Book reviews

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.

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Felwine Sarr (© Léo Paul Ridet/Hanslucas.com 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.

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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.

The Interwar, Ourselves

by contributing editor Disha Karnad Jani

The period in between the First and Second World Wars yields fertile ground for reflection by many of our public intellectuals. Much of this resonance comes from the fact that historians have typically understood the 1920s and 1930s in one of three ways. The period can be understood as the aftermath of the First World War and the lost peace. It can be understood as the lead-up to the Second World War. And the contrarian’s response to these gloomy retellings: it was the culturally vibrant period that birthed the Jazz Age, talkies, advances in technology, and shifts in the restrictive social mores of the Long Nineteenth Century. But to hear it told as a single European story, the history of the interwar years reads first and foremost as warning. The period-after-the-war and the period-before-war are one and the same, as the post bleeds into the pre. The years between the First and Second World Wars become a cautionary tale for foreign policy experts, a lesson for those who tinker with the economy, and a time of warnings unheeded.

There are three sets of assumptions attached to most renderings of this period. First, that ‘war’ is defined as the armed conflict carried out between state actors and bound by official declarations that mark the beginning and end of fighting. Second, that ‘peace’ is merely the absence of war, meaning that the period between 1918 and 1939 was one of relative, if not absolute stability – the ‘inter’ in ‘interwar.’ And finally, that the First World War was a signal and symbol of the breakdown of a particular European civilizational identity. The Allied victory in 1945 was consequently a triumph in the wake of which a peaceful liberal order for Europe was built in the shadow of Soviet Russia and the encroaching illiberal mirror-image it represented.

In our moment, it has become customary to draw comparisons between the contemporary world and the world of the 1920s and 1930s. I invite readers to search Twitter for the phrase “and what rough beast its hour come round at last slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” The overwhelming result will be a piece of news or photograph with Yeats’ ominous query quoted without comment. In an era apparently marked by the crumbling of the postwar liberal order (if our public intellectuals are to be believed) it makes sense that we look to the last time that happened. Pankaj Mishra, for instance, has characterized our moment as an “age of anger” that liberal rationalism is incapable of explaining away. Instead, Mishra proposes considering democracy as a “profoundly fraught emotional and social condition” rather than one side of the liberal-illiberal binary. Commentators have framed and re-framed the first decades of the twentieth century in The London Review of Books, Foreign Affairs, The New York Times, Dissent, and The New Republic, among others. Arguments against comparing our moment to the Weimar Republic were published last month in Jacobin by way of a Weimar historian. In this vein, Mark Mazower’s 1998 book Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth Century remains an early example of the reevaluation of the cradle of post-1945 stability, years before the oft-referenced ‘de-stabilizers’ occurred – 9/11, the 2008 financial crisis, the rise of the far-right in Europe, and the Syrian civil war.

Alternatively warning away from or advocating for the use of the past as a lesson, writers nonetheless have found it powerful to compare and contrast century-old developments and the present. It is not difficult to understand why these lessons resonate. Much of this conversation has to do with the simple act of naming: what is a fascist? What is a liberal? What is a populist? It is not for me to say here whether these parallels should or shouldn’t resonate, or what kind of value these comparisons may hold, either for our understanding or for productive political action. I am merely inviting an examination of the assumptions contained within our treatment of the interwar period, and what happens to this period in our collective memory if those assumptions’ legacies are dismantled by some, and upheld by others. The distinction is stark if we compare two kinds of reflections on the resonance of the interwar period. If the comparison is made in order to demonstrate the dangers of ignoring or abetting a threat to liberalism or social good, then the interwar stands as a warning. If, however, the parallel is not a call to preserve or guard against a threat, but rather to reexamine the usefulness of the very thing in need of preservation – NATO, the Democratic Party, or a ‘free press’ for example – then the critical intervention necessarily involves an adjustment of the lessons of the 1920s and 1930s. Such an intervention requires at least a partial rejection of the notion that the twentieth century’s greatest triumph was the spread of liberal democracy.

The interwar period has also been framed as a simultaneous genesis and telos of our narrative understandings of the past. 1914 was the year our present began, and it was the year the world ended. Playing with these starts and stops forms the substance of many, if not all, historiographical interventions in the study of the interwar period. And because this period is also considered the genesis of many of our paradigmatic and normative categories for political life, a re-orientation of the narrative has implications for the foundational assumptions of our notions of governmentality, order, and social good, as gathered – as though for ease of access – in the term “liberal democracy.” Two historians who have recently grappled with these questions are Robert Gerwarth and Enzo Traverso.

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Robert Gerwarth shifts the center of the violence of the war towards the defeated states in his recent book, The Vanquished: Why The First World War Failed to End.  Gerwarth’s aim with this book is to move eastward, away from victory and ‘strength amid chaos’ narratives, and to those places with chaos as the main character. The shift is simultaneously geographical and chronological. Gerwarth encourages us to extend the “end” of the period of European violence called the First World War from 1918 to 1923, because, as he argues, “in order to understand the violent trajectories that Europe – including Russia and the former Ottoman lands in the Middle East – followed throughout the twentieth century, we must look not so much at the war experiences between 1914 and 1917 but at the way in which the war ended for the vanquished states of the Great War” (13). Gerwarth does not concern himself much with explaining why tensions arose between particular ethnic groups or political opponents in the period following the armistice, which he tends to see as older antagonisms coupled with new national struggles (214). Rather, he is interested in how and why such violence became so pronounced in the defeated states. The aftermath of the First World War, or rather, the extended European war, changed the course of the twentieth century because it altered the “logic of violence” (254). Even as he describes the moments of success for democracy and stable government, Gerwarth is sure to emphasize the hubris of such moments of triumph: “many policymakers in the vanquished states, and notably in central Europe, firmly believed that they had delivered where the liberal revolutionaries of 1848 had failed…. Liberal democracy, which had failed to come into existence then, had finally emerged triumphant” (116-117). Thus the foundation of whatever ‘peace’ that existed after 1918 is cast as misguided and naïve.

fireandbloodA similar shift takes place in Enzo Traverso’s Fire and Blood: the European Civil War, 1914-1945, which was translated from the French last year. Traverso extends the period of violence even further than Gerwarth does, as he examines the years between the start of the First World War and the end of the Second World War as a single historical event. The characterization of the conflict as a civil war frames the European continent as a single polity tearing itself to shreds, with a shifting roster of combatants. At the beginning, the war emerges as typically as conflicts had for hundreds of years with a formal declaration of war and the mobilization of troops. It turns into a total war, in which civilians are fodder for the war machines of various state and non-state actors. Traverso notes that the norms of liberal democracy become subsumed under the conditions of civil war, which takes on its own horrible logic. He considers the Holocaust, the anti-fascist resistance, and the deaths of civilians on both sides of the wartime and interwar fronts as part of a single global epoch one in which the scale and chaos of violence was unmatched.

