Interview

Sovereignty, Property, and the Locus of Power

Martti Koskenniemi is Academy Professor and Director of the Erik Castrén Institute of International Law and Human Rights at the University of Helsinki, and Global Professor of Law and Associate Faculty of History at New York University. He was a member of the Finnish diplomatic service from 1978 to 1994 and of the International Law Commission (UN) from 2002 to 2006. He is working on a new book, tentatively titled The Sanction of All the World: Legal Imagination and International Power c. 1300-1800, to be published with Cambridge University Press.

Anne Schult is a PhD student in the History Department at New York University. Her current research focuses on the intersection of migration, law, and demography in 20th-century Europe.

Anne: Your work has long explored the nature of governance through international law—in the past as much as in the present. The book project you have been working on over the past years, which explores the correlation of sovereignty and property in international law, is no different in this regard. As you seek to illustrate, sovereignty arises from an often hidden foundation of private property relations, while these exact relations are bound to be delimited by what we call ‘public power’—meaning we ultimately have been, and continue to be, governed by both. This argument re-emphasizes some of the questions your earlier work has tackled with regard to the critical role of international law in politics—or, to be more accurate, international law as international politics. But it also appears to address a more fundamental problem in the conceptualization of international law by suggesting that seemingly benign relations of private property are intrinsically connected to the realm of international power struggles. In your mind, how does this project depart from, or perhaps even in part revise, your prior work on the origins of modern international law?

Martti: It is completely continuous with my earlier work. Of course, I realize that I have an interest in saying that, but I am surprised at how coherent it now appears. I tend to concentrate on questions of power—what lawyers do with power, and how we can study what lawyers do with power. From Apology to Utopia (Lakimiesliiton Kustannus, 1989; reissued Cambridge University Press, 2005) is a deconstructive, synchronic operation into the system as it is now. The Gentle Civilizer of Nations (Cambridge University Press, 2001), in turn, is a first history of how this logic has been used, how it was articulated and carried out in practice. Here I was thinking in Foucauldian terms, about synchrony and diachrony, and I was also persuaded by critiques of structuralism asserting that there are structures but these have no life of their own and instead operate within history. In other words, it is insufficient to only expound on the structure—you have to have a pragmatic approach.

Interview

But then again, I felt that I was just scratching the surface with these analyses, and my current project departs from both synchrony and diachrony to offer something that is broader in scope. What I am now trying to do when I theorize power—which is always post facto—is to show how lawyers are called upon to exercise legal imagination. Legal imagination, to me, is that which unites utopia with apology, that which enables you to use a certain vocabulary in a particular situation to carry out your work. This legal imagination works in a wholly indeterminate terrain, however, and I am sufficiently Schmittian to appreciate the point that the decision, as Schmitt says, is a controlled miracle. That speaks to me. I have often thought about decision-making in various contexts, including my own decision-making, and I am never able to pinpoint the moment of decision. I am able to give justifications later on, but I have no recollection of ever having made any decision. Therefore I come to this notion of imagination, which is intended to push aside a really heavy philosophical baggage in order to be able to speak to a broader readership that recognizes the spontaneity of legal work.  Legal imagination is the employment by lawyers of the legal vocabularies, institutions, and systems available to them, that enable them to carry out the jobs that they are called upon to carry out. Sometimes you choose to go the way of property, sometimes you choose to go the way of sovereignty. To me, as a former practitioner, this is how you work. You are not deducing your advice from a textbook or a theory—or if you try that, you are not going to be a very good lawyer. What you are going to do, and what people are going to admire you for, is to find another, perhaps surprising argument, doctrine or field of law that will then offer a solution to the problem at hand. For instance, I want to put to question the way people are so invested in using sovereignty within international law. Maybe you can get where you want to go much easier by way of property, or by private law? This would be what David Kennedy calls “disenchantment”: lawyers are enchanted by the law that is familiar to them and the institutions and practices they are involved with; that makes them often unable to find a good solution to the problem they are faced with. International lawyers are enchanted by international law and think that international law is great. But if you only think in terms of sovereignty—the United Nations (UN), the responsibility to protect, etc.—actually, you are going to be fairly marginal. Sovereignty is helpful for some things, especially if you are in the UN and talk to diplomats, but the UN and its diplomats are not very powerful. If you want to know how power works, and you want a language that gives you access to those who are powerful, then you may have to think about company law. Let’s look at how contracts and property operate, let’s look at private law. That move requires imagination. My book is an effort to show how lawyers have used their imagination at crucial moments to find a solution which did not exist previously, in order to gain power, to defend power, or to challenge power. In this sense, it deals with the same questions as the previous books, but it is also an expression of some dissatisfaction with those two prior forms of analysis. It does not detract from them—I think they were right. But I hope that the idea of legal imagination, which operates throughout history in various ways, will open up a further understanding of how power operates within law, and how politics operate within law, at present.

Anne: Sovereignty is a fundamental concern of international law; yet, a number of recent works in intellectual history suggest that it is a rather fraught concept that evades concrete definition and lacks a stable referent. In Sovereignty in Fragments (Cambridge University Press, 2010), a collection edited by Hent Kalmo and Quentin Skinner, contributors investigate what sovereignty, typically imagined as a legitimizing feature of the modern state, might look like in an age of growing interdependence and internationalization. Similarly, in the volume The Scaffolding of Sovereignty (Columbia University Press, 2017), edited by Zvi Ben-Dor Benite, Stefanos Geroulanos, and Nicole Jerr, contributors seek to destabilize the illusion of absolute sovereignty by exploring the supportive architecture around it. Considering international law’s insistence on sovereignty as an absolute, immutable term, what can legal history offer in this quest to shed light on the fiction of complete dominion? If the law does not formally recognize partial, divided, and multiplied sovereignties, can it still be usefully employed to highlight the limits of sovereignty in practice?

Martti: Yes, sovereignty is terribly central. I think one should think about it in structural terms, as much as it refers to the highest power. Sovereignty is ultimate, and because it is ultimate, it always recedes into the background and we cannot seize it. Behind it is the idea of God who acts in mysterious ways, who can only momentarily be reflected, but never permanently seized. Everything that I have now learned from intellectual history tells me that sovereignty is a secular translation of the omnipotence of God, and that this omnipotence leads into a huge number of paradoxes. 13th-century theologians crystallized this into the paradox of the little boy asking whether God can be so powerful that he can create a stone that is so big that even he cannot raise it. But the 20th century offers many legal examples for this paradox as well. The example that I used in Apology is the reasonably famous case of the Austro-German customs union.

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The Austrian delegation at the Paris Peace Conference while negotiating the Treaty of St. Germain

In the treaty of Saint-Germain from 1919, Austria promised to the Allied powers from the First World War that it would not alienate its sovereignty. The idea on the Allied side was that Austria would not join with Germany—but then Austria concluded a customs union with Germany. The Allied powers went to the Permanent Court of International Justice, the predecessor of the present International Court of Justice (ICJ), and claimed that Austria had violated the Treaty of Saint-Germain by concluding a customs union, because a customs union meant that Austria had “alienated its sovereignty.” The pleadings of that case in 1933 are one of the most important sources for understanding sovereignty in law, in my mind, because the Austrians argued that the customs union did not mean that they were alienating their sovereignty—on the contrary. If Austria were unable to conclude a customs union, Austria would not be a real sovereign. That is the heart of the paradox, which appears similarly in the more contemporary case of the European Union (EU). When countries such as Finland joined the union, they were faced with a domestic opposition that argued that we should not alienate our sovereignty to this bureaucracy in Brussels. But the political leadership said that not only do we fully preserve our sovereignty but also enhance it by joining the EU, as it provides us with possibilities of action, with access to money and influence that we would otherwise not have. Now if that is true—and I think it is—then that means that the word ‘sovereignty’, as a sociological description, is compatible with both the situation of a state existing in hermetic isolation and that of a state which has given up its freedom of decision to supranational bodies. And if sovereignty is compatible with both a full ability to decide everything and a complete inability to decide anything, then the term must be pretty flexible. I think that the entire debate on political theology has little more to teach us than what I just put to you in legal terms—and for me, these legal terms are the most important ones. Sovereignty is completely open-ended. But this does not mean that it could not take historically specific forms. At particular moments, it has supported some people and been unsupportive of others. As far as law is concerned, for example, the emergence of modern international law took place as an anti-sovereignty move. The men of 1873 thought that sovereignty was dangerous and opposed to free trade, human rights, etc. People like René Cassin and the Ligue des droits de l’Homme developed that language in the 1920s, and they thought that international law must function as the opposite of sovereignty. How fragile this liberal project was, however, we can see most clearly in Hersch Lauterpacht’s career. Lauterpacht, on whom I have written so much, is one of the great opponents of sovereignty. He is known among other things as the author of the first book on international law and human rights in 1950, in which he celebrates the British tradition of rights à la John Locke. Lauterpacht was at the heart of the international legal project that sought global governance against sovereign egoism. But then suddenly he became one of the legal advisors of the Jewish Agency in 1948 in New York, struggling to create a Jewish state and participating in the drafting of the Israeli Declaration of Independence. So here again, there is the paradox: liberals like Lauterpacht could not just want for there not to be a state, because sometimes the state was needed to protect important values or vulnerable groups—in this case persecuted Jews. This is why you cannot be categorically against sovereignty; it can be many different things.

Anne: In your concluding remarks to the volume spearheaded by Kalmo and Skinner, you bemoan the fact that most current attempts to approach the concept of sovereignty are historical in nature. Yet, you too often choose to take a decidedly historical approach, as will again be the case in your upcoming book. As a scholar trained in law, what value do you see in using the methodology of a history of ideas to address problems of sovereignty as they appear in contemporary politics and law?

Martti: When I wrote that sovereignty is treated mostly as a historical topic, what I wanted to convey was the sense that people are both tired and afraid of sovereignty nowadays. On the one hand, because it is so utterly complicated theoretically, and on the other hand, because it seems to have been associated with such negative political experiences in the 20th century. You don’t want to go there and take a stand on present controversies over sovereignty—so you deal with it as a historical topic. Now, if I look at my own turn to history in my two previous works, I am really interested in conceptual history and Begriffsgeschichte, and I think that for understanding those concepts in the present, we must see them in a historical light. My goal is to understand a larger phenomenon, and history enables me to do that. But there is also a broader connection between history and law. In the first place, legal concepts are historical concepts. Roman law, for example, is fundamentally important. If you don’t know Roman law, can you really be a lawyer? Second, lawyers constantly do historical work. I have pleaded twice in the ICJ, and for the preparation of both pleadings, I needed to go back to the 19th century and read acta and old treatises from the archives and figure out how to use them in the present. History, from a purely professional point of view, is necessary for lawyers. But in my scholarship as well, which aims to understand the politics of law, the past provides me with narratives that allow me to communicate with an audience in a way that is powerful and persuasive. This is important because, after all, engagement with students and other audiences is entirely about persuasion. And persuasive stories are complex stories, stories where real men and women act in complex situations in which we can sympathize with the difficult choices they have to make.

