Tuesday, March 28, 2017

James McGrath Morris's "The Ambulance Drivers"

James McGrath Morris is an author of biographies and narrative nonfiction. His books include the New York Times bestselling Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, The First Lady of the Black Press, which was awarded the Benjamin Hooks National Book Prize; Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print, and Power—which the Wall Street Journal deemed was one of the five best books on American moguls and Booklist placed on its 2010 list of the ten best biographies; The Rose Man of Sing Sing: A True Tale of Life, Murder, and Redemption in the Age of Yellow Journalism—a Washington Post Best Book of the Year; and, Jailhouse Journalism: The Four Estate Behind Bars.

Morris applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Ambulance Drivers: Hemingway, Dos Passos, and a Friendship Made and Lost in War, and reported the following:
From page 99:
fakers, he wrote that impostors thrive because of the provincial nature of the French people and the gullibility of its press. Even the impoverished artists and writers who nursed ten-centime cups of coffee for hours at La Rotonde, a café across the street from the Hotel Jacob, were subjected to his ridicule. “They are nearly all loafers expending the energy that an artist puts into his creative work in talking about what they are going to do and condemning the work of all artists who have gained any degree of recognition.”

Sarcasm was Hemingway’s weapon of choice when his achievements failed to match those around him. He had worn out his “typer ribbon” pounding out stories for the Toronto Star, but the fiction for which he had come to Paris to write filled only a few folders tucked away in a sideboard.

Even the autobiographical war novel he had started remained skeletal at best.
+
Dos Passos basked in his success back in the United States. The publication of Three Soldiers marked the beginning of the literary life he had sought. By April Dos Passos received $8,000 in royalties from the sale of more than forty thousand copies in the first few months of the book’s publication. It was a tidy sum, more than a dozen times the earnings of the average American in 1922.

Even six months after the book’s appearance Three Soldiers continued to cause a ruckus. In March 1922 the Chicago Tribune published a full-page review entitled “Propaganda of Novel Is ‘Blow at Americanism’” by an anonymous writer described only as a “member of the first division, a legionnaire, a father and a citizen.” In explaining his purpose the veteran said, “the reviewer writes as a citizen of a state to warn his countrymen of the anarchistic, Bolshevistic doctrine running through this story, and to call their attention to the book’s affront to every just and decent principle upon which society is founded and organized business and government maintained.”

In the thousands of words that followed, the reviewer offered up a screed that attacked every aspect of Dos Passos’s portrayal of military life and challenged the actions of the book’s characters as if they had been real people. “Dos Passos has become the Knight Errant of all that
Despite having subjected previous books to this test, the Ford Madox Ford concept of judging a work’s merit by its page 99 remains nerve racking. I’m glad to report that I passed. I’m happy with my page 99.

First, it illustrates a rule that I advocate when I teach writing. The idea is that narrative nonfiction should use only contemporaneous references. So, for instance, in this excerpt I note that Dos Passos earned $8,000 in royalties from his book. I could have told readers that the sum equaled $111,644.86 in 2017. The problem with making such a comparison is that it yanks the reader from the epoch to which they have surrendered themselves when reading your book. It may also glumly remind them of the state of their finances or mundane matters like bill paying. Instead I look for a comparison that explains the value of the money within the context of the times. In this case, I wrote, “It was a tidy sum, more than a dozen times the earnings of the average American in 1922.”

Second, I engage in a pleasurable bit of foreshadowing. I explain that Hemingway meager output of stories “filled only a few folders tucked away in a sideboard.” Where the pages were stored will become important several chapters later when his wife Hadley removes them, packs them in a valise, and proceeds to lose the bag traveling to join her husband in Switzerland.

Last, I liked the tone of the page and thought it read well. But, sadly, I notice that I took a short cut in using the overused phrased “basked in his success.” I could have done better in explaining Dos Passos’s literary achievement. Sigh. A book is never really ever finished.
Learn more about the book and author at the official James McGrath Morris website.

The Page 99 Test: Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print, and Power.

The Page 99 Test: Eye on the Struggle.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Felix Arnold's "Islamic Palace Architecture in the Western Mediterranean"

Felix Arnold is both an architect and archaeologist who has conducted extensive field work in Egypt, Spain and Syria. As a senior research fellow of the German Archaeological Institute in Cairo, he currently directs excavation projects at Córdoba (Spain), Dahshur, and Elephantine (Egypt).

