Meditation on Modernity: Tesla and The Current War, The Young Karl Marx, and A Dangerous Method; and Questions for Fordham University Press Director Fredric Nachbaur
Our modern lives rest on principles and practices many of us do not know or understand. Do we know if, or how, writing was invented in Sumeria, and printing in China? How many of us understand electricity, the energy of electrons and protons? Or know that height affects the loudness of a sound? Or even that water boils at a lower temperature at high altitudes—or that cell phones work through radio waves, oscillating electric and magnetic fields? Is cinema a recreation of reality or its repudiation? How many of us understand molecules, atoms, and their constituent parts, properties, and powers, despite our schooling—or the ongoing threat of nuclear catastrophe? Do we know to what extent matter affects mind? The Austrian inventor Nikola Tesla, a colleague of Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse, created or imagined much of the technology that we now take for granted, from the electrical grid and wireless communication to computers and robotics. Nikola Tesla (1856 – 1943), a scientist and telegraph drafter and lecturer as well as poet, dandy, and a gambler, may have valued evidence, reason, and skepticism, aspects of the scientific approach, but he valued imagination too: a Serb born in the village of Smiljan during a lightning storm, the son of an Orthodox priest and a mother who invented tools for household use, a boy haunted by the death of an older brother, Nikola Tesla studied at the Technical University in Graz, Austria, and the University of Prague, before taking New York as his home; and Nikola Tesla made various discoveries regarding the electric motor, alternating electrical current, transformers, lighting, and shadowgraphs (proto-electromagnetic radiation graphs, or x-rays). Tesla installed the Niagara Falls’ first machinery for power, a hydroelectric power plant, bringing electricity to the town of Buffalo. Tesla did experiments with remote control (for a boat). He discovered the earth’s stationary waves; and he had a plan for a wireless broadcast tower. Tesla thought he had received sounds from outer space, something later corroborated by scientists in 1996 (sounds emitted by the moon passing through the magnetic field of Jupiter). Some of Nikola Tesla’s story can be read in My Inventions: The Autobiography of Nikola Tesla, much of it first published as articles in 1919 in the magazine Electrical Experimenter, articles later collected by editor Ben Johnston and published as My Inventions by Hart Brothers in Vermont in 1982.
Tesla’s eccentric and essential experiences can be found in books such as Prodigal Genius: The Extraordinary Life of Nikola Tesla by John Joseph O’Neill (Ivan Washburn, 1944), Tesla: Man Out of Time by Margaret Cheney (Dorset Press, 1989), and Wizard: The Life and Times of Nikola Tesla by Marc Seifer (Citadel, 1996). The life and legend of Tesla can be glimpsed in cinema, too. The tall, dark and dapper Nikola Tesla, a fastidious man who did calculus in his head and had a great memory for images as well as facts, an acquaintance of Mark Twain, John Muir, Robert Underwood Johnson, and Stanford White, was a true visionary, and Tesla is portrayed by Ethan Hawke in the 2020 film Tesla, written and directed by Michael Almereyda. The Texas-born and longtime New York resident Ethan Hawke, who came to acclaim in Dead Poets Society (1989) and Reality Bites (1994), has been exemplary in so many films that he is on the cusp of becoming a national treasure: Hawke was impressive and moving in Boyhood (2014), Predestination (2014), Maggie’s Plan (2015), and, among others, Maudie (2016) and The Magnificent Seven (2016), but especially, First Reformed (2017). Ethan Hawke, who always seems to be learning, brings intelligence and sensitivity, and a believable dedication, to his portrayal of the great but idiosyncratic scientist in Michael Almereyda’s Tesla. In Tesla, in 1884, at the site of Edison Machine Works, Thomas Edison (Kyle MacLachlan) recalls the drowning of a friend to Nikola Tesla (Hawke), before asking Tesla about himself. Much of Tesla’s life, in the film, is narrated by a Tesla acquaintance, the smart but neglected Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson), the daughter of railroad industrialist and financier J.P. Morgan (Donnie Keshawarz). The motion picture has direct to camera narration, some artificial backgrounds, and features anachronistic details (computer, cell phone) that work because of its subject’s technological prophecies. It is a serious film with sly humor.
The wealthy and famous, often spendthrift, Thomas Edison (Kyle MacLachlan) is a dominating figure to Nikola Tesla (Ethan Hawke), important but oppressive. Tesla needed financial investment in his ideas, so he came to Edison: Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson) says that the man who says he does not care about money can find himself tormented by the lack of it. Edison (MacLachlan), like Tesla (Hawke), is trying to harness electricity, but Edison pursues direct current, while Tesla pursues alternating current (both currents follow a circuit but direct current goes in one direction, unlike the alternating). Tesla has difficulties but finds other investors, yet he is not shrewd in business matters; and when Tesla creates a motor unique for its paucity of parts, even this efficiency is troublesome to a few observers (it is recommended Tesla break up the device and apply for individual patents, offering multiple applications). Tesla gives public demonstrations of his inventions, bringing awareness to specialists and the general public. George Westinghouse (Jim Gaffigan) is solicited as an investor and buys some of Tesla’s patents. George Westinghouse (Gaffigan) is sympathetic to Tesla’s idea of alternating currents of electricity, which is considered a dangerous idea (some think it might lead to electrocution). Westinghouse is first helpful to Tesla, but Tesla is asked by Westinghouse to give up some of his financial rights for the good of the company—and he does. Meanwhile, Tesla and Anne Morgan (Hewson) become friendly (they skate together), although Tesla keeps Anne at a certain intellectual distance (her sense of human complexity seems overwhelming to him); and the film imagines some kind of Tesla relationship with Sarah Bernhardt (Rebecca Dayan)—but Tesla was known to be celibate. Most of the film’s focus is where it should be: on the work of a man obsessed by invention, and who was regarded highly enough that his 1943 funeral in St. John the Divine cathedral in New York was attended by thousands.
