Think Piece

Max Weber and Pakistan

by guest contributor Shahrukh Khan

Max Weber

Max Weber was a reluctant modernist. He understood that the major social and political trends of the modern world were irresistible, but this understanding came with a tinge of regret. In January 1919, months after Germany’s unconditional surrender, Weber delivered a lecture in Munich, on “politics as a vocation.” In this lecture, Weber defined the state in his famous formulation: “Like the political organizations that preceded it historically, the state represents a relationship in which people rule over other people. This relationship is based on the legitimate use of force (that is to say, force that is perceived as legitimate).”


Though the definition of a state in these terms has been useful, it has become, as anthropologist Stanley J. Tambiah notes, “a sick joke.” “After so many successful liberations and resistance movements in many parts of the globe,” Tambiah writes, “techniques of guerrilla resistance are now systematized and exportable knowledge.” (Leveling Crowds 6). But we need not even go as far as “guerrilla resistance” to see that political violence based on, for example, religious fervor has taken hostage the notion that the state is the sole custodian of violence. Across the globe, groups and leaders with a foothold outside the confines of ‘government’ vie for legitimacy with the instruments of the Weberian state. In the postcolonial world, Pakistan is a striking example of the working through of statehood and force, particularly as its founding on the idea of religious sovereignty sits anxiously with the boundaries of state (often regarded as a secular space, in opposition to “church”) and non-state.

In this context, debates over the viability of “democracy” in the postcolonial world intersect with assumptions about the compatibility of an effective state and the presence of religious conflict. Debates about the compatibility of democracy and Islamic public morality in Pakistan often turn on the question of effective political authority, which for Weber is compromised by bureaucracy. Bureaucracy is a form of human organization that rests on norms rather than persons. But Muslims, especially those who protest blasphemous remarks against the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), may not entirely support this characterization of bureaucracy or governance. After all, for many observant Muslims, allegiance in daily life or religious practice is not to the bureaucratic state but rather to Allah and His Messenger.

However, a religious reader might find particular sympathy with Weber, because for Weber, the only way that the world could be saved was through a person who is holds a “gift of grace” that legitimizes his rule. Naturally, such reasoning has led critics like Wolfgang Mommsen to accuse Weber of being a fascist well-wisher. But “grace” as the possession of an authoritarian figure, and “grace” as a holy thing might well be in the eyes of the reader. Attending to the history of blasphemy in South Asia – and how the British attempted to regulate interconfessional life – illustrates this intersection.

For many Muslims, the Prophet holds ultimate sway in how they practice their religion. Muslims do not simply follow the Prophet’s advice or admonitions, but also “try to emulate how he dressed; what he ate; how he spoke to his friends and adversaries; how he slept, walked, and so on.” (Mahmood, Is Critique Secular? 75) Such actions and behaviors are collectively referred to as the Prophet’s sunnah, and though they are not divine commandments (Muslims hold the Prophet in a venerable, non-divine light), they are virtues that Muslims attempt to embody. As such, insulting the Prophet is not like an ornery attack on one’s family member or teacher. It is an attack on ways of being. The Prophet is a materially grounded figure (in religious signs, for example) that holds unique semiotic value as a matter of spirituality, lifestyle, and morality. The Prophet and his sunnah represent a connection between corporeality, religious practice, and otherworldliness. Put more bluntly, attacking the Prophet is not just hate speech, but an attack against an entire repertoire of sensibilities that govern proper, moral conduct and serve as a conduit for Muslims to please Allah. However, the semiotics of the Prophet’s corporeality are only part of the reason why blasphemy is so politically sensitive in Pakistan today.

The British were quick to realize that the conquest of India required dominating geography as well an epistemological terrain replete with a litany of social, religious, and political persuasions (Cohn, Colonialism and its Forms of Knowledge, Bernard Cohn). Brute force and military campaigns would not work on their own. Administrators of company rule and later, of the colonial state, had to compromise somewhere, and compromise found its most robust manifestation in the allocation of legal authority.

The law is not only concerned with ending conflict but also nourishing its expansion. British colonial administration suggests a slight permutation of this argument, because it involved the allocation of power to different contingencies in Indian society – chiefs, princes, religious leaders, etc – as a way of enacting its own sovereignty. In other words, the British colonial state should be understood not through its expansion of power, but its limitations. This gave way to a system of fragmented, competing sovereignties and sources of legitimacy that presaged issues of sovereignty today.

While democratic principles of freedom would ostensibly celebrate such a “diversity” of voices, the same would not obtain for a modern legal apparatus whose legitimacy is secured by a monopoly on the means of violence. Much of nineteenth-century European academia exposited the state as omnipotent, casting it as symbolically pervasive and domineering.

Anthropology has empirically evinced this theoretical stance, against which Pakistan has often been labeled as a ‘failed state,’ as too reductive. The Pakistani state lacks the political and legal thrust, the failed state argument goes, to consolidate its sovereignty and become the sole warden of violence and physical power. And it is precisely this insufficiency that has enabled many factions to take the law into their own hands. The most prominent of these factions is the Tehreek-i-Labbaik, an Islamic political party founded by Khadim Hussain Rizvi. Its main goal has been to organize and lead street protests in an effort to secure (very) prejudicial enforcement of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.

The distribution of power in colonial India, as it were, has made securing liberty for minorities and women in Pakistan in the present more difficult than the colonists might had have it.


The lack of the consolidation of power is what animated the Islamization project of General Zia-ul-Haq, the military dictator ruling over Pakistan during the 1970s and 1980s. Zia attempted to see Weber’s understanding of the state to its completion, with a modification: he wanted to secure state legitimacy and sovereignty on religious grounds, not secular ones.

During Zia’s rule, the Parliament added Clause 295-C to the penal code, criminalizing derogatory remarks against companions of the Prophet Muhammad and other religious figures. Punishment, initially limited to a prison term of up to three years, was expanded through a legal mandate issued by the Federal Shariat Court (FCC) in 1991. It ordered the government to remove the option of life imprisonment, leaving death as the only punishment for making blasphemous remarks.

Reading Weber’s state onto Pakistan’s blasphemy laws might seem like an eclectic pairing, not least of all because his “gift of grace” was hardly compatible with the precise ways in which the Pakistani state has taken up its so-called “religious” duties. Even so, the presence of “grace” in the authority of the state and the divine echoes of that virtue are one way to read the coming together of the authority of the bureaucratic state and the prohibition against blasphemy. The complex history of blasphemy law in Pakistan suggests that much of the violence enacted by non-state actors is filtered through the experiences and incentives of colonial administrators and post-colonial national elites whose goals were as diverse as the religious traditions they attempted to regulate.

Shahrukh Khan is a J.D. candidate at Emory University School of Law. His interests broadly focus on philosophy, secularism, and American constitutional law. He received his BA in Social Studies, with a focus in European intellectual history and linguistics, from Harvard College.


Intellectual history


by guest contributor Jonathon Catlin


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The German historian Reinhart Koselleck (1923–2006) is best known as the founder of Begriffsgeschichte, or conceptual history, a historical methodology that culminated in the Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe: Historisches Lexikon zur politisch-sozialen Sprache, a massive eight-volume encyclopedia of fundamental historical concepts that Koselleck co-edited with Otto Brunner and Werner Conze. Toward the end of his life Koselleck moved away from his earlier project of conceptual history and directed his intellectual energies to issues of memory and iconography, as seen in his late collection of essays Zeitschichten (2000). Several essays from this volume, as well as some written after its publication, have been recently collected and translated into English as Sediments of Time: On Possible Histories (Stanford, 2018) with an introduction by Koselleck’s former student Stefan-Ludwig Hoffman (available free online).

