Tuesday, March 13, 2018

On gaming, athletes, and individual glory . . . oh, Mercy!

Associate Professor, Seattle University

The core argument in my book is that video games are an actualized meritocracy, a realm in which the values of hard work and skill have been pushed to their extremes and the result is a toxic community that focuses more on the celebration of individual glory than on the good of the collective.

Meritocracy is tricky. For those of us in the west it feels ahistorical, even though it was a relatively recent invention. It seems like the best approach, the only way to do things, even though the writer that popularized the word regretted its mass adoption and despite the fact that the animating action of the book it was featured in was about the masses rising up to violently overthrow a meritocratic order.

Video games, through their design and narratives, make the abstract notion of meritocracy concrete. They are a space where difficulty is celebrated, with lists of the hardest games appearing again, and again, and again. A challenge is supposed to be the point, as overcoming a truly hard game is a measure of the player’s talent and effort, but focusing on these meritocratic elements makes the community around games limited, exclusive, and defined by a tendency to compete and work against opponents, rather than to work with others.

Meritocracy and the Winter Olympics

Meritocracy shows up in other places as well; one of the most prominent areas is in sports. However, in the case of sports, the language of meritocracy is often recast with other elements, like luck, serendipity, and rules that are designed to do something other than find the best athlete or team. In the case of the 2018 Winter Olympics, we had the return of the shirtless Tongan and a celebration at the end of the 15 km cross country skiing race, where the Mexican skier who finished last stopped near the end of the race to pick up a Mexican flag and was hailed by his fellow competitors.

However, the most polarizing athlete may have been Elizabeth Swaney, who competed in the women’s halfpipe and did no tricks in a sport designed to showcase eye-catching acrobatics. Swaney, who was born in the United States and originally competed for Venezuela before switching her allegiance to Hungary, was described as an affront to the notion that the Olympics are about elite athletes performing at the height of their powers. She was presented as a schemer, a jerk, had to defend herself against accusations that she scammed her way into the Olympics, and was the feature of multiple articles articulating how she had managed to qualify for the competition. In the end, Swaney argued that she could do tricks while water skiing, but had yet to land them on snow and stressed how she always tried her best.

Notably, the stories about the male athletes are celebrations, while Swaney’s motives are questioned. What is fascinating about her story though is how focused she was on getting into the Olympics. She flew around the world to compete in events where she could find fields that would let her get the number of top-30 finishes she needed to qualify for the Olympics. She found a sport and a set of rules that would enable her to chase a dream she held for years. In video game parlance, she found an exploit or a cheese, and this kind of design subverted meritocratic norms and led to a fascinating story. The Olympics may seem like they are about meritocracy, but there is so much more there.

Meritocracy and Mercy

However, the winning formula for appeal to core video game players, those who likely claim the label ‘gamer,’ is straightforward: offer them a game that conforms to the norms and systems that they have long accepted, like meritocratic game design. As Nathan Grayson writes about Kingdom Come, the game has become massively successful as “It’s different in some ways, but also familiar and easy to digest if you’ve been playing games for a long time. That, as it turns out, is the winning formula on Steam [a digital game distribution platform].” As Grayson details, players are praising the game because it has rich and deep game system built on a conservative political ideology. Appealing to mastery is a trademark of a meritocratic order that resounds with many.

On the other hand, mechanics that subvert traditional notions of skill, like Mercy in Overwatch, face a far more polarizing response. Overwatch is a first-person shooter and, although a healer role is well-established, Mercy’s original ultimate move resurrected defeated teammates. In announcing a change to her skills, the lead designer on the game stated that “it’s pretty disheartening to have Mercy just erase [a team wipe] with a full team res[urrection].” This framing celebrates the work of players to kill opponents, but not the talent of a healer in successfully executing a difficult move to bring their team back from the brink.

Mercy players face accusations of being ‘one-tricks,’ players who only play her character and not others. Mercy players are alleged to ruin the game, possess less skill that prevents them from playing other characters, and, in sum, Mercy players are hated more than other characters with similar roles. At least one professional player enjoys playing Mercy, but does so in spite of scorn from teammates.

Meritocracy and its foundation

Reaction to Mercy is so heated that perceptions about her character are broken down in a two-part essay titled “Why Does Everyone Hate Mercy?” Sexism and misogyny, particularly in the response to women who play Mercy, is an important part of the answer in the essay, but a key theme is that skill is perceived to be a vital part of video games, yet that only particular kinds of skill are celebrated. Within the context of a first-person shooter, Overwatch celebrates team kills and exciting battles and Mercy was originally designed in a manner to upend that. Run through misogyny and Mercy is a case study in how the kind of skill and work in video games is particular, specific, and prone to developing a toxic, spiteful community. Blizzard may be reducing toxicity in their Overwatch community, but it cannot be solved because the game is built on a rotten, meritocratic foundation. Efforts at fixing toxicity are also undercut by the player desire and developer interest in increasing the meritocratic ladders found in the game by adding more competitive modes. It is a half-step forward and several steps back.

Meritocracy is insidious because it seems like the only way to build things, but there are other options. Building games that prioritize elements other than skill and effort gives us all a chance to build a different kind of community around games, one that might work together to chart a path toward something more positive and cooperative. We can build games based on luck, contingency, and serendipity, similar to elements of the design of Mario Party or Mario Kart. We can build design games that are pay-to-win and emphasize the role of the wallet, like Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes, where players frequently work together in an effort to ‘defeat’ the developer. Moving away from merit allows communities to be developed on different terms, giving an opportunity to build something else, something new, something that has features other than the endemic toxicity that comes with meritocratic systems.


Christopher A. Paul is associate professor in the communication department at Seattle University. He is author of The Toxic Meritocracy of Video Games: Why Gaming Culture is the Worst and Wordplay and the Discourse of Video Games: Analyzing Words, Design, and Play.

"Essential reading for researchers, industry professionals, and players trying to make sense of gaming's culture wars."
—Carly A. Kocurek, author of Coin-Operated Americans

Thursday, March 8, 2018

International Women's Day 2018: On feminism's political message and its past, present, and future.


As we celebrate International Women’s Day, it is hard not to be struck by how ubiquitous the political message of feminism is. Until recently, announcing one’s feminist credentials elicited looks of surprise, incomprehension, or outright hostility. Fast forward to 2018 and Sweden has a foreign minister who is keen to propagate feminist foreign policy. The power of feminist ideas is not limited to the rarefied field of policymaking by world leaders, either. Popular culture also pulsates with calls to action from the hashtag feminism of the #MeToo and #TimesUp campaigns. In our book Governance Feminism, we track this shift in the fortunes of feminism. From waiting with placards in hand outside the theatres of male power – whether they be legislatures, courts, international organizations, or corporations – feminists now walk the halls of power. By no means all feminists: some forms of feminism disqualify their proponents from inclusion in the power elite. But you can get a job in the United Nations, the World Bank, the International Criminal Court, the local prosecutor’s office, and the child welfare bureaucracy for espousing various strands of feminism. Feminism is certainly no longer a dirty word.

