Culturally-significant texts – Across genres, across the ages



The Souls of Black Folk

The Souls of Black Folk
W.E.B. DuBois

W.E.B. DuBois’ collection of essays is a foundational work not just of the politics of race in America, but of processes of racialization and of sociology in general. Based upon a series of articles first published in The Atlantic Monthly it is at once a work of history, political struggle, social theory and literature. The Souls of Black Folk is huge. And essential reading for anyone who wants to examine how social relationships are built, maintained, and potentially transformed. As a biographer wrote, “Few books make history and fewer still become foundational texts for the movements and struggles of an entire people. The Souls of Black Folk occupies this rare position. It helped to create the intellectual argument for the black freedom struggle in the twentieth century. Souls… justified the pursuit of higher education for Negroes and thus contributed to the rise of the black middle class. By describing a global color-line, Du Bois anticipated pan-Africanism and colonial revolutions in the Third World. Moreover, this stunning critique of how ‘race’ is lived through the normal aspects of daily life is central to what would become known as ‘whiteness studies’ a century later.”

Continue reading “The Souls of Black Folk”


The Gulag Archipelago

The Gulag Archipelago
Aleksander Solzhenitsyn

Published in the west beginning in 1974, Solzhenitsyn’s massive discussion of forced labour in the USSR was widely circulated underground in that country until 1989, and is now part of Russia’s standard high school curriculum. The Gulag – an acronym for Chief Administration of Corrective Labour Camps – was a network of forced labour facilities most notable for its punitive use against political prisoners and critics of the state, which was largely downplayed if not outright denied in the Soviet bloc and came to represent to critical socialists the very worst of Stalinist totalitarianism and to pro-Western advocates the natural outcome of the socialist project. Solzhenitsyn described a vast penal apparatus that functioned both politically and economically – to isolate ‘anti-social’ and anti-state elements while serving as quiet deterrent to the general population and provide a massive pool of effectively-slave labour for the construction of infrastructure and public works. Continue reading “The Gulag Archipelago”


Edward Said

Said’s analysis of power and knowledge as they appear in Western representations of the Middle East has become a classic text of post-colonial theory and has entered the canon of post-structuralism more generally – though Said, it should be noted, considered his work to be firmly grounded within the humanist tradition to arise out of the Enlightenment. Rooted in historical and literary analysis, it argues, in short, that Western perceptions about the Middle East are based not on actual knowledge of the region but on a long-standing archtypical conception in which something called ‘the East’ is fundamentally dissimilar to and at odds with something called ‘the West’. Continue reading “Orientalism”

The German Ideology

The German Ideology
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels

Before there was The Communist Manifesto there was The German Ideology, Marx’ and Engels’ first thorough articulation of the theoretical framework that would come to be called Marxism – its historical materialism, its critique of capitalism, its idea of socialism. It is, really, an outline or notebook, a text in which Marx and Engels work through the insights and critical appraisals of other thinkers in order to set out what’s different about their own analysis. That is, The German Ideology is not the place to go for the most sophisticated or polished word on Marx’s framework; but it is the place to go to see how Marx got to his framework, how he put it all together in the early years, and where the origins lie of so many other of his and Engels’ works. Continue reading “The German Ideology”

Charge of the Light Brigade

Charge of the Light Brigade
Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Then-poet Laureate of Britain Tennyson’s poem is most-famous for two short lines in its first stanza:

“Theirs not to reason why
Theirs but to do or die”

Tennyson regularly wrote verse based on the events of the day, this one apparently scribbled in just a few short moments after he read an account from the front-lines of the Crimean War, fought between Russia and an alliance of European powers over the crumbling Ottoman Empire. Continue reading “Charge of the Light Brigade”