Fire and Blood also dislocates two of the most persistent assumptions of older accounts of the interwar period. One of these assumptions is the “anachronism so widespread today that projects onto the Europe of the interwar years the categories of our liberal democracy as if these were timeless norms and values” (2). The second incorrect assumption is that the Allied victory over the Nazis proved itself a “new triumph of Enlightenment…a victorious epic of progress” (276). Sandwiched between these moments is an account of resistance and violence with an almost aggressive refutation of teleology or a progress narrative. Thus, contained within what appears to be merely a chronological and geographic widening, Fire and Blood furnishes an overtly political refusal to celebrate what are meant to be the triumphs of liberal democracy and humanitarianism post-1945. Traverso demonstrates the profound impact a little rearrangement can have.

Indeed, the study of the interwar period has been until recently an investigation into what went wrong and then what went wrong a second time. This sort of narrative is necessarily based on an assumption that things were going right when they were not going wrong. The break between the old world order that existed before 1914 and the subsequent “self-immolation of bourgeois Europe” – to borrow a phrase from Tony Judt – had to be explained. Any discussion of the cultural production, social advances, scientific breakthroughs, moments of hope, or signals of progress had to be mitigated by the epilogue: “little did they know….” Attached to the study of the interwar period then, are the particular methodological and epistemic implications of studying something for its very failure. The historian knows what is to come, but no one else does. Melancholy saturates the prose of such works, and if not that, then a slightly smug dramatic irony.

We are far enough away from the interwar period that it has nearly lapsed out of living memory – the experience of the Great War almost completely gone. Despite this, as Traverso in particular has shown, the period carries meaning for our understandings of violence and collapse. The interwar years remain both near and far. There is continuity in our political lexicon, but many of the categories and their potency have shifted in the ensuing century. Old vocabularies are often deployed to refer to shifting phenomena. If the period is upheld in historians’ understanding as the non-violent (yet markedly uneasy) interlude between the collapse of European order on the one hand, and the triumph of the West and liberal democracy over the evils of fascism on another, then we are left with a very brittle image of what it feels like to endure violence. As Nitzan Lebovic notes in his review of Traverso’s book: “If the polis has been stained since its earliest days by the crimson tide of internal conflicts, its constitutive order should be seen in a different light.” What experiences of suffering sit just off-center, obscured by the stark periodization of war and peace and its accompanying narrative of progress? We are left with a story that marks crisis via formal declarations of war, and the cessation of formal conflict becomes synonymous with peace. The continuation of violence in the lands of the vanquished and the prolonged civil war with its own logic are two spatial-temporal re-orientations that serve to destabilize the creation myth of the order of global liberalism which we are meant to just now evaluate as “in crisis.” And so, as if historians ever needed a reminder: periodization matters. Scale matters. The interwar period is unique because we made it so – it has become in the historical profession and in the public imagination an epoch saturated with poignancy and foreboding, of possibility and thwarted progress. Our moment and the interwar period have been mutually constituted as interstices of chaos. Moving a few things around can have consequences.

Foucault from Beyond the Grave

by guest contributor Michael C. Behrent

Few living thinkers have been as prolific as the dead Michel Foucault. In the thirty-two years since his death, he has published thirteen book-length lecture courses, four volumes of interviews and papers (totaling over 3,500 pages), and countless bootlegs. Meanwhile, the fourth volume of his History of Sexuality, completed shortly before his death, sits, inaccessible to all, in an archive in Normandy—a rare text to have found no way around his estate’s prohibition on posthumous publications.

His will notwithstanding, one can only imagine that Foucault himself would have reacted to this state of affairs with a caustic laugh. For as two recently published volumes remind us, Foucault was haunted by the bond between language and death, as well as the notion that writing always, in a sense, comes from “beyond the grave.”

41pbmufcnrlThe two books in question both appear in a series put out by the Éditions de l’École des hautes études en sciences sociales called Audiographie, which publishes texts that were first delivered in a spoken form. La grande étrangère (The Great Foreigner, 2013), consists of a radio program on madness and literature from 1963, two lectures on literature given in Brussels in 1964, and a talk on the Marquis de Sade delivered at SUNY Buffalo in 1970. The other, Le beau danger (The Beautiful Danger, 2011), is the transcript of an extended interview on the theme of writing that Foucault gave to the literary critic and journalist Claude Bonnefoy in 1968, but which has never before appeared in print.

If there is a common theme linking these interventions, it is that of Foucault’s obsession with the connection between writing and death. The texts in these volumes all deal with literature and writing; the problem of death figured prominently in the literary essays that Foucault, in the 1960s, devoted to Bataille, Blanchot, and Roussel. Yet what the Audiographie books make clear is that the problem of literature and death was not, for Foucault, some esoteric side problem. It was integral to the ideas he was developing in his major publications. Thus modern literature exemplifies, Foucault maintains, the fact that the modern mind is steeped in what, in The Order of Things (1966), he dubbed the “analytic of finitude.” One of the many consequences of the growing consciousness of the radically finite character of human existence that follows the death of God is, he argues, the enormous significance that modern society assigns to literature. The value we attribute to literature is inseparable, Foucault suggests, from a cultural horizon shaped by human mortality.

