The Great Art

By guest contributor Adrian Young

One can hardly imagine a more audacious ambit for a museum exhibit than that of the Staatlische Museen zu Berlin’s new show, Alchemy: the Great Art, now at the Kulturforum. In the curators’ words:

“Alchemy is a creation myth and therefore intimately related to artistic practice – this idea permeates all eras and cultures, shaping Alchemy’s theoretical underpinnings as well as artistic creativity. An exhibition dedicated to the art of Alchemy is consequently predestined for the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, whose diverse collections stretch over time from pre- and early history to the present. Alchemy is a universal theme for a universal museum”

As if to underpin its universal sweep, that thesis is inscribed on a wall above Matthäus Merian the Elder’s beautiful image of the cosmos, published in 1617.  Here, the position of the heavens above, the earth below, and humanity in between are assured within a hierarchy ordained by the divine unity of creation. The planets correspond to metals and vice versa, mercury for Mercury, at once products and signifiers of the same heavenly power.

L0029108 R. Fludd, Utriusque cosmi maioris scilicet...

Robert Fludd, Utriusque cosmi maioris scilicet et minoris metaphysica, physica atque technica historia (1617-1618). (Image courtesy of the Wellcome Library)

From this document, and from the assemblage of some 200 remarkable objects like it, spanning continents and millennia, we are meant to learn something of the universal creative ambition that drove alchemy as a global, timeless, and human craft. As a creative practice, the ars magna (or “great art,” to use alchemy’s medieval European appellation) wedded the pursuit of beauty and the pursuit of knowledge within the same practical tradition. It was only after the advent of Enlightenment rationality obscured their longstanding relationship that art and science seemed to diverge into bifurcating paths. However, though we rational moderns may have lost sight of a creative unity the pre-moderns knew well, by assembling the material culture of a deep alchemical past alongside the artistic products of a scientifically minded present, the exhibit suggests that “art” and “science” need be understood as separate enterprises. Rather, it claims, we have always been modern. We have always sought truth and beauty alike in the manipulation and transformation of material things. Creators have always been alchemists.

It is a seductive and tantalizing notion. Historians might chafe instinctively at claims of universality, as I did when I read the exhibit’s opening scrawl—“this idea permeates all eras and cultures”? But why not? One is inclined to indulge the thought, at least for a moment, while examining the treasures assembled here. And there are treasures. A ding, or ritual cauldron, from thirteenth-century BCE China still draws viewers in with a ring of intricately rendered cicadas; the metamorphosis of these insects suggest that a similar same property of transformation operated inside this metal crucible, and in remains at work in crucibles like it in laboratories and workshops the world over. Wall scrolls by sixteenth-century Daoist artist Lu Zhi depict the search for truth as the work of gathering herbs in the mountains. These hang near sixteenth-century European allegorical representations of the mountainous earth as a temple in which to mine divine knowledge.  Alchemical correspondences abound.

Whether these artifacts were products of “art” or “science” is of course a nonsensical question. Indeed, the exhibition reminds its visitors that artists and alchemists were practitioners of allied creative crafts, which they often plied in the same princely courts. A small work by Hans Jakob Sprüngli from the early seventeenth century drives that point home well. In his “Venus and Armor against the backdrop of renaissance architecture,” painted figures are ensconced in a field of gold leaf and stained glass. Master artists, like master alchemists, relied on an intimate, practical, and embodied knowledge of the materials from which they produced their works of truth or beauty. Artists today are much the same in their attention to material things, an alchemical affinity they even share with contemporary scientists. Think of Joseph Beuys, for instance, whose works are represented in the exhibition by a 1986 offprint displaying his “goldkuchen.” In Beuys’s use of fur, fat, and gold, physical objects became agents of affect, begetting emotional reactions and transformations. Pieces by a younger generation of artists do much the same. Sara Shönfeldt’s 2013 series “All You Can Feel (Maps)” is an object lesson in the commonalities of practice between science and art. Shönfeldt placed dissolved chemical compounds like the recreational drug MDMA onto pretreated negatives which, once developed produced full-color portraits of chemicals. Their crystalline browns and greens are reminiscent of minerals or landscapes, feeling simultaneously geological and geographical.  It is a use of darkroom technology that recalls earlier work by Walter Ziegler and Heinz Hajek-Halke, also represented in the gallery. Photography and its attendant chemical techniques long provided a practical if little-celebrated bridge between the hands-on work of art and science. Can we meaningfully call those shared practices alchemy? The genealogy, here at least, is manifest.

Continuities with the past need not be happy ones. Deep in the heart of the exhibit, in its lower level, lurks the specter of the homunculus. The artificial being, made living by the alchemist’s manipulation of inanimate matter is also evoked here to suggest alchemical practice’s persistence into our present.  Underscoring the idea’s lingering presence in the popular imagination, images of Frankenstein’s monster sit next to a copy of Japanese graphic novel Full Metal Alchemist. That the notion of a monstrous artificial life still haunts us powerfully reinforces the exhibition’s argument; in our era of genetically modified and artificial life, one of alchemy’s chief ambitions is enacted daily in scientific practice. At the center of the “Homonculus” section is one of the “Ripley Scrolls,” on loan from the Getty and one of the exhibition’s most arresting objects. Unwound inside a twenty-foot-long case, it becomes the body of arcane alchemical knowledge now splayed open for visitors. However, the exhibit which most monstrously evokes the grotesque possibilities of alchemical transformation might well be on the floor above, where another of Sara Schönfeldt’s pieces melds scientific and artistic practice. “Hero’s Journey (Lamp)” (2014) stores urine inside a large glass tank, lit by lamps on both sides. The light only penetrates so far through the liquid murk, fading from amber to blood red before disappearing in a dark center of clotted black.

By assembling in one gallery historical objects and art pieces from across time and space, the exhibition attempts a kind of curatorial alchemy, building a synthesis from diverse elements. Like most grand experiments, it falls somewhat short. Though the SMB is indeed a universal museum, Europe’s heritage dominates. While the exhibit proffers alchemy as a universal mode of creation, there are no representative objects from the New World, sub-Saharan Africa, or Oceania with which to substantiate such a claim. East Asian objects appear much more frequently–the Museum für Asiatische Kunst is the source of a number of fascinating exhibits– though these sometimes seem to reaffirm Western narratives. A section on the “chemical wedding” is a case in point. In a famous alchemical allegory, male and female, corresponding to mercury and sulfur, are bonded and give rise to a hermaphroditic compound.  It was a notion that originated with Jābir ibn Hayyān and spread in alchemical texts throughout the Mediterranean world, though we see it represented directly only by Western European artifacts. However, we are told that the idea shared an affinity with the wedding of opposites in other traditions—enter a bronze sculpture depicting the marriage of Shiva and Parvati from late eighteenth- or early nineteenth- century Madurai, which gestures at similar alchemical dualities in the Hindu world. The bronze’s precise relation to “alchemy” is sadly unexplained; rather,  we are left to ponder the exact global unities between such dualities on our own.

Those artifacts which do receive closer temporal or spatial framings are all the more compelling for it, even if the resulting narratives are in tension with the exhibition’s universal aspirations. Assertions of timeless continuity might productively trouble our understanding of science and art in the present, but historians of science have long offered more circumscribed historically situated assertions of continuity between alchemy, chymistry, and chemistry. In this show, too, the artifacts that best challenge the too-neat dichotomies that seem to separate modernity and reason from premodernity and magic are those that speak evocatively of their own historical moments. Take, for instance, that eminently enlightenment document, the Encyclopedie, whose entry “Chemie” is represented by Louis-Jacques Goussier’s engraving “Laboratoire et Table des Reports,” (1771).  Here, a table arranges the traditional signs for the elements, rationally ordering notations inherited from alchemy. Or, better, take the image of Sigismund Bacstrom’s “Apparatus to attract the Lunar Humidity” in Johan Freiderich Fleischer’s 1797 Chemical Moonshine, on loan from the Getty. Here, the glassware of the empirical chemical laboratory (an alchemical inheritance, to be sure) is turned toward the goal of capturing the fleeting essence of moonlight itself. It evokes Yoko Ono, but gestures even more strongly toward the tumultuous, contingent, and fleeting worlds that existed on the edges of the chemical revolution.

Adrian 2 Chemical Moonshine 10_1024

Sigismund Bacstrom (German, ca. 1750–1805), “Device for Distilling Lunar Humidity,” ink and watercolor in Johan Friedrich Fleischer, “Chemical Moonshine,” trans. Sigismund Bacstrom, 1797, frontispiece. 950053.4.1 (Image courtesy of the Getty Research Institute.)


 Was I ultimately taken in by the allure of the exhibition’s universal aspiration? More than I might have expected. Assertions of similarity between art and science abound in books and museum exhibits, perhaps less because we aim to bridge C.P. Snow’s two cultures and more because we in the fragile arts hope to ally with the slightly sturdier sciences in this era of shrinking funding and diminishing respect for the academy.  Alchemy, by focusing our attention on the practical knowledge required by the work of creation, suggests genuine and overlooked affinities. I am inclined to understand those commonalities as the product of a shared, historically and regionally specific genealogy. But no matter. If the ideal of a common and universal human creative impulse can compel us to study the rich material heritage of the alchemical past, or indeed any past, then all to the good. Like the elusive philosopher’s stone, perhaps the ambition itself is of less consequence than the things learned in yearning for it. What’s more, artists and alchemists alike have long known what some historians have only recently rediscovered: that objects can speak with a vocabulary the written word does not always afford. In this exhibit, aesthetic objects, whether contemporary sculptures or scientific plates, evoke their pasts with a remarkable richness. As windows into the practical histories of alchemy and art, these materials, whatever their ordering, exude a transformative power of their own.

“Alchemy: The Great Art” is on view at the Kulturforum in Berlin until the 23rd of July, 2017.

Adrian Young is a postdoctoral fellow at the Berlin Center for the History of Knowledge, where he is revising his dissertation “Mutiny’s Bounty: Pitcairn Islanders and the Making of a Natural Laboratory on the Edge of Britain’s Pacific Empire” for publication. Though not a historian of alchemy by any stretch, he maintains an abiding interest in material culture and object lessons.

