Saturday, August 13, 2016

French Liberalism, Historiography New and Old

In this month’s Modern Intellectual History is a review essay from Michael Behrent on the recent historiography of French liberalism. This is a service to the profession: describing, evaluating, condensing, and extrapolating from a substantial body of recent work. The historiography of French liberalism has often in the past generation looked in two directions. First, it argued against the idea of its own Sonderweg vis-à-vis English liberalism, supposedly the ideal-type. Second it had to grapple with liberalism’s relation to republicanism, which is of course an older and, especially in France, more significant political idiom. As for the first, it seems that even American historians are finally ready to stop regarding continental Europe as presenting various detours from the one true path hewn by the UK. As for the second, Behrent suggests that it is the very illiberalism of much of French political culture that makes French liberals in particular so interesting.

Rather than summarizing Behrent’s summaries, I want to extract the broader perspective taken, he argues, by this new historiography. The landmarks in the background here include François Furet, Lucien Jaume, and Pierre Rosanvallon. The works at issue include (but are not limited to) the Geenens and Rosenblatt edited volume, Aurelian Craiutu’s multivolume project on moderation, Helena Rosenblatt and Steven Vincent’s different approaches to Benjamin Constant, and Emmanuelle Paulet-Grandguillot on the legacies of Rousseau in Sismondi and Constant—indeed the central figure here is very much Constant, not, say, Tocqueville. Behrent writes that “these works endeavor not so much to return French political thought to some indefinable liberal fold as to show that understanding how liberals contended with the peculiarities of French history can enrich and broaden our understanding of liberalism—to see it not merely as a doctrine, but as an emotional and moral disposition, a form of political judgment, and a specific political style” (449). According to Behrent, this recent scholarship seeks “to probe some of the constitutive dilemmas of liberal thought from a historically informed perspective.”

In that spirit, he offers three broad questions. Let me take them out of order. Behrent’s final question: “can the history of French liberalism—and liberalism tout court—be approached as a history of emotions, sentiments, and passions?” (476). My own tendency here would be to reframe this question as one about the liberal subject (reading Gossman’s wonderful Basel book has pushed me to think more widely about this). This is a little like Isaiah Berlin’s suggestion that at the heart of all political theories there is a theory of the human being, an anthropology. Asking after that leads in the direction of intellectual history rather than a sort of prosopo-psycho-biography of elites. But certainly the point, Constant’s point, that we are impassioned subjects but that we are nonetheless free is a relevant one that gets at some fundamental questions—are we free in our reason, or in our passion (Adolphe)? To whom would that distinction even make sense? Is that distinction, in fact, central to freedom as an idea in the modern world? Or only the European 19th century? Here is a historical question! 

Behrent’s first question concerns—following Bobbio’s famous analysis—the relationship between liberalism and democracy. These books “lend credence to the view that liberalism’s pedigree is largely independent of democracy’s—or, to the extent that they are related, liberalism must be seen as a reaction to the problems democracy raises” (473). Ultimately, with Spitz, Behrent wants to see in French liberalism an axiomatic democracy. Thus “liberalism has a democratic lining,” because without genuine democracy, individual freedom is empty. This is after all partly Constant’s argument in the famous essay on the liberty of the ancients and moderns—you must have both of these, even if you cannot expect or compel all moderns to be politically involved as all citizens were in the ancient world. But it is also—and here I would push back against Behrent’s characterization—especially in the French case very much about the Republic. Spitz, certainly, sees it in this way. Without the political action of the Republic, no liberalism. This is compatible with a much more negative view of liberalism than Behrent really allows into court, for instance Domenico Losurdo’s, in which cutting out a portion of the population as less-than-equal is essential to liberalism’s assertion of individual rights. Is talk of democracy supposed to preclude that reading? I don’t think it can. Behrent also points—this is the middle question—to the hoary opposition of of political to economic liberalisms. I have been convinced by J.T. Levy (and Marx!) that this is not a useful way of dividing the field, and it’s true that in France it is an especially muddy distinction. The economic, especially, was always on its face political (all the way back to Turgot’s ill-fated attempts at market liberalization).

