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Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

Bruce Buchan & Silvia Sebastiani on Race in the European Enlightenment

Bruce Buchan is an intellectual historian whose work traces European political thought through the experience of empire and colonization in the era of Enlightenment. His recent publications include, An Intellectual History of Political Corruption (2014), and Sound, Space and Civility in the British World, 1700-1850 (2019), as well as special issues of Cultural Studies Review (2018), Republics of Letters (2018), and History of the Human Sciences (2019). His most recent papers appear in the Journal of the History of IdeasIntellectual History ReviewModern Intellectual History, and Cultural History. Bruce has held visiting professorships at the University of Copenhagen (2015-16), the École des hautes études en sciences sociales (2017), and most recently was a Fernand Braudel Senior Research Fellow at the European University Institute in 2021. His forthcoming books include a new edited collection, Piracy in World History (Amsterdam University Press, 2021), and a monograph with Linda Andersson Burnett entitled, Racing Humanity: Education, Empire and Ethnography in Scotland’s Global Enlightenment, c. 1770-1820 (in late 2022).

Silvia Sebastiani is associate professor at the Ecole des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS) in Paris, where she teaches research seminars on Enlightenment historiography and on race in early modern period in Europe and European empires. Her publications include The Scottish Enlightenment. Race, Gender, and the Limits of Progress (2013), awarded of the “István Hont Prize” for intellectual history, and the co-editon of Negotiating Knowledge in Early Modern Empires: A Decentered View (2014), Simianization. Apes, Gender, Class, and Race (2015), L’expérience historiographique (2016), as well as the “Forum” on  “Closeness and Distance in the Age of Enlightenment” in Modern Intellectual History (2014) and the special issue on Les vitrines de l’humanité in Passés Futurs (2019). Sebastiani has spent the academic year 2017-2018  at the Institute of the Advanced Study, Princeton, as a member of the School in Historical Studies. Her new book on Race et histoire dans les sociétés occidentales (15e-18e siècle), co-authored with Jean-Frédéric Schaub, will be published in September 2021. She is now completing a monograph on the boundaries of humanity in the Enlightenment, focusing on how the great ape contributed to the shaping of human and social sciences.

Buchan and Sebastiani recently spoke with Nuala P. Caomhánach about their article “‘No distinction of Black or Fair’:The Natural History of Race in Adam Ferguson’s Lectures on Moral Philosophy,” which has appeared in the most recent issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas (April, 82.2) and is currently open access.


Nuala P. Caomhánach: Although predominantly known for his contribution to the civic tradition of Scotland’s Enlightenment, your essay highlights how Adam Ferguson’s pedagogical activity, as a professor of moral philosophy at the University of Edinburgh, was a site of ongoing reflection, reorientation, and a testing ground for his studies on the boundaries of human variation and diversity especially with regard to the category of race.  The focus on analyzing lecture notes is striking as you demonstrate how Ferguson’s thinking on race vacillates over time, is suggestive rather than conclusive, and stands in sharp relief to how he omitted this category from the Principles of Moral and Political Science (1792). In thinking about the placement of Ferguson within the intellectual tradition, the focus on his lecture notes suggests a desire to decolonize his published works. First, why do you think race as a category has been dismissed as a minor thread in Ferguson’s thought? Does this reflect on the historical field itself as a whole, and/or does it highlight the kinds of archival material that are examined and are more “acceptable” within the field? In providing ample evidence of how his lecture notes reveal the tension about racial categories for Ferguson, are you suggesting that key historical actors in intellectual thought need to be re-evaluated, and if so, to what end?

Bruce Buchan & Silvia Sebastiani: It would be fair to say that race has tended to be marginalized in the history of Europe’s Enlightenment, not just in Ferguson’s own thought. Although there have been studies, since the post-World War II period and in particular since the 1970s, highlighting how racial categories are constructed at the very moment when the universal and natural rights of “man” are affirmed, it is only in recent years that the racial question has been placed at the center of research on Enlightenment. Our interpretation of Ferguson is not just a matter of decolonizing intellectual history by drawing greater attention to race in Enlightenment thought, as important as that is. For us, race was part of elaborate patterns of thought linking it with historical categories (such as civilization, savagery, and barbarism), and with natural historical frameworks for taxonomizing nature, connecting human populations with climates, geographies, and diseases. Race therefore is not just an important concept in its own right. In the eighteenth century, “man” was included in natural history, and classified as the rest of natural world, such as flora and fauna. This “naturalization” of humankind went hand in hand with its historicization. By emphasizing race, paying greater heed to its articulation in the period and to the questions it raised for intellectuals such as Ferguson, for us is crucial in the continuing quest to properly interpret Enlightenment thought in general. 

Silvia has been working on the implications of this approach for some time, and has made such a significant contribution to the intellectual history of Scottish Enlightenment thought in her The Scottish Enlightenment: Race, Gender and the Limits of Progress (2013). Here she elaborated the connections between race and a range of other concepts, such as gender and nation, that were used to distinguish between human groups, and to make hierarchical prioritizations of some over others. This is what makes the concept of race in Ferguson’s teaching so important for us. Ferguson has previously been interpreted, as you suggest, as a distinctive contributor to a civic tradition of thought by integrating virtue and corruption with stadial historical schemes that charted universal stages of progress from savagery to civilization. Ferguson has also been read, as he was by Karl Marx, for his early formulation and criticisms of the division of labor, and thus of the “progress” of civil society. In both cases, Ferguson’s thought has been viewed through a politico-economic lens, tending to obscure the pivotal contribution of natural history in his construction of knowledge. What we want to show in our paper is that Ferguson’s approach was built on models of natural history then developing in Enlightenment Europe, and that the dialogue with Buffon’s work was central. This shift of emphasis, we believe, has important consequences in the interpretation of Ferguson’s thought.

It was Ferguson’s natural history of the species that enabled him to connect virtue and progress, savagery and race, and this was the framework that he presented so vividly in his lectures on moral philosophy. While it is true to say that race does not occupy a central place in Ferguson’s published works, its prominence in his teaching is a feature of his intellectually distinctive blending of natural history with stadial historical thinking. And we know, as we suggest in our conclusion, that this is precisely how Ferguson was read by those who made colonial voyages and sought to interpret non-European and First Nations peoples according to ideas of race drawn from natural history, and presumptions of savagery dependent on stadial history. This is unfolding research that Bruce Buchan has also been conducting with Linda Andersson Burnett (at Uppsala University), and some of that work can be accessed here.

To return to your question about methodology, our paper is a contribution to the extension of intellectual histories that seek meaning from more fragmentary sources. It would be fair to say that conventionally, intellectual history has sought to trace repertoires of meaning in sources that were made available in quite restrictive contexts. One restriction has been the overwhelming focus on published or unpublished manuscripts—complete works that can be traced to distinct authorship and identifiable readerships. It is not hard to understand why intellectual historians should prioritize such sources, because they offer concrete conceptual or argumentative formulations that allow influence and interpretation to be reconstructed. Nonetheless, this focus reinforces a spatial confinement matched by the preference for complete products of thought, typically published texts. This approach to intellectual history has been extremely fruitful, but it tends to treat its subject as an existential whole, a finished product that allows sources of influence to be traced from histories of development toward that finality. We don’t for a moment suggest this approach is misguided. We endorse and apply this technique, but we also see the potential in less conclusive and more fragmentary sources (such as Ferguson’s lecture notes) to broaden the interpretive possibilities for intellectual historians. This necessarily involves more tentative conclusions, but for us the value of such sources lies in their ability to peer behind the monumental figures of intellectual history, the great minds or influential texts, to engage with the persistent doubts and the frank speculations retailed to other audiences. In Ferguson’s case, to his students.

There is a growing literature focusing on the importance of handwritten notes in the Enlightenment era, alongside the printed text, and on the need to take into account the materiality of different ways of constructing knowledge. Compared to the printed text, the notes reveal other elements of knowledge construction. We don’t mean to say that the notes allow historians to see things better; but to see them otherwise. This is why it is useful to combine the two approaches together. The educational dimension of the notes is another crucial aspect to be stressed, as Craig Smith has masterfully demonstrated. Indeed, his book on Adam Ferguson and the Idea of Civil Society (2019) is a fundamental contribution to this field. We could only use the book marginally because it was published when our article was already written, but we would like to acknowledge our debt to his work and the parallels between our approaches and arguments. Historians of the Scottish Enlightenment have long emphasized the crucial contribution made by Scotland’s universities in providing an institutional framework for the intellectual dynamism of the era, but scholars are yet to fully explore the content of what was taught, how it was taught, and what former students did with the ideas they imbibed. And here we think it is important to emphasize that today as much as in the past, the widest audience that most scholars ever reach is made up of the students they teach. Ferguson was evidently proud of his achievements as a teacher, which we think is at least implied in Henry Raeburn’s portrait of the then retired Professor in the early 1790s (see above). Here Ferguson chose to be painted flanked not only by his various elegantly bound publications, but by two very thick volumes of his manuscript lecture notes on moral philosophy. For us, paying heed to teaching makes empire and colonization (and hence race) unavoidable features of the intellectual history of Enlightenment thought.

