Announcing the First Annual Humanities Lecture with the New York Institute for the Humanities at NYU

Humanities lecturePrinceton University Press and the New York Institute for the Humanities at New York University are pleased to announce the first Annual Humanities Lecture. With the aim of highlighting both the value and the relevance of the humanities, this new lecture will be given annually in New York by notable figures from a wide range of fields and will explore humanistic topics and themes.

The inaugural lecture will be given at New York University on October 29 by Thomas Laqueur, the Helen Fawcett Professor of History at the University of California, Berkeley and author of the forthcoming book The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains.

Laqueur’s lecture, “The Work of the Dead: How Caring for Mortal Remains has Shaped Humanity,” will speak to compelling questions: Why do we as a species care for the bodies of our dead?  What work do the dead do for the living?  How do specific ways of disposing of the dead and specific memorial practices create communities, nations, and culture more generally?

According to Princeton University Press Director Peter Dougherty: “We at PUP welcome the opportunity to collaborate with the esteemed New York Institute for the Humanities in sponsoring this new annual lecture to showcase the work of the world’s most exciting and important scholars working in the humanities, beginning next month with historian Thomas Laqueur’s fascinating study of how care for the dead has shaped humanity. We are also extremely pleased at the prospect of an annual PUP cosponsored event in New York City, a capital of global culture and intellect.”

The Annual Humanities Lecture follows in the footsteps of Princeton in Europe, a PUP-sponsored lecture that has been presented annually in London since launching at the London Book Fair in 2011.

According to New York Institute for the Humanities Director Eric Banks: “I’m delighted that Princeton University Press has decided to partner with the New York Institute for the Humanities in endowing an annual series of lectures in the humanities. For four decades, the Institute has offered public programming and weekly fellows’ luncheons that have explored a range of issues that engage the role of the humanities in our broader civic life. Princeton University Press has long published some of the most provocative and thought-provoking titles, of interest, not only to scholars but to an intellectually curious larger readership. We are excited to inaugurate our collaboration with a scholar of the caliber of Thomas Laqueur, who has combined erudition, public engagement, and a flair for style as a writer in a unique body of work. We look forward to developing our annual lecture series over the years to come to continue to highlight intriguing and far-reaching work in the humanities.”

The Work of the DeadProfessor Laqueur’s October 29 lecture is cosponsored by the College of Arts and Science at New York University and will be free and open to the public, though preregistration is required. The lecture begins at 6:30 p.m at Hemmerdinger Hall, 100 Washington Square East, New York University.

About Princeton University Press

Princeton University Press is an independent publisher with close connections, both formal and informal, to Princeton University. As such it has overlapping responsibilities to the University, the academic community, and the reading public and a fundamental mission to disseminate scholarship both within academia and to society at large. Founded in 1905, it has offices in Princeton, Oxford, and Beijing.

About the New York Institute for the Humanities

Established in 1976, the New York Institute for the Humanities at New York University is a leading forum for promoting the exchange of ideas between academics, professionals, politicians, diplomats, writers, journalists, musicians, painters, and other artists in New York City. Comprising more than two hundred distinguished fellows, the NYIH serves to facilitate conversations about the role of the humanities in public life.


Weekly Wanderlust: Yellowstone

Yellowstone is the world’s first national park, and home to some of the oldest and most awe inspiring sites in the United States. Commonly known for tourist attractions such as the geyser Old Faithful, Yellowstone is a complex geothermal area containing half the world’s natural geysers. It is also a highly valued protected ecosystem, home to some of the most amazing wildlife, from grizzly bears and wolves, to herds of bison and elk. The human story of Yellowstone spans more than 11,000 years, making the area an important archaeological site as well.

Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon of Yellowstone

Grand Prismatic Spring

Grand Prismatic Spring

Excelsior geyser

Excelsior geyser


Whether you plan to camp, hike, fly-fish, or immerse yourself in the region’s history, you may want to check out Justin Farrell’s new book, The Battle for Yellowstone for some background on the park’s moral, cultural, and spiritual roots.

Farrell jacketYellowstone is globally recognized as the crown jewel of modern environmental preservation. But the park and its surrounding regions have recently become a lightning rod for environmental conflict, plagued by intense and intractable political struggles among the federal government, National Park Service, environmentalists, industry, local residents, and elected officials. The Battle for Yellowstone asks why it is that, with the flood of expert scientific, economic, and legal efforts to resolve disagreements over Yellowstone, there is no improvement?

