An interview with Jeff Nunokawa, author of “Note Book”

Note BookEach morning since 2007, Jeff Nunokawa, English professor at Princeton University, logs onto Facebook and writes something. But unlike most of us who take part in this simple exercise in connection, Nunokawa is both effortlessly lyrical and impressively well-read, drawing in references from Henry James to Joni Mitchell.  Note Book, which compiles the 250 most striking of the brief, daily essays Nunokawa has shared on his “notes” page, resembles an extensive multimedia project, but retains a remarkable sense of intimacy.  Laura Kipnis compares his posts to “witty billets-doux from an astonishingly literate secret admirer”, and if you take a look at the way he writes, you’ll see why. Recently, Jeff was kind enough to indulge us with some personal insights into his writing process, motivations, and obsession with revision on the social media platform. It’s fascinating stuff:

What are you doing when you write these essays for Facebook, and why are you doing it?

JN: Well, I write these brief essays every morning, or sometimes in the middle of the night because I’m alone a lot and lonely and very talkative but being alone, there’s no one to talk to. But actually, I’m not really alone, even when I’m by myself. I’ve read a lot of books and they’re all around me. Mostly literature although other things as well: a fair amount of philosophy, for example, and every Eleanor Roosevelt biography and memoir I can get my hands on. Also, a picture of my mother’s dog and various soccer players and my feeling of the presence of all kinds of spirits. And when I’m quiet enough for a while, these things all speak to me, if I let them. And after that, if they let me, I write a little essay which conveys as best it can the courage and clarity and good humor of the above spirits—some of the above spirits can be incredibly witty! (you should hear what Eleanor Roosevelt has to say about JFK!)—to others who might be able to use it.

I guess what I’m trying to do is to put to use what I’ve learned over the course of a long, strange life reading and teaching and telling stories. I’m trying to make it useful to other people.

How?

JN: Well, I think most people are like me, in at least one respect. I think everyone feels deeply in the dark, sometimes—sometimes, just lying in bed, wondering how they’re going to make it through the day. Sometimes it takes the best voices you’ve ever heard in your life just to get from horizontal to vertical. That’s where a lot of what I write tries to come in and give people a lift.

How has your writing changed over the course of the time you have been engaged in this project?

JN: Well, I think I used to be much more concerned with showing off when I started—showing off what I knew and how “knowing” I was. I think I’m less concerned now with showing off than I am with *showing*. I’ll put it this way: when I started out, my model was Walter Benjamin—a crazy beautiful German Philosopher-Mystic, who wrote these astonishing often very mysterious, fragmentary aphorisms. Now, I think, I’m a little more taken with example of the Reverend Paul Osumi.

Who?

JN: The Reverend Paul Osumi had a daily column in the Honolulu Advertiser when I was a kid. Actually, it wasn’t so much a column—it was one those “thought for the day” kind of deals: just these little daily inspirations to get through the day with as much light in your soul and your step as you could. I don’t remember a single thing he said, but I remember how important that column was for half of Honolulu. When I was a kid (like till about last year), I used to think he was some kind of shallow smiley-faced fool. Now he’s pretty much my role model.

Well aside from the Reverend Paul Osumi, do you have other role models that influence your writing?

JN: Sure: let’s see: lots of the big essayists of the 18th and 19th centuries—Hume, Johnson and Lamb and Pater, writers like that who were so concerned with using what they knew to try to help live better.

What about prose models—stylists whom you model yourself on? As you must know, your writing can be a little “quirky” as your editor calls it.

JN: Yeah, I know. Well, I’m really trying to be a little more mainstream and accessible—less Gerard Manley Hopkins and more E.B. White—but I’m always going to hear the call of “Pied Beauty” and all that gorgeous jazz that makes you cry and see the world more clearly through all the tears, all the Tears of this Beautiful Broken World. I don’t mean to sound all precious. Heck, I hear E. B. White wept whenever he read out loud and the passage in Charlotte’s Web where the spider dies.

The writing that you do on Facebook, you revise compulsively.  It’s ironic that the writing you do on Facebook, on a virtual platform of ephemerality, should be the site where you are most concerned with revising, so that you might produce something polished for the ages. What’s that about, I wonder?

JN: Good question. It may be that the answer would only be interesting to my therapist. Oh wait. I forgot. I don’t have a therapist. The writing itself is my only therapy, now. It used to be that I needed Therapy to write. Now writing is therapy. Funny how life turns out.

Anyway, to return to the question. I don’t know, except that the irony you’re touching on here informs the spirit and style of some of the greatest essayists and I’m happy to follow their lead: the impulse to put the realms of conversation—and what is the internet, if not a place where the live sense of ephemeral conversation crackles like an electric wire into contact with the realms of solid learning (“for the ages”). Hume says, on his essay on essay writing,

I cannot but consider myself as a Kind of Resident or Ambassador from the Dominions of Learning to those of Conversation

and by gum, what’s good enough for Hume is good enough for me.

Q&A with Ian Morris, author of Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels: How Human Values Evolve

Princeton University Press recently had the opportunity to talk with Ian Morris about his new book, Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels: How Human Values Evolve.

Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels

In your book you look at the evolution of human values over tens of thousands of years. Can you briefly say why and how values change? Isn’t morality universal and unchanging?

The answer to the last part of this question is easy: yes and no. I say yes because in one sense, morality certainly is universal and unchanging. Our human values are the outcome of millions of years of evolution. Animals that were born with genes that predisposed them to value fairness, love, honor, decency, and a host of related virtues tended to flourish, while animals that did not value fairness, etc., tended not to flourish. As a result, a disposition toward these prosocial attitudes spread through the gene pool, and almost all humans share these same core values. The reason I also say no, though, is because the ways people have interpreted fairness, etc., have varied wildly through time. Few historians dispute this; but fewer still have seen that what causes values to change is not the deep thoughts of philosophers but the most basic force of all–energy. As humanity has moved from foraging through farming to fossil-fuel use, we have found that different levels of energy capture call for different kinds of social organization, and that these different kinds of organization favor very different interpretations of human values. To foragers, fairness often means that everyone should receive equal shares of food, respect, and other good things, but to people in farming society, fairness often means that people should receive very different shares, because they are felt to deserve different shares. Men deserve more than women, the rich deserve more than the poor, the free deserve more than the enslaved, and so on through too many categories to count. Foragers and farmers feel the ways they do not because the former are all saints and the latter all sinners, but because it would be almost impossible to run a foraging society like a feudal monarchy and almost impossible to run a farming society as a band of equals. Foragers who lean toward equality and farmers who lean toward hierarchy itend to outperform and replace foragers and farmers who do not. In our own age of fossil fuels, values have continued to mutate. We tend to believe that fairness means that everyone should receive somewhat equal–but not too equal–shares of food, respect, and other good things. Anthropologists who spend time in foraging or farming societies often feel as if they have stepped into alien worlds, where values are upside-down; and people from most periods in the past would have felt exactly the same way about us.

In our current Fossil Fuel age of values, you argue that violence and inequality have diminished greatly from past periods. That seems very counter-intuitive. Can you elaborate?