A last point should be emphasized. Until recently, historiography has focused almost exclusively on An Essay on the History of Civil Society, which indeed was a crucial contribution, but not the only one Ferguson made. He construed history in different ways and with different tools, including lectures, while addressing diverse audiences. He was more versatile than is often acknowledged. In his long life, Ferguson pursued a varied career as soldier, clergyman, librarian, and professor both of natural philosophy and moral philosophy, also joining clubs and debating societies. We believe it is important to take into account the multiplicity of contexts in which Ferguson participated. This also means that intellectual historians need to articulate how the Scottish, the British, the European, the imperial, and colonial dimensions all nourished Enlightenment debates on humankind and its history. Our own and others work on Ferguson appears to confirm that natural history shifted into raciology in the years between 1780 and 1800. By then, race had become a major concern all over Europe and throughout European empires. Yet Enlightenment thought provided no single solution to the question of race (and there has probably never been agreement on this imaginary, but terribly powerful category). The tension about racial categories that runs through Ferguson’s work can be found in other literati, more or less explicitly. Despite that uncertainty, race emerges in this period within natural histories and taxonomic classification, as much as within philosophical and universal histories of civilization, as an attempt to explain the unequal progress of human societies. These approaches are entwined and should be studied as such. It is within this complex and heterogeneous framework that we suggest the need to re-evaluate key historical actors in Enlightenment thought. Our aim is to show that there is an unresolved tension between universalism and hierarchy in Enlightenment thinking, which continues to spark controversy around the world today.

NPC: In what ways did incorporating natural history imbue a scientific authority to Ferguson’s arguments? Why was Ferguson so reluctant to articulate a theoretical framework without having all the “facts” or empirical data, as he seemed to want to stay within the descriptive and collecting stage? Was he, in essence, waiting for all the data to be gathered before leaping from speculation to empirically supported theory? I am curious in what ways Ferguson’s Christian beliefs were filtered through a natural history lens, for example, the compatibility of a Biblical insistence on monogenesis, and whether this was in part a reaction to  Rousseau’s dismissal of the authority of the biblical account of Man in Discours sur l’origine et les fondements de l’inégalité parmi les hommes (1755).

BB & SS: Some elements of this question have already been addressed in our previous answer: the relationship between natural history and stadial history is both complex and crucial. We’ll just make two observations here, but our answer could be much longer! First, the historiographical revolution during Europe’s Enlightenment is based on providing “evidence,” that is, verification borne out of the critical analysis of sources. This is an aspect of Enlightenment thought that Arnaldo Momigliano emphasized many years ago. The aim of Enlightened historians, certainly those in Scotland such as Adam Ferguson, was to write “scientific” history, which responded (as they saw it) to laws of nature and was based on “facts.” Ferguson participated here in a larger reflection in which the Bible was questioned as a historical document (despite its centrality in Scottish Calvinist society).

On the other hand, however, the defense of biblical monogenism remains crucial, as you rightly point out, but this was not done on the basis of the authority of the sacred text itself, but on scientific reasoning. This was why Ferguson placed such an emphasis in his lectures on seeking to trace on the effects of climate, diet, and terrain on human individuals and their societies. By doing so, Ferguson once again blended diverse sources, combining speculations derived from Montesquieu’s climatic theory, with the archaic Hippocratic-Galenic doctrine of temperament, and very contemporary medical suppositions about the environmental determinants of sensibility. By drawing on and coordinating such sources together Ferguson presented human beings, and human races, as subjects for natural historical inquiry—the model for which was supplied by Buffon. Identifying Buffon’s influence on Ferguson enables us to pay closer attention to the complex relationship between race and history. There is a tendency, thanks to the pernicious influence of the doctrine of scientific racism in the late nineteenth century, to regard race as immutable, as resistant to historical malleability. The relationship between race and history is more complex in the late eighteenth-century context, and especially in Ferguson’s teaching. The complexity emerges when we pay attention to Buffon’s key concept of race as a product of degeneration from an initial prototype. Degeneration and improvement are articulated together in Ferguson’s history of civil society. Understanding their connection means that we need to confront race as a key concept in Ferguson’s history, and in Enlightened historiography more generally.

That Ferguson could engage so closely with natural history might also be seen as a feature of his Presbyterianism. Long before he won fame as a Professor of moral philosophy and exponent of Enlightened history, Ferguson served almost 10 years as a chaplain to one of the most famous Highland regiments raised to keep watch on the rebellious clans. His first publication was a sermon, delivered in Gaelic to the troops, on the need for loyalty to the Hanoverian dynasty and the British state. Right at this early stage in his career, Ferguson saw no inherent conflict between Christian faith and a commitment to history, or more specifically, to the civilization he believed history had unfolded and embodied in the British state.

If there was no inherent tension between history and faith, he did not see one between history and nature either. This is where the figure of Rousseau looms into view. Ferguson’s disagreement with Rousseau, as Iain McDaniel has shown, was drawn out over a number of objections, yet for us the key point of rupture is over the question of a dichotomy between nature and history. Such a separation was affirmed by Rousseau, for whom human sociality is an artefact of the history of society rather than part of the nature of human beings. By contrast, Ferguson followed Buffon and Montesquieu in reaffirming the social dimension of humanity. It was one of Ferguson’s foundational convictions, reiterated again and again in his lectures, that “man” is born into society and is only capable of realizing “his” humanity in networks of social interactions. These relations could be either harmonious or antagonistic (indeed, his thinking mirrored Kant’s formulation of the “unsocial sociability” of humankind), but in both cases affirmed the inherently and inescapably social nature of “man.”  Ferguson followed in Buffon’s footsteps in distinguishing “man” by both physical and moral characteristics, and by a need for society, outside of which “he” would never be able to survive. It was thus useless to multiply conjectures and hypotheses, as Rousseau had done: society was neither artificial nor contractual, but grounded in nature. Human progression did not need any external or accidental circumstances to set it in motion. This is why art is “itself natural to man,” as Ferguson stated at the outset of his An Essay on the History of Civil Society. In so doing, the distinction between nature and artifice, upon which Rousseau had constructed his entire system, was annihilated: civilization did not produce anything which was not already contained in human nature (an aspect on which Silvia is doing some further work now).

Timeline of history in Ferguson’s 1780 article History (2nd edition of Britannica).

NPC: Ferguson’s time as secretary to the ill-fated Carlisle Commission highlights the role of colonial policy and sources in his thinking about the nature of humanity and race. It was striking how Ferguson confirmed that warfare was an index of historical progress. Do you think that Ferguson was justifying colonial violence in the Americas? It is clear that the peoples of America were troubling within Ferguson’s schema, and it required him to question the role of latitude, the temperate zone, and name these peoples as savage. This outlier seems to highlight his unwillingness to question the supremacy of white Europeans. How was Ferguson so certain about delimiting Europeans as superior, yet have such immense uncertainty in classifications of race? Did the debates about colonial spaces and humanity concern Ferguson about the future of the colonies, and (white) mankind?

BB & SS: Ferguson’s attitudes to empire and colonization were troubled and troubling, to say the least. On the one hand, his publications evince a healthy skepticism toward the moral claims made by empires, seeing in them engines of moral corruption, domestic tyranny, and rapacious conquest abroad. There are many passages in his works that might also suggest that he made claims against Britain’s Empire. Yet Ferguson’s career exemplified a consistent, indeed persistent, attachment to the material interests of Britain’s Empire. At least part of the reason for his prevarication, we think, is that Ferguson had a life-long attachment to war, and a deeply sentimental appraisal of the moral character of warriors, ancient and modern. This is a complicated story (on which Bruce has done some work in the past and is doing further research at the moment), but to cut a long story short, Ferguson viewed warfare as an index of civilization arguably more reliable as a guide to historical progress than mores, manners, or systems of government. If, in the course of historical progress, the brutal wars of Europe’s archaic, Homeric past had been civilized by modern laws and “lenitives” (to use Ferguson’s own phrase), warfare had also become less personal, detached from martial virtue. This was the challenge that Ferguson confronted in the “militia debate” of the 1750s and 1760s (about which John Robertson and Richard Sher have written): how to integrate the virtues of the archaic warrior in the context of modern civilized war? It was a challenge that spoke to his own experience as a Scotsman of Highland birth, a Gaelic speaker, who served in a Gaelic-speaking Highland regiment in service to the British imperial state. It was a challenge posed by European colonization in the Americas, and by conflict with First Nations warriors, who, Ferguson reflected repeatedly in his An Essay on the History of Civil Society, represented a model of “savage” martial virtue that “civilized” Europeans had lost. Ferguson did not say too much more than that about European pretensions to any rights of conquest, or about its actual conduct in the Americas or elsewhere, but it would be fair to conclude that he was aware that colonization was as much a moral as a military challenge; one in which the claims of First Nations warriors deserved to be taken seriously.

