Here at the JHI blog, we hope to soon share more news about upcoming events for intellectual historians of all stripes wherever they may be. A calendar is in the works. The coming weeks in Paris, however, have so many interesting events that they certainly warrant a blog posting of their own in the meantime. So without further ado, you’ll find here a few talks and conferences to consider attending should you find yourselves in Paris just now (and a little luck will see some reporting on one or two of them):
Speakers at an AHA panel this last weekend discussed the limits of this influence.* Helge Jordheim addressed the continuing feasibility of larger tropes found throughout Koselleck’s writing, most prominently the notion of a Sattelzeit (‘saddle-time) or a transitionary period into political (even secular) modernity roughly spanning 1750 and 1850. The notion of a Sattelzeit itself hearkens back to his earliest work. In his dissertation (published as Kritik und Krise or Critique and Crisis in 1959), Koselleck famously argues that the 17th century absolutist state inadvertently created the first effective, oppositional public sphere in the Enlightenment. This laid the foundations not only of the French Revolution, but also of the liberal subject (as understood today) and of the modern political order which followed. This latter period furnishes the span of Koselleck’s studies in conceptual history, namely programmatic studies of semantic change in key political concepts. Kathleen Davis questioned the consequences for historiography in this broader division, however, and not least in terms of reconceiving the Middle Ages as such. (The triad of antiquity, mediaeval, and modernity also preoccupied Jacques Le Goff to the end of his career, incidentally.)
Koselleck is not a systematic thinker, and he constantly revised his theories. While conceding a theoretical blurriness, the AHA panelists make a strong case that Koselleck’s legacy should be contested and both geographically and chronologically expanded. How far can this be done?
Two notions spring to mind. The first applies to the Sattelzeit thesis and the professional turn to global history imagined by Michael Geyer and Charles Bright among others. Following such historians as Adam Tooze, we might take the 1870s as the starting point for a worldwide convergence of (and converging opposition to) political and economic vocabularies. This is not to advance a theory of modernity, necessarily, nor indeed to dismiss the alternative national histories floating about before, during, or after the period in question. (Here Koselleck’s notion of a modern ‘collective singular’ arising in historical thought also bears upon any reconstructed ideas of progress.) As per Koselleck’s account of conceptual history, both semantic change and the circulation of ideas would prove jagged and asymmetrical in any historical telling. Yet the larger Sattelzeit thesis—when extended beyond Germany—could be tested against any history of globalization or a perceived global condition.
Conceptual history also expands beyond political concepts in Germany. Indeed, the same historiographical approach applies just as easily to larger transnational exchanges. These also prove more expansive in terms of content, finding traction not only in political but also in politicized vocabularies. Carol Gluck and Anne Lowenhaupt-Tsing’s volume Words in Motion: Toward a Global Lexicon (2009) furnishes a wonderful model for global history written in this key.
Another suggestion bears upon a possible conceptual history of human rights. The subject has recently become one of the most formidable and exciting fields in history: formidable, in light of the exacting debates swirling around its origins and character; exciting, in the sheer volume of its historiography today. But where will histories of ideas, of governmental policy, and NGOs now lead historians?
Koselleck’s insistence that circulation refines and changes concepts may afford a broader historiographical frame. Ideas trickle down and bubble back up. Drawn against a global stage, the receptions (plural) of human rights ideas and policies would vary between regions, states, areas, political identifications, and people before returning to political science departments and the occasional history blog. How deep do the archives extend on this score? What sorts of translation occurred within and across languages, which mediums carried the ideas, and how far did global aspects of human rights travel? Is there a social history, a cultural history, a media history, and so on for human rights?
The research program of Koselleck’s great lexicon, the Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe, establishes an initial framework for these questions. The introduction sketches out levels of reception while implicitly tracing an arc of scholarship. Historians begin with ‘classic’ (Klassiker) texts in political theory, philosophy, jurisprudence, theology, and so on—call it the ‘Great Man’ approach to intellectual history—before advancing to ‘widely circulating’ (Streuweite) texts including literature, journalism, pamphlets, bureaucratic records, and scholarship as much as private letters and diaries. This constitutes the great work of archives then contrasted against the third-level of ‘dictionaries’ (Wörterbücher), namely the reference works progressively fixing (or attempting to fix) concepts for each period.
This schema may first appear overly-determined. Yet in practice, the historiography blurs and leads ever outwards. One example for human rights historians in this register can be found in the career of Robert L. Bernstein, founder of the Human Rights Watch as well as the long-term head of Random House.** The publication of dissidents under Bernstein’s aegis might conceivably furnish a history of the book or a literary history for human rights, say, and an account of popular intellectual history of American readers of Soviet dissidents. If Koselleck’s theories and conceptual history indeed open up such new perspectives and even archives for consideration, what other anchors for a global history of human rights can be found elsewhere?