Justin Farrell argues that the battle for Yellowstone has deep moral, cultural, and spiritual roots that until now have been obscured by the supposedly rational and technical nature of the conflict. Tracing the moral causes and consequences of large-scale social change in the American West, he describes how a “new-west” social order has emerged that has devalued traditional American beliefs about manifest destiny and rugged individualism.

Justin Farrell is assistant professor of sociology in the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale University. You can read a Q&A with him here.

Photos of Yellowstone courtesy of Claudia Classon

Mark Zuckerberg chooses Michael Chwe’s RATIONAL RITUAL for Facebook Books!

Rational Ritual: Culture, Coordination, and Common Knowledge by Michael Chwe has been selected by none other than Mark Zuckerberg as the latest pick in his “Year of Books.” Analyzing rituals across histories and cultures, Rational Ritual shows how a single and simple concept, common knowledge, holds the key to the coordination of any number of actions, from those used in advertising to those used to fuel revolutions.

From Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook post:

The book is about the concept of “common knowledge” and how people process the world not only based on what we personally know, but what we know other people know and our shared knowledge as well.

This is an important idea for designing social media, as we often face tradeoffs between creating personalized experiences for each individual and crafting universal experiences for everyone. I’m looking forward to exploring this further.

Zuckerberg isn’t the first to take note of Michael Chwe’s talent for making unusual and intriguing connections. As Virginia Postrel wrote in the New York Times, “[His] work, like his own academic career, bridges several social sciences.” Not long ago his book, Jane Austen, Game Theorist created a stir on social media, triggering debates and garnering a hugely popular feature by Jennifer Schuessler.

A Q&A with Chwe will be coming out on Facebook Books in the coming weeks. In the meantime, head over to Facebook to comment on Rational Ritual, or follow the discussion.  Congratulations, Michael Chwe!

Interview with n+1 co-founder and PUP author Mark Greif

As Adam Kirsch writes in Tablet Magazine’s review of n+1 co-founder Mark Greif’s widely-reviewed new book, The Age of the Crisis of Man, “[t]he word “crisis” itself seems to capture something essential about our relationship to history, which we now experience as a constant procession of unexpected, suddenly emerging threats.” From cold war to climate change, from economic recession, to war in Iraq, recent decades have seen their share of anxiety-provoking episodes. And yet, it’s safe to say the “crisis of man” has become something of a throwback expression. The notion that human nature itself is under threat is an intellectual artifact of mid-century American culture. Why so?

The question, and Greif’s new book, appear to have struck nerves in today’s intellectual community, inspiring, among an explosion of coverage, Kristin Iversen’s “Man-Splaining” in Brooklyn Magazine, and a widely discussed New York Times Book Review essay by Leon Wieseltier. Recently, Greif took the time to chat with Princeton University Press about his book:

You’re best known for your work as a founder of n+1 and your essays in that magazine. What connects that New York literary world to this book?

MG: To me, they’re tightly connected. When we founded n+1, I wanted to understand how the intellectual and literary worlds worked now. The opening section (of the book?) many of which I wrote in the early issues, was “The Intellectual Situation.” I wanted to know how conventional wisdom got settled; how certain questions became “important” and “serious,” but not others; and especially why new novels and essays sometimes had influence on other debates, and sometimes seemed irrelevant or old-fashioned, past tense. In the same ten years of n+1 attempts to intervene in literary culture, though, my “day job” in effect was as a scholar, I had been digging in the library to see, objectively, how we got where we are. I was reading through complete runs of old journals, Partisan Review, Commentary, to see how to make a twenty-first century journal. But also to see, archeologically, what had been obscured in our picture of the twentieth century. This book is the analytic and philosophical complement to n+1 for me. It’s my best effort to tell a new story of how the twentieth century determined what counts.

Can you say succinctly what the “Age of the Crisis of Man” is?

MG: Sure. It was a period in the center of the twentieth century, from the rise of Nazism to the end of the Sixties, in which we put a universal human character at the center of all “serious” discussion in public.Not incidentally, this period saw the shift of international philosophizing from continental Europe to the United States and England for a little while. And it saw a brief crest of the American novel to its high-water mark of reputation (though maybe not of literary production). And it saw dreams of utopian international order. All those strains come together around the figure of “Man.” But then the same concentration of energy helped create the civil rights and liberation movements that seemed to blow it apart.

So this is an era that we ought to remember and learn from?