Arnold applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Islamic Palace Architecture in the Western Mediterranean: A History, and reported the following:
Page 99 is a great page. In the center of the page is a line drawing of the facade of a palace – one of the most beautiful façades of the Islamic culture that I know. The façade could be completely hidden behind two enormous wooden shutters. Opening those shutters was like opening a treasury chest, or a box of chocolates. Once opened, the shutters revealed a wide, open arcade of three arches, surmounted by a panel of intricate geometric patterns. Above the drawing of the façade is the floor plan of the palace. I just love floor plans. Like a computer game they seem to be generated by a hidden mathematical formula that governs the proportions and interconnections of spaces. At the same time the ground plan is all that you need to image the complete building as a three dimensional object, an object through which you can walk, and marvel at from any point of view you chose. Below the drawings is a rather random snippet of text, a segment of one of those descriptions that may seem rather long winding, and offsetting to a reader not accustomed to dealing with architecture. One sentence nevertheless stands out on the page, at the beginning of a paragraph: “The typology of the reception area is unique in all of Córdoba.” What I like about that sentence is that it suggests that the building has individuality, and even character. For me, every building is unique, and has a personality all of its own. In this case, what makes the building unique is the way spaces are placed next to each other, instead of one behind the other. Features that make a building unique reveal, if only in a fleeting way, the thoughts of an architect of the distant past: “let’s try something different, something that has never been done before.” Such thoughts are familiar to architects working today, but are often deemed too modern to have occurred in the past. I strongly believe, however, that such thoughts accompany any kind of innovation, present or past. Innovative ideas are timeless, as fresh today as at the moment they entered a mind for the first time. And more than anything this belief in the accessibility of the mind of architects has guided me in writing the book, and in fact in looking at any architecture, Islamic or otherwise. Yes, I do like that page 99, however random it appears at first glance.
Learn more about Islamic Palace Architecture in the Western Mediterranean at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, March 24, 2017

Nathan F. Sayre's "The Politics of Scale"

Nathan F. Sayre is professor and chair of geography at the University of California, Berkeley. His books include Working Wilderness: The Malpai Borderlands Group and the Future of the Western Range.

Sayre applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Politics of Scale: A History of Rangeland Science, and reported the following:
Page 99 of The Politics of Scale concerns a global issue that most people know almost nothing about: the conversion of vast areas of grasslands to shrublands. “Shrub encroachment” was first documented scientifically in southern Arizona and New Mexico, where the US government had located its earliest research stations following episodes of severe overgrazing during droughts at the turn of the 20th century. Sometimes referred to as “desertification,” it is most commonly found in semi-arid regions, which are too dry for crop agriculture but wet enough to grow highly nutritious forage grasses for livestock—as long as the grasses aren’t displaced by shrubs, that is.

Why does shrub conversion happen, and can it be reversed? These questions stymied scientists for most of the 20th century. The landscapes in question were huge—tens of millions of acres in the Southwestern US alone—and the loss of grass was seen as a regional and even national crisis. But the lands were not actually very productive in money terms—30, 40, or even 80 acres being necessary to support a single cow for a year—so any solution would have to be very low-cost to make the investment economical.

Fire was the only real solution—indeed, recurrent fires were why grasses had dominated for centuries prior to the arrival of Europeans and their livestock. But the government agency most responsible for rangeland science in the early 20th century—the US Forest Service—considered wildfires a mortal threat to itself as well as its lands, and the scientists it employed were disallowed from studying the possible benefits of burning rangelands.

The scientists were also blinded by the assumptions on which rangeland ecology was founded. The theory of plant succession held that overgrazing was the cause of shrub invasion, and that grasses would return “naturally” if livestock were controlled or removed. Even when data clearly refuted these ideas—as described on page 99—the Forest Service “rejected the plain story written on the face of Nature,” to quote from Aldo Leopold.