Koselleck and conceptual history are having a veritable resurgence. One of the most interesting fruits born of this wave of interest is the three-part exhibition “Reinhart Koselleck und das Bild” (Reinhart Koselleck and the Image), which was displayed in Bielefeld, Germany, in spring and summer 2018. It was curated by Dr. Bettina Brandt and Dr. Britta Hochkirchen, two scholars affiliated with Bielefeld University, the history faculty of which Koselleck helped establish in the 1960s and where he taught until his retirement in 1988. Besides Koselleck’s conceptual history—documented in his archive and library at the Deutsches Literaturarchiv (DLA) in Marbach—he also took over ten thousand photographs, which are now housed separately at the Bildarchiv Foto Marburg and viewable online. Most of his photographs were part of two thematic projects, Politischer Totenkult (the political cult of the dead, with a focus on war memorials) and Politische Ikonographie/Ikonologie (political iconography and iconology, with a focus on equestrian monuments). These began as hobbies but matured into intellectual projects in their own right, with the former culminating in Koselleck’s 1994 co-edited volume Der politische Totenkult: Kriegerdenkmäler in der Moderne.

Selections of Koselleck’s photographs were displayed in three different locations around Bielefeld, each of which highlighted a different dimension of his work on iconography. Curators Brandt and Hochkirchen argue convincingly that the late Koselleck—and to some degree his earlier project of conceptual history as well—was deeply attuned to visual as well as linguistic semantics. They thus position Koselleck at the forefront of the recent “iconic turn” to aesthetics, political iconography, and metaphorology. Their curatorial work reveals that conceptual history’s traditionally logocentric tools of etymology, philology, hermeneutics, and historical semantics only achieve their true interpretive power when combined with the study of closely related icons, symbols, and images.

koselleck 2

The exhibit thus links Koselleck to the Blumenbergian turn of recent works of conceptual and intellectual history such as the volume The Scaffolding of Sovereignty: Global and Aesthetic Perspectives on the History of a Concept (Columbia, 2017), co-edited by Zvi Ben-Dor Benite, Stefanos Geroulanos, and Nicole Jerr, which opens up a number of new approaches for conceptual history. This work illustrates through diverse case studies that sovereignty is at once a concept that can be “filled up” with different meanings in different times and places, an image inextricably linked in political modernity to the iconography of the Hobbesian sovereign, and a Blumenbergian absolute metaphor” of the visualization of the body politic in one sovereign. This turn toward linking conceptual history with aesthetics and political theology has helped put some final nails in the coffin of the fallacies of rationality and coherence that has long constrained the history of ideas to narrowly conceived “philosophical” subjects. The fact that Brandt and Hochkirchen—like Koselleck himself—have training in art history is evident in their attempt to open up conceptual history to new audiences, both within the academic world and for a public interested in the politics of memory and representation.

One political icon in particular preoccupied Koselleck for much of his life: the horse. The exhibit “Political Sensuality” (Politische Sinnlichkeit) displayed in Bielefeld’s Center for Interdisciplinary Research (ZiF) explored the way the modern political “space of experience” (Erfahrungsraum) engages all five senses and the body. It presents everything from his photographs of political symbols, such as statues of Karl Marx, to dozens of figures of horses from his personal collection—ranging from everyday products and advertisements emblazoned with horse iconography to collectable figurines Koselleck displayed on the bookshelves in his office, to the stuffed horse he took naps with in his old age.

Koselleck stuffed horse-1

The horse captivated Koselleck because it was employed by a wide range of modern political ideologies as a symbol of power and sovereignty. The equestrian statue was one of the fundamental symbols of political modernity and conveys the “space of experience” (Erfahrungsraum) of the Sattelzeit (1750-1850), the period of modern conceptual emergence at the center of Begriffsgeschichte. Koselleck characterized the horse as a privileged icon of the modern era and even wrote of an “equine age” (Pferdezeitalter).

Koselleck horse figures 1-1

As the horse lost its economic and military functions with the advent of industrial power, the automobile, and the tank, it was consigned to more trivial functions as a means of leisure and recreation. This was the meaning horses held for Koselleck in his own time, given his childhood passion for horseback riding. His impressive collection of figures captures this semantic shift, from commanding military figures to the playful carousel pony and rocking horse.

Koselleck horse figures 2-1Koselleck as rocking horse-1

The curators argue that Koselleck was deeply attuned to the mediated quality of his images. He regularly took photographs of television programs, especially parades and ceremonies, that are marked by distortions, glare, and fuzziness, thus tangibly conveying their multi-mediated status.

Koselleck television photographs

Koselleck similarly kept poor quality photographs taken out of train windows that are often overcast by flash glare and others including reflections of his own face and hands. For the curators, these images seem to express a “double quality”: on the one hand, images seduce the eye and draw the viewer in, but on the other they create distance and distortion that keeps the viewer at a critical distance. This attention to visuality reflects Koselleck’s broader contention that history is always plural and contested: experiences, expectations, and interpretations pile up in layers and battle for significance and meaning. Koselleck’s photographs of statues of Karl Marx exemplify his attention to competing historical perspectives: a statue that from a distance looks imposing and commanding becomes an absurd caricature up close.

Koselleck Marx photographs

“Layers of Time” (Zeitschichten), which takes its name from Koselleck’s late collection of essays, is displayed in Bielefeld University’s History Faculty. It presents dozens of clusters of Koselleck’s photographs concerning historical objects, time, and experience, revealing his sharp eye for spotting layers of history, memory traces, anachronisms, uncanny juxtapositions of time, repetitions, and multiple modernities—what he, following Ernst Bloch, called “the simultaneity of the non-simultaneous” (die ‘Ungleichzeitigkeit’ des Gleichzeitigen). The visual aspect of the title layers or sediments of time recalls a quotation by Koselleck featured at the beginning of the exhibition: “Whoever speaks about time is dependent upon metaphors.”

Koselleck Via del Progresso-1

This exhibit also provides a bit of intellectual history behind Koselleck’s “image praxis.” He initially wanted to attend an art academy and become a caricaturist. He abandoned this plan in favor of history, but while studying in Heidelberg he continued to attend art history seminars. One of the few physical objects on display is Koselleck’s heavily underlined copy of Giotto – Arenafresken: Ikonographie, Ikonologie, Ikonik, a 1980 work of art criticism by his friend and colleague Max Imdahl (a fellow member of the group Poetics and Hermeneutics, which met around Germany from 1963–1994). Koselleck took particular interest in Imdahl’s notions of “Bildzeit” (image-time) and “Bildzeitlichkeit” (image-temporality), which theorize pictorial expressions of time—the layers of history sedimented within every image.

Max Imdahl, Giotto, 1979
Koselleck’s underlined copy of Max Imdahl, Giotto – Arenafresken: Ikonographie, Ikonologie, Ikonik. Munich, 1980. Held at the Deutschesliteraturarchiv Marbach.

The exhibit also includes a small selection of caricatures from Koselleck’s own hand, which depict political figures such as Konrad Adenauer, Theodor Heuss, and Harry Truman, as well as his former professors Karl Jaspers, Hans-Georg Gadamer, and Karl Löwith. In 1983, on the occasion of Koselleck’s sixtieth birthday, a volume of his drawings and caricatures was published as Vorbilder – Bilder, with a short introduction by Imdahl.

