Britain capitalism gender In the Archives Think Piece

Incest and the Stock Exchange

By Contributing Writer John Handel

The voluminous records of the London Stock Exchange are filled with complaints. Pages upon pages in minutes books record the day-in and day-out troubles of managing a nineteenth-century financial market. Stockbrokers complained about not receiving stock certificates on time or squabbled about the price at which a deal was agreed upon, while neighbors grumbled about the excessive noise and crowds that flooded the area. The managers who were responsible for overseeing the institution’s operations gave reports on property acquisitions or the conduct of the Stock Exchange’s various waiters and clerks. But on August 30th of 1844 a complaint shockingly removed from the normal rhythms of financial life appeared in front of the Stock Exchange’s managers. As the Railway Mania, the first of the infamous Victorian financial bubbles, consumed the attention of the British populace and sent the workings of the Stock Exchange into a speculative frenzy, for the next two months the attention of the managers would be elsewhere, namely, on an investigation into whether or not one of the Stock Exchange’s waiters had an incestuous relationship with his daughter.


The investigation began with a rumor. An infant had recently “made its appearance” within the apartments of Daniel Maynard, a waiter in the Stock Exchange and one of the servants given rooms on the institution’s premises. The child was “said to be that of Maynard’s daughter,” and the “supposed paternity” of Maynard had been made known by a policeman to a fellow waiter named John South. Another family, purportedly close to the Maynard’s, confirmed this rumor. The Eustaces’ claimed that, “Maynard was in the habit of sleeping with his daughter, locking the door to prevent his wife coming into the room,” and that Maynard was “in the custom of ill treating his wife, who exhibited marks thereof.” After questioning, the Eustaces’ admitted that they themselves had gathered this information from an anonymous “woman who sells fruit,” near the Stock Exchange.

Maynard, his wife, and his daughter, Sarah Ann, were all called before the managers to testify separately. “Mrs. Maynard,” as she is referred to, claimed that her daughter had been married six months ago in Shoreditch to a man named Richard Williams, but she could not produce the marriage certificate. Maynard, called upon after his wife, denied that his daughter had ever married Williams. Maynard asserted that his wife’s statements could not be trusted because she was often “not in her right mind.” And, he emphasized that he had repeatedly “chastised” his daughter for her connection to Williams. Finally, Maynard’s daughter, Sarah Ann, claimed that Williams was the father, but that she had never married him. Instead she claimed that, their “intercourse had been confined to the apartment occupied by her father…carried on after her parents were in bed.” The managers resolved that the only way the case could be settled in Maynard’s favor was if he could produce Williams before the committee. In the interim the Maynard’s were expelled from their rooms in the Stock Exchange and Maynard was suspended from work.

As the weeks of the investigation wore on, Williams was nowhere to be found. Maynard, to avoid possible criminal accusation, needed another strategy for self-preservation. After failing to find Williams, he came before the committee and told them that he planned to force his daughter to “immediately surrender the child to the proper father,” once he could be found, and that in the meantime he had expelled his daughter from the family and remanded her to a workhouse.

These punitive actions on behalf of Maynard towards his daughter came alongside unexpected testimony that eventually vindicated him from charges of incest. R.J. Wells, who was the clerk in charge of superintending the waiters and supplies of the Stock Exchange brought a letter from one of his friends, “an influential inhabitant,” and member of the vestry in Shoreditch, testifying that Sarah Ann had “been made the dupe of a designing fellow named Williams who is the father of the child, and who after seducing her has left her to chance.” Wells also produced the testimony of one “Doctor Read,” who “had spoken in high terms of Maynard himself but did not think the word of his wife was to be taken.” Finally, Wells presented Mr. Quick, the Stock Exchange’s carpenter and one of its longest tenured servants. Quick’s rooms were across the hall from Maynard’s in the Exchange, and he claimed that “he had repeatedly seen not only the daughter but the wife of Maynard romping with men in their apartments.” And, Quick added, he had heard Mrs. Maynard “say such things to him as she could not have uttered had she been in her right mind.”

The evidence marshaled by Wells on behalf of Maynard proved decisive. The managers reprimanded Maynard for “the very disorderly manner in which he had permitted his wife and daughter to conduct themselves,” but otherwise, allowed him to continue his position as a waiter. They also promptly resolved that “a watchman shall be employed during the whole year…in the Stock Exchange,” in a direct response to revelations that Maynard’s wife and daughter had both “romped” with strange men within the premises of the Exchange.

Though the managers felt that they had adequately solved the case, their investigation of incest raised a host of questions to this bewildered financial historian. Most salient: why, in the midst of the most frenzied and notorious speculative bubble in Victorian financial history, did the managers of the London Stock Exchange spend so much time and effort conducting an invasive investigation into the sexual life of one of the institution’s lowliest servants?

I initially thought that this investigation was a one off–an archival unicorn that might make for an interesting footnote (or blog post) but whose analytical stakes would ultimately be inconsequential to the larger history of financial markets in nineteenth-century Britain. But the more I looked, I increasingly found that the disciplining and policing of the family lives of the waiters and clerks of the London Stock Exchange was the rule, not the exception. In fact, it was precisely because they were the poorest and most lowly of the people who were employed in the everyday functioning of the Stock Exchange that their intimate lives took on such importance.