Modernism is thought and technique, progress as program. The ancient world may have shared experience and meaning through ritual and symbol and the spoken word, but the modern age is the age of knowledge and technology, and the emergence of the possibility of a more complex, more fulfilled human being. Modernism has the aura of affectation and artifice, but the artists and thinkers—intellectuals, scientists, political activists among them—of modernism were in conversation with society, wanting to bring imagination and knowledge to the public realm, wanting all to have the possibility of choice, of freedom, of utility. Artists and intellectuals shared their understanding of the human being in history; and they explored the elements and forces of nature, and expanded the potential for the celebration, exploitation, and transformation of nature—land, water, plants, animals, and minerals. For society, natural resources were mined—and new sciences discovered or invented, with new tools and applications. Society changed. Its laboring force became large, organized, impersonal. Its technologies advanced, multiplied. Society knew itself changed. The arts are complement and contrast for each other—and for our conceptions of the world; and the arts can show us what, with all the changes, we have gained and lost. Modernism is consciousness and consensus, the experimental and polygamous marriage of intellect, impulse, and innovation, an embrace of sensuality and science, a repudiation of superstition as fact but an acceptance of it as a useful fiction, an awareness of the popular and an acceptance of the peculiar. Assertions of fact require proof—and the insistence on belief must satisfy the individual spirit. Moral claims are open to challenges. Modernism has a sound, complicated, improvised, raucous, the sound of thousands of strangers walking on a city street, the sound of large, powerful machines, and its music is a willed primitivism, as can be found in jazz and rock, contemporary rhythms that echo something fundamental, old, raging, sensual. Its stories arrive in poems, plays, and motion pictures.
How much of what is significant in our lives rests with the ordinary, and how much with the exceptional? How much of what we consider tragic is a disruption or destruction of the ordinary; and how much of ordinary reasons and rituals contribute to the inevitable occurrence of the tragic event? The scholar Veena Das, the author of Textures of the Ordinary: Doing Anthropology after Wittgenstein (Fordham University Press, 2020), notes that the tragic can occur as a catastrophic event, or as part of the mundane, and that philosophy, through Friedrich Nietzsche and Ludwig Wittgenstein, has pushed aside—or overcome—the former, the unusual, in order to pay attention to the latter, the ordinary. Veena Das, an anthropology professor at Johns Hopkins University, and a winner of prestigious fellowships and honorary doctorates, has done original research and been a teacher of concepts and methods, focused on the ordinary and the critical, on region and community, on violence and death, offering instruction at the Delhi School of Economics and the New School for Social Research before her decades at Johns Hopkins. Other philosophers have recognized the tragic in ordinary life: someone like Stanley Cavell, a scholar who wrote about philosophy, literature and film, recognizes that the tragic, even the catastrophic, can be found in ordinary conditions. Stanley Cavell, a student of Ludwig Wittgenstein as well as the American transcendentalists, found both literature and cinema great fields for the exploration of philosophical situations and problems; and he examined language, discussed skepticism, and observed relationships and spiritual growth as presented in films, which could demonstrate the testing of knowledge. To the surprise of some, Cavell found in Hollywood comedies of romance the journey to knowledge, love, and maturity—wisdom. Why should that surprise? Cinema is one of the inventions of modernism, and yet its earliest works were influenced by the tall tales and theatrical plays and vaudevillian performances and other forms that came before it. The film medium embodies perception, thought—and the medium is one of the most popular arts. Modernism in film shares aspects of modernism elsewhere, despite its inheritance of old forms: that is, consciousness informed by self-awareness and social conscience, and an openness to aesthetic rearrangements and technological innovations. A living culture is a culture that thinks, notes Fordham University Press director Fredric Nachbaur.
One can find aspects of modernism in the cinematic works of Charlie Chaplin, Ernst Lubitsch, Jean Renoir, and Sergei Eisenstein—and in Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959) and Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1959), in Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’avventura (1960) and Luchino Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers (1960), in Alain Resnais’s Last Year in Marienbad (1961) and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema (1968). Old sentimentalities and suppositions are abandoned. Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket does not assume the usual condemnations of criminality as it presents a portrait of a young man of some charm and intelligence, Michel (Martin La Salle), who chooses to pursue petty thievery—apparently for adventure and self-confirmation as much as money—despite the intervention of friends and observance by the police. The acceptance of Michel as a fact—as a person, as a genuine impulse—is as calm as the manner of the attractive visitor (Terence Stamp) to a bourgeois home in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema (Theorem) as the visitor becomes involved in a series of consolations and seductions of household members, young and old, female and male: he moves them beyond their routines of thought and tasks. Experimental life becomes a mark of modernity. Transgression is possible, even probable. Modernism can be observed—as perception, as principle, and as practice—in the exemplary works of Woody Allen, Luis Bunuel, Rainer Fassbinder, Michel Gondry, Werner Herzog, Derek Jarman, Louis Malle, Christopher Nolan, Martin Scorsese, Agnes Varda, and Wong Kar-Wai. Modernism can be perceived in films accepted as art, and in films dismissed as trash. Modernism that reflects the conflicts and neuroses of recognizable personalities is easy to see: appearances are respected but interrogated, and perception influences philosophy—but often final meanings are withheld. Does cinema evoke philosophy merely to dismiss it? How has cinema treated philosophy?
Films have shown us ancient philosophers, as in Socrates (1971), starring Jean Sylvere as the troublesome wise man, directed by Roberto Rossellini, and the mathematician and teacher Hypatia (Rachel Weisz) in Alejandro Amenabar’s Agora (2009); and dynamic more contemporary thinkers such as Ludwig Wittgenstein (Karl Johnson) in Derek Jarman’s Wittgenstein (1993), and Hannah Arendt (Barbara Sukowa) in a 2012 Margarethe von Trotta film that took the philosopher’s name as its own. Considering how established yet radical modern thinkers such as Freud and Marx have been treated by cinema can be fascinating. How much of the shock of the new remains? One, Freud, looking at the private, and the other, Marx, at the political, were seen as keys to understanding, and ameliorating, the modern condition: how can people become more free? Why do workers produce so much and have so little? Why are people miserable? Karl Marx and his colleague Friedrich Engels wanted not merely to contemplate and criticize the world, but to change it. They recognized labor as central to society even while laborers were exploited and endangered—and wanted to expand what freedom meant. Raoul Peck’s film The Young Karl Marx (2017), an assured, beautiful, intelligent work, with a screenplay by Peck with Pascal Bonitzer, depicts the early friendship and collaboration of Marx and Engels in 1840s Europe, a time of turmoil and thought—the exploited workers and exhausted peasantry are beginning to rebel.