Anne: Let’s bring property back into the discussion. While the concept of sovereignty itself may be slippery, its long-lasting relationship with property, you argue, is perpetual and clearly definable. As you state your recent article “Sovereignty, Property and Empire: Early Modern English Contexts” (2017), for example, sovereignty and property “form a typical pair of legal opposites that while apparently mutually exclusive and mutually delimiting, also completely depend on each other” (388). Indeed, the sovereignty-property divide appears to be reminiscent of another well-known dichotomy—the public and the private, which make equally little sense to consider separately. In how far does sovereignty’s pairing with property make the former more intelligible, and why have both intellectual historians and legal scholars largely missed this link so far?

Martti: If I can start from the end of the question—the reason why this link has been missed, I believe, relates to the technical complexity of the law of property. In order to understand how property operates, one needs to know a huge amount of domestic, technical law, not only going under the name of property law, but also under the name of inheritance law, contract law, real estate law, etc. People have shied away from that, I think, because it is really hard. For me, my early structuralist interests have been simplifying the task in as much as I always start from the dictum of identifying a binary opposition: private/public, property/sovereignty. That binary opposition already gives me a good methodological basis. It has the great advantage that it covers 100% of available alternatives—it is a full description of the world. This means also that when one part changes, the boundary moves and the other part will change as well. The two parts of the binary are wholly interdependent. So whenever I see something happening in the realm of property, I can deduce that something is happening in terms of sovereignty as well, and vice versa. They are the yin and yang of international law. But people concentrate on sovereignty because it is somehow more visible, and there is a more robust political history tradition on sovereignty that is very accessible and attractive in many ways. If we think of property and sovereignty as a binary distinction, there are two basic ways in which we can imagine their relationship in law. The first is that property contributes to the substance of sovereignty, and sovereignty contributes to the substance of property. I am particularly interested in the idea of a “scaffolding of sovereignty”—to me, property is the scaffolding of sovereignty. There is no sovereignty right that would be of interest to anybody if it did not involve the ability to influence relations of property. We see this most easily, of course, in mafioso governments or rogue states, but also in not-so-rogue states when they determine how property is being distributed through domestic legislation, tax laws for example. The very reason for attaining the position of the sovereign is often to become rich, or to have one’s friends become rich, or one’s country become wealthy. But then again, I am Hobbesian enough to think that mere power, irrespective of land and goods, is interesting and attractive as well. The right of property is often motivated not so much by greed as by vanity—the wish to be superior, to have the ultimate control, which is sovereignty. So both lead into one another, yin and yang. There is always one element in a binary structure that is the predominant one, and the other the subsidiary one. But the subsidiary one, as we have learned from Derrida, is the dangerous supplement. The subsidiary one always eats into the apparently hegemonic one. So whenever we think that sovereignty is the ultimate, it cannot be quite right. If we look behind it, we see that everything stands on property. I am now provocatively making the point that everything is about property, because people have not made that point in my field, which is obsessed with sovereignty. But I would hope that in the next generation, there will be someone who says: well actually, sovereignty…

Anne: This leads into my next question, which is about the historical development of this conceptual relationship between sovereignty and property. Your book covers the vast time period between 1300 and 1800, but the case of early modern England appears to serve as a particularly useful example of the entanglement of sovereignty and property, public and private, and law and politics. The pluralism of the English legal system, split into civil law and common law, allowed for the emergence of two different kinds of ‘laws of nations’ in the 16th century. These two idioms, you assert, used ‘sovereignty’ and ‘property’ in contrasting ways—one to support the sovereignty of the king, as visible in the use of the royal prerogative, the other to defend the property rights of common Englishmen. First categorically opposed, these two arguments continually converged over the course of the 17th and 18th century, and property emerged as a justification for expanding the Crown’s sovereignty geographically. British imperial power thus became firmly cemented in a new ‘empire of free trade’ that emphasized private entrepreneurship over formal sovereignty. In other words, capitalism functioned as the driving motor of diplomacy and politics. Is the narrative you propose for this particular case study reflective of the larger argument in the book, i.e. is there a general trend towards the prominence of property? And what role does historical specificity play in your conceptual argument?

Martti: Let me say that both as a scholar and as a practitioner, I find that there is always an element of separation between the world and our consciousness of the world. I provide these compelling narratives, all the while knowing that they are not ‘true.’ They are what appears on a flat screen against a really dark, messy background, so to speak. On that flat screen, I can see the deconstructive mechanism, the yin and yang, and I can try to describe it in the hope that my audience can grasp something similar to what I see—knowing that my own grasping of the situation is tainted by my own prejudices, but also an aspiration towards telling the ‘truth’ about power. Behind power, there are human relations in a tremendously unjust world. Now, is my story a story about capitalism? Yes and no. Yes in the sense that I want to convey the message in my profession—“public international law”—people have not paid enough attention to determining power of international economic relations. But of course, I do not think that everything ends in capitalism. Even if I were able to provide a full description of the world as an outcome of the development of globalized relations of production into the kind of massive, rogue capitalism that now exists, I would still know that the dangerous supplement must be lurking somewhere there. That the capitalism I described so efficiently and persuasively cannot be the be-all and end-all. What does that capitalism stand on, what is it dependent on? Maybe it is dependent on mechanisms of violence, on the ability to control the means of violence, and the state happens to be a big instrument for the control of violence…

Anne: In relation to the historical context of time and place, you further suggest that it matters who uses this vocabulary and with what intent. To return to the example of early modern England, your paper gives voice to the factor of intent and takes a semi-biographical approach. The thinkers you survey, including Hobbes and Locke, alter the configuration between property and sovereignty based on their political and personal motivations. This biographical approach also points to a potential problem, though: while such a history of legal imagination proposes surprising revisions to the established intellectual biographies of grand thinkers, it also runs the risk of overlooking possible conceptual developments caused by interactions, dialogues, and negotiations outside of the narrow field of traditional intellectual history. To what extent should figures like Hobbes take priority over others mentioned in the paper, such as Sir Edward Coke and John Wheeler, or those non-elite (and non-European) actors completely left out?

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Sir Edward Coke (1552-1634), an early proponent of property rights and free trade

Martti: Let’s dismiss one way of looking at this: is this an agency-structure problem? No. There is no agency-structure problem. There is, of course, agency and there is structure, and we are constantly negotiating between the two. Agency and structure behave like sovereignty and property—a binary distinction the parts of which both reject and depend on each other. That is not a problem to be solved, but an existential situation that we are in. I would really like lesser figures such as Edward Coke or John Wheeler to have abandoned their modesty at some point. Wouldn’t it be great if in some library a treatise were found by John Wheeler on political theory or on international law? And that work would become the subject of intense scholarly studies! But of course, then they would not be the persons they have long appeared to us. It is a real problem that we always deal with the same guys, their writings and neuroses. But that is hard to avoid. In the Gentle Civilizer, I did introduce some minor figures, and in this upcoming book, I am going to introduce others. But they are still people who are known to some specialized fields, and about whom other people have written. That they are white men is a huge problem, of course. And how does one deal with that problem? I was really impressed by Dipesh Chakrabarty and his efforts as an Indian postcolonial scholar to think of writing history in a postcolonial vein. In Provincializing Europe (Princeton University Press, 2007), there is this really appealing account that he gives of his earlier efforts to write the history of India before the British came in, and not in the way that the British have written it. But then he finds out that all the archives have been compiled by the British, and that one is completely in this prison house of European ideas of what history is, what counts. As he puts it, even the canons of professional historiography on India are European. And if you want to participate in them, that is what you have to buy into—there is nothing you can do. As a response, Chakrabarty chooses the strategy of provincializing Europe, of treating Europe not as the universe, but as ‘men with projects’. Or that is how I have translated what he means. Instead of being large – even “universal” – Europe would be just a set of projects by a group of privileged men. That is how I have seen international law as well: a series of political projects by political men.

Anne: To dwell on this topic of Eurocentrism a little longer, it seems that paying attention to the combined history of sovereignty and property may offer some remedy in this regard. You readily acknowledge that this is a history about not only ‘men with projects’, but specifically white men with projects, and the focus on property highlights how Europeans exercised power over the world through international law by using both sovereignty claims and commercial interests as instruments of European expansion. But I can’t help but wonder if there may be further ways to question Eurocentrism, e.g. by exploring how legal scholarship itself has been implicated by imperial ambitions and systematically privileged the European nation as a unit of analysis. Do you address such methodological implications in your upcoming book?

Martti: No, I don’t. I have written a sufficient amount of methodological texts in the past, in which I tried to make the point that I am just an extreme nominalist. There are no great concepts, there are just men and women with ideas, so I reduce everything thereto. Which is not to say that it would be impossible to write in other ways as well, as a non-nominalist, about doctrines or about concepts operating independently of their operators. Most of legal history is about the history of concepts and institutions, the history of the state, the history of the nation. And I am perfectly happy with other people using ‘my men’ and writing, for example, on the notion of la nation in 17th-century in France based on how it transpires from Mably’s writings. Such things can be extrapolated from them, but I am not going to move radically away from my nominalism. I suppose I have to add that I also think in Marxist ways. I have been struggling with Marxist writings on the early phases of colonialism, the notion of “primitive accumulation,” in which wealth emerges out of trade and eventually enables the productive processes that lead into Capitalism. That process does provide a really important frame within which I think ‘my men’ work. But I will never put concepts such as “primitive accumulation” in my texts—or not in a serious way, anyway. For those who do that will immediately see their work connected and amenable to critiques that have been or may be made against the other works that have used that concept. Guilt by association. I wish to avoid that (as much as anybody can). But I have written on Marxism and international law, and have done work on other conceptual notions in the past. But I often find strictly methodological debates impoverished.

Anne: Your book is organized by national case studies and their respective legal vocabularies. As you insist, these vocabularies changed over the course of time and thus necessitate the study of a longer trajectory. However, one could again argue that traditional longue durée studies of international law have caused certain genealogies and interactions to be overshadowed by others in a framework that is, ironically, categorized by nationality in order to inquire about international legal thought. One example of this would be the contextualization of ius gentium within a distinct German academic, a Dutch mercantilist, an English civil-common, and a French Enlightenment tradition. But does ‘compartmentalizing’ legal history in this manner and assigning distinct characteristics to each national context—contexts that often did not exist as ‘national’ at the time—not set up artificial boundaries of nationally coded and disciplinary distinction? How will your book address cross-influences that exceeded accepted spatial and temporal boundaries?