In the US, agencies and ranchers have fought each other for a century without resolution because they shared a flawed mental model of how rangelands work. Overseas, pastoralists in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and the Americas have been erroneously blamed for desertification and compelled to give up their time-tested management practices. The Politics of Scale explains why.
Learn more about The Politics of Scale at the University of Chicago Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Sharon Ann Murphy's "Other People’s Money"

Sharon Ann Murphy, a Professor of History at Providence College, examines the complex interactions between financial institutions and their clientele during the nineteenth century. She is the author of Investing in Life: Insurance in Antebellum America (2010), winner of the 2012 Hagley Prize for the best book in business history.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Other People's Money: How Banking Worked in the Early American Republic, and reported the following:
Page 99 begins with an 1834 political cartoon depicting President Andrew Jackson saving the republic from the corruption of the Second Bank of the United States during the Bank War. But this cartoon by itself is misleading. A year earlier, the same artist had critiqued Jackson’s actions as being a failed experiment that was running the American ship of commerce aground. As both cartoons indicate, the Bank War was part of a much larger debate about the acceptable role of banks and banknotes in the American economy. Most people agreed that the existence of banks provided many benefits to their local communities: facilitating exchange, encouraging commerce, enabling the completion of internal improvements projects, and generally creating more opportunities for local inhabitants to increase their wealth. Yet these benefits came at a cost, and Americans were divided over whether the benefits outweighed the costs. Although banks were supposed to promote economic stability, many believed that they were responsible for introducing even more instability into the system through their use of fractional reserve banking. Others questioned the republican implications of granting special privileges to the incorporators of banking corporations and of concentrating wealth in the hands of a few individuals. These seemingly contradictory cartoons by Anthony Imbert capture the uncertainty of the average person at the time. Americans grappled with striking an acceptable balance on the banking issue, harnessing the benefits of banks while...
reining in the excesses of the system. Yet in winning the Bank War, Jackson did neither. Up through the Civil War, the nation’s banking system would become less rather than more stable, with no national institution or government regulations to serve as a check on the state-chartered banks.

The Panics of 1837 and 1839

By the mid-1830s, coincident with the Bank War and the removal of the deposits, the economy entered another speculative land boom that was very similar to the boom prior to the Panic of 1819. Both international and domestic demand for cotton again skyrocketed, driving up prices for the commodity. As a result, demand for western cotton lands and the slaves to help work this land likewise increased dramatically. Between 1830 and 1835, the number of commercial banks approximately doubled to over seven hundred institutions, all issuing banknotes and providing loans for the purchase of more land and slaves. The Bank War contributed to this expansion as government depository banks, numbering around ninety by 1836, used their increased funds to justify more loans and banknotes. (99)
Page 99 thus captures the heart of the book. For most students of American history, the Bank War is the main—if not the only—encounter with the history of money and banking from the Revolution through the Civil War. Historians often tell its story from the perspective of politics, yet this political fight had economic causes and consequences that are often lost in the telling of that tale. It is difficult to understand the true extent of the passions behind the Bank War without first understanding how the financial system worked during the first century of the nation’s existence. Money and banking played a critical role in the lives of everyday Americans, shaping the society in which they lived and worked. This book examines the economic context for the political and social events from the American Revolution through the Civil War, as well as explaining the nineteenth-century roots of America’s continued love-hate relationship with money and banking.
Learn more about Other People's Money at the Johns Hopkins University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, March 20, 2017

Craig Clunas's "Chinese Painting and Its Audiences"

Craig Clunas is Professor of the History of Art at the University of Oxford. His books include Screen of Kings: Royal Art and Power in Ming China, Empire of Great Brightness: Visual and Material Culture and Social Status in Early Modern China, and Art in China.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Chinese Painting and Its Audiences, and reported the following:
There are no words on page 99 of Chinese Painting and Its Audiences, and not even a page number. Given that this is a book about pictures, and about looking at pictures, this seems broadly appropriate, and so the test works in this instance. What the reader will see on page 99 is a reproduction of a huge wall painting in the Palace Museum Beijing (it’s over three metres high and five metres wide) which shows the Qianlong emperor, who ruled China from 1736 to 1795, viewing a couple of peacocks displaying their magnificent tails in his palace gardens. There is also a detail of the picture, which focuses more closely on the figure of the emperor, and on the eunuch attendants who stand around his armchair.

