Author: jhiblog

What We’re Reading: February 2

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


Raise your hand if your coping mechanism as a historian is to geek out about tariff reform!
Michael Kenny and Nick Pearce, The empire strikes back (New Statesman)
Dominic Rushe, Smoot and Hawley, the ghosts of tariffs past, haunt the White House (Guardian)

Isabel Hull, The Innocence Campaign: The Sinking of the ‘Lusitania’ (LRB)

Donna Zuckerberg, Classics in the Time of Intolerance (Eidolon)

Beverly Gage, How the Women of the Mormon Church Came to Embrace Polygamy (NY Times)

Stephen Rohde, What Do You Have to Lose? Mark Danner on the Forever War (LARB)

And finally, be the Eleanor Rathbone you want to see in the world.


Eric Aeschimann and David Caviglioli, « “Histoire mondiale de la France”: le livre qui exaspère Finkielkraut, Zemmour et Cie » (L’Obs)

Roger Berkowitz, “Turning Ourselves into Outlaws” (Hannah Arendt Center)

Sam Dresser, “How Camus and Sartre split up over the question of how to be free” (Aeon)

Tom Edwards in conversation with Klaus Brinkbäumer and Christoph Amend, “German weeklies” (The Stack)

Par Marie-Madeleine Fragonard, « Translation de Rabelais » (La république des livres)

John Gray, “Noi, fatti solo di material” (Il Sole 24 Ore Domenica)

Clive James, “In Homage to Gianfranco Contini” (TLS, 1974;

Jérémie Majorel, « Les essais esthétiques de Jean Starobinski » (La vie des idées)

Ahlrich Meyer, »Herrschaftsfreie Diskussion, aber keine kritische Theorie« (NZZ)

Elisabeth Richter in conversation with Sofia Gubaidulina, »Eine Kraft, die aus der Stille kommt« (NZZ)

And finally, présentation du livre « Le temps suspendu » par Giovanni Careri et Bernhard Rüdiger (28 novembre 2016, CRAL – YouTube)


Hilary Mantel, “How do we know her?” (London Review of Books)

Jane Darcy, “Jane Austen the Teenager” (The Times Literary Supplement)

Hannah Arendt “From an Interview” (New York Review of Books)


Kritika Agarwal, “Historians as Expert Witnesses” (Perspectives)

Jean-Luc Bonniol, “Races sans couleur” (La vie des idées)

Branko Milanovic, “Is liberalism to blame?” (globalinequality)

Laura Tanenbaum and Mark Engler, “When women revolted” (Waging Nonviolence)


Amy Julia Harris, Steve Bannon had a big weekend in the White House. Get to know him (Reveal)

Dana Goldstein, How to Inform a More Perfect Union (Slate)

Jim Dalrymple II and Blake Montgomery, Trump Threatens UC Berkeley’s Federal Funding (Buzzfeed)

Kristen West Savali, The Radical Uses of Anger (The Root)

We should justify ourselves no more: Felwine Sarr’s Afrotopia

by guest contributor Laetitia Citroen

2016 has been a particularly prolific year for the French-speaking African intellectual community, with symbolical landmarks like the appointment of a Congolese award-winning novelist, Alain Mabanckou, as guest-lecturer at the prestigious Collège de France in Paris and the gathering of some of the best minds of the continent (many of whom teach in the US) in two international and interdisciplinary conferences—one at the Collège de France, and one at the Universities of Dakar and Saint Louis in Senegal—to think about the future of Africa in terms of its economy, philosophy, and culture.

afrotopia.jpgThe organizer of the Conference in Senegal, Felwine Sarr, is a young economist and philosopher whose most recent book could serve as a manifesto for this new dynamic. Afrotopia powerfully advocates for a new Africa. Sarr combines work as an economist with a broad philosophical background in both European and African traditions. This essay is punctuated with deft quotations from Castoriadis, Lyotard, and Foucault alongside Mudimbé, Wiredu, and Mbembe, all as Saar discretely takes up the heritage of Frantz Fanon. In spite of the title, the author’s purpose has nothing of the dreamy or the unrealistic. Afrotopia is not an u-topia, a place that does not exist; rather, it is a topos, a place that can and will appear because “there is a continuity between the real and the possible.” This book is not an optimistic dream; it is a galvanizing declaration of love to an entire continent that has so much potential and only needs to become aware of it. It is also a deeply philosophical analysis of the numerous invisible ties that prevent its economies from ‘growing’ and ‘developing.’

The book also treats the ‘economy’ of Africa in the most philosophical sense: the complex network of relationships that connects African people on all kinds of levels, a study of what constitutes the inner equilibrium of the continent. Despite Sarr’s training as an economist, you will find not find here any graphs or compilation of numbers imported from World Bank Reports. Instead, he dwells on the importance of sustaining the link between culture and economy: “in human communities,” he writes, “the imaginary is a constitutive part of social relationships, including the most materialistic ones. An economic interaction is, first and foremost, a social interaction. The imaginary and the symbolical determine its production. Therefore, cultural factors will influence economic performances. (…) African economies would take off if only they functioned on their own motives.” Quoting French intellectual Cornelius Castoriadis, Sarr argues that the first step is an “imaginary institution” of this new Africa, of this “Afrotopia.” African intellectuals need to take the time to define their own “autonomous and endogenous teleonomy”: to set the goals of the African societies themselves or, to put it in other terms, to block any external attempt to determine what would be good for Africa. In many ways, the term ‘development’ itself needs to be decolonized.


Felwine Sarr (© Léo Paul Ridet/ pour Jeune Afrique)

The author hence argues that not only have International Aid Agencies forgotten to take specific cultural features into account, but that they have also brought their own teleology. Real African ‘development’ cannot and will not take place if it only aims at objectives—like ‘growth’—that Westerners consider best. He quotes his friend the Togolese novelist Sami Tchak, who once provocatively asked him: “When will we ever stop considering others’ past as our future?” Afrotopia is precisely an African place, not a copy of the global north. When reflecting on other ways of defining ‘development,’ Sarr refers to the philosophy of development as Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum founded it; he also underlines the symbolical value of all economic exchanges as studied by anthropologists of economy—like Jane Guyer—who show how all economic behavior is based on cultural meaning. Simple examples of this could be the money sent home by emigrants of the diaspora or the importance of hospitality.

Therefore, writing about the African economy entails much more than drawing graphs. The pure rationality of an homo economicus yields no satisfactory explanation of economic exchanges in Africa—or, the author hints, anywhere else. So studying the economy of Africa proves nothing short of studying the social interactions themselves; Afrotopia must be a place that thrives ‘economically’ in its fullest meaning ; it has to be a place that “makes sense to those who inhabit it.” Understanding this requires taking distance from, or completely abandoning, the “methodological individualism” of orthodox economic thinking. Therefore, Sarr calls for an “epistemic decentering,” even for an “epistemogonia.” Western economics yield an épistêmè of sorts that need to be reconsidered before being applied to African situations as other non-Western economists, like Ugandan Yash Tandon or Indian Rajeev Bhargav have pointed out. Africa needs to speak about itself in its own language, and it is time to “leave the dialectic of appropriation and alienation behind.”  Africa is not faced with a binary choice of either being alienated, of losing its identity to the hands of new colonizers, or of willingly embracing the Western civilization.

