Marshall Sahlins (1930–2021)

(Photo by Ulf Andersen/Getty Images)

Keir Martin and Theo Rakopoulos in Jacobin:

Marshall Sahlins, who passed away at ninety on April 5, was not only the most notable anthropological writer of his generation; he was also a profoundly radical — and influential — thinker with a genuine commitment to political action.

There are many in the academy who fear that political engagement dilutes or undermines the purity of theoretical reflection. Sahlins’s life and work stands as a clear corrective to that position. Throughout his career, he was motivated by his opposition to oppression wherever he saw it, be it toward marginalized populations targeted by economic and military expansionism or toward academic communities threatened with the curtailment of their intellectual expression.

It is this commitment that underpinned so much of his pioneering theoretical work, such as his critique of the universal application of neoclassical economics in Stone Age Economics. That collection of essays marks one of the most powerful challenges on record to the assumed natural universality of the allegedly rational economic actor that haunts economic textbooks.

Sahlins was prolific. Apart from many articles, he authored some nineteen books, some of which have profoundly influenced the way we think anthropologically, and also more generally in the social sciences. His analysis inspired a wide range of radical thinkers, including left and post-left anarchists. The ecological neo-primitivist John Zerzan owed much to Sahlins (“my single most important influence”), while Hakim Bey has repeatedly cited “The Original Affluent Society” as the major inspiration for his thinking.

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Killing the Priest-King: Addressing Egalitarianism in the Indus Civilization

Adam S. Green in the Journal of Archaeological Research (h/t Jain Family Institute):

The archaeologists who first investigated the Indus civilization thought it diverged sharply from contemporary societies in Egypt and Mesopotamia (Marshall 1931, p. xi). For nearly a century, archaeologists have made a concerted effort to close this gap and make the Indus seem more “normal” in comparison with other complex societies. This is especially true with respect to inequality—specifically, stratification in the distribution of wealth and hierarchies of political power. In my view, these efforts have been largely unsuccessful. Marshall’s observation was basically correct; attempts to refute it have been based on the theoretical assumption that all social complexity entails stratified social relations, rather than a critical interpretation of the empirical evidence. I argue that the widespread distribution of production activities and wealth in Indus cities indicates that the stratification of wealth and power, particularly in the hands of a ruling class who monopolized resources and dictated the production activities of everyone else, was absent from the Indus civilization.

Indus cities (c. 2600–1900 BC) were expansive and planned, with large-scale architecture and sophisticated early technologies—writing, metallurgy, weights and measures, and seals—that matched those from contemporaneous societies in Egypt and Mesopotamia. And yet, it has long been noted that Indus cities lack the tombs, palaces, and aggrandizing art that characterize other early complex societies (e.g., Fairservis 1967). These lines of evidence are essential to the comparative study of complex societies and particularly to the analysis of past inequalities in wealth and power (e.g., Feinman 1995; Feinman and Marcus 1998; Smith 2012). Their absence in the Indus suggests that the forms of inequality that we would expect to find if a class of ruling nobles managed society were limited or absent in Indus cities. Given that complex societies have often been defined by the presence of such stratification (e.g., Trigger 2003, p. 46), the perception that the absence of a ruling class in the Indus civilization risked its omission from comparative debates about the emergence of social complexity gained ground. In response, there arose an implicit argument that the Indus was indeed exceptional, not because it lacked a ruling class, but because to fully appreciate its political economy required an exceptional set of criteria (e.g., Kenoyer 1998).

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Slave Rebellions and Mutinies Shaped the Age of Revolution

Steve Hahn in Boston Review:

The Age of Revolution (1770–1850), bookended by the American and French Revolutions on the one side and the Revolutions of 1848 on the other, is widely viewed as the progenitor of the modern Euro-Atlantic world. Its intellectual energy fused the liberal and republican ideas of John Locke with the ideals of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment; its political energy fed off the struggles between the bourgeois and their aristocratic enemies. Although visionary hopes could meet crushing defeats—as they did during the popular risings of 1848—by the end, there were new parliamentary regimes, emerging nation-states, declarations of rights, and the eruption of an industrial age.