A lot of people today are nostalgic for a simpler, vanished, preindustrial world, and there are ways in which they are right to be so; but not if they value peace, prosperity, or (on the whole) equality. Across the last fifty years, social scientists have accumulated data that allow us to measure wealth, inequality, and rates of violence in the past. The results are surprising–so much so that they can seem, as you suggest, counterintuitive. Foraging societies tended to be quite equal in wealth, if only because almost everyone was desperately poor (by one calculation, the average income was the equivalent of about $1.10 per day). They also tended to be very violent (by many calculations, more than 10 percent of foragers died violently). Farming societies tended to be less violent than foraging societies (5 percent rates of violent death were probably not uncommon) and not quite so poor (average incomes above $2.00 per day were common); but they were also massively unequal, regularly having tiny elites that owned thousands of times more than the ordinary peasant Fossil fuel societies, by contrast, are the safest and richest the world has ever seen, and are also more equal than all but the simplest foraging groups. Globally, the average person earns $25 per day and stands a 0.7 percent chance of dying violently, and in some countries progressive taxation has pushed income inequality down close to levels not seen since the simplest foraging societies (even if it is now again on the rise). In every era before AD 1800, life expectancy at birth averaged less than 25 years; now it is 63 years. Despite all the things we might not like about our own age, it would have seemed like a magical kingdom to people in the past.

What are some of the ways our values might change as we move away from a reliance on fossil fuels?

No one knows what the future will bring, but there are plenty of signs that we are rapidly moving beyond fossil fuels. I argue in this book that changes in the amount of energy humans harvest from the world pushes them into new kinds of organizations which in turn favor different interpretations of core human values; if this is right, we might expect the 21st century to see the biggest and profoundest transformation in values in history. The industrial revolution released a flood of energy in the 19th and 20th centuries, which favored societies that evolved toward democracy, rule of law, peace, freedom, and gender equality; the big question is whether the 21st century will see these trends going even further, or whether it will see them going into reverse. The answer, I suggest, is that it all depends. There are signs that in the short term–roughly the next generation–we will see increasing inequality and increasing acceptance that such inequality is right, along with increasing instability and violence. In the medium term–the next two or three generations–we may see the values of the fossil-fuel age go into overdrive; but in the longer term–say the next century or so–the transformations may become so massive that it no longer makes much sense to speak of human values at all, because what it means to be a human being might change more in the next 100 years than it has done in the previous 100,000.


bookjacket Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels:
How Human Values Evolve

Updated edition
Ian Morris

 

Q&A with Leah Wright Rigueur, author of The Loneliness of the Black Republican

This week, Leah Wright Rigueur took the time to talk with us about her new book, The Loneliness of the Black Republican. Read the introduction for free, here.

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How did you come up with the title and jacket?

LR: The title of the book comes from a 1987 Heritage Foundation speech by Clarence Thomas, originally titled, “Why Black Americans Should Look to Conservative Policies.” In 1991, when George H.W. Bush nominated Thomas to a seat on the Supreme Court, newspapers and journals re-printed the speech under the header, “No Room at the Inn: The Loneliness of the Black Conservative.” In 1999, conservative writer Shelby Steele later borrowed this title for an essay for the Hoover Institution and a chapter in his book The Second Betrayal of Black Freedom in America.

I slightly amended the title to reflect the stories of those African Americans that joined the Republican Party, an ideological gamut that encompassed liberal, moderate, and of course, conservative factions. Of all the titles I considered, The Loneliness of the Black Republican felt the most “right.” Since 1936, black Republicans – of all ideological backgrounds – have complained of being isolated because of their small numbers; they constantly bemoaned their outsider status from both their political party and racial community. At the same time, the title holds some irony, since black Republicans played a significant role in the modern GOP. Over the course of nearly 50 years, the Republican Party strategically implemented some of black party members’ ideas and policies. Black Republicans ideas also occasionally gained support from outside the GOP, as well – from the black press, black Democrats, and even black voters.

The jacket image is a photograph of Jewel Lafontant at the 1960 Republican National Convention, courtesy of the Oberlin College Archives. She’s seconding the presidential nomination of Richard Nixon. Lafontant was a prominent Chicago attorney and civil rights advocate (she helped co-found the Congress of Racial Equality – CORE), who became a Republican advisor for Dwight Eisenhower, Henry Cabot Lodge, Richard Nixon, and George H.W. Bush. The photograph immediately stood out when I first came across it while doing research for the book. Here is this powerful and brilliant black woman, with her eyes lowered – almost demurely – surrounded by white faces, none of whom seem to be paying attention! The photo also felt provocative since black women are the least likely of any racial/gender demographic to support the GOP. Considering all of that, I had to have this picture on the cover, as it so perfectly captured the idea of “loneliness.”

What would you have been if not an historian?

LR: I would have been a print or broadcast journalist. I love all things newsworthy, political and pop-culture related!

Who do you see as the audience for this book?

LR: Everyone! All kidding aside, I wrote this book for a general audience interested in politics, history, and civil rights. Within The Loneliness of the Black Republican, I took a measured approach to better understanding the role that African Americans have played in shaping the modern Republican Party. The book also holds lessons for members of both the GOP and the Democratic Party; in short, there’s something here for people of varying ideological backgrounds interested in the experiences of marginalized groups of people trying to gain power within a two-party political system.

My book inverts our understanding of the American political system – how and why people vote the way that they do and how they behave, politically. A great example of this is Jackie Robinson’s story, which I cover in detail, in the book. Nearly everyone knows Robinson for his baseball accomplishments, but few people know about his work with the GOP. Robinson described himself as a “militant black Republican” – he worked extensively with New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, and lobbied aggressively, on a national stage, to rid the party of its racist and segregationist element.

Although my book is a work of history, it also holds relevant lessons for contemporary politics.

What was the biggest challenge involved with bringing this book to life?

LR: When I first started my research, I feared that I wouldn’t find enough evidence to support a book-length project. I couldn’t have been more wrong! I found thousands of stories of black Republicans, spanning nearly a century. I was overwhelmed with information – the challenge thus became choosing whose story to tell and how. Initially, I felt terrible that I had to leave out so many stories, but as an author, I had to carve out a representative guide to black Republicanism. On a happier note, I have enough material to begin work on my next project, which will look at black Republican politics, 1980 – present day.

What are you reading right now?

LR: I recently read Megan Francis’ book, Civil Rights and the Making of the Modern American State, which re-conceptualizes the significance of the NAACP in American politics in the early part of the 20th Century. Next up is Lily Geismer’s book, Don’t Blame Us: Suburban Liberals and the Transformation of the Democratic Party and Kevin Kruse’s One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America (April 2015). I’ve known all of these authors for years, and it is exciting to see their projects develop, take shape, transform and grow. I’m also trying to work my way though Stephen King’s novel Revival.

What was the most interesting thing you learned from writing this book?

LR: It’s clear that the characters in The Loneliness of the Black Republican influenced modern day black Republican thought – there are direct links to figures ranging from Clarence Thomas, Tim Scott and Mia Love, to Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, and Michael Steele. But what completely blew me away was the way in which some of the figures in my book influenced, in part, modern black Democrats. It is uncanny how similar President Barack Obama, New Jersey Senator Corey Booker and even Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick are to Massachusetts Senator Edward Brooke, for example. If we erased the political labels, I’d assume all of the officials came from the same political party.