The book is about a range of audiences for Chinese painting over the last five centuries or so; the plural in the title is important. Page 99 falls in Chapter 3, ‘The Emperor’, which is preceded by ‘The Gentleman’, and followed by ‘The Merchant’, ‘The Nation’, and ‘The People’. These are not necessarily specific individuals (although the Qianlong emperor certainly is one), they are more in the way of idealized types of spectator, and the types of viewing Chinese painting which have gone with them. So the book aims to act as a history both of what kinds of painting were produced in China since about 1500, and also of the ways that painting has been conditioned by the sorts of people who looked at it and the sorts of contexts in which they did so. A central theme of the ‘Emperor’ chapter has to do with solitary viewing, as opposed to the collective viewing by a group of friends which is the subject of the preceding chapter. It strikes me that the act of reading an art history book, and looking at its illustrations, reproduces for each of us this powerful individual vision and sense of control.
Learn more about Chinese Painting and Its Audiences at the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Leslie Sklair's "The Icon Project"

Leslie Sklair is Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the London School of Economics. He worked in a cotton mill outside Glasgow for two years before going to university to study sociology and philosophy. Both experiences fostered a life-long interest in how capitalist society works in different ways for different groups of people. In particular his long-standing interest in architecture and cities sharpened his vision on the power of the built environment to shape our lives.

Sklair applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Icon Project: Architecture, Cities, and Capitalist Globalization, and reported the following:
From page 99:
cluster around it since its opening in 2004. It has featured in many media outlets, attracting attention from political leaders as well as design communities from California to China. A stamp was issued in France to celebrate its opening. The bridge was designed by French engineer Michel Virlogeux and Norman Foster (who got most of the Anglophone credit) and won an IABSE Outstanding Structure Award in 2006. Virlogeux, along with two French architects, also designed Pont de Normandie over the Seine outside Le Havre, the longest cable- stayed bridge in the world when it opened in 1995. While the other bridges discussed earlier have experienced a relatively low level of commodification, Pont de Normandie is an excellent example of celebrity infrastructure at a high level of commodification and corporatization, at the local and regional scale. This is not simply a bridge; it has some of the elements of a small theme park, with a video introduction, guided tours, souvenirs, murals and models of the construction of the project, interactive computer graphics, ‘diaporamas’, restaurant, and an ‘engineers garden’. The informative brochure which greets visitors is issued by the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Le Havre, a public institution of the French state servicing the industrial, trade, and service providers of its territory. The website of Pont de Normandie links directly with CCI Le Havre, and it is soon obvious that the bridge is an integral part of the tourist and business strategy of the region, fulfilling my criteria of celebrity infrastructure. The bridge is commodified to the extent that vehicles pay to use it (though pedestrians and bikes go free); corporatized to the extent that it was partly financed by corporate investment (sometime part- owned by the Australian Macquarie Group); decidedly run like a profit- oriented business; amplified through consumerism in realms that bridges do not obviously provide; and is clearly being turned into a local/ regional icon (figure 3.8).

While not all bridges are as celebrated as the Millau Viaduct or as commercially developed as Pont de Normandie, many are certainly exploited commercially at various scales. For example, the Øresund Bridge between Denmark and Sweden (2000) has had a TV crime drama (The Bridge) based around it, and it is used in marketing in Scandinavia. It has also received the ultimate accolade in that part of the world: its image was employed to symbolize the connection between Sweden and the rest of Europe in the Eurovision Song Contest in 2013, thereby reaching an audience of many millions. It also won an IABSE Outstanding Structure Award in 2002 and was mobilized in the campaign against independence for Scotland as a curious exemplar of the benefits of international connections.
I was intrigued to find that page 99 did touch on several of the central themes of the book - iconic architecture, here in the form of celebrity infrastructure as in bridges; the commodification of everything, turning bridges into little theme parts; the connection with what I call 'the culture-ideology of consumerism'; and the and overlaps between architecture/engineering and the corporate, political, technical, and consumerist (including the mass media and advertising) sectors.

