Jane Caputi – Call Your “Mutha’”: A Deliberately Dirty-Minded Manifesto for the Earth Mother in the Anthropocene

9780190902711 Blog (and Book) by Jane Caputi

Reading up on the Anthropocene for Call Your “Mutha’”: A Deliberately Dirty-Minded Manifesto for the Earth Mother in the Anthropocene, I encountered repeated pat phrases about humans (really Man in Wynter’s sense) now being “the dominant force of change on the planet.” Nobel prize-winning chemist Paul Crutzen even averred: “It’s no longer us against “Nature.” Instead, it’s we who decide what nature is and what it will be.”

The COVID-19 virus is laughing all the way to the emergency room. Nature/Earth, the formidable and indomitable force whom I understand as the “Mutha’” is the actual decider. She/They is disrespected, foundationally, in the Anthropocenic world that Man is trying to (re)make in his own image. Climate change, extinctions, pandemics; these are neither the wrath of a mythic punitive deity or a rape-avenging femme fatale. All those empty shelves in the grocery story serve as a vivid metaphor for what really going on — the withdrawal of the “Mutha’” – the force/source upon whom all of us depend for absolutely everything.

Presentism versus Past-ism, by way of Civil War historian Gary Gallagher

By David Waldstreicher

Ruth began our blogging dialogue (blogalogue?) with a Ruthian swing for the provocative fences: “American Political Development is history at its worst.  At least, that’s what some historians who reside in the United States and teach in American history might say about our field — it’s “’presentist.’”

Time for me to reciprocate. Sometimes history is political analysis at its worst: not presentist but past-ist. As in, every historical moment is unique, and all comparisons are ideological if not teleological. In some historians’ hands, the result of past-ism is to both kneecap political arguments they don’t like and preserve history for those who know “the facts.” Facts which, on scrutiny, turn out to be made significant by interpretation.

I have objected to this tendency recently in an essay in The Boston Review about the 1619 Project controversy. One of the historians with whom I take issue, Sean Wilentz, has been doing the same thing with respect to Trump: insisting that Trump is de novo, has no historical parallels, and certainly not Sean’s main man, Andrew Jackson. This has the added benefit of shifting any blame away from Wilentz’s own political favorites, the Clintons. In other words, sometimes the insistence on historical incomparability is itself a political gambit.

But today I’d like to illustrate the important (and really, unavoidable) use of historical comparisons to illuminate and argue about the present by pointing to a 500 word op-ed, “Think the US is more polarized than ever? You don’t know history,” published on Feb. 14 by the Civil War historian Gary Gallagher on The Conversation, and republished by the History News Network today:  https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/174331 [many annoying links within his article stripped out below]. Here’s Gallagher:

” It has become common to say that the United States in 2020 is more divided politically and culturally than at any other point in our national past. As a historian who has written and taught about the Civil War era for several decades, I know that current divisions pale in comparison to those of the mid-19th century.       

Between Abraham Lincoln’s election in November 1860 and the surrender of Robert E. Lee’s Confederate army at Appomattox in April 1865, the nation literally broke apart. More than 3 million men took up arms, and hundreds of thousands of black and white civilians in the Confederacy became refugees. Four million enslaved African Americans were freed from bondage. After the war ended, the country soon entered a decade of virulent, and often violent, disagreement about how best to order a biracial society in the absence of slavery.

To compare anything that has transpired in the past few years to this cataclysmic upheaval represents a spectacular lack of understanding about American history. A few examples illustrate the profound difference between divisions during the Civil War era and those of the recent past.

Today, prominent actors often use awards ceremonies as a platform to express unhappiness with current political leaders. On April 14, 1865, a member of the most celebrated family of actors in the United States expressed his unhappiness with Abraham Lincoln by shooting him in the back of the head.

Today, Americans regularly hear and watch members of Congress direct rhetorical barbs at one another during congressional hearings and in other venues. On May 22, 1856, U.S. Rep. Preston Brooks of South Carolina caned Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts into bloody insensibility on the floor of the Senate chamber because Sumner had criticized one of Brooks’ kinsmen for embracing “the harlot, Slavery” as his “mistress.”