Tell us something people would be surprised to know about you:

LR: I just had a baby girl in December 2014! I also have a two-year old son.
Our household is a lot of fun, to say the least!


 

bookjacket

The Loneliness of the Black Republican:
Pragmatic Politics and the Pursuit of Power
Leah Wright Rigueur

Q&A with Maud S. Mandel, author of Muslims and Jews in France: History of a Conflict

We recently sat down for a Q&A with Maud S. Mandel to talk about her new book Muslims and Jews in France: History of a Conflict. Read the introduction for free, here.

20130924_Brown_JudaicStudies_headshots_StephanieEwensPhoto001(3)

How does your book speak to the current dialogue about tensions between Muslims and Jews in France, particularly in the wake of Charlie Hebdo?

MM: First, my book helps contextualize recent events by placing them in a longer history of Muslim-Jewish relations in France. It thus helps us understand why the violent outburst against Charlie Hebdo became intertwined with an attack against a kosher market, two sites that might not seem obviously linked to contemporary on-lookers. Secondly, I think it also helps us understand the diversity of Muslim-Jewish responses during and after the violence. While French-born Muslim citizens perpetuated the attacks, a French-Muslim policeman died in the conflict and a Muslim immigrant hid Jews in the grocery store. Some Jews have opted in the aftermath to leave France for other countries, while many have never considered such an option. My book helps us get a better grasp on this diversity of possible responses by showing the complex evolution of Muslims and Jews to the French state and each other.

Why did you write this book?

MM: I wrote this book in response to the outbreak of anti-Jewish violence in France in 2000, after which a number of stories came out in the media referring to the “new antisemitism” in France. The term “new” often gives an historian pause, and so I became interested in investigating what was “new” about the events that were unfolding in France. What had changed in Muslim-Jewish relations over time? And what were the forces shaping the evolution of those relations?

What was the most interesting thing you learned from writing this book?

MM: Given the centrality of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle to so much of the media coverage of Muslim-Jewish conflict in France, I had expected the story I was writing to focus largely on that issue. And yet the further I delved into the topic, the more clear it became that the legacy of French colonialism and the evolution of French politics had as great an impact on Muslim-Jewish relations as events in Israel/Palestine. Although this conclusion should not have been a surprise to an historian, given the significance of context to the study of history, I was surprised by the long shadow of French colonialism in shaping my story.

What do you think is the book’s most important contribution?

MM: As in all historical projects, my goal is to complicate simplistic understandings of the problem before us, to challenge notions of inevitability, to force us to question how and why the past took the shape that it did, and to push against monocausal explanations. This approach has pointed me to the diversity of socio-religious relationships between Muslims and Jews in France; conflict is not the only–or even the primary–way of understanding these relationships. This approach has also directed me away from conceptualizing Muslim-Jewish relations in France as arising inevitably from conflict in the Middle East. Rather, I argue that where conflict does exist, its origins and explanation are as much about France and French history as they are about Middle Eastern conflict. While global developments created fault lines around which activists began to mobilize, the nature of that mobilization (i.e. who was involved), the political rhetoric employed, and the success or lack thereof of their appeal emerged from French political transformations.

What was the biggest challenge involved with bringing this book to life?

MM: The biggest challenge involved with bringing this book to life was my stage of life when I wrote it. Newly tenured at Brown and with two young children, I faced the difficulty of finding long stretches of time away from campus and the responsibilities of home life to conduct research abroad. This book would have benefited from much longer periods of ethnographic research in Marseille, one of my key sites of investigation, but it was extremely difficult to balance all the demands of my life in such a way as to accommodate long research trips. The result was that it took me a long time to write this book, and I never felt I could immerse myself as deeply in the project as I desired.

Describe your writing process. How long did it take you to finish your book? Where do you write?

MM: As I mentioned in my answer to the last question, the book took me a long time to write. I began the research when my oldest child was two years old and it came out in print just before he turned fourteen! I wrote most of it in my home office that I share with my husband. Much of the writing happened during a couple of sabbaticals in which we shared that space with several cats. I have fond memories of those long days of writing. My process is to write everything out in long detail and then to pare down to my central argument. First drafts of most chapters thus numbered around 250-300 pages. The work of crafting chapters came in the revisions process, which I really enjoy.

What is the biggest misunderstanding people have about what you do?

MM: People often assume the study of history is either a process of learning about the facts of the past (dates and names) or laying out new information. To my mind, however, the study of history is far more of a humanistic exercise than a social science. Historians are storytellers and interpreters.


 

bookjacket

Muslims and Jews in France:
History of a Conflict
Maud S. Mandel

Q&A with Lily Geismer, author of Don’t Blame Us: Suburban Liberals and the Transformation of the Democratic Party

Recently Princeton University Press had the opportunity to interview Lily Geismer about her book, Don’t Blame Us: Suburban Liberals and the Transformation of the Democratic Party. Read the introduction for free, here.

Why did you write this book?

LG: The answer to that question changed the longer I worked on the project. I set out to add to and complicate the literature of political and urban history. However, the longer I worked on it I realized that my other goal has been to make readers, especially people who engage in knowledge-based work and who live in suburbs, develop a more comprehensive understanding of the role of policies in shaping their lives and choices. Hopefully, it will help all readers think more critically about their political outlook and decisions.

What inspired you to get into your field?

LG: I was always really interested in contemporary politics and policy and questions of inequality in the United States. I realized as an undergraduate that the best way to explore these contemporary questions came from studying recent American history. When I entered graduate school, I did not intend to study these issues in one particular place or at the local level. However, it became clear that my questions about national political realignment, racial inequality, economic restructuring and the contradictions and transformation of American liberalism were best suited to a study of one particular place and picked to focus on Boston where I am from. The more I worked on the project, I came to understand that many of my questions were unconsciously informed by my experience growing up in Boston and were issues that had interested me since I was a kid and thus were what had pushed me toward the study of history in the first place.

What was the best piece of advice you ever received?

LG: The best piece of advice I received while I was writing the book came from Thomas Sugrue who told me to write the book as if the audience was my undergraduate students at the Claremont Colleges and I had to explain the concepts to them. This advice really helped me figure out to make the writing clearer and more accessible. The other advice that proved very influential came from the Author’s note at the beginning of by J. Anthony Lukas’s Common Ground about the three families he followed through the Boston busing crisis. Lukas explained, “At first, I thought I read clear moral geographies of their intersecting lives, but the more time I spent with them, the harder it became to assign easy labels of guilt or virtue. The realities of urban America when seen through the lives of actual city dwellers, proved far more complicated than I had imagined.” I found myself returning to this statement repeatedly as I sought to make sense of the politics and point of view of the suburban residents I study.

How did you come up with the title or jacket?

LG: The title for the book is a variation on the famous bumper sticker declaring “Don’t Blame Me, I’m from Massachusetts,” which circulated after George McGovern won only the state of Massachusetts in the 1972 election against Richard Nixon and again around Watergate. I thought it provided a way to capture and explore the dimensions of individualist and exceptionalist attitudes of many people who live in Massachusetts. It also provided a point of departure for me to provide a new examination of the McGovern campaign and show how it was not the failure it is often depicted to be, but a precursor to types of campaigns Democratic candidates would increasingly come to run on in an effort to appeal to suburban knowledge workers.

