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Dispatches from the Archives

Brexit for Historians

On Friday, September 9 in the Columbia University history department, British historians Susan Pedersen and Sam Wetherell led a conversation about Britain’s referendum to leave the European Union. Intended as what Wetherell referred to as an “air-clearing” for historians who still had thoughts from the summer to process, the event was attended by a range of scholars in different fields. About half the room had some connection to Britain, either through nationality or research field, but others spoke from their perspective as continental Europeans or Europeanists, as political scientists, or from other perspectives. After a brief introduction from Pedersen to the history of Britain’s relationship to the EU and the 1975 referendum on Britain’s membership in the EEC, and a recap from Wetherell of events since June 23, the discussion ranged widely. Jake Purcell and Emily Rutherford felt that they had no choice but to take stock of things for the blog, and a conversation between them follows.

ER: I was looking back over my notes from the conversation, and I was surprised to realize that Susan kicked the whole thing off with some serious national British history to give some political-historical context for this summer’s referendum, because the conversation so quickly veered away from that approach! By the end, participants had raised so many questions about whether historians might best understand Brexit from a historical perspective, from a national British as opposed to a European perspective, and what kinds of lenses on British history (class? race? empire? culture? economics? politics?) might be appropriate to bring to bear. An ancient historian made the most eloquent defense of Leave voters I’ve heard thus far, and in the process invoked ancient notions of Europe and their modern reception. And of course, you’re a medievalist!

I’m a modern British historian who spent the whole summer in the UK, and who understood Brexit to be “really” about this sovereignty question that came up in the discussion, and about issues of national politics, economics, culture, the welfare state, etc. So far, given that markets seem to have stabilized for the time being, the fallout mostly seems to have taken place in the context of the parliamentary system and the national political culture that surrounds it. So I was really struck that this wasn’t actually the focus of Friday’s discussion. What did you think about how this group’s identities as historians factored into the fact that we were having this conversation? Other people present made claims for what an ancient historian or an early modernist could bring to the understanding of this political issue, but what do you think about that from your perspective as someone who isn’t a modern British historian?

JP: I’ll probably circle back to the non-British, non-modernist thing later, but two elements of the discussion struck me as particularly historianly. The first was Sam’s rather plaintive insistence that we were all there to try to get a handle on “what had happened,” and the second was Susan’s rather dense introduction to campaigns for and against British participation in a European economic system throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s. In addition to removing some of the mysticism of the Brexit vote by giving it a clear context, Susan’s comments demonstrated that there were no particularly stances that different parties had to take, or lines of argument that necessarily fell to for or against. The idea that Labour had, in previous votes, been opposed to participating in EEC because it was a vote for capitalism, or that a relatively higher portion of, for example, young people voted to leave in 1975. Contingency! The discussion immediately became a project not just to figure out what arguments worked or didn’t, but why lines of reasoning were deployed or had resonance at this particular moment.

Like you say, the conversation wove through an extraordinary number of topics (I have five pages of legal pad notes, taken in a desperate attempt to keep the different strands clumped together), but do you think it’s safe to say that there was some consensus? Sam suggested that there were two dominant ways of reading the Brexit vote, one about poverty, austerity, isolationism, and the service economy, the other about a nationalist revolt against a lost idea of Britishness, and that the first of these was insufficient in explanatory power, that they had to be moved together. This assessment seemed to agree with Susan’s conclusion, that this moment we’re in is really a culture-emphasizing backlash against a politics that is only about economics. Which reminds me of another, not very historian-like aspect of the discussion, which was a genuine willingness to predict. What about this topic do you think made us willing to get over that particular aversion? Do you think the analyses that emerged gave us the right tools for that project?

ER: Mmm, I see what you’re saying about how historical reasoning crept into the conversation even when it wasn’t explicitly a conversation about how to historicize. Susan was also working in part from a recent book about Britain’s twentieth-century relationship to Europe, Continental Drift, written by a former US diplomat: so from the outset the conversation was framed as one in which history and other social-scientific methodologies for understanding contemporary politics have to work together. It reminds me of how Queen Mary University London’s Mile End Institute held a forum the morning after the referendum, featuring scholars from disciplines from public policy to law to economics, and also including a historian, Robert Saunders, whose blog has provided some of the most measured analysis of political events as they developed this summer. So I guess historians can predict, particularly if they are also drawing on other methodologies, but I’m not sure that it’s something we are innately qualified to do—particularly if we don’t work with the kind of numbers that allow a scholar to project trends in changing demographics, polling data, etc.