Failure and Fantasy on the Banks of the Ohio

A Conversation with Benjamin Hoffmann, Assistant Professor of Early Modern French Studies at The Ohio State University and editor of a new edition of the Letters Written from the Banks of the Ohio by Claude-François-Adrien de Lezay-Marnésia (Pennsylvania State University Press, translated by Alan J. Singerman, 2017)

In 1790, Claude-François-Adrien de Lezay-Marnésia left France to found a colony on the Scioto River, a tributary of the Ohio in the Northwest Territory. Yet by 1792, he had fled, his fortune squandered and his grandiose plans for an aristocratic utopia unrealized. This new edition of his letters, penned in 1790 and 1791, reveals a man purposefully, somewhat pathetically, imagining a pastoral idyll in the Old Northwest as the realities of the Ohio Country increasingly resisted his vision.Image 1 Book cover

His letters, as Benjamin Hoffmann explains, can be read as a bridge between two very
well-known French texts about North America: Crèvecœur’s 1789 Letters from an America Farmer and Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (1835-1840). Together, they trace a literary evolution of the United States in French thought from a clean slate of possibility to an uncivilized, capitalist, and deeply flawed republic.

What follows is part of my conversation with Hoffmann on the themes of Lezay-Marnésia as a tragic figure, fantasy and colonization, and competing imaginaries of the Ohio Valley.


Julia: What made you want to edit and re-publish this volume?

Benjamin: This project started in 2011, as I was undertaking my doctoral dissertation at Yale. Being French in the United States, I wanted to investigate the representations of America in French Literature during the eighteenth century. The problem I immediately encountered was the extreme abundance of materials: dozens of travel narratives were written by French people about North America during the age of the enlightenment. Unfortunately, in too many cases, they are not very artfully written, and they present at best a documentary interest. Consequently, while it was easy to find texts fitting in the category of “French representations of America written between 1700 and 1800”, few writers transformed their experience in the New World into a genuine work of art. The Lettres écrites des rives de l’Ohio struck me because they are an exception to this rule. First, they are the work of a mature writer, a man who was in his late fifties when he published them, after spending most of his adult life reading the work of fellow philosophers and building his own œuvre. Indeed, Lezay-Marnésia was a talented polygraph, the author of philosophical essays, poems, short-stories, translations, even works on mineralogy. In 1790, when he traveled to the United States, he had already a long intellectual career behind him. Moreover, his Letters Written from the Banks of the Ohio pursue a dialogue with Montesquieu, Fénelon, Saint-Pierre, and Rousseau by making numerous references to their works and asking a question they all spent a great deal of time meditating: what makes a perfect society and how can you create one in the real world rather than just imagining it? This intellectual dialogue plays a major part in the literary and philosophical richness of Lezay-Marnésia’s volume, which is a late reinterpretation of some of the major preoccupations of the French enlightenment. A question immediately comes to mind after reading the story of Lezay-Marnésia’s emigration to the Northwest territory: his journey was a complete failure, a true disaster, he lost most of his fortune, two years of his life, and finally decided to go back to France at the most dangerous moment for an aristocrat, just before the terreur. And yet, despite all his hardships, Lezay-Marnésia keeps describing the Scioto region and western Pennsylvania as a true paradise, a sort of lost Eden he deeply regrets having left.

Julia: Why did French émigrés like Lezay-Marnésia choose the Northwest Territory instead of culturally “French” places in North America, like Spanish Louisiana or British Quebec?

Benjamin: Lezay-Marnésia and his compatriots chose the Northwest Territory based on false assumptions. The most important one was the assumption that it was an empty space. Indeed, we have to realize that the Northwest Territory had just been surveyed, and that very little was known about it in Europe. When Lezay-Marnésia bought lands in this region, he only knew what the Scioto Company told him about it, and most of the information he received turned out to be misleading at best, and at times completely dishonest. For example, the Scioto Company failed to mention the presence of Native American tribes in the region: in the several documents provided by the Scioto Company to its clients, Amerindians are not mentioned a single time, whereas they turned out to be the biggest challenge French settlers were going to meet in their attempt to create a colony. Consequently, the Scioto Company slyly conveyed the idea that the Northwest Territory was a clean slate where its clients would be able to organize themselves the way they wanted to, by adopting the rules and the social organization they desired. That was especially appealing for Lezay-Marnésia and his partners of the Society of the Twenty-Four, who thought an ideal French society could be realized in this isolated space: a society that would retain some of the basic structural elements of the Old Regime (especially, a strong hierarchical divide between social classes), while creating a new kind of social contract, based on philanthropy. That’s why the Scioto region had advantages over other potential spaces of emigration, such as Spanish Louisiana and British Quebec: it was more than just a space to temporarily settle and wait until the end of the Revolution before going back to France; it was seen as a permanent settlement, close enough to trade with the United States, but far away enough to create an independent society on a territory that was not yet an official part of the Union. Moreover, the land was quite affordable for French people, and a lot was for sale: if the least well-off buyers acquired only several acres, the richest ones bought thousands (Lezay-Marnésia acquired no less than twenty thousand acres!). Very astutely, the Scioto Company played with the fears of French people who were witnessing the first events of the Revolution, while offering them at an extremely competitive price a quantity of land none of them would have been able to buy in their homeland.

Image 2 Map

A map of the Federal Territory from the western boundary of Pennsylvania to the Scioto River, Manasseh Cutler, 1788. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division. This 1788 map shows imagined townships and township subdivisions between the Ohio and Scioto Rivers, where the Ohio Company had purchased pre-emption rights. Lezay-Marnésia and his associates in France bought parts of these pre-emption rights under the false impression that they were complete ownership rights.

Julia: Lezay-Marnésia’s vision for his Scioto colony is one in which hardworking settlers are “careful to include Indians among them” (69). His pointed insistence on their inclusion – based on an imagined racial hierarchy and an expectation that Native Americans would adopt European customs – strikes me as bittersweetly naïve, especially given the incredible violence between whites and Native Americans in the Ohio Country in this era. Do you read Lezay-Marnésia’s inclusion of Native Americans as a response to this cultural climate (however impractical), or does it just further betray his disconnection from reality on the ground?

Benjamin: I believe it betrays his disconnection from reality. Indeed, Lezay-Marnésia knew very little about America before deciding to emigrate to the Scioto region, and the little he knew was taken from his reading of the Lettres d’un cultivateur américain by Saint-John de Crèvecœur, a work very much influenced by Rousseau, where Native American are depicted as “bons sauvages”, living in perfect harmony with white settlers. I think it’s difficult to overestimate the influence of the concepts of “noble savages” and “state of nature” on the writings of eighteenth-century novelists and philosophers such as Crèvecœur, Lezay-Marnésia, but also Brissot, Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, and so many others. Rousseau used these concepts as thought experiments, as theoretical artifacts, in order to imagine what happened before the creation of complex human societies. But these concepts became so wildly popular that they ceased to be used the way Rousseau intended to employ them: they were taken more and more literally, as if they were describing real people, living at a prelapsarian state that one could still witness outside Europe, something believed by Bougainville and other French explorers. Lezay-Marnésia is a striking example of these disciples of Rousseau who outlived their master and saw the world through the mediation of his works. What fascinates me is the fact he did not try to communicate this troubling experience of alterity, but insisted on representing Native Americans the way he imagined them when he was still in France. Traveling, in a way, was completely useless: in his case, it did not change who he was or what he thought he knew, he even had to forget about it to repeat what he would have said if he had stayed at home. I read this phenomenon as one of the many indications of the therapeutic nature of his literary work: representing things and people as you wish they were, instead of the way you know they are, is a way to come to terms with the almost unbearable disappointments you can experiment. It also proves the outstanding power of literature, that becomes a tool to create an alternative reality corresponding to your wishes and hopes. But when you drop the quill, you have to face reality: that’s why the third of the Letters Written from the Banks of the Ohio is so long, because Lezay-Marnésia cannot bear to stop writing, which would break the spell, so he keeps describing these quite absurd (and at the same time, quite beautiful) scenes of rural banquets, where Native Americans, rich and poor settlers alike, all share a moment of common happiness, enjoying together the beauty of nature and the prosperity of their colony. Of course, this is a pure fantasy, where the point of view of the Amerindians is absolutely not taken into consideration. Lezay-Marnésia just assumes they will be kind and obedient subjects. But I think it’s an illusion he cultivated while he was writing, because it was just too hard for him to accept that he had spent nearly the totality of his once gigantic fortune, risked his life, left at home his wife and two of his children, and spent so much energy, before heading back to France, ruined and bitter. Consequently, this disconnection from reality is in a way self-induced: it’s not madness, or stupidity, it has more to do with finding a way to grieve a world he did not manage to create.

Julia: In addition to a white settler fantasy in which Native Americans had been exterminated, Lezay-Marnésia’s Ohio utopia made me think of the Native American prophets Neolin (Lenape), and later, Tenskwatawa (Shawnee), who also imagined a possible world in the Ohio Country, in which Native Americans would achieve a purified unity through their rejection of European culture and lifeways. Unlike Lezay-Marnésia’s, theirs were distinctively exclusive visions in which settlers and Native Americans could not and would not co-exist. What does it mean to consider Lezay-Marnésia’s utopian Aigle-Lys not just as part of a genre of French visions of the U.S., but as one of several competing imaginaries about the same place? His certainly co-existed in the Ohio Country with a white settler fantasy in which Native Americans have been exterminated, and a prophetic Native American vision in which whites have been expelled and their culture rejected. We might want to explain Lezay-Marnésia’s penchant for fantasy as a result of his being a distant émigré, but what if those much closer to the ground also saw Scioto as an imaginary space?