Martti: I don’t think one can write without some contextualization. All of us know that we act within a number of different contexts—and those who want to understand us will have to decide which of those contexts is relevant for which part of our activity. Again, I suppose I am being a contrarian in my own profession, as I find myself intuitively working against the dominant styles. International lawyers have often thought—especially in the late 19th and early 20th century—that the world was their scene and the universe their audience, and that their concepts had timeless validity. So I want to think of them as local actors who learned everything in a really limited sphere of conversations and readings. These men were lawyers, and the law that they learned first was domestic law. English lawyers, for instance, learned first common law and a certain relationship that common law had with civil law. That was a very specific relationship, and in order for them to become recognized and powerful actors in their own world, they needed to learn and play around with that understanding. If they became civil lawyers, they could become academics and speak maybe directly to the Queen or King. But maybe they wanted to go the commercial route and become legal councilors to a merchants’ company. Then they needed to know common law. But common law also operated within international contexts, and that meant they needed to know some of the domestic laws of France or Holland – but their understanding of those other laws was inevitably and naturally affected by what they had already learned of English law.  So, the first relevant context is often the domestic legal one, and domestic law is often geared towards consolidating the domestic realm. Consider, for example, the very strong way in which French lawyers and the law were involved in the process of French nation-building—lawyers were at the heart of the creation of nationhood. In the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, they were obsessed with the question as to the relationship between the empire and the imperial estates. Every lawyer participated in this debate in some way in their professional capacity, and that was a very specific configuration of problems. Of course, they had conversations beyond their geographies—but when they went to the colonies, for instance, they often just kept on applying their own domestic laws and gave often no recognition whatsoever to indigenous customs. So domestic law is really important as the foundation on which professional lawyers come to every other law, including international law. At the same time, there is interdisciplinarity. Many of them had some relation to theology and spoke to theologians, and theologians spoke to lawyers, as in Spain during the Conquista. Indeed, one of the things I am hoping this book will do—perhaps in contradistinction to what I have been saying so far—is to tell the long story of the European world moving away from a center in theology, first towards natural law and then towards economics, both at the conceptual level and the institutional level. I pay a lot of attention to the way in which lawyers engage in theological debates and theologians in legal debates, and how lawyers engage in economic debates and create what later becomes known as political economy. Adam Smith, who is the typical example, starts out writing a treatise in natural law and ends up with The Wealth of Nations (1776).

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Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, published 1776

That is a really important development. But again, I want to refrain from saying that ‘ergo economics is’, or ‘ergo law is’. I just highlight that Adam Smith seemed to think that an important legal point to make was that freedom of enterprise provides wealth for Britain. So there is some international context, and there is some interdisciplinary context. But I do not want to think of any one of them as ever fully determining — for after all, it is imagination that then does with those contexts what it needs to do in order to carry out the professional business it is engaged with.

The Historical Origins of Human Rights: A Conversation with Samuel Moyn

By guest contributor Pranav Kumar Jain

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Professor Samuel Moyn (Yale University)

Since the publication of The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History, Professor Samuel Moyn has emerged as one of the most prominent voices in the field of human rights studies and modern intellectual history. I recently had a chance to interview him about his early career and his views on human rights and recent developments in the field of history.

Moyn was educated at Washington University in St. Louis, where he studied history and French literature. In St. Louis, he fell under the influence of Gerald Izenberg, who nurtured his interest in modern French intellectual history. After college, he proceeded to Berkeley to pursue his doctorate under the supervision of Martin Jay. However, unexcited at the prospect of becoming a professional historian, he left graduate school after taking his orals and enrolled at Harvard Law School. After a year in law school, he decided that he did want to finish his Ph.D. after all. He switched the subject of his dissertation to a topic that could be done on the basis of materials available in American libraries. Drawing upon an earlier seminar paper, he decided to write about the interwar moral philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas. After graduating from Berkeley and Harvard in 2000-01, he joined Columbia University as an assistant professor in history.

Though he had never written about human rights before, he had become interested in the subject in law school and during his work in the White House at the time of the Kosovo bombings. At Columbia, he decided to pursue his interest in human rights further and began to teach a course called “Historical Origins of Human Rights.” The conversations in this class were complemented by those with two newly arrived faculty members, Mark Mazower and Susan Pedersen, both of whom were then working on the international history of the twentieth century. In 2008, Moyn decided that it was finally time to write about human rights.

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Samuel Moyn, The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012)

In The Last Utopia, Moyn’s aim was to contest the theories about the long-term origins of human rights. His key argument was that it was only in the 1970s that the concept of human rights crystallized as a global language of justice. In arguing thus, he sharply distinguished himself from the historian Lynn Hunt who had suggested that the concept of human rights stretched all the way back to the French Revolution. Before Hunt published her book on human rights, Moyn told me, his class had shared some of her emphasis. Both scholars, for example, were influenced by Thomas Laqueur’s account of the origins of humanitarianism, which focused on the upsurge of sympathy in the eighteenth century. Laqueur’s argument, however, had not even mentioned human rights. Hunt’s genius (or mistake?), Moyn believes, was to make that connection.

Moyn, however, is not the only historian to see the 1970s as a turning point. In his Age of Fracture (2012), intellectual historian Daniel Rodgers has made a similar argument about how the American postwar consensus came under increasing pressure and finally shattered in the 70s. But there are some important differences. As Moyn explained to me, Rodgers’s argument is more about the disappearance of alternatives, whereas his is more concerned with how human rights survived that difficult moment. Furthermore, Rodgers’s focus on the American case makes   his argument unique because, in comparison with transatlantic cases, the American tradition does not have a socialist starting point. Both Moyn and Rodgers, however, have been criticized for failing to take neoliberalism into account. Moyn says that he has tried to address this in his forthcoming book Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World.

Some have come to see Moyn’s book as mostly about President Jimmy Carter’s contributions to the human rights revolution. Moyn himself, however, thinks that the book is ultimately about the French Revolution and its abandonment in modern history for an individualistic ethics of rights, including the Levinasian ethics which he once studied. In Moyn’s view, human rights are a part of this “ethical turn.” While he was working on the book, Moyn’s own thinking underwent a significant revolution. He began to explore the place of decolonization in the story he was trying to tell. Decolonization was not something he had thought about very much before but, as arguably one of the biggest events of the twentieth century, it seemed indispensable to the human rights revolution. In the book, he ended up making the very controversial argument that human rights largely emerged as the response of westerners to decolonization. Since they had now lost the interventionist tool of empire, human rights became a new universalism that would allow them to think about, care about, and perhaps intervene in places they had once ruled directly.

Though widely acclaimed, Moyn’s thesis has been challenged on a number of fronts. For one thing, Moyn himself believes that the argument of the book is problematic because it globalizes a story that it mostly about French intellectuals in the 1970s. Then there are critics such as Stefan-Ludwig Hoffmann, a German historian at UC Berkeley, who have suggested, in Moyn’s words, that “Sam was right in dismissing all prior history. He just didn’t dismiss the 70s and 80s.” Moyn says that he finds Hoffmann’s arguments compelling and that, if we think of human rights primarily as a political program, the 90s do deserve the lion’s share of attention. After all, Moyn’s own interest in the politics of human rights emerged during the 90s.

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Eleanor Roosevelt with a Spanish-language copy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Perhaps one of Moyn’s most controversial arguments is that the field of the history of human rights no longer has anything new to say. Most of the questions about the emergence of the human rights movements and the role of international institutions have already been answered. Given the major debate provoked by his own work, I am skeptical that this is indeed the case. Plus, there are a number of areas which need further research. For instance, we need to better understand the connections between signature events such as the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the story that Moyn tells about the 1970s. But I think Moyn made a compelling point when he suggested to me that we cannot continue to constantly look for the origins of human rights. In doing so, we often run the risk of anachronism and misinterpretation. For instance, some scholars have tried to tie human rights back to early modern natural law. However, as Moyn put it, “what’s lost when you interpret early modern natural law as fundamentally a rights project is that it was actually a duties project.”

Moyn is ambivalent about recent developments in the study and practice of history in general. He thinks that the rise of global and transnational history is a welcome development because, ultimately, there is no reason for methodological nationalism to prevail. However, in his view, this has had a somewhat adverse effect on graduate training. When he went to grad school, he took courses that focused on national historiographical canons and many of the readings were in the original language. With the rise of global history, it is not clear that such courses can be taught anymore. For instance, no teacher could demand that all the students know the same languages. Consequently, Moyn says, “most of what historians were doing for most of modern history is being lost.” This is certainly an interesting point and it begs the question of how graduate programs can train their students to strike a balance between the wide perspectives of global history and the deep immersion of a more national approach.

Otherwise, however, in contrast with many of his fellow scholars, Moyn is surprisingly upbeat about the current state and future of the historical profession. He thinks that we are living in a golden age of historiography with many impressive historians producing outstanding works. There is certainly more scope for history to be more relevant to the public. But historians engaging with the public shouldn’t do so in crass ways, such as suggesting that there is a definitive relevance of history to public policy. History does not have to change radically. It can simply continue to build upon its existing strengths.

lynn-hunt

Professor Lynn Hunt (UCLA)

In the face of Lynn Hunt’s recent judgment that the field of “history is in crisis and not just one of university budgets,” this is a somewhat puzzling conclusion. However, it is one that I happen to agree with. Those who suggest that historians should engage with policy makers certainly have a point. However, instead of emphasizing the uniqueness of history, their arguments devolve to what historians can do better than economists and political scientists. In the process, they often lose sight of the fact that, more than anything, historians are storytellers. History rightly belongs in the humanities rather than the social sciences. It is only in telling stories that inspire and excite the public’s imagination that historians can regain the respect that many think they have lost in the public eye.

Pranav Kumar Jain is a doctoral student in early modern history at Yale University.

The state, and revolution: A site-specific view of centenaries. Part I: The revolution reshuffled: Statelessness and civil war in the museum

By guest contributor Dr. Dina Gusejnova

The introduction to “The state, and revolution” can be found here.

Museums and libraries are the kinds of places that promise to transport you to any other time or place. But some people experience their structure as a constraint on their imagination. One reaction to their static and state-centered character might be to give up on the structure of museums altogether and resort to watching films instead. It is not surprising that this medium was most successful in marking the first decade after the October Revolution—celebrating it as a leaderless movement, without an obvious protagonist and certainly no national teleology. In fact, most of today’s museums have embedded films in their displays. Yet if you want to resist path-dependent constraints in interpreting revolutions, films are hardly a solution: they are the products of fixed scripts, of a specially built set, narrative music, and so on. (October was first performed to the sound of the Marseillaise, before new tunes could be composed).

Is a museum of the revolution necessarily an oxymoron? As a type of space, most museums have the advantage of being physical sites. In such places, visitors can recognize what they thought of as ownership of the present as a mere tenancy, which places them not only in a subordinate relationship to the landlord, but also in an imaginary relationship to the previous tenants, who may even have left things behind. From then on, it is up to them how many degrees of separation they establish between themselves and this past.

The Russian Revolution exhibition at the British Library—its interior designed in the style of a grand opera set — is one example of this kind of possibility. The Communist Manifesto is placed at the entrance as a relic of one of the Library’s most famous users, yet it is as feeble a guide to the Russian Revolution as Rousseau had been to the French. If anything, the curators emphasise, the Manifesto discouraged the Communists of its time from transporting ideas of revolution to unsuitable locations like Russia. Like the gimmicky poster of a Bolshevik, it functions merely as a hook, because what you find instead of a party line is an aspect of the revolution as the product of a social process of intellectual contagion. Connoisseurs of magical realism will appreciate this opportunity to trace how the revolution as an idea “became” an event in and through the library itself. What sorts of studies in the library collections led Lenin, who, between 1902 and 1911 identified himself to the library as Jacob Richter, supposedly a German subject of the Russian empire, to call for a revolution in Russia six years later under the more ubiquitous pseudonym of Lenin? For Marx, contemplation itself had been a kind of action, since he preferred a Victorian library to the barricades of Paris. But where did Marx’s theories of how to “change the world” connect to the Bolshevik practices of terror and violence? The exhibition hints at the unlikely friendship between the Victorian library curator Richard Garnett, Dostoyevsky’s first English translator, Constance Garnett (his daughter-in-law), and the exiled Popular Will activist Sergei Stepnyak. Without connections like this, would Lenin have found sufficient reading material on “the land question”?