We label this form of feminist influence “governance feminism.” By that we mean every form in which feminists and feminist ideas exert a governing will within human affairs. We ask exactly what forms of feminism “make sense” to power elites as they gradually let women in? What happens when feminists and feminist ideas find their way into legal institutions and change legal thought and legal operations? Whose nongovernmental organizations get funding from international aid and development agencies and from ideologically driven private donors? Once feminists gain a foothold in governance, what do they do there and which particular legal forms are they most heavily invested in? What are the distributive consequences of the partial inclusion of some feminist projects? Who benefits and who loses? Can feminism foster a critique of its own successes? And if so, how can this feed back into feminist struggles?

Our study of governance feminism spans two books – Governance Feminism: An Introduction and Governance Feminism: Notes from the Field. In Governance Feminism: An Introduction, we focus on efforts feminists have made to become incorporated into state, state-like, and state-affiliated power. Janet Halley takes stock of prior attempts to understand some dimensions of feminist influence including femocracy and state feminism before setting out the theoretical framework for governance feminism and mapping the spectrum of feminists’ relationships with power. Significantly she discusses the resistance that feminists have offered to the concept of governance feminism. If there is one takeaway from our book, it is that governance per se is not bad. As Halley points out, describing governance feminism does not mean denouncing governance feminism. There are victories that governance feminism secures which are beneficial for women on the ground. But then there are costs to these victories borne by both women and men. How do we assess these costs and benefits? Halley offers distributive analysis as a method through which feminists can weigh these costs and benefits, whether in the legislative arena or in achieving institutional reforms. The remaining chapters of Governance Feminism: An Introduction illuminate the core themes of governance feminism in three case studies: the context of wide-ranging rape law reforms in India in 2013 (Prabha Kotiswaran), the influence of neoabolitionist feminism in anti-trafficking reforms in Israel (Hila Shamir), and the transnational influence of U.S. feminists’ rhetoric and legal argumentation on reproductive rights (Rachel Rebouché).

In our second book, Governance Feminism: Notes from the Field (forthcoming in early 2019), we go beyond feminism’s relationship with state power to grasp the full range of arenas where feminist ideas have traction. Our contributors to this co-edited volume start by outlining the large role that crime and punishment, largely focused on sexual or gender-based violence, play in governance feminist projects of recent decades. They then offer insights on feminists’ use of unspectacular bureaucratic tools which offer much-needed political leverage. Authors also explore the political dynamics, strategic and tactical dilemmas, and ethical challenges that feminists and LGBT activists must negotiate to play on the governmental field. Last but not the least, our contributors consider feminist interventions in postcolonial legal and political orders where they work within the postcolonial state, inside the global network of UN agencies and NGOs, and in policy spaces opened up by conflict, post-conflict and occupation.

We celebrate this International Women’s Day with our take on feminism and the publication of our first book. We hope that, even as we continue to struggle for our collective feminist futures, we can pause to ask ourselves if we are finally ready to go beyond, in Max Weber’s terms, an ethics of conviction in our political lives to embracing an ethics of feminist responsibility.


Janet Halley is Royal Professor of Law at Harvard Law School.

Prabha Kotiswaran is reader in law and social justice at the Dickson Poon School of Law, King’s College London.

Rachel Rebouché is professor of law at Temple University Beasley School of Law.

Hila Shamir is associate professor of law at Tel Aviv University Buchman Faculty of Law.

"What happens when feminist critique inverts into governing norms? What kind of feminism becomes law and what becomes of arguments among feminists when it does? How are feminist challenges to male super-ordination transformed and distributed by bureaucratization and NGO-ification? How might we honestly assess feminism that governs? In this deeply intelligent, reflective, and pedagogical work, four feminist legal scholars probe these theoretical and empirical questions. No reader will favor every move, but all will be usefully provoked and instructed."
—Wendy Brown, University of California, Berkeley

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Sergei Eisenstein and the Ecstasies of the Book.

University of Maryland, College Park

“It certainly seems that all art forms in their extreme manifestations, i.e. where they attempt to expand the limits of their potential and their material, invariably end up by trying to appropriate the rudiments of the art of the future: the art of cinema.”

In Sergei Eisenstein’s conception, cinema occupies less the place of one medium or art form among others than that point in the existence of any medium at which the medium transgresses its proper limits. When, for instance, the static picture produced by a painter attempts to express movement, painting suddenly touches on the most basic phenomenon of cinema. When a writer composes a scene by dynamically juxtaposing dialogue and descriptions of action, he in fact opens the novel’s path into the cinematic domain of audiovisual montage. In this view, cinema becomes a sort of meeting place, gathering the effects of all other arts and media. (And Eisenstein indeed thought of cinema, as was fashionable at the time, as a new artistic form whose destiny was to unite and serve the synthesis of all arts.) Yet what gathers at this meeting place are the fringe elements, the “extreme manifestations” of the individual arts and media, as though it were a matter not of polite parliamentary debate but a clandestine assembly of revolutionaries. Cinema produces a new coexistence among the arts by connecting the moments at which the capacities of other arts and media arrive at their breaking points, lose their identity, and step outside themselves. Cinema: the ecstasies of arts and media.

The same logic is at work in the encounter between Eisenstein’s idea of cinema and the medium of the book. As the French film theorist and historian François Albera puts it, “there is no doubt that Eisenstein was, more than anyone else in his time, preoccupied with the achievement of a book that would express his conception of art and cinema.” Particularly at the end of the 1920s, during his travels in Europe, the US, and Mexico, Eisenstein thought intensely about the possibility of producing a systematic book of film theory, in which the theory itself—especially the idea of montage—would work on the very shape of the book, transform the nature of this medium and, along the way, revolutionize also the principle of systematicity in accordance with which the theoretical knowledge of cinema was to be built. Putting it in contact with cinema, Eisenstein came to imagine the medium of the book in its “extreme manifestation,” a book (ecstatically) beside itself, at once book and no longer book. The shape this no-longer-book took in Eisenstein’s mind was that of a sphere, imagined as a three dimensional and rotating space within which various thematic clusters would be organized in such a way that the reader could move from one text to another (and back) in the manner resembling more closely the multiple and synchronic possibilities of a network or even a rhizome than the more traditional logic of linear unfolding. The great spherical book, Eisenstein figured, would be experienced by the reader as a vast simultaneity of connections (texts on montage organized according to the multiple logic of montage) and no longer sequentially, one “two-dimensional” page after another.

