Over the week from Christmas to New Year, we’ll be taking a brief hiatus from our regular publishing schedule. To tide you over until 2019, we’ll be publishing two installments of holiday reading recommendations. The first is below. In the meantime, all the best for the holidays from the team at JHI website.
This month I made the acquaintance of the Marquis de Condorcet, the mathematician and political philosopher who was one of the most prominent casualties when the French Revolution began to eat its children. The edition of his Political Writings in the Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought series includes limpid, stirring translations of his famous Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind, as well as his explorations of liberty, slavery (to which he was vehemently opposed), gender equality (of which he was vehemently in favor), despotism, and revolution, as well as his final message to his daughter, penned while in hiding from the Revolution, just before his death.
Condorcet’s Sketch is an engrossing vision of human history divided into ten—of course ten, as a good Enlightenment project of decimalization—stages, beginning with the most primitive warrior tribes through to the Revolution’s vindication of liberty, with the tenth stage meditating on “the future progress of the human mind.” He demands why, “if man can […] predict phenomena when he know their laws, and if, even when he does not, he can with high probability forecast the events of the future on the basis of his experience of the past, why, then should it regarded as a fantastic undertaking to sketch, with some pretence to truth, the future destiny of man on the basis of his history?” (125). Condorcet is as good as his word, offering a rhapsody of predictions ranging from the wonkish (sugar cultivation will spread throughout Africa ), to the utopian (lifespans “will increase indefinitely as time passes” ), to the downright genocidal (the “savage” peoples, “reduced in number as they are driven back by civilised nations […] will finally disappear imperceptibly before them or merge into them” ). Though the dark edge to the Enlightenment is all too visible, Condorcet’s sweeping narrative of human history, in which politics, culture, and material realities are always intertwined, still makes for heady reading. “The ultimate aim of tyranny,” he declares, “is to establish real differences between masters and slaves, and so, as it were, to make nature herself an accomplice of political inequality” (59). Read alongside scholarship by Dorothy Roberts and Ruha Benjamin on the biologization of racism in the United States, the marquis’s observations felt eerily prescient. Perhaps it is simply the romantic, quixotic character of the text’s genesis—the egalitarian nobleman spinning out a dream of humanity’s progress while a fugitive from the Reign of Terror, ultimately taking his own life rather than face the guillotine—but I feel drawn to Condorcet’s explorations, a “fantastic undertaking” indeed, as to few other grand narrators.
This month, I have been reading Paolo Squatriti’s Landscape and Change in Early Medieval Italy: Chestnuts, Economy, and Culture. As I am trying to bring together research in History, Anthropology, and Environmental Humanities in order to think about urban waterscapes in medieval and Renaissance Florence, I started being intrigued by the history of forests and their entanglement with water, rivers, and human communities.
Along with the most recent historiographic developments prompted by the new temporal categories of the Anthropocene, Squatriti’s book invites readers to move away from the idea that trees are a-historical entities or “mere curiosities, marginal to the grander flows of history” (x). By drawing on a variety of disciplines, from archeology to botany and agricultural practices, the author uses archaeological and botanical evidence, as well as more traditional literary and historiographic sources, to trace the deep history of the chestnut (Castanea sativa) in Italy during the Middle Ages, with a special focus on two areas in Campania and the Po Valley as case-studies.
Across the book’s five chapters, historians are invited to rethink the categories of natural, political, and cultural history by delving into the intricate web of biological processes, ideas, and practices that informed the making of the chestnut grove across the centuries.
While the main scope of the book might be to answer “why a plant with a rather low profile in high imperial Italy found so much space as Roman authority waned” (66), in each page the reader is exposed to defamiliarizing readings of facts and realities that might be seen as obvious and self-evident, from the Roman-induced Mediterranean exchange to the supposed large-scale afforestation occuring in the Middle Ages. The micro-history of the chestnuts not only “opens unexpected vistas onto supposedly familiar historical terrain” (x), but also invites – like Salaman’s potato – to “rethink objects through their cultural and biological history” (90). Nothing could be more “banal” than a roasted or boiled chestnut for a contemporary Italian. And yet, the chestnut has a complex history that is connected to Romanization and Roman imperialism and whose ecological and cultural facets are explored by Squatriti.