Koselleck caricatures-1
Koselleck’s caricatures, published in Vorbilder – Bilder, 1983. Top left: Konrad Adenauer in 1949 after his election as Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany; Top right: German Federal President Theodor Heuss on December 12, 1952, a few hours before his decision to rescind the judicial opinion of the Federal Constitutional Court against West German rearmament under pressure from CDU Chancellor Konrad Adenauer. The image is dedicated to Carl Schmitt, with whom Koselleck had a correspondence and whom he thanks in the preface to his first book, Critique and Crisis; Bottom right: “Oder? Oder?” comically depicts Polish leader Władysław Gomułka receiving Charles de Gaulle in 1967 to affirm the Oder-Neisse border between Germany and Poland.
Koselleck Eric Hobsbawm drawing-1
Koselleck’s sketch of the British Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm, who taught Koselleck at a reeducation center at Göhrde castle in 1947.

Koselleck’s photographs often evoke temporal acceleration and the paradoxes of technological progress. In a single frame he frequently contrasts signs of progress and regression, utopia and catastrophe, forgetting and haunting. The most frequent image he sought to capture was the juxtaposition of a blurred modern high-speed train rushing past the stationary statue of a rider on horseback, representing the displacement of the horse by the train as the dominant mode of transit in Europe—yet also the persistence of equestrian iconography.

Koselleck train and rider-1

The final exhibit, “Memory Sluices” (Erinnerungsschleusen) was displayed at the Bielefelder Kunstverein and curated by its director, Thomas Thiel. It presents Koselleck’s foray into the politics of memory and the “cult of the dead”, which he argued was “one of the signatures” of political modernity in his 1983 essay “Sluices of Memory and Sediments of Experience.” As the European nation-state emerged as the center of modern life during the Sattelzeit, the Christian monopoly on the meaning of death through salvation and the afterlife gave way to the perpetuation of life through the political futurity of the nation. Koselleck’s work showed that this shift was evident in changing memorials for the dead. The French revolutionaries first sought to memorialize each individual fallen soldier regardless of rank, symbolizing the democratic principle of equality in sacrifice to the nation. Nations created a cult of those who died for them and erected magnificent monuments for their worship.

Monument to the Battle of the Nations
Monument to the Battle of the Nations, Leipzig, 1913 – Wikipedia.

World War One served as the high point of this practice of naming the dead regardless of their rank. In the battlefields of Flanders, the Somme, or Verdun, “no name could go missing” because “the equality of death becomes the symbol of the political unit of action” (Sediments of Time, pp. 218, 217). Koselleck connected such forms of memory back to structures of possible historical experience: “Wartime experiences could only be made and raised to the level of consciousness because they fitted into a grid of historically pregiven possibilities of experience…formed through language, ideology, political organization, generation, gender and family, class, and social stratum” (p. 213).

Koselleck First and Second World War-1

After World War One, however, and especially after World War Two, memorials ceased to name the individual dead because “sacrificial importance” could no longer be attributed to mass civilian death and genocide. In West German memorials for fallen soldiers and concentration camp victims, Koselleck wrote, “it becomes especially clear that death is no longer understood as an answer and instead only as a question, death no longer generates meaning, instead it calls out for meaning” (p. 218). In his 2002 essay “Forms and Traditions of Negative Memory,” Koselleck called this “negative finding” the “abysmalness” (Abgründigkeit) of remembering the National Socialist period: “Senselessness [Sinnlosigkeit] became an event. There is no attribution of meaning [Sinnstiftung] that could retroactively encompass or redeem all the crimes of the National Socialist Germans” (p. 240). Successful post-World War Two memorials such as those of Jochen Gerz—what James E. Young calls “counter-monuments”—thus attempt “to show that the question of meaning has itself become meaningless” (p. 248).

Esther Shalev-Gerz and Jochen Gerz, "The Monument Against Fascism," 1986
Esther Shalev-Gerz and Jochen Gerz, “The Monument Against Fascism,” 1986.

Koselleck contributed essays to debates about memorializing the Holocaust in Germany that culminated in Peter Eisenman’s 2008 Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. His positions center on the ambivalent relationship between perpetrator and victim, for he notes that during the National Socialist period itself, “victim” (Opfer) referred to soldiers who sacrificed themselves for glory of the Reich, whereas after the war it came to symbolize senseless and passive death. Memorials to the First World War that had been repurposed in the service of Nazi propaganda were once again altered by the Allied occupiers: “References to fame and honor were removed, heroes were transformed into victims or the dead” (p. 223). To the extent that such memorials honored both war and terror in conjunction, they represent “a kind of despairing meaningless…more a loss than a founding of identity.” New “rituals” like painting over soldiers’ memorials with words such as “never again war” signal piling up layers of meaning but also breakthroughs into new forms of historical consciousness.

Koselleck Nooit Meer Auschwitz-1

Koselleck was adamant about three points in Germany’s debates about remembering the National Socialist past. First, he wrote that the experiences of terror and useless suffering of the victims could not be transmitted: “They fill the memory of those affected by them, they form their memories, flow into their bodies like a mass of lava, immovable and inscribed….As a primary experience, the experience of absurd meaningless burned into the body cannot be carried over to the memory of others, nor can it be transmitted to the recollection of others who were not affected” (p. 241). He thus concluded that there was no German “collective memory” to speak of. One is confronted here with the senselessness of Koselleck’s own wartime experience: he served as a young Wehrmacht soldier on the Eastern Front and likely would have followed the fate of his brothers to the grave had he not been spared from battle by an injury. After the war he was taken prisoner by the Soviets, who held him on a work duty at Auschwitz and then in a prisoner of war camp in what is now Kazakhstan.

Second, Koselleck wrote, Germany had what his teacher Karl Jaspers called a unique political responsibility to remember not only victims of National Socialism, but also the perpetrators who carried it out its crimes (p. 245). It is no accident that Koselleck’s personal copy of Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, held at the DLA in Marbach, is almost entirely underlined and littered with annotations: political responsibility after the war entailed coming to terms with Germany’s genocidal past and pursuing justice for the victims where possible. Koselleck thus objected to the inscription on Käthe Kollwitz’s Neue Wache memorial for victims of National Socialism in Berlin, “To the Victims of War and Tyranny,” because it “disguises what happened and ignores the brutal and absurd truth of our history.” Instead he proposed: “To the Dead: Fallen, Murdered, Gassed, Died, Missing.”

Finally, Koselleck argued that memorializing victims by same the “racial-zoological” criteria of the SS according to which they were sorted and killed only served to reproduce Nazi identity politics (p. 241). Instead he advocated a single memorial that would honor all victims of National Socialism, not just Europe’s Jews: “We as perpetrators are obliged to treat the other groups in the same way, because we killed all the victims in the same manner…. A perpetrators’ monument [Tätermal] should memorialize all the murdered” (p. 244). Koselleck worried that for Germany to focus on remembering Jewish victims like any other nation served as a “kind of unburdening” from memory of their own past as Germans (p. 246). He presciently noted that after the memorial to European Jewry was completed, Germany would be uniquely obliged as a perpetrator nation to erect separate memorials for Sinti and Roma, homosexuals, and victims of the euthanasia program, who, indeed, have since been remembered by smaller monuments nearby. Notably absent from this list, Koselleck noted, are the 3.5 million Soviet prisoners of war who died in German camps. “Mourning,” he contended, “is not divisible” (p. 245).