*Please note that the panel was incomplete.
**The author thanks Timothy Nunan for this reference.
The modern conference resembles the pilgrimage of medieval Christendom in that it allows the participants to indulge themselves in all the pleasures and diversions of travel while appearing to be austerely bent on self-improvement. To be sure, there are certain penitential exercises to be performed—the presentation of a paper, perhaps, and certainly listening to the papers of others. But with this excuse you journey to new and interesting places, meet new and interesting people, and form new and interesting relationships with them; exchange gossip and confidences (for your well-worn stories are fresh to them, and vice versa); eat, drink and make merry in their company every evening; and yet, at the end of it all, return home with an enhanced reputation for seriousness of mind.
—David Lodge, Small World, in The Campus Trilogy, 223
Lodge’s novel, a brilliant pastiche of medieval romance which traces the peregrinations of several international conference-going English professors, climaxes at “the Big Daddy of conferences,” the Modern Language Association’s Annual Meeting. His extended description of that meeting is worth a read for anyone who, like Lodge’s ’70s literary scholars, found themselves at a Hilton in midtown Manhattan last weekend awash in sensory overload. One of the things Lodge’s novel gets most right is how much of the point of academic conferences, particularly enormous ones, is about anything other than the ideas being exchanged: the people exchanging them, the social and political contexts in which they are being devised and exchanged. At AHA 2015, for every panel, like those we highlighted, devoted to new developments in the scholarship of ideas, there was a panel about the historical context of Ferguson, or about Leftist takes on the meaning of “public intellectual” and how to be one. One of the most important things going on at the AHA was how historians worked together to imagine how they might be historians in the world, whether that meant debating whether to suspend the AHA bylaws to allow a resolution regarding Israel and Palestine to be considered at the Business Meeting, countless sessions about digital humanities, social media, and more traditional forms of public history, or the usual and essential spate of sessions about teaching, one of the most important forms of public engagement.
From the panels I attended, it was clear that what a “public intellectual” is can be an intellectual-historical question. So can questions of field and relevance, and whether politically and socially conscious history in the United States can be produced and taught as effectively by non-US historians as by those who do the national history. But just as important as all this are closely related questions about who is debating these issues, how they interact, the personal commitments that inform their stances on history, society, and politics, and what happens when you pour them all into the hallways of a Manhattan Hilton and ratchet up the tension by requiring many of them to undergo high-stakes job interviews in the process. As effective as (though certainly very different from!) Lodge’s novel in explaining how this is the case was outgoing AHA President Jan Goldstein’s Presidential Address, which mapped the moral field in which a variety of different nineteenth-century French racial theorists operated. Goldstein stressed the need to recover these theorists’ own debates about the moral content of scientific versus philosophical approaches, allowing us to move towards a more complex understanding of their different views than a blanket condemnation of their distasteful imposition of racial hierarchies allows. The published version of the address will appear in the February issue of the AHR, and perhaps I will delve more deeply into its content then. But as I listened in-person on Saturday, it seemed that the method Goldstein was modeling for us could easily be applied to the AHA itself, to the complexities of the moral and political implications of our work, the unintended consequences of decisions made on such grounds, and the ways in which personal contingencies can shape the moral field in which it seems possible, as a scholar or intellectual, to operate.
The most revealing aspect of the conference was the five hours I spent as a shift-worker for the Local Arrangements Committee, during which I, in the company of many other New York-area grad students, ran around the Hilton in an orange t-shirt, providing directions, answering questions, and doing headcounts in the sessions. I must have come into contact with a hefty proportion of the conference attendees, and it was interesting to note who was kind and respectful when they asked for directions, even if they were senior scholars; who remembered that we had met before; who banded together in groups because they had been grad students together 25 or fifty years ago; who made a beeline for the receptions as soon as the panels were over; who (like the two military history buffs who came up to me looking for a lecture on George C. Marshall) had never heard of the AHA before. My own research on nineteenth-century England shows that intellectual communities and the making of their history occurs just as much in these circumstances as in what can be discerned through formal published conference proceedings, journals, or monographs. Understanding the historical profession as a thing today also entails understanding who historians are, why, as much as what, they think about the past, the webs of their friendships, how they treat graduate students, which way they voted on whether to suspend a bylaw and the discussion that got them there.
I hope there wasn’t as much sexual scandal at AHA 2015 as there is at David Lodge’s fictional MLA. But in choosing to account for conferences in the terms of romance, he has an important point to make about the relationship of intellect to everything else.
JHIBlog readers attending the American Historical Association Annual Meeting might be interested in the following sessions, just a few highlights amid the smorgasbord on offer. Visit the official Program for detailed panel descriptions and information about location and session participants: