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Happy New Year, dear readers of The Review! As we do each year, we convened a group of our contributors — a dozen, this time around — and asked them which works of scholarship surprised, challenged, thrilled, or impressed them most in 2023. (In a few cases, these books were published in 2022, or even 2021 — but who are we to quibble?) The selections were typically eclectic, covering a range of subjects and locales, from punk clubs in Mexico to avant-garde film festivals in Uzbekistan.
One theme that emerged, in this year of turbulent academic and international politics, was political upheaval: We got detailed new accounts of historical revolutions in England, Haiti, and South America, as well as meditations on failed political projects and the lessons we can learn from disappointment and decline.
Whatever your interests, there should be something to entice and engross you on the list that follows. See you next year!
David A. Bell | Karen Tongson | Mark Greif | Michèle Lamont | Ignacio M. Sánchez Prado | Lily Geismer | Jan-Werner Müller | Martha Nussbaum | Jane Hu | Charles King | Davarian Baldwin | Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins
The Resistance of the Enslaved
Lucidly and grippingly written, Garrigus’s book is a model of historical scholarship, with vivid portraits of individual enslaved people. It is also a contribution to a banner year in Haitian revolutionary history that includes important new books by Sara E. Johnson (Encyclopédie Noire: The Making of Moreau de Saint-Méry’s Intellectual World) and Marlene L. Daut (Awakening the Ashes: An Intellectual History of the Haitian Revolution), both from the University of North Carolina Press.
David A. Bell is a professor of history at Princeton University.
Virtues of the Inauthentic
Punk, metal, and rock music became the subject of Mexican governmental crackdowns in the 1970s and 80s, since these genres were “uniquely representative of the encroachment of American cultural imperialism.” Fears in the community were stoked “about young listeners becoming assimilated and thus losing their ethnic heritage.” Throughout the book, Ramos casts doubt on this desire for an “authentic” Mexican aesthetic. Instead, he aims his critical eye and ear at the Latino boom on the U.S. side of the border, along with the Rock en Español generated by the music industry in Mexico, which eventually assuaged the Mexican mainstream’s assimilationist panic by representing “the local” in ways that would be palatable — and fetishizable — to other North American consumers.
In deft readings that excavate the insidious desire for authenticity, Ramos invites us to engage the ephemeral archives of “unbelonging,” and the negative feelings that “open up moments of hanging out and wasting time.” This communal despondency is not quite “resistance” in its most hashtaggable from. What it yields instead is an ethics of friendship that moves beyond the vagaries of an identity politics that are too easily enlisted into more “productive” late-capitalist agendas. In the company of Chicana punks, queer performance artists, filmmakers, and disaffected Morrissey fans on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, Ramos gives us the space, time, and fortitude to not belong together.
Karen Tongson is a professor of gender and sexuality studies, English, and American Studies and ethnicity at the University of Southern California.
The Disappointment Archive
For Marcus, known for her superb popular book about the Riot Grrrl movement, Girls to the Front, songs and music are the irrepressible underground river of magma that fuses and advances the claims of each thwarted generation toward an outflow in the next. You won’t believe it till you see it. Marcus is such a brilliant reader of lost archives of sound, from sorrow songs and Leadbelly recordings to radio broadcasts of feminist spoken word and the artist David Wojnarowicz’s cassette diaries, that she proves her case as a matter of empirical discovery, not clever conceit. This book’s profound synthesis of contemporary Black studies and what Marcus calls “multiracial Americanist cultural studies” gave me hope for a far-reaching scholarly future.
Mark Greif is an associate professor of English at Stanford University.
Masha Salazkina’s World Socialist Cinema: Alliances, Affinities, and Solidarities in the Global Cold War (University of California Press, 2023) defies the axioms by which world culture mirrors the world-systems of Atlantic capitalism. Through an erudite and rigorous study of the Tashkent International Festival of Cinemas of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, held in the 1960s and 1970s in the Soviet Republic of Uzbekistan, Salazkina looks away from the usual Euro- and U.S.-centric institutions to present world cinema otherwise. Her work unveils distinct paradigms of film production in countries around the former Second and Third Worlds, through an approach that methodologically draws from the histories of media decolonization. In her words, World Socialist Cinema is “an invitation to travel out of our comfort zones together and to begin mapping a different conception of world cinema.”
A professor at Concordia University in Montreal, Salazkina is the author of one previous book, the excellent In Excess: Sergei Eisenstein’s Mexico. In World Socialist Cinema, Salazkina expands her work’s scale. She brings to the table extensive archives and scholarly bibliography across a dizzying variety of fields and geographies. World Socialist Cinema proves how exciting scholarship can be when French and English are not presumed to be the linguae francae of world culture. The book presents a case for the need to understand cinema beyond its industrial paradigms, and the need to study film festivals as something more than media markets. Salazkina beautifully renders the legacies of decolonization and socialism to envision cinema beyond its capitalist hegemonies, raising questions such as gender, cultural heritage, and armed struggle in the process. Echoing its collectivist spirit, the book is available for free download via Luminos, the open-access initiative of the University of California Press. I celebrate that readers all over the globe can access, at no cost, this master class on how to write about world culture.