Take the case of another of the Stock Exchange’s waiters, William Whitfield. Whitfield began his tenure at the Stock Exchange as the watchman appointed in the wake of the investigation into Maynard but was quickly promoted to the position of waiter and, like Maynard, given rooms on the premises. Whitfield had proven himself a highly capable waiter and was put in charge of the critical duty of picking up and delivering the Stock Exchange’s letters every morning and evening, a duty which the managers felt him “so peculiarly adapted to,” that he began receiving a yearly bonus of five guineas for its discharge. In February of 1857, however, Whitfield was brought in front of the managers to answer questions about the fact that he had recently appeared in the post-office with a black eye. Whitfield admitted that “his wife had done it,” and that “he had been married only a month or six weeks and found her most violent.” The managers sternly reprimanded Whitfield, informing him that, they “could not allow one of their waiters to be going to the post office several times a day in the state in which he was.”

What, then, are the human costs to telling a financial history that looks only at capital movement? No waiters or clerks (and certainly no women) appear at all in the standard history of the London Stock Exchange. The cases of Maynard and Whitfield point to two related characteristics of the history of the largely unseen and ignored social history of labor that underpinned nineteenth-century financial markets. The first is that, throughout the nineteenth-century, the London Stock Exchange was heavily reliant on various forms of women’s work. When it came to hiring what they called “resident officials” who lived on the premises–like waiters, watchman, and storekeepers–, the Stock Exchange intentionally hired married men under the age of 45 with the assumption that their wives and daughters would contribute to other duties, like the cleaning of the Stock Exchange every night, preparing lunch for the managers, or keeping track of stock brokers’ cloaks and umbrellas during business hours. Women were, in fact, everywhere in nineteenth-century financial markets if you know where to look.

If the labor of women was an integral part of the day-to-day operations of an institution like the Stock Exchange, so too was the ability to discipline them. The power to discipline the intimate aspects of servants’ lives took on special importance because women seemed to introduce disorder into the social and operational hierarchies of financial markets, whether it was through their oft-alleged mental-illness, their sexual promiscuity, or their capacity for violence. These behaviors were particularly threatening to the lower-class servants who were perceived to be more susceptible to moral corruption and who had public-facing work to do, like Maynard and Whitfield. As Katie Hindmarch-Watson has argued in relation to Victorian telegraph boys, their “duty (was) to cross boundaries and be party to secrets, to deliver confidences and desires of their wealthy customers,” which “made them strangely transgressive symbols of modern order.” The lowly waiters of the Stock Exchange were in much the same position. Whether it was Whitfield delivering letters, or Maynard calling out the names of stock brokers on the Exchange’s trading floor, the servants of the Stock Exchange had to perform respectability and mediate between upper class men and institutions. Thus, regulating the potentially disorderly and unrespectable aspects of these servant’s family and sexual lives was of critical importance to the Stock Exchange’s ability to maintain its own public reputation and respectability.

Through the policing of women and intimacy, power reproduced itself in financial markets. This was not power in a strictly economic sense, but in a much broader cultural one. Since women seemed to pose a threat to the most vulnerable of the Stock Exchange’s servants (who were also critical communicative links with the outside world) the disciplinary remit of the upper-class managers grew in response. The managers’ business expanded from the mere maintenance of the Stock Exchange’s property and conduct among brokers, into the regulation of the most intimate aspects of their servants’ lives. Power over the intimate lives of servants also allowed the managers to regulate labor and space within the Stock Exchange more broadly. The punishment of Maynard’s wife and daughter was used not only to justify Maynard’s innocence, but also allowed the managers to hire more watchmen for the Stock Exchange to police its boundaries even more strictly than they had been policed before. Creating a well-ordered and highly regulated stock exchange rested directly on disciplining the women whose labor at the same time helped operate it.

John Handel is a Ph.D Candidate at UC Berkeley. You can read and listen to his commentaries on theory and historical training and the historical of quantification.

Critical theory In the Archives Podcast Theory

Disha Karnad Jani interviews Ethan Kleinberg, Joan Wallach Scott, and Gary Wilder about #Theoryrevolt

Contributing Editor Disha Karnad Jani interviews Ethan Kleinberg, Joan Wallach Scott, and Gary Wilder, the authors of Theses on Theory and History.

Please click for the full conversation.

Book reviews Critical theory In the Archives JHI Podcast Theory

“To Intervene yet again”: Theory Revolt, Live!

By contributing writer Jonathon Catlin

In May historians Ethan Kleinberg, Joan Wallach Scott, and Gary Wilder, together known as the Wild On Collective, released “Theses on Theory and History,” a widely-discussed manifesto on historical methodology. On October 8, this “cabal of rebels” made their first public appearance at the New School for Social Research, introduced by historian Oz Frankel. (Ethan Kleinberg could not attend.) A recording of the event is available below.

The “Theses on Theory and History,”  emerged, Scott reflected, out of the authors’ shared “impatience with the persistent refusal of disciplinary history to engage with long-standing critiques of its practice: critiques of its realist epistemology and empiricist methodology, its archival fetishism, its insistence on the primacy of chronological narrative, and its maintenance of reified boundaries between present and past. How had it happened, we wondered, that the critiques which had nourished our own thinking had somehow failed to transform disciplinary norms in significant ways? Why the recurrent need for critique generation after generation?”

Scott began by addressing the most obvious criticism of the manifesto: “Didn’t you do this already in the 1980s? Haven’t you fought that battle?” “Yes,” Scott answers, “we did fight that battle, but somehow we failed to transform the disciplinary norms in significant ways. What we’re witnessing is a reaction against exactly the kinds of theoretical incursions, rethinking, the epistemological transformations, that we’d hoped to be putting in place, securing. We don’t believe in linear, progressive history, but I think we hoped that somehow those battles would have established a stronghold forever. I’m constantly amazed at the extent to which I think in terms of progress, even as I am a critic of [progress] narratives.”

