The chattering classes got the ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ book wrong – and they’re getting the movie wrong, too

Lisa R. Pruitt, University of California, Davis

Film critics have had nary a good word to say about Netflix’s new movie “Hillbilly Elegy.”

Reviewers varyingly called it “Oscar-Season B.S.,” “woefully misguided,” “Yokel Hokum,” “laughably bad” and simply “awful.”

I admit to delight when I read professional critics trashing the film, which is
based on J.D. Vance’s widely praised memoir detailing his dramatic class migration from a midsize city in Ohio to the hallowed halls of Yale Law School. I was expecting the worst based on my dislike of the book, and these reviews confirmed my expectations.

But once I saw the film, I felt it had been harshly judged by the chattering classes – the folks who write the reviews and seek to create meaning for the rest of us. In fact, the film is an earnest depiction of the most dramatic parts of the book: a lower-middle-class family caught in the throes of addiction.

Everyday viewers seem to find the film enjoyable enough – it has solid audience reviews on IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes.

So why the big gap between the critical response and audience reaction? Could it be yet another sign of the country’s steadily growing class divide?

A bootstrap manifesto

The film’s negative reviews are an about-face from critics’ warm embrace of the book, which was published in 2016, when Vance was just 31.

In telling his story of overcoming his mother’s addiction and attendant familial and economic precarity, Vance credits his Mamaw and Papaw, along with luck and hard work.

Fair enough. But he gives no nod to the government structures – K-12 schools, the military and the GI bill, the public university where he earned his B.A – that greased the skids of his sharp ascension into the ruling class. Worse still, Vance expressly blames laziness as the culprit of those left behind, with only cursory attention to the impact of policies that encouraged the offshoring of manufacturing jobs and weakening of the social safety net.

The book is not subtle in its message: Working-class grunts are to blame for their own struggles. If they’d just get off their duffs, go to church and stay married, everything would be OK.

J.D. Vance talks on a cell phone.
J.D. Vance’s memoir was a sensation when it was published.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Yet commentators from across the political spectrum greeted the book with a big wet kiss. Published months before Donald Trump’s election, it was perfectly timed for the zeitgeist, and Vance’s extended personal anecdote suddenly became the authoritative text about enigmatic working-class whites, all presumptive Trump supporters. The New York Times fawned over its “discerning sociological analysis,” overlooking Vance’s one-sided invocation of data and scholarly literature, while prestigious think tanks like the Brookings Institution elevated Vance to expert status.

I was one of few progressive elites to push back against the media’s early, broad embrace of the book. Admittedly, I was moved by Vance’s compelling biography, which featured many of the hallmarks of my own: hillbilly roots, addicted parent, family violence and – ultimately – a dramatic class leap into elite legal circles.

But I was put off by Vance’s singular focus on personal responsibility and use of his story to advance an agenda antagonistic to the social safety net. Many of Vance’s positions run contrary to my own scholarly work about the white working class and rural America.

Vance also suggests that his family – in both its best and worst manifestations – is representative of Appalachia. Yet like all families, Vance’s is typical in some ways but not in others. And that’s what got so many Appalachians up in arms when the book came out. Not all of them are drug addicted any more than they’re all coal miners. Further, not all Appalachians are white. Many lead boring lives.

From curiosity to disdain

I wasn’t happy when Ron Howard and Netflix paid US$45 million for the movie rights, because I didn’t want the book to get an even wider audience. But the film leaves Vance’s politics aside and instead focuses on three generations worth of Vance family saga. That means the positive potential I saw in the book is at the heart of the film.

For one, working-class white people can see themselves on screen. When I read the book, I initially laughed out loud – but also cried – over the ways Vance’s hillbilly grandparents reminded me of my own extended family. I also related to his “fish out of water” experiences in elite law firms.

Second, the story is a reminder that white skin is no magic bullet. Folks where I live and work in California often use “white privilege” as synonymous with “you’re white, you’ll be all right.” Members of the Vance family are white, but they are clearly not all right. The movie has the potential to foster empathy between the two worlds J.D. Vance straddles – the ones I also straddle – between working class and professional class.

Yet to some critics, the film amounted to no more than “poverty porn.” They lamented a lack of complexity, nuance, motivation and internal conflict in the film’s characters.

Really? Those reviewers must have looked right past the trauma both Mamaw and Bev experienced in their early lives – the former as a child bride, the latter as a child raised in the violent home of that child bride. J.D. is a product of both.

There are surely other reasons, too, that the film world has turned a cold shoulder to this cinematic packaging of Vance’s book. I suspect that it has something to do with the fact that the four-year span between the book and the film neatly coincided with the beginning and end of Trump’s presidency. During that same period, what started as progressive elites’ curiosity about the white working class gave way to bald disdain and fury.

Nowadays, my Twitter feed is awash with resentment every time “mainstream media” run a story about white Trump supporters.

The woke whine that such coverage implies that these are the “real Americans” who we should try to understand, while overlooking other marginalized subsets of the population. Film critic negativity about “Hillbilly Elegy” may reflect similar attitudes – a mix of exasperation and boredom with a pet topic for media outlets since the 2016 election.

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Audiences have a different response

To me, the real pity is that so many coastal elites know so few working-class folks of any color, let alone the hillbilly subset of them. Indeed, studies show that, increasingly, people from different socioeconomic strata no longer mix even within the same metro areas.

The crummy reviews ultimately evince this profound and persistent disconnect between those who write the reviews and “regular” folks.

A week after its release, the film’s critic score on Rotten Tomatoes was 27, while its audience score was 82. That’s a massive spread, and one that may align with the yawning chasm cutting across our national electorate.

The cosmopolitan set can’t believe viewers would want to watch “those people” – and may even be able to relate to them – any more than we can believe so many people voted for Donald Trump.

When critic Sarah Jones, an Appalachian by upbringing, argues that “Hillbilly Elegy” wasn’t made for hillbilly viewers, I’m not convinced. Jones places “Hillbilly Elegy” among “an old and ignoble genre” that “caricatures the hillbilly for an audience’s titillation.”

Maybe. But there are far worse depictions of rural folks and other hillbilly types. Look no further than this appalling scene from “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” or the 1972 classic “Deliverance.”