In the 1964 Brussels lectures, Foucault contends that early modern Europe (during what he calls “the classical age”) did not, strictly speaking, have literature—at least in the way we have since come to understand the term—for the simple reason that it interpreted itself culturally as the tributary of the word of God. People in this period, of course, wrote novels. Some even experimented with the kind of knowing self-consciousness about their own literary artifices—referring in writing to the fact that they were writing—that would later become associated with literary modernism (Foucault offers a fascinating analysis, for instance, of Diderot’s Jacques le fataliste). Yet what distinguishes these earlier endeavor from the literature of the modern age is the fact that, during the classical age, “any work of language existed as a function of a certain mute and primitive language, that the work was charged with restoring.” This “language that [came] before languages” was the “word of God, it was the truth, it was the model” (La Grande étrangère, 100). Rhetoric was the means through which human utterances, in all their obtuseness, could acquire something of the limpidity of divine speech. But what we have come to call literature only emerges once God has died—or become dumb, to be precise. Literature is the attempt from within the unremitting chatter of discourse to mark language, to dent it, possibly to re-enchant or overcome it—hence modern literature’s frequently transgressive character. But once it has ceased to represent the word of God, once it has become simple the words filling a page, literature becomes an emblem of human finitude. As such, it cannot be other than “beyond the grave” (104).

Foucault’s claim that, strictly speaking, literature does not exist as an independent realm of discourse until the late eighteenth century parallels the claim he would soon make in The Order of Things that “man” (in the sense of the “human”) did not exist as a specific object of knowledge until the same period. The birth of the human sciences and the genesis of literature are both, Foucault, maintains, consequences of t God’s retreat.

The problem of writing also lies at the heart of Foucault’s 1970 lecture on Sade. His question is simply: why did Sade write? What compelled him to fill volume after volume with his transgressive yet mind-numbingly repetitive fantasies? Foucault’s analysis is characteristically complex, yet his argument harkens back, however indirectly, to the themes of the Brussels lecture. Sade’s libertinism is, needless to say, directed against God. Yet it is not atheistic as such; God is not dismissed as mere illusion. God, Sade believes, exists, but as an abomination, as evidenced by the “meanness” (méchanceté) of the world—and indeed, by the fact that there are libertines. In Sade’s peculiar logic (which Foucault calls “anti-Russellian” [199]), it is because God is abominable that it is necessary that he not exist. This theme illustrates what Foucault sees as the ultimate function of Sade’s writing: the intertwining of discourse, truth, and desire. Sade needs God “insofar as he does not exist, and insofar as he must be destroyed at each instant” (204), as both his writing and his desire depend on him.

41W+Fo8Tv1L.jpgThe reason Sade wrote is thus because in discourse, truth and desire become enmeshed in spirals of reciprocal stimulation and impulsion. Yet his originality, Foucault claims, lies in the way he emancipated desire from truth’s tutelage, pulling it out from under “the great Platonic edifice that ordered desire on truth’s sovereignty” (218). The point is not (as with Freud) that desire has its own truth, which is more or less hypocritically covered up by social norms; it is also, Foucault seems to be saying, that truth is a form of desire. Truth is not the neutral and transparent element through which words can name beings. It is a libidinal force, as seen in Sade’s relentless insistence, despite his novels’ preposterous plots, that he is telling the truth. Foucault’s account of the truth function in Sade recalls the themes of his first Collège de France lectures, on the “will to knowledge” in ancient Greece, which he would deliver the following year: the sophists, who believed that arguments are not proven logically, but won or lost like battles, resemble in many ways Sade’s approach to writing. Language, here, is no longer just a rumbling murmur that literature seeks to transform into a voice. God is dead, and we—or our truth-creating discourse—have killed him.

Yet at least according to Foucault’s position in Le Beau danger, language—or at least writing—has less to do with killing than with—as he put it in Madness and Civilization—the “already thereness of death” (“le déjà là de la mort”; cf. Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique (Paris: Gallimard, 1972 [1961]), 26). Foucault explains: “I would say that writing, for me, is tied to death, perhaps essentially to the death of others, but that does not mean that writing would be like murdering others,” in a way that “would open before me a free and sovereign space.” Writing, rather, means “dealing with others insofar as they are already dead. I speak, in a sense, over the corpses of others. I must confess, I kind of postulate their death” (Le Beau danger, 36-37).

In this sense, the death of God, Foucault suggests, is not only the cultural situation that his thought attempts to assess; it is the condition of possibility of his own work. The idea of writing as a form of resurrection, a way of rendering present the “living word” of “men and—most likely—God” is, he says, “profoundly alien” to him. Writing, for Foucault, is “the drifting that follows death, and not the progression to the source of life.” He muses: “It is perhaps in this sense that my form of language is profoundly anti-Christian”—even more so than themes that he addresses (39).

In these texts, the reader will find few of the concepts for which Foucault is best known. There is no or little mention of archaeology, epistemes, genealogy, or power (discourse is the one exception, though it is discussed in a far less technical manner than in, say, The Archaeology of Knowledge). What they remind us of are the philosophical preoccupations that presided over his early work—and that no doubt continued to shape his later thought, works such as Discipline and Punish and The History of Sexuality, albeit in a more subterranean way. Here, we have a Foucault concerned with finitude, mortality, and the death of God. Perhaps this Foucault is in need of—how else to put it?—resurrection.

Michael C. Behrent teaches modern European history at Appalachian State University. He is currently working on a book exploring the origins of Foucault’s project.

Impermanent Dwellings: Bookstores and Feminist Approaches to History

by contributing editor Brooke Palmieri

It would make an amazing opening sequence to a film: the camera catches the glint of chrome, leather, motorcycle, boots, asphalt. A helmet is secured, and a stack of books and belongings piled onto the back are double-checked for safety. On the top of the stack is the silver-on-blue imprint of a peacock, the book is Rita May Brown’s Songs to a Handsome Woman.