But this carries wider implications than simple methodology: the debate about Africa is stuck in a dialectic of tradition and modernity. The lack of ‘modernity’ in Africa commonly refers to the lack of technological and industrial ‘progress.’ Yet why do we still speak in these terms about Africa when philosophers in the West have long started theorizing postmodernity? Sarr situates his Afrotopia as part of this new way of thinking: simple mimetism of Western values is no real ‘progress’ for Africa; and the ‘weight’ of ‘tradition’ is no synonym of backwardness and refusal to change. Rather, it is also the unique root from which the continent can draw its future, as Japan did one hundred and fifty years ago. In the end, Sarr advocates for an “Afrocontemporanéité” rather than an African modernity: equally averting from nostalgia of a mythical past and from pure awe at technological progress, Sarr argues that Africa has to consider its situation as it is right now, in its contemporaneity, and make sure it is as unique and true to itself as it can be.


Zeinab Mialele colletion (© Charles Bah/Fima)

There is no fatality. Africa is not this tragic continent that has lost all connection with its ancient culture, nor is it this strange space that will eventually come to resemble northern countries. The author calls pragmatically for thinkers who will take Africa as it is right now, with the inherited and the assimilated. As can be seen in the beautiful creations of young African stylists (Sarr takes his examples in all realms of activity, from fashion to urbanism), whose syncretism can be a virtue: “we are the result of what has persisted, the result of the syntheses that took place in ourselves.” In a way, Sarr also foresees Africa’s capacity to jump directly into the twenty-first century without endlessly asking itself about its past – be it colonial or pre-colonial – and invites us to trust its capacity of poiésis, of creating something new. For instance, the continent has not yet built environmentally harmful industries on its soil, and could therefore start implementing cleaner ways of production right from the beginning, and even use its resources as leverage to impose these clean industries in the rest of the world.

So where is this Afrotopia, and how can we find it—the real place of Africa, the one it has not yet been able to bring into shape? The must first exist as a mental place; it needs to be built in ideas, intention, and will before it is built on real land. As with any proper construction work, however, the foundation must be clean, and the tendency to uncritical imitation must be set aside. This is, indeed, a very classical idea in the postcolonial context look back to Fanon’s Black skin, white masks (1952). Africans should stop running away from their true selves. For Sarr, economy (and therefore civilization) is not about comparing childishly who has the more riches; it is about building societies that pursue their own happiness, defined according to their own values.

One thing that could have been interesting in addition to this powerful global analysis may have been an inquiry into the unity or diversity of ‘Africa.’ The author brings up intellectual and political references from all over the continent – from South Africa’s Nelson Mandela to Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, from Burkina Faso’s Thomas Sankara to Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere—and we would want to know more about his vision of “the continent” as a whole. What constitutes its unity? The question, of course, can be asked about any continent, and Sarr rightly complains that Africa has been asked that question many more times than others. But for a continent that is far too often considered as a massive entity, sometimes even confused with a ‘country,’ it would be extremely enlightening to have his contribution to a question that will likely never be fully answered.

In the end, what the author pleas for is time—it is the “longue durée” (long-term) defined by French historian Fernand Braudel as the time allowing civilizations to build themselves cautiously, carefully and wisely and the time necessary to structure strong and autonomous values one by one. It also marks the time that is needed to ‘imagine’ this new Africa, the time needed for intellectuals to conceptualize this Africa yet to come. It is the time needed for governments to plan in the long run, and not be forced to make rash decisions when selling their precious resources because the needs are too urgent. But the advent of Afrotopia is near at hand: it is like the blueprint of an entirely new continent, and this book sounds like the guideline for a whole generation of philosophers, economists, historians, architects, musicians, artists who will transform the current Africa into this “Afrotopia, this other Africa which we should hurry to make real, because it realizes its happiest potentialities.”

Laetitia Citroen studied philosophy at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris and is a PhD candidate in political philosophy at the University of Lyon (France). Her dissertation examines the philosophical background necessary to rethinking economic development in West Africa, namely through taxation, in a less abstract and more humanist way.

Revolution in the 21st Century: A Reflection on the Salon Sophie Charlotte at the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities

by contributing editor Carolyn Taratko

The Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities held its Salon Sophie Charlotte last weekend, an annual event during which the academy opens its doors to the public for an evening of guest discussions, presentations, and performances. This year’s theme, “Rebellion, Revolution, or Reform?” seemed especially prescient in our uncertain times and it did not fail to draw a crowd. (True to form, a spontaneous occupation of the stage by Berlin students defending the recently-terminated contract of a professor transpired, resulting in a shouting match between the occupiers and some tweed-clad members of the back row.) The mix of academic experts, artists, and the public made for a stimulating event, revealing perhaps the best of all possible worlds in which academics can engage the public with elements of conceptual history that have deep resonance today.

screen-shot-2017-01-30-at-9-52-01-amThe role of music in times of rapid change surfaced in several venues throughout the evening. The tone was set for the evening by actress and singer Hanna Schygulla, who performed songs of resistance (among them the song of Italian anti-fascists in the 1940s, “Bella Ciao,” and “Ein Pferd klagt an,” a Brecht/Eisler classic). A conversation between Nike Wagner and Gerhard Koch and moderated by Ernst Osterkamp explored the role of music in revolution. Koch asserted that the performance of Daniel Auber’s opera La muette de Protici catalyzed the revolution in Belgium in 1830, during which the audience members burst forth from the theater and into the streets. Wagner offered a more tempered view, claiming that music could never assume the role of a revolution, but that without music, no revolutions could take place. Music, she continued, was not inherently revolutionary in a political sense, but could always take on this quality. The side-by-side quality of Auber’s artistic production and the revolutionary actions opened up the questions of whether the opera was causal, or if it had tapped into the prevailing mood.

Another banner session, “Is Europe too old for revolutions?” featured a mix of political practitioners and historians. The provocative title referred to the demographic trend in western Europe, which is home to an ever-growing aging population, but also to the enshrined traditions, behaviors, and comforts that might make a revolution impossible, or at least highly undesirable. The panel, moderated by historian Etienne François, featured ‘68er and later German Vice Chancellor and Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer alongside activist Jutta Sundermann and political scientist Herfried Münkler. François led off by asking what it meant to have a revolution, and if it was still possible in Europe today.


A packed room prevented a decent picture of the panel “Is Europe too old for revolution?” (photo C. Taratko)

The practitioners (that is, Sundermann and Fischer) were critical of the term. Sundermann claimed that she no longer used the word and suggested that it perhaps belonged to previous generations. This was by no means to say that she and her contemporaries were no longer engaged for change, but that “revolution” was too abstract and perhaps carried with it too much negative baggage. Fischer was also skeptical. He insisted that political will is a prerequisite for change, but that it was better focused on institutions and laws that might need improvement. In light of his own peregrination from the Frankfurt left scene of the ‘60s to the corridors of power as a member of the Green Party, his response came off as typically distanced from his youthful roots.

“Revolution,” wrote Reinhart Koselleck, ”is a term now in vogue, but it is perhaps more raddled than its users’ would like to believe.” Is it the case that revolution in Europe is a romantic notion kept alive by academics and the vestiges of the student movement that live on in German universities? François felt confident that revolution was no longer Marx’s “locomotive of history” but instead was a common term in conversation, somewhat banalized and used as a descriptor for incremental change.

While the panelists seemed to take for granted that revolution was essentially modern, Münkler provided a brief conceptual history of the term. For him, its history begins with the Dutch throwing off Spanish control. The Dutch may have been the first, but it was the the German peasants’ revolt counted as the first people’s revolution, an important development that has since become an intrinsic part of the idea. The idea that change could bubble up from below, was, according to Münkler, new. Social change and the empowerment of lower classes gradually crept into the concept and took up residence there.

Münkler offered a perspective from the longue durée, one that was less interested in the immediate circumstances and effects than the overall conceptual history of the term. Others, especially Fischer, highlighted the highly-specific conditions under which revolutions, such as those experienced in France or Russia, took place. These stories of increasing tension led to a breaking point. In this sense, he argued, there was no paradigmatic revolution. Fischer closed with a sort of plea: he insisted that large political shifts are now outdated; if one looks at the past century, one can see the price of the German social state and how valuable it is, and that it should not be dismantled but carefully adjusted. For him, the “revolutionary tasks” that remained were in technology and nature.

Predictably, the consensus here leaned towards the improbability of another revolution in Europe. The Salon Sophie Charlotte provided a forum for a discussion of revolution as a diachronic concept, but also as a practice. The possibility for further political and social revolution was dismissed. Instead stability, and a desire to institutionalize the hard-won principles of earlier revolutions, seemed to guide the speakers. I wonder if perhaps the concept, at least as the panelists (all roughly of the same generation and somewhere on the left of the political spectrum) had framed it, has lost its purchase on reality. The music, it must be said, had not.

What We’re Reading: January 28th

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


Sarah Al-Matary, « Henri Guillemin, intellectuel réfractaire : Entretien avec Patrick Berthier » (La vie des idées)

Arnauld Chandivert and Claire Ducournau, « L’esprit libre de Richard Hoggart » (La vie des idées)

Marshall Poe interviews Stephen Brockmann on his new book The Writers’ State: Constructing East German Literature, 1945-1959 (New Books in History)

Marshall Poe interviews Matthew L. Jones on his new book Reckoning with Matter: Calculating Machines, Innovation, and Thinking about Thinking from Pascal to Babbage (New Books in History)

Christine Richard, »Peter von Matt: Wie küsst Mann mit 80?« (Die Zeit)

Carlo Rovelli, “This Granular Life” (Aeon)

Niccolò Scaffai, “Le opere di Primo Levi” (Le parole e le cose)

Jörg Scheller, »Unter einem Dach die ganze Welt« (Die Zeit)

Ena Selimovic, “The accumulation of tragedy leads to farce: An Interview with Aleksandar Hemon” (The Balkanist)

Adam Tooze, “What Held Nazi Germany Together? The Aly-Tooze Debate Revisited” (

And finally, Becci Sharp on Laurent Kronental’s photography, “Neglected Utopia: Photographer explores the forgotten modernist estates of Paris” (Creative Boom)


Susan Pedersen, Super-shallow-fragile-ego-Trump-UR-atrocious, on the women’s march (LRB)

Duncan Bell, The Anglosphere: new enthusiasm for an old dream (Prospect)

Jennifer Schuessler, Columbia Unearths Its Ties to Slavery (NY Times)

Eleanor Parker, Times and Seasons (A Clerk of Oxford)

Helen McCarthy, Nineteen Thirty-One (LRB Blog)

Alison Light, Diary: Raphael Samuel (LRB)

John Banville, The Strange Genius of the Master (NYRB)

Jonah Miller, To Be Worth Forty Shillings: Early Modern Inequality (LRB)

A one-day conference at the Institute for Historical Research, London: London’s women historians: a celebration and a conversation, March 13, 2017.


This week’s NPR program, The Takeaway, had an excellent interview with UT Austin History Professor Daina Ramey Berry on her book, The Price for Their Pound of Flesh.  I wish it had been longer.

Bookseller Brian Cassidy’s recent e-list of books on drugs is great.

I was disappointed not to attend the Diversifying the Digital Historical Records conference, but followed the conversation on Twitter.  It’s worth perusing the Tweets by Bergis Jules, Bethanie Nowiski, and others.

Early Modern Manuscripts Online (EMMO) is now live in Beta! See The Collation blog for the skinny.

Roberta Kwok “Crowdsourcing for Shakespeare” (New Yorker)

Louise Nicholson, “Virginia Dawn Emerges as the star of the NGAS New Galleries” (Apollo Magazine)

Dan Piepenbring, “Mr. Coffee Mansplains and Other News” (The Paris Review – this links out to several other excellent pieces, particularly about the recent uptick in sales of Orwell’s 1984)

Ed Smith, “Selling Rare Books on NYC Sidewalks” (The New Antiquarian)


Hugo Drochon, “‘Zombie’ Apocalypse in the West?” (Project Syndicate)

Leslie James, “What lessons on fascism can we learn from Africa’s colonial past?” (Africa is a Country)

Dominic Pettman, “Some Remarks on the Legacy of Madame Francine Descartes” (Public Domain Review)

Pierre Rimbert, “Le mot qui tue” (Le monde diplomatique)


Peter Myers, ‘The Third City,’ (ArchitectureAU)

Susan Pedersen, ‘Super-shallow-fragile-ego-Trump-UR-atrocious,’ (London Review of Books)

Karen Stohr, ‘The New Age of Contempt,’ (New York Times)

Adam Tooze, ‘Goodbye to the American Century,’ (Zeit Online)

Rosemary Wakeman, ‘“The ‘Urban Question’ is Now at the Center of Intellectual Life”: A Conversation with Rosemary Wakeman,’ (Global Urban History Blog)


A.S. Hamrah, “All That Counts is Getting to A Normal World” (n+1)

Alena Graedon, “Cesar Aira’s Infinite Footnote to Borges” (The New Yorker)

Helen McCarthy, “Nineteen Thirty-One”  (The London Review of Books)


Steven Shapin, “Invisible Science” (The Hedgehog Review)

Lorraine Daston, “When Science Went Modern” (The Hedgehog Review … maybe just read the whole issue)

Lorraine Berry, “Bibliomania: The Strange Historyof Compulsive Book Buying” (The Guardian)

Isabel Hull, “The Innocence Campaign” (LRB)

Timothy Garton Ash, “Is Europe Disintegrating?” (NYRB)

2017 Morris D. Forkosch Prize

The Journal of the History of Ideas is currently accepting submissions for the Morris D. Forkosch Prize ($2,000), awarded to the best first book in intellectual history each year.

Eligible submissions are limited to the first book published by a single author, and to books published in English. The subject matter of submissions must pertain to one or more of the disciplines associated with intellectual history and the history of ideas broadly conceived: viz., history (including the histories of the various arts and sciences); philosophy (including the philosophy of science, aesthetics, and other fields); political thought; the social sciences (including anthropology, economics, political science, and sociology); and literature (including literary criticism, history and theory).

No translations or collections of essays will be considered. The judges will favor publications displaying sound scholarship, original conceptualization, and significant chronological and interdisciplinary scope.