Howard and screenwriter Vanessa Taylor certainly took liberties in condensing and dramatizing decades of Vance family dysfunction, but we shouldn’t pretend that families like these don’t exist. I know people like them – heck, I’m even related to some.

Many viewers will relate to “Hillbilly Elegy” simply because addiction is such a shockingly common phenomenon, one that touches many families and every community. Others will appreciate the film because it presents J.D. Vance achieving the “American dream.” It’s an ideal many find irresistible in spite of the fact that – or, indeed, because – upward mobility is more elusive than ever.

With Vance’s politics tucked out of sight, can we simply judge the film for its entertainment value? Can we acknowledge that we don’t all like the same things?

After all, there may be a few things elites don’t “get.” And that could be because the movie wasn’t made for them in the first place.The Conversation

Lisa R. Pruitt, Martin Luther King, Jr., Professor of Law, University of California, Davis

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

John Keats: how his poems of death and lost youth are resonating during COVID-19

John Keats by Joseph Severn (1819).
National Portrait Gallery

Richard Marggraf-Turley, Aberystwyth University

In John Keats’ poems, death crops up 100 times more than the future, a word that appears just once in the entirety of his work. This might seem appropriate on the 200th anniversary of the death of Keats, who was popularly viewed as the young Romantic poet “half in love with easeful death”.

Death certainly touched Keats and his family. At the age of 14, he lost his mother to tuberculosis. In 1818, he nursed his younger brother Tom as he lay dying of the same disease.

After such experiences, when Ludolph, the hero of Keats’ tragedy, Otho the Great, imagines succumbing to “a bitter death, a suffocating death”, Keats knew what he was writing about. And then, aged just 25, on February 23 1821, Keats himself died of tuberculosis in Rome.

Life sliding by

His preoccupation with death doesn’t tell the whole story, however. In life, Keats was vivacious, funny, bawdy, pugnacious, poetically experimental, politically active, and above all forward-looking.

He was a young man in a hurry, eager to make a mark on the literary world; even if – as a trained doctor – he was all too conscious of the body’s vulnerability to mortal shocks. These two very different energies coalesce in one of his best loved poems, written in January 1818 when the poet was in the bloom of health:

When I Have Fears That I May Cease to Be is a poem of personal worry, according to biographer Nicholas Roe. In it, Keats is anxious that he won’t have time to achieve poetic fame or fall in “unreflecting love”, and these fears and self-doubts take him to the brink.

But as brinks go, this one doesn’t seem all that bad. The poem is romantic with a small “r” – wide-eyed, dramatic, sentimental – its vision of finality, of nothingness, gorgeous in its desolation, and all-importantly painless. Who can read those final lines without themselves feeling a pull to swooning death, half in love with it, as Keats professed to be?

That’s what I used to think, at any rate. Lately, in the pandemic, I’ve begun to read this poem rather differently. Lensed through long months of lockdown, the sonnet’s existential anxieties seem less abstract, grand and performative, and more, well, human.

It’s a poem that will resonate with the youth who are cooped up indoors, physically isolated, unable to meet and mingle, agonisingly aware of weeks slipping by, opportunities missed, disappointments mounting. This poem has made me almost painfully empathetic towards their plight.

Painting of a young John Keats reading a book.
John Keats by Joseph Severn, painted posthumously (1821-1823).
National Portrait Gallery, London

The sonnet’s fears of a future laid to waste are shared by whole generations whose collective mental health is under siege. In his last surviving letter, written two years after the sonnet while dying in Rome, Keats records a “feeling of my real life having past”, a conviction that he was “leading a posthumous existence”. How many of us are experiencing similar thoughts at the moment?

Illness and isolation

Of all the Romantics, Keats perhaps knew most about mental suffering. He grew up in Moorgate, just across from Bethlem Hospital, which was known to London and the world as Bedlam. Before he turned to poetry, Keats trained at Guy’s hospital, London, where he not only witnessed first-hand the horrors of surgery in a pre-anaesthetic age but also tended to patients on what was called the lunatic ward.

It was all too much for him. Traumatised by the misery and pain he felt he could do little to alleviate, in 1816 he threw medicine in for the pen. His experiences at Guy’s, though, and the empathy he developed there, found their way into his writing. For instance, in Hyperion, his medical knowledge helps him to inhabit the catatonic state of “gray-hair’d Saturn”, who sits in solitude, “deep in the shady sadness of a vale”, despairing after being deposed by the Olympian gods. The vignette is a moving image of isolation and enervation that speaks to us today:

As for lockdown, Keats was no stranger to its pressures and deprivations. During periods of illness in Hampstead in 1819 – precursor symptoms of tuberculosis – he was reluctant to venture out, isolating himself. In October 1820, he set sail for Italy in the hope warmer climes would save his lungs. On arrival, his ship was put into strict quarantine for ten days. In letters to his friends, Keats described being “in a sort of desperation”, adding, “we cannot be created for this sort of suffering”.

Keats was a poet of his age, his own social, cultural and medical milieu. And yet, on the bicentenary of his death, he’s also – more than ever, perhaps – a poet of ours. A poet of lockdown, frustration, disappointment, fears … and even hope.

Because even in those last, scarcely imaginable weeks in Rome, 200 years ago, holed up in a little apartment at the foot of the Spanish Steps, he never quite gave up on the future, never relinquished his dreams of love and fame.The Conversation

Richard Marggraf-Turley, Professor of English Literature, Aberystwyth University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Aliens in Lagos: sci-fi novel Lagoon offers a bold new future

Detail from the cover of Lagoon, a novel by Nnedi Okorafor.
© Joey Hi-Fi/Hodder & Stoughton

Gibson Ncube, University of Zimbabwe

In his satirical essay How to Write About Africa, the late Kenyan writer and journalist Binyavanga Wainaina advocated for a rethinking of clichéd and stereotypical representations of the continent. Wainaina was in favour of looking beyond the despair that has plagued and continues to plague Africa.

African science fiction is a literary genre which tries to imagine utopic futures of the continent. Nigerian-American novelist Nnedi Okorafor calls her brand of sci-fi “Africanfuturism”. She explains in her blog that Africanfuturism is “concerned with visions of the future” and that “it’s less concerned with ‘what could have been’ and more concerned with what can/will be.”