Koselleck Euthanasia Sachsenhausen-1
Euthanasia memorial and Sachsenhausen concentration camp

This need to simultaneously remember German, Jewish, and other historical subjects in the Second World War produced an aporia of memory that Koselleck argued could only be symbolized through monuments, not resolved by them. Hence the most successful memorials to both the Holocaust and German war losses, he wrote, were “negative monuments” or “process monuments,” which symbolized the senselessness of National Socialist terror and an ongoing need for working upon the past. Rather than healing wounds, such monuments serve to expose them and keep them open to public memory, debate, and historical consciousness.

Koselleck Treblinka-1
Memorial at Treblinka death camp in Poland

“Koselleck und das Bild” is a striking testament to Koselleck’s visual legacy. His decades-long engagement with visual culture reminds us that images and icons are indispensable points of crystallization for historical experience and memory. Only with the tools of a historical aesthetics can we begin to heed Koselleck’s call to work through the aporias of historical memory that continue to confront us today: “we must think the unthinkable,… learn to speak the unspeakable, and… attempt to imagine the unimaginable” (p. 246).

Photographs by Reinhart Koselleck are courtesy of the Koselleck family and © Deutsches Dokumentationszentrum für Kunstgeschichte – Bildarchiv Foto Marburg. Photographs of the Bielefeld exhibition “Koselleck and das Bild” are courtesy of Philipp Ottendörfer.

Jonathon Catlin is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of History at Princeton University. His dissertation in progress provides a conceptual history of “catastrophe” in modern European thought, focusing on German-Jewish intellectuals including the Frankfurt School of critical theory.


Intellectual history

Firebrand Infrastructures: Insights from the Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry Postgraduate Workshop

by guest contributor Alison McManus 

For less populated fields of history, a conference designed for intellectual exchange can occasionally double as an existence proof. The workshop for the Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry must have appeared to serve that double function when, during the concluding remarks, attendees addressed the question, “Why does the academy no longer advertise for historians of chemistry?” While I cannot dispute the relative lack of job searches that cater specifically to my chosen field, I will note the impression of that field I gleaned from this month’s SHAC workshop was anything but obscurity. To the contrary, my impression was one of robust materiality, critical for historical studies of science and of biology in particular.

Perhaps reflecting Europe’s special relationship with alchemy, the Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry held its first seven Postgraduate Workshops on the East side of the Atlantic. The eighth annual workshop was held in the United States for the first time on December 1st and 2nd at the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia. This year’s workshop was titled “(Al)Chemical Laboratories: Imagining and Creating Scientific Work-Spaces.” As a graduate student, I was fortunate to attend the second day of the workshop, which emphasized chemistry in the 20th century. Focusing on materials, practices, and infrastructure, the SHAC workshop demonstrated the utility of fine-grained technical attention in the history of chemistry. Anchored in physical detail, the history of chemistry came alive through an alchemical demonstration, and when paired with the history of 20th-century biology, it imbued grander narratives of development with much-needed empirical nuance.

In historical studies of science, the relationship between 20th-century chemistry and biology has taken a variety of forms, few of which have been favorable for the former discipline. In Lavoisier and the Chemistry of Life (1987), Frederic Lawrence Holmes famously attributed Lavoisier’s chemical system to the influence of biological theories of respiration. Given Lavoisier’s foundational role in modern chemistry, Holmes implicitly recognized biology as the progenitor of modern chemistry itself. At SHAC, keynote speaker Angela Creager (Princeton) advocated a reversal of this causality. Her address and upcoming Ambix paper, “A Chemical Reaction to the History of Biology,” began with a simple observation: historians of science write the history of 20th century biology in one of three ways, as the story of genetics, of evolution, or of the neo-Darwinian synthesis of the two. Creager characterized Ernst Mayr’s The Growth of Biological Thought (1985) as a founding example of the third genre, in which genetics offers a mechanism to reconcile Mendelian heredity with Darwinian natural selection.

Drawing from scholars such as Vasiliki Smocovitis and Joe Cain, Creager suggested that teleological narratives of synthesis marginalize biological fields less preoccupied with issues of heredity, including physiology, ecology, and endocrinology. Such an historiographical oversight may be political in origin; biological subdisciplines further afield from evolutionary theory simply lack comparable socio-political clout. Here chemistry offers a solution. By focusing on material practices and laboratory infrastructure, Creager illuminated the “cryptic centrality” of chemistry to 20th century biology, at once reversing Holmes’s causal account and expanding the list of relevant biological subdisciplines beyond genetics and evolutionary theory. In line with her earlier work on radioisotopes, Creager recounted the story of G. Evelyn Hutchinson’s 1940s limnological experiments, in which radioisotopes enabled the study of phosphorus cycling in pond ecosystems. The centrality of chemical infrastructure to Hutchinson’s experiments suggested that chemistry did not merely act as cousin or offspring of 20th-century biology but rather allowed it new tools for making sense of life.

Appropriately, the final panel at SHAC featured two scholars working outside genetics and evolutionary biology. Gina Surita (Princeton) discussed Elwood V. Jensen’s discovery of the estrogen receptor, and CHF Fellow Lijing Jiang presented her research on Socialist China’s race to synthesize insulin during the Great Leap Forward. Juxtaposed with Creager’s keynote address, Jiang’s research lent the impression that the story of neo-Darwinian synthesis may resonate rather little with Chinese histories of 20th century biology. Due to the influence of Lysenkoism in Socialist China, the Insulin Project coincided with a ban on genetic engineering. Thus a high-profile research campaign operated in the absence of one major element of the historiographical canon.

alison mcmanus piece_alchemy
The final step of Jennifer Rampling’s and Lawrence Principe’s alchemical demonstration, in which the “gliding fire” corresponds to the gradual oxidation of lead. Image courtesy of Angela Creager.

The workshop concluded with a joint alchemical talk and presentation by Jennifer Rampling (Princeton) and Lawrence Principe (Johns Hopkins). Together with William Newman, Principe pioneered the genre of alchemical reenactment in the late 1980s and early 1990s. When applied to alchemical manuscripts, his chemical training has elucidated the central role of contaminants in the success of alchemical experiments, and in so doing, it has cast alchemy as an experimental rather than wholly imaginative field. Taking textual correspondence to reality as a given, Principe and Rampling sought to recreate Sam Norton’s 16th-century alchemical synthesis of the “vegetable stone,” a substance widely revered for its life-giving properties. Successful replication depended upon both historical and chemical expertise. Rampling recently demonstrated that an essential ingredient known to the alchemists as “sericon” in fact represented two possible ingredients, red lead and antimony, depending upon the age of the alchemical recipe. These components were identified by tracing the recipe’s historical origins. Likewise, Principe’s knowledge of silver refining suggested that copper was an essential contaminant that allowed the recipe to proceed as described.

Experiencing an alchemical reenactment was an exercise in humility. While I cannot attest to the reinvigorating properties of the “vegetable stone” (such claims must surely be relegated to the realm of alchemists’ imaginations), I was nonetheless struck by the correspondence between textual description and my own empirical observations. Sam Norton’s seemingly imaginative claim that “Fire will glide” through grey feces in the final step mapped quite reasonably onto the oxidation of lead, in which patches of bright orange and yellow lead (II, IV) oxide expanded slowly across grey powder. Furthermore, Principe was quick to emphasize a central problem in alchemical reenactments, namely the issue of accounting for failed replication. A gap between historical text and contemporary practice may reflect a misleading claim by the alchemist, but alternately, one may fault the modern experimenter’s chemical and historical competence. Nevertheless, relentless experimentation with material alchemy offers a means to close the gap.