As to cultural versus economic arguments: it strikes me that the most interesting things the audience contributed to the discussion were cultural. I was particularly convinced by a few different speakers: one who discussed the internal workings of politics and whether it’s a “game”; another who carefully described a notion of national sovereignty (“take back control”) that can bridge class divides and appeal to people from very different groups for different reasons; and a third who asked about the working-out of loss of empire. I am not sure if all those things amount to one consensus, but they do certainly amount to one emphasis. But maybe that’s because I’m a historian of modern British elite institutions and culture myself! When I lived in Britain I became very susceptible to seeing the origins of the culture of the elite institutions that I was inhabiting in the late nineteenth century that I study; and to slipping back and forth between how a phenomenon like male homosociality worked in the late-nineteenth-century context and in the present day, the one illuminating the other. I still think some of that is true, though I’m not sure it’s the most responsible methodology when it comes to writing history. But maybe that tendency to collapse time, simultaneously inhabiting a mental universe bounded by your research and the normal outside world, is a cast of mind that historians can offer discussions like this one. I started studying Britain shortly after the 2010 general election which returned the Conservatives to power, and since then my research has helped me to understand, and to explain to other Americans, issues from the government’s education policy, to why Guardian headlines are so often ridiculous, to how Boris Johnson is the culmination of 300 years of history of elite education and its relationship to the British state (my current obsession).

But I remain struck by how so many people at the event kept pulling us out of the narrowly British, or even English, context: invoking the view from Germany, Spain, Italy, Greece, America, or from a time before Great Britain. Brexit seems so irrevocably British to me, entwined with the specific context Susan and Sam began with and (I would argue) with a slightly more distant British past that accounts for those cultural phenomena and their effects on voter behavior. But is it possible that modern British history is actually the wrong framework through which to view what seems to me a peculiarly modern British event? Is there anything particularly British about Brexit at all? (This NYRB piece which links Brexit to the upcoming US election seems to think not.) Is it chauvinist to argue that there is? Why, as so many commenters pointed out, should we care about Britain at all?

JP: Yes, you’re right that it was more an agreement about what elements were critical as opposed to what the exact configuration was. Though, who knows if that’s just because of a propensity for institutional and cultural explanations among the people in that room! I like the idea that having a second frame of reference constantly in mind is part of the historian’s contribution; something like built-in “perspective.”

Trying to get out of the British-centric focus was definitely a theme! I think several people in the room would agree that “wrong” is exactly the word for using modern British history as the sole framework, not in sense of “incorrect,” but in the sense of “not quite ethical.” There seemed to be real frustrations that neither campaign discussed the effect that leaving might have on the EU, and the Remain campaign’s lack of critique somehow seemed to tie it even more closely to an all-powerful austerity bloc, at least from the perspective of some people in Southern Europe. Aside from that, even Susan did not quite think that historical context provided all of the answers. When someone asked about old colonial tensions playing out in the Irish vote, Susan pushed back against the specter of “Little England” as an explanatory element, instead pointing to demographic shifts and the massive expansion of higher education. At the same time, it doesn’t seem particularly satisfying to pretend that all populism is the same, or achieves power in the same way, especially if one of the participants whom you mentioned is right and the political game happens at the institutional level, rather than at the national or European level. For all the recent interest in transnational history, it is odd to me that we never quite developed a rhetoric for talking about what similarities in, for example, anti-immigrant politics might mean. (In addition to immigration, I can’t help but feel that the caricature of Brussels as a tiny, antidemocratic bureaucracy controlling the lives of European citizens from its paperwork-lined halls corresponds to a repudiation of Administrative Law in some corners in the U.S.)

I also think that maybe there was a scale problem in the conversation. Yes, you’re probably right that modern British history is exactly the lens that will allow us to explain in important ways the mechanics of the Brexit campaign and vote, in part because British politics has a particular flavor, but the significance—why we ought to care about Britain at all—resides in part at the level of Europe. The Council for European Studies’ major conference this year is on the themes of “sustainability and transformation,” and Brexit is a key component; it is clearly understood to have transformative potential, whatever the current calm. We need lots of national and transnational histories, not just British ones, to figure out what the impact might be.