Okorafor is on an upward global sci-fi trajectory, especially with the adaption of her acclaimed novella Binti into a major TV series – among several proposed projects involving her African protagonists. Considered especially against the background of the phenomenal success of the sci-fi blockbuster movie Black Panther, Okorafor’s rich body of work matters when it comes to the representation of black lives.

A book cover in green, black and white reading, 'Nnedi Okorafor Lagoon' with a quote from Ursula la Guin and an illustration of a human form swimming through sea creatures and tentacles towards the light.

Joey Hi-Fi/Hodder & Stoughton

Her 2014 novel Lagoon recounts the story of the arrival of aliens in Nigeria. The aliens make their landing in the ocean, in the lagoon close to the city of Lagos. The novel focuses on Ayodele, the alien ambassador, and her interactions with three humans: a marine biologist named Adaora, a musician from Ghana named Anthony and a military man named Agu. Ayodele has shapeshifting capabilities that allow her to change her form. She transforms fluidly between human, animal and inanimate forms.

As I have observed in my analysis, Lagoon, through its shapeshifting alien protagonist, challenges long held ideas of how gender and sexual identities are considered in Africa.

That which does not resemble us

Lagoon cheerfully disregards many literary norms. A mythical spider called Udide Okwanka, for example, recounts the story – which is also told from multiple perspectives. But particularly innovative is how Lagoon imagines a bold alternative future in which there is a liberation of identities and desires from rigid norms.

In Ayodele’s interactions with humans, she questions how they live and think. Through her shapeshifting capabilities, she defies what humans consider the “normal” ways of being.

Ayodele is portrayed as queer. By queer I mean that her identity defies established gender identity categories. In the novel, she is referred to as “a woman … man … whatever” and as a “woman, thing, whatever she was”. This fluid identity blurs the boundaries of what has been normalised as “correct”.

The narrator of Lagoon explains that Ayodele’s fluid identity makes her dangerous. The danger lies in that Ayodele dismantles a well established system that denigrates ways of being that are different or stray from what is considered normal. Ayodele’s identity makes humans uncomfortable. In the novel, Ayodele states

Human beings have a hard time relating to that which does not resemble them.

It is when humans are made uncomfortable that it becomes possible to start imagining different futures. The familiar is defamiliarised and stereotypes are disregarded.

Becoming visible

In Lagoon, Ayodele’s difference compels a queer student organisation called Black Nexus to come out of hiding and to confront societal stereotypes. Before the arrival of Ayodele and the aliens, Black Nexus only met clandestinely once a month. Ayodele’s presence emboldens them to come out of the closet and confront their own insecurities.

A woman with a wry smile and large hairstyle sits in front of a museum display of insects.
Portrait of Nnedi Okorafor with insects.
Cheetah Witch/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Of particular interest, the group is encouraged by how Ayodele challenges Father Oke, a bishop in a local diocese. Father Oke is known to speak out against queer individuals and for equating queer relations to bestiality. The Black Nexus group see in Ayodele a possible ally and a radical force that could change how they are viewed in Nigeria – a country where same-sex relations are criminalised.

By becoming visible, the members of Black Nexus defy the ways of thinking that marginalise them and render them invisible in Nigeria.

What if?

In my reading, Ayodele’s shapeshifting capabilities represent a need to rethink identities so that they are liberated from the limiting ways in which humans consider them. The novel imagines a future in which different forms of otherness are granted space to be and to flourish. Ayodele hints at this future, saying:

Last night, Lagos burned. But like a phoenix, it will rise from the ashes – a greater creature than before.

Lagoon’s Africanfuturist vision requires a reader who is actively engaged in co-creating the alternative future that the novel is constructing: one in which identities are freed from restrictive thinking that refuses to recognise difference and diversity.

The reader is a central participant in this process because the writer, the reader and the text are engaged in a creative conversation. This conversation involves challenging the present and past misrepresentations of Africa. And it involves striving to envision counter-futures that contrast the present and past. The reader is required to be an active participant in meaning making.

I conclude by quoting Okorafor, who explains in a 2017 talk that sci-fi plays an important role in imagining possible futures. She tells her audience:

So much of science fiction speculates about technologies, societies, social issues, what’s beyond our planet, what’s within our planet. Science fiction is one of the greatest and most effective forms of political writing. It’s all about the question, “What if?”.The Conversation

Gibson Ncube, Associate Professor, University of Zimbabwe

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Humour in poetry should be taken seriously


Christina Thatcher, Cardiff Metropolitan University

As a child, I remember laughing out loud while reading Shel Silverstein’s poetry book A Light in the Attic (1981). I loved it so much that I started reciting the poem Skin Stealer every day, to the great annoyance of my little brother. Even now, these lines still come knocking:

This evening I unzipped my skin

And carefully unscrewed my head,

Exactly as I always do

When I prepare myself for bed.

As a teenager, I was taught that poetry should be more serious. It was art – and art took itself seriously. Even now, poems designed to make us laugh are often dismissed as frivolous. This seems strange given that many of our earliest poems are comic ones. The limerick, for instance, is thought to have originated during the Middle Ages and has been used to great humorous effect by thousands, from Shakespeare to Roald Dahl.

Perhaps the crime here isn’t that funny poems have been sidelined in favour of serious ones, but that funny poems are not also considered to be serious. Humour, after all, has the power to disarm us and promote reflective thinking.

Although there are innumerable ways in which poets can be funny in their work, I have chosen pieces here which employ three different types of humour to demonstrate how poetry can make us both laugh and think.

Sexy humour

Sometimes called dirty, naughty, rude or cheeky, this type of humour works because it violates social norms. After all, it is not polite to talk about sex. But, poetry which pokes fun at bodies and desire is centuries old.

Poems in this category can range from titillating to obscene. But, beyond the tee-hees, these pieces can reveal deeper truths about sex and relationships. Take a look at the opening of The Did-You-Come-Yets of the Western World by Rita Ann Higgins:

Absurdist humour

Poets who use absurdity in their work tend to operate under the assumption that implausibility is essential to comedy. Absurd humour highlights the ridiculousness of life, pushing normally accepted realities to extremes to give the audience a fresh perspective. This can be seen in Luke Kennard’s darkly funny poem The Murderer, which opens:

In his correspondence with writer Paul McDonald, Kennard discussed how this poem works to reveal the shortcomings of both characters, opening up a chance for readers to reflect on moral relativism.