Let me turn now to a venerable history of nineteenth century French political thought, one written by the British historian Roger Soltau (about whom I know very little, in fact). All proportion maintained, his view of French liberalism is an interesting contrast with the one in Behrent’s review essay. In his chapters on the end-of-century crisis of liberalism, he argues that, indeed, liberals ceased to defend any kind of meaningful “philosophy of freedom,” and hence had no real politics. They sank to defending bourgeois (not middle class) interests. This was indeed a relation of opposition, rather than necessity, between liberalism and democracy—the latter was certain to bring socialism, after all. So this was a problem, but there were also two areas of fundamental bad faith (not Soltau’s term) for French liberals—questions in which the bourgeoisie wasn’t even able to think clearly about its own interests. Soltau looks to one of the most unrepentant “economic” liberals of the age, Paul Leroy-Beaulieu, to show how even the liberals were blinded by nationalism. In the name of national defense, the state had to be allowed anything. Similarly, beholden perhaps too much to the Republic, liberals were unwilling to challenge frankly illiberal anticlerical policies. As Soltau puts it, “If modern French Liberalism has proved so weak both before Jacobinism and is surely because its freedom of judgment was inhibited, as it were, on...the position of the Church in France and that of France in Europe” (304). The religious question at issue here isn't the same as it was for Constant--and the reflexive nationalism is also not the same as Jennifer Pitts' Turn to Empire (although neither is without relation). It is the freedom of judgment—the courage of thought—that he sees on the part of Charles Renouvier on both these issues that most impresses Soltau. Renouvier the neo-Kantian is, indeed, the only living representative of “the philosophy of freedom” that he sees in later 19th century France.

Why go back to a book written perhaps ninety years ago? (Other than, as in this case, almost pure serendipity?). For one thing because it seems to me that, although we may disagree about many of Soltau’s judgments, it would still be worth thinking about French liberalism and anticlericalism and nationalism—the places where, “its freedom of judgment was inhibited,” which are often telling. For another because, if we can see in Behrent’s analysis the pervasive influence of Furet, in Soltau we see (very much on the surface) that of Henry Michel, a historian of French political thought and a great advocate of Renouvier. And we can see Soltau working, as it were alongside another interwar historian of liberalism, Guido de Ruggiero (who looked to Croce's idealist liberalism). The latter, like Soltau, believed that, for complicated reasons, on a European level toward the end of the 19th century liberalism had ceased to be a genuine philosophy of freedom and had become merely the ideological cover of an increasingly unhappy bourgeoisie. This is no longer a popular opinion--why not? Both Soltau and Ruggiero were manifestly looking over their shoulders (Ruggiero literally) at fascists and “Bolshevists.” Historians of liberalism today ought to think hard about their—our—own investment in the object (whatever that object turns out to be).

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Rancière & La parole ouvrière

In 1976 Jacques Rancière published (together with Alain Faure) a collection of texts by workers from between 1830 and 1851 under the title La Parole ouvrière. His short introduction to this collection, appearing as it does well before La nuit des prolétaires, his own thèse on the same material, is a good (and concise!) starting place for understanding what Rancière is up to in this early post-Althusserian phase of his thinking. I would describe this introduction as working on two levels at once: the first and most fully-stated is a methodological and historiographical argument with a certain kind of social history; the second is an intervention into what we can, problematically, call ‘post-Marxist’ theory. Neither intervention is without ambiguity.
In returning to the archive of “la parole ouvrière” between the revolution of 1830 and the coup of 1851, Rancière is, he says, above all not looking for an origin story. He wants to avoid the teleological story of a working class that is at the beginnings of what we all know will eventually be its self-consciousness as “proletarian.” But of course we are in the presence of growing class-consciousness. The specificity of this experience of class-consciousness in this moment for Rancière is that “La prise de parole qu’ils [les ouvrières] effectuent constitue elle-même un élément décisif de cette expérience” (10). This new accession into la parole was a claim to full humanity on the part of the workers. To be more than arms or rifles, but not because they are strong, because they are just as able to speak truth and justice as anyone. This was never separate from other forms of struggle (18-19). But there was nonetheless something particular about the claim to speech: “Vivre en travaillant ou mourir en combattant. La parole fonde un droit que la violence ne saurait se donner à elle-même.” For this, education, and self-education, was required because it was clear that violence would be met with greater counter-violence and experience taught the likelyhood of political betrayal. “Entre la violence suspendue et la servilité refusée, ce dialogue nouveau avec la bourgeoisie exprime un idéal qui est moins de prendre la place des maîtres que de les réduire à leur rôle de marchands ou de prêteurs, d’avoir avec eux ce que Grignon appelle des ‘rapports d’indépendance et d’égalité’” (13). Or, differently put, “Le désir d’être reconnus communique avec le refus d’être méprisés. La volonté de convaincre de son droit engage la résolution de le défendre par les armes” (14). This was a dialogue with the bourgeoisie, and that is what gave it a class character.