Publishers: The deadline to submit books published in 2016 is March 1, 2017. Please send three copies of each book you wish to submit for consideration to the JHI office at the address below:

Journal of the History of Ideas
3624 Market Street Ste. 1SB
Philadelphia, PA 19104-2615

For further information, please contact Hilary Plum, managing editor, at plumh  (at)

Submissions are also accepted directly from authors: please send three copies of your book to the address above.


The winner of the 2015 Morris D. Forkosch Prize for the best first book in intellectual history was Mark Greif, for his The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America, 1933–1973 (Princeton University Press).

Jared Sparks’ American Archives

by guest contributor Derek O’Leary

Jared Sparks—editor, historian, Harvard president—deposited a bundle of primary documents at Boston’s Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS) in the fall of 1838. It held a dozen or so political tracts, pamphlets, and newspapers from the middle of the previous decade capturing developments in the South American republics. There was nothing exceptional in such a Brahmin’s contribution to those archives, founded as the nation’s first historical society in 1791. A glance at the catalogues of donations and acquisitions in the MHS’s early decades reveals a local elite eager to give to its burgeoning collections. By also enticing a fairly far-flung network of corresponding members to contribute, the MHS exercised a strong centrifugal force. Within slighter orbits, the many state and local historical societies springing up from the 1820s onward followed this model, as H.G. Jones has shown most recently. Such new societies along the seaboard and in frontier cities drew toward them the scattered material record of the American past. And, dispersing diplomas and recognition, they urged filial piety to a swiftly passing revolutionary generation, which many were delighted to perform.


Harvard president line-up (1861) with Sparks at center

Accessions piled up at the MHS. So, amid the compendia of donations in the first half of the nineteenth century, there is no reason Sparks’s modest collection of documents should stand out. But if stepping back or peering in closer, how can we read the construction of such American archives, and the meaning of a modest contribution like Sparks’s within them? Giving to an early archive represented the performance of some relationship with the American past, and it often implied a particular vision of the nation and its prospects. Closely reading these donations can reveal historical perspectives or arguments against what the societies might have imagined. On the broader phenomenon of performing and contesting historical consciousness in the early republic, scholars such as David Waldstreicher and Simon Newman have explored how it played out in the streets. In the text, the contentiousness and contingencies of telling the colonial and revolutionary past has emerged in such works as Edward Watt’s fascinating reading of competing American narratives of the French colonial legacy, and this intriguing anthology on memory and accounts of the Revolutionary War. Meanwhile, the nineteenth-century historical discipline has received close re-examination more recently by Eileen Ka-May Cheng. But the construction of the American archive itself remains a murkier place.

An MHS circular letter first authored in 1791 by founding member and seminal American document-gatherer Jeremy Belknap and addressed to “to every Gentleman of Science in the Continent and Islands of America” gives a sense, at least, of their early archival imagination. In order to “collect, preserve, and communicate materials for a complete history of this country,” the MHS called on towns to respond to their fourteen-point memorandum, which ranged across military history, religion, population statistics, topographical description, traces of Indian life, economic production, and educational institutions. Fellow founder Thomas Wallcut cast the ambitious scope of the society: “A collection of observations and descriptions in natural history and Topography, together with specimens of natural and artificial curiosities and a selection of every thing which can improve and promote the historical knowledge of our Country, either in a physical or political view, has long been considered as a Desideratum” (Thomas Wallcut, 1791, Massachusetts Historical Society Archives, 1758-1934, Officer and Council Records, Box 7, MHS).

Circular Letter, of the Historical Society, Jeremy Belknap, 1791, MHS

It was quite a desideratum, reissued in the following decades. Its numbered requests may have implied some proto-social scientific approach—perhaps belied by such inclusions as “singular instances of longevity and fecundity.” But it led to an unmanageable influx of paper and objects. In its first few decades, donors sent—or sought to sell—hundreds of election sermons, newspapers and pamphlets, personal papers and correspondence and Indian land deeds—satisfying at least some of the society’s stated aims.

Meanwhile, however, items more aptly deemed curious or totemic streamed in. This should not imply any clear partition between written and non-written traces of the past. Objects could be inscribed with or accompanied by text, and written records could surely attain meaning beyond their literal content. Tamara Plakins Thornton’s work on handwriting in the early US explores that theme, such as in the significance of autographs for appraisers and ravenous collectors. However, in the motley array of relics and specimens that Americans culled from their continent and the foreign world they increasingly encountered, the MHS collections brimmed over from the historical and into the encyclopedic. This is not to say these were all superfluous curios. But the whole is hard to read, and the sometimes intricate import of a donation can feel lost in the mélange. For instance, to take a snippet of donations reported at a 1792 meeting:

“…From Col. Andrew Symmes, One of the largest kind of spears used by the Savages on the N West Coast of America; Some hooks from the Northwest Coast and Sandwich Islands—a Ruler of Petrified Rice—and a Chinese Spoon […]”

“From Mr Elisha Sigourney an Egg of the Ostrich and some Shells from the Islands of the Indian Ocean [….]”

From one angle, these appear as a scattershot of exotic souvenirs, consigned to the relative obscurity of the society’s cabinet. And indeed, the MHS cabinet does not appear as a particularly accessible or well-curated site during these years. Yet from another perspective, it is a carbon copy in artifacts of the most ambitious and elaborate of American trade routes in the Early Republic—great oceanic arcs sweeping from New England, around South America to the Pacific Northwest, to the South Pacific, and onward to Canton, China, perhaps returning westward via the Indian Ocean. Stocked along the way, ginseng, silver, sea otter pelts, bêche-de-mer and other products proved barely enough to purchase coveted Chinese manufactured goods for delighted American consumers. It was a Boston story in particular—and one of great wealth and prestige, as much about inscribing the future as a record of the past.

Over decades, patriotic relics and Indian artifacts trickled in alongside such foreign and natural specimens. Again, though, items charged with a particular historical or other meaning can seem to homogenize in the archival catalogue. In 1832, John Watson of Germantown, Pennsylvania, and author of an often reprinted Annals of Philadelphia, sent northward various items. He presented an almanac annotated by English scholar Gilbert Wakefield, asserting that, “hand writing of such a venerable Patriot is a relic itself.” More literally, though, he also dispatched this hockey puck-sized box of relic wood, whether his own or another’s creation. On its bottom, he described its quadrants: “Walnut tree before the Hall of Independence-of the former forest there. The Mahogany is of Columbus’ house, St. Domingo, 1496. The Elm is of Penn’s Treaty tree Philda. The Oak, is part of a bridge once over Dock Creek, at Chestnut Street. The Gum is the last forest tree alive at Philda.-1832. ’Such relics as devotion holds / All sacred & preserves with pious care.’ ”

Keepsake front.jpg

Keepsake box donated by John Watson, 1832, Boxes 03.025 East Stack, MHS

Authentic or not, the artifact’s invocation of Columbus, colonial Pennsylvania, the Founding, and contemporary Philadelphia was a powerful composite of metonymic associations. His donation may not have so much preferred the MHS over his own state’s repositories as it vaunted Pennsylvania’s preeminent place in American history. Indeed, his concluding verse sacralizes it. Again, such items may in theory contribute to broader archival “desideratum” of comprehensively telling the country’s past, but they also imagine variations—sometimes contentious ones—of the national stories emerging at that time.