Against that backdrop, then, his late career sojourn to America with the Carlisle Commission presents another aspect of Ferguson’s thinking on war. Though the Commission deserves to be seen as a failure and a farce, Ferguson’s role in it deserves careful consideration. Whether or not he was an active participant in the Commission’s deliberations, he later explicitly affirmed its members’ decision to threaten a suspension of the laws of war in Britain’s conflict with its former American colonies. As Ferguson saw it, the colonists were “rebels” who had allied themselves with Britain’s archrival, France, and therefore had placed themselves beyond the bounds of the laws of war. Ferguson did not expand on this reasoning in his lectures, but his interpretation of the European tradition of writings on the laws of war since Grotius did make clear that “rebels” had no status among legitimate belligerents at war.  Here again Ferguson took part in a more general debate to be taken into account in Scotland, Europe, and beyond.

Ferguson had more to say about the conduct of the American war for independence much later in his career, but we think it is significant that his American sojourn left an imprint in his lectures in respect to his presentation of race. In this connection we would draw attention to two features of his thinking. First, that his manifest interest in the climatic determinants of race (though he frankly admitted uncertainties on this score) made him amenable to the already centuries-long anxiety that colonization would expose Europeans bred in more temperate climes to degenerating heat, cold, or humidity. Ferguson accepted the legitimacy of this concern, but he used his lectures in particular to emphasize the advantages presumed to accrue to the “European race” from their temperate climate, above all in supposing it bestowed greater ingenuity. It was for this reason that he argued Europeans were able to modify the worst effects of climate and thus to temper the potential for racial degeneration.

While these arguments can hardly be described as novel, we think their significance lies in their connection to a second aspect of Ferguson’s thought after he returned from America: his interest in the historic role of colonization. He was, of course, later to write on this in his celebrated History of the Progress and Termination of the Roman Republic (1783). In his lectures, however, he elevated the ability of humans to form “settlements,” and to colonize new terrains, as an integral feature in the natural history of humanity—an exemplification of the progress humans were fitted by nature to make in taming nature, securing themselves, and extending their conquests. This is why we see Ferguson’s lectures on moral philosophy as such an important source of insight into his thinking at a time of considerable conceptual change in Scottish thought generally. It was here, in his lectures, that Ferguson taught cohorts of students to approach the great moral questions of their times, about war, colonization, and the fate of empire, through dual lenses of both history and natural history. By drawing them together and presenting them to his students, Ferguson sought nothing less than to illuminate the capabilities as well as the limitations of the races of “man.” 


Nuala P. Caomhánach is a doctoral student in the Department of History at New York University and evolutionary biologist at the American Museum of Natural History. Her research focuses on the concept, meaning, and construction of biological Time and Space across three bodies of scientific knowledge—Ecological, Malagasy, and Phylogenetic—as applied to conservation ideology and policy from the late nineteenth century to present day. In short, her dissertation aims to understand how Madagascar became the botanical museum to save all of nature (and thus, humankind).

Featured Image: Portrait of Adam Ferguson (1723–1816) by Henry Raeburn, c. 1790. Courtesy of the University of Edinburgh.

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Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

Alisa Zhulina on Early Modern Theater and Sovereignty

Alisa Zhulina is Assistant Professor of Theatre Studies in the Department of Drama at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, and affiliated faculty member in the Department of Russian and Slavic Studies. Follow her work on Twitter @AlisaZhulina. For the April 2021 issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas (82.2), Zhulina wrote an essay on the relationship between early modern theater and sovereignty, “The Tyrant and the Martyr: Recent Research on Sovereignty and Theater.”

A playwright and theater director, Zhulina also recently collaborated with Floor Five Theatre Company to produce Algorithm, an audio drama podcast. Listen to Algorithm on Spotify, and on all major streaming platforms.

Contributing editor Cynthia Houng interviewed Zhulina about the relationship between theater and sovereignty in the early modern period, as well as in our own time. Zhulina also discusses the making of Algorithm, her current book project, Theater and Capital, and how theater can serve both as an agent of critique and change in contemporary society.


Cynthia Houng: Your Tisch School of the Arts faculty biography describes you as an “artist-scholar.” How do you think about these different facets of your practice? Does your scholarly work inform or influence your creative work, or vice versa?

Alisa Zhulina: My scholarly research and creative work have always influenced one another, although it is difficult for me to pinpoint exactly how the cross-pollination happens. Ultimately, I think that the labels we tend to put on different kinds of writing (“fiction,” “criticism”) are quite artificial. The writing of a play might require archival research and scholarship often relies on the author’s creative imagination. I’ve been fortunate to grow up as part of a generation of theater and performance studies scholars who are also committed to artistic practice, be it playwrighting, directing, design, dramaturgy, or curation. At Tisch, most of my colleagues do both—scholarship and creative work. And we encourage our students to draw connections between their theater studies courses and studio classes.   

poster for alisa zhulina's algorith

CH: Let’s talk about your play, Algorithm. How did this piece come about? Why did you decide to structure it as an audio play?

AZ: I wrote Algorithm in a writers’ lab during my time as a playwright-in-residence at Exquisite Corpse Company (ECC) in the summer of 2016. It was an intense time leading up to the 2016 presidential election, with lots of discussion about political polls, hacking, and Russian bots. I kept thinking about the ways that algorithms shape our world. I wasn’t necessarily interested in the precise technology of AI, although in the later development stages, I consulted Gretchen Krueger, who is a policy manager at OpenAI and whose invaluable advice helped make the play better. In discussions about AI, the focus tends to be on technology—if it will become smarter than humans, if it will ever become sentient, whether it’s “good” or “bad.” But, as a playwright, I’m more interested in the way that we internalize algorithmic logic and treat the world and people around us in formulaic terms. One of the ideas that inspired Algorithm comes from the British philosopher John Lucas, who believed that if AI passes the Turing test, it will happen “not because machines are so intelligent, but because humans, many of them at least, are so wooden.”

At the same time, I was frustrated by the way that we refer to the “free market” as a self-explanatory, indisputable, yet also almost mystical entity. “The market” will take care of this, “the market” will take care of that, as though it were some invisible agent or internalized source of authority. Somewhere along the way, these two ideas—algorithms and authority—got meshed in my brain, and I thought: what if there was this world, sometime in the future, where characters refer to a source of authority called the Algorithm, an authority that knows your DNA, your browsing history, and tries to predict your actions based on your prior behavior? I’ve always been fascinated by human-made systems of sovereignty—the monarchy, the Oracle in Greek tragedy, God, the free market, etc.—and by people brave enough to defy those structures of oppression. I’m also now realizing that as I was writing Algorithm, I was researching the transformation of the invisible hand of Providence into the invisible hand of the market in Henrik Ibsen’s drama, so there’s something of that in this play too. Originally, Floor Five Theater Company had planned to do an in-person production of Algorithm in April of 2020, but that got postponed indefinitely because of Covid-19. In the early fall, the producers got in touch with me and asked if I would be interested in reworking it as an audio drama podcast. I loved this idea because the plot of Algorithm, which (without giving away too much) hinges on the relationship between mind and body, lends itself well to the medium of the radio play. Moreover, it was exciting to have Algorithm become available in this format to more listeners.

CH: Your essay in the new JHI is about the relationship of theater, or theatrical performance, to early modern sovereignty. I want to start a little bit backwards, from the perspective of our contemporary moment, and ask you to comment on the relationship between theater and sovereignty in our current moment. At the end of your essay, you argue that after the nineteenth century, “instead of the absolute monarch, the performing arts would now have to appease and contend with a new ruler—capital.” I’d like to ask you to comment, first as a theorist, and second as a practitioner, how you would articulate this relationship, between theater and capital, today? 