This class character has, Rancière says, been challenged or missed by scholars who can see nothing but ideological domination in the adoption by the proletarians of the language of the bourgeoisie. What else but ideological domination could be indicated by claims to the same humanity as the bourgeoise? Claims to respectability and the like? This is to read badly, according to Rancière. The proletarian takes the language of the bourgeoisie literally, turns it against itself, denies to the bourgeois the exclusive right to determine the meaning of this language. “C’est aux ouvriers seuls qu’il revient de nommer leur situation et leur révolte” (16). Rancière pushes especially heavily on the use and reuse of the term “esclave.” The workers are not slaves. They refuse to be slaves. They are quick to feel that they have been called slaves. They refuse to be treated as slaves—and so we have a journal called “Spartacus” Because the workers are “Les Spartacus qui ne veulent pas qu’on les traite d’esclaves prennent les armes” (16). It is difficult, given the state of scholarship today, to read these lines without wanting some reference to the fact that contemporaneous with these exchanges during the Second Republic there is debate on and then the abolition of slavery in the Antilles. But Rancière doesn’t mention this. He is interested, rather in the “sourd travail de réappropriation des institutions, des pratiques et des mots” (18) undertaken by the proletarians. He is interested, that is, in the question “Que se passe-t-il quand la classe qui est dépossédée également des moyens de la production intellectuelle s’efforce de prendre la parole pour s’identifier?” (19).

In historiographic terms, Rancière is calling for a history of “la pensée ouvrière qui occupe cette place demeurée pratiquement vide entre les histoires des doctrines sociales qui nous résument Marx, Fourier ou Proudhon, et les chroniques de la vie ouvrière qui nous deecrivent l’horreur des caves de Lille...” (21). This, let us remember, was written in 1976. We are here after EP Thompson, but in the midst of the ascendency of social history. We are ready for the turn to cultural history that, in this labor-history context, we can associate with Joan Scott, Bill Reddy, Bill Sewell, and others. (Indeed, although I’m not going to try to reconstruct it here, Rancière took part in face-to-face debates with anglophone historians, I’m thinking, if I remember correctly, of a 1983 conference reproduced as Work in France eds Kaplan and Koepp, 1986). It would be interesting to explore the difference between the account of political practice through experience that Rancière suggests here, or even more so his later interventions into arguments about political subjectivity and Joan Scott’s famous anti-“evidence of experience” argument. The two after all both come from French working-class history. Here Rancière is of course aiming at something much more historically specific: “il faudrait étudier comment l’expérience quotidienne de l’exploitation et de l’oppression trouve à se systématiser en empruntant des mots ou des raisonnements au discours d’un haut, comment des idées deviennent des forces matérielles, comment des plans de réorganisation sociale sont mis en oeuvre à l’échelle d’un atelier, d’une corporation, d’un quartier...” (21).

Here, though, we turn to the second, and less fully-articulated point that Rancière wants to make in this particular text. Taking a step back from the argument he has been making, he ventriloquizes a counter-argument: you will say that all of this history is really the past, “songeries d’artisans englouties en pratique par la grande industrie et anéanties en théories par le marxisme” (21-22). Now, there is a kind of social or cultural history that would pause here and say—but all utopias, all ruptures, all possibilities unrealized, are worth recovering. This is one of the great tasks of the historian: to rescue, to paraphrase Thompson, voices from the enormous condescension of posterity. But that is not what Rancière goes on to say. He turns, rather, to Marx. And he introduces two rather surprising (1976!) mechanisms into his narrative to do so: contemporaneity and choice. He writes, “L’idée de la révolution prolétarienne est inexorablement contemporaine des discours de cette avant-garde ouvrière qui pense et agit non pour préparer un futur où les prolétaires recueilleraient l’héritage d’une grande industrie capitaliste formée par la dépossession de leur travail et de leur intelligence, mais pour arrêter le mécanisme de cette dépossession” (22). These soon-to-be obsolete artisans saw themselves to be presented with a choice between two possible futures, “celui de l’organisation capitaliste qui, dans chaque métier, annonce, à travers la réorganisation du procès de travail, l’exacerbation de la concurrance entre les bras ouvriers ou le renforcement de la discipline de l’atelier, l’instauration d’un esclavage nouveau; ou celui de l’association ‘libre et volontaires’ des travailleurs. C’est dans le sentiment de ce choix que se forme l’idée de l’émancipation ouvrière sur laquelle viendra se greffer la théorie de la révolution prolétarienne : non à partir de la conscience des prolétaires formés à ‘l’école de la fabrique’ mais à partir du point de vue de ceux qui entendent refuser cette école” (23).