Recent elections have provoked posturing about how Texas or California might break away from the rest of the nation. But after a Republican president was elected in 1860, seven slaveholding states seceded between Dec. 20 and Feb. 1, 1861. Four of the remaining eight slaveholding states followed suit between April and June 1861. Americans were thus forced to face the reality that the political system established by the founding generation had failed to manage internal fractures and positioned the United States and the newly established Confederacy to engage in open warfare.

The scale and fury of the ensuing combat underscores the utter inappropriateness of claims that the United States is more divided now than ever before. Four years of civil war produced at least 620,000 military deaths – the equivalent of approximately 6.5 million dead in the United States of 2020.

The institution of slavery – and especially its potential spread from the South and border states into federal territories – was the key to this slaughter because it provoked the series of crises that eventually proved intractable. No political issue in 2020 approaches slavery in the mid-19th century in terms of potential divisiveness.”

Like the military historian he prides himself in being, Gallagher focuses on the horrifying, fratricidal violence of the Civil War, and rightly extends that back a few years to the caning of Sumner. He admits that the cause was slavery, the divide sectional. Surely we have nothing so violent, and no divisions so irrepressible, now. So comparisons of culture wars and party battles to real wars are irresponsible.

Gallager’s political motives seem benign enough. We could do with fewer pronouncements of doom and even fewer denunciations of each other. But what if it is Gallagher who is comparing apples and oranges – in his opening gambit, comparing a declared war to the cultural and political polarization, and violence, that led to a breakdown of the political system, secession, and armed conflict?  Why does he want to isolate the Civil War and its violence from the violence of slavery itself and violent resistance to it – the border wars and anti-abolitionist mobs that became so controversial?  I’m glad that Gallagher is (finally; he used to downplay it) centering slavery in his understanding of the nature as well as the causes of the Civil War. But by declaring historical analogies off limits, he makes it impossible for us to see and discuss long-term developments, continuities – and precisely the ones that the recent 1619 Project of the New York Times Magazine has highlighted. I won’t even go into how the entire Civil War generation, on every side, fought their political battles with reference to the American Revolution.

Note that the excruciatingly violent counterexamples Gallagher highlights are reactions against abolition: Rep. Brooks’ caning of Sen. Sumner and proslavery actor John Wilkes Booth’s murder of President Lincoln. If today’s polarization has anything to do with structural racism, if today’s battles are being fought in particular ways because,  as David Brion Davis argued in 2001 [www.stratalum.org/nytimes82601.htm] “the Confederacy’s ideological victory following the Civil War,” then it might not be such a bad idea to analyze today’s politics in light of the central event of U.S. history. How much progress has been made – will be made? How free are the free? These were the questions of the 1850s, the 1890s, and remain the questions for 2020.

SCAMs, SLAMs, and SLIMs

What’s a SLIM?  I had trouble remembering it from yesterday’s post to today.  Does the “I” stand for intersectional, I asked my SLIM husband (who is slim, btw, so perhaps my muse)?  Or is it interdependent?  It’s different from a SLAM or SCAM, the former being better than the latter, since with a liberal there’s at least some chance he’ll get the message someday, whereas a conservative is just hopeless.

Being an added plus or “and” person (improvising extemporaneously, though happy to re- and even re-re-improvise), I realize it’s gotta be “interdependent.”  After all, we live in an interdependent world, with no left or right, no true or untrue, or even lies, since everything is, after all, persuadable, so we can’t pick sides.  Take a look at the billion dollars that Dad, otherwise known as President Donald J. Trump to all of us but Jared Kushner, earmarked after allegedly learning the ropes from Jared (or is it the other way around?).

It’s a topsy-turvy world.  The president who spent arguably the least of his own money and still opted out of public funding for the presidency has now earmarked the most (of other people’s money) to convince his followers (his fist-throwing, enter-the-fray followers) to keep up the false narrative.  