The design for the book jacket is inspired by a highway sign from Route 128, the high-tech corridor outside of Boston on which the book focuses. I am indebted to the wonderful and creative jacket designer Chris Ferrante at Princeton University Press for the cover design, which far exceeded my expectations. I know that you are not supposed to judge a book by the cover, but, in this case, I hope people will!

What is your next project?

LG: My next project grew out of Don’t Blame Us, especially the final chapter on Michael Dukakis and the Democratic Party’s pursuit of public-private partnerships and high-tech growth and I wanted to look at these questions more at the national level and into the 1990s. Although still at the very early stages, my new project examines the bi-partisan promotion of market-based solutions to problems of social inequality and privatization of public policy from the Great Society to the Clinton Foundation. I am focusing on the network that emerged as individuals and ideas have increasingly moved between government, academia, and business and how this movement connected and contributed to the economic, health care, education, environmental, housing and urban policies that emerged in the Clinton administration as well the development of public-private, non-profit programs like Teach for America; the popularity of microfinance, both in foreign and domestic contexts; and, the decision of college graduates across the political spectrum to seek employment in the private sector and non-government organizations. The project aims to complicate and challenge prevailing ideas about neoliberalism and show how the Democratic Party and its allies both embody and have influenced the pervasiveness of individualist and entrepreneurial-focused ideology in American policy, culture, and society.

What are you reading right now?

LG: One of the best parts of the book’s release has been that it coincided with the publication of books of members of my graduate school cohort and friends in the field, many of which were also published by Princeton University Press. I just finished Andrew Needham’s Power Lines: Phoenix and the Making of the Modern Southwest (Princeton, 2014) and Nathan Connolly’s A World More Concrete: Real Estate and the Remaking of Jim Crow South Florida (Chicago, 2014). Next up are Leah Wright Rigueur’s The Loneliness of the Black Republican: Pragmatic Politics and the Pursuit of Power (Princeton, 2015) and Kathryn Brownell’s Showbiz Politics: Hollywood in American Political Life (North Carolina, 2014). I have been hearing about these projects for years and it has been so exciting to read them in their finished form.


 

bookjacket

Don’t Blame Us:
Suburban Liberals and the Transformation of the Democratic Party

Lily Geismer

Q&A with Joshua D. Angrist & Jörn-Steffen Pischke, authors of Mastering ‘Metrics: The Path from Cause to Effect

Recently we sat down with Joshua D. Angrist & Jörn-Steffen Pischke to discuss their book, Mastering ‘Metrics: The Path from Cause to Effect. Be sure to read the first chapter of Mastering ‘Metrics for free, here.

What do you think is the book’s most important contribution?

JA: We hope Mastering ‘Metrics will modernize the teaching of econometrics, making it more fun and relevant. Most students learn econometrics as a set of mathematical models and formal statistical assumptions that seem unrelated to the real world. Econometrics teaching has long been mired in a formalistic model-driven paradigm handed down from scholars working at the dawn of our discipline (mostly in the 1950s). Mastering ‘Metrics connects econometric methods with modern empirical practice through awesome examples … and a light humorous touch. We hope Mastering ‘Metrics will do for the Kung Fu TV and movie franchise what our earlier metrics book (Mostly Harmless Econometrics) did for Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers’ Guide series!

What is the biggest misunderstanding people have about economics?

JA: Many people think of economics as the study of financial markets (like the stock market) or dry questions related to abstract constructs like GDP. In reality, econometrics is both broader and more relevant to our daily lives than such preconceptions suggest. Mastering ‘Metrics’s many exciting and relevant examples in show this.

Mafalda_BAWith Mafalda in Buenos Aires

What was the best piece of advice you ever received?

JA: I’m lucky to have gotten lots of good advice. When I was a grad student, my thesis advisers suggested I try to improve my writing, a piece of advice I’ve benefited from ever since.

What are you reading right now?

JA: I often read non-fiction and fiction in parallel. At the top of my Kindle library this week: The Sense of Style by nonfiction’s grandmaster stylist, Stephen Pinker, and Sabbath’s Theater by Philip Roth. I never tire of Roth; he writes the fiction I would wish to if I had a talent for it.

Describe your writing process. How long did it take you to finish your book? Where do you write?

JA: Steve and I signed the contract for Mastering ‘Metrics in October 2010. So about four years from conception to birth. But we did other things in that time as well; we must also attend to our day jobs of teaching and scholarship. Luckily our writing benefits from our teaching and research and vice versa.

wBLee_Dec2011With Bruce Lee in Hong Kong

Do you have advice for other authors?

JA: I’m not the first to say this: Imagine your reader looking over your shoulder; focus on whether and how this imagined reader will understand your work.

What was the biggest challenge involved with bringing this book to life?

JA: We cover some fairly technical ground, but wanted to limit formalism and mathematical notation. It’s incomparably harder to write an “easy” book than a “hard” one. Of course, this thought is also unoriginal.

How did you come up with the title or jacket?

JA: Our students gave us the nickname ‘Metrics for the thing we do. We hope we’ve helped them master it.

 


 

bookjacket

Mastering ’Metrics:
The Path from Cause to Effect

Joshua D. Angrist & Jörn-Steffen Pischke

 

Q&A with Robyn Muncy, author of Relentless Reformer: Josephine Roche and Progressivism in Twentieth-Century America

Princeton University Press sits down with Robyn Muncy, author of Relentless Reformer: Josephine Roche and Progressivism in Twentieth-Century America, to talk about how the book was created.

 

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Why did you write Relentless Reformer?

RM: I wrote the biography of Josephine Roche because from the moment I first encountered her, she knocked my historical socks off. She was at every turn doing things that flew in the face of historians’ expectations. She was a vice cop in the 1910s, a pro-labor coal mine owner in the 1920s, a gubernatorial candidate in the early 1930s, and Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Treasury in the New Deal government. As the second-highest ranking woman in Franklin Roosevelt’s administration, she started the conversation that Americans are still having about the federal role in health care. This was a woman to be reckoned with—and yet historians knew virtually nothing of her. Having “discovered” her, I had to tell her story.

As it turned out, Roche’s life also illuminated many of the grand themes of twentieth-century U.S. history. She helps us understand how women could have taken great strides toward equality with men and yet remained unequal. She helps us understand how, during the post-World War II era, Americans achieved the greatest level of economic equality in all of U.S. history. She helps us understand the values, perspectives, hopes, and dreams that connected the early twentieth century with the 1960s. Not bad for a single life.

Describe your writing process.

RM: My writing process is chaotic and inefficient, jubilant and suspenseful. The reason is that I figure out what I think about an issue or event through the writing process itself. I envy writers who can order their thoughts and complete their analyses before putting a metaphorical pen to paper. I, unfortunately, have to propel that pen over page after page to come up with my analysis in the first place. Although messier than I’d prefer, my process is also wondrous because it produces revelations every day. As I write, connections among events and trends come into view; reasons for behavior emerge; and big ruptures take me by surprise. As I wrote about Roche’s experiences in the 1940s, for instance, I wondered what I would think by the end: would she be the same sort of progressive in 1950 as in 1940, or would the war and subsequent anti-communist crusade transform her—and her progressive cohort—into something new, something I had to concede was dramatically different from the progressive she had been for so many decades previous? I just didn’t know what I’d think until I’d written my way through that tumultuous period of Roche’s life.