Marx could abuse Proudhon for his theoretical incompetence. He could struggle to assert that utopian socialism was past, that his own socialism was scientific. But between this science and the political dream of emancipation there was a gap and “ce décalage se trouve d’entrée de jeu au coeur de la problématique marxienne.” (Is this still an Althusserian reading of Marx? But historicized differently?) Marx “n’a pas pu penser le but à atteindre dans d’autres termes que ceux de ces ‘artisans’: communisme, émancipation des travailleurs, abolition du salariat, libre association des travailleurs. It s’est efforcé de penser avec plus de riguer la nécessité du renversement du pouvoir et les conditions de ce renversement,” along with his political economy, but “il ne pouvait se représenter l’avenir communiste autrement que ne le fait en 1850 le mécanicien Drevet: monde d’ateliers sociaux et de magasins coopératifs où, dans l’égalité de tous devant le travail et le loisir, des travailleurs librement associés régaleraient leur production sur les besoins désormais connus et reconnus de leur frères.” 23-24.

But this does not mean—as for instance is suggested by the recent Sperber biography, as well as the grand narrative of bourgeois life outlined by Jerrold Seigel—that Marx is himself somehow surpassed by subsequent social-economic history. Rather, “la mise en place de ce réseau de mots et d’images où la pensée de Marx prend ses repères peut aussi être le point de départ d’une réflexion matérailiste sur l’histoire des transformations du marxisme” (24).  Rancière, much like Antonio Labriola in the 1890s, asks that we return to the moment at which Marx’s thought was constituted in order to understand it and further the project of emancipation. Although perhaps I am reading Rancière as more sympathetic to Marx than he really is?

To close this rapid overview of a single, now-ancient, text I want to present a methodological-political anxiety. I worry that the intellectual historical call to be open to the demands of the texts we encounter—dialogic, but also for instance the way Gordon frames it—makes it difficult for intellectual historians to make the kind of move that Rancière does. How can we not, if we begin by trying to allow Marx to speak directly to us, fail to read him against these worker-philosophers in just the way he wants us to? Rancière wants, we might say, to use the context of Marx to make Marx’s thinking alive in the present. But this is not the message I get from Gordon. Rancière uses the notion of historical choice—two choices, a moment of clear decision creating a rupture in imaginative futures—to insist that the workers of the 1840s, rather than the theorists, remain contemporary to the idea of revolution. This, it seems to me, requires a set of absolutely contemporary commitments (for Rancière we can say, to equality) that are simply not available to the historian. Or, if they are so available, it is at just the cost that Lilti, contra Gordon, says—we won’t be doing history any longer, but rather politics, because it seems to me that there is nothing else that a claim about contemporaneity can ultimately mean. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, and this is to some degree what Gordon (et al, he’s getting unfairly abused here, see also Jay and LaCapra) wants. But with that come responsibilities and obligations that have nothing to do with professional historical training or practice. That would be militant history. That would be history that begins with a choice in the present imagined in the same way that Rancière claims works in the 1840s began with a choice. Evidently this is a problem of long standing. My worry, I suppose, is really the idea that intellectual historians (rather than, say, historians of social movements who are in many ways better equipped for this) should be particularly obliged to confront this problem of contemporaneity. Surely it is for us to ask, rather, why there could be a choice of that kind at all, in the particular moment that it seemed to present itself? There’s a problem of recursion here, of course, and the inevitability of making a choice at the beginning of subject-matter. But, then, if you begin by saying that you are an intellectual historian, probably you have already made a choice against, at the least, the equality with which Rancière begins—a choice for Marx and not the proletarians? 

Friday, July 10, 2015

My Brilliant Friend

“My return to Naples was like having a defective umbrella that suddenly closes over your head in a gust of wind.” (chapter 116)

This wonderful, arresting metaphor comes at the beginning of a short chapter near the end of Story of a New Name, the second volume of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. So far I have only read these first two. I’ll pick up the third soon, and perhaps even finish it in time to be impatient about the arrival of the translation of the fourth. Here I’ll make no attempt at plot summary (and won’t be shy about spoilers). I’ve read very little of the material which has appeared about these books so far. Rothman’s piece asking "Ferrante or Knausgaard?", which I read after I was already well into the first volume, left me with absolutely no desire to read the latter, but unsatisfied of course with the description of the former.