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A voiceover narrates a poem from the book, “For Those of Us Working For a New World”:

The dead are the only people
to have permanent dwellings.
We, nomads of Revolution
Wander over the desolation of many generations
And are reborn on each other’s lips
To ride wild mares over unfathomable canyons
Heralding dawns, dreams and sweet desire.

The year is 1974 and the woman on the motorcycle is Carol Seajay, and she’s about to ride from Kalamazoo to San Francisco. Forget Shakespeare’s sister Judith in a room of her own — this is Jack Kerouac’s younger, smarter, and politically awakened sister’s On the Road. Revolutionary without the misogyny, nomadic without the exploitation. The screenplay to this film would be written by Sarah Schulman in the style of Girls, Visions, and Everything. The protagonist Carol Seajay really did ride across the country in 1974, stopping at the kinds of bookstores that sold books like Songs to a Handsome Woman. Other women would make similar trips to these feminist bookstores, which in the 1970s began to open all over North America in a glorious manifestation of the energy and passion of the Women’s Liberation Movement. The film documenting this explosion of over a hundred bookshops would begin with Seajay’s ride to San Francisco, feature a pitstop at the Amazon Bookstore in Minneapolis. It would show her arrival as a volunteer at the bookstore ICI: A Woman’s Place, in Oakland. It would cut to 1976, when Seajay opened Old Wives’ Tales in San Francisco 40 years ago this Halloween. In that same year, it would show her typing up and collating Feminist Bookstore News, the publication that the transnational network of bookstores used to communicate and coordinate with one another when they weren’t travelling to meet in person at the Women in Print conferences they planned. The Feminist Bookstore News was a tool for calling out racism within the sprawling community of feminists; it was a tool for sharing information about books worth stocking; it was a tool for coordinating campaigns to keep books by female authors in print; and it was a tool for fighting against the rise of large chain booksellers and amazon.com, and their impact upon the sustainability of independent bookstores. The movie would end in 1995, when Old Wives’ Tales closed.

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Carol Seajay at Old Wives Tales, c. 1980.  Image courtesy of Found SF.

Cross-country travel linked Old Wives’ Tales with hundreds of other bookshops between the 1970s and 1990s. Kristen Hogan’s The Feminist Bookstore Movement: Lesbian Antiracism and Feminist Accountability (2016) details the story of the women who ran Old Wives’ Tales, the political and social contexts and plain hard work that allowed for it and so many other bookstores to flourish. This is also taken up in This Book Is an Action: Feminist Print Culture and Activist Aesthetics. The influence of bookstores upon their local communities is difficult to pin down, but diffuse in the opinion of Carol Seajay, who described to Hogan in The Feminist Bookstore Movement the importance of finding the right book at the right time in these terms:

I brought those books back and said to friends of mine, “These are the lesbian books with good endings. These are going to change our lives.” And they all looked at me, like, “Yeah, yeah, Carol. All about books, Carol, again. Yeah, yeah, yeah.” “No these are going to change our lives. No, you have to read this. Songs to a Handsome Woman, you have to read these!” They did read them. And it changed some of their lives and not some of them. But I do think that there being lesbian books changed even the lives of the women who didn’t read. Because it changed the lives around them.”

Sometimes a book’s message, or the feeling of having read it, can be felt by those who haven’t picked it up — the sight of that radiance in the face of the reader can change the quality of a room. Sometimes the book’s existence becomes a distinctly distant comfort: unread, alongside others on the shelf, it is not alone, and neither are you. Libraries and bookstores produce those comforts, working in tandem to foster existing communities , and to imagine those that do not — although less on the level of the imagined national communities of Benedict Anderson than on the level of the neighborhood. Yet the latter is a precondition to the former, as Kay Turner put it, speaking almost directly to the “dreams and sweet desire” from “To Those of Us Working For a New World”: “The dream of a common language couldn’t exist without the dream of a common bookstore.”

Scholarship in history of the book has concerned itself with the dreams imagined by individual books — the imaginary readers, the individual houses a book has inhabited. It has scaled up to think about the history of libraries. But in The Feminist Bookstore Movement and This Book Is an Action, the authors and editors expand our understanding of the reading experience by thinking about the relationships between books and their audiences within pre-sale geographic and economic contexts. Particular to the feminist bookstore movement was the repeated use of the bookstores as platforms for transnational and international conversation and debate. Bookstores themselves (during road trips especially) and the Feminist Bookstore News, were the sites of sometimes-painful arguments about the practices of inclusive feminist activism in real time. Bookstores were incubation chambers where theory turned to to practice. The presence of books that addressed racism, colonialism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia head on encouraged and informed the discussions and practices not only of bookstore workers, but also for the community that took shape in and around the shops. For example, in 1989 Sharon Fernandez, and Cindy Beggs, in tandem with the Toronto Women’s Bookstore collective, published the Women of Colour Bibliography documenting publications of and by women of color in the 1980s to make it easier for other bookstores to keep those titles in stock. There was nothing like it at the time, even in the academy. The bibliography was much more than a list of books — it was a record of the pain and struggle within as well as outside feminism to come to terms with its own systemic racism, and to hold readers accountable for theirs. This was a bibliography that meant something, not just to the people that wrote it and the authors of the books they documented, but to a larger community that strove to address the needs and experience of women of colour.

The feminist bookstore movement offers a powerful model for analysing the influence of bookstores as units of intellectual meaning as well as forces for social change beyond the Women’s Liberation Movement. The history of libraries is increasingly well documented and theorised within scholarship, but the history of bookstores is only beginning to receive a similar level of attention — such as with the University of Pennsylvania’s Gotham Book Mart Project, work documenting the influence of Shakespeare & Co. in Paris, or New Beacon Books in London. Focus on these bookshops facilitates a shift within book history as a subject taught in English and History departments to one requiring the tools of the anthropologist or sociologist, of doing fieldwork to square up the changing realities of bookstores today and their staff and patrons. It is fitting that this work might take as its model the work of The Feminist Bookstore Movement and This Book Is an Action — thinking socially about the collective action fostered by communal spaces is an inherently feminist methodology. To focus on the sociology of bookstores also realizes the dreams set forward by scholarship focusing on much earlier time periods. Bookshops, like public libraries, offer modern heirs to the ‘textual communities’ of medieval heretics Brian Stock documents in The Implication of Literacy, or complementing the observations of Margaret Ezell’s Social Authorship and the Advent of Print or Helen Smith’s Grossly Material Things to think about the highly collaborative nature of the production of books, and the role readers and booksellers play in that collaboration. Finally, the fusion of history and experience that has given rise to these works of scholarship also allows us to acknowledge the role bookshops play in the individual development of scholars and writers — The Feminist Bookstore Movement, for example, is as much a memoir as it is a work of intellectual and cultural history.

