Why Late Antiquity (and All History) Needs Twits

by Andrew S. Jacobs, author of Epiphanius of Cyprus: A Cultural Biography of Late Antiquity

This guest post is part of a blog series related to Christianity in Late Antiquity, the official book series of the North American Patristics Society, which meets May 25-27 in Chicago for their annual conference. #NAPS2017


“What a twit.” So a wise colleague recently described Epiphanius of Cyprus (d. 403), the oft-maligned subject of my recent book.

At a conference in March, another prominent historian described Epiphanius as “the stupidest of all Church Fathers.”

In conversations with friends and fellow scholars while writing Epiphanius of Cyprus, I heard him called “horrible” and “a liar.”

To be sure, Epiphanius — monk, bishop, controversialist, and author of a massive, multi-volume encyclopedia of heresies characterized by invective, mendacity, and intolerance — was probably not a nice person. But the pages of history books are not populated by “nice guys”: so why the persistent distaste for Epiphanius? This scholarly aversion to Epiphanius is a puzzle I return to in the concluding chapter of Epiphanius of Cyprus, a puzzle compounded by Epiphanius’s undeniable prominence in his own day and time: a celebrity among monks and bishops, dismissed (or, at the least, marginalized) as a liar and twit by scholars today.

I have no interest in promoting Epiphanius’s intellect (although he probably wasn’t so much stupid as he was unphilosophical) and I have no interest in making us like him (he certainly wouldn’t care for me). But I do believe that history-writing is always to some extent an exercise in answering pressing issues in the present by reimagining traces of the past. We find certain persons, texts, and events “interesting” precisely because of our own interests (meaning both our engagements and our stakes). If Epiphanius seems not to fit into our histories, it is because he works against those interests.

What kind of past are we determined to create that has no room for Epiphanius? Why doesn’t our late antiquity have room for twits?

The writing of history, like any cultural production, is a story we want to tell about ourselves. Late antiquity — born in the colonial 19th century, nourished in the postcolonial 1950s, and matured in the multicultural 1970s — was a period of intellectual ferment, transformation, and rebirth, a Eurasian renaissance from which emerged new thinking, new arts, and new religions. It reversed the sneering disdain of Enlightenment historians like Edward Gibbon. It claimed as its mascots the great thinkers and idea men (and, in more recent years, idea women), impresarios of change and authors of new worlds. It is entirely understandable that we would want to produce a late antiquity from which we might imagine a better present and future for ourselves.

History-writing, like all culture-making, is about inclusions and exclusions, about viewing our world with certain blinders. Epiphanius was perhaps a twit, certainly intolerant, absolutely dedicated to finding and rooting out “the other” from his orthodox empire. To exclude him from our culture-making forays into the past, however, is to leave ourselves open to all sorts of unpleasant surprises about the world we inhabit in the present. Epiphanius’s prominence in late antiquity was not, I argue, a fluke but rather the dark side of a new, transformative, diverse world being born. I am not calling for a return to Gibbon’s sneering condemnation of late antiquity, but rather a more clear-eyed appreciation of all of its shadows and nuances.

We may not like the twits of history, but without facing them head on we are disarming ourselves against them in the present and the future.


Andrew S. Jacobs is Professor of Religious Studies and Mary W. and J. Stanley Johnson Professor of Humanities at Scripps College in Claremont, California. He is the author of Remains of the Jews: The Holy Land and Christian Empire in Late Antiquity and Christ Circumcised: A Study in Early Christian History and Difference.


Are Contemporary Political Movements Ancient “Heresies” in Disguise?

by Yonatan Moss, author of Incorruptible Bodies: Christology, Society, and Authority in Late Antiquity

This guest post is part of a blog series related to Christianity in Late Antiquity, the official book series of the North American Patristics Society, which meets May 25-27 in Chicago for their annual conference. #NAPS2017


In 1959 the British historian of the Roman Empire, A. H. M. Jones, published an influential article entitled “Were Ancient Heresies Political or Social Movements in Disguise?”. Despite the interrogatory pose assumed in its title, Jones’s essay was more of a response than a question. It responded to the then regnant understanding among historians that the series of “heretical” movements that rocked the late ancient Roman imperial church were motivated by national aspirations and social grievances. Jones effectively showed that this was not at all the case. National and social concerns were, Jones argued, predominantly modern categories which the historians of his day had anachronistically imposed upon the theologically-minded inhabitants of the later Roman Empire.