Finally, how did readers decide where to change the world? Ideas did not just migrate from book to book in a Republic of Letters, nor were they confined to their author’s “home” states. In a postwar world governed by new frontiers, visas, and immigration detention centres, it was the librarians who mattered. In the twentieth century, you are more likely to find a folio edition of counter-revolutionary thoughts than a revolutionary manifesto, but the exiled socialists made sure that ephemeral pamphlets also got collected. Lenin’s wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, had been a librarian in St Petersburg before the 1905 revolution, working together with Nikolai Roubakine, who is introduced in this exhibition only as a social statistician of the late Russian empire. As an exiled revolutionary of 1905, Roubakine had started a new library in Switzerland, which also supplied Lenin with reading material during this time of his exile.

Instead of a state withering away, the visitor is confronted with the notion of a civil war that is only “Russian”  in inverted commas. The protracted statelessness of the “white émigré” exiles in the West coexisted alongside a Bolshevik-run Soviet apparatus in the East, which was eventually signed out of existence in a Byelorussian forest with the Belavezha agreement of 1991, as Katie McElvaney reminds us in her timeline. At the end of the magic, there is also the reality of censorship. Apparently, in 1922, a British library consultant concluded that some materials calling for revolution beyond Russia were not “desirable to be released to readers.” We may not know if the Library caused this or any other revolution, but we can certainly see that it had tried not to cause it.

To get away from issues of representation to the memory of revolutionary action, however, I had to travel further, to Finland, where, in March 2017, Tampere University had organized a conference called “Reform and Revolution in Europe, 1917-1919.” Like many attendees, I was struck by the range of new insights into the Revolution that Russia’s former periphery offers, through the transnational perspective of the First World War in the work of Richard Bessel, and the concept of civil war as contextualized by Bill Kissane. Formerly an underdeveloped outpost of the Russian Empire, Finland had risen to the status of an autonomous Grand Duchy by the time of the Revolution. As such, it was the first post-imperial polity to gain sovereignty from the Russian empire, by Lenin’s decree—and to keep it, for the most part.

In the summer of 1917, Lenin was in Tampere as he worked on The State and Revolution. Eleven years before that, he had his first fateful encounter with Stalin here. The site of their encounter, a former Workers Hall, is the space for a newly redesigned Lenin Museum, which first opened here in 1946, under the close watch of Soviet authorities—one of the more visible effects of what is now called “Finlandization.” Its new curators have resorted to a combination between history and humor to tell the story:

Reproduced with kind permission from the Lenin Museum, https://museot.fi/en.php

The rest of the Lenin Museum has little to do with Lenin, and more to do with the history of Finnish democracy and the vicissitudes of European integration, after decades of civil war, partial Soviet occupation, and collaboration with National Socialism, before the gradual emergence of a Finnish brand of Social Democracy.

Seeing the city itself, surrounded by its stunning landscape, also offers other opportunities to reflect on how ideas might relate to the places in which they are formulated. How could this ethereally calming landscape inspire someone to work on a book called The State and Revolution? Could Lenin have instead become a twentieth-century Lake Poet?

9 Tampere Lake 1

Photo by Dina Gusejnova

10 Tampere Lake 2

Photo by Dina Gusejnova

11 Tampere Lake 3

Photo by Dina Gusejnova

As I walked through a working-class neighborhood of today’s Tampere, I noticed that its outer lake was still frozen, so I borrowed some skates to have a final look at the skyline: two days, two seasons. Lenin, of course, had missed the Finnish ice-skating season, with the revolution gaining speed in Petrograd just as the ice had begun to thicken. I thought about the remarkable contrast between the long-term outcomes of the revolution for Finland and for Ukraine—another imperial province, but with a much shorter history of post-imperial sovereignty, and an incomparably higher death toll in the twentieth century. This is a complex issue for historians, and one which, perhaps, will always call for the assistance of a writer like Vassily Grossman.

In the Labor Museum, a three-year long exhibition (2014–17) marks the cultural memory of the revolution of 1917 from the perspective of the Finnish Civil War of 1918, which the exhibition laconically identifies to its visitors as “a short, but traumatic and sorrowful period.” This exhibition is a unique, if slightly quixotic, place. The visitor will look in vain for any kind of partisanship here, with the Reds or the Whites, the Russians or the Finns, workers, peasants, or bystanders. What they see is a memorial to civil violence, a focus on human experience. It is challenging to try to capture a war inside the walls of a museum, but Tampere has clearly learned from commemorative practice in France and other countries, with their focus on reconciliation. The site of the museum belongs to one of the largest cotton weaving halls in the Nordic countries, Finlayson & Compagnie, a focus of socialist mobilization in 1917. The last Finnish factories were closed in 1995, but the company continues selling its products in Europe. Founded by the Scottish industrialist James Finlayson, it is also a reminder that a civil war always has not just local and imperial, but also trans-imperial dimensions. At the museum, I met social historian Richard Bessel, a first-time visitor to the city, and social theorist Rebecca Boden, who has recently moved there.

Rebecca Boden is a professor of critical management. She is interested in the effects of regimes of accounting and management on sites of knowledge creation, and the relationship between individuals and the state. She recently joined the University of Tampere as the Director of Research of the New Social Research Centre. Professor Boden also attended the conference “Reform and Revolution in Europe, 1917-1919,” held at the University of Tampere in March 2017.

I’ve never lived in this part of the world, and as a British person, I know very little about it. So what strikes me is how little people brought up and educated in Britain know about Central and Eastern Europe. I’ve felt ashamed about some of the questions I’ve had to ask about the Finnish Civil War, in terms of understanding this part of the world. And I suspect, during my upbringing, it was during the Cold War and the Iron Curtain, so Central and Eastern Europe as very much an unknown quantity to people in the West.

What’s interesting to me is, in Britain, you’ve got a reversal of trends in history. There is greater and greater interest in British history, especially British imperial history, and that becomes dangerously xenophobic, and insular, and parochial. And I think the thing for Finland is—and I can say this as an outsider, they never would, because they are quite humble, quiet, understated sort of people generally—Finland has so many interesting things about it, it is such an interesting geopolitical space, it achieved so much so well, that I am urging people to get to know the Finnish story quite urgently.

A lot of the quiet places—very far from anywhere, on the periphery, small population, very thinly spread—they have to move themselves to make themselves heard.  All the isomorphic tendencies, policies and practices and cultures tend to move in the other direction. And it would be quite good to have the quiet places listened to. But part of it is, the quiet places have to find their voice. And that’s partly what I am doing, helping Finland to find their voice and engage with the outside world in a really proactive kind of way.

Richard Bessel is professor of twentieth-century history at the University of York. He works on the social and political history of modern Germany, the aftermath of the two World Wars, and the history of policing, and is currently co-editing, with Dorothee Wierling, Inside World War One? The First World War and its Witnesses (Oxford University Press, 2018). In March 2017, he travelled to Finland to attend the conference on “Reform and Revolution in Europe, 1917-1919,” at which he delivered a keynote lecture.

I’ve never been to Finland, and it’s just a really interesting place to come to. And I thought it would be an interesting intellectual challenge to try to think about revolution and its relationship to the First World War, if not globally, certainly focusing more on Eastern Europe rather than on Western Europe.

I am finding Tampere very interesting, and … this is my first time in Finland! To be in a city which, as we see here, had such a fundamentally different history, with violence right in the middle of it. The differences, I just hadn’t thought about the differences to that extent. What in many ways looks and feels similar to Sweden, but then you scratch the surface, and you realize it’s not. And that surprised me, I hadn’t really quite expected that.

As I get older, it becomes more important both to me and also to colleagues: we talk about our families a lot. When I was younger, I wouldn’t do that professionally. When I was younger, we wrote history in the third person, and now we use the first person.

I’ve just been working through a book, an edited collection on ego-documents of the First World War, with a colleague of mine, which is also very much about the East and the South.

There is one question that I always wanted to get it on an exam, but nobody would allow me to do it. And the question is: when did the twentieth century begin?

Dina Gusejnova is Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Sheffield. She is the author of European Elites and Ideas of Empire, 1917-57 (Cambridge University Press, 2016) and the editor of Cosmopolitanism in Conflict: Imperial Encounters from the Seven Years’ War to the Cold War (Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming later in 2017).

Failure and Fantasy on the Banks of the Ohio

A Conversation with Benjamin Hoffmann, Assistant Professor of Early Modern French Studies at The Ohio State University and editor of a new edition of the Letters Written from the Banks of the Ohio by Claude-François-Adrien de Lezay-Marnésia (Pennsylvania State University Press, translated by Alan J. Singerman, 2017)

In 1790, Claude-François-Adrien de Lezay-Marnésia left France to found a colony on the Scioto River, a tributary of the Ohio in the Northwest Territory. Yet by 1792, he had fled, his fortune squandered and his grandiose plans for an aristocratic utopia unrealized. This new edition of his letters, penned in 1790 and 1791, reveals a man purposefully, somewhat pathetically, imagining a pastoral idyll in the Old Northwest as the realities of the Ohio Country increasingly resisted his vision.Image 1 Book cover

His letters, as Benjamin Hoffmann explains, can be read as a bridge between two very
well-known French texts about North America: Crèvecœur’s 1789 Letters from an America Farmer and Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (1835-1840). Together, they trace a literary evolution of the United States in French thought from a clean slate of possibility to an uncivilized, capitalist, and deeply flawed republic.

What follows is part of my conversation with Hoffmann on the themes of Lezay-Marnésia as a tragic figure, fantasy and colonization, and competing imaginaries of the Ohio Valley.

 

Julia: What made you want to edit and re-publish this volume?

Benjamin: This project started in 2011, as I was undertaking my doctoral dissertation at Yale. Being French in the United States, I wanted to investigate the representations of America in French Literature during the eighteenth century. The problem I immediately encountered was the extreme abundance of materials: dozens of travel narratives were written by French people about North America during the age of the enlightenment. Unfortunately, in too many cases, they are not very artfully written, and they present at best a documentary interest. Consequently, while it was easy to find texts fitting in the category of “French representations of America written between 1700 and 1800”, few writers transformed their experience in the New World into a genuine work of art. The Lettres écrites des rives de l’Ohio struck me because they are an exception to this rule. First, they are the work of a mature writer, a man who was in his late fifties when he published them, after spending most of his adult life reading the work of fellow philosophers and building his own œuvre. Indeed, Lezay-Marnésia was a talented polygraph, the author of philosophical essays, poems, short-stories, translations, even works on mineralogy. In 1790, when he traveled to the United States, he had already a long intellectual career behind him. Moreover, his Letters Written from the Banks of the Ohio pursue a dialogue with Montesquieu, Fénelon, Saint-Pierre, and Rousseau by making numerous references to their works and asking a question they all spent a great deal of time meditating: what makes a perfect society and how can you create one in the real world rather than just imagining it? This intellectual dialogue plays a major part in the literary and philosophical richness of Lezay-Marnésia’s volume, which is a late reinterpretation of some of the major preoccupations of the French enlightenment. A question immediately comes to mind after reading the story of Lezay-Marnésia’s emigration to the Northwest territory: his journey was a complete failure, a true disaster, he lost most of his fortune, two years of his life, and finally decided to go back to France at the most dangerous moment for an aristocrat, just before the terreur. And yet, despite all his hardships, Lezay-Marnésia keeps describing the Scioto region and western Pennsylvania as a true paradise, a sort of lost Eden he deeply regrets having left.