A bookshop is impermanent by nature: its contents are always changing, and there is a constant threat of closure if the rent isn’t paid. The closure of Old Wives’ Tales at the end of my movie on the feminist bookstore movement would fulfil the opening poem, “For Those of Us Working For a New World,” as if it were a prophesy. Bookstores must remain impermanent dwellings if they are to remain faithful to the reality of the changing needs of changing times. Their impermanence and precariousness makes them feel more human and more real than the institutions that take on an immortal purpose and character. Every great bookstore gives us something connect with – perhaps even to fight for – when it’s going, and model revive when it’s gone. For instance, in July 2016 Her Bookshop opened up in East Nashville, Tennessee, another heir to Seajay’s work. Loss can be formative, and it can build resilience. The stress dream of impermanence generates a very different worldview from the escapist dream of endlessness—the trick is, in the case of bookshops, to document the worlds they create before they vanish.

 

From American Jewish History to American Jewish Studies: Advice for a Complicated Relationship

by contributing editor Yitzchak Schwartz

In her 2000 Oxford Handbook of Jewish Studies article on American Jewish history, historian Hasia Diner notes a new trend in the field in which a growing number of works were focusing on Jews’ self-understanding and self-presentation. Today, such works seem to have taken over the field, displacing older social and intellectual historical narratives and approaches. These works reflect approaches to social history that gained popularity during the 1990s, trends most frequently found in scholarship that identifies with ethnic or cultural studies. They generally seek to analyze a specific sub-culture, in this case American Jews, rather than situate the same within broader narratives of American cultural history. Research taking this approach in American Jewish Studies generally interests itself in how American Jews created a hybrid identity through processes of selectively acculturating into the middle class. Scholars working in this framework also have a strong interest in how American Jews resisted acculturation and American bourgeois norms. This approach bred important scholarship in the field. Today, however, it dominates the field to such an extent that it severely limits how American Jewish historians approach their subject matter.

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This monument to Religious Liberty was erected in Central Philadelphia in 1876 by the Independent Order of Bnai Britth.  It asserted its Jewish sponsors’ identity as patriotic citizens but it also served to publicly associate Judaism with values of religious liberty, reflecting liberal understandings of Judaism embedded in the intellectual climate of the time. It now stands outside the National Museum of American Jewish History on the Independence Mall (image via Wikipedia)

Since the Second World War, social-historical approaches have dominated American Jewish history. As historian Jeffrey Gurock documents in an article on the history of the American Jewish History journal (published under various titles from 1896 until the present), postwar scholars saw social history as a means of inserting Jews into the larger sweep of American history. A classic example of this kind of mid-century social historical work can be found in Moses Rischin‘s 1964 Promised City, a history of Jews in New York. Rischin’s book explores how the Eastern-European Jews of New York became acculturated into the American middle class. Like other practitioners of the new social history, he presents Jewish immigrants as having been full participants in creating American society despite the formidable obstacles they faced, a narrative that ultimately suggested, as Oscar Handlin puts it in his The Uprooted, that “immigrants were American history.” To answer his question, Rischin offers a detailed and carefully reconstructed description of this process that considers, among other things public school education, residential patterns, moves to second settlement areas and changes in occupational patterns.

The 2012, three-volume history of the Jews of New York City of Promises, on the other hand, asks a different kind of question, namely how did Jewish immigrants to America and their children create a new identity as American Jews that in turn led them to see themselves and their religion in new ways. The three books in the series accordingly look to how experiences such as immigration to New York, adjustment to American social realities, and so forth—the same historical vectors analyzed by Rischin—were experienced by New York’s Jews and how they came to think about their Judaism. Annie Polland and Daniel Soyer’s narrative of German Jews in New York during the mid-to-late nineteenth century in City of Promises’ second volume markedly differs from older works on this period. Polland and Soyer describe German Jewish immigrants to New York City as striving to simultaneously reconcile and integrate their identities as Jews with their newly-assumed identities as Americans. For example, they describe how upwardly mobile members of this group erected grand Moorish synagogues that at once inscribed their members status as prominent and wealthy Americans in the public sphere even as they articulated their Jewishness through such an unique and highly visible style that was popularly associated with eastern peoples.

City of Promises provides a fresh approach to a well-traversed subject, but its central framework, the notion of identity, seems limiting at times. The way in which Polland and Soyer’s volume approaches American-Jewish religion and religious thought is a good example of how this is the case. Polland and Soyer present Reform and its architecture as a means of reconciling American and Jewish identity,  but how did these developments relate to larger developments in American religion at the time?  Considering that Reform Judaism developed in the United States at the same time as a much larger liberal religious movement perhaps an intellectual historical approach would enrich our understanding of this period in American Jewish history.

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Social histories like Handlin’s The Uprooted sought to locate the exotic immigrants depicted on the original dust jacket as integral parts of, not outsiders to, American history. Identity and opposition, however, have only become interests in the field in the last twenty to thirty years.