The rest of the book adds to this analysis (iconic buildings and structures are defined in terms of acknowledged aesthetic/symbolic significance and famous at the global, national or the urban/local level. I distinguish between the unique iconic architecture of the starchitects and signature architects (genuine works of art) and what I label the typical architectural icons (those buildings that copy elements of unique icons) that we can see in cities all over the world. The book has a global scope, with case studies of iconic architecture and urban megaprojects from the prosperous West and the Arabian Gulf to the so-called developing East and South (notably China). There are few cities anywhere in the world which do not now have unique iconic buildings and/or typical iconic buildings and, as I argue throughout the book, these phenomena cannot be properly understood without reference to the global culture-ideology of consumerism and the incessant growth imperative of capitalist globalization.

The concluding chapter argues that many architects today are not entirely happy with the consumerist-corporate agenda that appears to drive architecture all over the world and that they would be ready to provide a more sustainable built environment to meet the needs of alternative globalizations.
Learn more about The Icon Project at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Chip Colwell's "Plundered Skulls and Stolen Spirits"

Chip Colwell is senior curator of anthropology at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Plundered Skulls and Stolen Spirits: Inside the Fight to Reclaim Native America's Culture, and reported the following:
This is how the massacre began. Nearly 700 soldiers of the U.S. Army charged towards the sleeping village like a stampeding herd of buffalo. Tendrils of thick clouds heaved from the mouths of men and horses like dragons in the arctic air. Possessed by a wild fury, the soldiers’ hearts beat faster when they saw on the horizon the scores of tipis huddled at a gentle bend along Sand Creek.

On the bitter cold morning of November 29, 1864, the U.S. Army attacked a peaceful Cheyenne and Arapaho settlement at the eastern edge of Colorado, slaughtering upwards of 200 people, mostly women, children, and the elderly. After the killing ended, the soldiers plundered the dead—taking body parts as trophies, including fingers, genitalia, and scalps. When the Army returned to Denver they were greeted as heroes. During a parade that snaked through downtown Denver, the scalps were raised to cheers. At a Christmas performance in Denver’s theater, 100 scalps were strung across the stage. The audiences, it was reported, “applauded rapturously.”

Page 99 of Plundered Skulls and Stolen Spirits ends this horrifying story. The story is an extreme but not entirely unrepresentative example of how over the last several centuries Native American human remains were transformed from parts of human beings into morbid curios and then historical commodities.

At the core of the repatriation wars is the unevenness of how human remains have been treated based on their ethnicity. Before museums stopped actively collecting Native American skeletons, more than 200,000 Indian remains were in U.S. museums. In contrast, only a small percentage of skeletal remains in museums were Anglos. The return of ancestral remains is thus an enormous burden on Native peoples—a burden they neither asked for or wanted. In this way, a concluding remark on page 99 goes to the heart of the book:
And unlike the settlers who mostly could bury their dead, for the Cheyenne and Arapaho, their past could not so easily be put behind them. For Colorado’s Natives, this history would not end in 1864 or even 1890 at the close of the Indian Wars, because for generations the remains of the victims—their forebears—continued to circulate around Denver and beyond.
One of the scalps from the Sand Creek Massacre ended up at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, where I work as a curator. It took 18 years of bureaucratic wrangling to get just this one scalp returned and respectfully buried by the trickling waters of Sand Creek. The ethical drive of the book is this long struggle for justice, reconciliation, and respect—how to make human remains that have been turned into soulless artifacts human once again. The Sand Creek scalp is but one story in the book, but one that does begin to reveal the whole.
Visit Chip Colwell's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Z. Fareen Parvez's "Politicizing Islam"

Z. Fareen Parvez is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Politicizing Islam: The Islamic Revival in France and India, and reported the following:
From page 99:
In turn, mosques and madrasas gave back to the community in important material ways. During Ramadan, Masjid Arabiya frequently provided iftar dinner, the meal to break the daily fast, to the neighborhood children. I would see volunteers light lamps, roll out carpets on the street, and bring out large vats of rice and curries, which the children hungrily devoured as they sat on the rugs. Madrasas also generally provide free lunches for their students, an enormous benefit to the many families who might otherwise send their children to beg on the street or work odd jobs.