My recent book, Incorruptible Bodies: Christology, Society and Authority in Late Antiquity, studies one of those late ancient “heresies” examined by Jones: the group now commonly referred to as the Miaphysite movement. The Miaphysites (from Greek mia-one, physis-nature) disputed the definition reached at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, according to which there are two natures, one human and one divine, in Christ. Contrary to the imperial administration’s enforcement of Chalcedon as official policy, millions of Christians from Egypt to Eastern Turkey continued to adhere to one-nature theology. They gradually established churches of their own, separate from the ecclesiastical structures of the Empire. Although these churches ultimately came to be known under the names of Syrian Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox and Ethiopian Orthodox, each with its own distinctive language of liturgy and theological expression, Jones was right to point out that initially, in the fifth-and-sixth centuries, these were not “national” movements. Several of the foundational figures of the Syrian Orthodox church, such as Severus of Antioch, one of the main actors in my book, spoke and wrote in Greek, rather than in Syriac. Contrary to a narrative popular in earlier scholarship, according to which Severus of Antioch strove to separate from the official, Chalcedonian church of the Empire, Incorruptible Bodies shows that he actually did everything he could to remain within the imperial church, seeking to win it over to his anti-Chalcedonian stance.

The lesson learned from Jones’s article, one which we historians find ourselves relearning time and again, is how not to project contemporary categories back onto the past. Yet, does this mean that no connections exist between the past and the present? Having published my book last year, as I now witness the political events unfolding in Washington, I see deep similarities between the two. I have come to realize how, rather than viewing the past through the prism of the present, we can do the reverse.

While contemporary American political controversies deal with very different concerns than those that plagued the churches of the later Roman Empire, both revolve around disagreements over the proper route to what may be called individual and collective “salvation,” whether that salvation is spiritual, moral or material. The dilemma that now plagues the Democratic Party (and which similarly occupied Republicans during the Obama administration), is structurally equivalent to the key question underlying the disputes among the sixth-century anti-Chalcedonian bishops analyzed in my book: how must one implement one’s vision of salvation when power lays in the hands of those whose views one considers “heretical” and obstacles to salvation? Does one insist on ideological purity, or does one try to change the system from within, either in the name of social unity or in the name of shorter-term gains? The range of answers offered within the Democratic Party mirrors the array of positions defended by the late ancient Miaphysites. But whereas the end of the current political debate is still open, we do know what course of action the Miaphysite movement ultimately decided on. What was this course of action? Readers of Incorruptible Bodies, whether or not they happen to be Democratic policy-makers, can find out for themselves.


Yonatan Moss is a scholar at the Martin Buber Society of Fellows at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem where he teaches in the Department of Comparative Religion.


APA / Heritage / Month: A Problem in Three Parts

by Sharon Luk, author of the forthcoming The Life of Paper: Letters and a Poetics of Living Beyond Captivity

for Lawson Fusao Inada

1. APA (Asian Pacific American)

“Asian Americans” and “Pacific Islanders” are two different panethnic groups, each with their own history, development, and problems… for the most part, Pacific Islanders have fought to be excluded from the Asian American category.

J. Kehaulani Kauanui

Gala, Granny Smith, Fuji, Jazz — each its own variety, grouped into what we commonly call “apples” for a certain kind of efficacy.

Navel, Valencia, Blood (can Tangerines fit here?) — each its own variety, grouped into what we commonly call “oranges” for perhaps comparable purposes of reference.

If someone invited me to celebrate Apples Oranges Month, I imagine my first response might be, “Do you mean Apples and Oranges?”

In this crude analogy to Asian Pacific American Heritage Month (do you mean Asian and Pacific Islander American Heritage Month?) I don’t assume that the “someone” who invited me to their celebration would hear my question. In many settings, they almost never feel a responsibility to answer or seek clarity.

What exactly is it, then, that we are being asked to celebrate?

2. APA Heritage

…the old poem
birthing itself
into the new
and murderous century.

