My work at Columbia over the past two years

This is not an airing of Columbia’s dirty laundry. It is an account the investigations I have undertaken, and the scholarly work I have produced, since the time I began working with Adam Tooze. I want to document the work that I have done so far, to take stock of it, and to make it available to the readers of the Policy Tensor. 

I reached out to Adam Tooze in January 2017 when I found out that he was working on a history of the global financial crisis, a manuscript that sported the working title, “Sudden Stop”, but that would later be published as Crashed. I helped him a little bit on that project, that he graciously acknowledged in the book. Through that year, I developed an intellectual relationship with him. Basically, we discovered that we have great many intellectual interests in common. By the summer, I was certain I wanted to work with him on a serious book-length project (or two). With that goal in mind, I set to work on what would become my writing sample for my application to the PhD program in history at Columbia.

Western perceptions of Soviet strength in the Soviet-German War” set out to comprehend a profound puzzle: After the Fall of France, every single Western intelligence agency, and all major policymakers in America and England, expected the Soviet Union to capitulate in a matter of weeks under the German onslaught. Why did all these highly informed observers make such a catastrophic error? In order to get to the bottom of this, I dug into the archives of the Office of Strategic Services — the CIA’s predecessor. What I found was that, one couldn’t make head or tail of this intelligence failure without grappling with the rigidities of the Western discourse. In terms of my intellectual development, this foray into wartime intelligence assessment made me acutely aware of the grip of high racialism on the Western mind at midcentury. It also made me deeply interested in the tension between discourse and reality, that would later help me think about the planetary impasse.

At Columbia, I went through intellectual potty training designed by the faculty to produce serious historians and enjoyed it immensely. I believe strongly in the value of rigorous doctoral programs and submitted myself to its full rigors in the hope that at the other end of it, I will get a few years of support and funding (and visas) to work with Adam on a question of historical interest in general and of intellectual interest to me in particular.

A basic course on historiography is compulsory for all incoming PhD students — informally called “8910” after the course number. I had the great fortune of reading under the supervision of Rebecca Kobrin and Paul Kreitman. I greatly admired Rebecca and have fond memories of our discussions. (Paul was a bit reserved; and although I know his scholarship has great merit, regrettably, I did not get much of a chance to engage with him.) The essays we had to write for this were open-ended; we could propose any topic of interest to the professor. In the same semester, I got interested in the intellectual history of paleoanthropology — something that should come as no surprise to the readers of the Policy Tensor. I have already shared the paper I wrote for Rebecca as “Paleoanthropology in the Neanderthal question, 1987-1998“. The abstract read:

Paleoanthropology offers rich possibilities for writing intellectual history. We briefly explore these possibilities with a small number of probes related to the question of the humanity or otherwise of the Neanderthals. We begin with an exploration of the reception of these ancient humans upon their discovery. We then pick up the story later with the rise of Boasian antiracism and the 1987 revolutions in radiometric dating and molecular anthropology that resolved the central debate of modern paleoanthropology (Out of Africa vs. Multiregionalism). We then turn to the Neanderthal question which takes centerstage from the mid-1990s. We document the onset of the ’20-year war’ between revisionists convinced of the humanity of Neanderthals and doyens convinced otherwise. We conclude by outlining some lines of investigation and situate the project within the broader research agenda of historicizing the certainties of the 1990s.

As I got deeper into paleoanthropology, I worked with (as in, discussed the questions at length with) Noam Chomsky and Bob Berwick at MIT, who had recently written on the birth of what is properly called the Boas-Chomsky universal. I also started talking to Ian Tattersall, a highly respected paleoanthropologist at the Natural History Museum. I will soon be publishing my work that came out of these discussions.

I also read German historiography with Adam Tooze in the Fall of 2018. It was, of course, a joy to dive into the fascinating historiography of modern German history. Marrying my interest in the intellectual history of physical anthropology and German population policy, I wrote “Physical Anthropology and Nazi Population Policy“. Here’s the abstract:

National Socialist population policy has been traced to the demographic pessimism of midcentury social science and more generally to the high modern search for a rational order by the German technocracy. We argue that the high modern search for a rational order extended to Nazi racial policy. Although German raciology (Rassenkunde­) failed to provide a scientific anchor for the identity of the Volk and the regime had to peddle back on Nordicism in rhetoric, we show that German population policy was in fact consistent with and informed by midcentury scientific racialism.

In the Spring of 2019, I signed up for a directed individual reading with Adam Tooze; a directed individual reading with Ralph Holloway, the only physical anthropologist left at Columbia; a research seminar for first-year PhD students with Mae Ngai; and a seminar called Debating Capitalism with Adam Tooze.