Back of Watson’s keepsake box, Boxes 03.025 East Stack, MHS

These and sundry other items intersperse the long and narrow, chronological columns of documents in accession books at the MHS, as in many other historical societies’ catalogs. These columns almost teeter under the awkward diversity of things piled up to tell a part of the American past. At once, those columns might also appear to homogenize acquisitions into some unitary narrative project. Returning to Sparks, his bundle of documents appears as just a few blocks of text in these columns. Alongside myriad sermons, and such varied artifacts and singular relics, how could we interpret his papers as more than lines among many lines of accessions? And amid the arrival of so much, how could historical society members, the curious public, and visiting researchers broach it all? Though Sparks’s gift makes easy sense in the contexts of performing elite male identity and of heteroglossic donations, it fits oddly in the context of his life and work.

Sparks’s literary labors produced such ambitious undertakings as his editorship of The Diplomatic Correspondence of the American Revolution (1829-30) and The Library of American Biography (1834-38), alongside publications of the life and writings of John Ledyard, Gouverneur Morris, and Benjamin Franklin. Beginning in the mid-1820s, though, his most abiding, near obsessive project, atop any archival pantheon, was the collection, curation, and republication of George Washington’s papers (1834-38). He fought and won access via Judge Bushrod Washington to Washington’s papers at Mt. Vernon. He roved the US and visited European state archives. He recorded oral histories. And he activated a wide-ranging network of correspondents. Day by day, in this mammoth effort of re-composition, he accumulated a massive collection of Washington’s doings and writings, along with quite a few artifacts. Throughout his diaries, we see through his gaze a geography of unrecovered papers and a demography appraised by individuals’ access to them. He became a perambulating archive of sorts. Only begrudgingly in 1835 did Sparks ultimately transfer to the US State Department the 192 bound manuscript volumes of Washington’s papers which he had already sold to them. (Indeed, he seems to have flirted with the idea of using them as a security for a $5000 loan that year.)

This drive to gather and keep propelled Sparks’s many labors, including those behind his spirited effort to build a collection of the South American revolutions and early independence in the mid-1820s. From the vantage point as editor of the North American Review, he pressed the US consular officers and diplomats stationed throughout the new South American republics, as well as local men of state and letters, to collect and dispatch all documents covering the full sweep of revolution and independence there. He wrote in rhythm with the approaching Panama Congress of 1826, orchestrated by Simón Bolívar, and aspiring to coordinate a South American security policy against feared infringement by Spain and the Holy Alliance. As Sparks began to comb the North American landscape for the written traces of its revolution, he simultaneously looked southward from 1824. In his many letters there, we sense his urgency to educate his compatriots about South America, to compile a comprehensive history of their revolutions, and perhaps to tell a hemispheric history of American revolution to suit the inchoate geopolitical vision of the Monroe Doctrine. His appeals for paper, and reproofs when it was not forthcoming, crescendoed as the US Congress debated sending a delegation to Panama.

And then, suddenly, they stopped. Surely discouraged by the miscarriage of the US delegation and the potential for inter-American concert, Sparks moved on. He redirected his energies from South America to the American South and Canada, and then across the Atlantic to the French and British records of his republic’s independence. This North Atlantic story replaced a budding hemispheric imagination. A decade later, Sparks deposited a portion of his small South American archive at the MHS, a rare off-loading from his collections. Again, how might we read the material construction of an archive in this period, when a submission can be as much a history— or, indeed, an imagined future—untold or jettisoned, as part of some comprehensive record of the past?

Derek OLeary is a PhD candidate in UC Berkeleys History Department, where he is working on a dissertation about the construction of archives and historical narratives in the early US. He has an MA in International Relations from the Fletcher School at Tufts University.

What We’re Reading: January 20th

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


Lina Bolzoni, “ «Furioso» per l’Ariosto” (Il Sole 24 Ore Domenica)

Hugo Drochon, “Why Elites Always Rule” (New Statesman)

Heinrich Geiselberger in conversation with Angela Gutzeit, »Für Bauman war die Moderne kein eindeutiger Fortschrittsprozess« (Deutschlandfunk)

Timothy Nunan interviews Elizabeth Borgwardt, “A New Deal for the Nuremburg Trials?” (Toynbee Prize Foundation)

François Ottmann, « Du pragmatisme kantien » (La vie des idées)

Marshall Poe interviews Surekha Davies on her new book Renaissance Ethnography and the Invention of the Human: New Worlds, Maps, and Monsters (New Books in History)

Patrycja Pustkowiak, “Lem, the Stars, and the Holocaust” (Aspen Review)

Doreen Reinhard, »Die Mauer aus Glas« (Die Zeit)

James Schmidt, “The Making and the Marketing of the Philosophische Fragmente: A Note on the Early History of the Dialectic of Enlightenment (Part I)” (Persistent Enlightenment)

Adam Shatz, “Where Life is Seized” (London Review of Books)

And finally, Marielle Macé, « Sciences sociales : sciences du style » (CRAL – YouTube)


August Kleinzahler, Inauguration Day (LRB Blog)

Daniel Rodgers, When Truth Becomes a Commodity (Chronicle)

Christian Lorentzen, Considering the Novel in the Age of Obama (Vulture)

Claire Potter, Did We Lose It At The Movies?, a review of Kelly Oliver’s Hunting Girls (review31)

Samuel Moyn, Beyond Liberal Internationalism (Dissent)

Pete Kuryla, Some Thoughts on a Politics of Love in the Age of the Deal (USIH)

Antony Carpen, The Newnham connection to the making of modern Cambridge (Lost Cambridge)

Tom Seymour, After hours: capturing the journey home from New York City’s gay nightclubs (Guardian)

In shameless self-promotion, my article “Arthur Sidgwick’s Greek Prose Composition: Gender, Affect, and Sociability in the Late-Victorian University” is in the January issue of the Journal of British Studies.


Rebecca Solnit, “From Lying to Leering: Rebecca Solnit on Donal Trump’s Fear of Women” (LRB)

Marcus H. Johnson, “Stop Calling It ‘Identity Politics’ – It’s Civil Rights” (AlterNet)

Susan Chira’s “‘You Focus on the Good:’ Women Who Voted for Trump, in Their Own Words” (NYT)

I’m also still reading Janet Lewis. The Ghost of Monsieur Scarron is not as poignant as the masterful The Wife of Martin Guerre, but the story revolves around a bookbinder’s shop and the circulation of a slanderous pamphlet against Louis XIV. The pamphlet’s format (duodecimo) is mentioned over and over again – it’s a bibliographer’s novel.  I’ve also dipped into her Selected Poems. In short, she is my antidote to DJT.