Li-Young Lee

My heart goes out to the students in my Introduction to Asian American Studies class (and in this present discussion now, I’m excluding Pacific Islanders to honor their distinction). I told them this course could not in any way approach the depth and breadth of all the people who have, at one time or another, been included in the racial category “Asian/- American.” I told them it could not represent any, let alone all, particular ethnicities ortheir experiences. I told them it certainly could not reveal to anyone “who they are.” In this context, then: What is it that we are supposed to be learning?

I ask students to study the processes involved in creating an Asian/-American racial distinction. We examine specific instances in post-1865 U.S. history to question how this distinction has mediated developments in racial capitalism. The construction of nation-states. Empires. War. Survival. More war… I don’t know how to make any of this easy to digest (and now, a corollary issue — can this really be the goal?). The deeper we get into the twentieth century, the more confused students become. Their faces look at me as if to ask, so are Asian Americans good or bad?

Despite the profound constraints on their universe of reference, I think students’ confusions about the contradictions of “Asian American” distinction may still get at the crux of the dilemma the latter heritage presents. That is, what “truths” are to be found in such cycles of suffering?

3. APA Heritage Month

every word of every image is a step towards the end this
urgency dictates that the sentence as we know it no longer
an option grammar is obsolete stories once told in detailed
chapters have been reduced to a noun a verb the father dies the
lover leaves in search of his own ending perhaps now the
writing can finally begin

Truong Tran

What is a month supposed to measure? What story does this measurement tell? In whose words does that story come? What end do those words bring (or, try in vain to defer)?

Let’s assume that Asian American heritage cannot fit into those limits — nor Pacific Islander, nor any people’s heritage, for that matter. Then, the problem of heritage remains beyond what is celebrated in a month and its killing, the problem’s most urgent expressions coming in forms that at once accept their mortality and open out to the living.


Sharon Luk is Assistant Professor of Ethnic Studies at University of Oregon.

Her forthcoming book The Life of Paper explores the evolution of racism and confinement in California history. Publishing this November, the book offers a wholly original and inspiring analysis of how people facing systematic social dismantling have engaged in letter correspondence to remake themselves.


Q & A with the Editor of Christianity in Late Antiquity

The Official Book Series of the North American Patristics Society

This Q & A is the first post in a blog series related to Christianity in Late Antiquity and published in conjunction with the conference of the North American Patristics Society, which meets May 25-27 in Chicago. Stay tuned for more guest contributions from authors in the series. #NAPS2017


Christianity in Late Antiquity presents outstanding new scholarship on late-ancient Christianity in its various cultural contexts. The series represents the full range of approaches to early Christianity practiced by scholars in North America and internationally, combining the best of theological analysis and institutional history with newer approaches in social history, material culture, liturgical studies, and gender studies. Its geographical and linguistic purview includes the Mediterranean world, North Africa, Northern Europe, Arabia, and the Levant.

As the North American Patristics Society convenes this week in Chicago, we asked editor Christopher Beeley to discuss the series, his own research, and how these titles will contribute to the field of early Christian studies.

What inspired you to develop the Christianity in Late Antiquity series?

Several years ago I noticed that something important was missing. The field of early Christian studies was growing in very creative ways in North America, both numerically and in terms of new perspectives, but there was no standard, general series at an American press that one would immediately think of. So I proposed to the North American Patristics Society—our main academic association—that we recreate the Society’s official book series, which once played a vital role, to reflect the full range of methodological approaches being practiced by North American scholars, and to launch a new initiative with a major American university press. That led to the conversion of the Patristic Monograph Series to the new Christianity in Late Antiquity (CLA) series with the University of California Press. There was much energy among the senior membership of NAPS as well as younger scholars, and we have since seen a great deal of interest in the series.

Can you tell us more about your research interests and areas of expertise?

My favorite thing about the early Christian studies scene in North America is that, while we certainly have our squabbles and debates, people of different and often overlapping methodological approaches work alongside one another in what are usually creative and mutually-beneficial ways. This has not always been the case in other academic associations, regrettably. The interdisciplinarity of NAPS and the conversation we enjoy is an incredible asset, and the new series reflects that. As the series editor I work with authors with very different interests.

I have studied and taught early Christianity for over twenty years, and I am interested in numerous aspects of the period. Thus far I have concentrated on the development of early Christian theology, spirituality, and biblical interpretation, and I pay close attention to the construction of authority by theologians and church councils, the way early Christian writers position themselves rhetorically, and their nearly constant concern for practical matters of individual and social ethics. I have learned a great deal from my colleagues working in similar and different areas, and I am glad to have received their responses to my work as well.