Of course, she notes, critiques of history and historicism were not invented in the 1980s: Theory Revolt’s roots go back to the 19th century, to Nietzsche, Simmel, and Croce; to the interwar period, to Heidegger, Bloch, Du Bois, and C.L.R. James. “It’s not as if the discipline has not had its critics time and time again,” Scott reflects, “and yet that critique never came to hold.” Hence, she explained, “What we wanted to do was figure out how we could again address the questions, the ways in which theory has become ghettoized in the domain of intellectual history, how documentary and synoptic accounts were replacing the kinds of epistemological transformations the three of us had all undergone somewhere along the way in our formation.”

The manifesto emerged as the right genre for this intervention. Kleinberg in particular was keen on nailing copies of the theses to the door of every history department in the country in the fashion of Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses. These Theses themselves are clearly inspired, Scott said, by manifestos from Marx, Benjamin, and Horkheimer and Adorno. Making the theses open access—at Kleinberg’s insistence—resulted in a swift and eager reception around the world, including translation into many languages. “We hit a nerve that people in many parts of the world responded to.”

Scott spoke highly of a forum of critical responses to the Theses the authors commissioned at History of the Present, where she is an editor. Andrew Zimmerman, notably, “reminds us of the need to decolonize theory” to include figures like Fanon and his encounters with Africa, and Foucault’s unacknowledged debts to the Black Panther Party in his work on prisons; in Scott’s words, “theory is bigger than the suggestions we make about what theory could be.”

“Let’s break some windows” was the attitude that brought Wilder to Theory Revolt. He critiqued the “insidious ways” that “superficial but shallow and domesticated embrace of theory” has preempted real theoretical engagement. Their target, he said, is not historians of old who think theory is “nonsense,” but rather those who say, “we already do that!” and “we read your book twenty years ago and it’s on the syllabus!” Scott added to the chorus, “it’s in my footnotes!” Theory Revolt opposes this “domestication of theory by history” and also “the ghettoization of theory in intellectual history.” The issue is not that nobody out there is doing critical history; it’s that the structures of the discipline—journals, hiring, tenure—still make doing it difficult.

The aim of the Theses, Wilder said, “is not a call for historians to write about theorists or somehow apply theory to their work.” It’s not a call to “do theory,” whatever that might mean, but rather to practice “self-reflexive critical history.” For Wilder this means “conceptualizing our material: treating as real those processes, relations, structures, that might not be… objectively verifiable. It means asking questions whose answers can never be definitively found in an archival box. It’s not a call to not do archival history; but it’s calling out this idea that any question worth answering could be answered by a document in a box somewhere.” This amounts to a plea against “conventional history,” conceived, in Dominick LaCapra’s classic formulation, as “the translation of archives into narratives.” As he glossed the manifesto, this entails “being self-reflexive about the histories, limitations, and risks of one’s own categories and frameworks. It means taking responsibility for one’s own implication in the object of study—psychic, social, political, ethical. It means the need to address ways in which the past is implicated in the present, and vice versa. And critical history means being clear about the political stakes of the work, addressing the relevance for our political present. It doesn’t necessarily mean that every work of history has to be instrumental in some immediate way, but it means that if that question isn’t being asked then we’re in scholasticism or antiquarianism and we’re not speaking to the world.” A central aim of theory is to help the historian become conscious of, if not ever fully overcome, the liberal assumptions about self and agency they bring into the archive to begin with.

“The whole point,” he said, “is to challenge the reified distinction between history and theory. If you do history, it’s got to be theorized critical history; if you’re a critical theorist, you have to be doing history, because otherwise you’re also reproducing an ideological conception of the world if you’re not relating your concepts to social arrangements and social formations.” He readily admitted that there will always be traditional empirical historians, but its more modest intervention of Theory Revolt would be to say “not that every historian should be this kind of critical theorist, but at the very least, the field has to stop pronouncing on what is and is not history.” His preoccupation in his own work, he concluded, is “to break the fantasy that professional historians somehow have a monopoly on how to think about the past.” “Just as we should never concede politics to the politicians, or ethics to the ethicists, or even philosophy to professional philosophers, there’s absolutely no reason that professional historians should own history.” As Foucault once flippantly declared, “I’m not a professional historian—but nobody’s perfect.”

New School historian Jeremy Varon, a student of Dominick LaCapra, asked why the authors bothered to try “to rattle the cages of hegemonic discourse” within the discipline instead of creating to their own critical spaces, which as Scott agreed, the authors already do.

The most most interesting exchange was between the speakers and Ann Stoler, a historian and anthropologist who is also a leading postcolonial interpreter of Foucault. Stoler argued that using the word “theory” in the title of the manifesto and movement creates a black box around what the revolters are really advocating. Instead, she argued, they were ultimately after “a politics of knowledge” and reclaiming history as a political space. History, she said, must be answerable to the classic question of David Scott, “Are these questions worth having answers to?” “I don’t think we need the word theory any more,” she said, claiming what is meant by the word theory itself “isn’t even problematized half the time.” “Theory with a capital T,” Stoler said, has become “a black box.” “We are doing a disfavor to our graduate students by constantly talking about theory and history, theory and practice. It paralyzes them.”

