to leaving a firm, as is often supposed that Hirschman refers to. This dimension of political exit becomes clearer in Hirschman’s work as he revisits his birth city of Berlin many years after leaving it as a young socialist militant.

Isaiah Berlin’s case is very interesting in that rather than being an exile or a stateless person, he is a paradigm of successful integration into the host culture. Yet in his case as well, multiple loyalties and their conflicts continue, such as to the Russian culture of his childhood, to Israel and the Jewish people and to his Majesty’s UK. How do these loyalties influence his understanding of pluralism and his claim that there can be no universe that encompasses all human values worth cherishing and that one must choose one or the other among them? These are fascinating questions.

But why is your subtitle “Playing Chess with History” ?

Hannah Arendt and Walter Benjamin were political refugees in Paris from 1933 to 1940 and they taught Arendt’s future husband, Heinrich Bluecher, to play chess. I open the book with the correspondence among the three of them concerning these chess games.

Bluecher belonged to the Spartacist League of the German communist movement, which he abandoned after the murder of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht in January 1919. As is well-known, one of Walter Benjamin’s most famous writings, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” opens with the unforgettable description of an automaton in old Turkish attire playing chess. The movements of the puppet chess master are controlled by a dwarf sitting invisibly under the chess table. We know from historical sources that such automatons existed and were much cherished in the European courts of the Enlightenment.  We also know from Benjamin’s own writings that for him the image of the old Turk playing chess, but whose moves are controlled by an invisible dwarf, was a metaphor for those who believed, such as orthodox Marxists did, in the inexorable march of history. Individuals may have thought they controlled their own destinies but really only the dialectical laws of history did. Benjamin bought none of that and he thought that politically such a conception of history led to quietism and capitulation Rather, argued Benjamin, history does not consist of the inevitable march of uncontrollable forces but it is a contingent assemblage of events in the midst of which a Messianic, wholly unexpected, moment of redemption can emerge.

I argue that Arendt, as well as Adorno, were indebted to Benjamin’s idea of “constellations’’ and the eruption of the “new” and the unexpected in history. The tangled personal and intellectual relationship between Arendt, Benjamin, and Adorno is one of the central questions in the book.

The metaphor of playing chess with history is also applicable to Shklar’s escape with her family from Riga, Latvia over Sweden, then Siberia, to Japan, and eventually to Montréal, after a brief stint in New York.

We also learn from Jeremy Adelman’s fantastic biography of Albert Hirschman, The Worldly Philosopher. The Odyssey of Albert Hirschman (2013), that in the 1940’s, Hirschman was helping the American Friends Committee settle refugees in the US by forging papers for them in Marseille, France such as to enable them to cross the border from occupied France to Spain. Among those who were helped to escape via this route were Hannah Arendt and Heinrich Bluecher but, alas not Walter Benjamin, who would commit suicide in the Spanish border town of Port Bou. Hirschman certainly was among the few militants and resistance fighters of the time who helped refugees like Hannah Arendt to leave Europe. The pieces of the chess game were in place but not known to the players themselves.

Jewish identity and otherness runs through these chapters like a red thread; the others being, exile, voice and loyalty; legality and legitimacy, and pluralism and the problem of judgment. Can you say more about them?

I want to clarify that my goal in this book is to practice a form of thick historical contextualization that aims at elucidating central dilemmas of modern states and societies which have a lasting significance for us as well. That is how I understand the term “force fields” which I borrow from Martin Jay. In a “force field,” a cluster of ideas and themes develops as a result of the strength of the center pulling these elements toward itself, while there are also centripetal forces pushing them away from the center as well as one another.

The thinkers considered in this volume, Arendt, Adorno, Shklar, Hirschman, and Berlin, along with many others such Scholem, Benjamin, Leo Strauss, and Hans Kelsen with whom they were in dialogue, were challenged by Max Weber’s diagnosis of modernity as a process of “rationalization.” According to Weber, modernity brought the application of a form of scientific and technocratic world-view to culture and society, which he famously also described as one of “Entzauberung,” that is, the loss of magic in our understanding of nature and culture. Entzauberung also results in a pluralization and fragmentation of values such that it is only individual act choice and commitment that can now give meaning and significance to what is otherwise meaningless and inert. How can such a society and culture stabilize themselves, create political legitimacy as well as the spiritual resources for modern individuals to go on to “face the times like a man,” (sic) as Weber puts it?