What sets the titles in Christianity in Late Antiquity apart from other books in the field?

What distinguishes CLA from the other outlets is the broad and integrative quality of the work it represents. We don’t simply publish works that represent a wide range of perspectives individually, but we aim to present books that integrate them in new and creative ways. The first two volumes do this in spades.

Yonatan Moss’ Incorruptible Bodies examines the sixth-century debate over the nature of Christ’s human body—in particular, whether is was incorruptible prior to the resurrection or not—but it does so by examining how that question gets played out in the social and political configurations surrounding the major players. There are both old-school historical dividends and new-school theoretical perspectives involved. Moss shows not only that Bishop Severus of Antioch, the great patriarch of the non-Chalcedonian church in Syria, preferred to remain in alliance with the emerging Byzantine empire, despite his opposition to the fractious Council of Chalcedon—a fact that has eluded previous scholars—but Moss also sheds light on how the ecclesial bodies of the rival communities around Severus show different social dynamics in relation to their stance on Christ’s body. It’s fascinating.

Andrew Jacobs’ brilliant new study of the fourth-century bishop and heresy-hunter Epiphanius of Cyprus likewise gives us new details of Epiphanius’ life and works along with a very contemporary new perspective on the phenomenon of his wide influence. By attending to ecclesiastical power structures and making use of modern celebrity studies, Jacobs accounts for Epiphanius’ amazing success at network-building while also giving serious attention to his biblical interpretation and dogmatic theology. The result is a whole new picture of an important early Christian bishop who is typically overlooked as a person in preference for the otherwise lost sources by other authors that he transmits.

Our third volume, Melania, a collection of studies of the influential aristocratic ascetics Melania the Elder and Melania the Younger and their family and friends, opens new doors in the study of late-ancient Christian spirituality and social history. And we have several new books currently in production of equal promise: on early Christian Syriac poetry, fourth-century Greek ascetical theology, early Christian historiography, and Latin inscriptions.

How do you see the series influencing scholarship in your field?

I expect CLA is going to influence the field of early Christian studies—in North America and internationally—by presenting the sort of pioneering integrative scholarship that North American scholars have come to be known for. While we continue to practice the more traditional modes of study, such as historical theology and institutional history, we bring to these subjects new questions and new forms of inquiry that will yield insight in multiple directions. As the largest society among our international peers, the North American Patristics Society and our associates are poised to give new shape to the field of early Christian studies, and to make important contributions in several others fields as well, from late-ancient history to systematic theology to cultural studies.


Christopher Beeley is Professor of Christian theology and history and modern Anglican tradition at Yale Divinity School. He is the author of Leading God’s People: Wisdom from the Early Church for Today, The Unity of Christ: Continuity and Conflict in Patristic Tradition, and Gregory of Nazianzus on the Trinity and the Knowledge of God, which was the winner of a John Templeton Award for Theological Promise. An Episcopal priest, he has served parishes in Connecticut, Indiana, Texas, and Virginia, and he contributes to Berkeley Divinity School’s Anglican formation program.


5 Questions About the Resurgence of Shari’ah Law in Nigeria

In Shari’ah on Trial: Northern Nigeria’s Islamic Revolution author and scholar of Islam Sarah Eltantawi gives a powerful account of how in 1999 Northern Nigerians reached a point of desperation that they took to the streets to demand the return of the strictest possible shari’ah law. Analyzing changing conceptions of Islamic theology and practice as well as Muslim and British interactions dating back to the colonial period, Eltantawi explains the resurgence of shari’ah in Nigeria and the implications for Muslim-majority countries around the world.

In this Q & A, Eltantawi discusses the case of Amina Lawal — the Nigerian woman sentenced to death by stoning for adultery — that inspired her to write the book, along with the fieldwork and research she conducted to understand the case, and her thoughts on the many perspectives of shari’ah law.


Muslim societies in African countries are generally understudied, which makes your scholarship all that much more important today. Can you tell us what led you to this project? How did Nigeria become the focus of your research?