Here, not only are we far from the model of the film director’s handbook or that of an academic book on the subject of cinema; we are outside any proper understanding of what a book is or should be. Eisenstein, whose textual production was as systematically ambitious as it was essentially fragmentary, was himself of course aware that what he imagined under the idea of the spherical book was, strictly speaking, impossible. Yet it is precisely this element of impossibility that animates Eisenstein’s thought. In a manner that may be generalized also to cinema’s relationship to other media, Eisenstein posits that the encounter with cinema—and particularly with montage as the principle of cinematic form—does not merely expand the possibilities offered by the medium of the book. Beneath the utopic project of expanding the book’s capacities beyond the two-dimensionality and sequentiality of its pages toward a three-dimensional space of a multi-directional sphere, there operates a certain cinematic desire to exasperate the book and to exhaust the possibilities of its medium.

Cinema should, in other words, be seen not as simply continuous with other media: it does not take what they make possible and merely broaden the reach of their abilities. On the contrary, the effect of cinema lies in pointing to the impossibilities, the impasses of the media it touches, and thereby orienting us toward the possibility of their undoing.

Cinema—a catastrophe of the book.


Luka Arsenjuk is author of Movement, Action, Image, Montage: Sergei Eisenstein and the Cinema in Crisis. Arsenjuk is associate professor of film studies and core faculty member in comparative literature at the University of Maryland, College Park.

"This is a book for all film historians and lovers of cinema."
—Timothy Corrigan, author of The Essay Film

"A uniquely striking work of film theory and historical reflection by one of the most exciting film and critical theorists working today. Movement, Action, Image, Montage is the most important theory of cinematic movement to have emerged since Deleuze’s cinema books."
—Brian Price, University of Toronto

"Movement, Action, Image, Montage is a critical tour de force, combining brilliant close readings of Eisenstein’s films, drawings, and major texts with subtle speculative thinking."
—Karla Oeler, Stanford University

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

A lesson in managing uncertainty: digitizing the First German Autumn Salon

Image: Jenny Anger, First German Autumn Salon Reconstruction Project.

Professor of art history, Grinnell College

A trio of international exhibitions defined the parameters of modern art ca. 1912-13: the Sonderbund (Cologne 1912), the Armory Show (New York 1913), and the Erster Deutscher Herbstsalon (First German Autumn Salon, Berlin 1913). The Armory Show is by far the best known in the U.S., mostly because of the explosive effect it had on American art. Yet the First German Autumn Salon was arguably more international and more radical than either of the other shows. The Berlin show, for example, featured Italian Futurism and a broader range of German, Russian, and Eastern European art, much of which was more abstract than art in New York or Cologne. Another feature that has assured the Armory Show of fame is its thorough documentation. The legacy of the First German Autumn Salon, in contrast, suffers from the exhibit’s paltry records. Yet it was a major production of Herwarth Walden’s Sturm enterprise, so my book dedicated in part to Der Sturm (Four Metaphors of Modernism) had to address it somehow. The problem was how to do so with any degree of certainty.

Thanks to a grant from Digital Bridges for Humanistic Inquiry, a collaboration between Grinnell College and The University of Iowa funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, students of mine and I constructed a three-dimensional digital reconstruction of the exhibition. (An IT expert, David Neville, was instrumental.) Given the limited documentary resources, we had to accept the provisional nature of the project. Still, our work led to some reliable and revelatory conclusions that we might not have reached if we had not ventured into this territory.

The most certain data point is the Berlin address, Potsdamerstrasse 75, which appears in multiple letters and journal entries. Walden rented a large hall, nearly 1200 square meters, on the fourth floor of a new commercial building just a mile away from Potsdamer Platz (home to Europe’s first electric traffic light in 1924). The building was destroyed in the war, but we located an original elevation—unfortunately without measurements—in a neighborhood archive (Museen Tempelhof Schöneberg Berlin). We found that the current building (renumbered postwar to #180) matches the general structure of the original, including a fourth floor arcade, so we cautiously made some decisions based on the current structure. Using Google Earth, my student James Marlow discovered that area behind the two street façades of the corner building combine to approximately 1200 square meters. We don’t yet know if the exhibition was in such an L-shaped area in the earlier building, but since the measurement matches our known figure so neatly, that is our working premise.

The next question was what was in the show. Fortunately, a catalog numbering 366 works survives: https://archive.org/details/ersterde00wald. The titles are often imprecise, and sometimes a group of more than one work is listed under just one number, but the source appears to be reasonably reliable in listing which works were shown by which artist. The exciting feature is that a Roman numeral after each artist’s name designates one of nineteen temporary “rooms” installed in the open hall on Potsdamerstrasse. Those numbers were the key to our knowing which works were grouped together, even if we could not know the exact hanging in any given room. Adding to the uncertainty, some artists’ names are followed by more than one Roman numeral, but enough aren’t that we felt confident to proceed.

While some students worked long hours tracking down the sometimes little-known works (Rebekah Rennick is to be commended here), others began thinking about the hanging, comparing contemporary sources to determine probable exhibition design strategies. The one photograph that survives from the show—Filippo Marinetti standing between his lost portrait by Gino Severini and Carlo Carrà’s Simultaneity: Woman on the Balcony (1912)—proved invaluable. From it we could determine the value and texture of the sackcloth covering the portable wall as well as determine the structure of the latter. Also, it was clear to see that at least in this area, paintings were hung well below our now conventional eye-level. Although we don’t know if that technique was followed throughout the show, its use here was enough for us to generalize it with some confidence.

What did we learn? We learned that modern art in 1913 was still a very inclusive and greatly varied banquet. In particular, we learned that it was more feminine and decorative than it was to become. The largest room by far belonged to Robert and Sonia Delaunay. (To make that determination, my student Eliza Harrison carefully measured the widths of all the paintings assigned to Room XVIII.) Robert’s and Sonia’s paintings covered the walls, but this temporary room, unlike any other, also featured a large collection of Sonia’s decorative objects: curtains, scarves, pillows, lampshades, and book covers. Prior to the exhibit, Walden had written to Sonia: “I would like very much to exhibit your decorative works in the Autumn Salon, and am very happy that your Sturm covers met with such success.” The success that the collaged book covers allegedly met before the Sturm show, however, must have been private, because Sonia had never had the opportunity to exhibit these works prior to Walden’s international undertaking in Berlin in fall 1913. Reception there was profuse and wildly inconsistent—signaling just how revolutionary this decorative ensemble and its emphasis in the exhibition were.

My hope had been to host a website devoted to our model, but the copyright permissions for so many artworks proved prohibitive. Still, my student Sonja Spain has made videos of “walk-throughs” of many of the rooms, and we offer them to scholars interested in imagining a visit to the First German Autumn Salon. Please contact anger@grinnell.edu for more information.