Benjamin: Not only can we read Lezay-Marnésia’s utopia as part of several competing imaginary appropriations of this land, but also as one of many competing geopolitical projects. Indeed, the vast territory where he wanted to build Aigle-Lys was coveted by several super-powers at the end of the eighteenth century. Great Britain still held several key military positions in the region; Native American tribes fought to keep the control on their ancestral lands, in particular the Miamis and the Shawnees; the American government was planning the westward expansion of the United States; even the French government had views on this place, since the Girondins aimed to create sister-republics in the region, sharing political and commercial interests with France. So, there was a fierce competition, not only of imaginaries as you observed, but also of power and political projects. To comment on this phenomenon, I would venture two possible explanations. The obvious one has to do with a sense of opportunity: the political status of this region was still uncertain, and to ambitious powers, it looked as a place free for the taking. Let’s not forget that France, just a few years later, when it got back Louisiana from Spain thanks to the treaty of San Ildefonso (1800), for a moment imagined to recreate its empire in North America. We know how things turned out – the purchase of Louisiana in 1801 definitely put an end to this dream – but for the contemporaries, there was still the sense that what we know would become part of the United States, could still belong to a European power. But there is another explanation that has to do with the specificity of the landscape, I think. This region, especially Ohio, is very flat: in a way, it is a sort of natural embodiment of the concept of the “clean slate”, a vast space, where anything is possible, where utopias can freely flourish. It has an idyllic aspect in many places, and, precisely, the comparison between the Ohio region and the garden of Eden was repeated by several French writers, including Crèvecœur and Lezay-Marnésia. It is as if the Ohio landscape was a kind of canvas where the boldest imaginations of the human mind could be projected while simultaneously leading to an association with very ancient fantasies, such as the dream of recreating the golden age. For Lezay-Marnésia, there was certainly no limit to what he thought possible: he imagined Aigle-Lys – even if he never articulates the political relation of this growing colony with the American government – as the center of a future empire, an empire he compares to a hive sending its swarms to colonize the almost boundless American space…

Image 3 Portrait.jpg

Tenskwatawa (The Prophet) 1768-1837, by Henry Inman (1801-1846), after Charles Bird King, c. 1830-1833. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Julia: By way of concluding, I’d like to push this final point on the inclusion of Native American visions of the Ohio Valley a bit further. As Gregory Dowd demonstrates so well in A Spirited Resistance, broadly accepted ideas for Native self-determination and resistance—often based in theories of separate creation between Euro-Americans and Native Americans—proliferated throughout the Old Northwest from the 1760s on ( Gregory E. Dowd, “Thinking and Believing: Nativism and Unity in the Ages of Pontiac and Tecumseh,” American Indian Quarterly 16, no. 3 (1992): 309–350). Spiritual theories fused with political action in the form of, for example, the Shawnee prophet Tenskwatawa’s 1806 invitation to all Indian peoples to join him in settling the town of Greenville, Ohio. This imagined community forms an intriguing counterpoint to Lezay-Marnésia’s own planned town (ibid., 312). In reading Dowd’s writing about Tenskwatawa and his brother Tecumseh’s visions for the Ohio Country, I found that your characterization of it as a place that feels both ancient and full of potential possibility seems to fit very appropriately into what they hoped for and preached of. More generally, I’d also propose that including Native Americans as visionaries may allow a broader and more complex picture of these connections between fantasy, politics, and place to emerge. It frames Native Americans as more than reactive defenders of ancestral territories who didn’t have the power or luxury to transcend pragmatism.

The third competing imaginary for the Old Northwest during this era was, of course, the United States project of imposing the Public Lands Survey System grid. The Ohio Valley was the first place that the U.S. tried out this attempt at regular, linear township squares, and they often appeared on maps long before they appeared on the ground. Thus, the 1788 map of neatly delineated townships squares represented an imagined future, not a present reality.

In an important sense, all three projects—Lezay-Marnésia’s Aigle-Lys, Tenskwatawa’s Greenville, and the PLSS.—these were all imaginative projects involving an element of fantasy, but they also represented very real geo-political designs. Lezay-Marnésia’s might seem the most fantastical because it failed so spectacularly, but even though the United States project of imposing the PLSS succeeded didn’t make it necessarily less imaginary in its nascent stage. For Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa, whose visions of the Old Northwest also met with failure, the power of fantasy and the reality of defending and protecting land were intimately intertwined. Can we ever draw clean conceptual lines between geopolitical contests and imaginative visions?

Julia Lewandoski is a doctoral student at the University of California, Berkeley. Her dissertation considers the impact of imperial transitions on indigenous landholding in eighteenth and nineteenth-century Quebec, Louisiana, and California.

What We’re Reading: Week of May 15

Here are a few interesting articles and pieces we found around the web this week. If you come across something that other intellectual historians might enjoy, please let us know in the comments section.


Suzanne Koven, “On Desire and Disease” (LARB)

Eimear McBride, “‘It gets people killed’: Osip Mandelstam and the perils of writing poetry under Stalin” (New Statesman)

Catherine Merridale, “Living, eating and dreaming revolution” (New Statesman)

Priyamvada Natarajan, “Calculating Women” (NYRB)

Robert O. Darnton, “A Parliament of Owls” (NYRB)



Dan Fox, “Signs of the Times: Mark Bradford at the Venice Biennale” (Frieze)

Madeleine Thien, “The Land in Winter” (Granta)

Hannah Black, “Review: We Wanted a Revolution” (4Columns)

Kellie Jones and LaToya Ruby Frazier, “The Unfinished Work of the Civil Rights Movement” (Aperture)



LD Burnett, In the Books (USIH)

Zachary Bampton, Do You Speak Princetonian? The Language of Princeton (Mudd Manuscript Library Blog), an interesting slice of 19th-century American college life

Andrew Hartman, To the Finland Station (USIH)

Jacob Mikanowski, Goodbye, Eastern Europe! (LARB)



Kevin B. Anderson, ‘Slavery, War, and Revolution,’ (Jacobin)

Emile Chabal, ‘Les intellectuels et la crise de la démocratie,’ (Pouvoirs)

Nelson Lichtenstein, ‘Judith Stein, 1940-2017,’ (Dissent)

Christoph Menk, interviewed by Thomas Assheuer, ‘Unsere Zerrissenheit ist doch das Beste an der Moderne, was wir haben!’  (zeitonline)

Samuel Moyn, Thomas Pink, John Finnis, Lorenzo Zucca, ‘Symposium of Christian Human Rights,’ (King’s Law Journal)



Alex Tizon, “My Family’s Slave” (The Atlantic)

Fresh Air (Podcast), “A ‘Forgotten History’ Of How The U.S. Government Segregated America” (with author Richard Rothstein)

Stephen Kantrowitz, “Refuge for Fugitives” (Boston Review)


Andreas Klein, Zwischen Grenzbegriff und absoluter Metapher. Hans Blumenbergs Absolutismus der Wirklichkeit (Ergon, 2017)

Martin Burckhardt, Eine kleine Geschichte der Digitalisierung (Merkur)

Peter Ackroyd, The Romantics – Nature (BBC documentary)

Roman Bucheli, Wir rühren uns – mit Flügelschlägen. Rilke in Russland (NZZ)

Roland Reuß, Engagierte Pfadfinder. Bei Kieser in Schwetzingen [portrait of a famous bookstore near Heidelberg] (


Between Conservatism and Fascism in Troubled Times: Der Fall Bernhard

by guest contributor Steven McClellan

The historian Fritz K. Ringer claimed that for one to see the potency of ideas from great thinkers and to properly situate their importance in their particular social and intellectual milieu, the historian had to also read the minor characters, those second and third tier intellectuals, who were barometers and even, at times, agents of historical change nonetheless. One such individual who I have frequently encountered in the course of researching my dissertation, was the economist Ludwig Bernhard. As I learned more about him, the ways in which Bernhard formulated a composite of positions on pressing topics then and today struck me: the mobilization of mass media and public opinion, the role of experts in society, the boundaries of science, academic freedom, free speech, the concentration of wealth and power and the loss of faith in traditional party politics. How did they come together in his work?

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Ludwig Bernhard (1875-1935; Bundesarchiv, Koblenz Nl 3 [Leo Wegener], Nr. 8)

Bernhard grew up in a liberal, middle-class household. His father was a factory owner in Berlin who had converted from Judaism to Protestantism in 1872. As a young man, Bernhard studied both Munich and Berlin under two-heavyweights of the German economic profession: Lujo Brentano and Gustav Schmoller. Bernhard found little common ground with them, however. Bernhard’s friend, Leo Wegener, best captured the tension between the young scholar and his elders. In his Erinnerungen an Professor Ludwig Bernhard (Poznań: 1936, p. 7), Wegener noted that “Schmoller dealt extensively with the past,” while the liberal Brentano, friend of the working class and trade unions, “liked to make demands on the future.” Bernhard, however, “was concerned with the questions of the present.” He came to reject Schmoller and Brentano’s respective social and ethical concerns. Bernhard belonged to a new cohort of economists who were friendly to industry and embraced the “value-free” science sought by the likes of Max Weber. They promoted Betriebswirtschaft (business economics), which had heretofore been outside of traditional political economy as then understood in Germany. Doors remained closed to them at most German universities. As one Swiss economist noted in 1899, “appointments to the vacant academical [sic] chairs are made as a rule at the annual meetings of the ‘Verein für Socialpolitik’,” of which Schmoller was chairman from 1890-1917. Though an exaggeration, this was the view held by many at the time, given the personal relationship between Schmoller and one of the leading civil servants in the Prussian Ministerium der geistlichen, Unterrichts- und Medizinalangelegenheiten (Department of Education, church and medical affairs), Friedrich Althoff.

Part of Bernhard’s early academic interest focused on the Polish question, particularly the “conflict of nationalities” and Poles living in Prussia. Unlike many other contemporary scholars and commentators of the Polish question, including Max Weber, Bernhard knew the Polish language. In 1904 he was appointed to the newly founded Königliche Akademie in Posen (Poznań). In the year of Althoff’s death (1908), the newly appointed Kultusminister Ludwig Holle created a new professorship at the University of Berlin at the behest of regional administrators from Posen and appointed Bernhard to it. However, Bernhard’s placement in Berlin was done without the traditional consultation of the university’s faculty (Berufungsverfahren).

The Berliner Professorenstreit of 1908-1911 ensued with Bernhard’s would-be colleagues, Adolph Wagner, Max Sering and Schmoller protesting his appointment. It escalated to the point that Bernhard challenged Sering to a duel over the course lecture schedule for 1910/1911, the former claiming that his ability to lecture freely had been restricted. The affair received widespread coverage in the press, including attracting commentaries from notables, such as Max Weber. At one point, just before the affair seemed about to conclude, Bernhard published an anonymous letter in support of his own case, which was later revealed that he was in fact the author. This further poisoned the well with his colleagues. The Prussian Abgeordnetenhaus (Chamber of Deputies) would debate the topic: the conservatives supported Bernhard and the liberal parties defended the position of the Philosophical Faculty. Ultimately, Bernhard would keep his Berlin post.