Julia: Why did French émigrés like Lezay-Marnésia choose the Northwest Territory instead of culturally “French” places in North America, like Spanish Louisiana or British Quebec?

Benjamin: Lezay-Marnésia and his compatriots chose the Northwest Territory based on false assumptions. The most important one was the assumption that it was an empty space. Indeed, we have to realize that the Northwest Territory had just been surveyed, and that very little was known about it in Europe. When Lezay-Marnésia bought lands in this region, he only knew what the Scioto Company told him about it, and most of the information he received turned out to be misleading at best, and at times completely dishonest. For example, the Scioto Company failed to mention the presence of Native American tribes in the region: in the several documents provided by the Scioto Company to its clients, Amerindians are not mentioned a single time, whereas they turned out to be the biggest challenge French settlers were going to meet in their attempt to create a colony. Consequently, the Scioto Company slyly conveyed the idea that the Northwest Territory was a clean slate where its clients would be able to organize themselves the way they wanted to, by adopting the rules and the social organization they desired. That was especially appealing for Lezay-Marnésia and his partners of the Society of the Twenty-Four, who thought an ideal French society could be realized in this isolated space: a society that would retain some of the basic structural elements of the Old Regime (especially, a strong hierarchical divide between social classes), while creating a new kind of social contract, based on philanthropy. That’s why the Scioto region had advantages over other potential spaces of emigration, such as Spanish Louisiana and British Quebec: it was more than just a space to temporarily settle and wait until the end of the Revolution before going back to France; it was seen as a permanent settlement, close enough to trade with the United States, but far away enough to create an independent society on a territory that was not yet an official part of the Union. Moreover, the land was quite affordable for French people, and a lot was for sale: if the least well-off buyers acquired only several acres, the richest ones bought thousands (Lezay-Marnésia acquired no less than twenty thousand acres!). Very astutely, the Scioto Company played with the fears of French people who were witnessing the first events of the Revolution, while offering them at an extremely competitive price a quantity of land none of them would have been able to buy in their homeland.

Image 2 Map

A map of the Federal Territory from the western boundary of Pennsylvania to the Scioto River, Manasseh Cutler, 1788. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division. This 1788 map shows imagined townships and township subdivisions between the Ohio and Scioto Rivers, where the Ohio Company had purchased pre-emption rights. Lezay-Marnésia and his associates in France bought parts of these pre-emption rights under the false impression that they were complete ownership rights.

Julia: Lezay-Marnésia’s vision for his Scioto colony is one in which hardworking settlers are “careful to include Indians among them” (69). His pointed insistence on their inclusion – based on an imagined racial hierarchy and an expectation that Native Americans would adopt European customs – strikes me as bittersweetly naïve, especially given the incredible violence between whites and Native Americans in the Ohio Country in this era. Do you read Lezay-Marnésia’s inclusion of Native Americans as a response to this cultural climate (however impractical), or does it just further betray his disconnection from reality on the ground?

Benjamin: I believe it betrays his disconnection from reality. Indeed, Lezay-Marnésia knew very little about America before deciding to emigrate to the Scioto region, and the little he knew was taken from his reading of the Lettres d’un cultivateur américain by Saint-John de Crèvecœur, a work very much influenced by Rousseau, where Native American are depicted as “bons sauvages”, living in perfect harmony with white settlers. I think it’s difficult to overestimate the influence of the concepts of “noble savages” and “state of nature” on the writings of eighteenth-century novelists and philosophers such as Crèvecœur, Lezay-Marnésia, but also Brissot, Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, and so many others. Rousseau used these concepts as thought experiments, as theoretical artifacts, in order to imagine what happened before the creation of complex human societies. But these concepts became so wildly popular that they ceased to be used the way Rousseau intended to employ them: they were taken more and more literally, as if they were describing real people, living at a prelapsarian state that one could still witness outside Europe, something believed by Bougainville and other French explorers. Lezay-Marnésia is a striking example of these disciples of Rousseau who outlived their master and saw the world through the mediation of his works. What fascinates me is the fact he did not try to communicate this troubling experience of alterity, but insisted on representing Native Americans the way he imagined them when he was still in France. Traveling, in a way, was completely useless: in his case, it did not change who he was or what he thought he knew, he even had to forget about it to repeat what he would have said if he had stayed at home. I read this phenomenon as one of the many indications of the therapeutic nature of his literary work: representing things and people as you wish they were, instead of the way you know they are, is a way to come to terms with the almost unbearable disappointments you can experiment. It also proves the outstanding power of literature, that becomes a tool to create an alternative reality corresponding to your wishes and hopes. But when you drop the quill, you have to face reality: that’s why the third of the Letters Written from the Banks of the Ohio is so long, because Lezay-Marnésia cannot bear to stop writing, which would break the spell, so he keeps describing these quite absurd (and at the same time, quite beautiful) scenes of rural banquets, where Native Americans, rich and poor settlers alike, all share a moment of common happiness, enjoying together the beauty of nature and the prosperity of their colony. Of course, this is a pure fantasy, where the point of view of the Amerindians is absolutely not taken into consideration. Lezay-Marnésia just assumes they will be kind and obedient subjects. But I think it’s an illusion he cultivated while he was writing, because it was just too hard for him to accept that he had spent nearly the totality of his once gigantic fortune, risked his life, left at home his wife and two of his children, and spent so much energy, before heading back to France, ruined and bitter. Consequently, this disconnection from reality is in a way self-induced: it’s not madness, or stupidity, it has more to do with finding a way to grieve a world he did not manage to create.

Julia: In addition to a white settler fantasy in which Native Americans had been exterminated, Lezay-Marnésia’s Ohio utopia made me think of the Native American prophets Neolin (Lenape), and later, Tenskwatawa (Shawnee), who also imagined a possible world in the Ohio Country, in which Native Americans would achieve a purified unity through their rejection of European culture and lifeways. Unlike Lezay-Marnésia’s, theirs were distinctively exclusive visions in which settlers and Native Americans could not and would not co-exist. What does it mean to consider Lezay-Marnésia’s utopian Aigle-Lys not just as part of a genre of French visions of the U.S., but as one of several competing imaginaries about the same place? His certainly co-existed in the Ohio Country with a white settler fantasy in which Native Americans have been exterminated, and a prophetic Native American vision in which whites have been expelled and their culture rejected. We might want to explain Lezay-Marnésia’s penchant for fantasy as a result of his being a distant émigré, but what if those much closer to the ground also saw Scioto as an imaginary space?

Benjamin: Not only can we read Lezay-Marnésia’s utopia as part of several competing imaginary appropriations of this land, but also as one of many competing geopolitical projects. Indeed, the vast territory where he wanted to build Aigle-Lys was coveted by several super-powers at the end of the eighteenth century. Great Britain still held several key military positions in the region; Native American tribes fought to keep the control on their ancestral lands, in particular the Miamis and the Shawnees; the American government was planning the westward expansion of the United States; even the French government had views on this place, since the Girondins aimed to create sister-republics in the region, sharing political and commercial interests with France. So, there was a fierce competition, not only of imaginaries as you observed, but also of power and political projects. To comment on this phenomenon, I would venture two possible explanations. The obvious one has to do with a sense of opportunity: the political status of this region was still uncertain, and to ambitious powers, it looked as a place free for the taking. Let’s not forget that France, just a few years later, when it got back Louisiana from Spain thanks to the treaty of San Ildefonso (1800), for a moment imagined to recreate its empire in North America. We know how things turned out – the purchase of Louisiana in 1801 definitely put an end to this dream – but for the contemporaries, there was still the sense that what we know would become part of the United States, could still belong to a European power. But there is another explanation that has to do with the specificity of the landscape, I think. This region, especially Ohio, is very flat: in a way, it is a sort of natural embodiment of the concept of the “clean slate”, a vast space, where anything is possible, where utopias can freely flourish. It has an idyllic aspect in many places, and, precisely, the comparison between the Ohio region and the garden of Eden was repeated by several French writers, including Crèvecœur and Lezay-Marnésia. It is as if the Ohio landscape was a kind of canvas where the boldest imaginations of the human mind could be projected while simultaneously leading to an association with very ancient fantasies, such as the dream of recreating the golden age. For Lezay-Marnésia, there was certainly no limit to what he thought possible: he imagined Aigle-Lys – even if he never articulates the political relation of this growing colony with the American government – as the center of a future empire, an empire he compares to a hive sending its swarms to colonize the almost boundless American space…

Image 3 Portrait.jpg

Tenskwatawa (The Prophet) 1768-1837, by Henry Inman (1801-1846), after Charles Bird King, c. 1830-1833. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Julia: By way of concluding, I’d like to push this final point on the inclusion of Native American visions of the Ohio Valley a bit further. As Gregory Dowd demonstrates so well in A Spirited Resistance, broadly accepted ideas for Native self-determination and resistance—often based in theories of separate creation between Euro-Americans and Native Americans—proliferated throughout the Old Northwest from the 1760s on ( Gregory E. Dowd, “Thinking and Believing: Nativism and Unity in the Ages of Pontiac and Tecumseh,” American Indian Quarterly 16, no. 3 (1992): 309–350). Spiritual theories fused with political action in the form of, for example, the Shawnee prophet Tenskwatawa’s 1806 invitation to all Indian peoples to join him in settling the town of Greenville, Ohio. This imagined community forms an intriguing counterpoint to Lezay-Marnésia’s own planned town (ibid., 312). In reading Dowd’s writing about Tenskwatawa and his brother Tecumseh’s visions for the Ohio Country, I found that your characterization of it as a place that feels both ancient and full of potential possibility seems to fit very appropriately into what they hoped for and preached of. More generally, I’d also propose that including Native Americans as visionaries may allow a broader and more complex picture of these connections between fantasy, politics, and place to emerge. It frames Native Americans as more than reactive defenders of ancestral territories who didn’t have the power or luxury to transcend pragmatism.

The third competing imaginary for the Old Northwest during this era was, of course, the United States project of imposing the Public Lands Survey System grid. The Ohio Valley was the first place that the U.S. tried out this attempt at regular, linear township squares, and they often appeared on maps long before they appeared on the ground. Thus, the 1788 map of neatly delineated townships squares represented an imagined future, not a present reality.