All this is to say, it’s not topsy-turvy but tricky, and tricky means we’ve all gotta learn how to be interdependent, not intersectional (which has too much to do with ID-entity or the being of our being or existence), when we’re all simply socially situated in a society that includes the polity and the market.  So here’s two cheers for the interdependents who can trust each other for good, and not for bad, let alone being led down a path full of tricks, or even worse a telos.  #

Identities and Intersections, and Max Tomba’s Glorious “Insurgent Universalities” in Heretical Thought

To call a man feminine is interpreted as insulting. Now, this is different than someone saying “act like a man.” That’s even more insulting. Even worse, you’re “thinking like a woman.” So, David, I can easily concede that my phrase “SLAMs and SCAMs” is blunt, bordering on insulting. Yet that still begs the question of how do we make analyzing, scrutinizing, thinking, critiquing in ways all attributed to women, or feminism, or at least women being woke by feminism, universal? Or rather a language that boys, girls, women, and men will use? What is the vocabulary when we would like to observe and add our kudos to a boy or a man, or anyone of privileged status who acted like a person who made an ethic of care universal? Or that same person who made a “non-manalyzing” scholarly observation?

To be sure, blunt phrases like SCAMs and SLAMs can be off-putting. And perhaps I dampen the dialogue when I list privilege of straight conservative Anglo-Saxon men and straight liberal Anglo-Saxon men (SCAMs and SLAMs), aside from a predilection to try to shock or shake people into thought. These acronyms serve two purposes. Do-gooder liberal men are just as bad as, if not worse than, conservatives in exerting their privilege and reducing access to all those not sharing their privileged identity. Why? We know that by virtue of being, acting, doing what SCAMs do they are predators and probably at least complicit in rape culture. I’m challenging someone to give me a different vocabulary — and it’s more likely to come from SLAMs than SCAMs (unless they see the light).

When women scholars’ scholarship is heeded universally, admired by both men and women, often this proves disappointing too. This time it’s not about hope, but disappointment that so many women join the men in patriarchal thought. In many cases, though certainly not all, women and men use the male-dominated language of scholarship (i.e. “manalyzing”). There is no s/he said. (No need for the He said/She said, since after all it should always be the intersubjective and simple s/he said. All people fight within themselves. No one has a static gender, race, ethnicity, let alone body.

Nor do I like the scholarship that simply says “Well, what about the feminist perspective?” What? First there is no “feminist perspective,” as this scholar got it so wrong last night at the GC in criticizing Max Tomba’s exciting book Insurgent Universality in the Oxford University Press, Heretical Thought Series, which I solo edit. There are feminism(s), as another fascinating scholar of sociology at Hunter and the GC explains, Lynn Chancer, titled her latest book

Identity-speak should be no more exclusionary than Harvard’s “Gov Speak,” the language the Harvard Government Department got criticized for uttering years back that was tantamount to the exclusion of all but SLAMs and SCAMs. Sure, it is easy to say we do not speak who we are. One would be hard pressed to find an essentialist, these days in the academy, at least. At the same time, it’s hard to find a non-essentialist — or a scholar — be they man or woman, who does not “manalyze.” Manalyzing is practiced equally by male and female scholars. It’s a criticism of the academy not having a scholarly language enough to stop universalizing critique with the universality of men analyzing.

David Waldstreicher politely and appropriately called me out on SLAMs and SCAMs being a bit blunt (i.e. rude).

“Manalyzing” in Stereo by Distinguished Professor David Waldstreicher, team teaching American Political Development 2020

As the historian in this manalyzing duo, of course I feel less responsible for the limits of the field of American Political Development, more excited about how it might help compensate for some of the foibles of historians….

Yes, the lesson of Trump is that it’s corruption all the way down, corruption as  a multigenerational (American Political) tradition, yet on a spiral that makes it somewhat different each time. The grandfather was all about railroad towns and hotels (brothels), and land, exploiting his fellow immigrants. The father about urban segregation and (un)creative destruction.  The grandson about the simulacrum of luxury, leveraged gloss, and televised publicity as ponzi scheme. Party politics had to be the endgame because it undergirded the possibilities of profiting from infrastructure all along.