Sarah Eltantawi: On one level, I took on this project because I could not get the trial of Amina Lawal out of my head. In 2002 when Lawal was first sentenced to death by stoning for extra-marital sex, I was working in Washington DC doing what I think of as “post-9-11 triage” for the American Muslim community. On one particular day I was in a meeting of major civil rights leaders when my phone would not stop ringing with media calls. The Lawal case had exploded in the US. Two things immediately struck me as noteworthy about all the attention this case was getting. The first is that this was the same moment the Iraq war was being prepared, and rather than having a sustained national conversation about the deaths that would surely ensure from that war, there seemed to be a collective refocusing on this one case of “African” “Muslim” barbarity against one woman. At the same time, those I consulted about this case and the stoning punishment in the American Muslim leadership seemed to totally dismiss the case as something that “just happened in Africa.”

I knew this could not be true (or was it?), because I knew stoning for adultery was legal under some circumstances in Islamic law (I would later find out that stoning for adultery was virtually unheard of in Islamic history until the 20th century — which is why I call stoning a post-modern/post-colonial phenomena). In short, I sensed that many different actors were projecting a number of interesting things onto this case and my fascination with it took hold and grew. Continue reading “5 Questions About the Resurgence of Shari’ah Law in Nigeria”


The Furor Over Conservative Speakers: A Long Choreographed Enterprise

By Roderick A. Ferguson, author of We Demand: The University and Student Protests

This guest post is part of a blog series of contributions by authors in American Studies Now, an e-book first series of short, timely books on significant political and cultural events.


On April 24, 2017 the Berkeley College Republicans and the Young America’s Foundation filed a lawsuit against UC Berkeley for cancelling visits by conservative authors Ann Coulter and David Horowitz over security concerns, stating: “Though UC Berkeley promises its students an environment that promotes free debate and the free exchange of ideas, it had breached this promise through the repressive actions of University administrators and campus police.” The suit goes on to state that the administration restricts conservative speakers differently than liberal ones.

It’s important to note that the furor over conservative speakers is a well-and-long choreographed enterprise. Indeed, the movements of that choreography were planned well over forty years ago in former Chief Justice Lewis Powell’s secret but generative document popularly known as “The Powell Memorandum.” In 1971 Powell sent the memorandum to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a private organization of business leaders, warning them about the mobilization against capitalism taking place in U.S. society, generally, and on college campuses specifically.

Through the memorandum, Powell attempted to give business leaders a primer on “best practices” for garnering ideological support for corporations and the executives that run them. The category “balance” was central to that effort. Balance would become a powerful ideological tool in that offensive. In the memo, Powell used the category to construct American colleges and universities as inhospitable to and therefore in need of conservative viewpoints. As he stated, “The difficulty is that balance is conspicuous by its absence on many campuses, with relatively few members being of conservative or moderate persuasion and even the relatively few often being less articulate and aggressive than their crusading colleagues.” As an ideological weapon, “balance” was a neutral sounding category that helped to construct business elites as vulnerable minorities against powerful liberal and leftist bullies. In a moment of minority insurgency, “balance” would encourage people to see the business community as a minority among minorities but one that needed to be liberated from its peers.

Part of the ideological offensive represented by “balance” involved using the category to reorganize knowledge within the university so that it would favor conservative social projects. For instance, in a discussion of why a “continuous program” for evaluating social scientific textbooks is necessary, Powell stated, “The objectives of such evaluations should be oriented toward restoring the balance essential to academic freedom. This would include assurance of fair and factual treatment of our system of government and our enterprise system, its accomplishments, its basic relationship to individual rights and freedoms, and comparisons with the systems of socialism, fascism, and communism. Most of the existing textbooks have some sort of comparisons, but many are biased, superficial, and unfair.” The memo is important because it reveals how the issue of balance was never simply about the rights of a singular group of speakers or the free circulation of a particular set of viewpoints. “Balance” was designed from the very beginning to leverage institutional and social conditions so that conservative formations might enjoy dominance while maligning and subjugating their critics.


Roderick A. Ferguson is Professor of American Studies, Gender and Sexuality Studies, and African American Studies at the University of Illinois-Chicago. He is also the co-director of the Racialized Body research cluster at UIC. From 2007 to 2010, he was Associate Editor of the American Studies Association’s flagship journal American Quarterly. Beginning this July, he will serve as president-elect of the American Studies Association for a year before becoming president of the organization in July 2018.

His book We Demand: The University and Student Protests is available as an e-book now, before the print format publishes this August.