Jenny Anger is professor of art history at Grinnell College. She is author of Four Metaphors of Modernism: From Der Sturm to the Société Anonyme and Paul Klee and the Decorative in Modern Art.

"Four Metaphors of Modernism is a tour de force demonstration of the centrality of metaphor to the modernist project both in Europe and America. Through comparative analysis, Jenny Anger charts the surprising aesthetic and philosophical continuities informing two key modernist ventures."
—Mark Antliff, Duke University

"The book not only brings together various strands of scholarship with brand new archival research, it is also the first major effort to systematically trace the connections between the German Der Sturm (gallery and journal) and the American Société Anonyme. Jenny Anger’s highly original and engaging instigation of connections between these two key modernist institutions is particularly noteworthy for the author’s nuanced discussion of gender, which builds on her earlier published work and will no doubt further cement her reputation as a major contributor within this area."
—Anna Brzyski, University of Kentucky

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Let's hear it for the bee.

Excerpts from the introduction to If Bees Are Few

It is said there are twenty thousand species of bees in the world, a genus fifty million years old, but in the fertile imagination of the world's poets, there is no beginning and no end to bee buzz. As Rilke wrote, poets are "bees of the invisible. We wildly collect the honey of the visible, to store it in the great golden hive of the invisible."

Sappho wrote of bees in the sixth century BCE ("neither honey nor bees for me"), as did Virgil, Rumi, Shakespeare, Bobby Burns, Clare, Coleridge, Robert Devereux, second Earl of Essex, Emerson, Herrick, Issa, Machado, Mandelstam, Neruda, Dickinson prolifically, Whitman, Whittier, Tennyson, Yeats, Frost, and on into the distracting buzz of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, from Sherman Alexie to Timothy Young.

Sylvia Plath's father kept bees, and while living in England she tried it, too. She got six jars of honey and the famous "bee sequence" of poems from 1962, later published in Ariel, which convinced her she was a real poet.

During the early seventies, when I ran an experiment in rural education, I kept bees. This fact relates me to Plath, but encounters with bees, whether in the guise of a bee-masked holy father or the mysterious swarms themselves, were indeed unforgettable to us both and worthy of praise in poems, if one can only figure out how.

I finally figured out how, and it is this anthology (the word, from ancient Greek, means a "gathering of flowers"). If Bees Are Few is a gathering of poems collected over the past decade that touch on, or are touched by, bees, including "To make a prairie" by Emily Dickinson:

To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee.
One clover, and a bee.
And revery.
The revery alone will do
If bees are few.


Ross Conrad writes in Natural Beekeeping: "The bee is the only creature in the animal kingdom, that I am aware of, that does not kill or injure any other being as it goes through its regular life cycle. Apis mellifera damages not so much as a leaf. In fact, honey bees take what they need in such a way that the world around them is improved."

During much of human history, bees and human life have been intertwined, lured by more than durable sweetness. As early as 3000 BCE, one of Pharaoh's titles was "Bee King," and beekeeping had begun at least by the seventh century BCE. Hilda Ransome notes in The Sacred Bee in Ancient Times and Folklore that one cathedral of the Middle Ages required thirty-four thousand beeswax candles annually for services planned during one year.

Rudolf Steiner, in a 1923 lecture on bees, goes so far as to say, "If you look at a swarm of bees, it is, to be sure, visible, but it really looks like the soul of a human being, a soul that is forced to leave its body. . . . You can really see, by looking at the escaping swarm of bees, an image of the human soul flying away from the body."

From sweet honey to practical wax to spiritual projection, the bees have been able to handle it all.

Until now. The age of synthetic fertilizers and monoculture farming creates bee food deserts, certain pesticides scramble their nervous systems, and pests such as the mite Varroa destructor sap their strength, all of which weaken or collapse honeybee colonies and wipte out wild bee species. That's our age. That's right now.

Poets do what we can, in our reverie, our observation, our listening, our metaphors, our occasional beekeeping, our outrage, our grief, to keep the sweetness and sting of these poetic companions alive. Scientists and citizens must do the rest.


This book is dedicated to entomologist Marla Spivak, whose pioneering work with bees has awarded her a MacArthur fellowship. A portion of proceeds from this anthology are dedicated to the Bee Lab at the University of Minnesota, established by Dr. Spivak.


James P. Lenfestey is a former editorial writer for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. He has published a collection of personal essays, five collections of poems, the poetry anthology Low Down and Coming On: A Feast of Delicious and Dangerous Poems about Pigs, and coedited Robert Bly in This World, also from Minnesota. His memoir with prose and poems, Seeking the Cave: A Pilgrimage to Cold Mountain, Milkweed Editions, was a finalist for the 2014 Minnesota Book Award.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

On truthiness and trustworthiness: Why nonfiction is best defined as a literature of questions.

University of Cambridge

It’s a cliché that by the time one finishes writing a book, one hates it. Well, I have just finished a book—A Literature of Questions: Nonfiction for the Critical Child—and if it’s not quite true that I hate it, it’s certainly true that this book continues to cause me no end of discomfort.

Unfortunately, the discomfort is the point.

Let me explain.

1. My book might—indeed, intends to—undermine that which is most comfortable about the genre: the idea that nonfiction is a literature of facts.

This idea that it is a literature of facts is not just comforting, but nearly inevitable. If a book is “not fiction,” then surely we are being asked to assume that it is true. Certainly, nonfiction might be structured with an eye to narrative shape, an ear to evocative language, a heart for the passions and trauma that spurred history, mathematical breakthrough, scientific discovery, or any of an infinite number of other aspects of learning. Those literary elements, though, according to the dominant understanding, must be subjugated to truth. Nonfiction tells the truth. It is a literature of facts; that’s the way we distinguish it from fiction.

As intuitive as this position is, though, it’s just silly. Nonfiction is written by human beings. Imperfections, mistakes, and bias are inevitable, which means that insofar as it is ever a literature of facts, it is a literature of facts laced with error. Indeed, what I have been finding is that nonfiction often seems to have been written with an awareness of where it is wrong, but—because we keep telling our nonfiction writers that what we want from them is authority—it is also written with a discernible effort to obscure places where its authors feel doubt in the conclusions that they have drawn.

For example, one of my chapters focuses on a famous work of nonfiction about astronauts. It’s a very good book, one that I like and often teach. Its author, following the common script for the genre, has said repeatedly that nonfiction should always be reliable. The problem is, though, that her book’s central piece of evidence brings to light questions that the book pointedly does not pursue, questions that, it seems to me, the book cannot pursue because its goal is to be reliable. When I started chasing those questions myself, I found that the book was full of bandages on top of bandages covering up cracks in the book’s authority, cracks that spread from one unanswered question to another. Trying to be reliable, trying to be a literature of facts, incentivized a lack of transparency throughout the book.