I find myself returning again and again to the lone, brave, self-professed Leave voter. He suggested that one might support Leave because the EU immigration system disadvantages people particularly from Europe or Africa, and that the idea of a bounded “Europe” remained too closely related to constructions of race and scientific racism for his comfort. I honestly cannot say whether or not this is true, but I’m way more interested in the fact that these lines of reasoning are exactly the same criticisms that usually get leveled against nationalism and the nineteenth-century construction of the state. Maybe historians (especially premodernists, I think) can help to de-naturalize the presence of particular institutions or relationships between ideologies and political positions.

ER: I can’t argue with that!

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Dispatches from the Archives JHI

Dispatches from the Republic of Letters: JHI 77.2 Now Available

We’re pleased to note that the April 2016 issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas (Volume 77.2) has been published by the University of Pennsylvania Press. The table of contents is as follows:

“Walter Odington’s De etate mundi and the Pursuit of a Scientific Chronology in Medieval England” by Carl Philipp Emanuel Nothaft

“Land and Nation: The Ancient Modernity of National Geography (Piedmont, 1750–1800)” by Marco Cavarzere

“John Adams’s Montesquieuean Moment: Enlightened Historicism in the Discourses on Davila” by Jonathan Green

“Empiricism and Rationalism in Nineteenth-Century Histories of Philosophy” by Alberto Vanzo

“A Contingent Affinity: Max Weber, Carl Schmitt, and the Challenge of Modern Politics” by Pedro T. Magalhães

“Big Is a Thing of the Past: Climate Change and Methodology in the History of Ideas” by Deborah R. Coen

“Dialogue, Eurocentrism, and Comparative Political Theory: A View from Cross-Cultural Intellectual History” by Takashi Shogimen

Pedro T. Magalhães and Philipp Nothaft have written wonderful previews of their articles for the blog. Keep an eye out for these articles and the others on Project Muse or, better yet, please consider subscribing directly to the JHI. Student subscriptions cost only $32 per year; otherwise, individual subscriptions cost $38 (online only) or $47 (print and online). The blog editors would like to add that every issue of the review is wonderfully balanced between subjects, periods, and areas—something seen in the above table of contents but often missed when downloading individual articles in PDF form!

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Dispatches from the Archives

Dispatches from the Republic of Letters

The Republic of Letters is knit together not only by virtual connections, but also by interactions in the flesh! As March draws to a close and we look ahead to spring and summer, here are a few events, workshops, exhibitions, and programs which the JHIBlog editors look forward to participating in, or wish we could attend.

Are there events around the world that we’ve left out? Please share them in the comments! And if there’s an event you’re attending that you’d like to report on for the blog, we always welcome pitches from guest contributors. You’re welcome to get in touch.