AZ: The book I’m currently finishing—Theater of Capital: Money and Modern Drama—takes on this very question. I argue that since the birth of modern drama in the late nineteenth century, theater has been invested in dramatizing the social implications of the relentless accumulation of capital and the internal contradictions of capitalism. In the second half of the nineteenth century, there were three important historical transitions under way: neoclassical economics was emerging as a separate social science committed to abstract thinking; speculation and investment were becoming legitimate economic activities distinct from gambling; and theater was trying to gain ground as a reputable artistic institution. It was a turbulent time. On the one hand, the fin-de-siècle was a time of mass action in the name of socialism and anarchism, labor strikes, and unionism. On the other hand, the late nineteenth century was also witness to the marginal revolution, which was a reaction both to the classical political economy of the previous century and to the burgeoning socialism of its time.

cover of marx's das kapital

The marginal revolution marked the beginning of the field known today as neoclassical economics. In fact, this was also when the notoriously difficult-to-define term “capital” animated public discussion and when the word “capitalism” entered the European lexicon, acquired its contemporary meaning, and became a topic of debate in the wake of the publication of the first volume of Marx’s Capital. Thus, many of the socioeconomic issues that the playwrights of the fin-de-siècle (such as Ibsen, Chekhov, Strindberg, Hauptmann, Benedictsson, Shaw, and others) were diagnosing are still with us today. Many of our economic problems, such as unbridled financialization and the insular world of business ethics, are toxic inheritances from the nineteenth century. 

Put simply, theater today is part of the capitalist system. Yet many theater scholars and practitioners (myself included) would argue that it is precisely theater’s entrenchment in the culture of capitalism that makes it politically valuable. Some of the most important scholars working in this intersection of theater and economic thought include Tracy C. Davis, Michael McKinnie, and Nicholas Ridout. In short, theater can display the internal contradictions of capitalism in a powerful way that is difficult for audiences to ignore. What I call “theater of capital” performs the work of the immanent critique of political economy by revealing to its audience that the market economy is a social construct (just like theater), exposing the rhetorical strategies of economics, laying bare the process of its own apparatus, and exploring the dynamic relationship between capitalism and critique. 

CH: In your JHI essay, you discuss the relationship between royal patronage and the development of early modern theater. Who are the patrons in contemporary theater? What is the role of patronage now? Has the pandemic year reshaped this relationship at all?

AZ: It depends on where theater is made. Historically, European theater has benefited from state subsidies, while American theater has relied more on production companies, theater ownership groups, and private donors and foundations (the 1935-1939 Federal Theatre Project is a notable exception). A combination of public and private funding is also possible, as in the case of New York’s cultural center The Shed: both the city and Bloomberg Philanthropies financed the project. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, however, we have seen neoliberal policies destroy the heritage of state-subsidized theater in many European countries. Brandon Woolf has an excellent new book coming out this June about this development in Germany—Institutional Theatrics: Performing Arts Policy in Post-Wall Berlin. Here, in the United States, the pandemic has exposed the abuses and nefarious activities of many producers (and I don’t just mean the recent event of Scott Rudin stepping back from Broadway). Fueled by the George Floyd protests, there has been a real reckoning (at least on the level of discussion) of power structures, especially that of white supremacy that underpins so many American theaters. In early June 2020, the “We See You White American Theater” collective published a twenty-nine-page document calling for a complete restructuring of American theater, a dismantling of the white supremacy of the stage, and the inclusion and leadership of Black, Indigenous, and/or People of Color. Many of their demands explicitly involve economic questions, namely new ways of organizing the various institutions of theater. Thus, their demands include but are not limited to making sure that BIPOC constitute “the majority of writers, directors, and designers onstage for the foreseeable future,” ending security contracts with police departments, limiting the salary of top paid staff members to no more than ten times the salary of the lowest paid workers, and providing on-site counseling for everyone working on productions that deal with “racialized experiences, and most especially racialized trauma.” In August of 2020, Chelsea Whitaker published an important article proposing a path toward an “anti-policing theater,” reminding us that the Nederlander Organization, which regularly donates to political leaders who uphold white supremacy and which owns 20 percent of Broadway venues, can “police what BIPOC narratives get produced.” Similarly, Soraya Nadia McDonald has called for more diverse staffing and leadership (among many other crucial ideas) in her brilliant piece “How to Get More Black on Broadway.” It remains to be seen whether American producers will meet these demands (some of the recent announcements about what is coming back to Broadway have been disappointing in this regard). Still, I believe we’re at a pivotal moment in American theater history, as there is a passionate collective desire and call for change.

CH: In your article for Performance Research, “Performing Philanthropy from Andrew Carnegie to Bill Gates,” you argue that for the ultrarich, like Andrew Carnegie, the performance of being a philanthropist is both a tool (“a cultural weapon in promoting the values of unbridled capitalism”) and a mask. Plays, like George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara, both dramatized and critiqued these performances. Did theater serve a similar role of critique and resistance in the early modern period? 

AZ: One of the central points of my essay in the JHI is that immanent critique is intrinsic to the capitalist process. This premise can often lead thinkers to mistrust critique, branding it as thoroughly bourgeois. For example, in my discussion of Reinhart Koselleck’s Critique and Crisis, I show how Koselleck locates the emergence of critique in the political crisis of the Enlightenment. According to Koselleck, the Enlightenment failed because it gave into a Utopian aspiration instead of solving concrete political problems. By contrast, in the Communist Manifesto, Engels and Marx call the bourgeoisie revolutionary because the very same critical frame of mind that encouraged the bourgeois to topple feudalism could now attack bourgeois values, including private property. For Engels and Marx, immanent critique is thus a necessary but insufficient (on its own) step in the revolutionary transformation of society. Given that the early modern period saw the transition from mercantilism to capitalism, it is not surprising that critique and resistance characterize its theater as well, particularly the cat-and-mouse games that its dramatists play with the sovereign. Are they praising or critiquing the monarch? This is the question that one is left with in that extraordinary scene in Molière’s Tartuffe, when the unseen King makes his will known through the mouth of the Officer. On the one hand, the King wields total power. On the other hand, he does so through the authority of the police and by way of the deus ex machina, or as Walter Benjamin calls it, “the banal equipment of the theater.” Molière thus unveils “the scaffolding of sovereignty,” to borrow Zvi Ben-Dor Benite, Stefanos Geroulanos, and Nicole Jerr’s productive term.

CH: Why did royal courts tolerate—and even encourage—the performance of works that presented ambivalent—and even openly critical—attitudes towards the reigning sovereign and his/her court? For example, you note that the poet Aleksandr Sumarokov presented, at the court of the Empress Elizabeth, plays that dramatized Elizabeth’s seizure and consolidation of Russian sovereignty in her hands. In these plays, under the guise of dramatizing political trials, “defiant subjects” questioned the legitimacy of Elizabeth’s succession to power. In the English context, marginal spaces like the “liberties of Early Modern London”—provided sites where Londoners could question and critique the prevailing powers. What role do these performances play in the construction of early modern sovereignty? 

empress elizabeth of russia
Vigilius Eriksen, Empress Elizabeth of Russia, 1757

AZ: At the court of the Empress Elizabeth, the tragedies of Aleksandr Sumarokov served as a kind of pressure valve for all the unresolved tensions between the empress and her courtiers. In Terror and Pity: Aleksandr Sumarokov and the Theater of Power in Elizabethan Russia, Kirill Ospovat shows how performances at the court broached questions about succession and explored anxieties about royal favor and terror under the watchful eye of the sovereign.

In this way, theater at the court co-opted the rebellious energy of the subjects and redirected it from action into art. The case of the liberties of early modern London is different. Here we encounter a truly liminal space, as Steven Mullaney argues in The Place of the Stage: License, Play, and Power in Renaissance England. The liberties belonged to the city of London, but were outside its control and jurisdiction, generating a unique set of historical conditions that placed the Renaissance stage at a critical distance from the sovereign.  

CH: Towards the end of your essay, you ask, “What notion does theater on the cusp of the rise of the bourgeoisie promote?” With this question, you take us through a thumbnail history of the fall of Absolutism and the death of early modern theater. Here, I’d like to turn our attention to the future. For some time now, observers have been predicting—with a twinge of melodrama—the end of bourgeois theater, and the rise of new forms of performance and new concepts of perfomativity. The year 2020, with all of its attendant ruptures and upheavals, appears to have quickened desires for deep and profound social and structural change here in the United States, and perhaps in other places as well. In what ways do you see theater and performance changing to meet the needs, and the challenges, of this moment?