By insisting that nonfiction be a literature of facts, we have cultivated a genre that is less honest. Nonfiction, in striving for the authority we demand from a literature of facts, is less factual.

2. My book’s argument also asks us to do more work when we read nonfiction.

Implicit in the call for nonfiction to be authoritative is the very seductive suggestion that it if is authoritative, we can rest in that authority. If we find places—or, more likely, think we have found places—where we can rest in the authority of a book, what we have found are places, we tell ourselves, that we can lay down our responsibility to engage critically with what we read.

Naturally, that’s bad. Obviously, it’s irresponsible to ask a book to speak with an authority that allows us to be lazy. Similarly, it’s wrong to think of the entire field as a genre whose primary responsibility is to traffic only in answers that let us escape the responsibility of asking questions.

But it takes work to engage with a nonfiction that is honest about what it doesn’t know. Kadir Nelson’s 2008 We Are the Ship, for example, tells the story of Negro League baseball, and it highlights the truth that this is a history in which hard facts are a luxury. The narrator explains,

Occasionally, a local newspaper would send a reporter out to keep stats, but the papers wouldn’t pay them to do it very often. Sometimes those guys would come late and have to ask around, “What happened in the first inning?” “Who did what?” or they’d just make up the stats. (21)

A history underpinned by meticulous, objective facts is, as this passage reveals, a privilege. Reading a book about a history that cannot be verified requires a constant vigilance, a creative, critical engagement that asks not for an opportunity to absorb data but to navigate and take into consideration gaps in knowledge.

Such a literature requires work on the part of the reader who performs those acts of navigation, and it also requires work on the part of a writer. Such writers must resist the call of editors, reviewers, and readers to speak with unwavering authority. They must justify their conclusions, humanize their characters, and label the “seams,” as Joe L. Kincheloe has put it, where they have stitched together faultless narratives of knowledge.

3. For many readers, the most uncomfortable aspect of the book will be that in it, I study not adult nonfiction, but nonfiction for children.

Although adults can sometimes practice humility in communicating their ideas to one another, we frequently find ourselves clinging to authority when we try to tell our truths to young people. Perhaps our reasons are nefarious: we can stave off being replaced by them for a little longer if they think we know what we know without harboring any questions. Or perhaps we don’t want to do the work required by a literature of questions rather than a literature of facts. Or maybe we feel we are doing children a favor by presenting the world to them in terms that are simple, even if those terms are—we know even as we lie to them—untrue.

Too, if we think of books whose goal is to inform as defined by the questions they provoke rather than the answers they instill, then we’re going to have to rethink how we ask children to engage with information and how we assess that engagement. Dutifully recording authoritative data is an act for which standardized examinations can test very easily. Recognizing and struggling with information that advertises its imperfect reliability is much trickier. Assessing the creative, productive engagement invited by a literature of questions is more challenging yet.

For me, though, the most persistent source of discomfort about my own book has to do with the cultural moment in which we find ourselves. Two of the most resonant (and troubling) phrases of our moment—“fake news” and “alternative facts”—carry with them a legitimate anxiety about disinformation, and more than once, I have glanced longingly at the reams of discourse that valorize taut, confident nonfiction, a discourse that this book contests. I miss the security of thinking about information as uniformly trustworthy or untrustworthy.

Still, insisting that the goal of a work of nonfiction should be authority only soothes the anxiety; it doesn’t eliminate the potential for—or harm caused by—truthiness. It requires us not only to bury our questions but to bury our fear about those questions. The work necessary to a literature of questions is not only worth the effort, but ethically imperative.

Joe Sutliff Sanders is author of A Literature of Questions: Nonfiction for the Critical Child and Disciplining Girls: Understanding the Origins of the Classic Orphan Girl Story and editor of The Comics of Herge: When the Lines Are Not So Clear. He is a university lecturer in the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge.

"A Literature of Questions is a groundbreaking work of criticism not only because it covers an area of children's literature that is largely unexamined but also because it provides the field with new language and a new set of critical lenses, which scholars, educators, and writers can use in the future to analyze, evaluate, teach, and create works of nonfiction for younger readers."
—Annette Wannamaker, Eastern Michigan University

"Not many courses about children’s literature that are offered in English departments include nonfiction titles on the reading lists. A Literature of Questions will irrevocably change this situation. In the wake of Joe Sutliff Sanders’s book, it will no longer be possible to teach an undergraduate or graduate course about literature for young readers without including a section on children’s nonfiction. Every individual working in the field will want to add a copy of A Literature of Questions to their campus library and even to their personal book collection. Additionally, they will want to assign this text their students. Sanders’s work is a new classic."
—Michelle Ann Abate, author of Bloody Murder: The Homicide Tradition in Children’s Literature

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Lookin' to get silly in Hibbing: Toby Thompson on Echo Star Helstrom, the "Girl from the North Country."

Image by Toby Thompson.

Image by Echo Helstrom.


Echo Star Helmstrom, widely thought to have been the inspiration for Bob Dylan’s song "Girl from the North Country," died on January 15th. She was 75 and had been my friend for nearly 50 years. She had a combination of vulnerability and toughness that was both innate and hard earned. We stayed in touch, spoke every spring, and always traded Christmas cards. When I did not receive hers in December I sensed something was wrong. Friends in Hibbing gave me the news.

Echo had health problems—chronic fatigue syndrome, primarily—but always had a witticism or bon mot. She and Dylan stayed in touch, and initially he’d told her, of Positively Main Street, "You came off pretty good in thee book." We had had a romance in Hibbing, and in one letter years after its publication she wrote, "Bob just phoned. The first words out of his mouth were, ‘Did you have an affair with Toby Thompson?’ I told him it was none of his business. But he was real cranky about it." I phoned her when Dylan won the Nobel, and her response to the award was, "It's about time!"

I owe an enormous debt to her. The time she spent with me in Hibbing, and the stories she told made my book about Dylan. Her generosity jumpstarted my career. I've always felt that her support of Dylan in the netherland of Hibbing, and their shared experience as, at the least, cultural outsiders, helped him enormously. Hibbing hasn't been the same since.

The passage below takes place at the beginning of our drive to Hibbing for the weekend–a weekend during which she shows me every spot where she and Dylan had hung out, I meet her family for a Sunday cookout, Echo and I sing on the Hibbing radio station, and we dance at Hibbing miners’ bar and instigate our romance.

I miss her sweetness terribly.



“Turn that part up!” she squealed, as I eased off the Highway 65 into the parking lot beside Dibbo’s Diner. “I love it when they break into that heavy rhythm. I wrote a junior high school term paper on music like that. Colored jazz with a big beat. They wouldn’t let me write on rock and roll. That wasn’t a fit subject, my music teacher said. Hibbing is so hokey; to this day, I get the funniest feeling whenever I go back.”