In place of Theory, Stoler proposed “concept work” and “conceptual labor.” Changing this language, Oz Frankel suggested, would also help the authors get away from the same old “usual suspects” of Marxism, deconstruction, etc.—of giving the impression “that theory is history’s other” and that “we always have to cross some boundary” to reach it. Wilder thought it was interesting that they were read as “reifying theory” with its own “guild mentality” when he in particular has little patience for poststructuralism and is much more of a “live” ethnographic theorist in a Marxist framework—akin to what Stoler does with Foucault. As Wilder defined it, “Theory is a practice of triangulating your material, your concepts or categories, and the world” and, conversely, “every descriptive act already prefigures an whole theory of society.” Their opposition to “empiricism” is not a critique of doing archival work, but rather an attempt to dethrone the particular historical ideology “that the observable is the real.”

A pass through the Revolters’ academic trajectories reveals that none has ever been totally at home in the historical discipline: Wilder is equally a historian and an anthropologist; Kleinberg is just as often in conversation with philosophers as historians; and Scott was employed at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton in the School of Social Science, not the more conservative School of Historical Studies where she said has “never been welcome.”

As the discussion neared a close, Scott made a surprising admission that doesn’t come through in the boldly written manifesto: In the 1980s, she said, the feminist movement of which she was a part rejected the idea that the discipline should simply “add women and stir”—achieving sociological diversity without rethinking its work. Rather, their “great goal was to transform history.” Yet “that didn’t happen, for the most part; it was adding women.” “The dream of the 1980s that history was never going to be the same” ended in institutional resistance.

Perhaps addressing the critique of their own institutional power levied by John Handel on the JHI blog earlier that day, Wilder reflected that they wanted to use their platform to clear the ground for young graduate students to do more creative, exciting work. To have “to intervene yet again,” to use Scott’s words, might seem an exhausting task. But the energy Theory Revolt has injected into the discipline might just serve to nourish the next generation of critical historians.

Jonathon Catlin is a Ph.D. student in the Department of History at Princeton University. His work focuses on intellectual responses to catastrophe, especially in German-Jewish thought and the Frankfurt School of critical theory.

Listen to the full event here.

gender In the Archives Intellectual history Think Piece

The Suffrage Postcard Project: A Replica Archive

by guest contributor Ana Stevenson

At the 2017 Australian Historical Association Conference, in a panel about digital history, Professor Victoria Haskins discussed what she described as a “replica archive.”  Haskins’ research is concerned with Indigenous domestic servants in Australia and the United States – women whose lives, she rightly notes, are often difficult to uncover in the archives.  Technology, however, has fundamentally changed the relationship historians have with archives.  Following the hours and hours of archival research undertaken across her long and distinguished career, Haskins has amassed copious photographs and photocopies which feature the voices of these women.  Bringing together these photographic fragments from many archives, Haskins suggests, creates a new archive – a replica archive.


The Suffrage Postcard Project can likewise be seen as a replica archive.  Women’s suffrage postcards, though considered ephemeral at their time of production, were numerous.  Postcard scholar Kenneth Florey suggests that more than 1000 suffrage-related postcards were printed in the United States during the 1910s and approximately 2000 in Britain.[1]  Suffrage memorabilia more generally was received enthusiastically by the American and British public, especially in the years prior to World War I.[2]

The majority of the women’s suffrage postcards were printed during the 1910s, a decade which would see the acquisition of qualified suffrage for British women in 1918 and the passing of the Nineteenth Amendment in the United States by 1920.  This era is broadly described by scholars as the “golden age” of picture postcards.[3]



 Image courtesy of the Catherine H. Palczewski Postcard Archive, University of Northern Iowa, Cedar Falls, IA. 

Women’s suffrage postcards were so numerous, in fact, that even today such ephemera is not inscrutably hidden in the archives.  Many archival collections, especially those which focus upon women’s history, hold large collections of suffrage postcards – for example, at Harvard University’s Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America and the Women’s Library at the London School of Economics.  Such collections feature both pro-suffrage and anti-suffrage postcards, which were predominantly produced during the first two decades of the twentieth century.  Suffrage organizations and commercial publishers alike produced women’s suffrage postcards.

But the partial nature of such collections, together with the geographical dispersion of the archives themselves, means scholars can only ever gain a fragmentary perspective.  Though archives such as these are partially digitized, they are often largely inaccessible to the public.  Aware of such limitations, Florey published his seminal work, American Woman Suffrage Postcards: A Study and Catalog (2015).  Bringing together digitally as many women’s suffrage postcards as possible, The Suffrage Postcard Project goes a step further.

The Suffrage Postcard Project is therefore an attempt to bring together as many women’s suffrage postcards as possible, and thus create a replica archive.  It features postcards from the personal collections of Catherine H. Palczewski, Joan Iverson, Ann Lewis, and Kenneth Florey, as well as postcards from various special collections in the United States.  This replica archive centers upon women’s suffrage postcards in a way that fragmented collections cannot and is also easily accessible to the public.



 Image courtesy of the Catherine H. Palczewski Postcard Archive, University of Northern Iowa, Cedar Falls, IA.

The postcards are now available as an ever-expanding digital corpus.  The field of digital humanities has presented other pertinent questions for conceptualizing such a digital corpus, specifically in relation to the nature and meaning of “the archive.”  Historians, literary and feminist scholars, and library and archive professionals have very different understandings of what constitutes an archive.  “In a digital environment,” Kenneth M. Price concludes, “archive has gradually come to mean a purposeful collection of surrogates.”[4]  Kate Theimer further argues that it is important for digital humanists to understand the differing ways in which archivists understand what constitutes “archive” and how collections are created.[5]  Haskins’s concept of the replica archive might help reconcile these disciplinary, methodological, and conceptual differences, as it forces practitioners’ cognizance of the created and curated nature of the digital archive.

This format enables scholars to apply new research methods.  Tagging the themes which appear in women’s suffrage postcards necessitates finding language to describe visual themes.  Jacqueline Wernimont and Julia Flanders discuss the process whereby they encode literary texts for the Women Writers Project.  This process, they argue, entails “many of the same difficulties encountered when reading it.”  Indeed, issues relating to “categorisation, explication, and description [are] central to digital text markup, forcing the digital scholar to grapple consciously with formal issues that might otherwise remain latent.”[6]

So how do we identify the visual themes in the postcards?  The process is called “tagging,” wherein specific words are used to identify repetitive themes.  Our preliminary response was to consider how to apply thematic tags such as “public” versus “private,” “domestic space,” “wife” or “woman” versus “mother,” “husband” or “man” versus “father,” and the subtle but nonetheless significant semantic differences associated with each individual choice.  Even the application of seemingly clear-cut concepts such as “pro-suffrage” and “anti-suffrage” could sometimes be nebulous.  As my co-founder Kristin Allukian and I worked together and alongside our research assistants, our discussions led us to expand upon how we initially conceptualized our approach to tagging the visual themes.

Such digital methods, then, enable scholars to ask unprecedented research questions about the early-twentieth-century women’s suffrage movement and its many detractors.  This also provokes new questions, as well as the reconsideration of old assumptions.

For example, observable trends become incontrovertible when analyzed using digital methods.  A scholar might discern that upper-middle-class adult white women are the primary subjects of suffrage cartoons.  However, when this impression is considered across hundreds of postcards, other trends emerge: children and animals are ubiquitous; men often appear as the subject of debate; white working-class people are depicted somewhat regularly; racial stereotypes about Irish and Chinese immigrants are evident, although rare; and African Americans are conspicuous due to their absence.  Scholars were not formerly unaware of such trends, but a digital humanities approach provides stronger evidence for such thematic claims.



 Image courtesy of the Catherine H. Palczewski Postcard Archive, University of Northern Iowa, Cedar Falls, IA.

Such research will contribute to the fields of women’s history and feminist visual culture, but also has significance for the interpretation of images in intellectual history.  My fellows and I are using digital humanities methods to gain new insights into questions of print pigmentation, gender, race, class, and parenthood as represented in women’s suffrage postcards.

The Suffrage Postcard Project also presents undergraduates with opportunities for intellectual development.  Since 2015, undergraduate and masters research assistants from the Georgia Institute of Technology and the University of South Florida have supported the digitization of the postcards.  In addition to acquiring valuable digital humanities and public history skills, these students have based research projects around the women’s suffrage postcards.

At the University of South Florida’s 2017 Undergraduate Research and Arts Colloquium, the 2016-2017 research assistants undertook an interview with The Intersection podcast.

The Suffrage Postcard Project is always looking out for new additions to our digital corpus, contributions which can enrich our replica archive.  Should any interested reader have women’s suffrage postcards from a personal or institutional collection they might like to share, please do not hesitate to get in touch. Our twitter handle is @Suff_Postcards .

Ana Stevenson is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the International Studies Group at the University of the Free State, South Africa.  Her research centers upon the development of feminist in transnational social movements in the United States, Australia, and South Africa.  Follow her on Twitter @DrAnaStevenson.

[1] Kenneth Florey, American Woman Suffrage Postcards: A Study and Catalog (Jefferson: McFarland & Company, 2015).

[2] Kenneth Florey, Women’s Suffrage Memorabilia: An Illustrated Historical Study (Jefferson: McFarland & Company, 2013).

[3] Catherine H. Palczewski, “The Male Madonna and the Feminine Uncle Sam: Visual Argument, Icons, and Ideographs in 1909 Anti-Woman Suffrage Postcards,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 91, no. 4 (2005): 365; Florey, American Woman Suffrage Postcards, 4.

[4] Kenneth M. Price, “Edition, Project, Database, Archive, Thematic Research Collection: What’s in a Name?” Digital Humanities Quarterly 3, no. 3 (2009).

[5] Kate Theimer, “Archives in Context and as Context,” Journal of Digital Humanities 1, no. 2 (2012).

[6] Jacqueline Wernimont and Julia Flanders, “Feminism in the Age of Digital Archives: The Women Writers Project,” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature 29, no. 2 (2010): 432 and 427-428.

Brazil Critical theory In the Archives Latin America Think Piece

The Archive is Burning: Walter Benjamin in Brazil

By guest contributor Niklas Plaetzer 

Walter Benjamin

Walter Benjamin never left Europe, yet his writings have had a remarkable impact on critical thought around the globe. As Edward Said suggested, the dislocation of an idea in time and space can never leave its content unaffected. “Having moved from one place and time to another, an idea or a theory gains or loses in strength,” so that its “travels” render a theory “altogether different for another period or situation” (226). The plasticity of ideas, their capacity to be torn out of context and made to speak in ever-new constellations, lies at the heart of Walter Benjamin’s own work. Benjamin’s thought never took the form of systematic exposition, but rather unfolded in essays, journal articles, sketches, and thought fragments. This was not just a stylistic choice; in fact, it corresponded closely to his view of a radical break in the linear time of progress—to a splintered temporality, shot through by the unmasterable memories of the oppressed.


