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Anna Fishzon

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Pretty much everyone understands what is called the “Cult of Celebrity,” particularly as it manifests itself in the arts. It’s a mentality that privileges the actor over the act, the singer over the song, the painter over the painting, and so on. The Cult of Celebrity’s essence is a fanatical and even irrational devotion to individuals who have, so it seems, some magical, charismatic quality. It’s all around us today. But it wasn’t always so.

In her fascinating new book Fandom, Authenticity, and Opera: Mad Acts and Letter Scenes in Fin-de-Siècle Russia (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2013), Anna Fishzon explores the development of the Cult of Celebrity in  late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Russian opera. In many ways, fin-de-siécle Russia was out-of-step with the West: it was ruled by an autocrat, dominated by a mass of poor peasants, and struggling to find its way to economic and political modernity. But, as Anna points out, the Russians–or at least those in places where Western culture was on display–embraced the burgeoning Cult of Celebrity. They made and worshiped stars, tried to look and act like them, and went to great lengths to be in their presence and communicate with them. Russian opera fans believed that their idols were transparent souls. They transcended art; they were truly authentic. You could, in their performances, see who they really were. And, as Anna notes, this devotion to “authenticity” did not die with the Imperial Regime in 1917. The Bolsheviks believed in it as well, and they searched mightily for authenticity in their subjects. Who, they asked, was a real communist and who was an  ”enemy of the people?” The performance–at show trials, for example–would tell.


John CornwellThe Dark Box: A Secret History of Confession

April 8, 2014

I’ve never been in a confessional box, but I’ve seen a lot of them in films. And if the depiction of them in films is in any way a reflection of popular attitudes toward confession, then I can say with some confidence that the act has a rather poor reputation. Confessional boxes are–in my imagination, [...]

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Miriam KingsbergMoral Nation: Modern Japan and Narcotics in Global History

April 8, 2014

[Cross-posted from New Books in East Asian Studies] Miriam Kingsberg’s fascinating new book offers both a political and social history of modern Japan and a global history of narcotics in the modern world. Moral Nation: Modern Japan and Narcotics in Global History (University of California Press, 2013) locates the emergence of a series of three “moral crusades” against narcotics [...]

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Leona Rittner, W. Scott Haine, and Jeffrey H. Jackson, eds.The Thinking Space: The Café as a Cultural Institution in Paris, Italy and Vienna

March 27, 2014

Believe it or not, the origins of this podcast and the entire New Books Network can be traced to a conversation I had in a café in Ann Arbor, Michigan (Sweetwaters in Kerrytown, as it happens) in 2004. I was sitting there minding my own business when I overheard Ed Vielmetti and Lou Rosenfeld talking about [...]

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Matthew C. HunterWicked Intelligence: Visual Art and the Science of Experiment in Restoration London

March 23, 2014

[Cross-posted from New Books in Science, Technology, and Society] The pages of Matthew C. Hunter’s wonderful new book are full of paper fish, comets, sleepy-eyed gazes, drunk ants, and a cast full of fascinating (and sometimes hilarious) members of the experimental community of Restoration London. Wicked Intelligence: Visual Art and the Science of Experiment in Restoration London (University of Chicago [...]

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David SmileyPedestrian Modern: Shopping and American Architecture, 1925-1956

March 13, 2014

Most of us have been to strip malls–lines of shops fronted by acres of parking–and most of us have been to closed malls–massive buildings full of shops and surrounded by acres of parking. Fewer of us have been to open malls: small parks ringed by shops with parking carefully tucked out of sight. That’s because [...]

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Benjamin A. ElmanCivil Examinations and Meritocracy in Late Imperial China

March 9, 2014

[Cross-posted from New Books in East Asian Studies] Benjamin A. Elman‘s new book explores the civil examination process and the history of state exam curricula in late imperial China. Civil Examinations and Meritocracy in Late Imperial China (Harvard UP, 2013) is organized into three major sections that collectively provide a careful, deeply researched, and elegantly written account of the Ming [...]

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José Angel HernándezMexican American Colonization during the Nineteenth Century: A History of the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands

March 6, 2014

Americans talk a lot about the flow of Mexican immigrants across their southern border. To some that flow is seen as patently illegal and dangerous. To others it’s seen as unstoppable and essential for the functioning of the U.S. economy. Everyone agrees that something must be done about it though, in fact, little is ever [...]

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John R. Gillis The Human Shore: Seacoasts in History

February 26, 2014

Americans are moving to the ocean. Every year, more and more Americans move to–or are born in– the coasts and fewer and fewer remain in–or are born in–the interior. The United States began as a coastal nation; it’s become one again. According to John R. Gillis‘s provocative new book The Human Shore: Seacoasts in History (University of [...]

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Michael PettitThe Science of Deception: Psychology and Commerce in America

February 19, 2014

Parapsychology. You may have heard of it. You know, telepathy, precognition, clairvoyance, psychokinesis. Spoon-bending and that sort of thing. If you have heard of it, you probably think of it as a pseudoscience. And indeed it is. But it wasn’t always so. There was a time in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when [...]

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