In this episode of High Theory, Jed Esty talks about the Rhetoric of Decline. Declinism names the contradictory political narrative that America will always be the greatest country in the world, yet is in constant danger of losing its place in the global pecking order. Studying this rhetorical log-jam reveals its prominence on both the left and the right, and its toxic effects on our national discourse. But comparing the end of America’s empire to Britain’s imperial decline in the twentieth century can help us muddle out of this mess.
The basis of our conversation is Jed’s recent book The Future of Decline: Anglo-American Culture at Its Limits (Stanford UP, 2022). It’s a cool short book with an x-ray spaceman on the cover. You should read it, even if this isn’t usually your cup of tea.
Jed Esty is the Vartan Gregorian Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, where he teaches and writes about Anglophone literature after 1850, with special interests in modernism, critical theory, history and theory of the novel, colonial and postcolonial studies, the Victorian novel, and post-45 U.S. culture. He is the author of Unseasonable Youth: Modernism, Colonialism, and the Fiction of Development (Oxford 2012) and A Shrinking Island: Modernism and National Culture in England (Princeton 2004).
This week’s image was made by Saronik Bosu in June of 2023.
Cheryl Narumi Naruse talks about the transformation of Singapore over the past decades into a site of postcolonial promise, with economic prosperity and cultural soft power. She discusses a range of texts ranging from official state documents to the immensely popular book and movie adaptation of Crazy Rich Asians, which bear witness to and contribute to this change.
Cheryl Narumi Naruse is Assistant Professor of English and the Andrew W. Mellon Assistant Professor of the Humanities at Tulane University. Her research and teaching interests include contemporary Anglophone literatures and cultures (particularly those from Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands), diasporic Asian and Asian American literature, postcolonial theory, cultures of capitalism, and genre studies. Her first book, Becoming Global Asia: Contemporary Genres of Postcolonial Capitalism in Singapore is forthcoming from University of California Press in 2023. She is also working on a second monograph which explores the illegibility of Singapore/Malaysia—as the comparatively “cold” Southeast nations in the context of the Vietnam War—in Asian American and postcolonial studies.
Image: © 2023 Saronik Bosu
In this episode of High Theory, Eli Cook tells us about choice architecture. The term was invented by behavioral economists in 2008 who proposed it as a soft-power model of “libertarian paternalism” to influence consumer choice. Eli traces their concept through a twentieth-century history of structured choices, from personality tests and the five-star rating to the swipes and likes of platform capitalism. He shifts our attention from the rhetoric of consumer choice as freedom to the power of “choice architects” who determine the options for us.
Eli takes the term “choice architecture” from Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness (Yale UP, 2008). He mentions the industrial psychologist Walter Dill Scott and the inventors of behavioral economics, Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman. Amusingly, there is a New Yorker article about Tversky and Kahneman written by Thaler and Sunstein, called “The Two Friends Who Changed How We Think About How We Think.” (New Yorker 7 Dec 2016). In the full version of our conversation, Eli referenced the work of Sophia Rosenfeld on the longue durée history of choice.
Eli Cook is a historian of American capitalism. He works as a Senior Lecturer in History and as head of the American Studies Program at the University of Haifa in Israel. His first book The Pricing of Progress: Economic Indicators and the Capitalization of American Life was published by Harvard University Press in 2017. Last year, he was a fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center where he worked on his new book about choice architecture.
Image: © 2023 Saronik Bosu
Gabriel Winant talks with Kim about the decline of the industrial working class and the rise of the health care industry.
Gabriel is an assistant professor of History at the University of Chicago. His book, The Next Shift: The Fall of Industry and the Rise of Health Care in Rust Belt America, is recently out from Harvard University Press. You can read his recent article on the subject in The New York Times.
The Next Shift focuses on the working class in the American context and Pittsburgh in particular. In the full version of our conversation, Gabriel recommended Aaron Benanav’s book Automation and the Future of Work (Verso 2020), for an argument about the larger global economic structures of deindustrialization. He also talks a bit about James Boggs, as someone who was well positioned to notice the effects of deindustrialization. We found this article about Boggs worth reading.
The image for this episode is a photograph of the abandoned Detroit Public Schools Book Depository, taken by Thomas Hawk on 13 June 2010. The image is posted of Flickr under a creative commons attribution non-commercial license. Lauren Berlant describes gives this photograph as a bad image of neoliberalism, which allows our social theory to derive “its urgency and its reparative imaginary from spaces of catastrophe and risk where the exemplum represents structural failure” (“The Commons: Infrastructures for Troubling Times” Society and Space 34 no. 3 (2016) p.395). But I like it. Saronik modified the original image.
Music used in promotional material: ‘Shadow of a Coal Mine’ by Linda Draper
This is our first crossover episode! Saronik and Kim talk to John Plotz from the wonderful Recall This Book podcast.
Our conversation is rather wide ranging, but we focus on podcasting and the pastoral. Take a look at their page for show notes and transcripts.
Some of the books we discuss include Hind Swaraj or Indian Home Rule, by M.K. Gandhi; Herland, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman; Angel Island by Inez Haynes Gillmore. Our recallable books are Mark Matthew’s Droppers, John Ruskin’s Unto This Last; and Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native.
Recall this Book is hosted by John Plotz and Elizabeth Ferry. Elizabeth Ferry (who wasn’t able to join us for this crossover episode) is a professor of Anthropology at Brandeis University. John Plotz is a professor of English at Brandeis and a proficient podcaster. He’s just launched a new podcast called Novel Dialogue with Aarthi Vadde at Duke University. Check it out!
This week’s image is the Recall This Book podcast logo.
Kim talks with Elaine Freedgood about Karl Marx’s concept of commodity fetishism.
The concept comes from:
Karl Marx, Capital Vol. 1, translated by Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling, edited by Frederick Engels, 1887, available on marxists.org
Other texts mentioned:
Peter Stallybrass, “Marx’s Coat” in Border Fetishisms: Material Objects in Unstable Spaces, edited by Patricia Spyer, Routledge, 1998.
Rosalind Morris and Daniel Leonard, The Returns of Fetishism: Charles de Brosses and the Afterlives of an Idea. University of Chicago Press, 2017.
In the longer version of our conversation we talked about:
Tamara Ketabgian, The Lives of Machines: The Industrial Imaginary in Victorian Literature and Culture. University of Michigan Press, 2011.
Frederick Engels, The Condition of the Working-Class in England in 1844. Translated by Florence Kelley Wischnewetzky. London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd., 1852. Internet Archive.
And Elaine’s book, The Ideas in Things: Fugitive Meaning in the Victorian Novel. University of Chicago Press, 2006.
Elaine is super cool. She studies Victorian Literature and teaches in the English Department at NYU.
Image borrowed from archive.org. If this image is under copyright, please inform us and we will remove it promptly.
Huzaifa Omair Siddiqi talks about the idea of debt, mainly with respect to the book by David Graeber on its history. This episode is dedicated to his memory.
Huzaifa is a doctoral candidate at the Department of English, Jawaharlal Nehru University, working on speculative materialism. He has written on several subjects including Graeber’s work.
The image is that of the Cone of Urukagina, which has the first recorded instance of the word ‘freedom’ (‘amargi’). In his book, Graeber talks about this record as one of several issued periodically by Sumerian kings to “declare all outstanding consumer debt null and void…, return all land to its original owners, and allow all debt-peons to return to their families”.