In his 2006 Immigrant Jews and American Capitalism, economic historian Eli Lederhendler levels a more general critique of the identity paradigm, arguing that it often discourages historians from digging deeper and uncovering structural causes for the phenomenon they discuss. In particular, Lederhendler challenges the oft-repeated idea that Jewish participation in left-wing political and labor movements was a result of a deep, pre-immigration Jewish identification with left-wing politics. Rather, he argues that Jewish union politics ought to be understood primarily as an effort to achieve upward mobility. Lederhendler sees his approach as explaining why Jews so often left the labor movement once they achieved middle class status. I would add that American-Jewish historians might also be well-served to situate this history in the context of the intellectual-historical literature on American liberalism. Lederhendler sees the popularity of the identity-driven models of writing American Jewish history more as the result of the post-1960s development of a pan-American Jewish ethnic identity than of the way Jews in the early twentieth century actually identified themselves, which was far more multifarious. Lederhendler’s book has been well-received by many in the field, but few practitioners have responded to his challenge to move way from identity-driven approaches to American Jewish history.

Another related tendency in cultural studies-inflected works on American Jewish history that at times leads to a flattening of its subject matter is its celebration of opposition to integration into the American mainstream. The field of American Yiddish studies in particular often approaches Jews as an oppositional culture. The radical nature of some of the most prominent voices in the early twentieth century Yiddish press and Jewish mass politics renders this an immediately attractive approach.The most influential work in this vein likely remains Tony Michels’ 2009 A Fire in their Hearts: Yiddish Socialists in New York, which explores the unique socialist-Jewish identity forged by Jewish socialists in New York. Ultimately, the story ends in tragedy as Jews forsook radical politics and were absorbed into the middle class.However, Yiddish Studies over the course of the last twenty years engages almost exclusively with these radical and leftist elements in the Yiddish community. One only has to peruse the recent Oxford Bibliography of Yiddish to see that the study of Yiddish literature and social movements has ballooned since 2000, before which most of the studies cited in the bibliography are of a linguistic nature. 

In his All Together Different: Yiddish Socialists, Garment Workers, and the Labor Roots of Multiculturalism (2011), Daniel Katz traces the Jewish-dominated International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union’s (ILGWU) efforts to incorporate black and other racial minorities. He argues that the immigrant Jewish women of the ILGWU  espoused an early cultural pluralism and were forerunners of multiculturalism’s emergence on the American scene. Other work on Yiddish theater, literature and politics likewise stresses the Jews’ proletarian and outsider status in America. They suggest that American Jews’ history matters not only vis-àvis Jews and Americans, but in the history of multiculturalism and oppositional cultures at large. However, these studies leave unexplored the vast swaths of Yiddish language culture in the United States that were more accommodating to middle class norms. An intellectual historical approach might help clarify what exactly Yiddish socialists thought and how they fit into larger intellectual trends at the time, both Jewish and American.  

This last point reflects another problem engendered by the cultural studies approach’s dominance of American Jewish history, that there is less of much-needed, broader social and intellectual historical works being published in the field.  Scholarship in cultural studies often seeks to illuminate strands within the history of a group that are tied to its concerns of identity formation and resistance rather than present larger picture histories. However, in many areas of American Jewish history there is a dearth of such work—work that remains a necessary foundation for cultural studies scholarship.

For example, a great deal of recent scholarship looks to how Jews crafted a public and communal identity as white. They draw in particular on Matthew Frye Jacobson’s Whiteness of a Different Color (1999). In his The Right to Sing the Blues: African Americans, Jews and American Popular Song, American studies scholar Jeffrey Melnick finds Jewish involvement in jazz and blues, musical genres originating in African American contexts, as expressing Jews identification with black culture as well as their efforts to distance themselves from blackness. He argues that Jews performed black music so as to avoid being considered actually black. In his review of this book, social historian Andrew Heinze first notes that this book did not deliver on its promise to provide the “much-needed” history of “Jews and American popular song,” even as it did provide “an instructive analysis” of parts of that history. Heinze further notes that like Melnick’s monograph replicates a weakness of many works in whiteness studies more generally, that it assumes without sufficient evidence that Jews ever actually faced a significant threat of being characterized as “black” even as they were certainly considered less than “white.” Melnick thus infers broader claims from his readings of song lyrics and black and Jewish discourses about their music than may be warranted given the social and intellectual realities of the time. A stronger social history of Jewish-black relations would prove necessary before a historian could make such larger conclusions. Similarly, Aviva Ben Ur’s Sephardic Jews in America (2009) yields the the first discrete narrative of Sephardic-Jewish-American history. However, this monograph actually comprises a series of studies focusing on Sephardic identity in the United States. The book is an extremely strong scholarly contribution to the field and provides compelling “close readings” of facets of American-Sephardic history. Yet who will write the much-needed social and intellectual histories of topics like Sephardic Jews in America?

 

Renovating the American Revolution: The Most Important Stories Aren’t on Broadway

by guest contributor Eric Herschthal

Timing is everything. Just when historians thought they were on the cusp of redefining the very meaning of the American Revolution—which is to say, now—along comes “Hamilton,” the musical. The general public, and not a few academics, have embraced the show, which reaffirms the old Whiggish narrative that the revolution set the foundation for liberal democracy. By casting Hamilton and the founders as mostly African Americans and Latinos, the show’s creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, has breathed new life into the Whiggish view, one that a rising generation of historians (myself included) insists has passed its sell-by date. The irony is that Miranda re-appropriates the feel-good story for a group of Americans that scholars now generally agree the founders did little to embrace: minorities. Maybe there’s something of value in the Whiggish narrative after all?

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Perhaps nothing has done more to change perceptions about the American Revolution than bringing it into conversation with the Haitian Revolution. Image: 1802 engraving of Toussaint L’Ouverture. Courtesy of Wikicommons

Or maybe not. It may in fact be a good thing that scholarship doesn’t easily succumb to popular enthusiasms. Indeed, if we look beyond “Hamilton,” the recent renovations in the scholarship on the American Revolution, decades in the making, suggest that historians today very much have their finger on the pulse. Today’s world is more global, more black and brown, and the recent scholarship reflects that: it brings in their voices, yet not by continuing to heroize the founders and simply cast them as black and brown, but by taking seriously the negative consequences the revolution often had for marginalized groups.

