Monday, November 17, 2014

The Western

Although it has not been my practice, I have decided to do a brief write-up of some of the panels I attended at the Western Society for French History this past weekend in San Antonio. I was, for various reasons, able to attend relatively few; and this is not so much a comprehensive report as a set of impressions. 

I will begin, because it is thematically distinct, with a panel from Saturday morning titled “Work, Freedom, and Markets.” David Allen Harvey spoke about Dupont de Nemours and the case he made—apparently extremely rare—for free rather than slave labor from a physiocratic point of view. So the paper, in essence, contextualized a single fragment of a longer text from the 1760s. Denise N. Rodriguez—who, unfortunately, as far as I know, did not get the credit she deserved for putting reference to The Clash in her title—spoke about a particular category of convicts (recidivists), in French Guiana. The heart of her paper was following and understanding the documentary trail of a few such individuals, mostly around the Caribbean but also to Latin America and Europe. Both papers, in their different ways, were great.

As Judith Coffin, the commentator, remarked, the papers demonstrated a great deal of continuity—surprising or not—between the 18th and the later 19th centuries. Certainly I was struck by this as well. There was continuity in problems of freedom—land and labor—as well as in attempts by empires to control movement. Maybe most striking, though, was the obsessive desire to found a white settler colony in the Caribbean, which persisted against what would appear to be all evidence against its plausibility. The audience comments confirmed my pre-existing belief that I should read Paul Chaney’s book, as well as Miranda Spieler’s Empire and Underworld.

But what surprised me most was the revival, during the discussion, of the very question that Dupont de Nemours was himself trying to answer: was slavery more profitable than free labor?  This question irks me. What exactly are the stakes of arguing today about the ‘profitability’ of slavery? Why would we, as historians in the 21st century, frame the question in this way? Clearly, the terms of the question matter a great deal. But it seems self-evident to me that, on the one hand, slavery was enormously profitable for some people and that, whatever other consequences might have flowed from employing only free labor, a different arrangement of political power would have been required. Of course Dupont de Nemours would reach for this argument if he thought he could make it. Of course the Radicals, and many of those in the penumbra of Bentham, who helped to administer the abolition of slavery in the British empire in the early 19th century, would think in these terms (I have been re-reading Holt’s Problem of Freedom). It’s a political argument, and these people are trying to make a political point. For the same reason I can see that the debate, within the United States, in some different forms, about the adaptability of chattel slavery as a mode of property relations, would be important well into the 20th century. But...what point are we trying to make, exactly? Is it still about hashing out Eric Williams? This is a line of questions that, perhaps, the audience would doubtless have objected to in useful ways.

Both of my co-presenters spoke on the interwar, and as it happened the other panel I saw on Saturday was also devoted to this topic. All five of these papers were rich. But the unifying theme, for me, was what I think it’s best to call the topos of language. Of course, already in the 1890s the symbolists were routinely accused of developing private languages. As two papers on arguments over painting (by Mattie Fitch and Mimi Luse) suggested, this accusation continued to be made against non-representational art, or art that was difficult in various ways, through the 1930s, both by the conservative Right and by supporters of socialist realism. Luse’s paper on the agonistic criticism of Camille Mauclaire and Louis Hourticq placed particular emphasis on this. For these conservatives, painting was a unified language, a tradition passed down from the classical world to the present. To destroy this old language by inventing new languages was literally to destroy civilization. Her summary (in my paraphrase): ‘rejection of artistic multiplicity was itself a rejection of the pluralism of the Third Republic.’ So language is here tied to representationality, and that to community (either national or, for the Stalinists, popular). There is (or was), emphatically, a politics of form.

Music, papers by Matt Friedman and Richard Sonn pointed out, has long occupied a special place precisely because it is supposed to escape representationality in a way that painting is supposed to be unable to do (that terrible sentence is, itself, supposed to mark my skepticism). Friedman’s paper, on the French formation of American modernism, dealt with a historiographic landscape (American musical modernism) almost totally foreign to me. Still, I took away the argument that what really united-in-diversity this group of American composers was not so much a common training as a common community, or maybe better, social scene. Although no one pushed him on it, it seemed to me that Friedman was offering something like a Randall Collins-style explanation of the explosion of different tendencies that emerged within something like the same group. Competition for attention and distinction both forged a shared identity and encouraged difference. Only so much attention-space to go around in the American press. To put it this way does an injustice to the empirical wealth of the paper, but captures, I hope, something of the argumentation. I was struck also by the materiality and sociality of music in this paper. Americans had not heard experimental European music in the early 20th century because even in this, our first globalization, neither scores nor the (technically possible?) recordings had arrived on this side of the Atlantic. That situation is difficult to imagine today, and surely not the case with literature or even, more surprisingly, the visual arts. Richard Sonn’s paper, which compressed a great deal of rich material into 20 minutes, was rooted socially in the social world of Jewish immigrants to Paris in the interwar (Marc Chagall, centrally), and conceptually in the visual representation of music. As Dan Sherman suggested, there is a worthwhile distinction to be made between representations of people performing music (Chagall’s green fiddler on the roof), and music itself (as in more futurist and abstract paintings, Klée, for instance, or Kandinsky). Still, though, the point is that the music escapes the language even of the canvas—music is a marker for the transcendent, extra-linguistic, experience for which painting can only hope. Now, one of the themes of Sonn’s paper was the concrete ethnic (for lack of a better word) location and meaning of much of this music—Klezmer, but also, and interestingly, the bal négre of the 1920s. Which brings me to Nick Underwood’s paper. Underwood hooks the reader with the very idea of Parisian theater critics writing about work performed in a language—Yiddish—that they could not understand. The political context—an attempt from the left to combat widespread antisemitism among its constituents—seems determinate. But the concept at work is that true art, effective art, transcends language. Both these papers evidence situations in which we go wrong in looking for a politics of form.

This is not a question with which I have approached even the pre-1914 years. Yet it seems to me that despite the ‘private language’ accusations against symbolists, language itself is not nearly such a significant metaphor or figure with which to understand art in the prewar period. So, granting for a moment the validity of this general impression from a clutch of papers about the interwar, the question is, why? This is large and very likely poorly framed question. We could punt and say that this has something to do with modernism (doesn’t everything?). My initial suggestion would be that this increased attention to language and the linguistic, in the interwar, is a response to the perception that technological imperatives had come to dominate social ones. Language, as a way to mark, construct, and contest, community, had surely been a feature of the 19th century—in the 20th it became available as a metaphorical resource for artists in polemic with one another. Relevant here is obviously a whole slurry of German philosophy (Cassirer and Heidegger), and in the French context the national-linguistic connection. In any case, this is a question that I’ll take into reading Tim Brennan’s Borrowed Light. And surely the best thing one can say of a conference—especially of parts of a conference, is that one left it with questions.

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