And yet, this classic narrative leaves out the most radical of the revolutions that exploded neither in continental Europe nor in North or South America, but in the Caribbean, on the island the French called Saint-Domingue and the victorious rebels would call Haiti (Ayiti), after its indigenous name.

Until recently, the Haitian Revolution and other Caribbean slave rebellions have been treated as sidebars to the Age of Revolution. In part this is because of a Eurocentrism that has long diminished the role of Black people in shaping history. But equally important, enslaved people didn’t fit an accepted image of political actors, and thus it was difficult for historians to see them standing alongside the signers of the Declaration of Independence in America, the Jacobins in France, the Bolivareans in Gran Colombia, the Mazzinians in Italy, or the Chartists in England: envisioning, allying, struggling, surmounting.

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Biden’s Anti-China Ambitions

Dilip Hiro in The Nation:

Like his immediate predecessor, Joe Biden is committed to a distinctly anti-China global strategy and has sworn that China will not “become the leading country in the world, the wealthiest country in the world, and the most powerful country in the world…on my watch.” In the topsy-turvy universe created by the Covid-19 pandemic, it was, however, Jamie Dimon, the CEO and chairman of JP Morgan Chase, a banking giant with assets of $3.4 trillion, who spoke truth to Biden on the subject.

While predicting an immediate boom in the US economy “that could easily run into 2023,” Dimon had grimmer news on the future as well. “China’s leaders believe that America is in decline,” he wrote in his annual letter to the company’s shareholders. While the United States had faced tough times in the past, he added, today “the Chinese see an America that is losing ground in technology, infrastructure, and education—a nation torn and crippled by politics, as well as racial and income inequality—and a country unable to coordinate government policies (fiscal, monetary, industrial, regulatory) in any coherent way to accomplish national goals.” He was forthright enough to say, “Unfortunately, recently, there is a lot of truth to this.”

As for China, Dimon could also have added, its government possesses at least two powerful levers in areas where the United States is likely to prove vulnerable: dominant control of container ports worldwide and the supplies of rare earth metals critical not just to the information-technology sector but also to the production of electric and hybrid cars, jet fighters, and missile guidance systems.

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Blake Bailey, Philip Roth, and the Biography That Blew Up

Alexandra Schwartz in The New Yorker:

Philip Roth has not had much luck with biographers. Late in his life, furiously aggrieved after the failure of his marriage to the actress Claire Bloom and the publication of Bloom’s incendiary memoir of their years together, he asked a close friend, Ross Miller, an English professor at the University of Connecticut, to take on the task. Roth sent Miller lists of family members and friends he wanted to be interviewed, along with the questions that he felt should be asked. (“Would you have expected him to achieve success on the scale he has?”) It didn’t work out, for various reasons. Roth had wanted Miller to refute a familiar charge, “this whole mad fucking misogynistic bullshit!” that he felt flattened his long erotic history into one false accusation. But Miller came to his own conclusion. “There is a predatory side to both Sandy and Philip,” he told a cousin of Roth’s. (Sandy was Roth’s older brother.) “They look at women—I’m not gonna write about this—but they are misogynist. They talk about women in that way.”

This anecdote is recounted by Miller’s successor, Blake Bailey, in “Philip Roth: The Biography,” his eight-hundred-page account of Roth’s eighty-five-year life, which was published earlier this month. Talking about women “in that way” didn’t seem to be a problem for Bailey. Roth had read and admired Bailey’s biography of John Cheever, but Bailey was offered the job, by his own account, after enthusing with Roth over the qualities of Ali MacGraw, who starred in the film adaptation of “Goodbye, Columbus.” Readers of Bailey’s book will encounter a lot of that sort of thing, to an often voyeuristic degree. (“Locker-room chummy sex talk,” a male writer friend texted me, of a passage in which the young Roth’s girlfriend Maxine Groffsky, the model for the “Goodbye, Columbus” character Brenda Patimkin, is described as “slipping into his cabana, say, and blowing him” while Roth changes into a bathing suit. “Who is he writing that sentence for? It sounds like he’s bantering with Roth.”) But the book’s readers are now limited in number. On Wednesday, after allegations surfaced that Bailey had groomed and harassed female students in the nineteen-nineties, when he was an eighth-grade English teacher at Lusher School, in New Orleans—and that he had raped two women, including a former student—his publisher, W. W. Norton, halted distribution of the biography. Bailey was dropped by his literary agency earlier in the week.