Satire of the Professorenstreit (click for larger image)

The affair partly touched upon the threat of the political power and the freedom of the Prussian universities to govern themselves—a topic that Bernhard himself extensively addressed in the coming years. It also concerned the rise of the new discipline of “business economics” gaining a beachhead at German secondary institutions. Finally, the Professorenstreit focused on Bernhard himself, an opponent of much of what Schmoller and his colleagues in the Verein für Socialpolitik stood for. He proved pro-business and an advocate of the entrepreneur. Bernhard also showed himself a social Darwinist, deploying biological and psychological language, such as in his analysis of the German pension system in 1912. He decried what he termed believed the “dreaded bureaucratization of social politics.” Bureaucracy in the form of Bismarck’s social insurance program, Bernhard argued, diminished the individual and blocked innovation, allowing the workers to become dependent on the state. Men like Schmoller, though critical at times of the current state of Prussian bureaucracy, still believed in its potential as an enlightened steward that stood above party-interests and acted for the general good.

Bernhard could never accept this view. Neither could a man who became Bernhard’s close associate, the former director at Friedrich Krupp AG, Alfred Hugenberg. Hugenberg was himself a former doctoral student of another key member of the Verein für Socialpolitik , Georg Friedrich Knapp. Bernhard was proud to be a part of Hugenberg’s circle, as he saw them as men of action and practice. In his short study of the circle, he praised their mutual friend Leo Wegener for not being a Fachmann or expert. Like Bernhard, Hugenberg disliked Germany’s social policy, the welfare state, democracy, and—most importantly—socialism. Hugenberg concluded that rather than appeal directly to policy makers and state bureaucrats through academic research and debate, as Schmoller’s Verein für Socialpolitik had done, greater opportunities lay in the ability to mobilize public opinion through propaganda and the control of mass media. The ‘Hugenberg-Konzern’ would buy up controlling interests in newspapers, press agencies, advertising firms and film studios (including the famed Universum Film AG, or UfA).

In 1928, to combat the “hate” and “lies” of the “democratic press” (Wegener), Bernhard penned a pamphlet meant to set the record straight on the Hugenberg-Konzern. He presented Hugenberg as a dutiful, stern overlord who cared deeply for his nation and did not simply grow rich off it. Indeed, the Hugenberg-Konzern marked the modern equivalent to the famous Raiffeisen-Genossenschaften (cooperatives) for Bernhard, providing opportunities for investment and national renewal. Furthermore, Bernhard claimed the Hugenberg-Konzern had saved German public opinion from the clutches of Jewish publishing houses like Mosse and Ullstein.

Both Bernhard and Hugenberg pushed the “stab-in-the-back” myth as the reason for Germany’s defeat in the First World War. The two also shared a strong belief in fierce individualism and nationalism tinged with authoritarian tendencies. These views all coalesced in their advocacy of the increasing need of an economic dictator to take hold of the reins of the German economy during the tumultuous years of the late Weimar Republic. Bernhard penned studies of Mussolini and fascism. “While an absolute dictatorship is the negation of democracy,” he writes, “a limited, constitutional dictatorship, especially economic dictatorship is an organ of democracy.” (Ludwig Bernhard: Der Diktator und die Wirtschaft. Zurich: 1930, pg. 10).

Hugenberg came to see himself as the man to be that economic dictator. In a similar critique mounted by Carl Schmitt, Bernhard argued that the parliamentary system had failed Germany. Not only could anything decisive be completed, but the fact that there existed interest-driven parties whose existence was to merely antagonize the other parties, stifle action and even throw a wrench in the parliamentary system itself, there could be nothing but political disunion. For Bernhard, the socialists and communists were the clear violators here.


Ludwig Bernhard, »Freiheit der Wissenschaft« (Der Tag, April 1933; BA Koblenz, Nl 3 [Leo Wegener)], Nr. 8, blatt 91; click for larger image)

The Nazis proved another story. Hitler himself would be hoisted in power by Hugenberg. Standing alongside him was Bernhard. In April 1933, Bernhard published a brief op-ed entitled “Freiheit der Wissenschaft,” which summarized much of his intellectual career. He began by stating, “Rarely has a revolution endured the freedom of science.” Science is free because it is based on doubt. Revolution, Bernhard writes, depends on eliminating doubt. It must therefore control science. According to Bernhard, this is what the French revolutionaries in 1789 attempted. In his earlier work on this topic, Bernhard made a similar argument, stating that Meinungsfreiheit (free speech) had been taken away by the revolutionary state just as it had been taken away by democratic Lügenpresse. Thankfully, he argued, Germany after 1918 preserved one place where the “guardians” of science and the “national tradition” remained—the universities, which had “resisted” the “criminal” organization of the Socialist Party’s Prussian administration. Bernhard, known for his energetic lectures, noted with pride in private letters the growth of the Nazi student movement. In 1926, after having supported the failed Pan-German plan to launch a Putsch (coup d’état) to eliminated the social democratic regime in Prussia, Bernhard spoke to his students, calling on the youth to save the nation. Now, it was time for the “national power” of the “national movement” to be mobilized. And in this task, Bernhard concluded, Adolf Hitler, the “artist,” could make his great “masterpiece.”

Ludwig Bernhard died in 1935 and therefore never saw Hitler’s completed picture of a ruined Germany. An economic nationalist, individualist, and advocate of authoritarian solutions, who both rebelled against experts and defended the freedom of science, Bernhard remains a telling example of how personal history, institutional contexts and the perception of a heightened sense of cultural and political crisis can collude together in dangerous ways, not least at the second-tier of intellectual and institutional life.

Steven McClellan is a PhD Candidate in History at the University of Toronto. He is currently writing his dissertation, a history of the rise and fall, then rebirth of the Verein für Sozialpolitik between 1872 and 1955.

“He shall not haue so much as a buske-point from thee”: Examining notions of Gender through the lens of Material Culture

by guest contributor Sarah Bendall

Our everyday lives are surrounded by objects. Some are mundane tools that help us with daily tasks, others are sentimental items that carry emotions and memories, and others again are used to display achievements, wealth and social status. Importantly, many of these objects are gendered and their continued use in various different ways helps to mould and solidify ideas, particularly, gender norms.

In the early modern period two objects of dress that shaped and reinforced gender norms were the busk, a long piece of wood, metal, whalebone or horn that was placed into a channel in the front of the bodies or stays (corsets), and the busk-point, a small piece of ribbon that secured the busk in place. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries these accessories to female dress helped to not only shape expressions of love and sexual desire, but also shaped the acceptable gendered boundaries of those expressions.

Busks were practical objects that existed to keep the female posture erect, to emphasize the fullness of the breasts and to keep the stomach flat. These uses were derived from their function in European court dress that complimented elite ideas of femininity; most notably good breeding that was reflected in an upright posture and controlled bodily movement. However, during the seventeenth century, and increasingly over eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, lovers not only charged busks and busk-points with erotic connotations but also saw them as tokens of affection. Thus, they became part of the complex social and gendered performance of courtship and marriage.

The sheer number of surviving busks that contain inscriptions associated with love indicate that busk giving during courtship must have been a normal and commonly practised act in early modern England and France. A surviving English wooden busk in the Victoria and Albert Museum contains symbolic engravings, the date of gifting, 1675, and a Biblical reference. On the other side of the busk is an inscription referencing the Biblical Isaac’s love for his wife, which reads: “WONC A QVSHON I WAS ASKED WHICH MAD ME RETVRN THESE ANSVRS THAT ISAAC LOVFED RABEKAH HIS WIFE AND WHY MAY NOT I LOVE FRANSYS”.


‘English wooden Stay Busk, c.1675, Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Accession number W.56-1929’

Another inscription on one seventeenth-century French busk exclaims “Until Goodbye, My Fire is Pure, Love is United”. Three engravings correspond with each line: a tear falling onto a barren field, two hearts appearing in that field and finally a house that the couple would share together in marriage with two hearts floating above it.

Inscriptions found on other surviving busks go beyond speaking on behalf of the lover, and actually speak on behalf of busks themselves, giving these inanimate objects voices of their own. Another seventeenth-century French busk, engraved with a man’s portrait declares:

“He enjoys sweet sighs, this lover

Who would very much like to take my place”

This inscription shows the busk’s anthropomorphized awareness of the prized place that it held so close to the female body. John Marston’s The scourge of villanie Three bookes of satyres (1598, p. F6r-v) expressed similar sentiments with the character Saturio wishing himself his lover’s busk so that he “might sweetly lie, and softly luske Betweene her pappes, then must he haue an eye At eyther end, that freely might discry Both hills [breasts] and dales [groin].”

Although the busk’s intimate association with the female body was exploited in both erotic literature and bawdy jokes, the busk itself also took on phallic connotations. The narrator of Alexander Pope’s Rape of the Lock (1712, p. 12) describes the Baron with an ‘altar’ built by love. On this altar “lay the Sword-knot Sylvia‘s Hands had sown, With Flavia‘s Busk that oft had rapp’d his own …”  Here “His own [busk]” evokes his erection that Flavia’s busk had often brushed against during their love making. Therefore, in the context of gift giving the busk also acted as an extension of the male lover: it was an expression of his male sexual desire in its most powerful and virile form that was then worn privately on the female body. Early modern masculinity was a competitive performance and in a society where social structure and stability centred on the patriarchal household, young men found courtship possibly one of the most important events of their life – one which tested their character and their masculine ability to woo and marry. In this context, the act of giving a busk was a masculine act, which asserted not only a young man’s prowess, but his ability to secure a respectable place in society with a household.

Yet the inscriptions on surviving busks and literary sources that describe them often to do not account for the female experience of courtship and marriage. Although women usually took on the submissive role in gift giving, being the recipient of love tokens such as busks did not render them completely passive. Courtship encouraged female responses as it created a discursive space in which women were free to express themselves. Women could choose to accept or reject a potential suitor’s gift, giving her significant agency in the process of courtship. Within the gift-giving framework choosing to place a masculine sexual token so close to her body also led to a very intimate female gesture. Yet a woman’s desire for a male suitor could also take on much more active expressions as various sources describe women giving men their busk-points. When the character Jane in Thomas Dekker’s The Shoemaker’s Holiday (1600) discovers that the husband she thought dead is still alive, she abandons her new beau who tells her that “he [her old husband] shall not haue so much as a buske-point from thee”, alluding to women’s habit of giving busk-points as signs of affection and promise. John Marston’s The Malcontent (1603) describes a similar situation when the Maquerelle warns her ladies “look to your busk-points, if not chastely, yet charily: be sure the door be bolted.” In effect she is warning these girls to keep their doors shut and not give their busk-points away to lovers as keepsakes.