AZ: I’ve already touched upon the ways that BIPOC artists and critics have called upon theaters to dismantle white supremacy undergirding their structures and policies and introduce concrete measures regarding inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility. Similarly, audiences are putting pressure on theater institutions to deliver this change. When it was announced in late March that a stage adaption of Game of Thrones is in the works with an eye on Broadway, social media erupted with discontent (no offense to the fans of Game of Thrones). There is a pervasive desire that when in-person theater returns it should be more inclusive and more daring, namely not just stage adaptations of commercially successful films. Incidentally, I’ve been using Broadway in most of my examples not because I think it represents all American theater but because it is its most commercial version and so it puts the relationship between theater and capital in stark relief. Smaller theaters too have had to grapple with the ruptures and upheavals of 2020, as the recent labor and racial reckoning at the Flea Theater demonstrates. Another important way that the pandemic has reshaped theater is by making it available on more digital platforms. Making theater and performance digitally accessible to audiences around the world has been a trend that dates to before the pandemic, but the closure of theater venues due to Covid-19 has accelerated the process. (That said, we should be careful not to immediately associate online theater with accessibility.) This past year, I was able to watch shows from London, Berlin, Moscow. We have now experienced first-hand that theater need not be a luxury available only to those who live in certain cities and who can afford the expensive tickets. There is no going back. 


Cynthia Houng is a writer and scholar living in New York. She is a contributing editor to the JHI Blog and a founding editor of Ars Longa, an independent journal focused on Early Modern art history and visual culture. Learn more about her research and creative projects. Find her on Instagram @cynthiahoung.

Featured Image: Vigilius Eriksen, Portrait of Empress Elizabeth, 1757.

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Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

Patrick Anthony on Paleontology and German Romanticism

Patrick Anthony is a historian of science and the environment and received his PhD from Vanderbilt University in 2021. He recently spoke with Max Norman about his article “Making Historicity: Paleontology and the Proximity of the Past in Germany, 1775-1825,” which has appeared in the most recent issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas (April, 82.2).


Max Norman: Who was Johann Christian Rosenmüller, and why did you choose to use his investigation of a “cave bear” to explore the relationship between paleontology and German Romanticism?

Patrick Anthony: Rosenmüller (1771-1820) was a surgeon and speleologist of middle-class origins, and he is one of the most fascinating Romantic figures I’ve encountered. This is because he worked between human and terrestrial interiority—bodies and caves, Menschen- and Erdkörper (literally, ‘earth body’). I believe the Romantic era generally saw a spatialization of time. Especially significant in German-speaking Europe was the new earth science of “geognosy,” which classified rocks according to the age of their formation, correlating depth and time. Rosenmüller belonged to a generation of naturalists and poets who shared the geognists’ historicism and saw mountains in particular as repositories of the past, which one might enter and investigate. When he inspected the fossil-rich caverns of Franconia in the 1790s, Rosenmüller became especially interested in the bones of an extinct animal that others had called a whale, unicorn, or perhaps a polar bear. Rosenmüller re-imagined these curious fossils as a “cave bear” indigenous to German lands, whose extinction was not caused by great primordial floods but by the more recent arrival of human beings. By re-interpreting the bear as such and spinning a great saga of human events around it, Rosenmüller responded to a longing for natural monuments and mythologies, which was palpable in the Romantic art of his time.

MN: How did Rosenmüller explain the presence of the bear in Germany? In what ways was his account inflected by politics?

PA: Naturalists before and after Rosenmüller used catastrophic events to explain the bear’s disappearance from German lands. Some believed the Deluge had swept the bear from its arctic home into Germany, while others thought the bear had dwelt in German caverns before being extinguished by the Flood. But both explanations implied a clear distinction between former and present worlds, relegating the bear to prehistory. By contrast, Rosenmüller used the early evolutionary thinking, especially Johann Friedrich Blumenbach’s concept of Bildungstrieb (‘formative drive’), to establish a continuity that brought the primordial nearer the present. By viewing the bear not as a fixed natural kind but a species subject to environmental modifications, Rosenmüller was able to theorize its development as a product of “our German forests” and even speculate about its “degeneration” after being driven into new climes by the advance of humans. It was not new evidence that made this explanation possible. What changed was the political milieu in which Rosenmüller theorized as a cultural nationalism took root in Germany on both a local and national level. A native of Franconia, Rosenmüller presented “our cave bear” as a link between present-day Germany and a heroic past that pitted humans against beasts. Like Fingal’s Cave in Scotland, similarly imbued with Highland mythology, the caves of Franconia now stored narrative of national heritage.

MN: You draw on Foucault’s concept of historicity to explain what German paleontologists were seeking in their work. What does historicity mean, and why is it useful for you methodologically?

PA: Rosenmüller’s study of fossils reflected a dizzying array of scholarly traditions and social aspirations, from anatomy and archaeology to “primitivist” poetry and revolutionary politics. This article’s source base has a corresponding breadth, ranging from Rosenmüller’s own illustrations of skulls and caverns to the practices of stone- and stalagmite-inscription by which contemporaries literally wrote themselves into natural history. But there was a common way of thinking underlay all this activity: a sense of historical continuity, which Rosenmüller inscribed—literally and figuratively—into the mountains. In The Order of Things, Foucault described analogous process by which “moderns” inscribed the continuity of time into the cognitive depths of Man between ca. 1775 and 1825. He called this “historicity.” I think Foucault is a great source of inspiration for anyone interested in charting pervasive and sometimes ineffable patterns of thought through various disciplines, media, and forms of knowledge, as was my aim in this article. And so I have made use of a Foucauldian lexicon here to articulate Rosenmüller’s efforts to recover from the depths of the earth a historicity into which he inscribed his own being. For the cave-goers, paleontologists, and “primitivist” poets of his time, underground travel allowed one to perform historicity—to move between natural and human history, or to collapse them altogether.


Max Norman studied comparative literature and classics in America and England, and now writes often on art and literature for magazines in both countries.

Featured Image: Drawing from Johann Christian Rosenmüller, Beiträge zur Geschichte und nähern Kenntniss fossiler Knochen, 1795. Scan courtesy of Göttinger Digitalisierungszentrum.

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Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

Christa Lundberg on Early Modern Philosophical Letters

Christa Lundberg is a PhD candidate in Early Modern History at the University of Cambridge. Her dissertation explores humanist religious scholarship and its critics in early sixteenth-century France. She recently spoke with Pranav Jain about her article “The Making of a Philosopher: The Contemplative Letters of Charles de Bovelles,” which has appeared in the most recent issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas (April, 82.2).


Pranav Jain: In some places, you interpret Bovelles’s letters through silences. In other words, your argument builds both upon what Bovelles says and what he leaves unsaid. What are some of the challenges of interpreting early modern letters in this way and how did you navigate them while reading Bovelles’s correspondence? 

Christa Lund: My interest in Bovelles’s silences began with frustration. We know little about Bovelles’s everyday life or what he did besides writing philosophical treatises. It was therefore especially disappointing to find that his surviving letters provide so little personal detail. One example that I mention in the article is that Bovelles manages to write a letter during a visit to Brussels without indicating what he is doing there, where he plans to go next, or how he experienced the city. As I read the letters more closely, however, my frustration turned into fascination and determination to understand the purpose of these strange letters.

The main challenge of thinking about the ‘unsaid’ in letters is, of course, to explain why anything particular should have been said besides what is on the page. In this case, I had to ask whether it was simply my expectations and desires, as a historian, that created the impression that something was lacking. My strategy was twofold. First, I looked for external comparisons—I compared Bovelles’s letters with those of his contemporaries and thought carefully about the role of genre. Second, I paid close attention to Bovelles’s own statements about what he did not write about in letters. He admitted, even celebrated, a practice of excluding ‘mundane news’ that would ‘soon expire.’ In other words, there were deliberate silences in Bovelles’s letters.

PJ: In the article, you ask whether Bovelles’s letters can be seen as “essays with an added greeting.” Are there any other sixteenth-century thinkers whose letters can be described as such? If so, how do their letters relate to the methods you see at work in Bovelles’s correspondence? 

CL: The accusation that philosophical or scientific letters were not actually letters has been around since antiquity. In some cases, readers might doubt that these texts were actually sent as letters. Of course, this suspicion can be raised against all published epistles. But the problem with philosophical letters appears to be more fundamental: we feel that these texts are not communicative or personal enough to qualify as letters.

Many kinds of essayistic letters were nevertheless published in the sixteenth century. One fascinating example is the collections of medical letters studied by Ian Maclean and Nancy Siraisi. Learned physicians shared their erudition and experience in the form of letters—some of these were clearly intended for publication and could be described as essays. This is a very good parallel with Bovelles’s project of sharing ideas with a wider philosophical community. My impression is that the philosophical letter was a less popular genre than the medical letter. One plausible explanation has to do with the readership of learned books outside the university. While physicians were a well-defined audience for medical letter collections, there was no real equivalent for philosophical books.