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Seth Rogen and the Secret to Happiness

Jonah Weiner in The New York Times:

Seth Rogen’s home sits on several wooded acres in the hills above Los Angeles, under a canopy of live oak and eucalyptus trees strung with outdoor pendants that light up around dusk, when the frogs on the grounds start croaking. I pulled up at the front gate on a recent afternoon, and Rogen’s voice rumbled through the intercom. “Hellooo!” He met me at the bottom of his driveway, which is long and steep enough that he keeps a golf cart up top “for schlepping big things up the driveway that are too heavy to walk,” he said, adding, as if bashful about coming off like the kind of guy who owns a dedicated driveway golf cart, “It doesn’t get a ton of use.” Rogen wore a beard, chinos, a cardigan from the Japanese brand Needles and Birkenstocks with marled socks — laid-back Canyon chic. He led me to a switchback trail cut into a hillside, which we climbed to a vista point. Below us was Rogen’s office; the house he shares with his wife, Lauren, and their 11-year-old Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Zelda; and the converted garage where they make pottery. I was one of the first people, it turns out, to see the place. “I haven’t had many people over,” Rogen said, “because we moved in during the pandemic.”

Coyote paw prints pocked the trail. Water burbled somewhere beneath us. It was an idyllic scene disturbed only by Rogen’s phone, which was vibrating madly with messages. That morning, Houseplant, the cannabis company he co-founded in 2019 in Canada, his native country, officially started selling its own weed strains in California. Within moments of the launch there was an hourlong wait to enter the web store, and before long the whole site crashed under the weight of Rogen-loving hordes clamoring to buy what he described as his personally “hand-smoked” nugs. (The company also sells stoner home goods, like a blocky, Bauhausian table lighter designed to be impossible to lose.) “Crazy day,” he said, tapping at his screen. “I’m literally responding to people on Twitter, telling them we’re working on it — doing my own customer-service strategy, basically!”

Rogen’s overwhelmingly casual demeanor — chucklingly agreeable, continually stoned — has long belied his productivity: He has been working almost constantly since he was 13, when he started doing stand-up comedy around Vancouver.

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How The Just So Stories Were Made

Kathryn Hughes at The Guardian:

It is always tricky writing about Kipling. By the time of his death in 1936 his jingoism, with its babble about the “white man’s burden” in Africa, made many moderate souls feel queasy. Batchelor is too scrupulous a scholar to ignore what came after the Just So Stories – indeed he points out that within two years of the book’s publication the satirist Max Beerbohm was drawing Kipling as an imperial stooge, the diminutive bugle-blowing cockney lover of a blousy-looking Britannia.

Nonetheless, Batchelor urges us to see the stories as evidence that as a young man Kipling was an imaginative artist of the first rank. Full of bustling linguistic ingenuity, conjured by a man whose first language was actually Hindi rather than English, the stories themselves are hopeful, expansive, joyfully attentive to a world where difference and separation can be mended by imaginative acts.

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Louis Menand Examines the Churn of American Culture After World War II

David Oshinsky at the New York Times:

The evenhanded approach of Louis Menand, who won a Pulitzer Prize for “The Metaphysical Club,” is like a breath of fresh air. “The Free World” sparkles. Fully original, beautifully written, it covers the interchange of arts and ideas between the United States and Europe in the decades following World War II. Menand is no cheerleader; his assessment of America’s failures can be withering. But his larger point, backed by a mountain of research and reams of thoughtful commentary, is that American culture ascended in this era for the right reasons. “Ideas mattered. Painting mattered. Movies mattered. Poetry mattered,” he tells us.

Much of this was the result of the forced migration of intellectual talent after Mussolini and Hitler came to power. We tend to remember the scientists who fled — like Albert Einstein — much more than the composers, performers, writers, poets, philosophers and political theorists.

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Stable Locus of Personal Identity

Justin E. H. Smith in Damage:

I thought I was so clever. For a few days, anyway.