Teresa Bejan “Mere Civility—An introduction” (The Immanent Frame)

Marcus Bunyan “Haunted Screens: German Cinema in the 1920s” (Art Blart)

Chris Kark on Mark Lilla “the future ain’t what it used to be” (3:AM)

Jessica Wright “Latin Behind Bars” (Eidolon)


Matt Bruenig, Antti Jauhiainen & Joona-Hermanni Mäkinen, ‘The UBI Bait and Switch’, (Jacobin)

Robin D.G. Kelley, ‘What Did Cedric Robinson Mean by Racial Capitalism?’ (Boston Review)

Jeanne Marie Laskas, ‘To Obama With Love, and Hope, and Desperation,’ (New York Times Magazine)

Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou, ‘Martin Luther King’s Radical Legacy, From the Poor People’s Campaign to Black Lives Matter,’ (Dissent Magazine)

Adam Shatz, “Where Life Is Seized’ (London Review of Books)

Carolyn :

Glen Newey, “Utopia in Texas” (LRB)

Jonathan Kirshner, “America, America” (Blog of the LARB)

Karen Horn, “Der Homo oeconomicus – ein Missverständnis” (NZZ)

Rejecting Church and State in Medieval Anatolia

by guest contributor Hugh Jeffery

The Çaltısuyu, a tributary of the Euphrates, flows through the dramatic canyons of eastern Anatolia. At around 1,225 meters above sea level, it emerges onto a barren highland plateau overlooked by the crumbling remains of a medieval castle. The small town of Divriği lies on the gentle slope beneath. Although its ornate thirteenth-century mosque has been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, few tourists make the journey to this remote and mountainous region.

The Great Mosque of Divriği, photograph by Avniyazici

The Great Mosque of Divriği, photograph by Avniyazici

Accessibility is usually something of a prerequisite for the establishment of a new town. Quite the opposite was true for Divriği. This site was first settled around the middle of the ninth century CE by a group of religious dissidents known as Paulicians. The event is recorded by Peter the Sicilian, an Orthodox Christian monk writing in tenth-century Constantinople: “[…] [T]hey went and founded Tefrice [Τεφρική] and lived there. So that at one and the same time [they] might escape the tyranny over them of the Agareni [Arabs] of Melitene, and also, imitating the demons completely in the avoidance of mankind, might be near both Armenia and Romania” (trans. Janet Hamilton and Bernard Hamilton, 91).

The Islamic emirate of Melitene lay to the south of the new Paulician settlement. To the east, the Christian nakharars (lords) of Armenia ruled the valleys and plains of the mountainous southern Caucasus. To the west was the medieval Roman Empire administered from its capital at Constantinople. The Paulicians were seeking an area out of the reach of contemporary states. According to the same source, this refuge attracted not only fellow heretics fleeing persecution but also “the greediest and most licentious and foolish people from the frontier regions” (92).

Around a month ago, I picked up Yale anthropologist Jim Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. It’s a fascinating book, one whose central theses are applicable to many premodern historical contexts. The object of Scott’s study is Zomia, a rugged inland massif covering some 2.5 million square kilometers, stretching from northeast India to southern China, and incorporating parts of Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. The lowland kingdoms have traditionally seen the approximately 100 million people living in this region as “living ancestors,” Neolithic savages stumbling over the starting line of the race to Civilization.

Ma Pi Leng Pass (Vietnam), at the eastern edge of the Zomia, photograph by Jaybeelarsay

Ma Pi Leng Pass (Vietnam), at the eastern edge of the Zomia, photograph by Jaybeelarsay

Scott begins with an analysis of the limits of state space, suggesting that landscapes that impede travel and communication, such as mountains and marshes, are inherently more difficult to control. His second contention is that the movement of groups and individuals between state and non-state space goes in both directions. The concentration of population in premodern states resulted in high mortality rates from disease and malnutrition, and so such structures have frequently been dependent on coercive or incentivized ingathering of peripheral groups to maintain population levels. The inhabitants of non-state spaces, far from being relics of the Stone Age, are often fugitives from embryonic or expansionist lowland states. Such communities are therefore post-agrarian, post-state, and sometimes even post-literate. Moreover, groups wishing to distance themselves from the state employ social institutions and agricultural technologies that actively prevent their incorporation. Rice is a perfect crop for state building. The need for constant maintenance of the paddies roots the peasant population in place, and the brief annual window in which the grains must be harvested allows for easy appropriation. By way of contrast, the sweet potato, introduced to Southeast Asia from the New World in the sixteenth century, was an immediate hit among the hill communities. Delicious, nutritious and virtually invisible above ground, root crops can be left in the earth for up to two years and harvested at any time. They are fiscally illegible.

The mountains of central Asia Minor present a similarly fractious and state-resistant zone. That Scott’s propositions might be relevant in this landscape was first noted by Peter Thonemann in his essay “Phrygia: An Anarchist History.” He argued that the collapse of the archaic Phrygian state on the plateaux of the Anatolian highlands between the sixth and fourth century BCE ought to be read as a deliberate adaptation to the impositions of Achaemenid Persian imperialism. By the time of the birth of Christ, Asia Minor was nominally under Roman control, and would remain so until the incursions of Seljuk nomads in the later eleventh century. Yet the empire was never able to extend its sovereignty far into the highlands. These remained the domain of “barbarian” peoples, such as the Isaurians of the southern Taurus Mountains. In the sixth century CE, Emperor Justinian attempted to impose imperial control on Tzanica, the mountainous region south of modern Trabzon, through the construction of roads, garrisons, and churches—the most fundamental instantiations of the Roman state. Even in the twenty-first century, many such areas are home to Kurdish guerrilla fighters evading the military might of the modern Republic of Turkey.

The Tahtalı Mountains in Central Anatolia, photograph by Joonas Plaan

The Tahtalı Mountains in Central Anatolia, photograph by Joonas Plaan

The final chapter of Scott’s book concerns the doctrinally heterodox, millenarian, and militant religious tendencies of the upland peoples of Southeast Asia. In medieval Asia Minor too, the highlands were associated with heresy and religious dissent. Perhaps the most prominent of these dissenting traditions was that of the Paulicians, discussed in some detail by a few texts in medieval Greek and Armenian. That they were a consciously self-reproducing group with an independent literary tradition is clear from some of our Greek sources, which cite texts composed by the Paulicians themselves. They rejected the Orthodox Churches of Constantinople and Armenia and functioned with only a minimalist hierarchy, with no church buildings or distinctions of dress. By the ninth century they were capable of mobilizing large raiding forces from their mountain strongholds. In 870 CE, the Paulician Chrysocheir sacked the city of Ephesus on the eastern shore of the Aegean Sea, stabling his horses in its magnificent cathedral in a calculated gesture of contempt.

There exists a Soviet-Armenian historiographical tradition in which the Paulicians play the role of class-conscious revolutionaries. I have no intention of returning to this rightly discredited model. However, I would like to suggest that Scott’s theses of state evasion through the strategic use of natural geography and heterodox cosmology may be useful in explaining the evident appeal of Paulicianism. Let’s return to ninth-century Anatolia. Warfare was endemic, with annual raids launched from the Arab emirates met by slash-and-burn tactics from the generally smaller Roman frontier armies. In such circumstances, pastoralism, inherently more mobile and therefore better suited to insecure conditions, prevailed over arable farming. Those who grew cereals were exposed not only to hostile raiding parties but also to the Roman taxman. The tax assessment was based on an inflexible ascribed value of the land, rather than the total product produced in a given year. A poor crop invited financial disaster. In addition to these routine dangers, the Anatolian peasantry also faced the threat of mass deportation to Constantinople and its Thracian hinterland. For example, the eighth-century emperor Constantine V ordered the forced transportation of those living in the vicinity of the fortresses of Theodosiopolis and Melitene. The response of the Roman state to heterodoxy might quickly degenerate into indiscriminate violence. In or shortly after 843 CE, the empress-regent Theodora charged a group of noblemen with the task of converting the perceived Paulician minority within the Anatolian population to Orthodoxy. According to the chronicler Zonoras, “they handled their commission clumsily and to no avail, and not merely wasted their labour but drove the entire people (who number many thousands) to apostatize” (Hamilton and Hamilton, 63).