The full story of sixteenth-century philosophical letters remains, however, to be written. First of all, we would need an inventory of relevant collections. I have just learned about Camilla Erculiani’s Letters on Natural Philosophy (1584), which will appear in a new edition and English translation this year. While Erculiani’s letters originate in a very different context from those of Bovelles, the two authors seem to share a tendency to move seamlessly between natural philosophy and theology. I look forward to being able to read them side by side!

PJ: Apart from the ones you have already outlined in the article, what might be some other implications of your argument for how we think about the early modern republic of letters? 

CL: First, a disclaimer: Bovelles was not an important player in the early modern republic of letters. He did not exchange letters with Erasmus or other key nodes in the growing international network of scholars. Neither did he express a desire to be part of the kind of community whose ideals are so vividly invoked in Anthony Grafton’s essay “A Sketch Map of a Lost Continent: The Republic of Letters”: the free exchange of ideas and fostering of scholarly and religious tolerance. Nevertheless, I think that Bovelles’s correspondence is useful for thinking about the communities that helped connect and power the republic of letters in the early sixteenth century.

One of my main aims in this article was to illuminate how Bovelles’s letters reflected his education at the Collège de Cardinal Lemoine in Paris. Many of his letters discuss topics picked from the curriculum in Arts philosophy, especially the courses in natural philosophy and mathematics. Furthermore, a large part of Bovelles’s correspondents were alumni of the same educational institution. Together, these factors point toward the central role of the University as the starting point of Bovelles’s epistolary community. In this case, therefore, the University appears as a kind of substrate to one corner of the early modern republic of letters.

After leaving the University of Paris, Bovelles became a canon in the cathedral of Noyon. His correspondence also reflects the role of a growing ecclesiastical and monastic network. Bovelles increasingly exchanged letters with canons, friars, and monks. In the 1530s, the Celestine order assisted Bovelles by carrying messages from him to members of the order, as Jean-Claude Margolin noted in Lettres et poèmes de Charles de Bovelles (2011). The Church and monastic orders helped provide an infrastructure for connectivity.

Bovelles’s community thus offers an occasion to think about the roots of the republic of letters. It suggests that, in early sixteenth-century France, the essentially medieval institutions of the University and the Church still played an important role in shaping scholarly networks.


Pranav Jain is a PhD student at Yale University working on early modern Britain, and a contributing editor at the JHI Blog.

Featured Image: Drawing from Charles de Bovelles, Quae hoc volumine continentur: Liber de intellectu…. de geometricis supplementis (Paris: H. Estienne, 1511), 60v.

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Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

Alessandro Nannini on the Psychologization of the Soul in the German Enlightenment

Alessandro Nannini received his PhD in Philosophy from the University of Palermo, Italy (2015) and has since been a research fellow and member of research groups at several universities and research centers in Italy, Germany, France, Bulgaria and Romania. Currently, he is a research fellow at the University of Bucharest, Romania. His research focuses on intellectual history and aesthetics in the Early Modern Age, with particular regard to the German Enlightenment. He is interviewed by contributing editor Albert J. Hawks about his article, “At the Bottom of the Soul: The Psychologization of the ‘Fundus Animae’ between Leibniz and Sulzer” that appeared in the most recent issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas (January, 82.1).


Albert Hawks: I want to start out with a really basic, big picture type question. I always wonder when I’m reading a new article how the author came to the subject (my own work seems like a combination of random factors, interest, and luck). As someone outside of your field, I have no idea how one comes to write about the fundus animae. How did you find this critical moment in intellectual history? What was the process of discovery?

Alessandro Nannini: I started to study the philosophy of Baumgarten and of the German Enlightenment for my PhD dissertation several years ago. I was mainly interested in the links between aesthetics and empirical psychology, so my attention was immediately drawn to the concept of the fundus animae, which features both in Baumgarten’s Metaphysica (1739) and Aesthetica (1750-1758).

At the same time, much scholarly literature used to credit Baumgarten with its coinage, or at least with its introduction in the German Enlightenment. So, with my attention alerted but without any specific aim, I started excavating the sources around Baumgarten—in particular the Pietist background as well as the psychological tradition—and I soon discovered a few significant occurrences of fundus animae prior to Baumgarten’s Metaphysica. They were especially present in the texts of the Israel Gottlieb Canz, a Lutheran theologian and philosopher influenced by both Leibniz and Wolff. These occurrences had never been recorded in the secondary literature, although Canz already understood the ground of the soul in a psychological sense, which increased still further my interest.

At this point, I started to look at the general history of the idea and noticed that there was a gap in the period between Leibniz and Baumgarten. The gap regarded precisely the moment in which the exchanges between metaphysical and mystical concepts had been more frequent and fruitful in the establishment of two momentous disciplines such as psychology and aesthetics. As a detailed analysis of these exchanges is still a major desideratum of research, I was convinced to devote a whole study on the fundus animae, bringing to light some totally neglected sources within a wider context, in a way that could be of some utility to those interested in this period from different perspectives.

AH: In your article, you trace the evolution of the fundus animae along a winding path from theology to poetry to ethics and eventually psychology. One of the things I found myself wondering about is the extent of connectivity between, for example, Wolff and the concept’s theological roots. It seems that the fundus animae leavened into the collective consciousness and, from there, was utilized by later fields. In other words, the connections are somewhat subconscious. To what extent is this the case? And how accurate would it be to say that these separate fields are using a semantically similar but conceptually different term? 

AN: I can understand that the number of fields in which the idea emerges could give the impression that the fundus animae is just a common heritage, with few, if any, horizontal connections between the different domains. However, I think this impression is misleading.

At the beginning of the German Enlightenment, the notion of the “ground of the soul” was used by Leibniz and by Thomasius, both of whom were terminologically influenced by the seventeenth-century French moralistics and mystics. In this case, the concepts are certainly semantically similar and conceptually different: while in Leibniz the fundus animae signifies an image of the soul drawing all its ideas from itself (from its “ground”), Thomasius refers to it in the context of political prudence (aiming at the necessity for a good politician to read others’ most hidden intentions from outer gestures). Now, my thesis is that these two quite different perspectives, along with the mystical heritage, contribute to the emergence of a fully new psychological sense of the term. It is in the light of this new concept that the older strands of thought find an important convergence. The aim of my essay is precisely to reconstruct how and why at a certain point these strands started to interact with one another producing a new conceptual cohesion under the aegis of psychology.

More specifically, I maintain that the psychologization of the notion of fundus animae in the Leibnizian tradition was fostered by the new appraisal of the Thomasian tradition concerning cardiognostics made by Wolff. Wolff uses the term abyssus mentis not in the context of the spontaneity of the soul (as in Leibniz and Bilfinger), but in the discussion about the possibility of reading others’ minds, which was made famous in Germany by Thomasius with a book mentioning the “recesses of the heart” (Verborgene des Herzens) in its very title. Wolff was therefore aware of Thomasius’s use of the term “Verborgene des Herzens” and decided to take up the concept, in the Latin form of abyssus mentis (Grund und Abgrund des Gemüthes in Hagen’s German translation) in direct connection with Thomasius’s problem.

While Wolff thus appropriates the idea of a “cardiognostics”, the framework changes since Wolff intends to deal with the abyssus mentis no longer in political prudence like Thomasius but in psychology, encouraging his followers to delve further into the issue from this perspective. Wolff himself does not provide more precise indications, at least up to his late Ethica; yet, when an author influenced by Wolff such as Canz adopts the concept (in the form of abyssus animae/animi; fundus animae), he does so with the epistemological toolbox of Leibniz’s and Wolff’s psychology, that is, through clear and confused, and obscure ideas, thus welding together for the first time the fundus animae and the domain of indistinctness (later of obscurity alone), and making of fundus animae an epistemic concept. In this way, the fundus animae becomes a significant way to refer to the unconscious, which finds a significant development via the two disciplines dealing with the lower powers of the mind, that is psychology and the newly born aesthetics.

What made the reconstruction of this process challenging is the fact that the authors considered were reluctant to state their sources, often coming from different disciplines, hence my attempt was in a sense to lay bare the hidden interactions the authors left unspoken. In this way, the links between the various strands, at least from Canz onwards, are subconscious only in the sense that they are implicit, but they were certainly conscious at the time and now require a conceptual work to be acknowledged again in all their cogency and breadth.

AH: The concept of the fundus animae originates in this mystical, unknowable interiority of the soul. In your article, you demonstrate its evolution into a secular, psychological concept, the “dark basement.” How did this evolution effect the unknowability component of the concept? To what extent would it still be characterized as obscure? Or does it, through conceptual breakthrough, come to be seen as a known entity?