Alas, as the trigenerational story suggests, the other continuity in the Trumpian spiral appears to be the reliance on whiteness, which is why Trump so repeatedly doubles down on it, why he seized as no one else on the notion that Obama could not have possibly been born in this country. The surprise at the daily untruth or tweet covers over the primal lie of his politics, and the willingness of 40+% of voters to accept it so as not to have to accede to the other party’s kinder gentler corruption. After all, the system constantly tells us, in a democracy, origins and history don’t matter. The question is always, which of two sides are we on?

It’s funny today to hear both the president and allies trumpeting party loyalty against (Bain capitalist) Romney, when Trump ran against party and the establishment. Only a long-term approach to American politics can capture how he has recapitulated the Jacksonian art of turning from antipartisan outsider to enforcer of more party loyalty than ever, in just a  few years. Partisanship relies on, feeds on, putative outsiders, sometimes  in order to contain the real insurgencies. Part of Trump’s appeal is to perform and capitalize on American ambivalence about the problems that result from the normal workings of the system. It is tempting to conclude, for the moment, that he fits all too well into institutional patterns even as he shatters norms. We’ll see — and we’ll study…..

Land, Localization of National Politics, or Should I Call the Feds for an Eviction?

American Political Development is history at its worst.  At least, that’s what some historians who reside in the United States and teach in American history might say about our field — it’s “presentist.” We throw in any American teleology, or pull any trajectory into reverse.  But is it reverse engineering?

As we start from the present and move backwards, digging and delving into all those institutional nooks and crannies, tracing, mapping, and locating the so-called origins of any public policy that spans the United States, from the laws establishing the defunct ICC to the EEOC, are we really being presentist, or are we “institutionalists”?  (The damn autocorrect makes me put this in quotes.)  It’s not a search for APD; it’s a search for the American nation-state, or at least that cozy social-welfare policy state, which today seems like magical thinking, or (heaven forbid) what the so-called conservatives call the “nanny state?”

In fact, though, it’s not the search for the American nation-state, nor the American states.  It’s closer to home than that. And aside from “manalyzing” with David Waldstreicher in the course we’re team-teaching this semester, I’d say Trump has managed to localize the nation-state — for me, that is.  It’s the localization of the State — the Sovereign, not the states.  

And it only makes sense, if you study corruption.  From Papi Trump (the German?), to Papa Trump (the Swede, haha), and now baby Trump (not Donald J., but the one with the comb-over hair), they all bribed politicians in the states, as well as serving the State, let alone all the neighboring municipalities in greater New York.  So it comes as no surprise that Penn Station would house all those lobbying the nation-state, foreigners and domestic lobbyist no matter.

After all, how did robber baron Cornelius Vanderbilt have so much money after receiving so much public land? The business of America has always been business. That said, we have to remember that Trump is a developer of “real” estate (i.e. physical property). There’s no other eviction that hurts so much as what a landlord can do by making one homeless. So why do so many liberals believe Congress could ever evict Trump out of the White House?

More later. But for now, David?

New Heretical Thought Titles

Massimiliano Tomba’s Insurgent Universality: An Alternative Legacy of Modernity was published this fall in the Oxford University Press Heretical Thought series, where I serve as the book series editor.

Max’s book He will be presenting a lecture on this book at the Graduate Center, Thursday, February 13 at 6 PM (double check). Everyone is invited, not only the Graduate Center Community. Max’s talk will be riveting, I’m sure.

“Aims to bridge European and non-European contexts in alternative trajectories of modernity and radical political experiments

Challenges the dominant conceptualization of juridical “universalism” and proposes a conception of insurgent universality that is rooted in alternative traditions of modernity

Provides a new historical-theoretical framework in which multiple temporal layers coexist and conflict with each other.”

Several years ago, Max served as a Fellow at the Committee on Globalization and Social Change at the Graduate Center. Max left his university professorship in Italy and recently moved to the well-known, and iconic, University of California, Santa Cruz, Historical Consciousness Department.