Because prayer is required five times every day, mosques also provided physical space and respite for many poor residents. Most families in slum or low- income neighborhoods lived in cramped, one-room, rented homes. Mustafa, an elderly resident of Shanthi Colony, attended Masjid Arabiya every day. After decades of supporting his family as an auto- rickshaw driver, Mustafa suffered a stroke and partial paralysis. He was one of seemingly many men in the neighborhood left unable to work after suffering an injury or medical crisis. Most of these men could not afford the costs of proper treatment or rehabilitation. Mustafa’s seven-person family lived in a one-bedroom home. Masjid Arabiya played an important role in his life, as he hobbled to the mosque five times daily. There, he prayed, enjoyed the qhutbas, and begged for money. Because everyone at the mosque bore a responsibility to give him small amounts, he received enough money to survive.

Mustafa’s daily routine at the mosque also had an important gendered aspect. When men went to the mosque to spend hours with the community, women enjoyed more privacy and physical space in the home. While his wife, daughters, and daughter-in-law appreciated his brief absences, I could also see that Mustafa’s daily routine of walking to Masjid Arabiya provided him with a sense of independence in an extraordinarily emasculating and dependent state.
Politicizing Islam: the Islamic Revival in France and India presents an ethnographic study of how minority Muslim communities struggle to improve their lives in the era of the War on Terror. It draws on two years of participant observation and interviews among observant Muslims in the French city of Lyon and the Indian city of Hyderabad. Both cities have experienced vibrant Islamic revival movements, including sectarian forms of Islam such as Salafism (often labeled vaguely as “radical Islam”) that states attempt to regulate and monitor. Yet, despite this similarity, the communities I knew developed very different relationships to politics. The book describes and explains four different types of movements taking place across the two cities and across class.

Middle-class and elite Muslim activists engaged politics in a more traditional sense, by seeking economic and religious rights from the state. But poor and subaltern Muslims actually withdrew from the state. In Lyon’s urban periphery, the religious women I knew retreated into the private sphere and did not have a lot of hope for their futures. In contrast, in low-income neighborhoods in Hyderabad, Muslim women, especially, took part in “political communities” based on various projects to better their lives and strengthen the wider community.

Page 99 takes readers into one of these low-income neighborhoods in Hyderabad and shows them how small mosques and madrasas benefit these communities suffering from poverty. Men and women take on different roles here, but both benefit from these neighborhood institutions.
Learn more about Politicizing Islam at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Alessandra Mezzadri’s "Sweatshop Regime"

Alessandra Mezzadri is Senior Lecturer in Development Studies at SOAS, University of London. Her areas of specialism are material approaches to commodity chains and production systems, global sweatshops and labour standards, gender, feminisms and social reproduction, and the political economy of contemporary India.

Mezzadri applied the “Page 99 Test” to The Sweatshop Regime: Labouring Bodies, Exploitation and Garments Made in India, her first book, and reported the following:
From page 99 (Chapter 3, ‘Difference & the Sweatshop’):
The ‘Sumangali girls’ are recruited and placed at work under the promise of the payment of a lump-sum at the end of a 3-year employment period. During this employment period, girls may only be provided with subsistence expenses or given extremely low monthly salaries; harsh conditions which are endured in order to access the final payment. In many cases, families allow their daughters to be part of the scheme to be able to pay for their marriage-related expenses in the future (Vérité, 2010). While the report specifically targets ‘domestic’ units in Tiruppur, the strong local interrelation between domestic and export production raises some doubts on the possible deployment of the scheme also in export units. Besides, the Tiruppur knitwear industry is not new to problems of bonded labour. In 2008, the Panorama documentary Primark on the Rack unveiled even the deployment by the local garment industry of Sri Lankan children from refugee camps as home-based workers(…).

Arguably, the difficulties in the eradication of the Sumangali lie in the interplays between forms of oppression shaped by the social institution of gender and highly discriminatory and exploitative patterns of work. Indeed, in this case ‘difference’, manifesting in harsh forms of inequality, pre-exists the entry of Sumangali girls into the sweatshops. In fact, it sets the basis for the differential, highly discriminatory processes of commodification of their labour. At the same time, it allows for the maximization of exploitation inside the sweatshops.
The Sweatshop Regime is a book about exploitation, and it explains how we wear it every day on our clothes. Focusing on India, the book explains what characterises the global production system producing our garments, and who are the people toiling incessantly so that we can continue shopping at our favourite high street retailers. This global production system is presented as a joint enterprise against the labouring poor, where multiple actors – global buyers and retailers, domestic exporters and producers, but also many local intermediaries and ultimately consumers – engage in practices reproducing working poverty.