April 1 (New York): Interuniversity Doctoral Consortium Medieval Conference
March 31-April 1 (New York): The Max Weber Conference 2016—Democracy and Expertise
April 1 (New York): The EU Refugee Crisis and the Future of Europe
April 1, (Paris): Journée d’étude—Emine Sevgi Özdamar
April 4 (New York): The Politics of Emergency
April 4 (New York): Judith Surkis, “Sex, Law, and Sovereignty in French Algeria” (workshop)
April 4 (Philadelphia): Alan Niles, ‘Posterity’s Domesticke Examples’: Memorial Culture in the Seventeenth-Century English Family Album (workshop)
April 4 (Cambridge, MA): Scott Mandelbrote, The Newton Project and the Development of a Digital Edition (lecture)
April 6 (New York): Matthew Kirschenbaum, Bookish Media (annual Fales Lecture, NYU)
April 6 (New Haven): Belinda Jack, “What Can We Really Know? The History of the Book versus the History of Reading”
April 7 (Paris): Recherche/Roman. Expériences de l’écriture
April 7 (Philadelphia): Trudy Rubin, The Relevance of Dreyfus in the Age of Isis (lecture)
April 7 (New York): Hannah Barker, “Slavery and Law in a Fourteenth-Century Genoese Colony”
April 7 (New York): Margaret A. Oppenheimer, “The Remarkable Rise of Eliza Jumel: A Story of Marriage and Money in the Early Republic” (lecture)
April 8 (New York): Duncan Kelly, “Michel Foucault as Historian of Political Thought” (workshop)
April 11 (New York): Isabel Gabel, “Causality and Scale: Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenological Natural History” (workshop)
April 11 (Philadelphia): Daniel Balderston, “Borges in Love” (workshop)
April 12 (New York): Prince of Darkness: ​The Untold Story of Jeremiah G. Hamilton, Wall Street’s First Black Millionaire (lecture)
April 13 (Cambridge, MA): Stephen J. Milner, Printing, Parchment, and Protein: The Bioarcheology of Harvard’s Books on Skin (lecture)
April 13 (New York): Brent D. Shaw, Bringing Back The Sheaves: Agrarian Life and Material Culture in Late Antique Africa (lecture)
April 18 (Philadelphia): Roger Chartier, “When Shakespeare Met Cervantes” (workshop)
April 21 (New York): Robert F. Wagner, Jr., Where Are You? A Panel Discussing New York’s Forgotten, Postwar, Three-Term Mayor
April 21 (New York): Katherine D. Harris, The Rise of the Literary Annual, Powerful Femininity, and Beautiful Books (lecture)
April 18 (New York): Anthony Grafton, “Christianity and Philology: Blood Wedding?” (Columbia Program in World Philology Lecture Series)
April 19 (San Marino, CA): Asif Saddiqi, The Dibner Lecture in the History of Science and Technology at the Huntington Library
April 25 (New York): Mayanthi Fernando, “Unsettling the Secular” (workshop)
April 25 (Philadelphia): Michael Suarez, “William Hamilton’s Cabinet and Its Afterlives” (workshop)
April 25 (Cambridge, MA): Peter J. Scharf, “The Sanskrit Manuscripts at Harvard: Genres, Texts, Acquisition, and Access via a New Digital Catalogue” (lecture)
April 26 (New York): Iain Davidson, Iconicity, Conventions of Representation in Prehistoric Art, and the Modern Mind (lecture)
May 1 (Los Angeles): The Dover Quartet, Chamber Music at the Clark Library (performance)
May 2 (New York): Cathy Gere, Orphic Modernism: Some Thoughts on Epiarchaeology and the History of the Human Sciences
May 10 (New York): Priced Out: Stuyvesant Town and the Loss of Middle-Class Neighborhoods (lecture)
May 13 (Cambridge): The State of ‘The State of Nature’ in the History of Political Thought: 2016 Cambridge Graduate Conference in Political Thought and Intellectual History

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Dispatches from the Archives

Dispatches from the Republic of Letters: Morris D. Forkosch Prize

The Journal of the History of Ideas awards the Morris D. Forkosch Prize ($2,000) for the best book in intellectual history each year.

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

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

Publishers: The deadline to submit books published in 2015 is February 1, 2016. Please send three copies of each book you wish to submit for consideration to the JHI office at the address below:

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

For further information, please contact the office at jhi@history.upenn.edu.

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

(And should you not have seen the most recent print issue, do take a peek here.)

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Conferences Dispatches from the Archives

Lincoln Kirstein, Dance, and Intellectual History

by guest contributor Laura Quinton

Last week, New York University’s Center for Ballet and the Arts hosted a panel, “Dance and the Intellectual: Lincoln Kirstein’s Legacy.” The event featured moderator Leon Wieseltier, former literary editor of the New Republic, along with art critic Jed Perl, former New York City Ballet dancer Toni Bentley, and literary scholar and executor of Kirstein’s literary estate, Nicholas Jenkins.

Lincoln Kerstein in 1932. (NY Times)
Lincoln Kirstein in 1932. (NY Times)

Together, the panelists described a twentieth-century American renaissance man. In addition to co-founding New York City Ballet with the eminent choreographer George Balanchine in 1948, Kirstein (1907-1996) was an early champion of and contributor to the Museum of Modern Art. As an undergraduate at Harvard in 1927, he founded The Hound & Horn, a literary publication that included Gertrude Stein and Walker Evans among its contributors. He was a prolific writer, publishing scrupulous scholarship on dance history and art history, as well as a poet. Wieseltier called Kirstein both “otherworldly” and “this-worldly,” pointing out that concepts Kirstein used to elucidate the differences between ballet and modern dance, “aerial” and “terrestrial,” were equally applicable to this enigmatic and towering figure. Moreover, he emphasized that, while Kirstein strove to encapsulate the metaphysical potential of the arts in his heady writings, this intellectual never ceased being a “man of action.”