In early 2021, as you almost certainly know, “Non-Fungible Tokens”, or NFTs, burst onto the scene and changed the way we talk and think. An NFT is a sort of digital title or deed, comparable to the papers in your glove compartment establishing ownership of the car. Unlike the paper title, however, the NFT is based on blockchain, a distributed-ledger technology that lives on the open internet, and of which we are all, collectively, the bookkeepers and guardians. After the auction for $69 million of an NFT for a work by the American digital artist Mike Winkelmann (aka Beeple) on March 11, I immediately began minting “joke” NFTs. I imagined these to be “very serious jokes”, experimentally pushing the concepts of value and of tokenization right up to their limits for the sake of some urgent “point”.

Thus for example I minted a “Token of the Type/Token Distinction Itself”, which swiftly sold for $200 (to a computational linguist who wanted to give his students a good laugh). Buoyed by this success, I went on to mint “the Non-Fungible Token of All Non-Fungible Tokens”, followed by a variation on that famous set-theoretic impossibility, “The Non-Fungible Token of All Non-Fungible Tokens That Are Not Non-Fungible Tokens of Themselves”. I was “in my zone”, as they say. Though none of these subsequent experiments managed to get sold, I was having the time of my life cranking out joke-tokens at record pace.

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The Mad Hatter’s Secret Ingredient: Math

From NPR:

The first numbers that come to mind when thinking about Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland might be how much money the movie is raking in at the box office.

But numbers also appear to be woven in among the talking rabbits and smoking caterpillars of the original stories. Author Lewis Carroll was also a math teacher in Oxford, England, and mathematicians say the Alice books are full of algebraic lessons — such as why a raven is like a writing desk.

That’s the riddle the Mad Hatter asks Alice. And, as Weekend Edition Math Guy Keith Devlin tells NPR’s Jacki Lyden, “That particular scene — and lots of other scenes in Alice in Wonderland — were a reflection on the increasing abstraction that was going on in mathematics in the 19th century.”

Carroll, whose real name was Charles Dodgson, was a very conservative, traditional mathematician, Devlin says, and he didn’t like the changes some were bringing to the discipline of mathematics.

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Polarization or Propaganda? Two rival theories paint very different pictures of the sources of our democratic dysfunction

C. Thi Nguyen in the Boston Review:

I would like to stage a fight between two different accounts of the current political landscape—what’s been called the “post-truth” era, the infodemic, the end of democracy, or perhaps most accurately, the total shitshow of the now.

According to one oft-told story, what’s going on is systemic polarization. Our once-peaceful society has been riven into polarized camps. Extremism and political separation are the core problems, and the fix is something like reconnection, intermingling, and friendship across party lines. (The sound of this story is somebody issuing a plea for civility “in these divisive times.”) According to a very different story, what’s going on is propaganda. Certain bad actors are generating false and misleading information for political purposes. To fix it, we need to fight those bad actors.

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Doing jigsaws with Ian Rankin

Simon Willis in 1843 Magazine:

“Whose teeth are these?” asks Ian Rankin, in a state of deep concentration. It’s the kind of ghoulish question that might be asked by John Rebus, the hard-drinking Scottish detective from Rankin’s bestselling novels, as he sifts through the evidence at a grisly crime scene. Fortunately, the disembodied teeth he is looking at are on a piece from a jigsaw, which we’re doing “together” over Zoom. The puzzle is inspired by “The Yellow Submarine”, an animated film from 1968 in which the Beatles save the underwater world of Pepperland from music-hating monsters called the Blue Meanies. The picture on the box shows the yellow submarine surrounded by psychedelic characters, from the Dreadful Flying Glove to the Fab Four themselves in loud shirts and flares. On the right is a smiling green whale. “Ah, they’re his teeth!” says Rankin as he slots the piece into place.

Hunched over a coffee table in the Edinburgh flat he uses as an office, Rankin is rake-thin with the pale, haunted look of a man with murder on his mind. At 60, he has written more than 40 books and sold more than 30m copies. Rebus, his greatest invention, stars in over half of them. A cold, cynical workaholic given to brawling and witness intimidation, Rebus will stop at nothing to solve whatever case of garrotting, stabbing, drowning or impaling has ended up on his desk.