Echo was dressed in knee-high white boots, black minidress, and Austrian cape, and she was sitting beside me in the front seat of my Volkswagen, with her blue eyes, baggage—dresses and slacks and things, just tossed in the back—huge funky sunglasses and ashblond hair, right there, in my car, and here we were in Mora, Minnesota, a halfway stop on the road to Hibbing, at a trucker’s café near the Snake River, where I would get out on my side of the car, walk around to open her door, help her out, lock it up—all that wonderful stuff—and we would have coffee.

No, hot chocolate; and Echo couldn’t stop. “Bob was a lot luckier with his teachers. He had that nice Mrs. Peterson in music, for one thing, and that made all the difference in the world. The woman I had practically ruined my life. That whole eleventh-grade year when Bob and I went steady, he had the music teachers snowed. Hardly anybody else could stand how he sung or what he played— especially the electric stuff—but people like Mrs. Peterson and Bob’s English teacher, Mr. Rolfzen, they had a feeling. Bob would play for anyone, anytime, and I guess that made a difference, too. He was such a sweet convincer. But me . . . ooh, that music teacher!”

People were staring. People, not just truck drivers, were staring at Echo and me in our funny clothes and funky manner, but Echo didn’t seem to care, even though they were looking at her the most, ’cause she looked pretty lookable. I was getting those stares I always got in places like this.

Echo tossed her head and met a few eyeballs. “Yes, we’re back in the sticks again. Home Sweet Home, for a north country weekend. They’ll talk behind your back, but they can’t look you in the eye. Just a little different, that’s all you have to be. They make me so mad, it’s the same as when I was a kid in Hibbing, they’d never leave me alone. Oh, I was a sexy little thing; you should have seen me in my first pair of leopard-skin pants, if you don’t think that shook ’em up on Howard Street!”

Oh. Yes.

“You’d better be able to get your camera fixed in Hibbing ’cause I brought some great things to wear.” She laughed. We had tried to have my camera repaired at several stores in Minneapolis, but none could do the job right away. No. They couldn’t. I’d buy a camera, a goddamned Nikon on credit if I had to.

“I guess the main reason Bob and I got along so well was ’cause we were both so wild. But I was a lot wilder than him at first; I suppose I sort of changed him some. But not much, his craziness had always been there; it just needed somebody to bring it out. I sure was that somebody. Even after we broke up, I did nutty things, and I was older then! Like right after graduation, my girlfriend and I hit the road—literally. We hitchhiked all over the place, and you know girls weren’t doing that the way they are now. We had some adventures! We camped out and slept in parks. Met other crazies like us and traveled together. It was a lot like what Bob always wanted to do, and like the fibs he told on the back of his first album . . . that stuff about traveling with a circus. Bob never did anything like that, at least not that I ever heard of. His weird imagination! But I sure did all that stuff, spent most of my graduation summer doing it. And in Minneapolis, too; that was really scary. But we got through it somehow, my girlfriend and me.” Echo drained the last of her cocoa, and folded up her purse. “What do you say we get out of here, this place gives me the creeps.”

Outside of Dibbo’s the wind had kicked up, and one of those north-country sunsets I’d been thinking about for ten months was slinking sensuously across the horizon. And that chill, a stiff, northern Minnesota reminder that the sun was going down . . .I pulled the heater lever on my VW up full, and labored the engine in third gear for three-quarters of a mile. Echo was reading about herself in the Village Voice. “How did you remember all this stuff, Toby? When I told it to you I never dreamed I’d be so big a part of your story. A whole section!”

I turned toward her smiling, and a semi almost blew us off the road. Stupid Highway 65 was only two lanes wide, and everybody hauled.

“Oh, I never said this. . . this is funny, I can’t believe you wrote it. I guess your memory isn’t as good as I thought, huh?”

“Which, where?”

“This story about Bob coming over to my house with his guitar, and singing ‘Do You Want to Dance,’ that’s not right. He called me up one time and played it over the telephone, the actual record, but he didn’t sing it for my parents or anything.”

“I must have dreamt it that way, I suppose. It’s a good story though, I’m glad I have it in there. Sounds like something Bob might have done.”

“You’re worse than he was, I swear. But . . . you know what actually did happen that time? He called me like I said, but told me it was him singing. He was always making tapes with his band, so naturally I believed him. I even complimented him on how much they’d improved. Was a long time afterward that I realized it wasn’t Bob and the band, but Bobby Freeman. Spooky stuff.”

Sounded pretty straight to me. Dylan could be Bobby Freeman for all I knew, but my theory was that Bob and Smokey Robinson were the same. If you’ve ever seen Smokey and the Miracles, I’m certain you’ll agree without a moment’s hesitation. And if you haven’t, just think about it: Up there on that stage before a fivepiece soul band, with the essence of black vocal accompaniment at his side—plus, I grant you, a little makeup, his hair slicked back, some Man Tan, and a puff or two of cotton in the nostrils—is Bobby Zimmerman, luxuriating in the apotheosis of his ’57 Jacket Jamboree Talent Festival performance. There was no doubt in my mind, Bob Dylan was Smokey Robinson. And I had evidence to support my belief: Smokey uses a quote from Bob in his program notes that says, “Smokey Robinson is today’s greatest living American poet.” Without reservation. And all one really has to do, if still unconvinced, is listen to the Miracles’ songs. . . numbers like “The Tracks of My Tears,” “The Love I Saw in You Was Just a Mirage,” or “More Love.” Nobody but Bob could have written the lines:

This is no fiction, this is no fact,
This is real,
It’s a pact . . .

Imagine how much fun Bob has being Smokey Robinson. No stupid reporters questioning the literacy of his work, no phony image of Pop Seer to live up to. Nothing but soul—and those slick clothes and that big beat. Bob didn’t really spend two years and a half brooding in Woodstock, he was on the road with the Miracles!

“Toby. . .”

“Huh? Oh, I’m sorry, I must have been dreaming.” Too little sleep, too many hours on the road, and too much happening. “What was it you were saying?”

Echo waved a letter under my nose. “This. I thought you might be interested in seeing it; it’s from Robert Shelton.”

“Wow, yes, what does he say? Read it to me.”

“Oh, not much. Except that if he can consider his interview with me exclusive, there will be more than the enclosed one hundred dollar check coming, when and if his book starts to make money.”

“He sent you a hundred dollars?” I asked.

“Yeah, and I guess I really blew it by talking to you, didn’t I?” Echo laughed.

“Gosh . . .”

“I’m only kidding, what do I care? It’s more fun having you write about Bob, anyhow.”

