Intellectual History’s Grounds: A Conversation with Martin Jay

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By guest contributor Alec Walker

Form shapes sight and memory. Yale’s magnificent sightlines serve not only studious tranquility but also cut off the surrounding towers of banking and business, just as gates and security personnel serve to foreclose awareness of those individuals without shelter on the New Haven Green. Aesthetic experience is bound to critical vision: to what extent is this or any university responsible for its setting/surroundings, and to what extent are its members complicit? In no way novel, these questions are too big to be answered in any one article. I raise them merely to set the scene of a recent experience, to mimic my thoughts (critical or despondent) while walking to meet Martin Jay at New Haven’s “The Study,” just down from the Green.

Professor Jay, Ehrman Professor of European History Emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, was in town to give the keynote address at Yale’s “Arendt and Antisemitism” conference and was kind enough to schedule time to talk with me, a first year PhD student in Yale’s history department. Professor Jay discussed his initial interest in history, and how a series of experiences at Union College and the London School of Economics shaped his intellectual future, his past works, and his present projects (a more detailed biographical interview of Jay that covers much of this ground can found here). In the name of setting the scene, it suffices to say that he took time from his day to discuss, with an aspiring historian, how history, particularly intellectual history, “gains from its interactions with adjacent fields” and “grows by being open…by being eclectic.” Our conversation from within an ivory tower was framed, from the start, with views to an exit, or at least a move away from strict disciplinary constructions.

I had asked Professor Jay to speak with me in late September; by the time we spoke, on 1 November, things had changed. My anxiety had ceased to be about meeting an intellectual hero and had become a concern about the relevance of our conversation. I raised this concern to Jay, asking how one should speak of antisemitism in the wake of Squirrel Hill?  What, in 2018, was an academic’s role, and what connections between intellectual history and politics might exist? He offered words of quiet comfort, stating that “It would be easy to succumb to despair,” to believe “that emotions trump meaning.” To this, he proposed the possibility that “if you have any faith in the public sphere…and are not too elitist in your attitudes…. you can still hold out for something.” This possibility frames the remainder of this essay. How might intellectual history continue to strive to see beyond its own methodological walls, in a time when walls have become quite fraught?

Jay’s keynote showed Jewish intellectuals thinking about the Holocaust as a case of more than merely banal evil, in which the victims were more than scapegoats. They were rather chosen precisely because of the pivotal role which Jews played in the progress of civilization, placing them “somewhere between absolute guilt and absolute innocence.” This speech, in keeping with its title, “Blaming the Victim? Arendt, Adorno and Erikson on the Jewish Role in Stimulating Anti-Semitism,” was at once intriguing and dissonant, taking place some five days after the massacre at Tree of Life. This dissonance proved productive insofar as it found Jewish thinkers placing responsibility (for the development and progression of civilization) but not guilt (for their victimhood) at their own feet, with the dual effect of restoring agency to the victim and shifting attention away from the victimizer. Erich Erickson, Theodor Adorno, and Hannah Arendt all offered what Jay referred to as “uncomfortable insights.” Whether explaining the Holocaust in terms of the Jewish ability to thrive within relativity, their complicity in domination and simultaneous resistance to the same, or the plight of Jewish worldlessness and the power of the pariah, all three offered analyses that explained the disaster in terms that granted a subsequent space for agency. Jay, however, found that these cosmic claims were hard to ground historically and thus to activate.

Critical history here discovers a premise without historical foundation, its method becoming at once precarious and productive, his speech arriving at an impasse. Such intellectual acrobatics are certainly capable of reclaiming agency and clearing the ground for critique, but it is not clear that they are capable of escaping the merely negative, of articulating a positive policy. I would hazard the guess that its recuperation – and the reason that Professor Jay continues to profess– is in some way accessible to the historian and lies precisely in a historicization that points out moments of impasse, when critical intellect has failed to construct a means of egress.