In The Young Karl Marx, Marx (August Diehl) and Engels (Stefan Konarske), after a few competitive and defensive feints, are deeply respectful of each other’s work, and join forces to encourage revolution. Marx struggles to feed his own family, while Engels, a poet, philosopher, journalist, and man about town, feels embarrassed by his own involvement in his father’s textile and cotton factories in Germany and England, and both men work to influence the emerging workers’ movement, attempting to make it less idealistic and more practical in its language and goals. They engage in arguments with other leaders and thinkers, creating a historical materialism, an examination of history that looks at the creation and conflicts of material developments, involving capital, labor, industry, and technology. Marx, who critiqued Hegel and wrote on Jewish issues, as well as fiction, collaborates with Engels, who wrote on English factory life and culture, together publishing The Holy Family (1845), before Marx publishes The Poverty of Philosophy (1847), both books taking issue with more established writers; and the men have the active support of their lovers, Marx’s wife Jenny (Vicky Krieps) and Engels’s Mary Burns (Hannah Steele). “Somehow the spectacle of fiercely angry people talking about ideas becomes absorbing and even gripping,” noted The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw (February 12, 2017). Peter Schwarz, of the World Socialist Web Site, in his March 15, 2017 comment, affirmed the significance of Marxism in an age of international financial crises and found the Peck film’s condensation of some of the Marx-Engels history, whether of collaboration or communism, too truncated.
Material realities and mental states shape the nature of modernity. Decades after Marx and Engels, and before Freud’s revelatory emergence, Nikola Tesla chased his own revolution. Electricity is transformed energy, and Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla were part of a late nineteenth-century quest to bring electricity to the masses, a story told in The Current War (2017), a film with a script by playwright Michael Mitnick, directed by Alfronso Gomez-Rejon. The source of electricity can be natural (sun, water, wind) or mechanical, involving generators or batteries. In the 1880s, Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) and Tesla (Nicholas Hoult) have differing ideas about collaboration and credit and commerce—Edison wants his name on everything, but Westinghouse is about efficiency, and Tesla, a dandy and an idealist, while seeming to see further than both of them is less practical. (Tesla is precise about science but not society.) Edison wants to pursue direct electrical current, and Westinghouse and Tesla alternating current, which seems more efficient. Reputation and revenue are at stake. I thought the film The Current War very intelligent, and found the differing personalities and powers intriguing (Matthew Macfadyen is rich investor J.P. Morgan, and Corey Johnson appears as the twenty-first American president Chester Arthur, with Simon Manyonda as inventor and patent draftsman Lewis Latimer). Their principles do not always match their practices: Edison wants to avoid doing harm, but helps to develop the electric chair as criminal punishment. (Edison’s love, and loss, of his wife grant him a sympathy he might not have otherwise.) In the Washington Post, reviewer Michael O’Sullivan, finding the filmmaking technique self-conscious and scholarly and the musical score intrusive, called The Current War “a fascinating but flawed-in-the telling account of the struggle to establish an industry standard for building America’s fledgling electrical infrastructure” (October 21, 2019).
Is the self real, is it rooted and resolute, or is it merely residue of material and social conditions? Is wholeness of self possible? In David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method (2011), with a screenplay by Christopher Hampton, the idea of a wounded healer is at the center of the story, beginning with a hysterical young woman whose strange and humiliating treatment by her father seems to have led to sexual hysteria. Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), becomes in 1904 a patient of Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), who begins to treat her with Sigmund Freud’s talking cure—a method of confession and analysis. Sigmund Freud, born in Moravia and educated and working in Vienna, and the author of The Interpretation of Dreams (1900) and Introduction to Psychoanalysis (1917), described the mind as having three significant structures, id, ego, and superego; and Freud thought insight could be found in examining dreams, one more way of bringing into consciousness what had been beneath awareness. Carl Jung knew Freud’s theories and wanted to put them into practice; and the two, doctor and patient, Jung and Spielrein, become colleagues then lovers. Their relationship threatens Jung’s reputation and becomes a factor in Jung’s relationship with Freud (Viggo Mortensen)—master and student, then colleagues, then competitors, Freud and Jung experience shifts in their regard for each other. Jung, who got his doctorate in 1902 with the completion of his dissertation, On the Psychology and Pathology of So-Called Occult Phenomena, wrote The Psychology of Dementia Praecox in 1907 and Symbols of Transformation in 1910. Freud questioned aspects of Jung’s character and resisted Jung’s interest in the supernatural—and they, amid various conflicts and tensions, broke with each other in 1913. “This therapeutic world is an arena of power-plays where the helpless Sabina is revealed as the most insightful and searching person around,” observed David Thomson in the New Republic (January 1, 2012).
A gorgeous film, A Dangerous Method, shows roiling passions and radical speculations beneath the obvious respectability of a haute bourgeois milieu and the asserted rigor of an emerging discipline. And Freud, the excavator of childhood trauma and the founder of psychoanalysis? Freud is sensitive as a Jew and as the proponent of new theories—sensitive to rejection. “This Freud smokes all the time and Mortensen has supplied him with an alphabet of grunts, sniffs, sighs and digestive, puffing sounds that are amazingly eloquent and evidence of a very pompous insecure man,” notes David Thomson (New Republic, January 1, 2012). I was amused to see Freud’s lips around a large cigar, relishing it, while listening to Jung (is the cigar only a cigar?). Yet, Freud was not merely a commentator on the personal or the perverse, and it may have been more interesting to see how conflict of all kinds were central to Freud’s work, how that made Freud a social philosopher as much as a private doctor—as in his Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1901) and Totem and Taboo (1913) and Civilization and Its Discontents (1930). The three films—The Young Karl Marx and The Current War and A Dangerous Method show us a past that still has an influence on our present lives. Of course, modernity can be read, seen, or heard in the works of a great range of artists and intellectuals: W.H. Auden, Bela Bartok, Samuel Beckett, Joseph Conrad, Alfred Doblin, T.S. Eliot, Charles Ives, James Joyce, Franz Kafka, Henri Matisse, Henry Moore, Pablo Picasso, Egon Schiele, Gertrude Stein, and Igor Stravinsky among them. They found ideas in impulses and rigor in rebellion. They anticipated us. What is complex in The Young Karl Marx, The Current War, and A Dangerous Method is what, often, has become simple, or at least obvious, for us—quotidian.