Take just a small sample of books from the past year. In Bind Us Apart: How Enlightened Americans Invented Racial Segregation (Basic Books; 2016), Nicholas Guyatt argues that even the most liberal-minded founders laid the foundation for segregation. Kathleen DuVal’s Independence Lost: Lives on the Edge of the American Revolutions (Random House; 2015) focuses on the lives the War of Independence ruined when it breached the thirteen colonies and came to the Gulf Coast: Chickasaws and Creeks; African slaves; Cajuns; loyalists. Michael McDonnell, in Masters of Empire: Great Lake Indians and the Making of America (Hill and Wang, 2015), does something similar, showing how Native American groups in the Great Lakes region essentially called the shots. The revolution was perhaps sparked as much by European empires stumbling into internal Native American conflicts as it was by lofty ideas of liberty.

From some of these books, it might seem that ideas no longer matter, or at least not as much as they used to. Indeed, much of the recent scholarship serves at least as an implicit critique of the overweening emphasis on ideology that scholars like Gordon Wood and Bernard Bailyn once highlighted. Their work relied almost exclusively on the pamphlets and private letters that revolutionary leaders left behind, which necessarily privileged elite white men. But in taking cues from social historians, the new generation of scholars have run up against an old set of challenges. Among the most obvious is that the precise thoughts—the precise ideas—of the “voiceless” do not come through as clearly, if at all. Perhaps as a result, much of the recent scholarship focuses less on the ideals people who lived through the era fought for, and instead underscores the local circumstances and shifting political dynamics that defined their choices, an approach the historian Sarah Knott has recently called “situational” as opposed to “ideological.”

But for other scholars, ideas still matter. Many historians of the revolution have grown adept at piecing together plausible narratives about the general ideas that inspired the people the Whiggish narrative left behind.. A little more than a decade ago, T.H. Breen, in The Marketplace of Revolution: How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence (Oxford, 2004) provided a road-map, showing how consumer culture–objects like teacups, pins, boots and buckles—created a shared language for Americans of many different ethnicities, classes and genders. Not everyone may have read the same books, if they could read at all, but a vast number bought the same stuff. Boycotts worked—the revolution happened—because many people understood the language of consumption.

A thriving scholarship on print culture has opened up another new vein. Almost twenty years ago (!), David Waldstreicher lead the charge, showing how print sources, from newspapers to under-utilized sources like almanacs, could be read for what they revealed about popular political culture. Waldstreicher’s In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes (UNC, 1997) gave ample evidence of broad political participation expressed not through the means we typically associate it with—voting, jury duty, taxes—but parades, national holidays, and street protests. Yet if these political festivities helped create a national identity rooted in revolution, they also served as a kind of social control—one where political elites, almost always white men, tried to manage the revolution’s meaning.

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Simon Bolivar, an early leader of the Latin American Revolutions, made ending slavery a critical part of his revolution’s mission after the black Haitian government sheltered him. Image: Portrait of Simon Bolivar (1895), by Arturo Michelena (1863-1898) – Galería de Arte Nacional. Courtesy of Wikicommons.

More recently, Janet Polansky has also used print culture to ground the American Revolution more firmly in a global context. In Revolution without Borders: The Call to Liberty in the Atlantic World (Yale, 2015) she follows revolutionary-era pamphlets, letters and novels as they made their way to and from Haiti, Sierra Leone, Poland, the U.S., Russia and France (to name a few). Peoples of many different cultures, classes and genders, she argues, embraced and often transformed the meaning of “revolution” to fit their individual circumstances. But all of them shared a sense that the “age of Revolutions,” as Thomas Paine famously dubbed it, would usher in a more egalitarian world. What emerges is in some ways a retooling of the ideological approach—but one that is more sharply attuned to the revolution’s failures. When the dust settled, a new age of nations, of empires, emerged in the revolutions’ collective wake, leaving only the promise of freedom, not its realization.

The shifts in scholarship on the American Revolution—the turn to the social and the global—have, unsurprisingly, shown up in the closely-allied field of Age of Revolution scholarship. In fact, Polansky’s work fits more neatly within this tradition than the work on the American Revolution. Yet if her book emphasizes transnational connections, others have highlighted the divergent paths each revolution took. When all the age’s revolutions are placed side-by-side what emerges is less a revolution fought in the name of liberal democracy than a revolution fought for a myriad of distinct causes. The term “Age of Revolution” still has value, but we might need to divorce for it from the particular Whiggish, “liberal democratic” inflection, a point recently made by the Cindy Ermus and Bryan Banks, co-editors of an excellent new blog Age of Revolutions. “Revolutions are no longer synonymous with a set of ideological concepts like, say, democracy,” they said recently, adding that the use of the term today is “multivalent.”

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George Washington and his slave, Billy Lee. Image: George Washington and Billy Lee (1780), by John Trumbull. Courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Perhaps nothing has done more to change our assessment of the American Revolution’s shortcomings than bringing it into conversation with the linked revolutions in Haiti and Latin America. The recent surge in scholarship on the Haitian Revolution—undoubtedly the most significant revolution that R.R. Palmer left virtually unmentioned in his otherwise magisterial Age of Democratic Revolution (1959-64)—has forced U.S. scholars to appreciate anew how limited the founders’ vision of liberty was when it came to slavery. Haitian slaves and free blacks, along with their white Jacobin allies, imbued the revolutionary era with a strong antislavery program, something that Haitian historian Laurent Dubois said amounts to an “enslaved Enlightenment” (cf. Robin Blackburn as well as David P. Geggus and Norman Fiering). The United States’ compromises over slavery can only be seen as tame by comparison.

Similarly, the wave of emancipation decrees that came along with the Latin American revolutions in the 1820s and ‘30s—themselves directly inspired by Haiti’s example—only drives the point home. Caitlin Fitz’s forthcoming Our Sister Republics: The United States in an Age of American Revolutions (W.W. Norton, 2017) makes the point clear. Though America’s founders largely embraced the Latin American revolutions at their start, as antislavery became an increasingly prominent part of their revolutions, Americans began to renege their support.