What was the biggest challenge involved with bringing this book to life?

RM: The biggest challenge in writing this book was keeping it short enough that someone might actually read it. Roche’s life is so rich and interesting, her thinking and writing so moving that I wanted to share everything I learned about her and everything that her life had taught me.

Especially hard to excise were dramatic, suggestive, or poignant scenes from Roche’s life. I considered laying out, for instance, evidence of a possible romance between Roche and her first political mentor, juvenile court judge Benjamin Lindsey. In the end, the evidence was thin enough that I decided it might seem more like historical gossip than anything else, but including it was very tempting. I also longed to narrate the hair-raising story of a pregnant teenager in Roche’s case load at Denver’s juvenile court, from whose parents Roche had to beg for consent to a caesarian section when their daughter went into convulsions during labor. The begging spanned a long, harrowing day and ultimately involved the parents’ neighbors, clergy, and physicians. Baby and mother were saved in the end, but the story vividly embodied the tensions among familial rights, state power, and individual freedom. Many an episode like these wound up on the cutting room floor.

How did you come up with the jacket?

RM: The design of the book jacket is a brilliant pun, for which I thank the ingenious designer, Chris Ferrante. As the book was going to press, Princeton asked me to share ideas for the cover. I responded that the cover should feature a photo of Roche, of course, and that I wanted her associated with POWER. I honestly put the word “power” all in caps. Since she was a coal magnate, I suggested, maybe we could include a coal tipple on the cover, or, because she was a Treasury official, maybe a shot of the colossal and classical Treasury Building in D.C. Either of these would associate Roche with a kind of power—corporate or governmental. Beyond that, I mused that I liked a New Deal aesthetic, which would place Roche in the decade of her greatest visibility and influence.

Chris took all of these ideas to heart. He super-imposed Roche’s image on the red, white, and blue design of a New Deal poster that had originally advertised the Rural Electrification Administration, that is, a poster that had promoted electrical power. Roche was thus associated with POWER, for sure, and with the New Deal as well. It was the perfect design.

What do you think is the book’s most important contribution?

RM: Most obviously, Relentless Reformer restores Josephine Roche to history and explains how such an important woman, who was a political celebrity in the 1930s, could have been lost to history thereafter. Because of this, I consider the book an act of gender justice.

Beyond that, the book offers insight and inspiration to anyone concerned about economic inequality in the twenty-first century as it analyzes a persistent and effective campaign to diminish similar inequalities between the late nineteenth century and the 1970s.

What are you reading right now?

RM: At bedtime, I read novels rather than history, and I have just finished the latest book in Alan Bradley’s mystery series, As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust. I love Bradley’s 12-year old sleuth, Flavia de Luce, who has a soaring spirit, brilliant wit, and passion for chemistry. She also has a habit of taking to the 1950’s English countryside on her trusty bike, Gladys. It’s hard to resist a detective who names her bike Gladys.

I’m drawn to detective fiction because it is so much like history: the detective begins with some kind of puzzle and must gather clues from the past to piece together a story so compelling that it explains the crime and reveals the culprit. Historians often follow a similar path.

As for history, I am reading a terrific dissertation by Chantel Rodriguez, “Health on the Line: The Politics of Citizenship and the Railroad Bracero Program of World War II.” In it, Rodriguez analyzes the experiences of Mexican guest workers who came to the U.S. to repair railroad tracks during the Second World War. She finds that, because of the health guarantees in the Mexican Constitution of 1917, these guest workers expected railroad companies and the U.S. government to protect their health while they worked in the U.S. Struggles of these workers to achieve what they perceived as their “health rights” sometimes succeeded and sometimes failed, and in both cases, their experiences reveal the complex landscape on which transnational workers still labor. This work edges us toward a new conception of citizenship and raises fresh questions about the trajectory of health rights in the United States.

Read the introduction to Relentless Reformer, here.


 

bookjacket

Relentless Reformer:
Josephine Roche and Progressivism in Twentieth-Century America

Robyn Muncy

Q&A with Michael Harris, author of Mathematics without Apologies

What do pure mathematicians do, and why do they do it? Looking beyond the conventional answers—for the sake of truth, beauty, and practical applications—Michael Harris offers an eclectic panorama of the lives and values and hopes and fears of mathematicians in the twenty-first century, assembling material from a startlingly diverse assortment of scholarly, journalistic, and pop culture sources.

Princeton University Press catches up with Michael Harris, author of Mathematics without Apologies, to talk about the culture of math and what writing has to do with the pace of innovation.

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PUP: What is the book about? 

MH: The preface claims the book is “about how hard it is to write a book about mathematics.” This becomes less self-referential and paradoxical if the sentence is completed: “… without introducing distortions that transform the book into one about certain conventional images of mathematics.” One thing I had to learn when I started trying to explain what it means to be a mathematician was that the point of an  activity like mathematics doesn’t speak for itself through the products of the activity. If you try to find a simple definition of mathematics you’ll see it’s not so easy. As a first approximation we might say that “mathematics is what mathematicians do, plus the stories that are told about that.” The book is then about mathematics in that sense, with an emphasis on the stories, and not only the conventional ones, nor only the stories told by mathematicians.

Why did you write this book?

MH: For a long time I have been hoping to see a book about mathematics, for the non-specialist public, that broke with stereotypes and clichés and a predictable stock of references, and instead reflected the values to which mathematicians refer when we talk to one another. At the same time, I hoped the book, while not being a historical study, would at least acknowledge that these values have a history, and would take seriously the idea that mathematics also belongs to cultural history, by exploring the roots of some of the notions and habits of thought that mathematicians take for granted, using the tools of cultural analysis—but without adopting the elevated tone that is too common in this kind of exercise.

I have written a few book reviews and articles with these hopes in mind, waiting for someone to take the hint. In recent years several mathematicians have made a valiant effort to challenge stereotypes by writing about mathematics as a living activity, and a few writers have examined mathematics through the lens of cultural criticism; but it’s still sadly the case that when mathematicians write the word “culture” the reader can nearly always expect a dose of uplift. Soon enough I realized I would have to write the book myself.

There’s a more selfish reason as well:  I thought it would be prudent to develop a second skill, to prepare for the dire moment when the pace of  new developments in my mathematical specialty began to outstrip my ability to keep up with them, and I would need to find a different way to keep my brain occupied. Writing was the only plausible option. Strangely enough, when I reached the end of the book I found I could still function reasonably well as a mathematician, even though the pace of innovation in my field has suddenly accelerated—but that’s another story.

The text refers to any number of controversies and polemics, historical or contemporary. But you don’t come down clearly in favor of a solid position on anything. Is this a “postmodern” book?

MH: I am certainly opinionated about a great many things, and it is my considered opinion that most of the sharpest controversies—like platonism vs. nominalism, or positions on what Wigner called “the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics”—miss the features that make it really interesting to be a mathematician. To avoid distracting the reader with pointless polemics, I consciously chose to present those features with a minimum of ideological adornment, and to allude to controversies only obliquely. I’m told there’s a risk that some will find it disorienting to read a book about mathematics that doesn’t tell them what to think; but it’s a risk I’m willing to take.

What’s with all the endnotes?