Mikhail Gorbachev

Translated to English as ‘restructuring’, Perestroika was the term coined by then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev for his wide-ranging program of political and economic restructuring – a program which initiated a half-decade of rapid transition culminating in the collapse of the Soviet Union altogether, profound crisis for the socialist left around the world, and the end of the Cold War. The book, then, is not the significant issue here. Rather, it is important as a discussion of a tremendously-significant time in modern history and as a document of economic, geopolitical and cultural upheaval that re-drew the socio-political borders of the world in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Continue reading “Perestroika”

History of Sexuality

History of Sexuality, vol. 1
Michel Foucault

Such a small little book. Such a huge, huge impact. Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality is a tremendous work, not only profoundly impacting thinking on sexuality, but deepening his style of critical work on social institutions generally and introducing, in particular, the notion of bio-power – the processes and practices by which states regulate populations and control bodies.

The History of Sexuality is a three-volume work, but it is volume 1 that is most-read and most-noted. Against the conventional wisdom that that the modern state sought to repress expressions of human sexuality and deny the centrality of sex to life, Foucault explores the myriad ways sexuality was re-thought, re-articulated, deployed by agencies of the state to monitor, manage and exploit human populations. Sex is not ignored let alone erased in the nineteenth century; sex is everywhere, and becomes a matter of state interest as general populations are re-cast as citizenry, people as instruments of national production, communities as collections of human beings to be studied, managed, deployed for or against various ends.

A communist and structuralist thinker until the mid to late 1960s, Michel Foucault became one of the central figures in what was called post-structuralism, though he himself rejected the term, defining his work instead as a critique of modernity. Whatever you call it, it is important, it is influential, and there is scarcely a field in the social sciences untouched by Michel Foucault. Plus he didn’t bother nearly so much as most academics with endless footnotes and sources that just make stuff hard to read. For that, alone, I’m thankful.

Read The History of Sexuality, even if you’re not into the academic stuff. Or read Madness and Civilization, or read Discipline and Punish. This is work that not only changes academic discourse, it profoundly changes the way we see social institutions and our complicated relationships with them.

Midnight’s Children

Midnight’s Children
Salman Rushdie

12:00 midnight of August 15, 1947, Saleem Sinai was born – precisely the moment of India’s independence and partition. Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children tells the story of India since partition through the story of Saleem, his life unfolding as an allegory for history of the nation.

The challenges of nation-building, the legacy of colonialism, the question of identity in a place of religious and political diversity, multiculturalism and multilingualism in the struggle for national unity, memory and collective amnesia in the construction of a national story, a national mythology – the novel explores these and more through the devices of both historical fiction and magical realism.

Rushdie’s story of colonization, freedom and statehood is recognized as one of the most significant novels of the late twentieth century, and a foundational text of post-colonial literature. Protagonist and telepath Saleem Sinai is – with all other children born in the hour of India’s birth as a nation – the new country made human, personal embodiment of India, its promise, its faltering, its transition from idea to state.

Rob Roy

Rob Roy
Sir Walter Scott

Set in the years immediately preceding the Jacobite Rebellion of 1715, in which supporters of James VII of Scotland (known as James II in England) sought to restore him to the British throne, Rob Roy is an historical novel depicting the social conditions and political upheaval of Scotland at the time, as seen through the eyes of a young man of a Jacobite family. The name of the book is taken not from its principal character, but from the real-life person of Robert Roy MacGregor, who appears at various times in the story and whose presence and personality shape both the plot and the context in which Rob Roy is set.

A Jacobite himself, the historical Rob Roy is something of a Scottish folk-hero not unlike Robin Hood. Landowner and later debtor, nationalist and notorious outlaw, he represents the struggle of Scotland for freedom from foreign rule as represented by the House of Hanover dynasty, the German royal dynasty that took power in England and Scotland following the fall of James VII/James II. More broadly. Rob Roy symbolizes the anti-colonial impulse generally, Sir Walter Scott’s novel appearing as sympathy towards those colonized in the Americas and elsewhere took root in the UK and drawing clear parallels between the experiences of the Highland Scots and the indigenous peoples of North America.

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