In an important sense, all three projects—Lezay-Marnésia’s Aigle-Lys, Tenskwatawa’s Greenville, and the PLSS.—these were all imaginative projects involving an element of fantasy, but they also represented very real geo-political designs. Lezay-Marnésia’s might seem the most fantastical because it failed so spectacularly, but even though the United States project of imposing the PLSS succeeded didn’t make it necessarily less imaginary in its nascent stage. For Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa, whose visions of the Old Northwest also met with failure, the power of fantasy and the reality of defending and protecting land were intimately intertwined. Can we ever draw clean conceptual lines between geopolitical contests and imaginative visions?

Julia Lewandoski is a doctoral student at the University of California, Berkeley. Her dissertation considers the impact of imperial transitions on indigenous landholding in eighteenth and nineteenth-century Quebec, Louisiana, and California.

Sovereignty Without Borders: Discussing Afghanistan’s Cold War History with Timothy Nunan

Interview conducted by guest contributor Chloe Bordewich

Timothy Nunan’s recent book, Humanitarian Invasion: Global Development in Cold War Afghanistan (2016), sets global Cold War history on an Afghan stage. It is not, however, the familiar story of the decade-long war between the country’s Soviet-backed communist government and the U.S.-backed Islamic mujahidin. In this account, foreign visions for Afghanistan clash instead in the cedar forests of Paktia, the refugee camps of an imagined Pashtunistan, and the gas fields of Turkestan.

This is an Afghanistan of aid workers and technocrats. While American modernizers and European humanitarians play important roles, Nunan foregrounds Soviet development experts and their protracted attempt to fashion a successful socialist nation to the south. Afghanistan was a canvas across which these different foreign actors sketched out their aspirations for postcolonial states. But modernization, socialism, and humanitarianism all foundered on conceptual errors about the nature of Afghan territory, errors whose consequences were often devastating for Afghans.

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Cambridge University Press, 2016

When we follow the misadventures of development projects in Afghanistan, a second salient story emerges: the rise and fall on both sides of the Iron Curtain of a certain romance with the idea of the Third World nation-state. By the late 1970s, foreigners’ disillusionment with their attempts to mold Afghanistan resulted in the inversion of international mechanisms once designed to promote postcolonial sovereignty. Countries like Afghanistan were suddenly put on trial, exposed, and shown to be unjust.

In providing a nuanced look into shifting sites of postcolonial sovereignty, Nunan’s account of scholars, engineers, militants, murderous border guards, and traumatized orphans highlights the importance of juxtaposing histories of ideas with the real encounters that unsettle them.

JHI: How did you come to this project? Did you hope to revise popular misconceptions about the history of Afghanistan?

TN: Clearly, concerns about the ethics of humanitarian invention and the prospects of building a “functional state” in Afghanistan reflect what was going on while I was writing the book. But I did not sit down intending to write a history of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, or Afghanistan at all. I came to this topic from the north – from the Soviet Union and the study of Soviet Central Asia. I originally thought I would write on the thaw in the 1950s and 1960s in Soviet Central Asia, to look differently at a story usually centered on Russia. However, when I arrived at the archives in Moscow and, later, Dushanbe (in Tajikistan) many of the files I discovered from the 1950s were wooden and bureaucratic. I struggled to think of how I could turn this archival material into a manuscript that would speak to broader concerns.

But in the State Archive of the Russian Federation, I found, for example, the long transcript of a conference in Moscow in 1982 to which Afghan socialist feminists were invited to talk about what a real women’s movement would look like in Afghanistan under conditions of socialist revolution. As I spent more time on Afghanistan, I became aware of the files of Komsomol (Soviet Youth League) advisors, which took me down to the village level. Quickly, I found myself being able to write a certain version of the history of Kandahar or Jalalabad in the 1980s, which seemed much more exciting and current.

JHI: In the first chapter, “How to Write the History of Afghanistan,” you map out in fascinating detail the epistemological framework of the Soviet area studies and development studies apparatus that facilitated, but also was at times in friction with actual Soviet development projects. As you point out, Soviet Orientology developed alongside anti-Western-imperialism, not as an accomplice of it – a hole in Edward Said’s map of Orientalism.

Today, the unipolarity of scholarship is striking and the Soviet knowledge apparatus has largely been forgotten. What happened to this alternative body of expertise with the fall of the Soviet Union? Do we see parallels emerging today that could challenge Euro-American hegemony over the narration of the history of the Third World?

TN: Soviet Orientology was very different from how graduate students [in Western Europe and North America] are trained to think about Orientalism. Anouar Abdel-Malek, the author of the entry on Orientalism in the Great Soviet Encyclopedia, was an Egyptian Coptic Marxist who came out of the same social background as Edward Said. But rather than challenging the Soviet Orientalist establishment, as Said did in the U.S. context, he was embedded in it.

Alfrid Bustanov, Masha Kirasirova, and others are doing outstanding work on how Russian and Soviet Orientological traditions affected nationalisms inside and outside the USSR, but there is still an enormous amount of Soviet scholarly engagement we don’t know much about.

The question of what happened afterward is a very good one, especially as we ponder what might come after this moment and the problems with the global history approach. Within the former Soviet space, after 1991, institutions of Soviet Orientology suffered from significant funding shortages and positions were cut, and many of the people I interviewed felt embattled.

I spend a lot of time reading mujahidin publications from the 1980s, mostly in Persian, and even when these journals translate works of propaganda written by Saudi scholars, they cite Russian orientalists such as Vasily Bartold. The Soviet Orientological tradition appears to have been received, processed, and understood by actors working in the Arabic- and Persian-speaking world. In Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Algeria – places that were strongly aligned with the Soviet Union – there were academies of sciences that employed dozens of people. What was it like to be a member of one of these institutions in Syria after 1970, or in Afghanistan after 1955, or 1978 or 1979? These are important stories that I was only able to gloss in Humanitarian Invasion, but which I hope future works will elucidate.

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Timothy Nunan

JHI: Some of the most interesting sources you use are interviews with these Soviet Orientologists who worked in and studied Afghanistan, mostly in the 1970s and 1980s. How did you track down these scholars, and how do you deploy their stories in the book?

TN: I wanted to access Soviet subjectivity of experiences in Afghanistan beyond the archive. What did Soviet Uzbeks and Tajiks think about Afghanistan? Did they suddenly convert to Wahhabism? Did they feel some special bond with Afghans?

The interviews would have been impossible without a yearbook that Komsomol advisors had produced about themselves around 2006. When I arrived in Dushanbe in summer 2013, I started Yandex-ing [Russian Googling] these people to find out where they were. One person responded and that led to more introductions. Their networks ran all the way from Kiev to the border of Afghanistan, and I was able to travel widely around the former Soviet Union to interview many of them. By talking with these people I identified figures and turning points that distilled the themes they themselves emphasized.

JHI: In your introduction, you write that you hope to cast Afghanistan not as the “graveyard of empires,” as it has often been known, but as the “graveyard of the Third World nation-state.” Just as the former has more to do with the foreign empires than with Afghanistan itself, the latter speaks to the idea of the Third World nation-state as it was championed by foreign actors and transnational bodies – and their eventual disillusionment with it. Could you elaborate on the life and death of the international romance with the Third World nation-state? What role did Afghanistan play in shaping it?

TN: Afghanistan gained its independence from the British Empire in 1919, and the Soviet Union was the first country to recognize it. But what did this recognition mean? From 1914 to 1945, countries could become independent, but in many cases didn’t have the geopolitical wherewithal to make this sovereignty meaningful. Furthermore, there was no significant international forum not already dominated by the imperial powers. This changed after 1945 and especially after 1960, when not only did independent nation-states have a forum, the United Nations, in which they could gain representation, but there were also new rules within that international organization that allowed them to effect a certain kind of power not commensurate with their GDP or whether or not they had nuclear weapons. We might point to 1960 as a turning point, when the UN General Assembly overwhelmingly affirms the independence of colonized people as a human right, and when “civilization” is erased as a criterion for admission into the United Nations.

This lack of commensurability between sovereignty at the United Nations and geopolitical heft began to have real effects on international society. Throughout the mid-1960s and especially from the 1970s onward, many Third World nation-states, including Afghanistan and often sponsored by the Soviet Union, began to realize that they could sponsor resolutions against Israel, the Portuguese empire, apartheid South Africa – and attempt to delegitimize entire states’ right to exist. By the mid-1970s, in addition to this power, however symbolic, at the United Nations, nations were taking control of their destinies with armed force. Broadly speaking, if you had enough Soviet or Chinese weapons, you could push back the imperialists and eventually gain enough power at the level of international organizations to delegitimize groups that disagreed with you.

However, Afghanistan was one of the turning points against this mood, starting in the late 1970s. European actors became disillusioned with this Third World nation-state form through events like the Vietnamese boat people crisis of the late 1970s, and the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia. Often, post-colonial sovereignty seemed more like an excuse to murder ethnic minorities and political dissidents than to realize a vision of freedom. Arguably, China’s post-1970s Chinese détente with the United States was a factor, as well. Leftists saw that China no longer offered a viable vision of revolution, but was just a lackey of American finance capital and imperialism. Many of the intellectuals who went on to found humanitarian NGOs had lost faith in the USSR as a revolutionary force since the Prague Spring, or, at the very latest, the publication of The Gulag Archipelago.

In short, by the late 1970s, these East Asian and Southeast Asian fantasies of the future were discredited. One place these groups turned was humanitarian action, rather than the Third World nation-state, as a new form of political organization. But the old tools of delegitimization and Third World politics were applied in reverse to places like Afghanistan. Forums pioneered for use against Israel or South Africa, such as the UN Special Rapporteur and human rights investigations, were flipped. It was suddenly no longer the oppression of black Africans or Palestinians qua colonized subjects but rather the oppression of Afghans qua humans under a Third World socialist regime that constituted the supreme crime within international society. The reversal of this Third World logic onto Third World nations is one of the key themes of the book.

JHI: One of the overarching themes of the book is sovereignty: sovereignty as it was imagined and sovereignty as it was performed. Could you flesh out for us some of the major disjunctions between the ways different foreign actors, as well as Afghan politicians, conceptualized Afghan sovereignty, and acts of sovereignty that were carried out on the ground?

TN: The Afghan government was extremely ambitious in claiming that other countries were parts of it, yet was very weakly territorialized. From 1947 onward, when Pakistan is formed, Afghanistan does not recognize its own entire eastern border. One official Afghan government map has a disclaimer on it saying “this map was composed in great haste and none of the information on it should be taken to be reliable.” There’s an odd mix of hyper-ambition and total insecurity. The indeterminacy of the border also creates catastrophic consequences for people living around it.

In the 1980s, Soviet border guards extend the Soviet border regime hundreds of kilometers inside Afghanistan, and murder Afghans within Afghanistan’s borders. Children are another interesting lens. On one hand, the Soviet Union says that children are the future of the nation and need to be educated and mobilized as symbols of the nation’s future. Orphans, especially, are taken to the Soviet Union. From the Soviet Union’s point of view, there’s nothing wrong with this. Insofar as states have a right to exist and defend their borders, it then follows that the state has a right to mobilize its citizens–men, in particular–to defend those borders and weave protection of the state with the citizen’s life-cycle.