MH: Two of the blurbs describe the author as “erudite,” which is a kind thing to write but is unfortunately far from the truth.  It’s amazing how easy the internet has made it to look well-read; it helps to think of asking questions different from the ones that are usually asked. The endnotes and the extensive bibliography are there, in the first place, to convince the reader, that mathematics really does deal intimately with an extraordinarily varied range of experience. I hope in particular that genuine scholars can use this material to expand their sense of what’s relevant in writing about mathematics.

In the second place, the notes are there to convince the reader that I didn’t make things up. But please don’t get the impression that I actually read more than a few pages of most of the references quoted.

The notes are also a convenient hiding place for the author’s true opinions. But what do they matter?

Describe your writing process. How long did it take you to finish your book? Where do you write?

MH: Each chapter started with a clear-cut theme, though some of them led me in unexpected directions. Chapter 8, for example, was supposed to be an exploration of why it’s so important for mathematics to appear to be serious, and specifically why so much is written about the supposed affinity between mathematics and classical music. The “trickster” theme was supposed to serve as an indirect way of introducing the question of mathematical seriousness. But mathematical “tricks” turned out to have such a rich and unfamiliar history that they tricked themselves into the chapter’s main theme.

Each chapter’s theme evolved as I collected relevant material. Some of the material organized itself into a plausible narrative outline. Then the actual writing began.   The individual paragraphs were easy enough to complete, but assembling them in a coherent order often enough presented an impossible mathematical problem: I need to talk about B before I can explain C, and B is incomprehensible until I talk about A; but it makes no sense to bring up A without having already mentioned C. Resolving this kind of problem is what took up most of the time between when I started writing in early 2011 and when I submitted a completed manuscript three years later. Usually it was only possible in a state of total isolation, which I could only maintain for a few days at most.

At the end I found myself discarding enough material for at least two books the same length. But there’s no reason to write them, because they would say the same thing!

Who do you see as the audience for this book?

MH: Anyone who is willing to take seriously the idea that mathematics deserves respect, not only because it can be used to provide efficient solutions to practical problems (though that is eminently worthy of respect), but also as a living community, a cultural form, an autonomous domain of experience.

Check out the introduction to Mathematics without Apologies here. The book was recently reviewed at Library Journal and Peter Woit’s Not Even Wrong.

Q&A with the authors of The Fascinating World of Graph Theory

The fascinating world of graph theory goes back several centuries and revolves around the study of graphs—mathematical structures showing relations between objects. With applications in biology, computer science, transportation science, and other areas, graph theory encompasses some of the most beautiful formulas in mathematics—and some of its most famous problems. For example, what is the shortest route for a traveling salesman seeking to visit a number of cities in one trip? What is the least number of colors needed to fill in any map so that neighboring regions are always colored differently?

Princeton University Press catches up with Arthur Benjamin, Gary Chartrand, and Ping Zhang, authors of The Fascinating World of Graph Theory, to discuss just what it is that makes graph theory so fascinating.

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PUP: What is graph theory?

AB, GC & PZ: Graph theory is the study of objects, some pairs of which are related in some manner. Since there are no restrictions on what the objects might be and no restrictions on how two objects might be related, applications of graph theory are only limited by one’s imagination.

PUP: Why is graph theory important?

AB, GC & PZ: There are problems and questions that occur in a wide variety of settings that can be visualized with the aid of graphs and which can often be understood more clearly. Understanding the theoretical nature of graph theory can, in many instances, lead us to solutions of these problems and answers to these questions.

PUP: Where do you see graph theory in action in the real world?

AB, GC & PZ: Because graph theory has been shown to be so useful with problems in transportation, communication, chemistry, computer science, decision-making, games and puzzles, among other things, there are few aspects of life where graphs do not enter in.

PUP: Who needs to understand graph theory? And why does understanding the theoretical underpinnings help us?

AB, GC & PZ: Whether it’s mathematics or some other scholarly endeavor, a key element to understanding is not only becoming aware of what others have accomplished but developing a knack of being curious and asking relevant questions. Because graph theory has applications in so many areas, it is an ideal area within mathematics to become familiar with.

PUP: Why did you write this book?

AB, GC & PZ: There have been numerous reports of American students doing poorly in mathematics in recent years. Furthermore, we believe that mathematics has acquired an under-served reputation of being boring and difficult. While gaining a good understanding of any subject requires effort, we know that many aspects of mathematics are interesting. Since we felt it was likely that many people are not familiar with graph theory, we decided to illustrate how interesting and useful mathematics can be by writing a book on graph theory with this goal in mind. While we wanted to include some real mathematics, showing how certain facts can be verified, we primarily wanted to show where mathematics comes from, discussing some of the people responsible for this, and how mathematics can assist us, often in many unexpected and fascinating ways.

Read the preface of The Fascinating World of Graph Theory here!

Bill Chats: Story/Time: The Life of An Idea with Bill T. Jones and Jedediah Wheeler

k10299What do grande Starbucks coffees and tickets to see Bill Chats: Story/Time: The Life of An Idea with Bill T. Jones and Jedediah Wheeler  on Sunday November 9th at New York Live Arts at 5pm have in common? They’re both $5 dollars, give or take on the coffee. Jones, “one of the most influential and provocative dance artists our our time,” and author of Story/Time, joins Wheeler, Arts and Cultural Programming Executive Director at Montclair State University, to discuss Jones’ new book and the influence John Cage has had on his own work. This special conversation will also conclude with a book signing event, and don’t forget to use the code “STORYTIME” for $5 tickets! To buy tickets, and for more information on the event, click here.

Q&A with Andrew Needham, author of POWER LINES: Phoenix and the Making of the Modern Southwest

In only four decades, Phoenix, Arizona, grew from a town of sixty-five thousand to the sixth largest city in America. But the air-conditioned subdivision homes that drew new residents from the East Coast and Midwest came at a price. As Phoenix grew, so did its reliance on electricity and resources from the neighboring territory of the Navajo Nation. Power Lines: Phoenix and the Making of the Modern Southwest explores the often untold story of Phoenix’s growth—a federally subsidized postwar boom that exploited the Navajo Nation and spurred the roots of the contemporary coal-fueled climate change crisis.

Princeton University Press catches up with Andrew Needham, author of Power Lines, to discuss his inspiration and the challenges of organizing this multifaceted story of Southwest growth.

Needham

PUP: Why did you write this book?

AN: I started thinking about the ideas in this book long before I started graduate school. We were driving from Albuquerque to the San Juan Mountains in southwest Colorado, crossing what I’ve come to know as the eastern portion of the Colorado Plateau, which is a really beautiful mesa country, lots of the stark buttes and redrock sandstone characteristic of the Southwest.

Somewhere in northwest New Mexico, I saw a giant smoke plume on the horizon, which I initially assumed was a forest fire, because the West was in the midst of fire season. When we came over a rise and I saw Four Corners Power Plant, which is one of the largest coal-fired power plants in the US, I was outraged, primarily because it seemed to represent a violation of everything we were on vacation to do, go see Big Nature, get away from “civilization.” Of course, I probably used that electricity, unthinkingly, that night.