To some, the expression of female sexual desire by such means seems oddly out of place in a society where strict cultural and social practices policed women’s agency. Indeed, discussions of busks and busk-points provoked a rich dialogue concerning femininity and gender in early modern England. Throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, bodies (corsets) elongated the torso, until the part of the bodie that contained the busk reached to the lady’s “Honor” (Randle Holme, The Academy of Armory and Blazon…., p. 94)[1] In other words, the lowest part of the busk which contained the ‘busk-point’ sat over a woman’s sexual organs where chastity determined her honour. The politics involved in female honour and busk-points are expressed in the previously discussed scene from The Malcontent: busk-points functioned as both gifts and sexual tokens and this is highlighted by the Maquerelle’s pleas for the girls to look to them ‘chastely’.

As a result of the intimate position of the busk and busk-point on the female body these objects were frequently discussed in relation to women’s sexuality and their sexual honour. Some moralising commentaries blamed busks for concealing illegitimate pregnancies and causing abortions. Others associated busks with prostitutes, and rendered them a key part of the profession’s contraceptive arsenal. Yet much popular literature and the inscriptions on the busks themselves rarely depict those women who wore them as ‘whores’. Instead these conflicting ideas of the busk and busk-points found in sources from this period in fact mirror the contradictory ideas and fears that early moderns held about women’s sexuality. When used in a sexual context outside of marriage these objects were controversial as they were perceived as aiding unmarried women’s unacceptable forward expressions of sexual desire. However, receiving busks and giving away busk-points in the context of courtship and marriage was an acceptable way for a woman to express her desire precisely because it occurred in a context that society and social norms could regulate, and this desire would eventually be consummated within the acceptable confines of marriage.

Busks and busk-points are just two examples of the ways in which the examination of material culture can help the historian to tap into historical ideas of femininity and masculinity, and the ways in which notions of gender were imbued in, circulated and expressed through the use of objects in everyday life in early modern Europe. Although controversial at times, busk and busk-points were items of clothing that aided widely accepted expressions of male and female sexual desire through the acts of giving, receiving and wearing. Ultimately, discussions of these objects and their varied meanings highlight not only the ways in which sexuality occupied a precarious space in early modern England, but how material culture such as clothing was an essential part of regulating gender norms.
[1] Holme, The Academy of Armory and Blazon, p. 3.

Sarah A. Bendall is a PhD candidate in the Department of History at the University of Sydney. Her dissertation examines the materiality, consumption and discourses generated around stiffened female undergarments – bodies, busks, farthingales and bum rolls – to explore how these items of material culture shaped notions of femininity in England between 1560-1690. A longer article-length version of this blog post has appeared in the Journal of Gender & History and Sarah also maintains her own blog were she writes about the process of historical dress reconstruction.

What We’re Reading: Week of May 8

Here are a few interesting articles and pieces we found around the web this week. If you come across something that other intellectual historians might enjoy, please let us know in the comments section.


Twenty Questions with China Miéville” (TLS)

Peter Coates, “Rising High Water Blues” (TLS)

China Miéville, “Why does the Russian revolution matter?” (Guardian)



Valerie Korineck, ‘After Stonewall’ and Gay and Lesbian Liberation in Western Canada (Notches)

Rebecca Futo Kennedy, We Condone it By Our Silence (Eidolon)

John Gallagher, Fear the fairies: Early Modern Sleepe (LRB)

Jim Marino, Questions for the Jedi Vice-Chair of Graduate Studies (McSweeneys)



Adam Gopnik, “We Could Have been Canada: Was the American Revolution Such a Good Idea?” (New Yorker)

Susan Dominus, “Is an Open Marriage a Happier Marriage?” (New York Times Magazine)

Ai Weiwei, “How Censorship Works” (New York Times)

Jed Perl, “The Confidence Man of American Art” (on Robert Rauschenberg) (New York Review of Books)



Ben Sisario, “Norton Records, Still Rocking, is Releasing a Lost Dion Album” (NYT)

William Grimes, “Billy Miller, Curator & Historian of Fringe Music, Dies at 62” (NYT)

Adam Shatz, “Out of Sight, Out of Mind” (LRB)

Robert Sapolsky, Behave: The Biology of Humans at our Best and Worst (Penguin, 2016)

Robert Sapolsky, Human Behavioral Biology — this is a lecture series (25 hours!) published by Stanford on their YouTube channel. If you, like me, learn best as a listener, I highly recommend diving in.  If you’re looking for a quick intro to his work, Sapolsky’s public and academic lectures are widely available on YouTube. He was also a recent guest on the Daily Show.



Jennifer Kabat, “The Fairytale” (Granta)

Anne Anlin Cheng, “The Ghost in the Ghost” (L.A. Review of Books)

Alice Spawls, “It’s Only in Painting that You Can Do Everything You Want: Hurvin Anderson speaks to Apollo” (Apollo)

Artur Walther and Okwui Enwezor, “Okwui Enwezor on the Recent Histories of African Photography” (Aperture)



Dieter Grimm with Jürgen Kaube, ‘Ich hänge an der Demokratie/Not for the State’s but for Democracy’s Sake,’ ( wiko-berlin)Eddie S. Glaude Jr. with Cornel West, ‘Before Cornel West, After Cornel West’ with Cornel West,’ (AAS Podcast 21)

Jamie Martin and Maribel Morey, ‘Introduction,’ (Humanity Journal)

Samuel Moyn, ‘Restraining Populism,’ (First Things)

Angela Nagle, ‘The Market Theocracy,’ (Jacobin)



William Deresiewicz, “In Defense of Facts” (The Atlantic).

Mariame Kaba, “Free Us All” (The New Inquiry).

Peter Kletsan, “Revolution and Restorative Justice: An Anarchist Perspective” (Abolition).

Martha Nussbaum, “Powerlessness and the Politics of Blame (2017 Jefferson Lecture)” (Humanities).



Fresh Air (Podcast), “Largely Forgotten Osage Murders Reveal A Conspiracy Against Wealthy Native Americans

Peter Coclanis, “Famine on Campus?” (The City Journal)

Isaac Chotiner, “How Should we remember the Confederacy?” (Slate)


Book Forum: Collective Memory, the Public Sphere, and the Remote Historical Past

by guest contributor Jeffrey A. Barash

The JHI Blog is pleased to announce a new occasional feature, a forum bringing together faculty across disciplines to discuss recent works in intellectual history over consecutive Fridays. This post by Jeffrey Andrew Barash concludes the inaugural forum devoted to his book Collective Memory and the Historical Past (University of Chicago, 2016),

It is gratifying to read the insightful responses to the analyses in my recent book Collective Memory and the Historical Past presented in the inaugural book forum of the JHI Blog. I would like to express my heartfelt gratitude to each of the five guest contributors, Asaf Angermann, Andrew Dunstall, Nitzan Lebovic, Sophie Marcotte Chénard, and Michael Meng for their thoughtful comments and, above all, to John Raimo, whose inspiration has played an admirable role in the forum. Each of the contributors introduces into the discussion critical insight that deepens understanding of the topics my book addresses and encourages further thought on the issues it raises. In the space of this short response, I will draw on the analyses presented by each of the reviewers and answer critical reflections they have expressed.

Kosovo Maiden - symbol of the Battle of Kosovo 1389.jpg

“Kosovo Maiden” by Uroš Predić (1919)

According to my interpretation, all memory in its original form pertains to the personal sphere. Original remembrance, in this sense, arises from experiences in the everyday life-world, from face-to-face encounters “in the flesh,” that may be shared by smaller and larger groups and communicated to those who have not directly witnessed them. According to the phenomenological vocabulary I employ, the originality of remembered experience “in the flesh” does not reside in a capacity to replicate or to furnish a “faithful” representation of reality. Since, indeed, remembrance of direct encounters is selected, organized, and retained or omitted in relation to the perspective of the viewer, its originality lies in the fact that it is necessarily presupposed as a source of indirect accounts that derive from it. As Angermann has perceptively noted, any “second-order representation precludes the aura of a singular presence encountered in the plenitude of a surrounding ‘lifeworld,'” and the singular presence of such direct encounters, as they are remembered and communicated, are indispensable (if not always reliable) sources of what we commonly take to be reality. At the same time, where remembered experience is shared by groups, such “collective memory” never exists independently of individual persons who remember, any more than, beyond them, it has an autonomous, substantial being.

In general, remembered experience in its original form, arising from personal and group encounters, rarely derives from what is held to be significant in the public sphere. In normal circumstances, only a handful of agents and witnesses have direct access to what is publicly meaningful and, consequently, experience and remembrance of events endowed with public significance are almost always based on indirect accounts diffused by the organs of mass information. This distance of the public sphere from the everyday life-world proves highly paradoxical: indeed, in view of the indirect quality of representations of the public sphere, we might wonder whether the concept itself of “collective remembrance” is appropriate when applied to public existence in mass societies. It might indeed be claimed that collective memory of publicly significant events, since it rarely corresponds to any direct and original form of remembrance, is essentially a figment of the social imagination.

In light of such a claim, however, we must clarify what we mean when we speak of “imagination.” According to an argument presented in my book, imagination is not only a faculty for producing fictions or fantasies, or for eliciting abstract mental activity, for it also enables the embodiment of meaning in concrete, communicable images and symbols. I take symbols in the broadest sense to refer to the meaning we confer on experience by lending it, as Dunstall notes, “communicable order at the primary level of its organization and articulation.” A many-layered network of symbols permits us to spontaneously lend spatio-temporal and conceptual pattern to experience and to orient ourselves in the everyday life-world.  Where the symbolic order is not actively engaged, it is passively retained in memory.  Before any act of reflection, it is this concrete symbolic order that permits us to discern in an urban setting the difference, for example, between a private yard, a semi-private shopping mall, and a public park, just as the music we hear in supermarkets or airports provides symbolic indicators of the social context in which we find ourselves. As retained by different groups in a mass social framework, the network of sedimented and stratified symbols by no means forms a monolithic or uniform block, since symbols are embodied in accord with the fragmented perspectives of groups that deploy them.

