My earliest memories of Stuart Hall go back to the Thatcher years, heyday of high theory and low spirits. Stuart did much to diagnose the organic crisis that plagued Britain’s Lebenswelt in that lean and mean decade of radical right-wing Tory rule. It was ironically those very years, the long 1980s, that provided the provocation for many of Stuart’s most influential essays and encouraged some of his most fruitful collaborations. The contours of Thatcherite discourse were custom-built to raise the ire of an early New Left Review intellectual from Jamaica who had deftly recast Antonio Gramsci in the spirit of poststructuralism and was by the mid-’80s increasingly coming to regard Britain as a postcolonial society of diasporic cultures and migrant communities. Thatcher’s consumerist populism with its facile fiat that society does not exist flew in the face of the finely wefted interdisciplinary work—police and public, race and citizenship, gender and public culture—that marked the progressive pedagogy at the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) under Stuart’s leadership. Thatcherism brought out the best in Stuart. This had as much to do with Gramsci as with the grocer’s daughter from Grantham.
In October 1923, in his monthly column for The Crisis magazine, W. E. B. Du Bois wondered, “Why do not more young colored men and women take up photography as a career? The average white photographer does not know how to deal with colored skins and having neither sense of the delicate beauty or tone nor will to learn, he makes a horrible botch of portraying them.” Du Bois knew whereof he spoke, as both curator and subject. He pioneered the use of photography to introduce “The New Negro” to the world in his American Negro Exhibit of 363 photographs of African American life (masterfully selected for maximum political effect) at the Paris Exposition in 1900. As a trained historian, moreover, Du Bois well understood a simple rule for ensuring one’s immortality: stage events of potential historical import and have them photographed, preferably with one’s self positioned at the center of the image, which Du Bois so frequently did.
This essay concerns the elaboration of art’s historical dimension undertaken in John Ruskin’s copies after works of the old masters. Drawings often considered merely as lecturing aids or personal records reveal themselves to be unruly explorations of the nature of reproduction and its mediation of the past. Centering its analysis of Ruskin’s drawing of Zipporah after Botticelli (1874), the essay argues that his practice of copying brings to light unrecognized dimensions of modernity’s investment in the conjunction of “art” and “history,” as well of the unsettling intimacy that develops between viewers and the things they see.
This essay sketches a history of the culture of good reading, beginning with its emergence with the sixteenth-century picaresque and tracing its inflection into the bourgeois narrative tradition. My historical span is wide—from the Lazarillo de Tormes, in 1554, to J.M. Coetzee’s Youth, in 2002. Historical scope is coupled with fine analytical focus on a peculiar object of literary history: not a text, not a genre, but rather a situation of reading that takes shape between textual form and readerly actualization. With assistance from Friedrich Nietzsche, the essay offers a genealogy of this situation of reading, anchored in the history of dispossession and primitive accumulation, and provides theoretical considerations of the problem it poses to would-be emancipatory forms of intensive engagement with texts, particularly for the modernist aesthetics of defamiliarization (via Viktor Shklovsky) and its underlying theory of the subject as constituted through error rather than truth (via Michel Foucault). I close by reflecting, with Guy Debord, on possible avenues of exit from the culture of good reading as it has hitherto existed.
The question of mediation has become one of the central intellectual problems in the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries, in part because of the extraordinary acceleration of technology, the rampant proliferation of digital media technologies that sometimes goes under the name of “mediatization.” Despite widespread theorizing about media prompted by the intense mediatization of the past several decades, mediation is a concept that has been curiously undertheorized. Taking off from William James’s understanding of “radical empiricism,” I develop the concept of “radical mediation” to argue that mediation functions technically, bodily, and materially to generate and modulate individual and collective affective moods or structures of feeling among assemblages of humans and nonhumans. Mediation operates physically and materially as an object, event, or process in the world, impacting humans and nonhumans alike. Radical mediation participates in recent critiques of the dualism of the Western philosophical tradition, which make up what I have elsewhere called the nonhuman turn in twenty-first-century studies. As I suggest in the essay’s final sections, radical mediation might also be understood as nonhuman mediation.
In the very first sentence of its preamble, the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights mentions “the inherent dignity and equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family.” Let’s notice the postulate that was slipped into that first sentence: to be a human being is to be a member of the human family. With the help of Kant’s notion of sensus communis, I attempt to show that, whereas in the political realm, the “human family” is a highly problematic concept, in the aesthetic realm of art, it legitimately acts as the transcendental foundation of democracy.
Beginning with reflections on the idea of tradition, and questions it can generate, this article proceeds to address developments in Egypt since the beginning of 2011 with questions about time (the authority of a religious past versus that of a revolutionary future), discourses (defining national identity, defending the sacred dignity of the modern state, restoring the people’s will, establishing national stability), and the emotional undercurrents of the secular politics that culminated in the military coup of 3 July 2015. It argues that while the army, the business elite, and the “deep state” (those within and those loyal to state apparatuses), all supported the coup because of converging interests, the liberal and leftist youth who legitimized it were driven by hostility to “religion-in-politics.” But the major crisis in modern Egypt, the article suggests, goes beyond the confrontation between those who fight for an inclusive secular state (in the name of a democratic revolution) and those who want a religious state of unequal citizens (in the name of a Muslim majoritarian tradition), between ethically motivated fighters for freedom and repressive forces that seek to restrict it. The article maintains that the modern sovereign state and the neoliberal global economy in which it is enmeshed together make the cultivation of political virtues difficult if not impossible, and therefore render certain forms of ethically informed politics problematic.