Yet, the great promise of modernism has not been extended to all. Much of the work of Veena Das has been an investigation of neglected lives, a documentation of marginality and meaning. She understands that routine and ruin can travel the same path. Veena Das, philosophical and practical, brings western thought and methods together with eastern life, beliefs, and rituals, conducting surveys, making charts and maps. In her book, Textures of the Ordinary (Fordham University Press, 2020), Das discusses a more appreciative relation to the planet itself, the necessity of social space, and how infrastructure can inhibit community and circumscribe political participation. Where is one allowed to live? What is a good, efficient source of clean water? Where can people meet? How will they get to that shared space? “Is human vulnerability to be traced to the fact that all human action is vulnerable to failure, or is vulnerability socially constituted?” ask Das in the essay “A Politics of the Ordinary: Action, Expression, and Everyday Life” (page 60). What do we say, and what is said to us? How do we succeed or fail, are made happy or unhappy?
Veena Das, while citing the attention to speech acts of language philosopher J.L. Austin and film scholar and philosopher Stanley Cavell, asks questions about particular situations of hazard and help: “Does the child who came into to play look like she has not eaten? Is the next-door house plunged in darkness because there was no money to pay the bills? Kindly neighbors might then ‘pretend’ that they have cooked too much food and ask the neighbor to come in and share or take to other ruses to help—here pretending is not so much a lie as a different kind of truth either cut down to size or elevated into a moral action while avoiding moralism” (page 63). Das, like the aesthete and moralist Stanley Cavell, refuses to sacrifice feeling for the affirmation of pure thought, and she affirms human connection. Much of her research has focused on India, particular the city of Delhi. Veena Das describes the communal respect inspired by a man who used his own resources to repair a road; and, also, how an electrical network was created, with area mapping funded by family contributions, and transformers placed on the neighborhood’s available space, no matter how unlikely. While we might look for cultural knowledge and understanding in news reports and even films focused on India—and there are many well-regarded films set in India such as Ankhon Dekhi, or Through My Own Eyes (2014); Band Baaja Baaraat, or Band, Music, Revelry (2010); Delhi Belly (2011); Delhi 6 (2009); Devi (1961); Do Bigha Zamin, or Two-thirds of an Acre (1953); English, August (1994); Fukrey, or Slackers (2013); The Great Indian Butterfly (2010); Jaane Bhi Do Yarro, or Just Let It Go, Friends (1983); Khosla Ka Ghosla or, Khosla’s Nest (2006); Lagaan, or Land Tax (2001); Mahanagar, or The Big City (1963); Meghe Dhaka Tara, or The Cloud-Capped Star (1960); Mother India (1957); Pather Panchali, or Song of the Little Road (1955); Pyaasa, or Thirsty (1957); Jalsaghar, or The Music Room (1958); Rang De Basanti, or Paint it Yellow (2006) and Three Idiots (2009)—we can find the most dependable facts and information, the necessary understanding, in the published writings of scholars. The work of Veena Das, an anthropologist and a philosopher, has rearranged perception of those without great power; and her book Textures of the Ordinary, which contains eleven major chapters, with essays covering ethics, law, psychiatry, and death, with a preface and introduction, and notes and references, an index, and acknowledgements, is a unique work of reflection and reclamation. What are problems become possibilities in her perspective.
Our realities—advanced modernism? postmodernism?—may be shaped by our acceptance of contradictions and fragmentations, by our doubt and suspicion of total explanations. We mix and match cultures and styles. The intermingling of different classes of people, places, and things that cinema often presents us with is even more inextricable, more dangerous, more vivid, in Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion (2011), written by Scott Z. Burns, and set in contemporary times, in which a virus begun in China soon contaminates much of the world: a prophetic work, the film gives us Laurence Fishburne and Kate Winslet as doctors Ellis Cheever and Erin Mears, and Jennifer Ehle and Elliot Gould as scientists Ally Hextall and Ian Sussman, who work to find insight into the virus and a cure, with Gwyneth Paltrow as an adulterous woman, Beth Emhoff, who contracts (and spreads) the virus and Jude Law as a dishonest blogger, Alan Krumwiede, who exploits the pandemic. The speed of the virus’s spread is one we, twenty-first century people, can attest to, as is the panic it unleashes; and the film’s vision is large, cool, smart, populist. Contagion anticipates our world: the coronavirus that paralyzed much of the world in 2020 can be glimpsed, its panic and its empty streets similar to ours (and in April 2020 the film’s director, Steven Soderbergh, became the Directors Guild of America Covid-19 Committee chairman, offering guidance for the industry; and a year later, on April 22, 2021, India set a new record for the number—312, 731—of new infections reported on a single day). The tragic is both mundane and spectacular.
What makes the ordinary inevitable? What makes it significant? Those are the questions of scholars. Those are the kinds of questions posed by scholar Veena Das in her investigations, as discussed in Textures of the Ordinary: Doing Anthropology After Wittgenstein (Fordham University Press, 2020), a work that considers the personal and the public, the philosophical and the political. Those are the kinds of questions art has asked. Cinema offers us a multitude of every kind of example. We find, there, civility and its exact opposite—parables of experience and knowledge: birth and death, love and hate, isolation and community. Of course, everyone cannot learn or know everything; thus, we all must depend on the expertise of others—for education, for medicine, for mechanics, for plumbing, for philosophy, for politics, for practices. Publishing has made expertise more easily available—moved knowledge beyond the world of elites, beyond the conclaves of governors and priests and merchants and teachers. Cinema has taken the book business as an environment of interest, such as in Non-Fiction (Oliver Assayas, 2019), The Words (Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal, 2012), The Proposal (Anne Fletcher, 2009) and You’ve Got Mail (Nora Ephron,1998), and Wonder Boys (Curtis Hanson, 2000). Books, like their caretakers, have been seen as sources of calm as well as conflict: in Storm Center (1956), directed by Daniel Taradash, a librarian, played by Bette Davis, refuses to ban a book, The Communist Dream; and more recently, social problems—specifically homelessness—find expression and empathy in a library, as seen in The Public (2018), directed by Emilio Estevez. Cinema and its plenitude—beauty and barbarism, aesthetics and ethics—have been articulated, challenged, and explored by the writers Rudolph Arnheim, Bela Balazs, Roland Barthes, Andre Bazin, Peter Bogdanovich, Donald Bogle, David Bordwell, Stan Brakhage, Stanley Cavell, Noel Carroll, Manthia Diawara, Mary Ann Doane, Thomas Elsaesser, Pauline Kael, Siegfried Kracauer, Wesley Morris, Laura Mulvey, Mark Reid, Martin Scorsese, Susan Sontag, and, among others, Francois Truffaut, and Dziga Vertov.