Shklar was intimately familiar with Weber’s work and named her second book, Legalism, thereby evoking the well-known distinction between legality and legitimacy. Shklar’s concept of legalism, like Weber’s typology of legal-rational authority, means that the legal system is a formally correct and self-referential whole that generates correct statutes and rules in accordance with the proper application of procedures. Whether this machinery of legality produces justice, respects human rights or enhances citizens’ autonomy is a moot question. Legal-rational authority may presuppose a Grundnorm, a foundational norm, which once set into place, serves as the ultimate source of legitimacy, as Hans Kelsen argued. But what then justifies this Grundnorm? Weber himself thought that the machinery of legal-rational authority would fall prey either to “sensualists without heart and bureaucrats without spirit,” and/or be hijacked by charismatic and demagogic leaders. Modern systems of legitimacy remained unstable, and Weber did not have much faith that liberal democracies could endure without sliding into some form of authoritarianism.

Shklar understood Weber’s challenge and she turned to the moral psychology of the citizens of post-war liberal democracies and their practices of citizenship as well wage-earning; she saw such activities as providing new forms of dignity and forestalling cruelty. Departing sharply from system-building in the mode of German thought, Shklar sought to ask the important questions rather than provide tightly argued systematic answers.

Isaiah Berlin had so intensely internalized Weber’s challenge that, as I show in chapter 9, at times he acknowledged it while at other times denying Weber’s Influence of the fragmentation of values in modernity upon his own thinking. As opposed to Weber, Berlin’s thesis of the pluralism of values does not describe a condition unique to modernity but is characteristic of previous historical epochs as well. For Berlin, the human horizon contains multiplicity of values, not all of which can be realized either by individuals or by societies at any one point in time. Berlin is, of course, insistent that pluralism is not relativism and it does not mean that we must accept all values. Yet it is unclear how Berlin defends this distinction between pluralism and relativism without resorting to some conception of human nature, essence or condition. Berlin’s answers imply that although we cannot provide deductive, incontrovertible philosophical justifications for why some values are worth defending while others are not, nonetheless we can exercise correct judgment for which good reasons can be given.

I end the book with the “burdens of judgment” as Rawls calls them. Already Arendt as well as Adorno had turned to Kant’s distinction between “determinative” and “reflective” judgment to articulate a new relationship between the universal and the particular. Like Rawls, they had already argued that the work of judgment did not consist in the subsuming of the particular under the universal alone, but in the interpretative work of finding the proper universal -principle, model, or paradigm- if such existed at all. Arendt, in particular, followed Kant’s teaching of the enlarged mentality and the ability to think from the standpoint of others. For her, whatever else good judgment involved, it had to entail these qualities as well.

What about exile, voice and loyalty? You have not said much about that yet.

One of the best known answers to Weber’s question concerning legitimate authority was given by Carl Schmitt, who argued that the realm of the political was constituted by the distinction between ‘friend’ and ‘foe.’ For Schmitt, legality did not rest on a Grundnorm but on the existential decision of a political entity to constitute itself as one distinguished from others whom it considered “foes.” There is a long scholarly discussion about Schmitt’s Nazism and whether his concept of foe simply means an adversary with whom I can have interest conflicts or whether the foe is an existential other. I think that Schmitt cleverly left this ambiguous but that over time his thought evolved in the direction of naming liberalism, cosmopolitanism, world-Jewry and Anglo-American democracy as the existential enemies of his political vision.

Schmitt’s challenge is not easily dispensed with because every polity – including liberal democracies – distinguishes between a ‘we’ who are considered full citizens entitled to voice and of whom loyalty is demanded, in Hirschman’s terms, and ‘others’ who do not belong to the demos. Arendt faced the problem of statelessness in her own life when Germany denaturalized its Jewish citizens and she articulated the paradoxes of the right to have rights for those who had been rendered rightless by totalitarian practices.

As a political economist Hirschman’s concerns are different. He analyzes which schemes of development can enable local economies to utilize all their resources such as to jump start the move out of poverty and dependency. Yet, like Arendt, Hirschman is also concerned with the paradoxes and weaknesses of the nation-state and early on comes under the influence of the Italian socialist federalist movement, among whose members are Eugenio Colorni and Alberto Spinelli. They compose, while in prison, the Ventetone Manifest which envisages a radical restructuring of the institutions of post-war Europe along federalist lines and the taming of the power of nation-states.

This federalist vision resonates with Arendt’s proposals of the late 1940’s for a Mediterranean federation of peoples as a possible way out of the Israeli-Palestinian quagmire. Some scheme of federalism or federationalism constituted Arendt’s as well Hirschman’s answer to the choices of exit, voice and loyalty.

I end the book with the observation that a time when the crises of our republics are reaching Weimer-like proportions, recalling the lives and works of these emigré intellectuals gives one both fear and hope: fear, because the one country that opened its arms to so many of them, namely the United States, is reproducing the Weimar syndrome of xenophobia and lawlessness in its treatment of migrants and refugees; hope, because their reflections show that catastrophes can be overcome and new beginnings are possible in political life.