Satirical humour

Satire is an excellent way for poets to respond to social trends and current events. Often, this type of humour relies on ridicule and exaggeration to expose and criticise people’s stupidity or vices. Satirical poems play an important role when it comes to challenging political, cultural and aesthetic oppression. According to the poet Matthew Rohrer, satire is a tool by which the oppressed get to make fun of their oppressors.

Satirical poetry takes many forms but one of my personal favourites is the cento – a patchwork poem made up of words or phrases directly from the person at the butt of the joke. Rob Sears’ The Beautiful Poetry of Donald Trump does this brilliantly, particularly this piece:

There are, of course, huge swathes of humour that I haven’t even touched on here. For instance, surrealism, dark humour and observational humour can provoke important discussions, launch taboos into the light and straddle the fine line between “haha” and “oh no”.

Because humour is also highly personal, you may not find any of the poems I’ve chosen to be funny. To remedy this, I also asked poets on Twitter to share the pieces which made them laugh and, wow, did they deliver. In this thread alone, the power of humour in poetry is self-evident.The Conversation

Christina Thatcher, Creative Writing Lecturer, Cardiff Metropolitan University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Guide to the classics: Darwin’s The Descent of Man 150 years on — sex, race and our ‘lowly’ ape ancestry

Jared Rice/Unsplash

Ian Hesketh, The University of Queensland and Henry-James Meiring, The University of Queensland

When Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution was first published in On the Origin of Species in 1859, the book was conspicuously silent about how his theory applied to humans.

Darwin believed the subject of human evolution was so “surrounded with prejudices” he was determined to avoid it entirely.

It was only when he became frustrated by the way others conceived of human evolution that he took up the subject himself. His two-volume The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex was published on 24 February 1871.

Revisiting this work 150 years on, it is striking how some of Darwin’s most radical claims — such as humanity’s ape-like ancestry — are now taken for granted while some of his other views were clearly embedded in Victorian racial and gender stereotypes.

Read more:
Guide to the classics: Darwin’s On the Origin of Species

Sexual selection

Darwin’s objective in Descent was threefold: to consider whether humans were descended from a pre-existing form; to consider the nature of human development; and to consider the differences between the “human races”.

In coming to terms with these issues, Darwin focused on the theory of sexual selection.

Darwin’s earlier theory of natural selection explained how the struggle for limited resources led to adaptations that were beneficial to certain individuals of the same species at the expense of others.

Black and white illustration
An illustration of a peacock feather as published in The Descent of Man.
Wikimedia Commons

Sexual selection, in contrast, explained how the struggle for mates led to adaptations with no survival benefit. The bright plumages of male birds of paradise and the spectacular tail of the peacock were a product of mate choice by female birds, he wrote.

A similar process, he theorised, explained the development of specialised weapons for battle, such as the large horns of beetles: a result of males struggling against one another to secure mates.

Applying this principle to humans, Darwin argued that in the early stages of humanity’s development, men took the power of selection away from women. Men struggled against other men to select their mates, he wrote, and so became stronger and more intelligent over time, while women became more nurturing in their pursuit to attract mates through the cultivation of fashion.

It is not difficult to see how this theory of sexual selection naturalised Victorian gender relations.

Read more:
How Darwin’s sexual selection theory co-stars in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’

The development of the races

For Darwin, sexual selection also explained how different human races had developed.

While he was committed to the theory of monogenism, believing humans were a single species, he also adhered to a racial hierarchy. As historian of science Evelleen Richards shows in her recent book, Darwin’s encounters with Indigenous peoples during his Beagle voyage, circumnavigating the globe between 1831 and 1836, led him to perceive vast physical and intellectual differences between the human races.

Black and white illustration
RT Pritchett’s drawing of a catamaran off the Brazilian state of Bahia, as seen on the Beagle Voyage.
Freshwater and Marine Image Bank at the University of Washington

He came to believe many of those differences could be explained by the processes of sexual selection. Differences in skin colour were, for Darwin, the result of diverse aesthetic preferences, which subsequently led to the development of distinct races. And as the races diverged, they were further shaped by inherited customs and social practices.

By accepting a racial hierarchy in this scheme, Darwin believed Indigenous peoples, or “savages” as he called them, represented “early stages” in human development.

In the final observation of the book, Darwin confessed he would rather be related to a “heroic little monkey” than to a “savage who delights to torture his enemies”.

His deeper message, however, was that readers should be consoled by the fact some of the nobler qualities of humans were shared by many of the great apes — even if they seemed to be absent from humanity’s “early stages”.

What makes humans moral?

The Descent of Man included three chapters dedicated to the subject of mind and morals. Darwin aimed to show there was “no fundamental difference between man and higher mammals” in their moral and mental faculties.

His moral theory relied heavily on animal observations, including those of dogs, apes, and even bees. He insisted humans shared the capacity to feel guilt, shame, and compassion with other social animals — therefore moral conscience was not unique to humans.

Darwin’s theory rejected essentialist and religious categories of “right” and “wrong”. He postulated different animals developed different moral systems depending on their environment and social structures, famously using bees as an example.

If, for instance, to take an extreme case, men were reared under precisely the same conditions as hive-bees […] our unmarried females would, like the workerbees, think it a sacred duty to kill their brothers, and mothers would strive to kill their fertile daughters; and no one would think of interfering.

Morality was the product of factors related to the struggle for survival and reproduction, and not divinely ordained.

Morality, wrote Darwin, was not absolute: if humans evolved like bees, our understanding of right and wrong would be very different.
Eric Ward/Unsplash


Even though plant and animal evolution was largely accepted by the scientific community at the time, the subject of human evolution was still highly contentious. Darwin’s views were heatedly debated in the press and in public.

A reviewer for the Edinburgh Review observed:

no book of science has excited a keener interest than Mr. Darwin’s new work on the ‘Descent of Man.’ In the drawingroom it is competing with the last new novel, and in the study it is troubling alike the man of science, the moralist, and the theologian. On every side it is raising a storm of mingled wrath, wonder, and admiration.

By the end of 1871, the work was translated into Dutch, German, Italian and Russian.