Beyond the purview of ordinary everyday life, it is the complex weave of symbolic structures embodied in memory that permits us to render intelligible a world of publicly meaningful events. When beheld in this broad perspective, collective memory, as Dunstall insightfully points out, is “neither a fiction nor a mere metaphor, but refers to a web of symbols formed through communicative interaction, reaching as far as that sphere of interaction does.” As Angermann perceptively notes, this interpretation of the life-world as symbolically mediated distinguishes my position from Husserl’s presupposition that the life-world is immediately intuited. It indicates a possible affinity between my interpretation and Adorno’s critical stance regarding Husserl’s conception of the life-world.  Nonetheless, my concept of symbolic mediation is most directly inspired by Cassirer’s interpretation of the symbolic configuration of spatio-temporal and conceptual order and by Goodman‘s theory of the symbol in Ways of Worldmaking.

In a suggestive remark, Meng has identified this interpretation of the sedimented, stratified, and fragmented weave of embodied symbols with an “anti-foundationalist” position associated with Arendt and later authors, who questioned the traditional role of absolute and indubitable foundations. My interpretation of the contingent basis of experience and remembrance in the everyday life-world, and of its tenuous relation to the socio-political realm, bears an affinity with this position, and I share with Arendt the further conviction that the coherence and consistency of the vast contextual web that undergirds interpretation is the primary source of our beliefs concerning the veracity of factual accounts of what transpires in the public realm (Hannah Arendt, “Truth and Politics,” Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought, Penguin, 1977, p. 227-264).

My efforts in the second part of Collective Memory and the Historical Past aim to understand this contextual web of embodied symbols in relation to the “temporal articulations” of collective memory. Here, beside the collective forms of remembrance punctuated by habitually enacted temporal patterns of everyday life—the rhythms of work days and holidays, market days, hours of work, recreation, and sleep—and by the recurring commemorative practices that reinforce collective cohesion, we encounter the deep levels of collective existence. These are the passively deposited and often barely palpable dispositions—the êthos or habitus—which, as Dunstall reminds us, articulate “long-term continuities in the symbolic reservoir upon which collective memory draws.” The profound resonance of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a Dream” speech derives its potency from the symbolic charge, however differently it may be perceived from a variety of group perspectives, rooted in the political pronouncements of Lincoln and of the Founding Fathers and in the theology of Isaiah and of Luke. Over the course of generations, King’s message, which was hotly contested in many southern states and sharply criticized by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, won approval among the citizens of the United States to such an extent that the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. became the day of national commemoration we now celebrate.

Bourdieu_Sur la télévision

(Raisons d’agir, 1996)

Long-term group attitudes, styles, and dispositions span all reaches of the public sphere and, for the most part, spread over the implicit layers of group life. If they often go unnoticed, they are not, however, invisible occult qualities, nor are they reducible to general laws governing unconscious psychic mechanisms. Specific to the particular mode of existence of a given group, these passive symbolic configurations come to expression in group behavior and social styles that, as sociologists and anthropologists have pointed out since the work of Mauss and Bourdieu, often correspond to corporeal dispositions and habits. The continuities interwoven by this deep level of passively inscribed dispositions, as they draw on the reservoirs of sedimented group experience that have been symbolically elaborated over the long term, are not to be confused with secondary elaborations, such as codified traditions or cultural legacies which, indeed, presuppose this fundamental experiential dimension.

Protesters in the Courtyard of Romanian National Television Romanian Revolution 1989

Protesters in the Courtyard of Romanian National Television (1989)

In our contemporary world, the emergence of mass societies in a context of global interaction marks an essential break with the past that distinguishes the current horizon of group interaction from previous forms of social existence. Corresponding to this development, the public sphere has undergone essential metamorphoses over the past century and a half that have been channeled by the technical evolution of the mass media. Their increasing predominance as organs of public information has tended to accentuate the disparity between the life-world of original personal and small-group experience and remembrance, and the vast public realm that the mass media configure. The development of the mass media since the introduction of mass-circulation illustrated newspapers and magazines that exercised a preponderant influence in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries began to transform the public sphere through their ways of configuring and transmitting information and thus of conferring public significance on reported actions and events. This transformation was further accentuated through mass-produced images favoring communication that, independently of the articulated language they accompany, spontaneously convey a visible message that can be immediately grasped beyond the confines of linguistic or cultural borders.  From the development of the still photo and the moving picture newsreel to that of television, animated digital imagery and the World Wide Web, the mass media, whatever their distance from the life-world, have been able to simulate, in an ever more technically precise manner, direct experience of personal and small-group encounters and to make this simulated experience resonate in public memory.

Televiziunea Romana Libera

Televisunea Romana libera; recorded image of declaration of free Romania (From Videograms of a Revolution; dir. Harun Farocki and Andrei Ujica, 1992)

The radical transformation that mass media communications have brought to the public world may be placed clearly in relief if we consider that its potency is not the result of a simple reproduction or replication of what transpires in the everyday life-world of face-to-face encounters  In an ever more technologically precise manner television, in CNN fashion, presenting ‘hypermediated’ combinations of written text and visual image and, subsequently, hypermediated World Wide Web and social media Internet displays, transfigure reported information in function of a spatio-temporal pattern and logical order specific to the mass media format. This format, which I explore in detail in my book, imposes decontextualized, anonymously configured, and continually shifting, “updated” schemata of media events that take precedence over the contextual logic of experience and remembrance serving as the principal mode of orientation in a shared common life-world. This format of mass communication has become the principle contemporary source of public visibility, indeed of an iconic status which, as publicly conveyed and remembered, is readily translated into novel contemporary forms of public influence and political power.

In his highly suggestive and thought-provoking analysis of my interpretation, Lebovic finds that the chapter on the mass media “is the most relevant part of the book, but also its least convincing section.” Where he agrees with my critical appraisal of the mass media in its distance from the everyday life-world, Lebovic finds that in this instance the “modernist tools” of my theory of collective memory seem to falter. He concludes that in the “age of fake news perhaps not only the past is undermined, but the present and, as such, the future too.”

Without delving into the problematic presuppositions engaged by the label of “modernism,” which remains to be clarified, I can express my sympathy with Lebovic’s pessimism in view of the plight of the contemporary public sphere. As an apparent consequence of this antiquated status of modernism, however, does this pessimism invariably signal the demise of the ideal of informative and impartial reporting that however imperfectly flies in the face of complacent conformism in denouncing the distortion of factual events upon which “fake news” is based? As I interpret it, the exercise of contextual analysis still has an eminently critical task to fulfill where it sets its sights on long-term developments and explanations in which fragmented perspectives are confronted with one another and their claims to legitimacy set in critical relief

Gazimestan memorial commemoratin the Battle of Kosovo 1389.jpg

Gazimestan Monument commemorating the Battle of Kosovo, 1389

In her insightful contribution to the discussion, Marcotte Chénard highlights the distinction which I draw between collective memory, rooted in the deep strata of symbolically embodied, collective patterns of existence, and the historical past that reaches beyond the scope of all living memory. If, indeed, collective remembrance of the past is always fragmented in accord with a plurality of different group perspectives, public communication depends upon a web of spontaneously graspable symbols that defines the contours of group contemporaneity shared by overlapping, living generations, and distinguishes them from the historical past beyond all living recollection. The discontinuity marked by the demise of living generations does not simply result from the disappearance of single individuals and groups, for this disappearance also signals the evanescence of the concrete context in which their symbolic interaction transpired. Following the disappearance of this theater of group interaction, the legibility of the symbolic structures embedded in it begins to weaken. Even where the broad intelligibility of general linguistic and other symbolic categories is retained over centuries, the more specific nuances groups invest in them—constituting the living context and intrinsic sense of their coexistence—remain subject to remarkable if often barely palpable variability as collective memory recedes into the historical past. In a situation of radical discontinuity, the passage of each successive generation marks a drift in the symbolic framework of communication and interaction.  Such an abrupt change in context, calling forth mostly imperceptible displacements of its passive recesses, casts in its wake a deepening shroud over the essential significance of the symbolic patterns constituting the past’s singular texture.

Here, indeed, lies the hidden ground of what I conceive to be the finitude of group perspectives which is first and foremost set in relief by the passage of the collective memory of living generations into the historical past.  This passage is the primary source of human historicity.  The cohesion of group perspectives and the finitude of their scope ultimately depends not on the singular finitude of mortal beings, but on the mobility of the intermediary symbolic space underlying group existence.

As Marcotte Chénard insightfully portrays my argument, finitude in this sense by no means condemns present generations to ignorance of the “reality of the historical past,” but it incites us to great prudence in the interpretation of the past’s singular texture. The capacity to retrieve this singularity depends not only on correct factual analysis, but at the same time on the capacity to retrieve symbolic nuances that permit us to discern the shift in temporal horizons through which facts draw their implicit sense. As I have attempted to illustrate in my book by means of the works of Walter Scott, Victor Hugo, Alessandro Manzoni, Ivo Andrić, Marcel Proust, and W. G. Sebald, such shifts may be placed in relief not only by works of history, but by the “historical sense” that novels are able to evoke.

Hayden White

Hayden White, (photo © University of Göttingen; Alchetron)

Marcotte Chénard suggests certain affinities between my conception of the historical past and what Hayden White, following Oakeshott, has characterized in a recent work as the “practical past.” The practical past is, as she notes, distinguished from the theoretical concern for the historical past, which as a theoretical construct, “possesses no definitive existence” and is only an “inference that the historian makes in order to understand and explain what happened.” In its distinction from this theoretical concern, the practical past presents us with modes of orientation “toward matters of practical conduct and representation of our social and political world.” It is essentially identified with its use in the present: indeed, in this sense, Oakeshott in his original understanding of the term equated it with the “useful” past, concerned less with traces and vestiges of what previously existed than with a storehouse of relics and “emblematic tropes” available for recycling in the present (Michael Oakeshott, On History and Other Essays, p. 41-42). This conception of the practical past, however, raises the essential question: what possibility does it afford of accomplishing what I take to be the principal task of the “historical sense,” which may bring us to discern timely assumptions that prevail in the present that blind us to past’s unique contextual contours and symbolic nuances? In a present in which these assumptions exercise an often tacit and unquestioned supremacy, painstaking and fastidious research into the remote past beyond all living memory, which cannot be assessed in terms of its pragmatic value, nonetheless allows us to cast the present in an original light. Here the work of Frank Ankersmit, above all the concept of “historical experience” he elaborates in his book Sublime Historical Experience (Stanford University Press, 2005), provides penetrating analyses of the possibilities of relating the present to the historical past.