In the 1970s and 1980s, however, humanitarian actors like Amnesty International become concerned with children having the right to a nationality and the right not to be trafficked out of the nation-state of their birth. And yet, those deploying this humanitarian logic, who are often concerned with diagnosing children as traumatized, have no problem taking the children out of their familiar contexts to receive medical treatment. Here we see two different logics of what the Third World nation-state project is supposed to be about: the solution for creating a national future, or the problem causing people to be traumatized for life.

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Prior to Afghanistan becoming a battleground between the Soviet Union, the Afghan mujahidin, and the European NGOs embedded among them, it was famous for being an ‘economic Korea’ where Western powers competed with the Soviet Union to offer more effective forms of aid to Kabul. Pictured here is an exhibition for a West German-managed agricultural and forestry project in eastern Afghanistan, the Paktia Development Authority. Photograph courtesy of Christoph Häselbarth

JHI: We’re in a moment of deep suspicion not only toward internationalism, but also toward humanitarianism. In this context, a particularly timely thread of the book traces how states, Leftist activists, and eventually NGO workers envisioned social justice and moral responsibility toward distant people in need. What is the landscape of conviction in Humanitarian Invasion? Where does it intersect with expertise, on one hand, and geopolitical strategy on the other?

TN: While I see the humanitarian groups that I look at most closely – Doctors without Borders (MSF) and the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan (SCA) – as entangled in this geopolitical game, I don’t view them as having had nefarious intentions. Many of the groups that enter the Afghan theater via Pakistan in the 1980s initially try to stay very distant from a geopolitical focus. But there are different trajectories that these groups follow, with the Swedes trying to adopt a more consistent anti-imperialism and the French flirting with explicit engagement in politics.

Regardless of specific anti-imperialist or anti-totalitarian politics, new regimes of intervention are created from the late 1970s onward. Rather than saying, “OK, the Afghans or Cambodians have had their socialist revolution, now they should finally be free from foreign interference,” NGOs embed themselves in trans-border resistance movements that reframe those Third World citizens as subjects of new internationals regimes of governance. NGOs are able to diagnose Afghans as traumatized or suffering from disease, and this becomes grounds for further intervention, or shipment of supplies into a country without consulting its government. Over time, this contributes to a shift in which the dominant optic employed when engaging with Third World populations is not so much that of the guerrilla fighter but of the traumatized individual, the wounded girl. This reframing wasn’t intentionally nefarious, but did reframe subaltern actors as non-political.

There is a strange boomerang effect to all of this. In the 1980s, identifying trauma or certain types of wounds became a carte blanche for aiding armed insurrections in Third World countries–as in the case of Afghanistan, Cambodia, and Ethiopia. Today, however, as scholars like Miriam Ticktin have shown, refugees have to demonstrate exactly these kinds of wounds in order to gain the right to stay in European countries. In both cases, a discourse centered around individual, often corporeal trauma became the litmus test for whether states could maintain control of their borders, but a procedure that once allowed Europeans to insert themselves into Afghanistan now allows Afghans and others to claim a (marginal) space in European settings. Pushing back, governments like Germany have sought to classify entire countries, and specific provinces of Afghanistan, as “safe countries of origin” or “safe zones” from which it becomes procedurally impossible to file such an asylum claim. The boomerang, then, is that Europeans are grappling with these humanitarian claims in an obviously political way, even as the turn toward humanitarianism was itself motivated by an exhaustion with traditional left-right politics in the first place.

JHI: So the Soviets, while pursuing a parallel project, never really bought into the humanitarian discourse?

TN: Yes, though this does not mean they lacked something. The Soviets had a strong interest in childhood as a stage of life that is political and is protected, not, as we would put it, a stage of life that is protected and therefore should not be political.

Russian critiques of the creation of humanitarian protectorates in places like Bosnia, Kosovo, and even Libya and Afghanistan hold that humanitarian action without a strong central state is nonsense. Syria is the most dramatic instance of where these impulses are contrasting again. The Russian government claims that Syria is a sovereign member state of the United Nations that has invited Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah (not a state) to aid it in an act of collective self-defense—something permitted under the United Nations charter. Russia also provides humanitarian aid to government-held areas in Syria through its Ministry of Defense. In contrast, Russian diplomats would argue, Western media have conspired with Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia to portray the jihad against Damascus exclusively in terms of traumatized children, the destruction of Aleppo, and so on. Now as in Afghanistan in the 1980s, the tension has to do with the legitimacy of post-colonial states and reading the Syrian people’s aspirations not solely in terms of geopolitics or trauma.

JHI: Humanitarian Invasion gives an account of global actors making decisions with global repercussions, but it is at the same time firmly grounded in a particular place. So, where do you see global history heading as a field, and where does this book fit? What are the potential risks of global history?

TN: Obviously, Humanitarian Invasion is not a history of the world or of every place in the world. Rather, the book’s central concern is shifting meanings of postcolonial sovereignty during the Cold War. The Afghan-Pakistan borderlands form a particularly rich location to examine how this idea of the Third World nation-state was changing over time, precisely because so many different actors brought their own conceptual baggage to it. I would welcome anyone who wants to write a history of the Cambodian-Thai borderlands or, indeed, much of Ethiopia during the 1980s. MSF, in fact, had a larger presence in the Cambodian-Thai theater than in the Afghan one, and it would be fascinating to understand what difference it makes when these NGOs are collaborating against the Vietnamese, who had been their heroes only a decade before.

Yet as historians like Dipesh Chakrabarty have pointed out, the intensive language training and multi-archive projects of many global historians depend on the extensive resources that only wealthy American and Western European universities possess. One way we can correct this imbalance, learn from colleagues in other countries, and maintain a spirit of humility about our work is to remember, even while working on so-called global themes, that events are still taking place in actual places with local histories, and never to insist on a hierarchy in which NGO actors are more important than national stories.

For example, writing Humanitarian Invasion, I was not able to explore as much as I would like how Afghans themselves changed their political language to respond to the surge in humanitarian ideas (and funding streams) that emerged in the 1980s. I would have liked to probe more how much the massive changes in the 1980s actually affect the ways Afghans talk about politics and what they expect from an Afghan state, what needs they expect to be met by international organizations. How ideas and discourses are transmitted from North to South or South to North is a major interest for global historians today, and that’s an area where “local” scholars with a knowledge of Pashto and a deeper knowledge of regional political thought would be a great contribution.

JHI: What is your current project, and how did it evolve from Humanitarian Invasion?

TN: I would have liked to consider, more seriously, Afghan socialists as thinkers. What did socialism actually mean to them? How did they, on the front line of an Afghan national jihad and the emerging global jihadist movement, understand political Islam? The current project looks at how socialists in the Soviet Union and allied left-wing groups such as the Afghan Communists and Iranian Tudeh Party understood political Islam or Pan-Islamism, particularly in Iran and Afghanistan, where Islamists took violent control of states in the 1980s.

In 1914, the Russian orientalist Vasily Bartold writes that Pan-Islamism is totally bogus, that it’s a political program created by the Ottomans with German support. Fast-forward 60 or 70 years, and there’s enormous anxiety about Islam not only destabilizing client states such as Afghanistan or Syria, but also infiltrating the Soviet Union itself. I was shocked to discover a 1983 publication by an Adjarian nationalist from southwest Georgia describing Muslims as “something that crawled out of a trash heap, who need to be weeded out of our garden” – things you expect to hear from Geert Wilders, Marine Le Pen, or Steve Bannon today. I became really interested in how the Soviet Union and Russian scholars go from viewing Pan-Islamism as a potential ally in fomenting an anti-Western and anti-colonial global front, to viewing Muslims and Pan-Islamism as inherently opposed to the interests of the Soviet Union. In doing so, I hope to provide a unique perspective on contemporary concerns about the threat, real or imagined, of Muslim unity and Muslim communities in Europe and the United States.

The editors wish to thank Timothy Nunan for his graciousness in granting this interview.

Chloe Bordewich is a PhD Student in History and Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University. She currently works on histories of information, secrecy, and scientific knowledge in the late and post-Ottoman Arab world, especially Egypt. She blogs at chloebordewich.wordpress.com.

 

Reflection without Retreat: Brooke Palmieri interviews Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft on “Thinking in Public” and the role intellectuals play in politics.

Interview conducted by contributing editor Brooke Palmieri

The longer you stare at the words “public intellectual” the harder they are to decipher. They imply the application of thought to everyday life, they imply that the “intellectual” has something of value to give to a public.” But they are also so grand as to push their own ambitions into the realm of pure fantasy: who counts as an intellectual,” and how are they supposedly improving a public” with their opinions? At least, difficulty grappling with the gap between what a public intellectual is and ought to be is a symptom of reading Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft’s new book, Thinking in Public: Strauss, Levinas, Arendt (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016).

Wurgaft shows just how young the word “intellectual” is— it arises as a description of a type of person in France during the Dreyfus Affair — yet it is powerful enough to influence our evaluation, and exaltation, of thinkers long dead and into the present. Wurgaft considers Strauss, Levinas, and Arendt’s relationship to the practice of philosophy in the wake of the Dreyfus Affair, and their studies under Martin Heidegger. But in covering “the intellectual question” at the heart of their works, Thinking in Public is as much about how we write intellectual history as it is about how we might live as intellectual historians. He urges us not to take for granted the value, nor the authority, of “intellectuals”. Instead, the tension between theory and practice, philosophy and politics, must be constantly re-evaluated, and while Wurgaft shows how that process of re-evaluation is the premier question in the writings of Strauss, Levinas, and Arendt alike, Thinking in Public also reads as a provocation to scholars today, creating space to reflect on the value of public engagement in a world where ignoring it is no longer possible.

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Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft, author of Thinking in Public: Strauss, Arendt, Levinas (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016)

JHI: I don’t think you could bring the level of energy and thoroughness to “the intellectual question” that you do if there weren’t some personal ghosts haunting you on the subject of intellectual accountability. How did the topic of Thinking in Public come about? What is your investment in the subject?

BAW: Although I think of it as a traditional work of intellectual history, moving between close readings of texts, contextualization, and interpretation, Thinking in Public is also a counterintuitive book. Where many books about the figure of “the intellectual” advocate for the importance of such persons, or provide a theoretical account of their social or political role, Thinking in Public examines the meaning of discourse about “intellectuals,” especially for a generation of European Jewish thinkers for whom such figures had a particular resonance. Ever since it appeared during the Dreyfus Affair, the figure of “the intellectual” has served as a screen onto which we project our longings, including longings for the life of the mind to influence the political world. Thinking in Public is a book about how Leo Strauss, Emmanuel Levinas and Hannah Arendt understood the connections and gulfs between philosophy and politics, and it’s the first full-length comparative study of these three thinkers.