 


The Dark Side of Technology and Separation/Divorce Violence Against Women: Image-Based Sexual Abuse

By Walter S. DeKeseredy, co-author of Abusive Endings: Separation and Divorce Violence against Women

Ample scientific evidence supports the claim that technology is routinely used to commit a variety of crimes, such as the distribution of child pornography. Yet, until recently the bulk of the research on the “dark side” of new technologies either ignored or overlooked the fact that the Internet is now a tool used by many men to seriously harm the women who leave them or who want to leave them.

This is one of the key reasons why Molly Dragiewicz, Martin D. Schwartz and I wrote Abusive Endings. Image-based sexual abuse is one of a number of new electronic means of inflicting pain that we devote considerable attention to. Often referred to as revenge porn, there is a huge worldwide audience for such imagery. Regardless of which term or definition one prefers, the pictures and videos are typically made by men with the consent of the women they were intimately involved with, but then distributed online without their consent following women’s termination of a relationship.

Few studies to date have actually measured the extent of image-based sexual abuse, but some researchers estimate that there are now more than 3,000 online sites and the bulk of perpetrators who post on them are male ex-husbands, ex-boyfriends, and ex-lovers.

The harm-done by image-based sexual abuse is often irreparable as demonstrated by Holly Jacobs’ experiences. She is the founder of the advocacy group End Revenge Porn and her boyfriend hacked into her Facebook profile and posted sexually explicit images for relatives and friends to see prior to disseminating more material through revenge porn sites and e-mailing material to her employers. Revenge porn sites were then used by groups of men to harass and abuse her. Consequently, she had to legally change her name, stop going to academic conferences, change jobs and her phone number, and endure other major traumatic hardships.

This electronic type of separation/divorce violence will likely get worse. There is no particular reason to believe that men are reducing their use of sexist, racist, homophobic comments, or verbal attacks. Certainly, this is nothing new. For years, men have being making these remarks in public places. The difference is that today that the same comments, together with hurtful sexual imagery, can gain a wider audience than a few men who happen to be present. Thousands of people can view pictures that were posted without men’s ex-partners’ consent and they will stay on the Internet forever. With the constant stream of new technologies, it is easy for gender-related offenses inflicted by some new invention to take place.

There is, however, some good news. At the time of writing this blog, 36 states have revenge porn laws. Of those that do not, many respond to image-based sexual abuse through other criminal statutes such as laws forbidding harassment, extortion, and stalking. The creation of laws targeting image-based sexual abuse may serve as a powerful deterrent and thus reduce much pain and suffering.


Walter S. DeKeseredy is Anna Deane Carlson Endowed Chair of Social Sciences, Director of the Research Center on Violence, and Professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at West Virginia University. In addition to being the co-author of Abusive Endings with Molly Dragiewicz and Martin D. Schwartz, he is also co-author of Dangerous Exits: Escaping Abusive Relationships in Rural America with Martin D. Schwartz. Walter has received major awards from divisions of the American Society of Criminology for his work on violence against women.


The Complicated History of Crime and the Truth in Mexico

This guest post is published in conjunction with the meeting of the Latin American Studies Association taking place April 29-May 1 in Lima, Peru. #LASA17

by Pablo Piccato, author of A History of Infamy: Crime, Truth, and Justice in Mexico

Projects like the one resulting in my latest book have a life of their own. At first my goal was to take to the present the social history approach to the history of crime in Mexico City I used in City of Suspects (2001), and to engage more explicitly with the growing social science scholarship on security and drug trafficking in Mexico. But as I started the research, and the situation in Mexico deteriorated, the project changed, forcing me to ask new questions. For example, I compiled the statistics of indicted and sentenced in the entire country during the twentieth century only to find that violent crime had steadily decreased until the last years of the century. How to reconcile that with the increasing centrality of the themes of crime and justice in Mexican life? More important, perhaps, was my own disappointment with the emerging scholarship mentioned above. Political scientists, sociologists and legal scholars embraced a state-centered perspective that focused on security and policy models to solve the problem of crime. Yet much of this scholarship did not challenge some of the basic assumptions of the state discourse about crime: criminals were a well-defined group of people, policing and punishment were the only mechanisms to control them, civil society had no role in dealing with transgression, drug trafficking was the cause of everything bad that was happening in the country. A lot was happening indeed: criminal organizations were diversifying their activities and engaging in human trafficking, extortion and other predatory activities along with the production, smuggling and sale of illicit drugs. Mexican governments were increasingly relying on a militarized approach to the so-called “war on drugs.” Policies and aggressive enforcement nevertheless failed to stem the flow of drugs and reduce corruption and impunity. The arrests or killing of the higher ups of some organizations only created internecine fighting among them, and more violence across the national territory. By the beginning of this decade the toll had reached more than a hundred thousand deaths and a large number of disappeared.