AN: Interesting question. The fundus animae is certainly a way to refer to an unknowable region of the soul. The fact is that what is acknowledged as unknowable can be conceptualized in different ways in different contexts. Therefore, in a sense, the conceptualization of the unknowable is knowable: what we get to know, however, is not the “content” of the fundus animae, but the way in which this “unknowable” is conceived—something about the Weltanschauung of the authors who intended to make sense by referring to it through certain images or metaphors.

Beyond this methodological plane, the necessity to assume the presence of a “ground of the soul” in an Enlightenment context originates from the disquieting awareness of a number of apparently inexplicable events and circumstances, ranging from the relationship with the divine to the artistic inspiration, from the assimilation of habits to psychopathological conditions. In a context more and more characterized by the impact of the Scientific Revolution, where the “openness” of the Renaissance consciousness—openness to the influence of stars, angels, demons, the world spirit, etc.—is no longer widely accepted, the need emerges to situate the source of such unaccountable events in the soul itself. The knowability of the fundus animae is in this manner always a posteriori, always belated with regard to the events it tries to make sense of, as Minerva’s owl, because it testifies to the attempt to rationalize and locate in the subject the dimension of the mysterious that, one way or another, always pervades our life. 

AH: Your article ends with describing the concept of the fundus animae as major breakthrough in the history of the unconscious. While it takes us beyond the scope of this article, would you be willing to briefly characterize how this moment goes on to impact psychological concepts of the unconscious in later intellectual history? Does this concept still have an influence today?

AN: The ground of the soul undoubtedly remains a significant theme for many late eighteenth-century thinkers, and is also taken up by Kant, while Herder makes of it one of the main axes of his thought, not to speak about the importance it plays for the aesthetics of genius in the Romantic age. Aesthetics itself, in the original sense of “inferior gnoseology,” becomes possible precisely following the conceptual elaboration of the lower fringes of the soul that the discussion about fundus animae has made possible within Wolffianism.

More than for direct influences on single authors, however, I think that the psychological idea of fundus animae is essential for the conceptualization of the unconscious—of the unconscious as opposed to the conscious and not of the unconscious in a Freudian fashion—because it, for the first time in a clear way, brings to the fore the necessity of locating the dimension of the subliminal in a specific seat within the soul, a seat that was unknown to the Aristotelian model of the soul and that was borrowed, after a process of adaptation, from Medieval mystics. This shift greatly contributes to bestowing epistemological dignity to the matter of the unconscious and helps us become more aware of the entanglement of very different lines of thought in its emergence. When Sulzer at the end of the 1750s sees in the depths of the soul the most cutting-edge domain of empirical psychology, it is clear that the merit of this interest greatly depends on the psychologization of the concept of fundus animae in the previous decades, which will preserve its importance for the legitimation of this field of study even when the problem of the unconscious will be taken up outside of the theoretical framework of German rationalism and under different names.


Albert Hawks, Jr. is a doctoral student in sociology at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, where he is a fellow with the Weiser Center for Emerging Democracies. He holds an M.Div. and S.T.M. from Yale University.

Featured Image: Johannes Itten, “Linienrhythmus,” 1919.

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Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

Elissa Mailänder on Bigamy and Nazi Pronatalism

Elissa Mailänder is an Associate professor of contemporary history at Sciences Po, Center for History (CHSP) in Paris. After receiving her PhD in history at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS) and the University of Erfurt, she worked at the Kulturwissenschaftliches Institut Essen, the Centre interdisciplinaires d’études et de recherches sur l’Allemagne and EHESS in Paris. A historian of everyday life and of Nazism, Mailänder focuses on perpetrator history and the structures, mechanisms, and dynamics of violence in Nazi society to draw out their material, social, and cultural dimensions. She recently spoke with Yanara Schmacks about her article “Masters of Sex? Nazism, Bigamy, and a University Professor’s Fight with Society and the State (1930–1970),” which has appeared in the most recent issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas (January, 82.1).


Yanara Schmacks: Your article introduces the case of Otto M., a Kiel-based university professor who specialized in phytopathology and pharmacognosy during the Third Reich and in postwar West Germany. M. had an openly bigamous relationship and lived in a shared household with his wife and another woman whom he considered his “second wife” in a “community marriage.” He had children with both women and justified his lifestyle with reference to Nazi pronatalism and eugenic principles, framing himself as a “prodigious father” contributing to the Volk. How are M.’s case and the trajectory it took illustrative of the unique and often contradictory National Socialist sex and gender politics? How is it situated within the völkisch ideology favored by leading Nazi figures like Heinrich Himmler and myths about a Germanic past?

Elissa Mailänder: At first glance, the polygamous professor reads like a tremendously eccentric curiosity. Yet a closer look reveals that this man believed that, by fathering and rearing many racially “pure” and “healthy” children, he was acting in a “morally righteous” way in a distinctly völkisch sense. This adjective, so difficult to translate, refers to a rather quirky current of thought that developed in German-speaking countries at the end of the 19th century, gaining particular traction after World War I. Covering trends like the escape from metropolitan urban life to reconnect with nature, nutritional awareness, and naturopathic medicine, followers of this eclectic movement shared an undemocratic, ethnic conception of national community that further exalted its presumed Germanic roots. Most importantly, the völkisch logic rejected foreign influences and racial differences as threats to an allegedly pure Germanic race. Cleverly, the Nazis then drew upon this ethno-racist and eugenic ideologyfrom the 1920s,reinforcing asense of belonging via inclusionary racism and declaring the family as the biological stock of an ethnically defined People’s Community (Volksgemeinschaft).

German motherhood became a major political component of Nazism, at first as a demographic “weapon” in a larger combat against rival ethnic populations (Jews and Slavs), ideological enemies (Bolsheviks, political opponents), and internal “threats” to racial purity, such as Germans perceived as socially awkward or genetically “damaged.” Secondly, as the rise of the modern welfare state had already sufficiently proven, motherhood was also a convenient tool to monitor and motivate the German people, as it allowed Nazism to present itself as promoting a society of benevolence and beneficence.  Since the very beginning, the Nazi government encouraged “racially” German couples to have large families, via financial incentives such as the marriage loans instituted in the summer of 1933 or awards like the Cross of Honor of the German Mother launched in 1938. From 1933-34 onwards, Nazi women’s organizations took over the existing provision of advice and training to mothers, while the NS-Frauenschaft (National Socialist Women’s League) and the Deutsches Frauenwerk soon became key players within the wider field of Nazi organizations concerned with race and welfare. In a bitter rivalry with male-dominated Nazi organizations, the leaders of the National Socialist Women’s League (NSF) tried to monopolize the field of training and advice to mothers, because Gertrud Scholtz-Klink, the leader of the NSF, knew all too well about the political capital of motherhood: training mothers and housewives targeted a wider female public, far beyond party membership. It therefore offered a fabulous opportunity to transform ordinary women into racially conscious rulers of the family.

The professor and his wife, however, belonged to a public that was differently attuned ideologically. It seems that M. and his wife, both academics with PhDs, had been seduced by völkisch ideas when they were university students; both perceived eugenic family-building as their duty. While Nazi politics paid considerable attention to motherhood, professor M. claimed his full rights as a father and patriarch. Yet by inviting another woman to join their household and have children with professor M., the couple certainly made an unusually bold choice that did not please everyone. The case illustrates how some colleagues and registrars struggled to accept the validity of this arrangement and particularly the legitimacy of his children born out of wedlock. Others, most importantly academic superiors and judges, backed the professor, at least during the Third Reich. Yet despite this divided reception, people generally tolerated M.’s lifestyle. After all, many high-ranking Nazi officials such as Heinrich Himmler, Joseph Goebbels, and Martin Bormann fathered children with their mistresses, although none openly engaged in polygamy. Nazism had a sexist approach to gender and sexuality, granting “Aryan” men multiple legal advantages (divorce law) and informal concessions (from “traditional” sexual promiscuity to sexual violence). Professor M. is a telling illustration of “Aryan arrogance” (Claudia Koonz) paired with male entitlement.

YS: Taking a closer look at M.’s unconventional personal and family life, which was characterized by open bigamy, you argue for the explanatory power of Alltagsgeschichte, an approach to history pioneered by Alf Lüdtke that focuses on everyday life experiences. In what ways does Alltagsgeschichte enhance our understanding of Nazism? And how is the more recent attention in Holocaust studies to the intimate and family lives of historical actors specifically illuminating in this context?