Despite its commercial success, The Descent of Man was heavily criticised. At the beginning of 1872, Darwin lamented “hardly any naturalists” agreed with him on sexual selection.

Charles Darwin, as an ape, holds a mirror up to another ape.
Darwin was frequently caricatured in the press as an ape, as here in a colour lithograph by F. Betbeder.
Wellcome Collection, CC BY

Most naturalists felt Darwin attributed too much power to female choice, and they rejected the idea other animals could possess an aesthetic sensibility.

It was Darwin’s analysis of morality, however, that caused the greatest outrage. He stood accused of undermining the foundation of Christian society by advocating moral relativism.

Leading feminist Frances Power Cobbe rejected Darwin’s theory of morality as “simious”, while The Times thundered Darwin’s ideas could encourage “the most murderous revolutions”.

Darwin received hate mail from offended readers like Mr. D. Thomas, who referred to him as a “venerable old Ape”. Darwin began to be regularly caricatured as an ape in the press.

Descent today

Certain aspects of Descent hold up well, such as Darwin’s speculation humans originated from Africa, as evidenced by multiple fossil discoveries in the mid-20th century, notably by Mary and Louis Leakey.

Charles Darwin.
Wellcome Collection

Many of his controversial insights in relation to morality have been central to recent debates about “evolutionary ethics” among moral philosophers considering the relationship between our understanding of morality and evolution.

And his theory of mind and morals informed the development of multiple scientific disciplines in the 20th century, including evolutionary psychology, neuroscience, and psychoanalysis.

The same cannot be said about Darwin’s theory of sexual selection. While the idea of “female choice” has been revived several times, such as in Robert Trivers’s parental investment theory which argues the sex that takes on the primary caring role has the greatest choice in a mate, there is very little consensus on the relationship between mate choice and beauty.

Moreover, most evolutionists consider male combat — as Darwin wrote about in horned beetles — a form of natural selection, rather than sexual selection.

And when it comes to Darwin’s general views of race and gender, he very much appears a man of his time and social background.

Today, what is most compelling about The Descent of Man is how Darwin’s portrayal of humans was made within the context of a system of evolution that applied equally to all of nature. At a time when other evolutionists stressed humanity’s uniqueness, Darwin instead sought to uncover man’s “lowly nature”.The Conversation

Ian Hesketh, ARC Future Fellow and Association Professor, The University of Queensland and Henry-James Meiring, PhD Candidate, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Book review: Claire Thomas’s The Performance triggers burning questions

Stanley Li/Unsplash

Cecily Niumeitolu, University of Sydney

Book review: The Performance by Claire Thomas.

Theatre and its constant recreation, allows for the possibility of the political. Sometimes this is manufactured by directors as they place a loaded question on stage. Sometimes it occurs as an unexpected interruption to the usual flow of a performance.

Claire Thomas explores the possibility of both in her new novel The Performance.

Historically, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (1953) has been a rallying point for theatre practitioners and audiences living through a state of crisis: waiting through incarceration, dispossession, racial segregation, or the wake of environmental disaster.

But what if our waiting for tomorrow succumbs to an earth that waits for no one?

At the centre of The Performance is another Beckett drama, Happy Days (1961).

Winnie’s tangential recollections and gestures on stage reverberate into the perspectives and memories of three complex women stuck in the auditorium, watching the play: Margot, the world-weary professor with a theatre subscription; Ivy, the philanthropist lured to donate more money through the offer of free tickets; and Summer, the usher working under duress.

The Performance book cover

The audience watches Winnie as the earth increasingly swallows her, and her terminal happiness. Happy Days is a play adequate to contemporary times: the sixth mass extinction.

The Performance is set against Australia’s bushfire season. Just as Winnie’s parasol catches alight in Happy Days, there is the latent hazard the cool theatre could go up flames. As Ivy watches the play, she thinks: “Climate change is the key moral question of the age”.

And yet, as Thomas explores through her characters, what about those who are not scientists, engineers, policy makers, experts, activists and politicians directly involved in the challenge of global warming?

“The world is a swarm of need, and Ivy knows she cannot save it,” writes Thomas.

Margot, Ivy and Summer do not truly choose to watch Happy Days. It is more so their place in the theatre that night happens through their financial entanglements.

The bodily functions and reactions — ranging from disdain to intimacy — are conducted through Winnie’s words and her pace. Inseparable from this shared performance is the site and its time:

Summer is feeling worried, so worried, but she cannot work out if she’s worried about Winnie, or herself, or the blazing world outside, and where the blood is pooling or spilling at this moment, inside a certain body or beyond it.

Breathe, Summer. Remember to breathe.

Phrasing the musical

Actors and directors who collaborated with Beckett have recounted how he directed his plays for stage, television and radio in musical terms.

The voice he wrote for demanded a certain colour, accent, tone, rhythm. The cast were his instruments and elements.

Billie Whitelaw, Beckett’s favourite female actor, said Beckett “conducts me, something like a metronome”.

Of Happy Days, she mused how “terribly courageous” Winnie was.

Every day, an institutional bell rings, and life demands of Winnie one more day. One more day to apply her lipstick, play her music box, kiss her revolver, to speak in “the old style”: meagre defences in a life barely witnessed, barely there.

And when these props fail Winnie — and when her companion Willie exists only as a possibility out of sight — she sings in hope of an ear in the darkness. She holds on.

The Performance echoes Beckett’s musicality. Thomas tends to the base, cloying, funny, fragile disturbances that make theatre an imperative act. She gives breadth to her characters’ thoughts in tension to the daily performances they play in the role of mother, grandmother, friend, wife, lover, daughter.

Read more:
Billie Whitelaw was one of Beckett’s greatest actors – she suffered for her art

She opens up the care it takes for these characters to not leap into easy connection, to allow space for their own and a stranger’s difference. She teases out how ideals and identities fall short of life’s ambiguity.

She gently holds the inescapable paradoxes of wanting, needing and enduring in these strange-becoming-stranger times.

Dissonances of life and art

The Performance is a poetics of the political, without preaching or judgement: it triggers burning questions. This is achieved through the novel’s clever structure. Chapters are a compilation of different points of view with no character’s point winning out over the others.

These perspectives converge in the middle of the book — an interval — which then affects the chapters after.