But that experience started me thinking about how the production of electricity has become largely hidden from contemporary life, even as its use, particularly for the consumer goods in the “post-industrial age,” continues to increase. And it led me to start thinking about patterns of metropolitan development and underdevelopment, which at the time I was writing were largely told as a story of non-white inner cities surrounded by suburbs that people since the 1960s have characterized as a white noose.

As I began researching the electrical power networks that I saw on that car trip, I started to think that we needed to rethink that map of metropolitan inequality to account for all the ways that the land and resources of the metropolitan periphery, that space beyond the suburban frontier, are used as the location for institutions like power plants and landfills. Those institutions serve the needs of predominantly metropolitan consumers but displace most of their negative effects over great spatial distance. So in part, I wrote this book to figure out and explain how these two spaces – in this case Phoenix and the Navajo Reservation – that seem so far apart are actually intimately connected.

PUP: What was the biggest challenge involved with bringing this book to life?

AN: The biggest challenge for me is that the book involves so many pieces that are so disparate. There’s municipal politics in Phoenix and federal oversight of public lands. It contains stories about home builders in Phoenix and stories about federal Indian policy. There’s environmental politics and Indian politics. Figuring out a narrative strategy to have all of these elements makes sense in the same story took a long time.

The first chapter was the hardest to write, because I basically had to narrate the story of a region that didn’t yet exist cohesively, I call it “a region of fragments.” It covers a huge swath of time, from the formation of coal 100 million years ago to the eve of World War II, just to put the story in motion. I think it was worthwhile doing, though, because the pre-history that’s contained in that chapter is really important to the broader story. Phoenix doesn’t grow just because of air conditioning or particularly savvy public officials, it also grows because it’s located near these rich coal supplies that are not developed for reasons having to do with the region’s fragmentation. But I probably went through 30 drafts of that chapter, with many parts that got thrown out because they were interesting but peripheral.


I did not set out to write a book that tells the underlying history of climate change, but I think I accidentally stumbled into writing that book. And I think that lesson, about how our daily actions of turning light switches has dramatic and far reaching consequences for the social and natural worlds we live in, are lessons that many Americans are ready to think hard about. They need to be.


PUP: What do you think is the book’s most important contribution?

AN: I think there are three contributions the book makes to the way we understand American life in the past 60 or so years. The first is just how dramatically electrical consumption grew over that time period. Between 1945 and 1970, Phoenix sees on the order of a 7500 percent increase in electrical consumption. Phoenix is somewhat anomalous, in that its population grows so much, but even if you break down the per capita consumption, the growth is really stark. The average home in Phoenix in 1945 uses about 1500 kilowatt hours annually. By 1970, that number is above 12,000. And it’s not just air conditioning. The Federal Housing Administration’s underwriting guidelines in the late 1930s ensure that even inexpensive houses will use much more electricity than they did previously, and a lot of local businessmen are deeply involved in promoting (and benefiting from) the growth of Arizona Public Service, the main private utility based in Phoenix.

The second contribution is the story of how the people who lived on these energy lands responded to these dramatic changes. And it surprised me, because it was a far more complicated story than I expected that disrupted many of the stories that told about Indians in modern America. I discovered deep divisions among Navajos responding to these rapid changes: from great hopes that the Navajo Tribe could harness this development to replicate the kinds of things Phoenix had done to attract high tech industry and to enjoy consumer modernity — a dream of “two light bulbs in every Hogan” in the words of one tribal official — to beliefs that the tribe could nationalize their energy holdings and become part of “an Indian OPEC,” to arguments that tribal leaders had misused their authority and had betrayed people at the grass roots by negotiating with energy companies.

I think I discovered two really important things in exploring those arguments. The first was that organized political action had surprising efficacy in contesting the ability of energy companies to claim resources as long as it happened before infrastructure was built. Once there was infrastructural investment made, in the form of coal mines, power plants, and transmission lines, however, political challenges proved much more difficult. The second, more simply, was that Navajos, and other people living near this new landscape of energy production, have grappled far longer with questions about where electricity comes from and what damages its production does than metropolitan Americans, who are just beginning to think about these questions in relation to the current crisis of climate change.

Finally, the book tells how coal became the fuel that powers modern America. Coal seems to symbolize the 19th century, railroads and steel production, not the 21st, but it’s coal-fired power, power whose production is “hidden” on the periphery of metropolitan America, that’s created “post-industrial” society. When people think of electricity in the Southwest, they think of the dams on the Colorado River. And these did allow a vision of modernity powered by, as Lewis Mumford wrote when the first of those dams were going up, “clean, flowing energy.” But the other side of that was ever-rising consumption. Water’s energy was limited, both by the capacity of the falling water in the Colorado River and by politics, which rendered new dams both overly costly and environmentally destructive by the early 1960s. Coal served as a convenient alternative, both for environmentalists who sought to save “the living river” and for private utility executives who sought to avoid the federal control involved with the dams. And this story was replicated, in different local forms, across the nation between 1970 and today, when 594 new coal burning power plants were built.

PUP: Who do you see as the audience for this book?

AN: Like all authors, I think everyone would benefit from reading my book. Particularly the editorial boards of the New York Times and NPR. But seriously, I think, beyond its core academic readerships of urban, western, American Indian and environmental historians, it has interesting lessons for people interested in how the built environment of the past half-century, the built environment of suburbia has reshaped both human society and the natural world. I did not set out to write a book that tells the underlying history of climate change, but I think I accidentally stumbled into writing that book. And I think that lesson, about how our daily actions of turning light switches has dramatic and far reaching consequences for the social and natural worlds we live in, are lessons that many Americans are ready to think hard about. They need to be.

Check out the introduction of Power Lines here. For more on Andrew Needham’s work, hop over to KPCC, Southern California Public Radio — Andrew was interviewed earlier this fall. During the interview, he discusses the background behind this fall’s historic settlement between the US government and the Navajo Nation regarding misuse of land.

Quick Questions for Nigel Dodd, author of The Social Life of Money

Nigel Dodd  is a professor in the Sociology Department at the London School of Economics (LSE). Dodd’s  interest in the sociology of money has led him to author The Sociology of Money: Economics, reason, and contemporary society (1994) and Social Theory and Modernity (1999), but it is his new book, The Social Life of Money, that we will discuss today. Besides teaching courses in Classical, Modern, and Contemporary Social Thought at the LSE, Dodd is also editor-in-chief of the British Journal of Sociology, and he has made several appearances on BBC World Service to discuss “various aspects of the 2007-9 financial crisis.”

Referring often to George Simmel’s Philosophy of Money (1907), The Social Life of Money is Dodd’s attempt to better understand and define the rapid and ever changing field of “money.” By reexamining the nature of money in the aftermath of the global economic crisis and by including thinkers such as Nietzsche, Benjamin, Bataille, Deleuze and Guattari, Baudrillard, Derrida, and Hardt and Negri—all of whom  fall outside the field of monetary theory—Dodd lays down the framework for understanding money in a different way.

Now, on to the questions!

Why did you write The Social Life of Money?