The umbrella metaphor is effective, and in several ways. The umbrella—a banal shelter—turns against the one holding it. This marks it at once as “defective,” but of course it is in the nature of umbrellas to open and close. Like this object, the narrator Lenù, if not the narrative, is defined by oscillation. She is now transcendentally happy, now plunged into depression. Open and closed. In part this is an effect of the childhood and adolescence that is the subject of the first two volumes of the novel, but the oscillation is nearly oppressive, and I cannot imagine that it will do more than stretch out a little as Lenù ages. I also stumble over the mix of temporal orders. Ferrante plays with this: “now that we were seventeen the substance of time no longer seemed fluid but had assumed a gluelike consistency and churned around us like a yellow cream in a confectioner’s machine.” The return to Naples is discrete, a punctual moment. But the comparison is not. The punctual return is not compared to another simple punctual event, but to the having of an umbrella like that. And this temporal structure is not without parallel in the book itself—the just-mentioned oscillation, of course, but also the various slowly-changing backdrops against which the events of the novel take place. This means, most immediately, “the neighborhood” in Naples, the menacing backdrop of poverty and the camorra.

Of course this background is not unchanging. Indeed the most obvious themes of the novel are woven into the larger story of the Italian postwar. Lenù and Lila grow up literally in the wreckage of fascist Italy, which is always present, if poorly understood and rarely discussed by the adults. There is ambient violence--unexploded wartime ordinance both real and metaphorical. As the characters grow up, Italy is going through the postwar boom, the years of modernization. Parents who grew up without running water will see their children demand televisions. Lenù, Lila, and practically all their acquaintances are poor, provincial—their parents aren’t illiterate, for the most part, but their parents were. Lenù will get out, go to university, other characters will educate themselves and be educated in various ways.

Writing and language therefore hold a special place here. Do you speak in dialect? Do you speak Italian? Lenù’s return to Naples, described in the quote above, is marked by the famous linguistic in-between-ness of one who has escaped, or is trying to escape, her origins through education. She never entirely lost her Neapolitan accent at school in Pisa, but she no longer sounds right to her friends and family either. From the very beginning the two friends read and were enchanted not just by words, not just by writing, but by the cultural object that is a printed book. It seemed important, magical, a marker of success and power. The novel begins, of course, with Lenu’s decision to write, to record as much as she can about the existence of Lila—a sort of counter to Lila’s willful disappearance. This is a sort of violence inflicted through words. And we see many examples throughout the narrative. In writing, Lila hurts Lenù, makes her feel small and a failure. Characters are constantly mixing their words together. Of course, most important are the acts of co-creation between Lenù and Lila. But there is also Lenù and Nino, Lila and Nino. Not that this is constrained to verbal reproduction. Lila’s creativity is manifest constantly, is an active force in the world of the novel, she designs shoes, and the conflict over Lila’s photograph is an important plot point, as is her her desecration/creation in reworking it, its eventual destruction. Lenù, it seems, is always struggling with the possibility, the feeling, that indeed she is nothing more than another creation of Lila’s, even if we as readers see clearly that this isn’t so.

The novel is of course actuated by a vanishing act, but it is also full of acts of wanton destruction, importantly of written words. The narrator writes, ostensibly, to prevent Lila from really disappearing, and begins the narrative proper with the primordial act of violence in which the two girls throw away one another’s most prized possessions, their dolls. The second volume is given its whole emotional tenor, is haunted, by Lenù’s shocking destruction of Lila’s private journals. Then of course that volume ends with the appearance of Lenù’s novel, the reappearance of its ur-text, the novel Lila wrote as a child, and Lila’s own destruction, in the hellish meat-packing plant, of that object. All of these texts are defined and given agency, in the novel, as much by their audience, the moral authority of culture, as by their authors. For instance Lenù’s first article so freighted with emotion and given, to no obvious response, to Nino. Lila’s childhood production had deeply moved Lenù, but for whatever reason vanished for years, unremarked upon, not encouraged, by their teacher. Lila’s text, the production of which is treated by the narrative in a cursory way, like the treatment for an illness, is apparently impulsively given to a man in response to his proposal of marriage. It, too, vanishes for a little while, only to be taken up, accepted, published, by cultural authority.