Discussing Kirstein’s diverse tastes in the visual arts, Perl similarly noted the difficulties of pinning the impresario down. In addition to supporting mainstream modernists, Kirstein enjoyed “nitpicky realism” and defended artists like Paul Cadmus when the art establishment disavowed them. Although Kirstein often “offended canonical taste,” Perl contended that the breadth of his predilections, which ranged from innovative to reactionary, ultimately reveal “what significant taste is.” Jenkins emphasized Kirstein’s paradoxical character by comparing him to literary figures. He argued that Kirstein simultaneously embodied the “adventurous” characters of Balzac, the “oblique” ones of James, and Fitzgerald’s Gatsby: like Gatsby, Kirstein was “self-creating and self-destroying.”

With the exception of Perl, all of the participants had known Kirstein personally. Bentley shared particularly rich memories of the impresario: she recalled Kirstein’s mighty presence at the School of American Ballet and recounted dinners where he would surprise her with his latest book. Jenkins suggested that – given Kirstein’s relatively recent passing – scholars and friends of this intellectual can only now begin to fully comprehend his outstanding historical significance.

While the speakers did an excellent job explaining the breadth of Kirstein’s expertise and the quirky nuances and ambiguities of his personality, I would have liked to hear more specifically about his involvement with the dance world. More could have been said about Kirstein’s relationship with Balanchine, as well as their diverging artistic visions for City Ballet.

For intellectual historians, Kirstein’s example reveals the stimulating role dance can play in intellectual life. Ballet prompted an outpouring of rigorous historical, critical, and even philosophical writing from Kirstein. The vast historiography of dance that he produced in turn legitimized the project to establish ballet as a national high-art form in twentieth-century America. Kirstein’s efforts to institutionalize ballet in the States also helped to ensure its permanence, offering rare financial security to dancers and choreographers. Moreover, as dance historian Jennifer Homans pointed out during the Q&A, Kirstein’s artistic suggestions were crucial to landmark modernist ballets like Agon (1957).

Kirstein was not the only elite twentieth-century intellectual to engage with ballet. Across the pond, the economist John Maynard Keynes championed the form above all of the other arts. In 1946, as chairman of the Arts Council of Great Britain, he personally engineered the re-opening of the Royal Opera House, which featured the Sadler’s Wells Ballet (later the Royal Ballet) in a new production of The Sleeping Beauty (1890). For Keynes, ballet was “above and beyond language” (Hession, 228), and the Royal Opera House gala was “a landmark in the restoration of English cultural life” that represented “the return of England’s capital to its rightful place in a world of peace” (Moggridge, 705).

Ballet also influenced the work of Keynes’s Bloomsbury friends. According to dance scholar Susan Jones, the early-mid twentieth century witnessed a “reciprocal relationship between modernist aesthetics” in dance and British literature (10). Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes inspired new literary content and formal experimentation by Clive Bell, Lytton Strachey, and Virginia Woolf. Beyond Gordon Square, dance motivated Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot to produce works like “Dance Figure” (1913) and Four Quartets (1943).

Frequently sidelined by intellectual historians, dance was evidently a vital part of elite intellectual life in the twentieth century. Rather than eschewing dance, historians would benefit from considering intellectuals’ complex relationships with this art form: along with expanding the scope of intellectual history, such consideration might yield some surprising discoveries.

Indeed, it was fascinating to see how Wieseltier, Perl, and Jenkins, none of whom are known for their work on dance, were so inspired by and engaged with Kirstein and his dance writings. For the audience, the back-and-forth between Bentley and these thinkers presented a compelling example of how dance and intellectual inquiry continue to intersect today.

Laura Quinton is a PhD candidate in Modern European History at New York University. She researches the history of British ballet.

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Conferences Dispatches from the Archives

From and for the Republic of Letters

Herman Moll's A new map of the whole world with the trade winds (1736)
Herman Moll’s A new map of the whole world with the trade winds (1736)

The JHI Blog welcomes pitches for guest posts from across the world and across the republic of letters. Our readers will also know that we’ve happily branched out into reviews of conferences, public lectures, and exhibitions. We would like to extend an invitation to new contributors interested in writing the latter sort of posts as well for both public and (if appropriate) closed events of broader interest to intellectual historians. And here the new academic year has already begun to furnish several interesting events beginning with a conference on interdisciplinarity and pluralism at the University of St. Andrews and open lectures at the London Summer School in Intellectual History. See our calendar feature above or in the sidebar for more happenings in the world of intellectual history, and please don’t hesitate to contact us here with news of others we might have missed or with an offer to review one that looks promising.