Facing the overwhelming scale of the problem, it became clear to me that a mere historical narrative of the transformation of crime during the century would not be so useful. In 2010 I had published another monograph, Tyranny of Opinion, focusing on the history of the public sphere in the nineteenth century. That project’s focus on the public sphere helped me refine my approach to twentieth-century crime: questioning the way in which multiple actors discussed the problem of violence and the shortcomings of justice revealed the basic assumptions that informed contemporary understandings of crime. Thus, for example, examining the debates about famous cases in front of the jury, in the press, and in detective fiction explained the central role that murderers acquired in Mexican visions of crime during the century. Murderers became fascinating and complex characters whose first-person accounts, usually in the form of confessions, revealed the truth in a way that judicial institutions failed to achieve. Listening to people’s skeptical views about the police and judicial system since the 1930s gave me the key to understand the centrality of the problem of truth in contemporary Mexico. The majority of the homicides that are committed these days will never be investigated because the state gives priority to the disruption of criminal organizations over the loss of life that the war on drug entails. As a result, Mexican civil society, particularly the relatives of victims, no longer trust official accounts, and fight for their right to know the truth. Reading old crime news and detective novels allowed me to see the relevance and deep roots of Mexican citizens’ claims for the truth.

A History of Infamy also addressed another legacy of the middle decades of the twentieth century: Mexico’s reputation as a place of arbitrary violence and complete impunity. Today, this infamy is expressed through images and narratives of powerful narcos, and has been exploited by Donald Trump as a way to justify anti-immigrant measures. Murderers became celebrities decades ago, but it is only in recent years, and as a result of the scale of the violence of organized crime, that the entire country came to be identified with the threat of violence. As is the case with Mexican civil society, U.S. public opinion needs to go beyond the acceptance of these problems and demand the truth. Trying to understand this present, the book became an exploration of the difficult relationship between violence and the truth.


Pablo Piccato teaches Latin American history at Columbia University. He studied at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México and the University of Texas at Austin. His books include City of Suspects: Crime in Mexico City, 1900–1931 and The Tyranny of Opinion: Honor and the Construction of the Mexican Public Sphere.


Ephemeral Histories

This guest post is published in conjunction with the meeting of the Latin American Studies Association taking place April 29-May 1 in Lima, Peru. #LASA17

by Camilo Trumper, author of Ephemeral Histories: Public Art, Politics, and the Struggle for the Streets in Chile

Chile’s Museum of Memory and Human Rights marked 2017’s World Book Day by circulating a photograph of uniformed cadets burning books and magazines on city streets in 1973, a jarring image mobilized in hopes that “Never Again” would Chileans censor the written word as they had after the bloody coup that toppled Salvador Allende’s democratically elected socialist government. Photographer Kena Lorenzini’s collection of images, published as Marcas Crónicas: Rayados y panfletos de los 80, reveals a different practice of writing and erasure in Santiago, Chile’s capital city. Hers are austere records of the breathtaking range of rayados scrawled in public and semi-public spaces in the almost two decades of military rule: complicated debates taking place on, and taking advantage of the fleeting privacy afforded by, the locked doors of bathroom stalls; party slogans furtively etched on the back of bus seats; and banners unfurled by students, artists and activists to protest the dictatorship’s terror. These photographs map a hidden landscape of political writing hiding in plain sight.