Niklas #2
Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus, iconically envisioned by Benjamin as “the angel of history”

Benjamin’s syncretic fusion of Marxism, Jewish mysticism, and the German Romantics continues to cast its spell on contemporary readers. Perhaps it is precisely this fragmented character, combined with the palpable urgency of his writings, that can account for the globalized interest in his work. But more importantly still, Benjamin’s relentless emphasis on dialectical reversal—on another kind of history, told from the “point of view of the defeated”—continues to resonate with post- and decolonial projects and a “reading against the grain” of history. Paul Gilroy, in his The Black Atlantic, explicitly drew on Benjamin to write a “primal history of modernity to be reconstructed from the slaves’ point of view” (55). Decolonial scholars continue to find inspiration in Benjamin’s scathing critique of modernity as well as his call to cling to a “humanity-in-the-making” amidst an unending catastrophe. In 2015, the international conference “Benjamin in Palestine: Who Owns Walter Benjamin? On the Place and Non-Place of Radical Thought” was held in Ramallah. It opened new paths for such an engagement with Benjamin from within states of exception, “among layers of rubble and generations of resistance,” escaping the confines of academic canonization (60–64).


Slipping under the radar of Euro-American academia, Benjamin has exerted a particular influence on Brazilian critical theory. In an admirable study on his reception history in Brazil, Gunter Karl Pressler of the Federal University of Pará, Belém, has traced this unusually fruitful interplay of traditions: between North and South as well as between thought and revolutionary practice. What accounts for the elective affinity between Brazilian critical theory and Benjamin’s work? Pressler ties it back to the 1960s, when experimental poet and translator Haroldo de Campos, one of the co-founders of the Concrete Poetry movement in Brazil, took inspiration from Benjamin to theorize translation as “transcreation” [transcriação], as a practice of “parricide dis-memory” [desmemória parricida] (p. 149-153). Haroldo de Campos and his brother Augusto thereby took a decisively “anti-Eurocentric, anti-ethnocentric, deconstructive strategy, beginning with the idea of cannibalism, understood as the appropriation of the vital energy of the Other, beginning with his destruction” (9). In doing so, they read Benjamin alongside a classic of Brazilian modernism, Oswald de Andrade’s Manifesto Antropófago (1928), in which cannibalism is reconfigured as a positive model of cultural appropriation by the oppressed: eating up the potency of the colonizing North, destroying its claim to control, and producing new, unauthorized constellations in the process. Authors like José Guilherme Merquior and Flávio R. Kothe further helped disseminate Benjamin and the Frankfurt School at a time when the Brazilian military dictatorship had taken over and the student movement organized its resistance against heavy repression.

For the Brazilian left, Benjamin’s peculiar Marxism seemed like a way to both articulate critical thought in solidarity with on-going movements, and still open up a gap within Marxist discourse, creating spaces beyond authoritarian orthodoxy. A turn to Benjamin also broke up space for counter-histories of Brazil itself, resonating with the memory of indigenous genocide and slavery. His phrase that “there is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism” has rung true in a society dominated by rural latifundistas (plantation owners) and a state ideology of “Ordem e Progresso” (Order and Progress). It also spoke to theorists who tried to position themselves between an elitist attachment to European intellectual production on the one hand, and the rising visibility of black, indigenous, and landless workers’ movements on the other. As Pressler argues, Benjamin thereby became part of 1970s Brazilian counter-culture, somewhere between Marx and Caetano Veloso.

Two key figures in this creative reception stand out: Leandro Konder (1936-2014) and Michael Löwy (born in 1938). As Löwy puts it,

there is a necessity to look at the past in Brazil—even recent past—from the point of view of the oppressed [derrotados], the poor, Blacks, women, workers, revolutionaries. In Benjamin, this sensibility finds a coherent philosophical expression. I believe that this has helped to develop a current of people in the social sciences, in the historiography of political thought, who are very interested in Benjamin. (200)

What unites Konder and Löwy is their appreciation for the deep melancholia of Benjamin’s thought, which they regard as the truly revolutionary attitude, at odds with a bourgeois belief in progress. For Benjamin as for his Brazilian readers, social critique must begin with a critique of the very idea of progress, including its leftist varities, and fuel a lucid melancholia from which there is no escape. Yet such Benjaminian melancholia has “nothing to do with fatalistic resignation and even less with the conservative, reactionary, prefascist German Kulturpessimismus,” Löwy emphasizes (9). “This is not a contemplative sentiment, but an active, ‘organized,’ practical pessimism, directed entirely at preventing the onset of disaster by all possible means” (9). For Leandro Konder, Benjaminian melancholia, “brought into tune with the calls for ‘revenge’ among the traditionally exploited social classes and stimulated by their movements of contestation,” should thus be understood as “melancolérico:” a melancholic kind of anger, organized and fueled by memory.

Löwy’s seminal book on Benjamin, Fire Alarm, was originally published in French, in his Parisian exile, where he has lived and worked since 1969. Born in São Paulo as the son of Jewish immigrants from Vienna, Löwy has not ceased to push Benjamin’s insights to new conclusions—such as ecosocialism—without ever abandoning a practical commitment to the radical left. Unlike many critical theorists, he also remains acutely aware of non-Eurocentric imaginaries at work in social struggles. He has written about the quilombo dos Palmares, the revolution of maroon slaves (fugitives) in the Brazilian North-East, who, until their defeat in 1695, resisted the onslaught of Dutch and Portuguese armies under the leadership of Zumbi dos Palmares. While the Haitian Revolution is today receiving increasing historiographical attention, the quilombo dos Palmares still remains a largely ignored event. Against such enforced forgetfulness, Löwy’s writings place it in an unusual conversation with the history of the 1871 Paris Commune and the struggles of international workers. But what might seem like an arbitrary juxtaposition is better grasped as a Benjaminian constellation of memories in resistance. They not only animate Löwy’s thinking, but continue to fuel the practices of Brazil’s opposition: for instance, when black movements, hip hop artists, or occupations of landless workers draw on the memory of Palmares, invoking the legendary name of Zumbi, as they fight for land reform and against institutional racism. As Benjamin’s Thesis VI puts it, “articulating the past historically does not mean recognizing it ‘the way it really was.’ It means appropriating a memory as it flashes up in a moment of danger.”