This book itches at sore points of neoliberalism, class, privilege (and lack thereof), race and Australia’s violent colonial history, gender, sexuality, and the bruises and yearnings that join, alter, or wear away the crossing paths of strangers, friends, and family.

For the treasure hunter, motifs and fragments of visual art, drama, and fiction weave through the plot. There are gestures towards the theatre novel like Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts (1941).

And for those interested in Beckett’s biography, there are snippets of his life, body of work and Happy Days itself threaded throughout — both pointedly and hidden.

Written with passion, The Performance is a brave book: unafraid of confronting the dissonances of living in a modern Australia.

The Performance is out now through Hachette.The Conversation

Cecily Niumeitolu, PhD Candidate, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Book review: The Husband Poisoner is about lethal ladies and dangerously tasty recipes

Unsplash/Sunbeam Photography, CC BY

Rachel Franks, University of Newcastle

Book review: The Husband Poisoner, by Tanya Bretherton (Hachette).

Agatha Christie’s first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920), introduces her iconic Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, and features her famous quip: “poison is a woman’s weapon”.

Of course, poison — sometimes referred to as Inheritor’s Powder — is not gender specific. Rather, poison can simply be the preferred means of murder for clever criminals. Those who, as sociologist and author Tanya Bretherton points out:

… believed the perfect murder was possible if it could be made to look like something else entirely and no one even realised that a crime had been committed.

The title of Bretherton’s fourth book, The Husband Poisoner: Suburban women who killed in post-World War II Sydney (2021), suggests a work focused on damaged, disgruntled or daring wives in the early 1950s who were looking for the perfect solution to an immediate problem. But she goes further to look at how other family members were also targeted. She also gives some clues to explain why seemingly ordinary women decided to try their hand at murder.

Read more:
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Fact versus fiction

In a novel, writers usually ensure death by foul means is quickly established and everyone is a suspect. In real life, the poisoner’s goal for such a scheme is to make sure the idea of murder is never considered, death is something that is just … well, just unfortunate. Nobody is a suspect.

Poison is available to men and women, as the poisoner and the poisoned. This is a fact showcased when Emily Inglethorp, mistress of Agatha Christie’s Styles Court, unknowingly consumes strychnine. Yet, there is an unsettling number of examples of fictional and real-life female villains dispensing with people as easily as they might deal with a bug. This has long generated anxiety around the type of woman who might poison her husband instead of going through a messy divorce.

Some of this anxiousness is because there is a very specific type of malevolence present when one person decides to poison another. Poison requires planning — the methodical undertaking of procurement, delivery and the hiding of evidence. A show of grief or shock is helpful, but there is plenty of time for that. Poison is often slow.

Bretherton is an excellent story teller. Indeed, this book reads like good crime fiction with dialogue deployed to push the stories forward. From Yvonne Fletcher’s disposal of two husbands to Caroline Grills and her four victims, the women are vivid. You can see their desperation, their motivation, their living conditions, their terrible taste in fashion and their wickedness.

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These women also have something crucial in common: they chose thallium. Discovered in the mid-1800s, thallium — a colourless, odourless tasteless metal — is highly toxic and indiscriminate when it comes to killing insects, rats, and people.

Another thing these women share is a strange mix of cowardice and bravado. Sure, poison might circumvent an ugly confrontation, but it is a brutal way to kill somebody. To sit and watch, and to wait it out. Bretherton does not hold back in describing how the victims suffered.

Bretherton’s interest in the social context of crime is clear, as is her understanding of social change in Australia across the 20th century. The time frame for this work showcases a world that was changing rapidly, but one in which progress on women’s rights was painfully slow. This was a period that pre-dated no-fault divorce and saw women’s minimum wages set at only 75% of men’s wages.

It was also a time when rats presented a serious public health issue in Sydney, and so rat poison was easy to buy. For some, these conditions would inspire murderous plans. Although there were several high profile cases and prosecutions in the 1950s, we may never know how many people fell victim to rat poison.

The Sydney crime wave also inspired the 2011 television movie Recipe for Murder.

Newspaper clipping
The Fletchers in happier times.
Truth newspaper

A recipe for murder

Bretherton sets this work apart from most other true crime texts through her integration of recipes. Poison is not easily administered in neat doses via a teaspoon. It needs a vehicle.

In exploring how women served up thallium in beverages and meals, she reinforces the subterfuge required to poison somebody by including recipes from a family cookbook compiled by her own mother. If you enjoy a good, home-made split-pea soup, then it is possible you might have a slightly uncomfortable moment the next time that dish is served.

Dead rat's tail
Not just for rats …

This is one of the great fears of poison that Bretherton makes plain — it is so very domestic. All the killer really needs to do is concentrate on staying calm and pretending everything is normal. Set the table. Put out a potato and bacon pie. Ask, “Another cup of tea, dear?”

Typically, food in true crime is evidence for a timeline: the suspect was seen leaving a particular restaurant around 11pm; or the victim, based on stomach contents, was thought to have died between this hour and that hour. But the women in Bretherton’s book take familiar comforts and turn them into weapons. The “crime and dine” approach, more commonly seen in crime fiction, is very effective in The Husband Poisoner.

Read more:
Friday essay: the meaning of food in crime fiction

The cases included have obviously been well researched, and there are several pages of endnotes. The book would have benefited from an index.

Bretherton’s work on the “thallium craze” offers a fascinating, if fiendish, cut of Sydney’s chaotic social fabric in the mid-20th century. Those who enjoyed her previous volumes and those interested in some of our darker histories will quickly devour The Husband Poisoner. Although, you might want to make your own cup of tea before curling up to do a bit of reading.The Conversation

Rachel Franks, Conjoint Fellow, School of Humanities and Social Science, University of Newcastle

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Guide to the classics: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland — still for the heretics, dreamers and rebels

Walt Disney Animation Studios, Walt Disney Productions

Dr Jamie Q Roberts, University of Sydney

Alice! A childish story take
And with a gentle hand
Lay it where Childhood’s dreams are twined
In Memory’s mystic band,
Like pilgrim’s withered wreath of flowers
Plucked in a far-off land.

What is it that draws us back to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (Alice for short), both individually and collectively? What is it that makes Alice, in the words of literary critic, Harold Bloom, “a kind of Scripture for us” — like Shakespeare?