At the conclusion of the workshop, I found myself attempting to reconcile a dissonance between the status of the discipline and the expository and corrective work underway within it. I now wonder to what extent that dissonance might itself be productive. During the SHAC workshop, the material history of chemistry operated both for its own sake and as a much-needed auxiliary to the history of biology. Surely, scholars working in the history of chemistry may yet expect to search for jobs defined primarily by period or region. Still, I might suggest that the lack of “historian of chemistry” jobs is far more pertinent to academics’ self-fashioning than the ranking of the field’s relevance. In providing infrastructure to 20th-century biology, the discipline of chemistry at once makes itself essential and leaves itself vulnerable to being overlooked. Restoring attention to these infrastructural elements enables the more modest field to issue a correction from below. In this sense, might humble fields be particularly insightful ones?

Alison McManus is a PhD student in History of Science at Princeton University, where she studies 20th century chemical sciences. She is particularly interested in the development and deployment of chemical weapons technologies.

Intellectual history


by contributing writer Jonathon Catlin

This post is adapted from the author’s contribution to a panel discussion entitled “The Frankfurt School Knew Trump Was Coming” hosted by the Leo Baeck Institute, New York City on October 25, 2017, featuring co-panelists Jack Jacobs, Liliane Weissberg, and Anson Rabinbach. A video recording of the event can be found here.

Over a year after the election of Donald Trump, countless comparisons have been made between our populist moment and the rise of authoritarianism and fascism in twentieth-century Europe. Placing even greater stress on this tenuous analogy, many of Trump’s critics have turned to analysis of these phenomena by German-Jewish émigré intellectuals, notably Hannah Arendt and members of the Frankfurt School of critical theory. In this flurry of citation, critics have tended to elide deep rifts between these German traditions, even as the theories invoked in fact support two distinct and opposing interpretations. The first of these we might call the anti-tyranny camp (a darling of liberal publications) the faces of which are the historian Timothy Snyder (Yale University) and his theorist of choice, Hannah Arendt. The alternative is what we might call the anti-capitalist camp. It is here we find the Frankfurt School, which brings together an analysis of fascism with anti-capitalist critique. Conflicting temporalities underlie these divergent approaches: anti-tyrannists characterize Trump as a historical rupture, a deviation from history as usual, while for anti-capitalists he is a historical continuity, a product of history as usual. I will make the case that it is the latter tradition, as distinct from an Arendtian fixation on totalitarianism, that best articulates a critical synthesis of historical precedent and contemporary threat.

JHI Image

The anti-capitalist approach developed here can be summed up in a line: “Whoever is not prepared to talk about capitalism should also remain silent about fascism.” Max Horkheimer, a longtime director of the Frankfurt School, penned this dictum in his controversial essay “The Jews and Europe” from exile in New York in 1939 (an ominous year for a German Jew like himself). Notable among those returning to the Frankfurt School today is the political theorist Corey Robin (Brooklyn College), who recently gave second life to Horkheimer’s dictum in a tweet: “Whoever is not prepared to talk about Bushism should also remain silent about Trumpism.” Another reprise connects climate change and market imperatives for economic growth: “Whoever is not prepared to talk about capitalism should also remain silent about the 6th mass extinction.”

How did it come to be that “if you want to understand the age of Trump, you need to read the Frankfurt School”? As expressed in Horkheimer’s line, the most defining feature of the Frankfurt School’s multidimensional analysis of fascism was their emphasis on historical continuities between fascism and the forms of failing liberal democracy that historically paved the way for it. Instead of seeing fascism as an alien phenomenon that attacked liberal democracy from without, they emphasized elements of fascism that also flourished—both before and after fascism—under liberal democracy.

Alex Ross’s December 2016 New Yorker article “The Frankfurt School Knew Trump Was Coming” emphasized the role of what Theodor Adorno called “The Culture Industry” in Trump’s rise to power. In Ross’s words, our present “combination of economic inequality and pop-cultural frivolity is precisely the scenario Adorno and others had in mind: mass distraction masking élite domination….Like it or not, Trump is as much a pop-culture phenomenon as he is a political one.” This invocation of Adorno is, crucially, two-pronged: it brings together the way mass media and celebrity culture can be used to exploit resentments accompanying the accelerating economic inequality and displacements endemic to what Adorno already in the 1940s called “late capitalism.” (As Anson Rabinbach (Princeton) has quipped, I suppose we are now in “too-late capitalism.”) Without both threads, the twinned critique of culture and capitalism, this analysis fails.

Adorno and Horkheimer realized by the late 1930s that a reductively materialist interpretation of fascism fails to account for why the working class sometimes opts for right-wing demagoguery instead of socialist revolution fitting with their “true” class interest. To explain this, Marxian materialism needs to incorporate theories of mass psychology, the spectacle of modern media, and class-based social manipulation. The Frankfurt School has thus been characterized as “the marriage of Marx and Freud.”

In particular, many today have turned to the notion of the “authoritarian personality” seeking a key to understanding Trump. The term was popularized by Adorno’s co-authored work of empirical social psychology published by that name in 1950. Following an astute reconstruction of published and unpublished versions of this text by Peter E. Gordon (Harvard), I would define this term as a historically-produced character type incapable of genuine experience and hence also incapable of autonomous moral, political, and aesthetic judgment. As Gordon remarks, this work “moved in the dialectical space between sociology and psychoanalysis, guided by the critical ambition that one might develop, without reductionism, a correlation between objective socioeconomic conditions and subjective features of individual personalities.” Hence this type should be seen as a broad sociological heuristic; it does not map onto individuals’ actual political practices or beliefs, but rather describes, in the authors’ words, the “potentially fascistic individual,” the qualities of whom were measured by an “F-scale” (where F stands for fascist) along several dimensions: submissiveness, adherence to social convention, aggression, superstition, a rejection of inwardness, repressed or paranoid sexuality, projection, and anti-intellectualism.

Before the 2016 election, The Authoritarian Personality had quite a bad rap. It had long been cited, rather superficially, as offering an argument about human nature akin to the famous Milgram experiments, which presented authoritarian individuals as mere “cogs in the bureaucratic machine.” Adorno co-authored the work with several psychologists, and many of them tended toward the simplistic conclusion that authoritarian personalities are merely “bad apples”—discrete pathological cases that arise innately or as a result of authoritarian parenting. Adorno notes many problems with these psychological conclusions in his own contribution to the book: first, they assume an unchanging Freudian subject, and second, they distract us from how authoritarian subjects are socially produced by changing historical conditions. In this respect, Adorno offers something like a dissenting opinion in this collective work.

According to Gordon’s structural reading, insofar as Adorno “refused to identify such social pathologies with specific personalities or social groups…the authoritarian personality signifies not merely a type but rather an emergent and generalized feature of modern society as such.” Gordon thus criticizes attempts to diagnose the particular pathologies of Trump or his supporters. “If Adorno was right,” he presses, “then Trumpism cannot be interpreted as an instance of a personality or a psychology; it would have to be recognized as the thoughtlessness of the entire culture.” Hence “Trumpism itself” would be “just another name for the culture industry, where the performance of undoing repression serves as a means for continuing on precisely as before.” Gordon finally rejects the tendency to analogize Trump and fascism, suggesting, per Godwin’s law, “that the Nazism analogy functions less as description than as expression” of “alarm” about a state of affairs ultimately unique to our time.