MG: Not entirely. It’s not an era I want to champion. I don’t want to reify the Man debates as just one more rival aspect of the twentieth century, as if we need to add it to PBS documentaries alongside the Cold War, suburbanization, existentialism, all the ingredients of the canned version of midcentury. Many of the explicit “crisis of man” books feel empty, frankly. I want to have read them so others don’t have to! But I think the emptiness is important. My basic model of history tries to locate the empty spaces, or blank or negative spaces, in public philosophy and rhetoric and criticism. Those spaces that demand answers that are simply impossible to decide. They (the spaces?) set what matters, what is acceptable, what one should think or say. But as coercive as they are, they may be themselves quite weak, loose, or devoid of reason.

Does your history mean there wasn’t a “crisis of women” or crises in different communities in America, or political crises? How important is a universal “Man” to your story?

MG: Crises of women’s rights and equality exist in this period, and crises of African-American rights, and racism, segregation, white supremacy, you name it. The important thing to see is how “what counts,” as public discourse has it, makes women’s and African Americans’ claims harder to articulate in some registers—in contrast, say, to the earlier (does earlier modify 1930s, i.e. 1931 vs. 1937, or are you using it to mean the entire decade was earlier than the post-WWII starting point of your book?)1930s—and articulable in others. Yet later the same discourse will become a source of explosive power, as feminist and civil rights and black power speakers plant their flag on Man. Sex and race provided the most fundamental contradictions to a universal, unmarked man. But that line of difference, and how tortuously it rose to salience, is a big part of my story.

What have we lost, in the transition from the age whose portrait you give here, to the twenty-first century?

MG: That’s the toughest question. It’s very hard to look at these moments when “ideas mattered,” and novels answered “the big questions,” so to speak, and not be nostalgic. Clearly these ideas did have consequences, too in geopolitics, in the lasting revival of human rights, in the standing of literature, as well as in the creation of a whole atmosphere of life and thought. At the same time, it’s clear that lots of thoughtful and sensitive people found the “discourse of the crisis of man” gaseous and stifling, especially as it got older. Whenever you live, you live among the mediocrities and coercions of the ideas of your own time. History usually tends either to wash them out or take them at their own valuation, while condescending to them, of course, since we always know better now.

I guess what interested me most in my own research was that I came to see it as a mistake to declare we had gone “from universalism to difference” in ideas, or in our picture of the basic human subject. As if there once was unity (even if only among an elite population), which split into groups. Universalism, difference: each of these is an intellectual project, an effort. Neither is more original or more basic than the other, at least not in the twentieth century. You can’t decline from one to the other. That was one thing I tried to point out in the book.

You say in the conclusion that you want to figure out where we start for twenty-first century thought. Do you really think you can give a starting point?

MG: The starting points are already given. The question is: How much do we understand how history has determined our presuppositions—say, what counts for us as “serious” thought, or what role literature and art play in ethical and political thinking? And then: With fuller knowledge, can we choose among our starting points? Can we say that some are stupid, and likely to lead nowhere?

Personally, I am divided about this. The historian in me thinks it’s silly to ask anyone to produce a better discourse of public debate and art from the recognition of past follies. Looking back from the future, “stupidities” are all we have; by which I mean, contingencies, symptoms, actings-out, with no way to step outside of your own time to see how eternity (or the archive, or the leisure of future historians) will regard you. Would knowing the past really help restrain or channel our impulses, now? The “intellectual” in me, on the other hand, or say the participant in culture and literature, the writer, thinks it’s obligatory to try to figure out where your opinions and discoveries come from. Then to see where they’re tending, whether you like to admit those tendencies or not, and then to throw some overboard, while telling people the terrifying prophecy of others. Like a Jeremiah. Whether other people like to hear it or not.

Congratulations to Joseph Masco, author of The Nuclear Borderlands and Winner of the 2014 J.I. Staley Prize

MascoCongratulations to Dr. Joseph Masco, who has been awarded the 2014  J.I. Staley Prize from the School of Advanced Research for his book, The Nuclear Project: The Manhattan Project in Post-Cold War New Mexico

The J.I. Staley Prize is presented to a living author for a book that “exemplifies outstanding scholarship and writing in anthropology. The award recognizes innovative works that go beyond traditional frontiers and dominant schools of thought in anthropology and add new dimensions to our understanding of the human species. It honors books that cross subdisciplinary boundaries within anthropology and reach out in new and expanded interdisciplinary directions.”

The prize, which carries a cash award of $10,000, is presented at an award ceremony hosted by the School for Advanced Research during the annual meetings of the American Anthropological Association.

Dr. Masco is a Professor of Anthropology and of the Social Sciences at the University of Chicago, teaching courses on a wide range of subjects, from national security and culture to political ecology and technology. He received a B.A. in the Comparative History of Ideas from the University of Washington (1986), and holds an M.A. and Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of California, San Diego (1991, 1999).