For someone whose day job is crafting intricate plots full of interlocking clues, puzzles seem to be a natural pastime. Rankin says he has been a jigsaw fanatic since he was a child, and lockdown has hardened this habit. “I had this notion that I would learn languages and read ‘Don Quixote’, but my attention span was kinnae shot,” he says in his thick Scottish accent (“kinnae” instead of “kind of”, “mebbae” instead of “maybe”).

Rankin does not consider himself a puzzle aficionado. “They go for 5,000-piece jigsaws of paperclips,” he says. “Why would anyone do that for fun?” For him, 1,000 pieces and an appealing picture is ideal. On Twitter he has been showing off his jigsaw portraits of John Lennon and Paul McCartney. He sees himself as a “frustrated rock star” and sings in a band in his spare time. “When I saw the yellow submarine I thought, yeah, that’s a shoe-in.”

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The new science of motherhood

Abigail Tucker in Smithsonian:

“It feels like a grew a new heart.” That’s what my best friend told me the day her daughter was born. Back then, I rolled my eyes at her new-mom corniness. But ten years and three kids of my own later, Emily’s words drift back to me as I ride a crammed elevator up to a laboratory in New York City’s Mount Sinai Hospital, where cardiologists are probing the secrets of maternal hearts. Every year, thousands of pregnant women and just-delivered mothers land in emergency rooms with a life-threatening type of heart failure. Symptoms include swollen neck veins and shortness of breath. Their hearts have a harder time pumping. The underlying cause of this “peripartum cardiomyopathy” is unclear, but it’s the kind of health disaster that, for other people, can end in a heart transplant, or oblivion.

Yet fate has a different design for fledgling mothers. About 50 percent spontaneously get better, the highest rate of recovery from heart failure for any group. Some maternal hearts are practically as good as new in as little as two weeks. Adult heart tissue doesn’t rally easily, but new mothers may somehow be able to regrow heart cells the way salamanders sprout new tails. At this Mount Sinai Hospital lab, a cardiologist named Hina Chaudhry thinks she has figured out why. In tests involving lab mice, which were surgically operated on to simulate a heart attack, she and her research team discovered something astonishing: heart cells with DNA that doesn’t match the mother’s own. The mystery cells belong to unborn mice. During pregnancy the fetal mouse cells cross the placenta into the mother’s body, joyriding through her blood vessels until cardiac damage happens, at which point they sense inflammation and make a beeline for her wounded heart. The lab has even found that these cells, harvested from mouse placentas, will travel to the damaged hearts of male mice after being artificially implanted in their tails.

“They just zoom in,” says Chaudhry. “These cells home to the heart like heat-seeking missiles.”

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Storytelling In Indo-Persian Literary Traditions

Aqsa Ijaz at Marginalia Review:

A whole way of seeing and representing the world has faded with the loss of such forms of storytelling. And its absence is felt by those who study the past through the cracks of those stories, which were neither histories nor fictions but a unique perspective on reality that used both these modes of comprehension. As Stewart, in his book on the premodern Bengali storytelling tradition, Witness to Marvels: Sufism and Literary Imagination (2019), suggests, narratives are never subject to the test of truthfulness precisely because they are literary. It is different from saying that they are false because they are fiction. They don’t operate on the principle of having a truth-claim but possess a truth-value, giving way to a different kind of contract between the listener and the storyteller.  Such an engagement illuminates the function of these narratives rather than the mere verifiability of their content. As Khan tells us in his book, The Broken Spell: Indian Storytelling and the Romance Genre in Persian and Urdu (2019), the storytellers in premodern North India were crucial to the social fabric. By telling age-old stories with new twists and turns that were instructed and provided models of emulation for an ethical life and good conduct, they kept the past contemporaneous with the present.

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On the Anonymous Lover

James Conlon at the Hudson Review:

With the vanishing of the name goes the disappearance of the object, the slice of art, the fragment of literature, the portion of music. With the fading of the thing, so the name is gradually effaced from memory, and whatever there was becomes anonymous.

I have long taken a special interest in music by composers whose names and works have been virtually eliminated from history. LA Opera audiences know this well; the Recovered Voices series introduced them to a part of the extraordinary literature of works by composers whose music was banned and whose lives were disrupted—or worse—by the Third Reich.

Our presentation of The Anonymous Lover, by Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, is a logical extension of that mission. The composer was born on a plantation on the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe.

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