In the first instance, I wrote the book because although I could see what a varied and energetic field ‘money’ had become outside of economics, there were too many scholars who were simply not engaging with each other, but limiting their engagements to their own niche within the field. I even found that there were disagreements about terminology – for example, what some scholars claimed was ‘money’, others said was merely ‘currency’, and sorting out a way through this conceptual thicket wasn’t easy. So I wanted to write a book that brought this field together into a more coherent shape – not by synthesizing everything into one basic approach, but by providing a framework in which different approaches can speak to each other, and their relative insights brought to bear on important questions. I would describe myself as a ‘monetary pluralist’ – not wedded to a single theory of money but convinced that different theories work well according to context. So I wanted to write a book that gave expression to this, which was in a way a ‘celebration’ of intellectual multiplicity in monetary scholarship. Then, as I started to write the book as the financial crisis unfolded, I began to see this pluralism in a more practical way – these were not just different ways of theorizing money, but different ways of organizing it too that could make a serious contribution to debates about how our monetary systems could (or should) be changed in response to the crisis. I found that whereas money was being ‘blamed’ for the crisis by many mainstream commentators, it is in fact an important opportunity, a focal point for rethinking its role in society. However, while most debates about this are concerned with finding a single set of solutions, I sense that the best way forward is pluralism – we need not one ‘improved’ monetary system, but rather a range of different monetary forms that can address the many different problems (about financial exclusion, the dominance of big banks, monetary freedom, debt etc.) that the financial crisis exposed. So what started out as conceptual pluralism took on an increasingly practical character.


“I would describe myself as a ‘monetary pluralist’ – not wedded to a single theory of money but convinced that different theories work well according to context.”


What was the most interesting thing you learned from writing this book?

I learned three key things. First, I learned about an extraordinary range of brilliant work that has been undertaken by scholars from right across the social sciences into the nature of money. Since I first worked in this field in the early 1990s, there has been a tremendous explosion of interest in money as a social, political and cultural – not just an economic – phenomenon. There are some fantastic scholars working on money, and I hope that my book reflects the energy of an ever-changing field. Second, I learned that perhaps the greatest shift in our perception of money has been that it is increasingly being regarded by scholars as a force for positive social transformation. Whereas classical scholars tended to see money as something negative that was likely to disturb societies and communities, contemporary scholars are keen to view money as something that can be organized in such a way as to make a positive contribution to social change. This intellectually challenging as well as empowering. Third, I encountered hugely interesting writing about money in some very unexpected places, which I have tried to bring to the book as much as I can. So while the book covers the ‘usual suspects’ in the monetary field, it also looks to less common sources for its ideas, such as Nietzsche, Benjamin, Derrida and Bataille. None of these is a ‘monetary theorist’, but if anything this makes what they say about money even more interesting and worth hearing.

What do you think is the book’s most important contribution?

The book examines a very wide range of theories about the nature and purpose of money, and therefore presents readers with a tremendous variety of ideas about how money can be used and organized. This is hugely important today because the era in which ‘money’ was mainly what was defined and organized by the state is coming to an end. Alternative currencies – from electronic currencies such as Bitcoin to local currencies such as the Bristol and Brixton pound to forms of social lending – are growing at an astonishing rate today, and we need a greater range of conceptual tools in order to understand them. We also need to understand – and the book argues very strongly for this – that there are myriad ways of organizing our money, not just one ‘correct’ way. Money can be organized differently – by small groups and communities, nations or groups of nations, private organizations, and so on – according to what it is needed for. Some forms of money are designed to counter forms of social (and, specifically, financial) exclusion, while others are designed to bring communities together – or, in the case of Bitcoin, to bypass the constraints associated with major institutions such as banks and the states. There isn’t one ‘money’ that can do all of these things. In the future, we will become more and more used to interacting with a variety of different monies.

What is your next project?

I am excited by the idea that money can be used to transform society in a positive way, so I am embarking on a project that looks into the links between money and utopian thought and practice. This builds on the final chapter of The Social Life of Money. Once you start examining different theories of money, it becomes clear that almost all of them have a utopian strain. What I mean by this is that money gets associated with idealized forms of social and economic existence. The Euro was a recent – albeit flawed – example of this, because it was conceived as a means of uniting Europe socially, politically and culturally. There are lots of problems with this, of course: the idea that something like money might be used to bring people closer together, to forge a common identity, is quite problematic. But there is nothing new about this, there is a fascinating history of ways in which money has been used to achieve – or at least try to achieve – political and social ideals. Even Bitcoin could be described as utopian, because it is premised on the ideal of a currency that does not need to be regulated, does not need a sovereign authority in order to be valued, and is not controlled by large banks. The image of society behind Bitcoin, which is broadly libertarian, is troubling for some, inspiring for others. But again, here is an instance where money is being allied to broader ideals about freedom, identity and justice. So that will be my next project, to understand these links between money and utopianism in more depth.

What was the biggest challenge involved with bringing this book to life?

There were two main challenges. The first challenge was controlling the material, I had a huge amount of literature to go through and it kept on growing. I tried a number of different ways of organizing the chapters, and as a result, the book’s structure took a very long time to stabilize, indeed it didn’t really take its final shape until the last few months of writing. This made the writing process exhausting and stressful, because I was never really sure about how much progress I was making. I’m sure this isn’t unique; many colleagues seem to have had similar experiences. But there were periods when I felt the project would never come together. As it stands, I really like the group of chapters, and the order of chapters, that I came up with. Having a strong theme for each chapter – such as ‘guilt’ and ‘waste’, for example – provides a great focus. The second main challenge was in dealing with a fast-moving world. I started the book just as the financial crisis was in full swing, and this had an effect on the writing process that was both exhilarating and unsettling. I was very easily distracted at first, and found myself framing the book too closely in accordance with themes that were emerging from discussion of the crisis. There was also a vast amount being written about various aspects of the monetary and financial system, so I had to keep up with that literature as I was writing. Finally, there were prevailing uncertainties to deal with: once the Euro crisis was in full swing, I was writing about a currency that many commentators were saying could collapse any time soon. So, money was very much a moving target. I coped with this challenge by taking the arguments back to their theoretical core as much as possible.

What is the most influential book you’ve read?

In the money field it would have to be Georg Simmel’s Philosophy of Money (1907), which is a vast text that is packed with ideas. I first read it in 1988, and have been consulting it regularly ever since and finding new things to think about every time that I do. Simmel’s book plays quite a big role in The Social Life of Money. This is partly because I use his description of money as a ‘claim upon society’ to organize a number of the key arguments of the book. Once we realize that Simmel did not mean ‘society’ in the sense of a nation-state society, but rather had more fluid and flexible understanding of social life in mind – he uses the term ‘sociation’ to describe this – then one starts to see how his arguments can be used to frame the idea that money gains its value not from states and big banks, but rather from the multi-faceted practices of its users. In this sense, Simmel’s book is very much of ‘our’ time, because it resonates with arguments about wresting control of money away from large unwieldy institutions and restoring it to the ‘ownership’ of the people who use it. This explains why I was keen in the book to portray Simmel in a different way. We have become used to thinking of him as a critic of money, as someone who portrayed money as largely damaging to society, because of its cold and anonymous qualities. While such ideas are undoubtedly present in Simmel’s book, there are plenty of other ideas too, where he portrays money as culturally rich. Simmel was also something of a utopian, as I argue in the book’s final chapter. So one of the things I hope people gain from reading The Social Life of Money is a whole new perspective on a book they may have thought they could categorize in just one way.


 

bookjacket

The Social Life of Money
Nigel Dodd