Whether writing was invented in Sumeria and printing in China, the written word has come a long, long way, from such places and the ink, paper, press and movable metal type of Johannes Gutenberg in Germany in the 1400s to the typewriters and computers of recent years. Poetry is printed and so is paper money. Philosophy is circulated and so is pornography. “The top five publishing houses dominate the industry, and it’s all about money for them. As a university press, our goals are more than about creating capital. We are trying to disseminate scholarship,” says Fredric Nachbaur, Fordham University Press (FUP) director, referring to the major companies that make great commerce of cognition and creativity: Penguin Random House and the Hatchette Book Group, Harper Collins, Simon & Schuster, and Macmillan. (The book business makes more than $25 billion annually.) Fordham has as part of its roster books such as Living with Concepts: Anthropology in the Grip of Reality edited by Andrew Brandel and Marco Motta, and The Form of Love: Poetry’s Quarrel with Philosophy by James Kuzner, Radical Hospitality: From Thought to Action by Richard Kearney and Melissa Fitzpatrick, Thinking with Adorno by Gerhard Richter, Sexistence by Jean-Luc Nancy, Under Representation: The Racial Regime of Aesthetics by David Lloyd, and Whose Middle Ages?: Teachable Moments for an Ill-Used Past, edited by Andrew Albin, Mary C. Erler, Thomas O’Donnell, Nicholas L. Paul and Nina Rowe. “We publish scholars from universities and colleges throughout the United States and the world,” says Nachbaur. What is the value of such knowledge, of such culture, now, in a world of climate change, disease, poverty, and great political turmoil? I wanted to go to one of the sources of books, of knowledge—a publisher; and asked Fredric Nachbaur to answer questions for me about our great common culture and about his life and work. I sent the questions to him December 17, 2020; and, as agreed, Nachbaur sent the answers to me February 2, 2021.
Questions for Fordham University Press Director Fredric Nachbaur
Daniel Garrett: As a university student, you studied literature and urban studies. What in those two very different disciplines—different ways of seeing society—attracted you?
Fredric Nachbaur: That’s an interesting question, especially since my degrees are thirty years apart. I received my undergraduate degree, a BA in English, in 1987 and my MA in Urban Studies in 2017. I would be considered a lifelong learner. When I was in college, I started out studying computer science, mainly because my two older brothers studied it and said it would give me great skills to land a job after graduation, so I followed their lead. I hated it. I took an English literature class as an elective and enjoyed it. I was always a reader. After one assignment, my professor approached me and praised my work and asked if I’d consider majoring in English. I told her that I was worried about what I would do with an English degree. She replied that I should pursue a degree that ties into my passion and interest and a career that ties into these pursuits. It was eye-opening. I changed my major soon afterward. I got into publishing shortly after graduation and have been in the industry ever since. I’ve always wanted to get an advanced degree, but I didn’t get serious about it until I became the director at Fordham University Press and started acquiring books.
I became interested in books about NYC and started a dedicated imprint, Empire State Editions. I have always been drawn to an urban environment and have lived in NYC since 1991. When I realized that Fordham offered a MA in Urban studies, I decided to go for it. The field is interdisciplinary, covering topics from history, literature, sociology, politics, film, art, and more, overlapping with many of the subjects in which FUP publishes. I loved it and even had an opportunity to take a trip to Bilbao, Spain, to give a presentation at the University of Deusto on my research on gentrification and LGBTQ parenting in Washington Heights. In addition to studying another field that tied into my passion, it gave me an appreciation for the methodological work that my authors adhere to when writing their manuscripts. I established an urban studies series, Polis, to further develop my interest and publish books that complement other fields in our program.
Daniel Garrett: What defines a living culture to you?
Fredric Nachbaur: That’s a broad question. A living culture is a culture that thinks. We publish books geared toward a living culture, whether they’re historians, sociologists, anthropologists, urbanists, Italian Americans, or African Americans. These are all communities that are part of a living culture.
Daniel Garrett: Fordham University Press (FUP) began in 1907, the oldest Catholic university press, first publishing books on medicine and science, history, and religion, and expanding into philosophy, the arts, and social sciences. Its range of books include titles such as Expanded Cinema by Gene Youngblood, and At Wit’s End on Jewish jokes by Louis Kaplan, and Textures of the Ordinary on anthropology by Veena Das, and Merleau-Ponty’s Poetic of the World, and Whose Middle Ages?. A few years ago, Fordham University Press (FUP) moved into new offices, not far from that of other scholarly publishers. How would you compare the press’s new offices in mid-Manhattan at Lincoln Center (LC) with its old offices in the Bronx; and are there now plans for future expansion or consolidation?
Fredric Nachbaur: We significantly downsized our footprint by moving from our office on the Rose Hill Campus to our new space on Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus. On Rose Hill, we were in a three-story red-brick building that previously served as housing for Jesuits. FUP occupied all three floors at one point, but it had offices on the second and third floors when I came on board. It was kind of rambling, and every person had an office. There were single-occupancy bathrooms and a working kitchen. I enjoyed having access to the gorgeous grounds of the main campus with its iconic buildings, such as Keating Hall with the clock tower, and University Church with Edgar Allan Poe bells, as well as Edwards Parade—the great lawn where student hung out on sunny days and graduations were held. I also loved having access to Arthur Avenue and its multitude of Italian specialty stores, restaurants, cafes, and pizzerias. That said, I was excited to move the Press to Manhattan. It brought us closer to the hub of both scholarly and trade publishing. It gave me access to thought leaders, publishing friends, and authors. Many authors were reluctant to go to the Bronx to meet with me, so I would wind up meeting them in Manhattan at a coffee shop or common space on LC campus. Our space is much smaller, but we are part of the overall community. We share floor space with the office of International Studies and Development and University Relations. I feel like we are part of a bigger community connected to the university. I didn’t feel this way on Rose Hill. I felt kind of isolated. Our space on LC is much smaller, requiring staff members to share office space. To accommodate the tighter space, I offered remote work options. The staff could work from home for two days and in the office for three days. Everyone would need to be there on Wednesdays for staff meetings. People alternated their days so they would only share offices on Wednesday. It worked well and set us to nimbly pivot to a completely work-from-home environment when the pandemic caused a lockdown back in March 2020. We are currently in a limbo state until the university makes definitive decisions on when to bring administrators back to their offices. Now that vaccines are on the horizon, I suspect this will happen in the summer or fall of this year. I anticipate that my staff will choose to continue working several days a week remotely. I envision the workplace and work environment looking different for many in publishing and other fields as well. As an urban dweller, I look forward to going back into the office, despite our success in maintaining operations and publishing output.