The sack of Ephesus in 870 was too great a provocation to ignore. Within two years, Roman field armies had captured and destroyed the settlement at Tephrike (Divriği). The Paulician leader Chrysocheir was killed, though his name would survive in the oral epic poetry of the frontier region. Nevertheless, before his death he had made a highly unusual demand of the Roman state. Military uprisings in this period were not uncommon. Typically, the leader of a rebellion, such as Thomas the Slav in 821–23, would declare themselves emperor and march their troops to Constantinople. What Chrysocheir demanded was the secession of the eastern provinces from Constantinopolitan control. Modern historians have often described Tephrike as the capital of a Paulician state. While I do not wish to suggest that the sect was aiming to create an anarchist utopia, I would contest the simplistic deployment of this term. It was not simply the case that Paulicians were attracted to remote places in which they might practice their religion without fear of violence. Those who sought to evade the state would also have been attracted to Paulician refuges, where the art of not being governed was being practiced with remarkable effectiveness.

Hugh Jeffery is a doctoral student at the University of Oxford, specializing in the archaeology of medieval Asia Minor.

What We’re Reading: January 14th

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


« La constellation des savoirs : Entretiens avec Patrick Boucheron et Barbara Cassin » (La vie des idées)

Susanna Ferguson with Omnia El Shakry, “Islam, Psychoanalysis, and the Arabic Freud” (Ottoman History Podcast)

Wolfgang Kaußen, »Durch die Bibliothek …« (Suhrkamp Logbuch)

Jürgen Osterhammel, “Arnold Toynbee and the Problems of Today” (Toynbee Prize Foundation)

Stéphane Sahuc and Lucie Fougeron, « Il faut réinventer une manière de mener la bataille d’idées » (entretien avec Patrick Boucheron; L’Humanité)

Don Skemer, “Martin Guerre Returns, Again” (Princeton RBSC Manuscripts Division)

Alexander Stern, “The Art of Thinking in Other People’s Heads” (Humanities)

Emily Thompson, “The Women of Charter 77 and the New Dissenters” (Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty)

And finally, « Lumière, Lumières » (colloque au Collège de France)


Check out the CFP for “Beyond Between Men: Homosociality Across Time, my dream conference happening in Oxford this June.

Amia Srinivasan, Remembering Derek Parfit (LRB)
Jane O’Grady, Derek Parfit obituary (Guardian)

Our friends at Eidolon are sponsoring an essay contest for high-school students: if you know a teenage classicist, encourage them to apply!

Xiaolu Guo, ‘Is this what the west is really like?’ How it felt to leave China for Britain (Guardian)

Andrew Hartman, The Long Lives of Marxist Books (S-USIH)

Tamson Pietsch, I read this book so you don’t have to (Cap and Gown), a review of William Lubenow’s Only Connect: Learned Societies in Nineteenth-Century Britain

Robert B. Townsend and Emily Swafford, Conflicting Signals in the Academic Job Market for History (AHA Perspectives)

John Broich, How Journalists Covered the Rise of Mussolini and Hitler (Smithsonian)


Erich Chaim Kline’s recent catalog of photographic books

Rebecca Herscher, “What Happened when Dylan Roof Asked Google About Race?” (NPR)

I just started Janet Lewis’ wonderful Cases of Circumstantial Evidence series, with The Trial of Soren Qvist. I happily read it in 24 hours, absolutely perfect for a wintry night at home. I’m looking forward to the rest of the series, and delving into her poetry as well.  Larry McMurtry reviewed several reissues of her work for the NYRB in 1998.

Charles Wood’s recent catalogue of photo-technically illustrated books

J.T. Roan, “Pedagogy for the World: Black Studies in the Classroom and Beyond” (AAIHS)


For a Luxury Leftism” (Current Affairs)

Atossa Araxia Abrahamian on Branko Milanovic, “An Economist’s Case for Open Borders” (Dissent)

Dean Baker, “Forum: Is Globalization to Blame?” (Boston Review)

Nathan Perl-Rosenthal “Plotting Revolution, Part One, Two, and Three” (Age of Revolutions).

Adam Shatz, “Where Life is Seized” (LRB)


Timothy Garton Ash, ‘Is Europe Disintegrating?’ (The New York Review of Books)

Arthur Goldhammer, ‘France Chooses a New President,’ (The American Prospect)

Patrick Iber, ‘Literary Agents: Rethinking the legacy of writers who worked with the CIA,’ (New Republic)

Wesley Morris, ‘Visiting the African-American Museum: Waiting, Reading, Thinking, Connecting, Feeling,’ (NY Times)

Samuel Moyn, ‘Beyond Liberal Internationalism,’ (Dissent)


Amani Bin Shikhan, “Finding the Right Light: With his music debut, Mustafa the Poet grows up – and turns inward” (GOOD)

George Blaustein, “The Obama Speeches: Drones need no Churchills and deserve no Lincolns” (N+1)

Alex Dueben, “How ‘His Girl Friday’, One of the Best Movies of All Time, Led to Today’s TV Dramedies” (Splitsider)

Jamila Osman, “A Map of Lost Things: On Family, Grief, and the Meaning of Home” (Catapult)

Timothy Shenk, “Jonathan Chait and the Failure of “Grown Up” Liberalism” (New Republic)


Christiane Habermalz, “Gelöschtes Gedächntis? Kritik am neuen Bundesarchivgesetz” (Deutschlandradio Kultur)

Helene von Bismarck, “Lost in translation: Brexit and the Anglo-German Relationship” (History & Policy, Opinion)

Ian Frazier, “The Vertical Farm” (The New Yorker)

Mark Micale, “Early Global Thinker” (TLS)

History or Ghost Story? Marshall Berman

by guest contributor Max Ridge

“One of the most important things for radical critics to point to,” Marshall Berman writes in his first book, “is all the powerful feeling which the system tries to repress—in particular, every man’s sense of his own unique, irreducible self” (xiii). In his life and work, Berman demonstrated the importance of the personal side of politics. Though an earnest student of Marx, he thought little of theoretical systems that ignored individualism, authenticity, and identity. He won his widest audience with All That Is Solid Melts Into Air (1982), a blend of historical and literary analysis culminating in a unified study of cultural modernism and industrial modernization. As opposed to the Frankfurt School’s “culture industry” or C. Wright Mills’ “cultural apparatus,” Berman’s mature worldview sometimes reveled in the entanglement of capitalist interest and artistic creation, and declined to ascribe an overarching order to dynamics in consumer culture. Thirty years later, the text remains globally influential in urban studies, literary studies, and architectural scholarship. His other works, however, enjoy considerably less scrutiny.