The excerpts above from page 99 of the book summarise quite well one of its key aims - that of discussing the complexities with which ‘difference’ is strategically utilised by garment exporters to (re)produce multiple inequalities on the factory shopfloor, in workshops, or even in homes; i.e. in all spaces of production needed to create our garments. Such inequalities are crucial to cut costs. So, the bodies of workers, on which they obviously ‘wear’ their gender, age, geographical provenance, or caste/community affiliation, are reduced to a strategic asset for producers to exploit for the maximisation of profit making.

Gender, in particular, is a key asset for Indian exporters, and it is exploited in different ways across the Sweatshop Regime. The excerpts in question discuss the case of the Sumangali Scheme in India, an infamous scheme targeting young girls and their desire to save towards their future. Its features are described in the excerpts. Besides epitomising the harsh ways in which gender inequality is entrenched into India’s clothing industry today, the Sumangali case also speaks loudly about the relationship between gender and labour ‘unfreedom’. By 2005, the first time I visited Tamil Nadu, labour activists were already comparing the scheme to a modern form of slavery. Today, the debate on modern slavery has reached a global dimension.

While too many accounts stress the ‘extraordinary nature’ of modern slavery, the Sumangali case, like the other cases discussed in the book, shows instead how given practices are quite ordinary, well-established locally, and thriving despite attempts at ethical interventions. In fact, this is a crucial point the book also stresses in its conclusions. Far from laying at the very extremes of the global system through which our clothes are stitched and delivered to our high streets, bondage, unfreedom and what many now call ‘modern slavery’ is simply business as usual for the many working poor who toil across such system. Ultimately, such slavery is only as modern as our clothes; based on the global quest for ever cheaper labour, as reflected in the price tags of the blouses, jeans, and sweaters we wear every day.
Learn more about The Sweatshop Regime at the Cambridge University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, March 10, 2017

Jason C. Parker's "Hearts, Minds, Voices"

Jason C. Parker is Associate Professor of History at Texas A&M University. He is the author of Brother's Keeper: The United States, Race, and Empire in the British Caribbean, 1937-1962, which won the Stuart L. Bernath Book Award from the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations.

Parker applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, Hearts, Minds, Voices: US Cold War Public Diplomacy and the Formation of the Third World, and reported the following:
At first glance, I thought my book had “failed” the Page 99 test. The page [inset below left; click to enlarge] drops the reader into the middle of the 1956 Suez Crisis– a milestone of post-World War II international history by any measure, and one of the twelve case-studies in the book– with particular attention to the American, British, and Egyptian “public diplomacy” surrounding it. Upon closer reading and further reflection, though, page 99 nicely encapsulates my larger argument. The Suez Crisis was one of the most important sites of the ongoing collision of decolonization and the Cold War. It was among the earliest such sites to find actors outside the global North vocally and visibly asserting a presence on an increasingly crowded world stage– with far-reaching consequences for the decades to follow.

My book examines the superpowers’ efforts to implant the Cold War in the decolonizing global South via public diplomacy, defined as a state’s attempt to shape foreign opinion in ways that serve a strategic interest. I argue that this– the proverbial campaign to “win hearts and minds”– instead, and quite unintentionally from Washington’s perspective, catalyzed the formation of the “imagined community” of the Third World. The book seeks to historicize that term, which although it has fallen into contemporary disfavor was nonetheless, in its era and to its champions, a positive aspiration if not an epochal destiny. This collective identity had three main components. A focus on the empires’ legacy of colonial poverty and the need for economic development; a vague but powerful sense of racial solidarity among non-European peoples; and a drive for national sovereignty en route to an independent, autonomous geopolitical role had all coursed variously through global-South circuits in the decades preceding the Cold War. But it took the superpower conflict to fuse them together. Most of the soon-to-be-labeled Third World experienced that conflict not as bloody, violent intervention, but rather as a media war– one they joined as soon as national independence permitted. Once they did, their own public-diplomacy initiatives to their neighbors and to the global North made for a noisy and crowded global arena. This tended to crowd out the superpowers’ Cold War messaging– and more importantly, it spurred and gave discursive shape to the Third World Project.
Learn more about Hearts, Minds, Voices at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue