The Blog May 12, 2021

What We're Reading This Week

Credit: Evening Standard/Getty via The Guardian

 

Hayley Keon, University of Hong Kong

Robert P. Baird, “The invention of whiteness: The long history of a dangerous idea,The Guardian

In this piece for The Guardian, Robert P. Baird tackles the evolution of whiteness as ‘an idea, rather than a fact’ across four centuries. Beginning with what historians might (if self-critically) call the early modern period, he examines the roles that white identity played in unifying disparate nations and justifying exploitation. In the process, he illustrates the multifaceted ways through which this concept was modified and further weaponized over time, leading up to a perilous present where the dangers of white supremacy are violently reshaping politics across Europe and North America.

Candice Chau, “The last merchants of Hong Kong’s Yue Man Square,” Hong Kong Free Press

In Hong Kong, the conflict between conservation and development has produced an almost endless cycle of destruction, construction, and renewal. In her article for the Hong Kong Free Press, Candice Chau gives this process a human face. Interviewing some of the last merchants to operate in Kwun Tong’s Yue Man Square, a once-bustling commercial center for Kowloon now slated for extensive renewal works, Chau explores the hub’s history from the 1950s to the present. And as the area looks ahead to a looming demolition day, this piece casts light on what its tradesmen—and the city as a whole—stand to lose.

Richard Borsuk, “With recent coup, Myanmar’s military diverges from the Indonesian path,” The Diplomat

In his piece for The Diplomat, Richard Borsuk reads Myanmar’s military coup in the context of wider historical trends. By drawing on a comparison with Indonesia, which was governed by the military-led Suharto regime from 1967 to 1998, this article illustrates the extent to which recent events remain tangled with the legacies of imperialism and independence. Locating present-day unrest within a wider narrative of postcolonial struggle in Southeast Asia, Borsuk concludes by highlighting some of the lessons that Myanmar might take from the
Indonesian past.

 

Sam de Schutter, Leiden University

Sria Chatterjee, “The long shadow of colonial science,” Noema

In this essay, Sria Chatterjee untangles the colonial and capitalist legacies of museums and botanical gardens. She traces how several scientific disciplines were deeply rooted in colonialism and slavery and how museums and botanical gardens were built on these scientific endeavours. She argues that there is a continuous need to reflect about these legacies and that this reflection should ultimately lead to changes in practices, including restitution and the telling of untold stories.

Sunanda Sen and Maria Cristina Marcuzzo, “The changing face of imperialism: Colonialism to contemporary capitalism,” Developing Economics

The authors of the edited volume The Changing Face of Imperialism (2018) discuss the key themes of their publication. They discuss, among other things, the theoretical framework of imperialism, its different historical manifestations, and the concept’s contemporary relevance.

Paul O’Connell, “Issa Shivji’s revolutionary conception of human rights,” ROAPE

Paul O’Connell celebrates The concept of human rights in Africa, the 1989 publication by Tanzanian scholar Issa Shivji. He argues that the work anticipates many of the more recent critiques on the concept of human rights and that it continues to be relevant today. He shortly discusses Shivji’s “critical and partisan” account that analyses human rights not as a neutral discourse but as an element in the “ideological armoury of imperialism.”

 

Fernando Gómez Herrero, Birkbeck, University of London

Fredric Jameson, Allegory and ideology, Verso, 219

Good historians will always keep up with the best findings in literary and cultural humanities and surely easily enjoy them. Fredric Jameson is one strong name to consider in the U.S. in the last four decades. Jamesonian prose is force of nature deeply conversant with “continental-European” traditions and richly nuanced with an immense variety of cultural objects in different languages and traditions, from high culture to mass products. This latest iteration includes Hamlet and Lacan, Mahler and Dante, Spenser and Faust, and a renewed interest in the two singular names in the title. There is a reprise of the controversial “Third World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism” with a commentary. Wildly synthetic (your imagination will travel from the monkey with the bone to the spaceship in the galaxy, as in Kubrick’s 2001: Space Odyssey), intoxicatingly sophisticated, and an acquired taste, that will gain fans besides the initiated. You do not have to agree with or even to follow everything said (since many things are said) to marvel at the contemplation of vast panoramas of “philosophies,” of, yes, “history,” in our bewildering and chaotic contemporaneity.

Walter D. Mignolo and Catherine E. Walsh, Decoloniality: Concepts, analytics, praxis, Duke University Press, 2018

Duke University in the 1990s barely contained Fredric Jameson and Walter Mignolo among many others and the North Carolinian university proved to be a cauldron of influential academic creativity, cultural studies, and postcolonial studies, and debates about the “canon,” about “theory,” and about the “West-and-the-rest.” The disruptive force of Latin American Studies had a nice run there for a while. What happens when we put “colonial” next to “Early Modern”? What about contemplating the abstraction of the “colonial condition” not only back in the past but in the present—classrooms and study programmes included? What has the Third World meant intellectually since the 1960s? What about the significance of the non-white sectors in global-history configurations? Two authors in two localities (U.S. and Ecuador) join efforts to continue pushing Aníbal Quijano’s line of thought. Immanuel Wallerstein is dropped along the way, but he was also there. The book’s two halves were written by each author in “conversation.” The book’s parts are better than the whole—and a few sub-parts are better still. The book opens a series that pushes the notion of “decoloniality” (away from postcoloniality), and the double prose may indeed be at times a bit too generalist and schematic, catechistic and slogan-ridden, besides unevenly edited. But the issues it tackles are of burning importance. A question remains with me in the end: will the minorities save us?

Jordi Gracia García, José Ortega y Gasset, Taurus & Fundación Juan March, 2014

A superb biography of the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955) by the Barcelona academic Jordi Gracia García. It is a careful account. It is a labor of love—and not an uncritical love—about the noted intellectual and about his “circumstance,” a favourite word that the author uses to mean the social and political trajectory that placed Ortega in the convulsive early twentieth century context of Europe and of Spain in Europe. The Anglo world is not its main arena. The author’s prose is engaging all throughout. The narrative flows and a rich collection of names surround the protagonist as well as a nuanced chiaroscuro of successes and limitations. Gracia does not withhold criticism when criticism is due. He presents avatars of intellectual life in a second-tier European nation in the process of losing its empire, in a continent that is itself losing its primacy. Gracia trusts the fine instinct of the disciple José Gaos who migrated to Mexico because of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). “Revolt of the Masses” is still, perhaps surprisingly, with us a century later. Its interrogation of history is evergreen. An article about the neglected association between Ortega y Gasset and Arnold Toynbee will come out in the Toynbee Prize Foundation blog soon.

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