EM: The notion of everyday life, or Alltag, is a lens that allows us to look at the transformation of seemingly banal men and women into active proponents of Nazism. Drawing on Karl Marx, Alf Lüdtke developed the concept of “appropriation” (Aneignung) to describe a diverse, formative, and “sensual” interpretation of lived reality—discourses, practices, and compulsions—by historical actors. From this perspective, social norms do not appear as implicit, but as something that individuals must first reify and then enact in ways that are not always logical or consistent. Hence, it is the often ambiguous and contradictory social practices of ordinary citizens, rather than their political motivations, that explain broad support for or assimilation within a dictatorial regime. This micro-historical approach to the everyday necessitates not only a reduction in scale to the level of the individual, but also a highly nuanced understanding of their everyday lives and agency.

The private life in Nazi society, as opposed to the public and professional one, has gained analytical traction in historiography over the past decade, only for historians to realize that even in a fascist dictatorship, there was no such thing as an Orwellian nightmare of total invasion of the private sphere. In their recent studies, Nicholas Stargardt and Janosch Steuwer demonstrated how comfortably Austrians and Germans “nested” within their family lives, creating parallel private worlds. Most individuals attempted to lead ordinary lives, even under exceptionally harsh circumstances. Some even understood their withdrawal into the private sphere as a sort of inner emigration, not recognizing that within a dictatorship and genocidal regime, the private is resolutely political. In other words, mass dictatorships cannot be understood within a simple framework of coercion or norms imposed by a regime. Although individual actions and gestures of (private) withdrawal or non-conformity cannot be dismissed, simply coping with Nazism, even reluctantly, or keeping political action to a minimum, tacitly implied support and contributed to the power and stability of the regime.

Everyday conformism is ambivalent, meandering through a broad spectrum of coercion and consent. Yet it has a considerable social impact and political meaning, as it helps create a new political culture. With Mothers in the Fatherland, Claudia Koonz was really onto something in the 1980s. Child rearing under Nazism was, as we have seen, a core political activity that made Austrian and German mothers into indispensable political agents. Although we now know a lot about the ideological underpinnings of the motherhood training and housekeeping courses for mothers-to-be, we still lack information about how women translated this training and other political incentives into everyday family life. Unfortunately, oral history interviews were only conducted with women professionally engaged in the Nazi movement, whereas systematic analysis of ego-documents (diaries, letters, photo albums, housekeeping books etc.) by ordinary German women remain a lacuna. Which is why German motherhood and childrearing during Nazism, as an experience and social practice, curiously count among the least explored topics.

If we adopt an integrated  perspective on the perpetrators and victims of the Holocaust—I deliberately do not want to use the term “comparative”—we ought to ask: who had an “everyday”?Everyday life is not a given. According to anthropologist Gerald Sider, having an everyday life requires “a reasonable grounded expectation of a livable tomorrow” – that is, money to pay rent and food, health, and a decently positive projection into the future. German families, even during the harsh Allied bombing raids in 1943-45, still possessed a functioning infrastructure with female fire brigades and soldiers who rescued people from burning houses and rubble, as well as bunkers that offered shelter, food, and medical support. By contrast, Jews in hiding, refugees or people detained in concentration camps or on death marches did not have much coherence or predictability in their lives. Historian Natalia Aleksiun has shown how difficult and volatile the daily struggle for survival was for Jews hiding in Nazi-occupied Eastern Galicia. Marginalized women were particularly susceptible to abuse of their sexuality (rape, sexual exploitation, forced pregnancy) and of their maternal responsibility (forced abortion, suicide, infanticide), be it in the ghettos and camps, in resistance groups or in hiding and escape. In addition, motherhood and reproductive capacities made women doubly vulnerable. Crying babies and toddlers represented a particular liability, not only for the people in hideouts but also for their gentile hosts. In addition, the lack of food and hygiene made the survival of newborns and mothers particularly precarious. Hence, while the privileged and distinctly völkisch approach to German motherhood is crucial to understanding the allure of Nazism, we also need to look at the brutal implications for those excluded from this ethno-racist community. In Nazi society—and, as a matter of fact, in any segregated society—inclusionary and exclusionary racism are two sides of the same coin.

YS: Going beyond the immediate scope of your article and moving into the present, it seems striking how far-right movements today stylize themselves as defenders of the conventional family, fighting against “genderism” and “alternative” family constellations. Do you think this development marks a transformation of right-wing sexual politics, or are there similar sexually transgressive strands in the current right that we do not pay enough attention to?

EM: Professor M.’s polygamous arrangement was not all that revolutionary; as the pater familias, he still held all the cards. What I wanted to highlight in my article is that this family setting cannot be simply explained by male domination or oppressive patriarchy, as the women and mothers of his children had their reasons for participating as well. They granted him his patriarchal dividends, at least at the beginning; for a couple of years, they shared his values and actively participated in this bigamous arrangement where two women shared a household, until it became too complicated and they wanted to separate. Ultimately, his wives perceived their role as modern German mothers of his nine children as a female privilege. Then and now, right-wing or völkisch feminisms do exist. Journalist and intellectual Sophie Rogge-Börner (1878-1955) and best-selling author Johanna Haarer (1900-1988) come to mind; both were strong voices for a “Nazi style” gender-equality suffused with Nordic mythology, antisemitism, and exalted motherhood in a race-based society. Motherhood and a certain “healthy” German lifestyle became key tropes and markers of identity – in some cases, even a powerful fantasy of potency.

Here is where we can indeed draw some parallels to postwar anti-feminist conservative women’s movements that advocated against equal rights between men and women in a diverse, multiethnic society. Be it Phyllis Schlafly (1924-2016) in the United States or Ellen Kositza in contemporary Germany, both draw their political credibility and stamina from their prodigious motherhood and role as exemplary family caretakers.Kositza, a West German woman in her forties and wife of the popular ideologist of the new right, Götz Kubitschek, now lives in Schnellroda, in the depths of Thuringia, where she runs a self-sufficient estate and looks after her seven children. Yet neither Schlafly nor Kositza embodies the traditional model of a stay-at-home wife, as they both work(ed) full time as political lobbyists. Kositza, who holds a college degree in philosophy and literature, manages the far-right Antaios publishing house, a blog, and her own YouTube show. As educated, middle-class women, neither Schlafly nor Kositza has much in common with the workaday and family lives of women with migration backgrounds, women of color, or white mothers of precarious working-class families. Instead, as female members of the dominant mainstream society, they voice white women’s demands and privileges in a still segregated society, be it the United States of the 1970s or contemporary Germany. In other words, they defend a particular kind of white nationalist patriarchy, much as Nazi feminists did.  Only by reflecting upon their positionality and by placing them within a larger social and political web of power relations can we grasp their obstinate defense of ethno-cultural privileges.

Unsurprisingly, current far-right movements remain utterly conservative when it comes to gender. The Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) and other far-right movements might have opened up to gays and lesbians, but only if they share cisgender traditional values and forcefully oppose gender-queerness. The publicist and agent provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos (born in 1984) and the high-profile AfD politician Alice Weidel (born in 1979) self-identify as right-wing homosexuals, which does not prevent them from advocating for traditional family values or buying into homophobic narratives. By opposing cultural, ethnic, and religious diversity, as well as transgender identities, they share certain guiding principles with their heteronormative political fellows. If we understand ‘queer’ not solely as a synonym for gay but also as a way of asking questions about what goes against the norm, then being gay or lesbian does not make a person necessarily gender subversive or free from patriarchal precepts.Sociologist Raewyn Connell coined the compelling concept of a “very straight gay,” as gay men and women can, indeed, lead a double life, hypercorrect the presumed contradiction with traditional gender values, and therefore incarnate conservative misogynic homo- and transphobic masculinities or femininities. As historians, wetend to essentialize our historical subjects and their agency by holding on to static binaries (man/woman, gay/straight, transgender/cisgender, etc.) and by locking the people we study into categories: victims, perpetrators, oppressed women, dominating men etc.  The pressing questions then are: how can we conceptualize the asymmetries of power relations without congealing identities? How can we examine the dark and compromising sides when it comes to femininities or queerness? How can we recognize contradictions and multiple affiliations in our historical analysis? 


Yanara Schmacks is a PhD candidate in Modern European History at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York. Her article “‘Motherhood is Beautiful’: Maternalism in the West German New Women’s Movement between Eroticization and Ecological Protest” was published in Central European History. Her paper “‘Only Mothers Can Be True Revolutionaries’: The Politicization of Motherhood in 1980s West German Psychoanalysis” is forthcoming in Psychoanalysis and History. She is working on a dissertation project that explores the politics of motherhood in the three German states from the 1970s to the early 2000s.

Featured Image: Decorative Paper from page 5 of The Works of Mr. Alexander Pope. 2 vol. (1717). Courtesy of the British Library.