Following Adorno’s own critique, the task, as I see it, is to historicize the notion of the authoritarian personality—to emphasize how what Adorno called “bad society” in turn produces “bad subjects,” dimming the emancipatory potential of mass politics. Viewing this work in light of the Frankfurt School’s broader social theory, we see that the concept of the “authoritarian personality” links together many spheres of analysis long considered distinct: the critiques of capitalism, culture, nationalism, and antisemitism.

The most sophisticated—if at points impenetrable—product of this synthetic approach is Adorno and Horkheimer’s 1944 work, Dialectic of Enlightenment. According to their critique of “the culture industry,” monopoly capitalism had transformed art, music, and film—produced by ever fewer mega-corporations—into homogenous commodities to be passively consumed—thus enforcing conformity and hampering the possibility of dissent in advance. Once commodified, culture becomes an ideology that upholds the existing capitalist order rather than challenging it. The capitalist imperative for mass consumption produces a society of consumeristic followers rather than citizens; it creates superficial and homogenous individuals incapable of genuine creativity, spontaneity, or autonomy—much less critical thought or resistance. The culture industry produces individuals unable and unwilling to endure the complexity of life in common. It not only exploits but also produces the “intolerance of emotional and cognitive ambiguity” co-author Else Frenkel-Brunswik described in The Authoritarian Personality (p. 464).

The Frankfurt School’s writings on the culture industry anticipated the perils of commodified information that roiled the U.S. around the 2016 election. The circulation of fake news on television and social media sites was far from an accidental aberration in the allegedly “value-free” marketplace of ideas. Rather, the process we witnessed of dumbing-down and making up news is a tendency intrinsic to all cultural and intellectual production submitted to the imperatives of click-counts, ratings for mass audiences, and, ultimately, profit. In 2016, our culture industry systematically favored scandals to policy solutions, preferring to cover simple but false campaign promises to the unsexy but vital work of governance. In Ross’s words: “At some point over the summer, it struck me that the greater part of the media wanted Trump to be elected, consciously or unconsciously. He would be more ‘interesting’ than Hillary Clinton; he would ‘pop.’” Ross invokes Adorno’s 1945 reflection in Minima Moralia on “the conversion of all questions of truth into questions of power”—and, once more, of profit.

The culture industry and the instrumentalization of mass media set the stage for one of the oldest plays in the authoritarian handbook: the cultivation of the heroic and celebrity status of the leader through the modern spectacle. In 1933 as in 2016, the cultural process Adorno and Horkheimer called “mass deception” helped win over what Adorno saw as a society of dejected, resentful, hollowed-out subjects. There was no tyranny at work here: freedom was not stolen by the might of dictators, but willfully offered up to an imagined collective represented by a strongman promising national redemption.

Adorno argued in a 1951 essay on the Freudian mass psychology of fascist propaganda that the “bond” of the collective is what enables the “fascist demagogue…to win the support of millions of people for aims largely incompatible with their own rational self-interest” (p. 135). There are echoes here of Trump’s claim in January, 2016, that he “has the most loyal people” behind him and “could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot someone and…wouldn’t lose any voters.” Yet Adorno dialectically interrelates this mass psychology of conformity with structural social critique: “The deeper we go into the psychological genesis of the totalitarian character, the less we are content to explain it in an exclusively psychological way, and the more we realize that its psychological stiffness is a means of adaptation to a mutilated society.”

The crucial hinge in Ross’s claim that “The Frankfurt School Knew Trump Was Coming” is that the theorists were not only thinking of Nazi Germany when they investigated the fascist potential of modern society. The empirical data for The Authoritarian Personality was gathered in the U.S., which during the 1930s and 1940s produced its own share of nationalist populism—albeit with less drastic consequences. The principal failing of the anti-tyrannists is their lack of self-criticality about such problems in American democracy that long predated Trump. A key element that held on both sides of the Atlantic was the way authoritarian subjects defined themselves through a negative relation to out-groups such as Jews, foreigners, and communists. As Adorno put it, authoritarian subjects “fall, as it were, negatively in love” with the out-group enemies they projectively construct. He crystallized this position: “I/We are categorically and absolutely not Them.” What Adorno called “negative integration” thus generates an in-group without necessary affirmative content. Mass media and propaganda techniques helped modernize and radicalize the long tradition of basing “real” American identity on the exclusion of racial others.

An equally important analysis of authoritarian populism in America comes from Leo Löwenthal, a lesser-known sociologist affiliated with the Frankfurt School since its founding. In the days before Trump’s election, the intellectual historian Richard Wolin (CUNY) invoked the relevance of Löwenthal’s 1949 co-authored book Prophets of Deceit to the Trump phenomenon. It offers a psychological ethnography of populist radio agitators like Father Charles Coughlin who mobilized millions across America through xenophobia, Judeophobia, and paranoia about imminent communist plots against America. Speeches by populist agitators they analyzed sharply recall the rhetoric of the 2016 election: “We are coming to the crossroads where we must decide whether we are going to preserve law and order and decency or whether we are going to be sold down the river to these Red traitors who are undermining America” (p. 5).

As long as figures on the right continue to invoke fascistic rhetoric—from Trump’s “America First” to the alt-right’s “blood and soil”—it seems the fascist analogy is not going away anytime soon. As Martin Jay (Berkeley) once quipped, the concepts of our Zeitgeist are like the furniture in the room: we intellectual historians can only do our best to rearrange them. For now, the fascist analogy is ours to sit with and work through. Yet it remains to be seen how to counteract such agitation. Löwenthal and Adorno emphasize the rally as a participatory spectacle able to mobilize mass audiences through in-group identification. A key question today is whether Trump can sustain the power his “movement” accrued through his signature rallies, for since he stepped off the campaign trail his popularity outside his in-group has plummeted.

The Frankfurt School’s analysis of the authoritarian personality may prove more helpful in explaining the rise of Trump through media and mass politics than telling us what to do next. Blindsided by the shock of fascism and its crimes against the Jews, the first generation critical theorists came to believe that revolution was no longer possible in a “totally administered society”—one in which critique itself would not be possible. Writing from exile in the 1940s, Adorno reflected on this dark horizon in his Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life. His antipathy toward positive revolutionary social and economic programs is clear in the 1945 aphorism Mélange, in which he critiques liberal platitudes about the ideals of racial “tolerance” and “equality,” for he had witnessed in his own lifetime—from the Stalinist Left as well as the fascist Right—that “abstract Utopia is all too compatible with the most insidious tendencies of society.” Rather, he wrote that “an emancipated society…would not be a unitary state, but the realization of universality in the reconciliation of differences.” A politics that took this seriously, he argued, should not advocate even the idea of the abstract equality of human beings, but rather use critique to point out “the bad equality of today”—that we are, as it were, all equal under the cultural industry—“and conceive the better state as one in which people could be different without fear.” The challenge today would be to take up the critical concepts and emancipatory intellectual practices the Frankfurt School offered and to seek out points of social and political transformation in a society no doubt perversely administered, but far from totally administered.

Jonathon Catlin is a Ph.D. student in the Department of History at Princeton University. His work focuses on intellectual responses to catastrophe, especially in German-Jewish thought and the Frankfurt School of critical theory.