The political activists who created this political landscape drew on a long history of urban contest that reached its apex under Allende. My book, Ephemeral Histories: Public Art, Politics, and the Struggle for the Street in Chile, studies how women and workers, students and artists claimed public spaces as their own, turning to murals, posters, and graffiti as a means of shaping city streets, squares and walls into vibrant arenas of political exchange in democracy. Creative forms of public art and writing were quickly targeted by the nascent military regime, which looked to “cleanse” the landscape of any trace of activism, and forced residents to whitewash walls at gunpoint, to burn and bury posters alongside books and magazines. But santiaguinos responded creatively to censure. Lorenzini’s most compelling images focus on the ordinary inscriptions that citizens carved onto city walls as everyday acts of urban transgression that sustained resistance to military rule. In one particularly poignant series, her lens follows a web of text as it snakes along city walls, arching across buildings and around corners. Erasure leads only to further expression. Just as quickly as phrases condemning dictatorship are scratched out, new, vibrant responses appear, crying out over the thin cover of whitewash. Her photographs suggests that santiaguinos turned again to clandestine public writing in dictatorship, perfecting techniques originally learned in democracy to re-build spaces of vibrant political debate. These ephemeral acts of public writing help build a public sphere of political debate rooted in public space, and an ephemeral practice of political citizenship played out in the very streets and walls quieted by state violence and attempted censorship.

This year’s LASA congress theme, “Dialogues of Knowledge,” suggests that we must open ourselves to consider creative forms of knowledge generated at the boundaries between disciplines, experiences, and spaces. Lorenzini’s photographs offer an excellent example of this form of critical interdisciplinary thinking. They reveal the strategies and tactics of urban conflict, and public writing in particular, to be creative responses to dictatorial rule, an “other” form of knowledge Chilean citizens living under dictatorship developed to navigate public and private spaces, sustain political dialogue, and limit the authority and legitimacy of military authority. In so doing, they transformed the city it into a vital political arena and themselves into active political citizens in the face of state-sponsored violence and terror.


Camilo D. Trumper is an Assistant Professor of American Studies and Latin American History at the University at Buffalo, SUNY.


Introducing American Studies Now, an E-book First Series

Much of the most exciting contemporary work in American Studies refuses the distinction between politics and culture — focusing on historical cultures of power and protest on the one hand, or the political importance of cultural practices, on the other. We are excited to announce American Studies Now: Critical Histories of the Present, a series publishing titles that cover these political and cultural intersections, exploring the ways the events of our past continue to shape our present.

An e-book first series, American Studies Now publishes short, timely books on significant political and cultural events while such teachable moments are at the center of public conversation.

We spoke with editors Lisa Duggan and Curtis Marez to discuss the goals of American Studies Now and how these books can be used in the classroom and beyond.


What inspired you to develop the American Studies Now series?

Lisa Duggan: We need new ways to publish and distribute the work of American Studies scholars. The monograph and the journal article have a crucial role in our field, but they aren’t serving us well in the undergraduate classroom. And they aren’t putting our work into circulation in the pressing, scary political present. This new series is one new way to address those needs — short, accessible e-books (also available in print) on Black Lives Matter, climate change, neoliberalism, BDS, the continuing urban crisis, indigenous politics, queer and trans issues, the crises in higher education and more. They are designed to provide timely, provocative analysis for teaching, for activism, and for engagement now.

The series is described as “critical histories of the present” — could you elaborate on what this means?

Curtis Marez: Given the constant rush and hum of information in our social media saturated worlds, it’s easy to get stuck in the here and now in ways that make it difficult to take a critical perspective on where we are and how we got there. So American Studies Now reflects not only the urgency of the questions raised by each volume in the series but also suggests what we mean by critical histories of the present — scholarship that helps readers think about contemporary problems in terms of their larger historical, social, and cultural significance.

Why the need to publish e-books before the print editions?

LD: E-books can come out quickly and circulate widely. We want to counter the long, slow publication process and relatively narrow circulation of most academic publishing with an option designed for speed and impact, on the timeclock of the political present. Offering broad context provided by deeply knowledgeable American Studies scholars, these e-books can contribute to classroom and public discussions on issues that matter now.

How will these books contribute to the field of American Studies?

CM: Each book brings American Studies concepts and methods to the analysis of vital contemporary social movements. Authors build on and rethink the field’s historical social movement focus by foregrounding a host of contemporary grassroots movements such as Black Lives Matter, student movements, and movements for sexual justice. At the same time, American Studies Now presents critical accounts of dominant social movements such as the movement to privatize higher education and to silence dissent; the law and order movement supporting the expansion of police power; climate justice; and the movement for free market fundamentalism that informs contemporary state policies.

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