Some bonds cannot be dissolved. Some situations, some people, cannot be escaped. It seems wrong, insufficient, to say that the relationship between Lenù and Lila is at the heart of the novel. Who is the brilliant friend? This is not a relationship, the word is too vapid. On every page, we have the force-field of Lila shaping Lenù’s life—and, for the reader, for the narrator, if not for Lenù in the narrative, we can see how the lines of force run in both directions. This novel is not, I think, going to be about how, ultimately, we learn not to be cruel. It is not a liberal novel, not a Bildungsroman, not a novel about making one’s self on one’s own, not about learning to be free. 

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Lilti contra Gordon

I want to tackle the next two pieces in RMEIH as a pair. They are, in order, Peter Gordon on “Contextualism and Criticism in the History of Ideas” and Antoine Lilti’s “Does Intellectual History Exist in France?” At the end of Lilti’s text, he responds to Gordon’s essay. (I am, incidentally, curious about how this sort of exchange is managed practically speaking). Gordon, Lilti writes,

defends the idea of approaching philosophical texts of the past with present-day preoccupations in mind, and he cautions against he danger of excessive contextualization. By contrast, the whole tradition of cultural history in France was built upon the premise...that an insurmountable distance separates the present of the historian from the past found in sources...This commitment to contextualization is what distinguishes the historian’s approach, and it cannot be abandoned without sacrificing the specific contributions that historians make to our understanding of cultural objects. (69)

Now, Lilti agrees with Gordon that “attentiveness to the temporality of knowledge is especially important for intellectual history,” and certainly also agrees that when confronting a given object, the intellectual historian must bear in mind what has become of this object between its initial creation and the historian’s engagement with it. Lilti’s example is Lucien Febvre’s classic account of Rabelais. Febvre’s work there is a pradigmatic insistence on the alterity of the past. But it was also premised on the continual presence of Rabelais in French cultural life between his 16th century and Febvre’s 20th. But, at least this is my reading, Lilti will not follow Gordon onto what looks to Lilti like philosophical, rather than historical terrain.
The two essays contrast in many ways. Lilti, although of course he generalizes and makes conceptual points, is basically concerned to synthesize historiography. He answers the question posed by his title in the affirmative, but explains why and how this is only relatively recently true. Gordon, in contrast, cites very few works of historiography. The essay is ostensibly primed by Skinner’s 1969 “Meaning and Understanding,” but the real interlocutor is German critical theory.

I may be projecting, but my sense is that Lilti is somewhat taken about by Gordon. The latter maintains, in his own words, that “intellectual historians should not endorse contextualism as a global and exhaustive theory of meaning, that is, the view that a specific context can fully account for all the potentialities of an idea” (33). Gordon insists that what he is against is contextualism understood as “the epistemological and normative (and implicitly metaphysical) premise that ideas are properly understood only if they are studied within the context of their initial articulation. This idea has for some time enjoyed a default status that quite often passes without argument or defense, since it is presumed to be merely the common sense of the profession at large” (36). Gordon proceeds to destroy this idea. And I entirely agree with him that it is debilitating in a number of ways, limiting and simply bad practice, to make such assumptions. I agree that the original temporally and geographically proximal context of articulation is not the exclusive or exhaustive bearer of meaning for an idea. On the other hand, I am not convinced that historians have ever seriously maintained that it was, or—and here Gordon agrees—acted like it was. Indeed I vividly retain the impression (if not exactly the memory) of reading Dominic LaCapra’s classic (anticontextualist?) extended list of possible contextualizations for a given text. That was written 30 years ago. And I am puzzled by Gordon’s use of the term “idea.” His essay is after all about the history of ideas, but it seems to me straightfowardly the case that intellectual historians work with many objects that they would not describe as “ideas,” a term that many, although of course not all, would regard with suspicion. In short, it seems to me that Gordon waves his hand over the gathered masses of intellectual historians to abstract from their practice a disavowed appalling metaphysics, but then, having dismantled this metaphysics, he admits that actually historians also do not act as though they believe it: “the irony is that, whenever they venture into a more critical style of analysis, intellectual historians typically violate the principles of exhaustive contextualism to which they claim allegiance” (51). No evidence is ever offered for such allegiance—unless the mere reference to Skinner’s programmatic essay. Perhaps if I went back and re-read Skinner, the objections would seem more just. As it is, I am somewhat at a loss. I am perhaps missing something. 