Intellectual history


By contributing writer Stephanie Zgouridi

While living in Paris in 1784, surrounded by beautifully carved bureaus, tasteful tables, and fragile glass flutes of champagne, Benjamin Franklin penned a letter to a friend, in which he stated, “But the eyes of other people are the eyes that ruin us. If all but myself were blind, I should want neither fine clothes, fine houses, nor fine furniture.” Contained within Franklin’s words was a tacit judgment of vain opulence, and a reminder that such opulence was a fundamentally visual practice. Indeed, it was precisely because mankind was not blind that the fineries of the rich were broken or taken away during the French Revolution only a few years later, and that furnishing Napoleon’s spaces with taste and style was the equivalent of a political bid to gain status and power. And because the visual requires at least two components, that which is viewing and that which is viewed, I contend that the visual process is almost always a divisive one. It highlights activity versus passivity, the primary versus the secondary—but not always in the direction or the combinations that one might expect. In the Napoleonic period, for instance, the emperor’s architects were viewers of both him and his empire, in some ways even superseding Napoleon’s role in determining his own image and the national imaginary of the places to which he’d traveled.

Just fifteen years after Franklin’s departure from Paris, architects Charles Percier and Pierre Fontaine came under the patronage of the Bonapartes, and with the best interest of their clients in mind, proceeded to design a corpus of work that would later fit under the bracket of “Empire-style furniture”, a term typically applied to architecture, furniture, and other decorative arts that aimed to glorify the First French Empire. In consideration of their patrons, Percier and Fontaine frequently produced furnishings that were grandiose in scale and dotted with Egyptian motifs, particularly the sphinx— elements of the caractère of the owner and his many voyages and exploits (Kruft, 166). Although today Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt is thought of as a loss, it is important to recall that he marched at least 40,000 men through Egypt’s great cities, Alexandria and Cairo, lighting them ablaze and capturing them, far before that defeat came. Percier and Fontaine, in line with Napoleon’s own sentiments, chose to cast the expedition as a victory in terms of a “conquest…over ignorance”, and so displayed as frequently as possible the many objects discovered and catalogued by Napoleon’s men during the expedition. The Sphinx of Giza was prominent amongst them (Strathern, 1).

A first glance at this situation might cause one to cast architects Percier and Fontaine as the viewers, and Napoleon himself as the viewed, a person deconstructed only to be reconstructed into a semblance of harmonious interior furnishings meant to impress guests. Some might even proceed to say that there is a difference in primacy of experience between these first viewers and those that were intended to view the very same tableau afterwards. Percier and Fontaine, after all, could do what even Napoleon could not. As the scholar Leora Auslander put it while discussing the relationship between the king and his objects during the Ancièn Regime, “Qualifying the king’s capacity to determine aesthetic form was the fact that neither the king nor his court could make anything. The crown was dependent on artisans, architects, and artists to create visual and mechanical forms” (30). Although Napoleon was no king in the absolutist sense, he was also no cabinetmaker. In terms of technical capacity, then, Napoleon and the future guests he hoped to impress were equally powerless. Patronage went a long way, but its influence ended where the role of the architect began. Only Percier and Fontaine, the direct producers of these objects, stood apart from both Napoleon and future viewers of these things. In this dynamic alone we see that the viewer may not always be the primary component in a visual exchange, for not all viewers are equal.

But just as not all viewers are equal, neither are all things that are viewed. The Egyptian motifs mentioned above show how specific bits and pieces of Egyptian culture might have been transported into Napoleon’s spaces, but still did not indicate any knowledge, understanding, or acceptance of it. In the works of Percier and Fontaine, this much was demonstrated by a variety of visual practices, perhaps most clearly through the placement of said elements in the pieces of furniture at large. Take the following piece included in their Recueil de Décorations Intérieures: Comprenant tout ce qui a Rapport à l’Ameublement as an example:


[Charles Percier and Pierre Fontaine, Recueil de Décorations Intérieures: Comprenant tout ce qui a Rapport à l’Ameublement (Paris, 1812), Planche X in Appendix.]
This jardinière designed by the duo, for instance, features sphinxes placed into only supporting roles— quite literally. In fact, not only were their heads somewhat ridiculously serving as supports for flower pots, but their wings were the supports for the structure that held up the large figure of the minor Greek goddess Hebe. That the goddess Hebe, designated in studies of Greek mythology to the humble status of a cupbearer, was the highest point and central feature of this piece (in their words, the piece was “crowned” by her statue) with the sphinxes meant as support clearly betrayed a lack of interest in understanding the status and place of the sphinx in the ancient Egyptian world (Percier and Fontaine, 23).

Positioning and placement in a static medium such as furniture-making was crucial, for once selected and built, changes were very difficult to make. The sphinxes in pieces of Empire furniture could not easily be molded or moved; likewise, neither could the status and position of Egyptian culture within Napoleon’s empire be easily disturbed. Percier and Fontaine, having previously worked on architecture and furnishings for the theater, were intimately aware of the fact that their art was a fundamentally static one. As Iris Moon put it in her study of Percier and Fontaine, “Essentially, the architecture of theater was a problem of motion: how to move the audience through static materials, and how to freeze the action of the play into scenes…” (44). While Napoleon’s properties were no theater in the traditional sense,  they were theatrical all the same, decorated with furnishings meant to both frame and build upon the character of the emperor. In fact, this jardinière was to be gifted by Napoleon to Sweden, in a somewhat contradictory movement of a static piece and message. It was posturing in the farthest and largest sense, extending Napoleon’s viewership past the bounds of his empire. The problem of the static in the theater applied to the theater of everyday life. As Napoleon’s persona became an explicitly imperial one, the Egyptian campaign became immutably tied to the furnishings of the Bonapartes—and the practices of viewing the immovable, aesthetically potent, and structurally integral sphinx, as above, lay bare the dynamics of power in Napoleon’s empire.

But what does this lowly placement of Egyptian motifs in a static medium (as in the jardinière above as well as in countless other pieces featured in Percier and Fontaine’s Recueil) mean for the dynamic of viewing and being viewed? It suggests that Egyptian motifs were consistently refused primacy, despite the fact that they were ironically selected from within a vast range of possibilities by Percier and Fontaine for the express purpose of being seen. These images were borrowed and used as symbols precisely because they were to remain forever in the dark; it is only around the unknown and that which is not understood that one can build a myth of man, after all. In Percier and Fontaine’s quest to build Napoleon up, they did so by bringing Egypt and her many cultural images down. Her images became facets of one foreign man rather than the expressions of an entire culture and its history. It was not Napoleon that was ruined by the eyes of others and the opulent practices that that entailed— it was Egypt.

Stephanie Zgouridi is a first year PhD student in the Department of History at Princeton University, where she works on topics ranging from architecture to philosophy in modern Europe. She holds a Bachelor’s degree from UC Berkeley and a Master’s degree from the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, which she completed under the aegis of a Fulbright Student Award to Belgium. All translations not otherwise attributed are courtesy of the author.


Think Piece


By guest contributor N. A. Mansour

Arabic periodicals are perhaps the greatest source for the history of the Arabic-speaking lands in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Looking for Arabic primary sources from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries can be a minefield. Some archives are in warzones, others are chronically disorganized in under-funded archives, or in the worst cases, the sources simply do not exist. Periodicals survived through the aggregated power of steam, print, and colonial power: libraries across the globe subscribed to them, collected them, and many have since launched mass digitization projects. They are housed in comfortable libraries or even better, online, so long as you have an .edu login.

