The Monitor: The Punk Album that Predicted Our Politics

One night soon after we moved to Atlanta, I was hanging out at the Graveyard Tavern, killing time before a show.  I picked up the local indie music magazine and read a review of a new album by a band called Titus Andronicus.  As a history professor, I was both intrigued and mortified.  It seemed audacious on so many fronts: they were named after Shakespeare’s most notoriously violent play, a punk band attempting a concept album about the Civil War. Yes, that Civil War. The one with Stonewall Jackson and ironclads. It sounds like a recipe for a prog-ish, pretentious disaster, right? The Monitor ended up being one of my favorite albums—one that I continually go back to and enjoy for its … [Read more...]

Watching 12 Monkeys in a Post-9/11 World

Chris Marker’s groundbreaking short film La Jetée doubles, incredibly, as one of the most lyrical meditations on two time-honored themes: the end of the world, and time travel.  These tropes have been recycled again and again in film, fiction, and television, of course.  The Terminator is sent back in time to kill young John Connor, with the aim of neutralizing the future Skynet’s foe, the leader of the human resistance; later, the same robot is sent back to save the messianic John and his Mother Mary. Rian Johnson’s Looper features a similar seeing-yourself-die scenario as La Jetee, along with the same kind of lapidary plot. In this way, Marker’s film is almost the ur-text for apocalyptic … [Read more...]

Ingrid Goes Insane: Instagram, Mental Illness, and a New Aesthetic

Celebrity culture has always involved emulation and envy.  People wanted to be as glamorous as Audrey Hepburn or Cary Grant or Julia Roberts; the herculean popularity of Bollywood for the masses of South Asia speaks to the allure of sitting in a dark, air-conditioned room and getting carried away to a magical place where sexy, talented people carry on lives almost unimaginable to the ordinary person.  Woody Allen’s classic The Purple Rose of Cairo functions the same way, as a meditation on workaday poverty and romantic “escapism,” as it is somewhat derisively described by scholars and critics. Something peculiar has happened in the age of the Internet, though.  A mendacious nobody … [Read more...]

Eternal Sunshine and the Science of the Spotless Mind

I have always been frustrated by the pervasive idea that the brain is like a computer.  In the late twentieth and early twenty first centuries, it became commonplace to suppose that the human mind was just an information processing machine, akin to the Dell or ASUS or Apple product sitting on someone’s desktop. The mind was a repository of data, with files, folders, items, and directories, which could be mapped on to the structure of a computer’s operating system more or less exactly. This metaphor—if it’s a metaphor—has always struck me as being a little off.  For one thing, brains have been around for a lot longer than computers, and for most of human history the notion of an … [Read more...]

Let’s Talk about Comps Exams

When I read @philommeides_’s tweet about grad-school comps, my heart sank.  The author expressed how her extremely difficult experience with PhD exams had caused her anguish and self-doubt.  The tweet elicited a large number of responses from people in academia about their own bitter encounters with the hazing ritual of exams, as well as thoughts about how to reform a broken system. And it’s no surprise: hardly anyone likes the way that PhD students (in the humanities at least) are tested on their field knowledge before moving on to the dissertation.  My own experience with the process was, frankly, traumatic, though perhaps not as bad as what others have gone through.  And as a faculty … [Read more...]

My American Airlines/Orbitz Hell

So I guess it makes sense to begin at the beginning. Since moving to Atlanta my wife and I have typically flown on Delta because this is a company town and it's been the path of least resistance.  No more doing two or three connections like we did in grad school, just to get the cheapest possible fare through Orbitz or Travelocity. I was supposed to attend a conference on "Smart Cities" at the University of Calgary on Thursday, August 17 through Sunday, August 20.  I was invited by my friend Eliot Tretter, who is a Geography professor and the author of a great book, to participate in an interdisciplinary discussion between historians, geographers, sociologists, political scientists and … [Read more...]

Spend Your Dog Days with Barbara Fields and HP Lovecraft

Way back in 2011, RR and I conceived the idea of a new series where writers would look back on, reread, and reassess the books that they loved or that influenced them over the years.  Since then, many of our best contributors have revisited books by the likes of Roberts Caro and Wiebe, Barbara Fields, H.P. Lovecraft, Karen Halttunen, Michael Holt and more.  (We've also opened up the series to other kinds of works beyond books or essays, to include music and film.)  The whole idea was just to use the waning days of Summer to write shorter, more casual pieces than the epic, longform articles that we often publish. If you have a favorite scholarly work, novel, album, or film you would like … [Read more...]

The Wide World of Tropics of Meta

ToM's audience has steadily grown for years, ever since it was invented in a humble Palo Alto garage back in 2010.  But we've certainly had a distinct surge in readership during 2017.  Perhaps it is just the mind-blowingly awful state of the world that drives readers to escape into the history of thrash metal and hardcore, the genealogy of the hipster, the racial politics of Gremlins. But certainly a handful of pieces have brought a lot of new people to the site. Notably, R. Mike Burr's critique of Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance appears to have struck a real nerve with readers, many of whom share his skepticism for the portrayal of Appalachian culture by the canny and ambitious Vance. … [Read more...]

America and Russia: The Real Story Is Not What You Think

We here at Tropics of Meta--and our sister podcast Doomed to Repeat--have been thinking about Russia for a while. Remember when then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tried a goofy PR gesture of handing Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov a "reset button," meant to symbolize a desire to renew relations between the US and Russia?  (The Russian word on the button actually meant "overcharged," not "reset." Foreshadowing much?) Remember when Mitt Romney said Russia was our "number one geopolitical foe"--and everyone laughed at this weird Cold War throwback? Well, when we sat down to start mapping out our new podcast series in the Summer of 2016, we were casting about for ideas, and we … [Read more...]

Telling the Story of Healthcare Reform (Again)

The Affordable Care Act was passed a mere few months after Tropics of Meta started, in early 2010.  Our friends gathered around a TV in Queens, New York that showing C-SPAN and the fateful vote.  It felt like a solemn moment in history, even if many of us were sorely disappointed by what ended up in the Rube Goldberg-esque bill that resulted.At the time, we tried to weigh in on what the whole thing meant.  The post, one of our first dozen or so pieces, shows the extreme risks of historians pontificating on fast moving events and uncertain, unpredictable outcomes yet to unfold.  We were preoccupied, understandably, by the lack of a public option that progressives had … [Read more...]