Today it appears that Berman’s legacy as a person (or personality) has defined his legacy as a political thinker. His death in 2013 marked the loss not only of a New York intellectual, but also of a figure in the mythos of the Upper West Side. He was, in later life, hard to miss as he patrolled Broadway, wearing a bushy head of hair and an even bushier beard. His wardrobe featured an assortment of t-shirts with slogans like “Make Poverty History.” Berman was a lifelong professor at CUNY, member of the editorial board of Dissent, and author of many influential books. Todd Gitlin, Michael Walzer, and other stars in New York’s intellectual constellation sounded off heartbreakingly personal obituaries and reflections shortly after his death three years ago.

The years since have seen a renewed interest in Berman’s work, as historians and critics both memorialize him and attempt to situate his legacy within American intellectual history. Adventures in Modernism, a volume of reflections from Berman’s later friends and interlocutors, appeared in November 2016. Verso will also publish a collection of his essays in May 2017. At the launch event for Adventures in Modernism, acquaintances and students of Berman’s shared stories of what it was like to read All That Is Solid for the first time, or attend one of his impressive lectures on rap music or the South Bronx. It was riveting and intimate—even mournful—yet did little to advance Berman’s image past that of the “happy warrior.” While uniqueness and historical significance definitely do not undo each other in the abstract, most of the new work on Berman seems to capture his singular nature without contextualizing him in terms of any specific tradition.

Lacking a significant base of existing secondary scholarship, my own work on Berman seeks to uncover his main interests and priorities at the very beginning of his career. Through his archived graduate and undergraduate scholarship, I investigate which traditions (especially so-called “Cold War liberalism”) informed his emerging Marxist humanism, interrogate his work alongside parallel trends in political thought like the New Left, and track the origins of his theoretical syncretism. Though “revisionist” in his emphasis on theories of alienation and dismissal of Stalinism, Berman deviates from more prominent Marxist humanists like Leszek Kolakowski and the Praxis School, who criticized the political realities of the Cold War (and their intellectual antecedents) on the basis of humanistic principles. Berman displayed a lifelong tendency to work within established liberal and Enlightenment contexts in an exceedingly academic register, rallying “canonical” authors in a perceived common struggle against the alienating forces of modernity. He once described Marxist humanism as “a synthesis of the culture of the Fifties with that of the Sixties” (160).

In All That Is Solid, Berman’s revisionism, though stark, is never fully explicated. To Berman, Marx may have appreciated capitalism’s achievements while also apprehending its spiritual deficiencies. “Radical fusion,” Berman argues, “has given way to fission; both Marxism and modernism have congealed into orthodoxies and gone their separate and mutually distrustful ways.” In place of orthodox Marxist social analysis and the “haloed” purism of modernist art criticism, Berman aspired to a framework that would “reveal modernism as the realism of our time” (All That Is Solid 121-122). The book initially struck me as radical, though cross-pollinated with the languages of liberal political thought, romanticism, and psychoanalysis. Berman’s earliest novel contribution to political thought, perhaps, was therefore an optimistic, non-dogmatic Marxist idiom that was intelligible to thinkers who would have otherwise assailed Marxism due to the failures of Soviet communism.

Though a political radical and student in the 1960s, Berman channeled his energy into his studies rather than activism or confrontation. At this remove, Berman’s work nonetheless embodied many principles of the radically democratic New Left. Undergraduate experiences at Columbia University between 1957 and 1961 solidified Berman’s interests in the humanities. Early interests in psychoanalysis and the 1844 Manuscripts, whose English translation coincided with Berman’s undergraduate explorations, further helped establish his animating political fixations: alienation in modernity, personal autonomy, and the struggle for authentic political community.

Berman earned advanced degrees from Harvard and Oxford in predominately liberal settings. At Oxford he wrote a B.Litt. thesis under Isaiah Berlin’s supervision, a final or near-final draft of which, entitled “Marx on Individuality and Freedom,” sits in Berman’s archives in New York. It contains remarkable echoes of Berlin’s “Two Concepts of Liberty”—suggesting, perhaps, a student’s attempts to synchronize Marx with the liberal sensibilities of his supervisor. As in All That Is Solid, Berman suggests that orthodox Marxism, manifest in the state doctrine of the Soviet Union and dogmatic revolutionary readings of Capital, cannot alone account for the complex effects of modern life on the self. Yet unlike All That Is Solid, the thesis shows Berman’s revisionism in real time.

Berman’s thesis attempts to demonstrate that Marx “clearly sees that there is more to men than economic characters allow.” He articulates Marx’s conception of history as a constant effort on the part of humanity to overcome “illusory communities” and, one by one, assert their individuality in spite of “deterministic myths.” Though unique in their content, Berman’s revisions are familiar in their terminology: “To understand what freedom means… is to recognize that other men are free agents themselves. To affirm myself and recognize another as free… is to realize that orientations other than my own, and no less ‘true,’ are possible.” Berman therefore constructs a novel and humanist Marxism that can facilitate, rather than dismiss, pluralism, liberal democracy, and seemingly “bourgeois” notions of rationality and personal autonomy.

Leaving aside the question of whether or not Berman’s graduate revisions are convincing on their own, his B.Litt. thesis casts his first book, The Politics of Authenticity (1970), in a new light. An expansion of his doctoral dissertation, this book analyses Rousseau and Montesquieu in order to develop an account of the notion of authenticity. “Being oneself,” in Berman’s view, poses one of the greatest difficulties and sources of emancipation for modern people. “Why,” he asks, “should the ideal of authenticity, which had co-existed for so long with real repression in society and the state, now suddenly,” in the modern age, “help to generate a revolutionary upheaval against it?” (xiii). The language of authenticity becomes a way of squaring the circle, so to speak, that is the tension between group and individual identity.

As Allan Bloom pointed out in a review, The Politics of Authenticity is a product of the New Left “in having as twin goals freedom, understood to mean being and doing whatever one wants to be or do, and community.” This is unsurprising, as Berman’s work up until 1970 signaled a desire to reconcile the developments of individual autonomy and the communal self. Bloom wrote Berman off as sectarian when, in actuality, Berman’s book is anything but divisive. It explicitly argues that authenticity may be a useful concept for the New Left and Right alike. The common ground stretches back further: “In the nineteenth century the desire for authenticity became a point of departure for both liberal and socialist thought,” Berman writes, as thinkers like J.S. Mill stressed the importance of free expression, diversity of “modes of life,” and the assertion of individual “character” over tradition. “The same values,” Berman claims, “underlay Marx’s radical indictment of liberalism,” as the proletariat lived in a contradiction between individuality and the condition of their labor (xxv).

Looking backwards, it seems plausible that The Politics of Authenticity, like All That Is Solid, is an oddity in intellectual history—an example of a young academic’s attempt to transmogrify the radically democratic energy of the sixties into political science. The former book proved less popular than the latter, but neither is all style. Rather, we would be wise to take a second look at Berman’s impulses as a young scholar. Was he a unique personality to be celebrated, or might we take a critical look at his tendency to revise—without consideration of barriers of tradition or discipline—the ideas of past thinkers according to the demands of the present? If it could be done in the ideological crucible of the Cold War, could it not also appear today?

Max Ridge is an undergraduate student at Columbia University majoring in history.