“Well, that’s good, because I’m sure not going to be able to give you a hundred bucks. That’s amazing. He must be getting a lot of bread from somebody to be throwing it around like that. Some publisher, I mean.” Oh, empty-pocketed gloom.

“Cheer up, he’s a nice fellow. He won’t be mad. And besides, it was all my fault. I never actually thought you’d get your story published. I just figured you were one of Bob’s fans who was interested enough in his music to come all the way to Minnesota. That’s why I talked to you; I never even thought about you being any competition for Robert Shelton.”

“I sure can’t say I blame you for that.” Echo flashed me a grin and turned back to her Voice. We drove along in silence for five or ten miles, her reading and me watching the road, all pale pink and Christmas-tree green in the dusk. It was really getting cold now, and I shivered with the heat up full, in my chamois-cloth lumberjack shirt and heavy wool socks. Echo huddled in her Austrian cape under the overhead light. I thought seriously of breaking out the Scotch that was bouncing around in my glove compartment.

“Ooh, Toby. . .I bet Bob’s wife didn’t like all this.”

“What’s that?” I said, my teeth chattering.

“This stuff about us wanting to get married—I bet that just made her furious.”

“Come on, you were two kids in love, of course you talked about getting married. Everybody does. Don’t you think Bob Dylan’s wife would understand something as normal as that?” Echo looked up hurt.

“Well, all I know is that we seemed pretty serious at the time. He even made me cook pizzas for him to prove I’d be a good wife, and once I had to sew a pair of blue slacks—best sewing job I ever did!”

I started laughing; I couldn’t help it, but I did. Echo just stared. “That’s funny, pizzas. . .” I gulped. Echo sort of smiled and then giggled. “And blue slacks,” she whispered, “royal blue slacks, I’ll never forget them.” She looked up at me and laughed.

“That’s better, oh god, I need a drink.” I uncorked the pint of Cutty Sark and offered Echo a snort.

“No thanks!” she said, looking mildly shocked. I took a long pull and stuck the bottle in my coat pocket.

“You are crazy.” She laughed again.

“I’m a in-sane,” the Cutty Sark roared. “And, ‘Sometimes, I might get drunk . . . walk like a duck, and smell like a skunk . . .’”

“Oh, hush. And keep your eyes on the road!” Another semi blasted by and almost launched us into a very large body of water. The bottle of Scotch quickly found its way to my mouth. “Pull off here for a minute,” Echo said. “There, that side road.”

I did as ordered and eased off Highway 65 into a small unpaved parking lot. “This is Big Sandy Lake.” Echo sighed. “See now? Isn’t that neat?”

I pulled up the hand brake, wiped off the windshield with a sleeve of my shirt, and gazed out onto the most beautifully moonscaped water I had ever seen. The lake flapped and flopped out for a mile or so, to tremendous northern pines of exactly the right height— their shaggy tops extending to tickle the breast of a moon so angry and red that it hissed across the black-green water like some carelessly ignited railroad flare. The radio was playing something appropriate, from someplace like Fort Wayne, Indiana, and we were less than an hour from Hibbing. Echo and I sat in our seats, just staring. It was, well . . .

“I always did like to stop here,” Echo finally said.


Toby Thompson is author of Positively Main Street: Bob Dylan's Minnesota (UMP), Saloon, and The '60s Report. He is associate professor of creative writing at Penn State University. He has also written for numerous magazines including Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, Playboy, and Esquire.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Skol Vikings! (But don't break my heart again.)


Days later, Vikings fans are still talking about it, what some are already calling the “Minneapolis Miracle.” With only ten seconds left in the game and the ball on the Vikings’ 39-yard line, quarterback Case Keenum threw a sideline pass to Stefon Diggs, who made a leaping catch and an improbable run for a 61-yard touchdown to defeat the New Orleans Saints, 29–24.

Could it become one of the most famous plays in NFL history? It would have to beat out at least three other legendary plays to compete for that honor:

1. NFL Films has designated the “Immaculate Reception” as number one. That’s the play in the 1972 playoffs when Pittsburgh running back Franco Harris, with only 30 seconds left in the game, caught a pass deflected off the intended receiver or defensive back and ran it in for a touchdown to beat Oakland, 13–7.

2. Longtime Vikings fans, of course, still haven’t gotten over the “Hail Mary.” With only 32 seconds left in a December 1975 playoff game at the old Metropolitan Stadium, Dallas quarterback Roger Staubach threw a long pass to receiver Drew Pearson, who caught the ball when Vikings’ defensive back Nate Wright fell. Pearson backed into the end zone to complete the 50-yard pass play and defeat the Vikings, 17–14. Forty-two years later Vikings fans still claim Pearson should have been given an offensive interference penalty for pushing off on Wright.

3. “The Catch” was made immortal by the famous photo on the cover of Sports Illustrated the week after San Francisco defeated Dallas 28–27 in a January 1982 playoff game. The 49ers were trailing 27–21 with 58 seconds left in the game and on the Cowboys’ 6-yard line when San Francisco quarterback Joe Montana rolled to his right and threw a pass toward the back of the end zone that looked too high. Later many analysts thought Montana was trying to throw the ball away to avoid a sack. However, 6-foot-4 receiver Dwight Clark made a leaping catch for a touchdown, and the automatic extra point—a 19-yard chip shot in those days—won the game.

If the Vikings go on to win the Super Bowl, Diggs’ catch may become a candidate, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. First, we have to come up a catchier moniker. “Minneapolis Miracle” is not going to do the job. Secondly, the Vikings have to win two more games. If they lose to Philadelphia or in the Super Bowl, the play could become just another great play in a season that ultimately broke our hearts once again.

This year’s team had a lot to like—a veteran assistant coach who finally got his chance at a head coaching job, a journeyman quarterback hired as a backup having a great year, an undrafted Minnesota native becoming one of the league’s best receivers, and a group of players who seemed to be good guys and appeared to love playing together. They have many Pro Bowl–worthy candidates, and picked each other up when injuries threatened to weaken the team. Late in the year I found myself watching the games again, despite hesitations earlier in the season.

My wife and I watched the game together on our big-screen TV, a rarity for us. I don’t know exactly what we were thinking when we settled down to watch the game. We were hopeful but didn’t dare to expect too much—probably as good a coping method as any to try to escape the heartbreak we’d experience if the team lost a big game once again. Loyal Vikings fans don’t need me to recite the list of past disappointments; they are seared into our collective memories. Don’t even mention those four Super Bowl losses.

So, I was not comfortable with the Vikings’ 17–0 halftime lead over the Saints. That turned out to be good judgment on my part, as the Vikings fell behind in the fourth quarter. I was not overly elated when Forbath kicked a 53-yard field goal to regain the lead for the Vikings, 23–21; and not surprised when New Orleans took back the lead, 24–23 on a field goal with 25 seconds left in the game. I was too stunned to react to Diggs’ winning touchdown. “Unbelievable! Amazing!” were the only words I could utter. I fully expected to learn that there had been a penalty flag against the Vikings on the play, but for once fortune smiled on us.