There is nonetheless much that is interesting in the way Gordon stages his argument. Particularly the issue of temporality. For Gordon, the strong contextualist (bad) position amounts to a containment and a slowing down. It finds its ultimate model in a Hegelian system, a closed system of Geist with its own logic, the spirit of the age. There may be events, but the flow of time itself is not disruptive. The critical perspective that Gordon wants to endorse is eruptive. It is a differential time, as opposed to a punctual one (the reference here is to Benjamin). I tend toward skepticism of temporality-talk. And yet reading Gordon made me want to go back and pick up the work of a philosopher radically at odds with the tradition on which Gordon relies: Herni Bergson. Bergson, after all, in a much more sustained way than Benjamin, attempted to think about a mode of temporality—la durée—that would be different from the regularized, essentially spatialized, time of the natural sciences. Indeed one might—I won’t here—juxtapose Gordon’s Benjaminian distinction between punctual and differential time to a Bergsonian one between duration and extension.

This brings us back to Lilti. He explains, in the broadest terms, why there isn’t anything like ‘intellectual history’ among the French academic disciplines. Startlingly for me—but sensibly—Lilti begins by pointing out that there was nothing comparable to the Italian and the German traditions of philology in France. So that “In France, the theory and practice of history has not been guided by a science of texts so much as by the tension between narrative and knowledge, and between literature and social science” (57). Parenthetically, I’ll point out that here we have Lilti speaking of texts, lamenting the epochal failure of French historians to attend to them as such, where Gordon spoke of ideas, drawing on an absolutely philosophical German tradition—not the philological one. However that may be, Lilti goes on to point out that, in France, the history of philosophy belonged fully to the philosophers, and so was carried out in a radically non-historical way (that is, decontextualized). It is not entirely wrong, although also not entirely fair, to lay all the blame at the feet of the Annales—Febvre, mentioned above, is an example of the potential openness of this tradition. In any case, most of what looks and feels like intellectual history in French has been written not by historians tout court, but by historians of literature. Standouts here include Daniel Mornet and Paul Hazard.

Far be it from me to argue with Antoine Lilti, but. I think it is telling that Foucault turns out to be unavoidable for Gordon as well as Lilti. Was Foucault merely an intellectual historian? I would suggest that it is more interesting to ask what traditions Foucault was drawing on to do whatever it was he was doing. At least part of this is the French tradition of philosophical engagement with science. This might be said to have begun in the later 19th century (and Bergson was an enemy for this tendency). In order to take the claims of science seriously, philosophers found that they had also to take seriously the historically variable nature of scientific truth. Variable according to what? At least sometimes, the rest of society. And in fact, even outside this subdiscipline, there were scholars trained as philosophers writings things that are very like intellectual history around 1900—I’m thinking of Élie Halévy on English Radicalism and Henry Michel’s L’Idée de l’État.  

Needless to say, I’m leaving aside much that is valuable here from both Gordon and Lilti. That Gordon has encouraged me to go back and read Bergson again (which actually I’m going to have to do for other reasons) is, according to some people, a terrible condemnation—but it pleases me. And Lilti’s essay—which, as all good historiographical/methodological essays should, has in its final footnote a citation for Lilti’s own brilliant reading of Rousseau—is one I would have liked to read perhaps before setting my prelim lists.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Lovejoy revived

"Return of the History of Ideas?"

When I began graduate school, I was very interested in method. Theoretical and methodological discussions about historiography seemed weighty, important. As I progressed with my own project, I became less interested in discussing method. It came to seem to me that most methodological questions were simply badly posed, or really hid (and then not very well) value judgments that had to do with what ought to be studied, or who ought to write, or something even more baldly political, rather than anything properly about how one should go about ‘doing history.’ Discussing method in the absence of a concrete project or problem came to seem to me pointless. Which it certainly is not, even if many particular instances of such discussion are.

I have been meaning to have a look at McMahon and Moyn’s edited volume Rethinking Modern European Intellectual History since shortly before it appeared in 2014. The book contains 14 essays by some quite excellent historians, and looks promising. At the moment I just want to set down some thoughts on having read Darrin McMahon’s essay, the first, “The Return of the History of Ideas?” The essay is, needless to say, erudite and rich. McMahon is especially effective as selecting the pungent quotation. For instance he cites Darnton objection to Mornet’s Origines intellectuels de la révolution française that it offered a “French filter coffee machine: it assumed that ideas trickled down...”(18). I’m not sure exactly what sort of machine Darnton has in mind, but it seems to me that a French press might function as a lovely metaphor. The ideas (the caffeine!) diffuse gently out from the texts (the grounds), which are more or less well distributed in the more or less hot milieu (the water). But the brew is only finished when the plunger (revolution? historiography?) clarifies and compresses the situation...