In one sense, there is an affinity between Marcotte Chénard’s description of the concept of the practical past and what I take to be the historical past, notably where the practical past might lead us to “reactivate neglected past experiences or past concepts in order to challenge dominant views.” In an interesting manner, she associates this possibility with Lefort’s suggestive conception of the impensé (the “unthought”) elaborated in his analysis of Husserl and Merleau-Ponty (Claude Lefort, Sur une colonne absente. Écrits autour de Merleau-Ponty, p. 16-17). As Marcotte Chénard construes this conception in applying it to historical interpretation, the “unthought” is what remains to be thought in past “events, social symbols or shared experiences” that “carry vast reservoirs of meaning.” The unthought aspects of the past hold out the possibility, not only of making unexpected discoveries in the past but, through these discoveries, of rethinking what generally remains unquestioned in the present.

As I interpret it in conjunction with this suggestive idea, the historical past, in often surprising and unanticipated ways, holds up the prism through which the timely and contingent aspects of the present may be recognized as such. Current attitudes, according to this reasoning, find their source in a past that, even where neglected, forgotten or otherwise obscured, retains an essential pertinence for interpreting the concrete reality of the immediately given world and for projecting present action into an uncertain future.

Jeffrey Andrew Barash taught at the University of Chicago and Columbia University and he has served as Humboldt Fellow at the University of Bielefeld, Ernst Cassirer visiting professor at the University of Hamburg, as Hans-Georg Gadamer visiting professor at Boston College and Max-Planck Fellow at the University of Konstanz.  In 2015-16 he was a member of the School of Historical Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton.  He is emeritus Professor of philosophy at the University of Amiens, France. His books include Heidegger et son siècle. Temps de l’Être, temps de l’histoire (Presses universitaires de France, 1995), Martin Heidegger and the Problem of Historical Meaning (second edition Fordham University Press, 2003), Politiques de l’histoire. L’historicisme comme promesse et comme mythe (Presses universitaires de France, 2004), and Collective Memory and the Historical Past (University of Chicago Press, 2017).

Miscarriage, Auspicious Birth, and the Concept of Tulkuhood in Tibet

By guest contributor Kristin Buhrow

The selection of successors to political and religious leadership roles is determined by different criteria around the world. In the Himalayas, a unique form of determining succession is used: the concept of Tulkuhood. Based in Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism, Himalayan communities, especially in Tibet, operate with the understanding that gifted leaders with a deep and accurate understanding of Buddhist cosmology and philosophy will, after death, return to their communities and continue as leaders in their next life. Upon the death of a spiritual or community leader, his or her assistants and close followers will go in search of the next incarnation—a child born shortly after the previous leader’s death. When satisfied that they have found the new incarnation, the committee of assistants or followers will officially recognize the child, usually under five years old, as a reincarnation, and the child will receive a rigorous education to prepare for their future duties as a community leader. These people are given the title “Tulku.”

This system of succession by reincarnation is occasionally mentioned in Western literature, and is always lent a sense of orientalist mysticism, but it is important to note that in the Tibetan cultural sphere, Tulku succession is the normal, working model of the present day. While Tibetan religious and political leadership structures have undergone great changes in recent years, the system of Tulku succession has been maintained in the religious sector, and for some top political positions was only replaced by democratic election in 2001. Large monasteries or convents in the Himalayas, which often serve as centers of religion, education, and local governance, are commonly associated with a Tulku who guides religious practice and political decision making at the monastery and in the surrounding area. In this way, Tulkus serve a life-long (or multi-life-long) appointment to community leadership.

Like any other modern system of succession, Tulku succession is the subject of much emic literature detailing the definition of Tulkuhood, discussing the powers of a Tulku, and otherwise outlining the concept and process. And, like any other functioning system of succession, some details of the definition of true Tulkuhood are hotly debated. One indication given special attention is that Tulkus go through birth and death under auspicious conditions. These conditions include but are not limited to: occurring on special days of the Tibetan calendar, occurring according to a prophecy that the Tulku himself made previously, unexplainable sweet smells, music issuing from an unknown source, colored lights appearing in the sky, dissolving or disappearance of the mind or body at death, flight, or Buddha images visible upon cremation. While these auspicious conditions of birth or death may go excused or unnoticed, it is thought that all Tulkus are born and die in such circumstances, whether or not the people around them notice. Considering this common understanding, we now turn to one particular Tulku, who makes a controversial and easily politicized assertion: that one of his previous incarnations is that of a miscarried fetus buried beneath his monastery.



A map showing the Pemako region (now called Mêdog) within Tibet

In the mountainous region of Pemako, to the east of Lhasa, there is a small town called Powo. According to Tibetan oral history, it was here, in 641 C.E., that the Chinese Princess Wencheng buried her stillborn child. After being engaged to marry the King of Tibet, Princess Wencheng was escorted from the Tang capital of Chang ‘An (present day Xi’an), to the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, by the illustrious Tibetan minister Gar. Along the way, Princess Wencheng became pregnant with Minister Gar’s child—a union oral history remembers fondly as the result of a loving relationship that had developed over the course of the journey. Some versions of the history assert that Minister Gar intentionally took Wencheng on the longest route to Lhasa so that she could have the baby along the way, but she suffered a miscarriage in Powo. While there was no monastery in Powo at the time, Wencheng, who was an expert Chinese geomancer, recognized the spiritual power of the location. After carefully selecting the gravesite, Wencheng buried her stillborn child, then left to meet her intended in Lhasa.

He Liyi Illustration

Aiqing Pan and Zhao Li, “Wencheng and the Tibetan Envoy,” from He Liyi, The Spring of Butterflies and Other Folk Tales of China’s Minority Peoples.


While some sources assert that Princess Wencheng constructed the Bhakha Monastery on top of the grave with her own hands, another origin story exists. Over one thousand years after Wencheng and Minister Gar passed through, a Buddhist teacher who had risen to prominence came to Powo near the time of his death. This teacher was recognized as a reincarnation of the powerful practitioner Dorje Lingpa, who was himself a reincarnation of Vairotsana, a Buddhist intellectual and influential translator. When this teacher came to Powo, he found the same spot where Wencheng had buried her baby, and he planted his walking stick in the ground, which miraculously grew into a pine tree. It was then that the Bhakha Monastery was built in the same vicinity. Regardless of the accuracy of these oral histories, it is clear that the presence of the infant grave was a known factor when the monastery was named, as Bhakha (རྦ་ཁ་ or སྦ་ཁ་) means “burial place”. The teacher whose walking stick demonstrated the miracle became known as the first Bhakha Tulku. We are now, as of 2017, in the time of the tenth Bhakha Tulku, who still has influence over the same monastery, as well as related monasteries in Bhutan and the United States.


The Tenth Bhakha Tulku (photo credit: Shambhala Center of New York)

In addition to the list of renowned former lives mentioned previously, the Bhakha Tulku has also claimed Wencheng and Minister Gar’s child as one of his past lives. While this claim to such a short and seemingly inauspicious life is unusual for a Tulku, it is not an impossibility according to the standards of Tulkuhood in the Nyingma sect, to which the Bhakha Tulku belongs. In the Nyingma tradition, and all other Vajrayana sects, life is considered to begin at conception. By this principle, a stillborn fetus constitutes a life, making it possible that that life could have been part of a Tulku lineage. According to a description by Tulku Thondup, a translator and researcher for the Buddhayana Foundation and contemporary Tulku associated with the Dodrupchen Monastery, in Incarnation: The History and Mysticism of the Tulku Tradition of Tibet, the primary role of a “Birth Manifested Body Tulku” is “to serve others […] in any form that leads a being or beings toward happiness, peace, and enlightenment, either directly or indirectly” (13). With this perception of Tulku leadership, the controversy surrounding the idea that a life culminating in miscarriage could be worthy of the title of Tulku is easily understood.

Some individuals participating in this debate assert that a miscarried fetus could not fulfill the requirement of compassionate servitude. Cameron David Warner goes so far as to argue that the emotional pain that miscarriage necessarily brings to the mother renders the life of that child devoid of any positive outcome—its only effect being a mother’s grief. However, one key idea posited by Tulku Thondup is that a Tulku’s life can help the spread of Buddhism and compassion, not only directly, but also indirectly. When viewed in the context of history, it is possible that the death of this child, for this life to go no further, was a course of events that allowed Buddhism to spread further into Tibet.

At the time of Wencheng’s arrival in Tibet, Buddhism was fairly uncommon in the area, the most common religion being a form of animistic shamanism called Bon. Both Tibetan and Chinese historiography cite Wencheng among the first foreigners to bring Buddhist artifacts into Tibet (see Blondeau and Buffetrille, Slobodnik, Kapstein). It is possible that if Wencheng were to arrive in Lhasa with a child that the Tibetan king, Songstan Gampo, would have reacted negatively, potentially harming Wencheng herself or the larger relationship between the Tibetan Empire and Tang China. While this is merely conjecture, it does present an argument in which a Tulku could have demonstrated compassionate servitude in this unusual form.

Interestingly, while the Bhakha Tulku’s claimed past life has inspired controversy, this particular assertion is not mentioned in official profiles or other monastic materials. This decision to avoid such a sensitive topic in public texts could be an attempt to smooth over controversy within the religious community (where the debate continues). Alternatively, this choice could be motivated by a desire to avoid politicization by Chinese government officials, who have been altering the historical narrative surrounding Wencheng’s life in Tibet to model a positive relationship between the generous paternal state of China and Tibet, its vassal. While the Bhakha Tulku currently devotes his energies to other issues, this unusual past life serves not only to symbolically connect China and Tibet, but also challenges the traditional notion of what it means to be a benevolent public servant.

Kristin Buhrow is a graduate student at the University of Oxford pursuing a Master’s degree in Tibetan & Himalayan Studies.

Islamic History: Beyond Sunni-Shia

by guest contributor Basma N. Radwan

Consider two vastly different versions of the same course “Introduction to Islamic Civilization.” In the first, an emphasis of political factors in Islamic group formation supersedes all other considerations. Shias, even before their inception as a distinct, self-identified group, are described as a uniquely political Islamic sect. In such analyses, theological, economic, and ethnic considerations are peripheral, if they at all constitute factors. To make the group intelligible to students predominantly acquainted with the history of the west, an instructor might offer a historical parallel to the French Legitimist tradition. The comparison’s extended implications render Orléanists out of the nonrelative Sahābah, Bonapartists out of Khawarīj, and neo-orientalists out of a fresh generation of young scholars.