Now what should I do? Jump on the bandwagon and risk another heartbreak?

Oh, well, I am going to watch the game anyway.


Armand Peterson is author of The Vikings Reader and coauthor of Town Ball: The Glory Days of Minnesota Amateur Baseball.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Modernism and the Memorial: Public remembrance in the US and Germany.

Professor of art history at University College Dublin

2017 might turn out to be the year in which white Americans ceased to take Confederate monuments lightly; of course, their African-American neighbors never had. The erection of Maya Lin’s remarkable Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, DC, in 1982, inaugurated a memorial boom in the United States, which was only furthered by the rush to commemorate those who died on 9/11. Although many of the most admired memorials created during this period are dedicated to remembering the Holocaust, there has been little effort made to acknowledge the country’s own flaws, including the slavery Robert E. Lee and the army he led fought to defend.

The situation, as every scholar of memory knows well, is radically different in the Federal Republic of Germany. Here the marking of the horrors perpetrated by the Third Reich are an important part of the public realm. The inverse of Richmond, Virginia’s Monument Avenue may be the cluster of memoryscapes in the center of Berlin. These include the Jewish Museum, opened in 2001, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, dedicated in 2005, and the current Topography of Terror exhibition, completed in 2010. Moreover, the ubiquitous “stumbling blocks” Gunter Demnig has set into the pavements marking where Jews and other Nazi victims lived before being driven into exile or murdered inject memorialization into ordinary neighborhoods across the country. The contrasts with Americans, especially those living in former slave states (which include all of the original thirteen colonies), who can seldom identify exactly where slaves lived and worked, much less where they were bought and sold.

Public remembrance was not always any easier in Germany. Its path may have been smoothed by the fact that many of the strategies employed in the early twenty-first century for marking absence, including the juxtaposition of fragments of old and new architecture that occurs at the Reichstag, the home of the lower house of the German parliament, as well as the Jewish Museum and the Topography of Terror, were already employed in the early years after the war. In these cases, the preservation of ruins created by aerial bombardment marked the suffering endured rather than inflicted by Germans. Rather than being uniquely postmodern approaches to understanding the complexity of the city as palimpsest, these juxtapositions began as ways to ensure that remnants of late nineteenth-century churches, many of them strongly associated with Wilhelmine nationalism, would continue to stand. Building new structures alongside them that referenced the utopian aspirations many architects had had in the 1910s and '20s proved an acceptable compromise. This was most famously the case with the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, whose ruined tower and reconstructed sanctuary became, in the wake of the creation of the Berlin Wall in 1961, West Berlin’s most widely recognized symbol.

Paradoxes abound. In these circumstances, the old is almost never as old as it appears, nor the new as new. Reassuring markers of permanence that reference medieval and classical grandeur had almost always been erected within the lifetimes of many of those who after the wall fought for their preservation. The Memorial Church, for instance, was completed only in 1906, less than four decades before it was shattered by allied bombs in 1943. At the same time, what appears new, whether the Memorial Church dedicated in 1961 or the dome completed atop the Reichstag in 1999, was almost always profoundly historicist. These largely glazed structures referenced Expressionist architecture built or simply imagined across the course of the 1910s and twenties. Both nineteenth-century historicism and the modernism that replaced it are thus profoundly symbolic in ways that only advocates of the first openly admitted. Meanwhile the expression of the new has remained remarkably consistent over the course now of a full century.

None of these complexities, however, have marred the effectiveness of Germany’s many monuments to the Holocaust and other victims of state violence. Building admissions of responsibility for the failures of the past also facilitated the expansion of German democracy, not least in what had been East Berlin. Many Americans belong to families that arrived in the United States long after Appomattox, but, whether or not they live in a region still dotted with statues of solitary Confederate soldiers or in cities over which more ambitious figures of Lee and Stonewall Jackson on horseback once stood or continue to stand, almost all benefit from the myriad ways in which slaves built the country in which they settled. Nor is slavery the only instance of the United States failing to live up to the ideals enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. The seizure of land from Native Americans and from Mexico, along with the internment of Japanese-Americans, merit mention as well. The challenge may not be to develop entirely new ways of recognizing past failures, but to find the slivers of our own past that are optimistic enough, without being unnecessarily alienating, to provide a basis for a meaningful atonement.

Where might such precedents be found? One answer might be in the infrastructure, from the Blue Star Memorial highways and the Veterans Memorial auditoria and schools built across the country after World War II. Creative public arts projects might find ways to intertwine drawing attention to the past with building for the future. This is particularly apt considering the role that slaves played in creating roads and railroads in the first place. Another might develop out of the rich engagement with place that Lin herself encouraged when she drew inspiration from Adena and Hopewell mounds of her native Ohio. Perhaps something appropriately new/old can be layered atop the plinths that have been left behind in Baltimore, where they prevent forgetting what people once wanted to celebrate without continuing to join in that celebration. In any case to be effective, the means must emerge out of the local, just as, despite the plethora of foreign architects eventually involved, they did in Germany.

The Topography of Terror reminds us of how the specificity of place in tandem with grassroots activism can provoke awareness. In 1985 a small group excavated the remains of what had been the national headquarters of the SS and other organs of state terror. A quarter century later, a permanent exhibition and documentation center finally opened on the site. Attracting well over one million visitors a year, the carefully designed installation seeks literally to uncover what happened on what it reveals to be toxic ground. In his poem “For the Union Dead” Robert Lowell described the memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Regiment in Boston as “sticking like a fishbone in the city’s throat.”

We need more fishbones. Memorials to slavery exist, but in small numbers, and few attract more than local attention. The National Museum of African American History and Culture is an impressive step forward, but its exhibitions fittingly focus as much on achievement as enslavement. 1% of the entire population of the county in which I grew up in Maryland was sold over the course of just three years in New Orleans. Two counties to the south, Donald Rumsfeld owns Mount Misery, the farm that belonged to the man who tried to “break” Frederick Douglass, and a statue of a Confederate soldier still stands watch on the courthouse lawn. Counterweights more imaginative than simply swathing no longer welcome sculptures of Lee in black plastic, as is currently the case in Charlottesville, are needed. As the German example demonstrates, exposing its often less-than-ideal foundations reinforces rather than undermines democracy.


Kathleen James-Chakraborty is professor of art history at University College Dublin. She is author of Modernism as Memory: Building Identity in the Federal Republic of Germany; Architecture since 1400; and Bauhaus Culture: From Weimar to the Cold War, all from Minnesota.