Think About It
Summary: Think About It engages today's leading thinkers in conversations about powerful ideas and how language can change the world.
Marx has never left us. In our era of populism, political polarization, and the pandemic, concerns central to Marx such as economic inequality, the consolidation of power in the hands of the few, and the fate of workers are urgently discussed. How should we think about Marx today? I spoke with Professor Vivek Chibber at NYU who has published Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital (Verso, 2013), and Locked in Place: State-Building and Late Industrialization in India (Princeton, 2003).
Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray was the novel that shocked, challenged, and inspired Victorian England with its tale of a beautiful young man who trades his soul, captured in a portrait, for eternal youth. I spoke with Professor Nicholas Frankel of Virginia Commonwealth University, whose biography Oscar Wilde: The Unrepentant Years, to see how one of the first true celebrities and his only novel changed the way we live in the world today.
I spoke with Brenda Wineapple, author of White Heat, about Dickinson's remarkable assuredness, her confidence, and her decision to spend much of her life secluded in her father's home in Amherst, Massachusetts. In this state of being on her own, Dickinson had intense, passionate and transformative relationships, including one with the editor, writer, abolitionist and soldier Thomas Wentworth Higginson. "Are you too preoccupied to say whether my verse is alive?", she asked. He wasn't.
Is "truth" a historical construct? Michel Foucault's work investigates this and other concepts. I spoke with Ann Stoler of NYC's New School for Social Research about Foucault to understand his investigations. How can we think of "truth" as something historically and culturally specific, rather than an absolute, unending value? Stoler's pathbreaking work on the politics of knowledge, colonial governance, racial epistemologies, the sexual politics of empire, and the ethnography of the archives.
Novel laureate Albert Camus's 1947 novel The Plague is about the human response to extreme circumstances. For a long time the book was read as an allegory of people resisting fascism, but the plague never quite stays only a metaphor. I spoke with Caroline Weber, Professor of French and Comparative Literature at Barnard College to discuss how brilliantly Camus shows the wide range of human responses to extreme conditions, and how literature provides a model for getting through our current crisis.
GREAT BOOKS 29: Why Read in Dark Times? Daniel Defoe's A Journal of the Plague Year, with Jenny Davidson
Immanuel Kant's short 1784 essay, "What is Enlightenment?" clearly lays out what the Age of Reason means: that we are encouraged to think for ourselves to claim our freedom. I spoke with one of the great experts on Kant's philosophy, Professor Béatrice Longuenesse of NYU and the author of Kant and the Capacity to Judge, and I, Me, Mine: Back to Kant, and Back Again, to understand what Kant means when he says that we can be taught to think for ourselves,
Should professors be held accountable for speech they make off-campus, on-line, and apart from their professional role in the university? Does academic freedom mean freedom of speech and what are the differences? I spoke with Professor Henry Reichman, who has served as Vice President of the American Association of University Professor, an organization that defends academic freedom. Reichman has chaired the AAUP's Committee on Academic Freedom and just published The Future of Academic Freedom.
The Kafka most known today is a writer of existential despair, a futile search for meaning, and the 20th century's nightmare of humans trapped in inhuman bureaucracies or situations of terror. Liska explains how Kafka's short parables and prose conundrums offer a way out of the dilemmas of modern existence: the tribalism, fear of difference, and defensive retreat into identities that are defined by shutting out others. He is a writer of community, of laughter, and of wisdom rather than despair.
A recent legal case about affirmative action was decided in favor of Harvard University's holistic admission practices. Is the fight over affirmative action over now? Professor Chin, at the CUNY Graduate Center in NYC, explains what the legal ruling in favor of Harvard University means for higher education, for the future of affirmative action, and for students, faculty and anyone who believes in equality of opportunity in our country.
In 1837 Ralph Waldo Emerson delivered a lecture that Oliver Wendell Holmes, father of our modern Supreme Court, called America's Intellectual Declaration of Independence. What does it mean for America, and us as Americans, to start thinking for ourselves? What does it mean to start our intellectual break from Europe nearly half a century after the American Revolution - and what new forms of living can be envisioned now? I spoke with Eduardo Cadava, Professor at Princeton University about Emerson
Jean Toomer considered Cane the "swan song" of African-American folk culture rapidly destroyed by the industrialization of the South and the north-bound migration of African Americans during the era of Jim Crow. I spoke with Ismail Muhammad to understand how to read a book celebrated as a major achievement of the Harlem renaissance without pigeonholing its ambition, scope and achievement, and what Toomer's notion of "what blackness means" is so relevant back then and still today.
"Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains." The opening sentence of 18th century philosopher Jean-Jacques Roussau's Social Contract poses a central question for all of us. Why do we live under conditions of inequality, violence, dependency and general unhappiness (just look on twitter!) if society is made by us and for us? I spoke with Melissa Schwartzberg, who is Silver Professor of Politics at New York University and a specialist in political theory, about Rousseau's importance today.
Dale Jamieson is a professor of Environmental Studies and Philosophy at NYU School of Law. Convinced of the totality of climate change, Jamieson addresses the threat with the lens of a philosopher. Climate change is a recognition that rationalism is, in fact, not the guiding principle of international politics; it is both a threat and a contributor to our identity. Jamieson explores this in his newest book, Discerning Experts.
How can the German response to the Holocaust teach us about America's legacy of the Confederacy? Susan Neiman, Director of the Einstein Forum and author of many books, including the recent "Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil", suggests that it's a way into talking about American racial politics and potentially a way forward.