Seyla Benhabib is the Eugene Meyer Professor of Political Science and Philosophy at Yale University. Her many books have been translated into more than fourteen languages, and include Dignity in Adversity, The Rights of Others, and The Claims of Culture (Princeton).

T. L. Taylor on Watch Me Play: #Twitch and the Rise of Game Live Streaming

TaylorEvery day thousands of people broadcast their gaming live to audiences over the internet using popular sites such as Twitch, which reaches more than one hundred million viewers a month. In these new platforms for interactive entertainment, big esports events featuring digital game competitors live stream globally, and audiences can interact with broadcasters—and each other—through chat in real time. What are the ramifications of this exploding online industry? Taking readers inside home studios and backstage at large esports events, Watch Me Play investigates the rise of game live streaming and how it is poised to alter how we understand media and audiences. The first book to explore the online phenomenon Twitch and live streaming games, Watch Me Play offers a vibrant look at the melding of private play and public entertainment.

What led you to write this book?

I was captivated by a live esports tournament broadcast I saw in 2012 and originally set out to write an article about how streaming was amplifying that industry well beyond its roots as a grassroots scene. As I started to research what was happening on Twitch, one of the main platforms for game broadcasting, I realized esports was only part of the story. Seeing so many people sharing their play and watching the cultural impact it was having, I quickly understood there was a much bigger research project at stake. What started as a small update on the esports story became a book not only on how people are transforming their private play into public entertainment but profound changes in media more broadly.

Has live streaming changed the culture around esports and gaming more generally?

Absolutely. It used to be a lot of work to be an esports fan. You had to know where to find recorded match videos, download special files to watch competitions, and follow all kinds of specialist sites. Live streaming has made it incredibly easy now to watch esports events and it’s not unusual for there to be matches being broadcast from around the world 24/7 on Twitch. It’s also made it much easier to keep up to date with your favorite teams and players, even watching their practices. For players who aspire to improve, they now have regular access to people they can try and learn from. Live streaming has helped expand and grown esports fandom. Beyond competitive gaming, live streaming has tapped into some of the pleasures sites like YouTube offered in terms of watching, and learning about, games. But it’s extended spectatorship to include real time interaction between viewers and broadcasters, the growth of new gaming communities, a whole new infrastructure around regulation and monetization, and lots of fascinating experiments in sharing live gaming content.

How has the increasing popularity of Twitch impacted live streaming on the Internet overall?

Though the platform originally operated as a niche site catering to gamers, it has gotten real momentum and attention broadly in a relatively short amount of time. More people started watching, and broadcasting themselves, and really big productions caught the eye of those outside gaming. Live streaming taps into a longstanding pleasure in game culture— watching others play and sharing your own— but also syncs with broader changes around media distribution (think about the rise of Netflix and “cord cutting” where people forego cable television entirely) and the tremendous energy of user-generated content. The platform has also been very adept at transforming itself and now not only hosts gaming but all kinds of creative and “in real life” shows. And in a fascinating twist, traditional media has started folding itself back into Twitch. Just the other day I watched the Washington Post’s  https://www.twitch.tv/washingtonpost channel where reporters were talking about the stories of the day and fielding questions in real time from the audience.

How is live streaming changing how we understand media and emerging technologies?

Live streaming offers us an opportunity to understand how various domains—the televisual, the internet, and gaming—can weave together on an emerging platform. It takes the notion of “social media” and “social TV” and extends it well beyond the typical conversations about spaces like Twitter or Facebook. Ultimately we need to do a better job understanding the links, amplifications, and interrelations between what we sometimes think of disparate technologies and sites. The case of game live streaming gives us a path into thinking not only about changes in game culture, but new socio-technical platforms and network life.

How do you predict Twitch will grow and evolve in the coming years?

I always say I’m a sociologist and not a futurologist so I’m hesitant to make any predictions. There are still too many contingencies (around everything from user practices to regulation and economics). What I will say is that while Twitch is itself a relatively new platform, it’s part of a much longer history of broadcasting on the internet going back to the earliest days of webcams in the 1990s, and it sits alongside a wide range of user-generated content that plays a huge role not only online, but in traditional media. The themes of sharing yourself, your play, and of the rise of co-creative media and alternative distribution practices isn’t going away anytime soon.

What do you hope readers will take away from reading this book?

I hope readers will get a sense of the pleasures, and work, involved in game live streaming. Game live streamers who are broadcasting out of their homes give us insight into what it means to transform your private play into public entertainment. The book also tackles how live streaming is affecting other industries, not only esports but traditional media companies that are trying to understand—and catch up with—this slice of gaming. Finally, I hope readers will come to see how game live streaming offers a powerful case to thinking more broadly about things like regulation and governance—from community practices to law and corporate policy—on emerging internet platforms.  

T. L. Taylor is professor of comparative media studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her books include Raising the Stakes and Play between Worlds.