Ignacio M. Sánchez Prado is a professor of Spanish, Latin American studies, and film and media studies at Washington University in St. Louis.
Exploitation and Identity
Queer Career upholds the historian N.D.B Connolly’s incisive observation that there is nothing “neo” about neoliberalism, particularly when looking from the vantage point of the economic and social system’s most marginal and exploited. Canaday makes the powerful argument that capitalism and the labor market did not just construct queer identity but also exploited it. Even in the salad days of the mid-20th-century Fordism, gay workers of all genders and races across employment sectors experienced precarious and contingent work conditions and lack of a family wage and other breadwinner benefits. She suggests that the ability to exploit and extract labor from queer people and deny them family-based benefits during the Fordist period taught employers powerful lessons that they would apply to all workers during the post-Fordist, or neoliberal, era. Thus, queer workers in the 1950s and 1960s were the canaries in the coal mines for all of us today. Canaday is always careful not to tell an unyielding story of repression and exploitation: At every turn, she shows how queer people found meaning and community through their jobs. Canaday conducted an impressive 156 interviews with a wide range of subjects, some of whom were well into their 80s and had entered the work force as early as the 1950s. The material drawn from these interviews enabled her to elucidate ethnographic patterns of queer work life, as well as to highlight powerful individual stories of figures ranging from typists to the nurses who worked in the first AIDS ward. This painstaking research offers a return to the original project of LGBTQ history: to bring to the fore the stories of individuals whose lives have been excluded from the historical record. This is the rare academic book that brought tears to my eyes thanks to its poignancy, rather than out of boredom. It serves as a model of how the history of neoliberalism could and should be written: with concerted attention to categories of race, gender, sexuality, class, and their interaction, rendered with sensitivity and attentive to the subjectivity and dignity of the historical actors it portrays.
Lily Geismer is a professor of history at Claremont McKenna College.
A New Theory of Populism
But what if the image of the wave is empirically wrong to begin with? That is the startling, and supremely politically important, insight of Larry M. Bartels’s book Democracy Erodes From the Top: Leaders, Citizens, and the Challenge of Populism in Europe (Princeton University Press, 2023). Bartels, a professor of political science at Vanderbilt University, analyzes public-opinion surveys conducted in Europe over the past two decades, and shows that on many of the issues considered crucial for the success of far-right populist parties — such as immigration and European integration — there has not been anything like the dramatic movement that would justify talking of a wave, let alone a tsunami.
The appropriate metaphor for the rise of populism is not a wave: It is a reservoir. There has long been a reservoir of European voters with far-right populist views, and they are now being mobilized in a way that was not true in calmer and less politically dangerous times. And something else has also changed: As Bartels points out, supposedly mainstream center-right and conservative parties are now willing both to enter coalitions with far-right populist parties and to copy their rhetoric. For instance, in France’s most recent presidential campaign, the Gaullist candidate Valérie Pécresse — as mainstream as it can get in the Hexagon — endorsed the “great replacement” conspiracy theory, according to which Muslims are being sent to Europe to substitute for natives.
Bartels’s conclusion: Contrary to the demophobic talk that has become salonfähig among liberals after Trump’s victory in 2016, according to which irrational masses are always ready to be seduced by crazy demagogues, it is elites who have decided to abandon or outright destroy democracy, not “ordinary people.” This pattern is not necessarily new: Fascists marched on Rome in 1922, but Mussolini himself arrived very comfortably by sleeper car from Milan, as those what could well have been called liberal elites at the time had invited him into government.
Today the historical complicity of elites with the far right seems a largely forgotten lesson. This is why Bartels’s insight into the dynamics of contemporary populism matters. If conservative and center-right elites are convinced that there really is a wave, they are more likely think that they somehow have to adapt to a seemingly inevitable development. Bartels’s volume, dry as some of the discussion of statistical details might seem, is crucial for pushing back against such political determinism.
Jan-Werner Müller is a professor of politics at Princeton University.
The Cruelty Industry
On the Decline
In imagining alternate plots for a post-imperial America, Esty compares the current decline of U.S. power to that of the dissolution of the British empire. This might look like the move of a historian or sociologist, or even that of a policymaker, but Esty makes the comparison in service of the importance, even necessity, of literary criticism. “Mainstream declinism concentrates too much on facts and too little on fictions,” as Esty puts it: “Paradoxically, a study of the fictions — the beliefs and ideologies — that have been shaping American culture is more objective and more useful than a flat-footed debate about the ‘facts.’” A literary scholar by training, Esty is an exemplary proponent and practitioner of close reading — one who takes seriously the role that culture plays in shaping collective national imaginations. As he writes: “Cultural narratives have their own tempo, quite apart from the facts and figures said to underlie them. Perceptions leap ahead of or lag behind the statistics used to graph the fate of the nation.” It’s an old-fashioned stance, perhaps, in a world where neoliberal austerity has pushed methodological trends in the humanities toward more sociological, empirical, or data-driven forms. Yet as Esty suggests, older modes of literary analysis might be even more crucial to revive if we are ever to imagine a future for the discipline. Esty’s bid for a different future of American decline, then, is also a call for a different future for American literary criticism.