As an urban press, the fabric of life is dependent on interactions with people and businesses on a regular basis. I miss ordering my egg and cheese sandwich from the local deli next door. I miss the food carts selling coffee and making small talk with their daily customers. I miss seeing and interacting with family, friends, and colleagues in person. I miss the subway ride and 29 minutes of reading the New York Times or listening to a podcast. I miss running in Central Park during my lunch hour. I miss meeting an author for lunch at P.J. Clarke’s. I miss meeting friends for drinks at Bar Boulud.
I love my husband, but I don’t want to work next to him on a daily basis. I prefer to work at an office and come home later and tell him about my day. Businesses big and small are dependent on human interaction and not only online. I’m all for efficiencies and improved budgets, but I prefer to be part of an intricate system of overlapping channels that make up a town, city, metropolis. When it’s safe, I want to leave my home. For me, home and work are separate. I may be in the minority because I live in one of the best cities in the world, despite headlines about a mass exodus and a significant decline. NYC will come back. It always does.
Garrett: Italian-American experience has been described or presented in literature and film and is the focus of scholarly study. Italian-Americans as immigrants, as a population defined as an ethnicity, and as workers and urban dwellers, have shared similarities of experience with other American citizens—experiences of marginality, denigration, exploitation, and struggle for fair opportunity. Yet, most people define their communal experience as unique rather than being similar to that of others. How has, and how can, communal experience be used as a bridge rather than a wall?
Nachbaur: There are similarities among groups that feel marginalized and can certainly learn from each other. We published Before the Fires: An Oral History of African American Life in the Bronx from the 1930s to the 1960s to provide a completely different narrative of South Bronx through interviews with residents who lived there. It portrays a sense of community that encouraged and developed a group of artists, writers, doctors, and scientists. This is quite different than the familiar portrayal of drugs, crime, and violence often depicted in media. We also publish a series called Critical Studies in Italian America that engages with broader questions of identity pertinent to ethnic studies, gender studies, and migration studies. Our list in gender and race is deep and includes books such as Dylan Rodríguez’s White Reconstruction: Domestic Warfare and the Logics of Warfare that builds a framework for the study of anti-Blackness and racial-colonial violence in the contemporary period. One of our most recent titles, Shell-Shocked: Feminist Criticism after Trump, contains short, witty, engrossing essays written in the public voice by a prominent political thinker (Bonnie Honig) that gets to the heart of what feminist criticism can do in the face of everyday politics. These books overlap in their aim to offer a counter-narrative and to dig deeper into commonly held beliefs and convictions.
Garrett: What do you make of humanity’s genocidal impulses, seen in the treatment of Africans, Native Americans, Armenians, Jews and Palestinians, Romani, Cambodians, Bosnians, Yazidis, and too many others?
Nachbaur: Unacceptable and the antithesis of what I believe in personally but also to the values and mission of Fordham and Fordham University Press. Our books support the humane treatment of all people.
Garrett: Some of the values that have defined Catholicism are the regard for nature and tradition, personal dignity, family and community, work, and social responsibility, as well as the belief in a holy trinity and the virtues and sacrifice of saints; but sometimes high standards have meant ostentation and hypocrisy and intolerance. Many writers have been inspired by the Catholic church, its teachings and participants—I think of T.S. Eliot and Evelyn Waugh, but there, also, have been such Catholic writers as Toni Morrison and Anne Rice as well as Geoffrey Chaucer, Alexander Pope, James Joyce, Allen Tate, and J.R.R. Tolkien. Are there Catholic writers whom you feel particularly close to?
Nachbaur: I was raised Catholic, graduated from a Catholic high school, and got an MA from a Jesuit institution, but I don’t feel particularly close to Catholic writers. I’m drawn to the writing and the story. Here are some of my favorite books and authors in no particular order.
1) Truman Capote, In Cold Blood
2) E.M. Forster, Maurice
3) E.M. Forster, A Room with a View
4) Katharine Graham, Personal History
5) F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
6) Truman Capote, Other Voices Other Rooms
7) Tom Wolfe, Bonfire of the Vanities
8) Philip Roth, American Pastoral
9) Joseph O’Neill, Netherland
10) Junot Diaz, Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
11) Augusten Burroughs, Running with Scissors
12) J.R. Moehringer, Tender Bar
13) John Irving, Prayer for Owen Meany
14) Edith Wharton, House of Mirth
15) S.E. Hinton, Outsiders (HS reading)
16) Erik Larson, In the Garden of Beasts
17) Erik Larson, Dead Wake
18) James Baldwin, Another Country
19) Rebecca Skloot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
20) Rumaan Alam, Leave the World Behind
21) Joan Didion, Play It as It Lays
22) Joan Didion, Slouching Toward Bethlehem
23) Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking
24) Joan Didion, Blue Lights
25) Nadine Gordimer, The Pick Up
The Jesuit mission of men and women for others and cura personalis (teaching to the whole person) does resonate with my own thinking and philosophy. I do try to treat people with respect and dignity. The FUP publishing program aims to mirror this mission through our books that give voice to the marginalized and underrepresented. Being gay and Catholic has often caused an internal dichotomy, but my time at Fordham has given me a deeper understanding of the Jesuit tradition and history of its openness to all people. When I started at Fordham, the Provost of the university told me never to deny my identity. That stuck with me.
Garrett: Most writers are not famous or rich. Writers and artists are essential workers in publishing—and yet often they have the least power, the least remuneration. Why is that, and how can that be made to change?