For we are drawn back. Since the publication of Lewis Carroll’s story, in England in 1865, it has never been out of print and has been translated into around 100 languages.

There have been numerous movie adaptations and many other works inspired by the story. Perhaps the greatest is a little-known, 1971 short film by the US Department of Health, Education and Welfare encouraging children not to do drugs.

One fears the film might not have had the desired effect: while the speed-addicted March Hare provides a salutary example of how poorly things can go on his drug of choice, the Mad Hatter’s performance on LSD is a little too compelling.

Beyond the page and screen, a quick Google search reveals Alice-inspired art — from graffiti to Dali — tattoos, music, video games and shops.

Alice has strong mainstream appeal; this was entrenched by Disney’s 1951 movie Alice in Wonderland (which is also responsible for people getting the title of the book wrong). However, Alice has become iconic for many subcultures, especially those with darker proclivities. Try exploring “zombie Alice” or “goth Alice”, or watching the new Netflix series, Alice in Borderland, which is set in Tokyo. (Alice is big in Japan).

And this brings us again to the beginning of the conversation (Alice reference here for the boffins): What draws us back?

Read more:
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Striking a blow against the adult world

The story begins with bored, seven-year-old Alice sitting on a riverbank with her older sister. Alice doesn’t care for the book her sister is reading because it doesn’t have pictures. She falls asleep and follows a dapper but flustered rabbit down a rabbit hole and into Wonderland.

In Wonderland she moves through a series of surreal vignettes in which she verbally tussles, but struggles to connect with, a stream of characters, such as the hookah-smoking Caterpillar, the Duchess, the Mad Hatter, the Cheshire Cat and the Queen of Hearts.

Helena Bonham Carter as the Queen of Hearts in Tim Burton’s 2010 film version of Alice in Wonderland.
Disney Enterprises Inc

We are drawn back to the book by the first-rate banter between Alice and these memorable characters. Consider the following from the Mad Hatter’s tea party:

“Then you should say what you mean,” the March Hare went on.
“I do,” Alice hastily replied; “at least — at least I mean what I say — that’s the same thing, you know.”
“Not the same thing a bit!” said the Hatter. “You might just as well say that ‘I see what I eat’ is the same thing as ‘I eat what I see’!”
“You might just as well say,” added the March Hare, “that ‘I like what I get’ is the same thing as ‘I get what I like’!”
“You might just as well say,” added the Dormouse, who seemed to be talking in his sleep, “that ‘I breathe when I sleep’ is the same thing as ‘I sleep when I breathe’!”
“It is the same thing with you,” said the Hatter[.]

Notably, many of the creatures Alice meets stand for the real adults in her life, in that they scold her, order her about, try to teach her morals and make her recite poetry.

It is this transformation of the adult world into a mad place and the elevation of the viewpoint of the child that also draw us back. When we read Alice, not as children, but as adults, we strike a blow against the adult world, which some of us, at least, have never quite adjusted to.

The Cheshire Cat provides the greatest indictment of Wonderland-as-adult-world when he says to Alice, “we’re all mad here”. The cat is the only creature in the book who connects with Alice. Mark this, reader: It is the one who can connect with children who is also able to see the world for what it is — mad!

A champion of childhood

The West does have a long history of romanticising childhood. Wordsworth, in his 1807 Immortality Ode, writes:

Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy.

But even if the “romantic childhood” is a creation of bourgeois 19th century England — of the likes of Wordsworth and Carroll — it is a powerful and arguably noble notion. So let us follow it a little farther down the rabbit hole.

While Alice is the child-hero of the story because she pushes back against the mad adults in Wonderland, she herself is on the cusp of adulthood.

Alice Liddell, photographed in 1862.
Wikimedia Commons

This tragedy is alluded to in the poem, dedicated to the real Alice — Alice Liddell — with which the book begins (the key stanza appears at the start of this article).

Liddell was, in her childhood, Carroll’s friend. The first version of Alice was told to Liddell and her two sisters in 1862 on a boat ride along the Thames in Oxford.

A 1907 edition of the book.
Wikimedia Commons

The tragedy of growing up is reinforced in the story itself. While Alice’s imagination is able to create Wonderland, it cannot sustain it. In the final scene in Wonderland, Alice is watching a trial where many of the characters are playing cards. Frustrated by the illogical trial, she shouts, “You’re nothing but a pack of cards!” and is transported back to the real world.

This leads us to think Wonderland itself is the hero of Alice: the champion of childhood. It is in Wonderland that time has stopped — as we learn at the Mad Hatter’s tea party — and where authority is impotent. Despite the Queen’s repeated edict, “Off with her/his head”, no one ever really dies.

‘The Carroll myth’

Lewis Carroll aged 23.
Wikimedia Commons

However, beyond Alice and Wonderland is Carroll himself. As Karoline Leach writes, in her remarkable book about “the Carroll myth”, at the centre of Alice lies, “the image of Carroll; a haunting presence in the story, a shifting dreamy impression of golden afternoons, fustiness, mystery, oars dripping in sun-rippling water.”

Lewis Carroll is the pen name of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (not easy to say quickly, unlike “Lewis Carroll”), who taught mathematics at Oxford.

The “Carroll myth”, which was as appealing in the 19th century as it is now, is that Dodgson, through his alter ego Carroll, and his many (chaste) relationships with children, in particular, Alice Liddell, found a way back to the immortality of childhood that Wordsworth spoke about.

So, when we read Alice, we are ultimately communing with this mythical Carroll, and this is no small thing.

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Trolling pieties

Beyond the banter and the homage to childhood, we are drawn back to Alice because it contains a timeless contribution to the 1860s version of our own culture wars. Where we have political correctness, the 19th century Anglophone world had its own buzz-killing piety, at times foisted upon children — and adults — through verse.

David Bates, a 19th century American poet, is likely responsible for the now thankfully forgotten poem, Speak Gently (“Speak gently to the little child!/Its love be sure to gain/Teach it in accents soft and mild:/It may not long remain.)

Carroll’s glorious parody, which is spoken in Chapter 6 by the Duchess, a negligent mother, is:

Speak roughly to your little boy,
And beat him when he sneezes:
He only does it to annoy,
Because he knows it teases.