In any case, briefly put, McMahon wants to defend a new history of ideas—the name for Arthur Lovejoy’s much-maligned field. What this tends to mean in practice is books that follow a single idea through time. McMahon has himself written Happiness: A History and more recently Divine Fury: A History of Genius. I’ve read parts of the latter. This mode of doing history, McMahon says, seems to be returning. What does this mean? His essay proceeds by recounting first how Lovejoy’s history of ideas was “Unfashion[ed]”—that is, made unfashionable—and then what a newly fashionable such sub discipline might do for us. The first part looks on the one hand to Skinner and Pocock, and on the other to Darnton. Between the out-and-out hostility of the New Social History, this is to say, and the condescension of the Cambridge School, Lovejoy-ian history could not stand. McMahon is less concerned to narrate this process (there is so little space!) than to point out the degree to which the criticisms offered in the 70s and 80s were not particularly fair, especially when applied to Lovejoy’s actual scholarship rather than his methodological statements.

In the second part of McMahon’s essay, he identifies four “principles areas” in which the history of ideas, renewed as it seems to be by a recent “spate of monographs,” might be of use. The goal here is not, of course, to claim the imperial status that Lovejoy gave to—won for—the history of ideas. “Surely the days when historians fought over their dominions and parcels of turf like colonizing generals are behind us,” all we want, writes McMahon, is “a place on the map” (22). First, the newly racinated history of ideas should return to us one of the great strength’s of Lovejoy’s approach, which was to see the longue durée histories of ideas. Braudelian histories of ideas are needed “to open up sight lines and reveal connections that are potentially obscured by a more intense focus on immediate context” (23). Second, McMahon suggests that the history of ideas, as an effective counter to the tendency to provincialism built in to intensely contextual accounts, may be in a position to confront less fearfully the charge of presentism: “not all ideas are the prisoners of context, trapped in time, long ago defeated and dead. A certain historical presentism need not be a dirty word, and in fact at a time when humanists are continually being challenged to justify their “relevance,” presentism may be a useful strategy of survival.” After all, the best history always uses “the past to illuminate the present” (25). Third, the new history of ideas ought to be “eclectic,” drawing on all kinds of resources that neither Lovejoy, attuned mostly to philosophy, nor the Cambridge School, so focused on political and moral thought, bothered to interrogate. This seems to mean on the one hand crossing yet other disciplinary boundaries, but also into popular culture: “A revitalized history of ideas ought at the very least to be eclectic, reveling in the interdisciplinary ideal that first defined it, counting itself a citizen, though hardly a king, of infinite space” (26). This, McMahon understands, means manipulating lots of information necessarily at second hand. This suggests the fourth and final possible contribution, which is to bring “writerly craft” back to historiography. Intellectual historians, McMahon feels, have spent too much time worrying about the essential limits of language as such, and not enough time working to make their language more pleasing. McMahon’s example of excellence here is not Lovejoy, but Isaiah Berlin.  

About this last point I have mixed feelings. I suspect that I share much of McMahon’s frustrations with the nature of the debates that intellectual historians engaged in over the course of the 1980s. And I do think that the form of history is important. Obviously we should all be better writers. And yet I wince (I do not reach for my revolver) when academics make good writing a programmatic goal. Similarly, I agree that a thoughtful degree of presentism is no bad thing—although I think we probably already have this—but I do not like the suggestion that this is to be thought of as a “survival strategy.” Writing history, and all the more so intellectual history, for a broad audience is commendable, if extraordinarily difficult. But this is at best a goal for the individual, it is not a disciplinary goal. McMahon would, and rightly, protest that he is after all not telling everyone to write in this way, only trying to argue that longue durée, synoptic (a term I associated with Martin Jay, who is all over this essay), well-written accounts focused on a particular idea across diverse contexts, are useful. Let those flowers bloom! Just give us a spot on the map! And I could not disagree. Nor do I disagree that Lovejoy has come in for unjust abuse and that Berlin could sometimes write in a very powerful, engaging way. And I am not in a position to evaluate the collection of new monographs that McMahon has in mind. Holding a concrete example of such scholarship in my hands, I would want to think about how it handles causality. Thinking about the collection of such monographs, I would like to know what ideas they treat, and wonder if any conclusions about the tendency of the subfield to confirm or upset categories could be drawn from this list. Finally, I would be interested to hear more about the distinction—which I think McMahon would maintain—between scholarly monographs constructed along these lines and self-consciously popularizing books.

In any case, as I move forward through this volume—and there are at least four or five of the chapters I’ll certainly read—perhaps I’ll be able to pick up some of these questions in a different light.