Nachbaur: The top five publishing houses dominate the industry, and it’s all about money for them. As a university press, our goals are more than about creating capital. We are trying to disseminate scholarship. I am not sure how you would change the power dynamic and economic inequity that writers face—there is, after all, a lot of competition. Our work is a bit out of the mainstream as we feel an obligation to members of the academic community to get their work read and help them attain tenure. We work with authors as a shared mission. I often have to explain to writers that we are investing in their book—copy editing, promotion, production costs. We value writers and their work, not just money…unlike the big publishers looking for best-sellers.
Garrett: What are the questions you bring to a manuscript that you’re considering for publication?
Nachbaur: Why would a reader want to read this book? What differentiates it from what is already out in the world? Is it a good fit with Fordham University Press? Does it fit within the channels that we have built? It’s tougher to promote an orphan title. We have built-in networks that we can work within. We like to work with authors who will collaborate with us in promoting the book. Their work is not done when the manuscript is submitted. We are always looking for writers willing to get out there and promote, whether it’s through social media or speaking engagements.
Garrett: Can you describe the interactions of the different departments in a publishing house for someone who may find that mystifying?
Nachbaur: At a small press like Fordham, we all interact. We have nine full-time staffers, four part-time, and several student interns. We have an editorial team responsible for acquisitions—attending conferences, vetting unsolicited proposals, and looking for work that’s tapping into a flashpoint. That role is pretty well defined—they acquire the manuscript. When the manuscript comes in, we hand it off to the editorial, design, and production team: they do things like copyediting, design of the book, cover design—the physical object that is a book. We have a sales and marketing team overseeing advertising, authors events, conference promotions, and digital marketing. The business department handles the financial aspects. So, for a small press like ours, we do outsource sales, distribution, and warehousing. Here at our press, the roles are pretty straightforward, although we work in concert to make each book as big a success as possible.
Garrett: What kind of responses do you want your publications to inspire, in individuals, in communities?
Nachbaur: To do something, to think, to raise up, themes of University Press Week, which typically takes place the second week of November. This past year our theme was #RaiseUP, emphasizing the role that university presses play in elevating authors, subjects, and whole disciplines that bring new perspectives, ideas, and voices to readers worldwide. “Raise UP” is a particularly apt theme in a time when information moves at faster speeds than ever before across all platforms. It’s critical that scholarship about the most important ideas of the day is nurtured, championed, and made widely available (from the official press release). Past University Press themes include #LookItUP, #ThinkUP, and, Read. Think. Act. I’ve been a member of the UP Week task force for years and was its chair from 2015 to 2018.
Garrett: You told the March 13, 2017 Fordham News that, “University presses are generally mission-driven. Our mission is to publish boundary-breaking scholarship, and help authors who are scholars get tenure, because tenure is contingent on getting published by a university press.” Has that always been the mission; and is it still the mission?
Nachbaur: It has, but it is much more. Many university presses were established to publish their own faculty, Fordham included. Fordham University Press was established in 1907 by Dr. James Walsh, Dean of Fordham’s School of Medicine, and The Makers of Modern Medicine was the first book published that same year. All titles published under Dr. Walsh’s leadership concerned medicine, science, history, and religion. Interesting bit of trivia: January 1913 was a significant month in the life of the Fordham School of Medicine. On Jan. 1, a new medical school building opened near the Bathgate Avenue entrance of the Rose Hill campus. (It was supposedly situated there so that cadavers could be discreetly delivered.)
The building—today, Finlay Hall—contained a clinic on the first and second floors and two lecture halls holding 200 students each. The medical school itself had opened in 1905, followed by several new schools and colleges that marked Fordham’s transformation into a university. After the Medical School closed in 1922, the Press relocated to downtown Manhattan at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences housed in the Woolworth Building.
Nowadays, most of our list comprises authors outside Fordham. We publish scholars from universities and colleges throughout the United States and the world. Our regional imprint has many non-academic authors passionate about NYC or the surrounding area, including journalists. More and more literary agents have been reaching out to me about new submissions.
Publish or perish is still important, but tenure track jobs have decreased significantly over the years. Charles Watkinson, director of University of Michigan Press, wrote an interesting article, “University presses and the impact of COVID-19” in Learned Publishing.” He writes: “The portion of faculty members on the tenure track has been decreasing for many years, from about 45% in 1976 to about 25% today according to the American Association of University Professors and likely even more.” FUP still receives many proposals for revised dissertations written by authors hoping to get tenure or promotion. The books must fit with our publishing program. We want them to have an opportunity to be considered outside the big five publishers. We offer a platform, and this again ties into the mission of giving voice and raising up.
Garrett: What is the value of critical literature, of literary criticism, and of scientific, historical, and interpretive evaluations?
Nachbaur: Really to think more and see topics in new ways and forms. Enrich a reader’s understanding of a work of art or piece of writing. I think it tells readers not to take things for granted.
Garrett: Why do you think some people resist reading, its rigors and its seductions and pleasures?
Nachbaur: I think people have gotten lazy from technology and the convenience of the iPhone. Everything has to be immediate. It’s kind of mind-boggling. During my undergraduate days, I’d spend hours in the library pursuing the stacks and doing research for papers. I’d type my articles on a typewriter. When I got my MA, the experience and process were completely different. I could do all my research on a computer using institutional platforms like JSTOR, Project Muse, and others. Typing took place on my laptop, and interviews were transcribed using an application. It was great, and I enjoyed the ease and convenience, but the differences were stark and made me realize why some younger people are turned off by or resist reading.
I have a 16-year-old daughter, and I see how addicted she is to the phone and the need for instant gratification. We read to her from the day she was born. It’s hard to compete with YouTube, TikTok, and other social media platforms. Kids, and even adults, don’t want to spend hours lost in a book. It’s really depressing if you think about it.
Garrett: What might you say to an ordinary reader who is skeptical of such Fordham University Press titles as Thinking with Adorno by Gerhard Richter or Under Representation: The Racial Regime of Aesthetics by David Lloyd?
Nachbaur: Give them a chance. You might learn something. These writers will most likely open your mind to new ideas and theories. Come to them with the purpose of learning and finding out how they relate to you personally. That helps to understand unfamiliar topics.