Niklas #1
“Limpo Seu Historico” (“I clean your record”): street art in Cachoeira in the northeastern state of Bahia. Photo credit: Niklas Plaetzer, August 2017.

In June 2017, in the wake of the (arguably unconstitutional) impeachment of President Dilma Roussef, Brazilian Congress passed a bill that allows for the large-scale burning of historical documents from national archives after their digitization as part austerity plans. Already accepted by both chambers, the “Lei da Queima de Arquivo” (Law of the Archive Burning) is awaiting a final consultation process before going into effect. This controversial reform must be understood against the backdrop of what many consider to be a coup d’état by President Michel Temer. Yet the current political situation can hardly be considered an anomaly. As Benjamin put it, in his often quoted phrase, “the tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule.”

With the “Lei da Queima de Arquivo,” Löwy’s Fire Alarm has taken up another scandalous reality. Its painful resonance speaks to the ways in which a postcolonial reading of Benjamin cannot be a calm, scholarly addition to a renewed and reconciled canon. The planned burning of the Brazilian national archives remains inscribed in a long history of erasure, of which Palmares is one powerful symbol and of which Brazil’s social movements continue to carry the traces. But reading Benjamin while the archive is burning also speaks to struggles in the present that remain undecided—in Brazil and elsewhere.

Niklas Plaetzer is an incoming doctoral student at the University of Chicago’s Department of Political Science, specializing in political theory. He holds a masters degree from Sciences Po Paris, where he worked on Hannah Arendt’s critique of sovereignty in light of radical democratic thought. At the University of Chicago, he is hoping to do research at the juncture of critical theory, constitutional law, and the politics of social movements, with a particular interest in Brazil. His work has previously appeared in the Journal of International Affairs, the Columbia Journal of Literary Criticism, 3:am magazine, and the Review of Politics (forthcoming).

In the Archives Intellectual history

Mystery Attracts Mystery: The Forgotten Partnership of H. P. Lovecraft and Harry Houdini

By Editor Spencer J. Weinreich

Pulp is one of the great unheralded archives of American cultural history. Ephemeral by its very nature, the pulp magazine or paperback brought millions of readers the derring-do of detectives and superheroes, the misadventures of doomed lovers, and the horrors of gruesome monsters. They were the birthplaces of Tarzan and Zorro, and published the work of such luminaries as Agatha Christie, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Mark Twain, and Tennessee Williams.

The cover of the May-June-July 1924 issue of Weird Tales

In 1924, readers of the fantasy and horror pulp Weird Tales found a more familiar figure alongside the usual crowd of ghouls, corpses, and scantily clad women. The cover story of the May–June–July issue was “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs,” by none other than Harry Houdini. The magician tells of his voyage to Egypt, where he is captured by nefarious locals and imprisoned beneath a pyramid, to be sacrificed to horrid monsters of untold age. With his trademark skills, Houdini frees himself and reaches the surface, insisting—despite his injuries—that it was nothing more than a dream.
Fans of horror fiction know this bizarre story under a different name and authorship: H. P. Lovecraft’s “Under the Pyramids.” Each in their own way icons of early twentieth-century America, Lovecraft and Houdini led strikingly different lives. The magician was an international celebrity, drawing rapturous crowds wherever he went. He performed for the Russian royal family. He amassed a personal fortune sufficient to purchase, among other things, a dress once worn by Queen Victoria (a gift for his mother) and a 1907 Voisin biplane (complete with mechanic). His funeral was attended by two thousand members of the public. By contrast, Lovecraft’s biographer S. T. Joshi holds that the writer “as he lay dying […] was envisioning the ultimate oblivion that would overtake his work.” All but one of his stories were unpublished or moldering away in back issues of pulp magazines. It was only posthumously that his writings found their audience, eventually attaining the cult status they enjoy today.


H. P. Lovecraft in 1934 (photograph by Lucius B. Truesdell)

The original idea for “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs” came from Houdini, whom the proprietor of Weird Tales, J. C. Henneberger, had retained as a columnist to boost flagging sales. Henneberger and Edwin Baird, the magazine’s editor, tapped Lovecraft to ghostwrite what Houdini was claiming to be a true story. “Lovecraft quickly discovered that the account was entirely fictitious, so he persuaded Henneberger to let him have as much imaginative leeway as he could in writing up the story” (Joshi, A Dreamer and a Visionary, 191).

“Imprisoned with the Pharaohs” was by no means Houdini’s only fictional exploit. As early as 1906, he had been making films of his tricks, and between 1918 and 1923 starred in and/or produced several silent movies. Though these films do not present themselves as Houdini’s own experiences, there was little attempt to hide the fact that the magician was their raison d’être and main selling-point. Their protagonists—given telling names like Harvey Hanford or Harry Harper—spend most of their time onscreen being straitjacketed, chained, thrown into rivers, suspended from airplanes or cliffs, or otherwise discomfited so as to give audience the greatest possible opportunity to see Houdini do what he did best.