For the last, I wrote “Brenner’s hypothesis revisited; or, the logic of discipline in US manufacturing“. I showed that Brenner’s hypothesis, tying the slowdown in productivity growth to overcapacity in global manufacturing, can be grounded in the logic of holding idle capacity to deter market entry. Moreover, that we may test what we should properly call the Brenner-Farooqui hypothesis, against the cross-section of profit rates in US manufacturing. We find that the marginal entrant in manufacturing sectors, posited to be a great industrial firm, has a response function that shows greater aversion to overcapacity than insurance against general downturns. The import is of great significance. As I conclude:

We have related Brenner’s diagnosis to the industrial structure of American manufacturing. The logic of deterrence theory suggests a novel solution to the central problem of Western political economy. For if Brenner is right that the loss of dynamism is due to ‘the relentless buildup of overcapacity across the global manufacturing sector,’ and we have failed to falsify it, then we have in effect isolated a channel from industrial structure to idle capacity and thence to underlying dynamism. In light of Brenner’s compelling diagnosis of the Western predicament, an aggressive pursuit of industrial deconcentration as a policy can then be seen not only as an attack on vertical income and wealth polarization, but also as an effort to restore dynamism through the logic clarified by Geanakoplos.

For my directed reading with Adam, I wrote on the logic of escalation in 1945. The explanandum here was the origins of Dresden, Hamburg, Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I argued, following Michael Sherry, that what drove escalation of the American air war long after the outcome of the war was not in doubt, was the air force’s institutional incentive to seek an independent air arm in the postwar world.

My work with Ralph Holloway was cut short by his illness (he is an elderly gentleman and his health has been deteriorating). It is the same project I discussed with Tattersall at the Natural History Museum, as well Noam Chomsky and Bob Berwick. I have a specific argument that needs to be subjected to further testing before it can be unfurled.

Also, this May, I attended the Annual Conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (AAPA). I discussed the rise of Boasian antiracism in anthropology and the marginalization of physical anthropology with a number of scholars. At the same shoulder-rub, I witnessed the final triumph of Boasian antiracism as the AAPA voted to rename itself the American Association of Biological Anthropologists — physical anthropology having virtually become a synonym for racial anthropology under the Boasian onslaught. I still owe you an essay on what I learned in Denver this summer. Suffice to say at this point that these politico-intellectual developments are of great importance and need to be properly documented and historicized.

For the research seminar with Mae Ngai, I wrote about Max Werner and the question of the western front in 1941-1943. We were asked to write a prospectus for a paper. I submitted this. Of course, this work is still “uncooked”. I need to dig deeper into the midcentury conjuncture to situate the most important military strategist of the twentieth century.

The escalatory logic of the midcentury passage, ie the logic of escalation built into the hockey stick of modernity, did not peak in 1945; it peaked in the early-1960s during the Kennedy years. I spent the first half of this summer reading through the entire literature on nuclear strategy that emerged with the intellectual revolution in military affairs, 1954-1960. I spent the second half of the summer digging through the JFK archives, tracing the diagnosis of the Kennedy intellectuals. I also dug into the personal papers of the most important military intellectuals — Robert Osgood, William Weed Kaufmann, Roger Hilsman, and Bernard Fall. This work would come to fruition later in the Fall.

This Fall, I attended Susan Pedersen’s seminar on British historiography. It was sheer joy to be guided through a fascinating field, one quite alien to me despite my colonized mind, by one of the greatest scholars of the field. I wrote a review of David Edgerton’s England and the Aeroplane for Susan. I was going to write a review of Alex Zevin’s fascinating history of the Economist, Liberalism at Large. Then I, um, got real busy. But I’ll get around to it eventually.

This Fall, I also did a directed reading under the supervision of Matt Connelly. Since Adam is not a Cold War historian, he wanted my work to be supervised by someone who is respected in the field. The work that emerged from this is now online. “The logic of the Kennedy escalation, 1954-1968” is perhaps the greatest work I have ever done in my entire life, including my work on Kerr black holes and on macrofinance. I am very grateful to Adam for supporting this work, and to Matt for his critical, and extremely helpful guidance in situating the argument in the extant scholarship.

Also this fall, I have been working on the hard problem posed by the planetary impasse. In October, I presented my joint work with Apratim Sahay, “US grand-strategy in the planetary impasse” at the Global GND workshop at Johns Hopkins. What I’ve tried to do is reconcile my entire understanding of military and foreign policy with the insights of Alyssa Battistoni. The bottom line is that the hard problem is not one of grand-strategy in the traditional sense of getting other powers to follow the US lead; the hard problem is forging an alignment of sociopolitical forces that can see through the energy transition — and that this requires thinking hard about the moral economy of discipline in a Green World Order.

Alongside all this, I have also been grappling with the impasse of elite-mass relations in the United States. This work has been shared by Thomas Edsall in his column on the pages of the New York Times. This is the central problem of Western political economy; one even more important than restoring broad-based growth.

That’s the long and short of it.


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