Reading this book has proved an incredible experience not only for re-imagining the early Middle Ages through the arboreal landscape of that time, but also for developing a new perception of the crucial role familiar landscapes and environments play in the unravelling of history. As I start reflecting on Tuscan waterscapes of the past, Squatriti’s book alarmed me about how conceptions of stable landscapes might inflect the contours of the history we produce in exploring environmental processes and dynamics.
Go see the Museum of Modern Art’s “Judson Dance Theater: The Work is Never Done.” By all means, see the exhibition — and read the catalogue, which is a useful supplement to the objects on display — but really, go see the dance performances. If you’re too far away to visit the museum, search for footage of the dances online. (YouTube has lots of them.) There is one subtle advantage to watching the dances at home. If you feel compelled, you can try the movements. If this idea calls to you, you may want to join Movement Research at the MoMA in January for a series of workshops and classes on creative process and movement.
In the language of dance, dances are “set” on dancers — the dancer’s body is, in a real sense, the raw material of creation. (Of course, there’s also the space activated by the dancer’s body, the light, the sound, the colors–but the dancer’s body is the kernel of the work. Without those bodies, there would be nothing.) There is a famous Merce Cunningham quote, frequently cited by dancers: “You have to love dancing to stick to it. It gives you nothing back, no manuscripts to store away, no paintings to show on walls and maybe hang in museums, no poems to be printed and sold, nothing but that single fleeting moment when you feel alive.”
While the MoMA show presents an impressive array of documents and artifacts, Cunningham gets to the truth of dance. It is an art form that lives, moment by moment, in the dancer. The tradition of dance, like any other craft-based tradition, is handed down through memory and performance. By “performance,” I do not mean that situation where one performs in front of an audience. I mean the practice of the craft, of performing the actions until the craft lives within the body, in its joints and sinews, muscles and bones.
It is interesting–and poignant–to watch choreographers and dancers try to shake off that body of tradition, to rebel against memory, shake off the classical line. But the body is an instrument that is not easily mastered. Watch history creep in, despite the iconoclasm. Watch tradition return, in the after image of a gesture.
Thoughts lead to thoughts. No that’s not right. Perhaps it’s better to say questions lead to questions. Or rather, the questions one is left with at the end of a thought lead to more thoughts. And more questions. I could go on, but lest I test the readers patience further I’ll say that I came to my book this month, Jürgen Habermas’ The Theory of Communicative Action, by a question left at the end of a thought.
When I finished my PhD on Nietzsche and metaphor earlier this year and had spent far too long thinking about the ultimately relative foundations of the meaning of language, I was left wondering how it is that, despite its ultimate relativity, language plays a part in producing mutual understanding. The match between words and things may only be, as Nietzsche puts it, ‘a sum of human relations’ (250), but we still manage to use it to create mutual understanding that motivates us to take action. I’m still not sure whether Habermas’ The Theory of Communicative Action finishes the thought, but he certainly dares to grapple with the question.
In the process of all these thoughts and questions, I find that Habermas is a brilliant writer to read for the history of ideas. He is part of an explicit attempt to address the troubled heritage of having a universal concept with hard borders and edges and yet he does not go down the route of relativism. Whatever we might make of the answers Habermas provides, we do begin to get a conceptual history of sorts. A friend of mine said to me recently that Habermas can be stylistically dry and that his historical background can seem long winded. It is fair to say that he can be a bit dry. Stylistically, he is no Nietzsche. But Habermas’ sense of history is what is so brilliant about him. In reading the long historical bits, you can see him working out his own ideas in relation to the history of a given concept. As a result, he gives you the history of a concept through his eyes, through his relation to that concept. Because of this, The Theory of Communicative Action is a wonderful book to dip in and out of because of its almost encyclopaedic quality. One need not only approach it systematically as is often done. And that’s why, as the cold draws in here in London and the Christmas break leaves more time for occasionally dry and lengthy histories, I recommend a dip into The Theory of Communicative Action this December.