Esty frames The Future of Decline as both backward- and forward-facing. The book evokes the energies of British New Left intellectuals like Stuart Hall and Raymond Williams, while its playful prose and synoptic chapters point to the urgency of public humanities in the academy today. For all these reasons, The Future of Decline offers a mode of criticism that we might describe in terms of “reparative reading” — a phrase popularized over two decades years ago by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, one of Esty’s graduate advisers. In that essay, Sedgwick describes the reparative reader as someone with “room to realize that the future may be different from the present.” Easier said than done, as everyone living through the present well understands. But it is difficult work, as Esty’s book reminds us, uniquely suited for the historically minded cultural critic.
Jane Hu is a Humanities Society of Fellows postdoctoral candidate at the University of Southern California.
Living Through Revolution
Healey’s book is deeply informed by original-source research and spellbinding in its storytelling. The book is brimming with historical characters, high-born and lowly, whose lives are portrayed with judicious empathy. Healey is a brilliant guide to the fraught politics and social division that marked England (linked crises in Ireland and Scotland are woven in, but would require their own books) in a time of regicide, coups, polarized households, and fundamentalist dictatorship. Through it all, Healy creates a fresh narrative line that leaves us guessing about outcomes we might already know well, all hurtling toward the bizarre final act: the ouster of James II in 1688, which was immediately recast by its makers as the sensible revolution that rescued Britain and its monarchy. For American readers in particular, all of this looks not so much like early modern history as it does current events — unnervingly so. It was “a tough time to be alive,” as Healey says.
Charles King is a professor of international affairs and government at Georgetown University.
The Global on a Human Scale
Heatherton dives beneath abstract theorizations of globalization as market forces or national security. Instead, globalization is charted through brutal U.S. land acquisitions in Mexico. We see the transborder reorientation of wage labor into various forms of racialized bondage and incarceration. And yet even with this captivating yet harrowing synthesis, the true heart of the book lies in the way it features the human response to this global expanse.
As Heatherton makes clear, even most discussions of radical internationalisms still focus on formal convenings that feature Europe and Eurocentric analyses of global capital and its discontents. But Arise! shifts the focus from Paris and Moscow by drawing our attention to revolutionary Mexico as a physical site and inspiration in the formation of radical responses to U.S. global capital. Here we see globalization at the human scale.
In the struggle between U.S. empire and what we could call the Mexican internationale, at every turn racial difference is a key mechanism for extracting surplus value from land and labor. This is best seen in Heatherton’s mapping of empire through, of all things, rope. This rope is harvested from the U.S. imperial outposts of Manila and the Yucatán, carries crates and cargo across farms and shipping docks, and hangs the “strange fruit” of lynched bodies while ensnaring the Indians and Mexican dissidents audacious enough to defy U.S. understandings of property and work. Such inhumane uses of rope corralled together a humane response of protests, boycotts, and rallies as a growing network of international outrage.
Heatherton shows us how race became the way in which economic relations were lived, based on the racial experiences of those engulfed within the expansive spread of U.S. globalization. But then she goes on to show us how the very same networks of empire serve as the seeds of its undoing. From the very bowels, shadows, shacks, and prison cells of U.S. empire, Heatherton introduces us to what she calls “convergence spaces,” sites of radical reimagining rooted in the lived realities of those navigating global capital. Much more than uncovering hidden histories, this notion of “convergence” becomes a powerfully innovative method of intellectual inquiry for engaging how globalization is never untethered but always rooted in physical geographies of coercion and resistance. Arise! offers us a stunning remapping of international possibility, grounded in the audacity of everyday people to defy what seems like the inevitability of American global hegemony.
Davarian Baldwin is a professor of American studies at Trinity College, in Hartford, Conn.
The Limits of Liberal Optimism
Historians will, of course, question whether “globalization” — a term typically associated with the 1990s — constitutes a rather anachronistic way of looking at the 1920s and 30s, but I found that, with the necessary qualifications, that it made a great deal of sense. On Zahra’s reading, elite liberal optimism concerning a borderless world marked by free markets in the run-up to World War I parallels the post-Cold War mind-set. The period between the two wars is thus construed as a mass anti-global reaction to the advent of a truly globalized world and the consequences of a global economy that affected the lives of millions.
It’s hard not to see the parallels with our own times, although Zahra is quick to point out where the comparison works and doesn’t. As I teach classes on world order, European history, and the history of the present, I found the book to be very resourceful in the classroom for getting students to think about the promises and perils of historical comparison.
And speaking of the classroom: Another book I found very helpful for teaching was Michael S. Roth’s The Student: A Short History (Yale University Press, 2023) which offers a short history of the idea of the student from antiquity to the present. I found it especially helpful to think about in light of current discussions of the crisis of higher education and the future of the humanities.
Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins is an assistant professor in the college of social studies at Wesleyan University.