Garrett: What are some of the things that are done now—or might begin to be done in the future—to help books survive beyond a season?
Nachbaur: Author involvement. Authors that continue to support their books beyond one season help to keep them noticed and out front. This can be as simple as social media (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter), book talks (remote and in-person), and blog writing. Have a platform and keep your publisher in the loop. Books that have adoption potential and get picked up in courses are golden for publishers. Our recent title, Whose Middle Ages?: Teachable Moments for an Ill-Used Past, hit that sweet spot of discussing a topic of cultural relevance without having much competition. It got noticed and immediately adopted. We actually shipped books from the printer to a college bookstore in order to meet the course’s start date. This was pre-Covid, of course. I’d love to have more books like this on our list.
Garrett: What are some of the personality traits, principles, and practices that form a foundation for success?
Nachbaur: Short answer: Accessible writing and underrepresented topic hitting a flashpoint written by an author with a platform unafraid to promote his or her book and willing to work with the press to market the hell out of it.
Garrett: Who are the editors and publishers whom you have—or do—admire?
Nachbaur: I can’t answer that question. Too many to choose from, and I don’t want to hurt feelings.
Garrett: New York, like many metropolitan and populous cities, seems to remain the same in some ways—a locus for arts, business, science and technology—and to be forever changing, with new architecture and transformations in landscaping. The city has its natives and its new arrivals, people coming from different and far-flung places. Fordham University Press has a publishing imprint devoted to the city. Do you think you have captured the character, energies, and changes of the city? Which titles stand out for you?
Nachbaur: The beauty of New York City is that it is always changing. I’ve been here since 1991 and have seen it transform in so many ways. Believe it or not, when I started at John Wiley & Sons in 1989 when they were on 39th and 3rd Avenue, there was a Horn and Hardart automat on 42nd and a Woolworths with a lunch counter across the Street. Old NYC was clearly visible. A few books on the FUP list under the ESE imprint that capture the city’s essence and its history include Boss of Black Brooklyn: The Life and Times of Bertram Baker by Ron Howell. Written by Baker’s grandson and a journalist, it is a remarkable, meaningful, and beautifully written book about a key figure at the forefront of black politics in Brooklyn in the 1940s. Brooklyn today has three dozen black elected officials, including members of Congress. It has overtaken Harlem as the center of black political power in the city and is synonymous with the black immigrant presence in New York City. It is a book about race, politics, gender, and family. It’s relevant today because once historically black neighborhoods are being erased because of gentrification. This book shows readers what NYC was and why it’s vital to retain cultural traditions and diversity. The old and new converging is not a bad thing. It’s unfortunate when gentrification erodes history.
Another recent book, The Neighborhood Manhattan Forgot: Audubon Park and the Families Who Shaped It, offers a window into the world of the Audubons and Grinnells, who transformed a vast part of land in northern Manhattan. It’s a classic story of New York City as the 19th turned to the 20th century, development crept up to Washington Heights, and orchards gave way to subways.
We recently published The Kingdom Began In Puerto Rico: Neil Connolly’s Priesthood in the South Bronx. Amid today’s often discouraging news about the institution, this is a timely story about discovering the real mission of priesthood, urban ministry, and the Catholic Church in the United States. This book provides insight into the South Bronx, a metropolitan area known far too often for its destruction and not enough for its committed leaders and builders.
Garrett: Technologies affect art, business, society, and even philosophy. Which technological changes do you consider positive, and which negative; and what do you predict for the future?
Nachbaur: I guess the accessibility of scholarship on institutional platforms is positive. Students can get access to an author’s work by merely typing the right keywords. eBooks have also made books appealing to a larger market. People can read on tablets, iPhones, and other devices. We publish books in both print and digital to reach the widest audience possible and allow authors to get noticed. We consider the eBook another format, like hardcover or digital. Digital books will continue to evolve, and new platforms will emerge, and publishers will adapt to meet these demands. They always have. Flexibility and evolution are key. I don’t see the print book going away. Printing technologies have changed, and we have taken advantage of print on demand (POD) to manage inventory and finances. A big part of our list is devoted scholarly monographs intended for a limited audience. For these narrowly-focused books, we use POD. We use traditional printing methods for our regional trade books with larger print runs, especially if they have illustrations.
Garrett: Why do we—as individuals, as a culture—resist knowledge that might be liberating, useful, or just interesting (and seek to maintain the status quo)?
Nachbaur: Laziness, resistance to change, gaslighting. We’ve seen what a cult figure can do to society, to a supposedly civilized nation. Before our own eyes, we’ve seen how lies can be funneled into society and nearly take down a democracy. We aim to counter this thinking with truth, peer-reviewed scholarship, and resistance to misinformation.
Garrett: The new century’s challenges and changes in both culture and politics have produced strategies, stresses, and successes. How have goals of racial and gender justice affected publishing in general, and your company in particular?
Nachbaur: This is a big topic. Diversity, equity, and inclusion are a focus of the Association of University Presses, and many discussions have been devoted to it. The industry is having a reckoning. It permeates all aspects from peer review, faculty boards, series advisory boards, and press staff. We publish books on race and antiracism and will continue to do so. We will look at all levels and layers of our operation at Fordham University Press and implement steps to do better.
Garrett: How has the pandemic virus affected publishing?
Nachbaur: Reduced title output, but for the most part, we have maintained operations fairly smoothly. Book sales have been strong and remote book events have been successful. I miss the sense of community being in the office and the serendipitous conversations.
Garrett: What are your hopes for the future?
Nachbaur: Books and more books.
IN CONCLUSION, reflection makes it easy to see that as we live our lives we must keep in mind competing narratives, competing imperatives—we must think of the past, present and future, of ourselves and others, of our ambitions and preferences and primal needs. The arts, as complement and contrast, give us knowledge we need—some of it once known and forgotten, some of it new. Scholars do something similar—and the work of publishers such as Nachbaur facilitates that work. Scholars investigate and interrogate matters that we do not have the time or tenacity to pursue as a regular occupation—but which can improve our own lives, or simply delight us. The modern is invented anew in every age. Someone like Nikola Tesla, like Emily Dickinson or Vincent van Gogh, may be obscure at times, but thanks to various admirers, including dedicated scholars, Tesla, like Dickinson and van Gogh and others, have been restored to significant recognition.
Article submitted April 2021