In our conversation, Jay insisted that “people are always more than the categories under which we subsume them.” This insistence implies a moral correlate, what Jay referred to as “the humility to listen to people,” the patience to understand that positions and philosophies which one might find quite painful also express a kind of pain. This formulation, though, risks passivity – the reporting of an idea without a concomitant moment for critique and re-articulation. Teaching, in its many forms, presents the bridge by which this gap might be closed. The intellectual historian, in her writing, is tasked with tracing, one might even say excavating, old ideas into the now. In teaching, she is given a space of translation and transmission.

Hannah Arendt, the subject of the conference that brought Professor Jay to New Haven, considered education an inherently conservative project. Education is the “responsibility for the development of the child” which is conducted “against the world: the child requires special protection and care so that nothing destructive may happen to him from the world. But the world, too, needs protection…[from] the onslaught of the new that burst upon it with each new generation” (The Crisis in Education, 8).  This leads her to conclude that the educator must “decisively divorce the realm of education from the others, most of all from the realm of public, political life” (The Crisis in Education, 13). The word conservative is doubly indexed – in the first instance to preservation, the second to exclusion. The latter formulation walls education off, and simultaneously proclaims those walls good and necessary. Today, it is no longer tenable to insist on such a division. If historicization requires empathetic listening and subsequent re-articulation, an enclosed pedagogy will not do, and cannot reclaim education’s preserving function. A critical analysis of the relationship between thought and prejudice is precisely what the world needs, and thus must not be gated off.

Jay ended his keynote in admitted dissonance and disappointment. The important efforts of Arendt to maintain a sense of historical agency which explain antisemitism collapse. At this realization, “one feels a horror….one feels a kind of shudder of disappointment.” This is as an accurate enough description of our national and intellectual mood, which is also an accuracy necessitating measured rejection. Jay’s reading, I think, was quite correct. In dealing with antisemitism, with racism, with fascism, we still need more readings, though, more readings that willingly embrace the politics and the teaching that they necessitate. It is time to read thinkers differently or read different thinkers. We need critical readings a bit closer to the ground, that explains theory as informed by and mutually informing political, economic, and legal edifices. We need an intellectual history that not only historicizes, that not only theorizes, but that is capable of seeing beyond its own academic boundaries, that is capable of critiquing the continued resonances of ideas that one finds quite odious, rather than reproducing, at one level of abstraction, the impasse it critically reveals. While Jay’s speech came to an impasse, his method suggests a way forward. Teaching, for him, creates “non-hierarchal dialogic relationships. Despite his stunningly prolific career, he insisted that there was no “Berkeley school.” His students have carried forth this flexible, open form, and have done much to propagate what Arendt would call education’s conserving function without its problematic conservative bits. It needs to be carried further.

As an undergraduate, I read Jay’s The Dialectical Imagination. A former student, who had read Hegel with him, informed me that Jay referred to the process as walking through a swamp on stilts – the key was to keep moving. I mean neither to imply that the Frankfurt School should be forgotten, nor that this is a bad method of reading Hegel. Rather, I want to suggest that intellectual history must learn to approach different terrain closer to the ground, without any loss of acrobatics. The ground on which intellectual history takes place need to be broadened. The complement of a gated education, a swampy terrain implies an intellect to which the historian comes beseechingly, on whose ground she cannot stand too long, from which she can carry only small insights of some putative whole. The task is now to observe spaces, taken so long to be given, without an intellectual history, and find the ideas and agents by which they operate. Jay’s vision of his own profession enables this. If the intellectual historian listens and through writing and teaching critiques, intellectual history can be further separated from the history of intellectuals and even, perhaps, the history of philosophy. This effort has been and continues to be made by intellectual historians operating in Jay’s tradition of eclecticism, through efforts to historicize formations of state power, political economy, and legality. In the light of recent events, this practice needs certainly to be continued. And amidst all these renovations, it is also pressing that we keep the importance of form, the relevance of taking ideas seriously in mind. It seems important not to forget the dialectical imagination capable of remaining in tension, of imagining a stringent critique of all the problems of the academy and accumulation amidst magnificent neogothic absurdity, which can appreciate all the ironies of bemoaning ivory tower navel-gazing while ending quite self-consciously.

Alec Walker is a first year PhD student in history at Yale University. His research focuses on modern European legal and intellectual history.

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