Academic interest in the American Revolution and its broader age shows no signs of waning. But might what we now know about these revolutions make them less inspiring with the broader public? The historian David Bell recently took on that question in his new book, Shadows of the Revolution: Reflections on France, Past and Present (Oxford, 2016), coming at it from the perspective of the French Revolution. In one essay, he argues that the French Revolution no longer provides an inspiring model for change in our times because, as scholars, we have become too aware of the high cost in human life. The French Revolution today evokes as much the guillotine as it does the Girondists. Even if it was indeed fought for worthy ideals—liberté, égalité, fraternité—we cannot forget that many heads rolled, and many wrongs turns were taken, along the way.

In that sense, the new scholarship on the revolutionary era may not provide so much inspiration as caution. If the latest histories expose how much blood was spilled, how many promises were left unrealized, then the Arab Spring’s violent aftermath might strike us as less surprising, our hunger for a political revolution—whether called for by Bernie or Trump—a little less pronounced. Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s the kind message that makes for a hit Broadway musical.

 

Eric Herschthal studies history at Columbia University, where he is writing his dissertation on the role science played in the early antislavery movement. His interests include early American history, the Atlantic World, science and slavery. Eric’s writing has also appeared in general interest publications, including The New York Times, Slate, The Atlantic and The New Republic. Follow Eric on Twitter @EricHerschthal.

Book Review: Meredith Ray, Daughters of Alchemy

by guest contributor Elisabeth Brander

Alchemy, and its association with the quest for the always-elusive philosopher’s stone, is one of the most fascinating aspects of early modern science. It was not only a tool to effect the transmutation of metals and create medical remedies, but also a philosophical and theological pursuit. Its most famous practitioners include John Dee, Isaac Newton, and Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, more commonly known as Paracelsus. The alchemical work of Paracelsus in particular has attracted considerable academic interest: from Walter Pagel’s analysis of his medical philosophy, published in the mid-twentieth century, to Charles Webster’s more recent studies of Paracelsus’ social and theological mission.

doaThese men might be well-known, but they were not the only alchemical practitioners. Tara Nummedal has shed light on the career of Anna Maria Zieglerin, a sixteenth-century German alchemist in the court of Duke Julius of Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel, whose work focused on childbearing and fertility. This is complemented by the work of Alisha Rankin, who has brought attention to what she terms “noble empirics”: German noblewomen who created medical remedies using their empirically gained knowledge. Meredith Ray’s new study Daughters of Alchemy continues this discussion of female practitioners. Her analysis of Caterina Sforza, the noblewoman from whom the Medici grand dukes were descended, provides an Italian counterpart to Rankin’s empirics. Sforza was actively engaged in the scientific empiricism of the age, and was a collector of “experiments”: personal recipes based on alchemical principles that could fulfill a variety of useful functions. Some were used to make cosmetics or medicinal remedies, and others were used for the traditional alchemical pursuits of creating—or mimicking—gold. These recipes reveal the ways in which alchemy was a practical pursuit for noblewomen, whether as a means to preserve health and beauty, or maintain control of their finances.

Sforza wrote her recipes in a private manuscript—a true “book of secrets”—but in the sixteenth century these compilations of recipes were also published, forming a popular literary genre. While these books contained knowledge that appealed to both sexes, many of their recipes offered advice tailored specifically to females, such as how to make breasts small and firm. This indicates that women were an intended audience for these texts. Yet only one book of secrets, the Secrets of Signora Isabella Cortese, is attributed to a female author, and even the Secrets’ female authorship is dubious. Ray ties this male authorship of books of secrets to the wider early modern desire to uncover the so-called “secrets of women.” This special knowledge of the female body, which was believed to be possessed only by women, was a topic of great interest for early modern medical practitioners; and Ray argues this is echoed in the male authorship of books of secrets. But even though these works were most often written by men, their distinctly feminine content is an indication of women’s continuing interest in practical alchemy.

Although her monograph is titled Daughters of Alchemy, Ray’s focus extends beyond alchemical practice. The second half of the work shifts away from alchemy and towards natural philosophy, particularly how women deployed it in literature. The Venetian authors Moderata Fonte and Lucrezia Marinella used their understanding of scientific discourse and natural philosophy as weapons in the querelle des femmes, the ongoing literary debate about the proper role and status of women. Both Fonte and Marinella incorporated scientific learning into their narrative works to make keen observations regarding the inherent intelligence of women and their equality with men. While these two authors did not engage with the empirical practice of Sforza and Cortese, their literary output shows that women could engage with scientific knowledge outside the confines of a university. In that sense they are similar to the seventeenth-century English noblewoman Margaret Cavendish, another early feminist author and natural philosopher whose scientific contributions have attracted academic attention in recent years.

Ray’s final two case studies are the most directly engaged with the so-called Scientific Revolution. Camilla Erculiani, an apothecary from Padua, published her Letters, a scientific treatise in epistolary format, in 1584. This work combined her knowledge of Galenic and Aristotelian thought with her understanding of alchemical processes to describe the causes of the great flood. Margherita Sarrochi, who was famous for her learning and hosted a salon that attracted many leading scientific figures, did not publish any scientific works of her own. This did not, however, prevent her from participating in scientific culture. She corresponded with no less a figure than Galileo: not only about her own epic poem Scanderbeide, but also about his astronomic discoveries. The letters of others corroborate that a high value was placed on her opinions, and emphasize the prominent role she played within her scientific network.

None of the women Ray describes held formal positions at the great European universities, and the vast majority of published scientific treatises were written by men. But as the work of Ray and others are making increasingly apparent, early modern scientific culture was not limited to male academic circles. Women practiced alchemy within their households, incorporated scientific learning into their literary pursuits, and offered their opinions on scientific treatises. As Ray states in her introduction, “It is not women who are missing from the picture: it is our lens that must be adjusted to perceive them” (4). Daughters of Alchemy certainly does this.

Elisabeth Brander is the rare book librarian at the Bernard Becker Medical Library of Washington University in St. Louis. Her academic interests include anatomical illustration in the early modern period, the history of obstetrics, and the connections between magic and medicine.