The story of the Arabic-language press is largely the story of Egypt and, even more specifically, of Cairo. Cairo also dominates much of the historiography of the Middle East and North Africa (see Ayalon, The Press in the Arab Middle East). Egypt is painted in tones of exceptionalism: the first Arabic-speaking country in the Ottoman Empire to gain some semblance of independence in the 1820s, then the first in the Middle East to become a colonial project under the British in the 1880s. And Cairo was its founding city: an intellectual and cultural hub home to one of the world’s oldest universities, al-Azhar. And al-Waqa’i al-Misriyya (Egyptian Matters) was one of the first periodicals, issued by the khedival government for internal circulation amongst bureaucrats in 1828. Except Waqa’i did not have a wide reach and neither did its peers, notably al-Jarida al-‘Askariyya (The Military Journal) (1834) and Taqwim al-Akhbar ‘an al-Ḥawadith al-Tijariyya wa’l-I’lanat al-Malikiyya (A Summary of Trade News and Property Announcements) (1848–49). (For transliterating names, titles, and terms from Arabic, I used the standards known as simplified IJMES [International Journal for Middle Eastern Studies].) Except, the first major Arabic-language newspapers did not come from Egypt. Rather, the Arabic-language periodicals to have the greatest impact on the press as a genre of writing began as a provincialized enterprise, somewhat independent of traditional intellectual centers.

Al-Ra’id al-Tunisi, July 24, 1861
(British Library)

The Ottoman government, ironically enough, set the precedent for a private press, partially because they funded one of the first major private periodicals in the most unlikely of places: the province of Tunisia, which was only nominally under Ottoman control by the mid-1800s. Al-Ra’id al-Tunisi (The Tunisian Pioneer) was launched on June 22, 1860 as a weekly newspaper, with support from Maltese printing enterprises and one Mr. Richard Holt, based in Tunisia. An official governmental paper, it was founded with the explicit goal of being a newspaper for the general public, with news deemed useful by the head of the provincial council. It was also vehement in its dedication to “spreading truth.” Al-Ra’id quickly emerged as a soapbox for commentary on local, regional, and even global news. It originally included a lengthy section for qism rasmi or official news, alongside an equally long qism ghayr rasmi, a section for unofficial news. However, the official news component became steadily less present, especially because the only distinction between the official and unofficial news was its source. Both sections covered political news, where the provincial government selected what went under the heading qism rasmi and the editor Sa’id Hamid Burq al-Qawafi was responsible for the remainder of the paper; that is the qism ghayr rasmi. But al-Ra’id took yet another step away from its governmental connections and thus, another step towards becoming “private:” it ran opinion pieces under the unofficial news platform. For example, the March 26, 1872 issue of al-Ra’id discusses the provincial council’s annual budget at excruciating length. This might not seem extraordinary, but it was not until a decade and a half later that the opinion piece—or perhaps, the editorial—would securely be featured in the vast majority of Arabic-language newspapers. Al-Ra’id actually appears to have been one of the first Arabic-language newspapers in the Arabic-speaking world to run opinion pieces, before its contemporary, the Beirut weekly Hadiqat al-Akhabar (The Garden of News), which only adopted opinion pieces in the late 1860sThe September 25, 1860 issue of al-Ra’id had addressed the ministers of the Tunisian province on Tunis’s political isolation and the necessity of finding some way to counter it.

But that does not mean al-Raid al-Tunisi was both pioneer and trend-setter. Subscriptions to the newspaper went from being regional, from the province of Tunisia itself as far afield as Alexandria and Beirut in 1860, to purely provincial by 1862. It is therefore unlikely that al-Ra’id al-Tunisi influenced other Arabic-language newspapers to begin publishing editorials or opinion pieces (Al-Ra’id al-Tunisi, July 24, 1861). It also does not exactly de-centralize Egypt, even though it clearly indicates that intellectual production aimed at the general public through the press was not unique to Egypt and predated Egypt’s rise as a print hub. Rather, the honor of decentralizing Egypt goes to a Lebanese Muslim living in the Ottoman capital.


Ahmed Faris Shidyaq, date unknown.
Photo credit:  (أحمد-فارس-االشدياق)

Ahmad Faris Shidyaq founded al-Jawa’ib (The Answers) in 1860 in Istanbul, another unlikely Arabic press center. After all, Istanbul did not have the historic weight of Cairo or Fez as a center of Islamic learning, the bulk of which was done in Arabic and divided between different corners of the Muslim world. (That said, an argument can be made that Istanbul was a center for Islamic learning, primarily in the field of logic and rational sciences [see El-Rouayheb, Islamic Intellectual History in the Seventeenth Century].) But Shidyaq himself was intersectional by nature. He had familiarity with Maronite theology, the faith into which he was born in Mount Lebanon, before he converted to Protestantism, then to Islam, and he was fluent in several languages, including French and English. Al-Jawaib was not only modelled on the European newspapers Shidyaq would have been exposed to while in Paris and England (where he was associated with the short-lived Paris-based Arabic-language newspaper ‘Utarid), but took inspiration from Shidyaq’s time in Malta and Egypt working closely with Arabic printers (see Alwan). It took several years for al-Jawa’ib to break away from a strictly news-based model—divided into internal and external news—and adopt the editorial, but when it did in 1865, the editorial was used, not simply to act as a soapbox on pertinent political issues, but to forge al-Jawaib’s political identity as a major force of pan-Islamism and Ottomanism (al-Jawa’ib, October 2, 1872). Shidyaq’s Ottomanist leanings are not surprising: he was originally invited to Istanbul at the behest of the Ottoman sultan. Nor is his pan-Islamism astonishing, premised more on Muslim solidarity than political unity (which in many instances ideologically served Ottomanism). However, it is significant that Shidyaq used the press to convey his political stance and that he specifically used the editorial to do so, placing it front and center on the first page of every issue.

But again, we face the question of influence: did al-Jawa’ib really set the standards for format and style for the emerging Arabic-language press? Yes, Shidyaq is remembered as one of the founding fathers of the nahda—the Arab intellectual renaissance of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century—and as the author of perhaps the first Arabic novel, Saq ‘ala Saq (Leg over Leg), published in 1855. But perhaps his legacy is better placed in al-Jawa’ib. The paper had tremendous reach (see Al-Jawa’ib’s subscriptions rates, indicate where newspapers had marketing agents, for September 16, 1861; May 19, 1868; March 7, 1877) and was cited across Arabic newspapers for both its opinion pieces and the original news telegrams it published. And yes, there is a high possibility the notion of an editorial came itself from the influence of the European press, but al-Jawa’ib demonstrated to Arabic-language journalists that Arabic readers would read editorials. The editorial ultimately defined the Arabic newspaper, distinguishing it from the majalla, the journal or magazine, the likes of which emerged in Arabic in the mid-1870s as a genre dedicated almost singularly to objective knowledge, or ‘ilm, until the early twentieth century. But in the late 1920s and early 1930s, the genres flipped, with more emphasis on news in newspapers and the majalla becoming a major site of critical thought and political debate.

But back in the mid-to-late 1800s, Cairene periodicals were rather stagnant, still largely centered on those established during the 1820s through the 1840s. They were essentially governmental papers intended for internal distribution amongst the various branches of the Egyptian khedival government. But the Egyptian press would soon emerge as a major force, with distribution across the Arabic-speaking world. But contrary to the historiography, the ‘provincial’ press would remain unprovincial. Arabic-speakers as far afield as Singapore and Argentina would not simply look to Egypt and the sheer volume of periodicals it produced, but would also contribute to the global Arabic press market, changing the center of Arabic-language intellectual history as they did.

N. A. Mansour is a Ph.D. student at Princeton University’s Department of Near Eastern Studies working on Arabic-language intellectual history. She is working on a dissertation on the history of the Arabic-language press.