Here, and in other Alice poems such as “You Are Old Father William”, Carroll is trolling all those for whom piety is a mask for power. And like the pious, the politically correct are more concerned with their own superiority than with doing good.

An image from the 1951 film version of Carroll’s book.
Walt Disney Animation Studios, Walt Disney Productions

To cement the link between then and now, it is worth quoting from Stephen Fry’s recent objection to political correctness. It is as if Fry is providing us with the key to Alice and even to Carroll himself. “I wouldn’t class myself as a classical libertarian,” Fry says,

but I do relish transgression, and I deeply and instinctively distrust conformity and orthodoxy. Progress is not achieved by preachers and guardians of morality but […] by madmen, hermits, heretics, dreamers, rebels and sceptics.

We are drawn back to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland because when we read it, we become the heretics, dreamers and rebels who would change the world.The Conversation

Dr Jamie Q Roberts, Lecturer in Politics and International Relations, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

What’s next for Amazon after Jeff Bezos? No dramatic changes, just more growth and optimisation

Louise Grimmer, University of Tasmania; Gary Mortimer, Queensland University of Technology, and Martin Grimmer, University of Tasmania

Jeff Bezos has announced he will stand down as chief executive of Amazon in the third quarter of 2021. The founder of the online retail behemoth will hand the reins to Andy Jassy, who currently leads Amazon’s cloud computing wing.

The announcement comes after an enormously successful 2020 for Amazon despite (or perhaps because of) the COVID-19 pandemic, with operating cashflow up 72% from the previous year to US$66.1 billion, and net sales increasing 35% to US$386.1 billion.

Amazon has its share of detractors, with critics highlighting concerns around working conditions, tax minimisation, anti-competitive practices and privacy. But its enormous size and continuing phenomenal growth make it a force to be reckoned with.

How did Amazon get to this position, and what does the future hold under new leadership?

How it all started

Almost 27 years ago, in 1994, Bezos left his job as a senior vice-president for a hedge fund and started an online bookstore in his garage. At the time, using the internet for retail was in its infancy.

Bezos decided that books were an ideal product to sell online. Originally the new business was named Cadabra, but Bezos soon changed it to Amazon and borrowed US$300,000 from his parents to get things off the ground.

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Books proved popular with growing numbers of online buyers, and Bezos began to add other products and services to the Amazon inventory – most notably e-readers, tablets and other devices. Today Amazon predominantly makes its revenue through retail, web services and subscriptions.

The rise and rise of Amazon

Amazon is now one of the most valuable companies in the world, valued at more than US$1.7 trillion. That’s more than the GDP of all but 10 of the world’s countries. It’s also the largest employer among tech companies by a large margin.

The key to Amazon’s dominance has been constant expansion. After moving into e-readers and tablets, it extended more broadly into technology products and services.

The expansion has not yet stopped, and Amazon’s product lines now include media (books, DVDs, music), kitchen and dining wares, toys and games, fashion, beauty products, gourmet food and groceries, home improvement and gardening, sporting goods, medications and pharmaceuticals, financial services and more.

More recently Amazon has expanded into bricks-and-mortar, heralded by its purchase of the Whole Foods chain in 2017, the creation of its own high tech stores such as Amazon Go, and its sophisticated distribution and delivery services such as Amazon Prime.

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Amazon has become increasingly vertically integrated, meaning it no longer simply sells others’ product but makes and sells its own. This gives the company a position of extreme market dominance.


Amazon is hugely popular with customers, but has attracted criticism from supplier advocates, workers unions and governments.

Industrial relations matters, such as fair wages, unsafe work practices and unrealistic demands, appear the most common area of concern. A 2019 UK report found:

Amazon have no policy on living wage and make no mention of wages being enough to cover workers’ basic needs in their supplier code.

Other concerns relate to alleged unsafe working conditions and “whistleblower” policies.

In March 2020, as COVID-19 began to take hold, workers claimed they were fired for voicing concerns about safe working conditions. Amazon vice president and veteran engineer Tim Bray resigned in solidarity and nine US senators issued an open letter to Bezos, seeking clarity around the sackings.

More general criticisms of the company culture have surfaced over the years, relating to insufficient work breaks, unrealistic demands, and annual “cullings” of the staff – referred to as “purposeful Darwinism”.

Another strand of criticism relates to Amazon’s market size and antitrust laws. Antitrust laws exist to stop big companies creating monopolies. Amazon presents a challenge, as it is a manufacturer, an online retailer, and a marketplace where other retailers can sell products to consumers.

Privacy concerns have also plagued Amazon products like Echo smart speakers, Ring home cameras, and Amazon One palm-scanning ID checkers.

The Amazon Web Services privacy policy says all the right things.

Read more:
Amazon Echo’s privacy issues go way beyond voice recordings

Finally, the amount of company tax Amazon pays in Australia has been brought into question. The company has used a range of tactics to legally reduce the income taxes it pays around the world.

What does the future hold for Amazon in a post-COVID world?

What will change at Amazon when Bezos steps down? We’re unlikely to see a dramatic shift in the short term. For one thing, Bezos is not departing entirely – he will stay involved as “executive chairman”. For another, his successor, Andy Jassy, has been with Amazon since 1997.

Jassy is the head of Amazon Web Services (AWS) and already one of the most important people in the tech industry. AWS has been at the forefront of simplifying computing services, driving the cloud computing revolution and influencing how organisations purchase technology.

Jassy’s long history, intimate knowledge of the organisation, and technological expertise will no doubt stand Amazon in good stead.

However, he faces a monumental undertaking. Jassy will inherit responsibility for more than a million employees, selling millions of different products and services.

His expertise in AI and machine learning at AWS will be increasingly important as these play a greater role in Amazon’s operations – for everything from optimising warehouses and giving better search results to business forecasting and monitoring warehouse staff and delivery drivers.

The physical lockdowns and online acceleration driven by the COVID-19 pandemic provided the ideal conditions for a company that has been called “the everything store”. Supporters and critics will watch with interest to see if this is still true in a post-COVID environment.The Conversation

Louise Grimmer, Senior Lecturer in Retail Marketing, University of Tasmania; Gary Mortimer, Professor of Marketing and Consumer Behaviour, Queensland University of Technology, and Martin Grimmer, Professor of Marketing, University of Tasmania

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.