Houdini Showing How To Escape Handcuffs
Harry Houdini in 1918

Lovecraft understood that readers wanted Houdini the escape artist, and he obliged. During a nocturnal visit to the Pyramids, “Houdini” is attacked, bound, and into the deep recesses of an underground temple. Our hero is undaunted.

The first step was to get free of my bonds, gag, and blindfold; and this I knew would be no great task, since subtler experts than these Arabs had tried every known species of fetter upon me during my long and varied career as an exponent of escape, yet had never succeeded in defeating my methods.

At the same time, the story bears all the hallmarks of Lovecraftian “cosmic horror”: ghastly and ancient things lurking beneath ordinary life, grotesque monsters compounded from all manner of anatomies and mythologies, the inability of the human mind to comprehend the awful truth, and his unique—to put it kindly—prose style.

It was the ecstasy of nightmare and the summation of the fiendish. The suddenness of it was apocalyptic and daemoniac—one moment I was plunging agonisingly down that narrow well of million-toothed torture, yet the next moment I was soaring on bat-wings in the gulfs of hell; swinging free and swoopingly through illimitable miles of boundless, musty space; rising dizzily to measureless pinnacles of chilling ether, then diving gaspingly to sucking nadirs of ravenous, nauseous lower vacua. . . . Thank God for the mercy that shut out in oblivion those clawing Furies of consciousness which half unhinged my faculties, and tore Harpy-like at my spirit! That one respite, short as it was, gave me the strength and sanity to endure those still greater sublimations of cosmic panic that lurked and gibbered on the road ahead.

Lovecraft’s reputation is rightly tarnished by his racism. Though “Under the Pyramids” is by no means the worst offender within his corpus, Egypt offered ample scope for his prejudices: “the crowding, yelling, and offensive Bedouins,” “squalid Arab settlement,” “filthy Bedouins.” The orientalist mode is out in force, as “Houdini” and his wife arrive in Cairo only to be disappointed that “amidst the perfect service of its restaurant, elevators, and generally Anglo-American luxuries the mysterious East and immemorial past seemed very far away.” Once they journey deeper into the city, they find what they are looking for—“in the winding ways and exotic skyline of Cairo, the Bagdad of Haroun-al-Raschid seemed to live again.” Lovecraft summons every trope of the orientalized Middle East: bazaars and camels, secret tombs and perfidious natives, the call of the muezzin and the scent of spice and incense. Egypt, “Houdini” is told by one of his captors, “is very old; and full of inner mysteries and antique powers.”

Statue of Khafra, Egyptian Museum, Cairo (photograph by Juan R. Lazaro)

Within these fantasies, however, are a few kernels of genuine Egyptiana. The figureheads of “Houdini’s” Egypt, for instance, are the undead “King Khephren and his ghoul-queen Nitokris,” who reign over a legion of unnatural things. Denuded of Lovecraft’s nightmarish trappings, both are historical personages with unsavory reputations. “Khephren,” usually known as Khafra, was the builder of the second-largest pyramid at Giza and (probably) the Great Sphinx, but Herodotus and other ancient historians remember him as a cruel and heretical ruler who closed Egypt’s temples and plunged the land into misery (II.127–28). Nitocris is the subject of Egyptological debate: some scholars accept ancient accounts naming her as a pharaoh of the late Sixth Dynasty (2345–2181 B.C.E.), others deny her very existence. Describing his unease near even the smallest pyramid, “Houdini” explains, “was it not in this that they had buried Queen Nitokris alive in the Sixth Dynasty; subtle Queen Nitokris, who once invited all her enemies to a feast in a temple below the Nile, and drowned them by opening the water-gates?” An anecdote worthy of the horror writer, to be sure, but not his invention. Herodotus relates how Nitocris avenged herself on her brother’s killers:

She built a spacious underground chamber; then […] she gave a great feast, inviting to it those Egyptians whom she knew to have been most concerned in her brother’s murder; and while they feasted she let the river in upon them by a great and secret channel. This was all that the priests told of her, save that also when she had done this she cast herself into a chamber full of hot ashes, thereby to escape vengeance. (II.100, trans. A. D. Godley)

The association of Nitocris with the Pyramid of Menkaure, third and smallest of the Pyramids of Giza, comes from the priest-historian Manetho (early third century B.C.E.). He calls Nitocris “the noblest and loveliest of the women of her time, of fair complexion, the builder of the third pyramid” (The History of Egypt, 55).

Though Houdini is (justifiably) remembered more fondly than Lovecraft, his career was by no means free from discomfiting racial politics. John F. Kasson links Houdini to Tarzan, early bodybuilders like Eugen Sandow, and others, as focal points of anxiety about the white body. In this and in many other respects, the superstar magician and the obscure writer had more in common than might be suspected. Both cultivated a supernatural mystique—in which neither believed—personas that took on lives of their own. Both sought to satisfy an early twentieth-century hunger for excitement. Certainly, the two men got on well: Houdini asked Lovecraft to write a now-lost article about astrology and tried (unsuccessfully) to help the young writer secure employment with a newspaper. They were planning to collaborate, with Lovecraft’s friend and fellow pulp author C. M. Eddy, on an anti-spiritualist book, The Cancer of Superstition, when Houdini died on October 31, 1926. Only Lovecraft’s outline and thirty-odd pages of Eddy’s manuscript survive—together with “Under the Pyramids” the only witness to the strange partnership of the magician and the horror writer.