In the second, interdisciplinary approaches can offer a different take. Beginning with the Covenant of Medina and a discussion on the nature of identity, course instructors can prompt students to ask themselves the following: when reading the history of Islam and its many groups, has modern scholarship excessively privileged objective over subjective identity? Do we identify early Islamic groups through our own contemporary dichotomies? Anyone who opens a newspaper will realize that it is hard to dispute that this is not the case. No doubt, contemporary political events parade the dichotomy as the fundamental operative in the history of the Middle East. The central idea (a well-intentioned one, I think) is an earnest attempt to discern some of the otherwise camouflaged nuances of contemporary politics. So be it—journalists, diplomats, and human rights groups use the dichotomy because it offers intelligible explanations for otherwise complex socio-political phenomena. But how useful is the chasm pedagogically? Even instructors who disagree with the claim that Sunni versus Shia is an overly simplistic heuristic must, nonetheless, consider what political and strategic purposes such a binary has come to serve.

Still, I would like to suggest that the Sunni versus Shia chasm, though useful in some scholarly endeavors, is of little value as a primary framework for the study of Islamic history. Those who plan to make use of it might consider the three following pedagogical drawbacks. First, privileging the Sunni-Shia dichotomy as the main framework for the study of Islamic history allots students little opportunity to discuss either tradition’s subgroups. Second, because the Sunni-Shia dichotomy is depicted as the product of a politico-theological dispute, economic, tribal, and geographical factors in group formation are easily overlooked. Third, the dichotomy inevitably runs the risk of “modern ideologies masquerading as historical truths.” Depicting a geopolitical rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia as the climax of a fourteen-hundred-year religious struggle is not far off from labeling Operation Iraqi Freedom as an extension of medieval crusades. Such grandiose historical ornamentations are highly caloric, yet offer little nutritional value—no matter how forcefully U.S. presidents, Iranian Ayatollahs, or Saudi Monarchs may have tried to persuade otherwise. So, what is to be done?

The importance of self-identification in the history of Islamic group formation suggests, according to one theory, that historians should reconsider and reexamine sources that provide clues to the group’s subjective identity. A group’s subjective identity is “how [they] conceive themselves to be, whereas [their] objective identity is how [they] might be viewed independently of how [they] view [themselves]” (p. 5). In this sense, it would be historically brute to claim that Ali was Shia. While he is labeled so retrospectively, his subjective identity could not be accounted for in those terms, as “the Sunni-Shia schism only materialized a century [after the prophet’s death]” (p. i). Even the use of proto-Shia or proto-Sunni as indicators of subjective identity proves problematic. These kinds of qualifications are, to borrow one historian’s description of Muslim heresiographies, “simply back-projections intended to validate subsequent political and theological developments” (p. 249).

There is also the question of what happens when a non-dominant group’s identification is rejected by a dominant one. Although a Sufi group may consider itself Sunni or Shia, in its legal affiliation for example, prominent orthodox Sunni or Shia groups may reject its claim. In a historical narrative in which the Sunni-Shia chasm dominates, Sufi groups are characterized by their objective identity, as dictated by the dominant group, as non-Shia/Sunni. By extension, there is the added risk of underappreciating the role of non-dominant groups’ subjective identity in the making of Sunni/Shia orthodoxy. In other words, we are blind to the process wherein Sunni and Shia define themselves not against one another, but rather through other “Others.”

But what about when a group’s subjective identity is non-Shia/Sunni? This dichotomy, as a heuristic, risks erasing the historical presence of groups whose subjective identity lies entirely outside of it: the early Khawarij, Murji’a, Ibāddiya and, more recently, the Aḥmadiyya and NOI . In these instances, it is the absence of Sunni-Shia elements in their subjective identity that places them in historical margins, resulting in a narrative dictated by dominant groups.


Cover of New Statesman (20-26 June 2014)

While renewed emphasis on subjective identity in Islamic group formation can soften an otherwise rigid dichotomy, it cannot, on its own, provide the reasons for differences in objective and subjective identity. Because the Sunni/Shia dichotomy is presented primarily as a politico-theological chasm, the impact of geographical, tribal, and economic factors in group formation is sidelined. The Kharijites (Khawarij), sometimes referred to as the first distinct sect in Islamic history, are one such example. Emerging in the aftermath of the Battle of Siffin (657), the name refers to the members of Ali’s troops who rejected his decision to negotiate with Mu’awiyah’s supporters. Derived from the Arabic word ‘Khawarij,’ seceders, Kharijite came to signify anyone who “left” Ali’s camp. Most historical narratives attribute the Kharijite secession to a theological dispute—namely their view that Ali’s acquiescence to negotiate with Mu’awiyah’s supporters was a violation of divine will.

Recent scholarship has signaled a shift from the theological interpretation, suggesting that the Kharjites’ secession is attributable to their Tamim tribal composition. The influence of Tamim tribal affiliation in the origins and development of the Kharijite led one historian to describe it as “a movement of democratic ideals that advocated a militant democracy [against an aristocratic Ummayad counterpart]” (p. 34). The group is as an example of how theological differences, while important, may at times be compromised, and at others corroborated, by tribal affiliations. The Sunni-Shia heuristic is inclined to overemphasize theological considerations or attribute them as a cause to non-theological divisions. Even within the category of Khairijite itself, a confluence of geographical, tribal, and economic factors eventually led to the creation of further subdivisions. According to one historian, Muslim heresiographers had accounted for four original Kharijite groups, “Azariqa, Najadat, Ibadiyya, and Suffriya” (p. 77). This double divergence is significant as an instance wherein tribal considerations supersede the theological and political factors are offset by their economic counterparts. The study of such groups, whose origins and development cannot be expounded by a simplified dichotomy or modern political terminology on their own, promises a more holistic account of the history of Islamic civilization.

Origins of the Shi'a_cover_Najam Haider.jpg

Najam Haider Origins of the Shi’a: Identity, Ritual and Sacred Space in Eighth-Century Kufa (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press: 2011)

The paucity of historical sources may be one explanation for why the Sunni-Shia chasm dominates literatures on the history of Islam—it proves convenient to otherwise source-less historians. Recently, the more innovative have found ways to remedy the source scarcity. In Origins of the Shia, Najam Haider shows how sources which may appear ahistorical at first glance can in fact elucidate elements of subjective identity—providing new insights on the history of Islamic groups. By drawing from innovations in “textual archaeology… [Haider is able] to identify traditions and views concerning specific ritual practices among jamā’ī-Sunnī, Zaydī, and Imāmī scholars in the early eight century Kufa (modern day Najaf)” (p. 1395). Haider’s method is nothing less than revolutionary in its pedagogical implications. For one, his rich and complex narrative, produced by emphasizing the role of ritual as one way to discern the consolidation of a group’s subjective identity, stands in stark contrast to histories crafted exclusively with reference to objective identities. Second, the work shows that when the Sunni-Shia binary framework is employed with reference to anachronistic formulations of politics, historians miss fundamental aspects of group formation. Accordingly, instructors of Islamic Civilization should be weary of investigating the fragmentation of the early Islamic community in sole reference to the political or theological.

In effect, the third pedagogical drawback—the risk of “modern ideologies masquerading as historical truths”—is already minimized when the former two are remedied. Distinguishing objective from subjective identity produces a fuller understanding of how and why dominant and non-dominant groups form and decidedly dispels a faux-history of dominant group rivalry. Using Sunni v. Shia as the ultimate explanatory signifier in the history of Islam produces a perpetual enmity that is, as one observer put it, “misguided at best and disingenuous at worst.” As a historical explanatory, it is reductionist. Used as a social scientific predictor, it is dangerous.

Sunni and Shia theological differences do have an important place in Islamic history. Of course, this is partially because this history is still being written: contested along the borders of modern nation-states, fought in violent armed struggle and frequently redefined by geo-political developments. But this phase of Islamic history is no longer, strictly speaking, “Islamic.” Transpiring in circumstances unintelligible in terms of regional or religious isolation, these events are part and parcel of globalization, neoliberalism, and post-colonial nationalism— anything but the climax of a fourteen-hundred-year theological dispute. There is little warrant to look at eighth century Kufa for these events’ origins—no more, anyways, than there is for young scholars to expect a rich history of Islamic civilization through the prism of an exaggerated historical enmity.

Basma N. Radwan is a doctoral student in the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian and African Studies and the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society at Columbia University. Her interests include the history of political thought and the impact of colonialism in the making of modernity. She is currently writing about notions of racial difference in the work of Alexis de Tocqueville.

What We’re Reading: Week of May 1


Peggy Kamuf, “Who Has the Right to Move?” (LARB)

Martin Filler, “The Best Kind of Princess” (NYRB)

Ingrid D. Rowland, “The Virtuoso of Compassion” (NYRB)

Rupert Shortt, “Alvin Plantinga and the Templeton Prize” (TLS)


Nicholas Heron, “70 Years On, Primo Levi” (The Conversation)

Helena Kelly, “The Many Ways in Which We Are Wrong About Jane Austen” (Lithub)

Dana Stuster, “The State of Sovereignty” (Lawfare)

Adam Tooze, “The H-Word by Perry Anderson” (FT)



Joseph Heat, “ ‘You’re Wrong.’” (Chronicle of Higher Education)

Robert Darnton, “A Buffet of French History” (NYRB)

A Digital Archive of Slave Voyages Details the Largest Forced Migration in History” (Smithsonian Magazine)



Emile Chabal, “Europe’s far right: the new normal?.” (History Workshop)

Jakub Dymek and Zsolt Kapelner, “It Doesn’t Take a Dictator to Smother a Free Press,” (Dissent)

Samuel Goldman, “Is a Conservative Crack-Up on the Horizon?” (National Review)

Sarah Jones, The Handmaid’s Tale is a Warning to Conservative Women,” (New Republic)

Jackson Lears, “Mysterian,” (LRB)



Richard Wilson, Bonfire in Merrie England: Shakespeare’s Burning (LRB)

Katie Fitzpatrick, Heartlessness as an Intellectual Style (Chronicle)

Jason Pedicone, Ne Plus Ultra: Classics Beyond the Tenure Track (Eidolon)

Francine Prose, Selling Her Suffering (NYRB)