Screen Shot 2016-06-26 at 20.47.45More personally, Thinking in Public is my first book-length work in intellectual history. Thus it’s the book of a writer trying to synthesize and respond to years of education, and to express a set of mature new thoughts. And of course I’m trying to deal with the conceptual errors of my younger self! I arrived at Berkeley to study intellectual history and modern Jewish thought, thinking of writing on the French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995), on whom I had written an undergraduate thesis at Swarthmore, with the wonderful guidance of Nathaniel Deutsch. At Berkeley, under the mentorship of Martin Jay, I emerged as a scholar of modern European intellectual history more primarily, but many of questions remained from my earlier work on Levinas, and my studies in modern Jewish history with John Efron. I started off wanting to write about efforts to “correct” philosophy in the wake of the Holocaust, which is certainly one way to summarize Levinas’s mature project, but I grew skeptical about Levinas on several levels. For one, his idea of “ethics as first philosophy” began to seem weak to me, and then there was his seeming elision between philosophy and politics – between the ideas of “totality” and “totalitarianism,” you might say. I reached for Arendt and Strauss because, like Levinas, they had studied with Martin Heidegger in their twenties, and, also like Levinas, they made either direct or indirect claims about the way the life of the mind was implicated in the political disasters of the twentieth century. I discovered that the figure of “the intellectual” served all three as a means by which to describe the relationship between philosophy and politics. And the impulse to describe that relationship stemmed not only from political crisis, but also from a sense that philosophy had somehow gone astray. The idea of comparing their views on intellectuals, on the predicaments of modern Jewish identity and history, and on the philosophy-politics dyad, flowed from there fairly naturally.

As your question anticipates, Thinking in Public reflects the quirks of its author, in particular my love of puzzles, paradoxes and contradictions in the life of the mind. Because that’s precisely what the figure of “the intellectual” presents us with. Allowing myself to backtrack for a moment, one of the reasons I practice intellectual history is because I want to understand the way ideas change over time, and to understand the reasons for those changes. Often the ideas in question are crafted by philosophers or social theorists, but here “ideas” could refer to the conceptual infrastructure that guides and supports intellectual life, and the idea of a social type called “intellectuals” or, in the Anglophone world, “public intellectuals,” is one part of that infrastructure, just as institutions such as journals, magazines, and academic departments are practical forms of infrastructure. But some concepts produce more confusion than others, and discussions of “intellectuals” or “public intellectuals” strike me as quite complex and messy, and in a way that apparently attracted me.

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Leo Strauss (1899-1973)

I didn’t want to write a book about intellectuals that would celebrate the social role of such persons, try to map their development historically, or tie a basically functionalist account of intellectuals to a basically functionalist account of public political life. Many such books already exist, and it seems to me that their real function is one of ideological contestation rather than scholarship—praising heroes or damning villains, depending on the politics of the author. I wanted to understand how a series of crises, ranging from the apparent weakness of liberal democracy in the Interwar years all the way through the rise of totalitarian governments through a growing awareness of the Holocaust, made philosophers and political theorists reconsider what it meant to practice their crafts, and even reconsider the substance of intellectual life itself.

JHI: There’s a lot to disentangle about the idea of an “intellectual.” In the book it emerges as a noun that is incredibly relational—giving a name and a location to clashes between philosophy and politics above all, but from there between the private and the public, the individual and society. You show how Arendt, Levinas, and Strauss alike think that philosophy and politics are “basically incompatible” on the one hand, but on the other, that incompatibility doesn’t stop them (especially Arendt) from embodying the role in certain circumstances. What do you think causes them to suspend their logic for the sake of action?

BAW: The book has two parts: in the first, I examine Strauss, Levinas and Arendt’s intellectual biographies with a special focus on their discussions of “intellectuals” and their shifting understandings of how philosophy relates to politics. Those are two very different issues, but sometimes complaints about “intellectuals” become surrogates for complaints about the fate of philosophy on the contemporary European scene – or the American one, because both Arendt and Strauss take refuge in the U.S. and ultimately take citizenship. In the second part, I compare their views, and also explore the senses in which their views were influenced by their varied receptions of modern Jewish history. So, on the one hand the book contributes to ongoing conversations about intellectuals, and on the other it’s definitely part of the sub-genres of books on German Jewish thought and on the wave of intellectual émigrés who reached America in the middle of the twentieth century. But I don’t want to appear to believe that there’s a “core” to Arendt, Levinas or Strauss. Intellectual historians may inevitably engage in synopsis and paraphrase as we conduct our work, but I think we need to be careful to show that a thinker’s views do change over time, and that most writers display the all-too-human feature of inconsistency.

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Hannah Arendt (1906-1975)

As you say, Hannah Arendt certainlydisplays some of the features we commonly associate with the “intellectual” or “public intellectual,” writing on everything from the rise of totalitarianism to the aftermath of the Holocaust to the Pentagon Papers. But what’s really interesting is that Arendt’s greatest apparent failures to understand her audiences, the times when she genuinely offended the sensibilities of people whose agreement she might have sought, occur in cases when she most badly wants to maintain her right to judge by the most stringent standards of detachment – you might say that these are cases in which she refuses to suspend her logic for the sake of action. And I don’t think she ever saw herself as abandoning her sense of the tension between philosophy and politics, when she wrote for wide audiences; after all, the philosophically-trained Arendt disavowed the identity of “philosopher” in her maturity. She seems to have thought that the sheer importance of the public events she wrote about, demanded the full severity of her method. She was no rhetorician, trying to craft her work to persuade her audience. Instead she invited them to think with her. I suppose this is one reason she’s been criticized as an elitist, but I find her insistence on principles very admirable.

But this leads me to one central theme in Thinking in Public: publicness and the figure of the intellectual don’t produce simple antipathy and rejection, for Arendt, Strauss and Levinas. There’s a real ambivalence, a push and pull. Even Leo Strauss, who took the idea of a philosophy-politics incompatibility further than either Arendt or Levinas, felt that he had to respond to the predicaments presented by publicness in the twentieth century; he just chose to do so as a scholar rather than as a writer for popular audiences. Incidentally, Thinking in Public’s main provocation may be to enthusiastic readers of Arendt and Strauss, because I argue that they shared a view of the incompatibility of the vita contemplativa and the vita activa (to use Arendt’s terms) usually attributed to Strauss; their real difference is that Strauss found a basically non-worldly version of philosophy worthy of endorsement, and Arendt did not.

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Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995)

But, along with Levinas, Arendt and Strauss understood that in the twentieth century publicness becomes a kind of unavoidable condition, in Heidegger’s terms something into which we find ourselves “thrown.” What I find especially suggestive is that all three thinkers find ways, ranging from Levinas’s “ethics as first philosophy” to Strauss’s picture of the philosopher in the city to Arendt’s late meditations on internal dialogue, to understand how certain kinds of interpersonal encounter are there at the very beginning, coeval with the practice of philosophy and in some cases prior to it. Philosophy may not be a sociable practice, but for all three it is always conditioned by the possibility of interpersonal encounter. Indeed, Strauss thought that political philosophy was developed in order to protect philosophy proper from the chaos and danger to which the political life of the city was vulnerable.

JHI: I realize you’re not trying to argue for the social importance of intellectuals. But, since you wrote Thinking in Public at a time when the humanities are under attack and regularly dismissed, do you think there’s a need to do more than retreat from public life? Wouldn’t that be a form of abjection? It might even mean abandoning the premise that the humanities improve us – and improve the publics through which they circulate.

BAW: I’m really glad you brought this up. I’m not suggesting retreat, I’m trying to describe some of the complexities of the inevitably public life of the mind. In the early twenty-first century attacks on the humanities occur, ironically enough, at a moment when the Internet makes our intellectual lives increasingly public, whether this is through magazines like the Los Angeles Review of Books (for which I often write, these days), or through the circulation of lectures via YouTube, or through all the other forms of intellectual life that make sophisticated scholarship available beyond the colleges and universities. We obviously have to fight to defend the humanities and social sciences within our educational institutions, and this entails public speech. But what kind? What sort of authority or legitimacy do we wish to claim for the humanities, and to which arguments about their power to improve us, via education, do we want to commit ourselves? That’s the kind of conversation Thinking in Public might point towards. After all, Arendt and Strauss both placed special stress on the civic importance of education, and Levinas spent much of his career as a school administrator.

JHI: Wittgenstein’s concept of “family affinities” is a lovely methodological alternative that you draw from to justify the selection of Arendt, Levinas and Strauss. Who do you have family affinities with?

BAW: You have me feeling even more self-conscious than usual! Bluntly put, “family resemblance,” Wittgenstein’s concept, may appeal to me because I have an anthropologist’s appreciation of the subfield of European intellectual history as a kinship network. That network has been shaped not only by the bonds (and the squabbles) between students and teachers, but by all kinds of other ties as well. It would be very funny to try to construct a kinship chart for the subfield, and maybe I will someday. I’m obviously Martin Jay’s student, and while he doesn’t try to shape his students into a “school” I was certainly influenced by the “paraphrastic” or “synoptic” style of intellectual history associated with him – see, for example, his wonderful essay “Two Cheers for Paraphrase: The Confessions of an Synoptic Intellectual Historian.” And I’ve been the beneficiary of a supportive network of his former students, who were becoming established in the field just as I was working on my doctorate.

But “resemblance” conjures more than direct relation, and your question reminds me of my debts outside my own field. This is a point that has been widely appreciated by others, but I’ve long thought most intellectual historians have an elective affinity for the figures they write about. Thus someone writing about economists or art historians or modernization theorists or phenomenologists needs not just technical vocabulary and inside knowledge of these fields, but also a sympathy for their subjects, even to the point of wishing, on some level, to be one of them. When I write about the history of philosophy it’s partly out of my conviction that philosophical questions and propositions are best understood in light of their times, and in light of the prejudices, fortunes and cultural surround of those who posed them. But it’s also because I want to try to pose those questions and propositions anew. My own short list of influences beyond intellectual history, people whose works influenced me greatly, would include Judith Butler (whom I was lucky to work with at Berkeley), Stanley Cavell, James Clifford, Stefan Helmreich (I’ve benefited from his guidance at MIT), and Steven Shapin.

JHI: What is your next project and do you see it relating to Thinking in Public?

BAW: My next or, I suppose, current project is about biotechnology and the future of food, but it’s also a work of intellectual history with a few connecting threads back to Thinking in Public. As I completed the dissertation out of which Thinking in Public eventually grew, I was intrigued by Arendt and Strauss’s shared antipathy towards the idea of progress, especially progress made possible by technology; in the Prologue to The Human Condition, which was published in 1958, Arendt is especially upset about dreams of transforming the human condition by, variously, leaving the Earth for a life on other worlds, or of modifying our own biology in order to transcend such fetters as the human lifespan. Such doubts about the idea of “progress” certainly aren’t unique to Arendt and they bear at least some comparison to criticisms of the idea of progress made by her co-generationists in the Frankfurt School. Both the idea of progress and its critique were striking for me as a graduate student in the Bay Area, which was ground zero for techno-utopianism as I was finishing my doctorate. I became interested in the history of science and technology, but graduate school didn’t afford much time for them.

But it was my good luck that, in 2013, after my first postdoctoral fellowship at the New School had ended, I received a grant from the National Science Foundation, intended for post-Ph.D. scholars who want to add the history and anthropology of science, or other science studies fields, to their areas of competency. The grant funded a second postdoctoral fellowship, in Anthropology at MIT, and it was an incredible gift to have those additional years of study. My new book project, drawing on several years of ethnographic work conducted during that fellowship, focused on precisely the ideas of progress that Arendt once criticized. I’m writing about contemporary efforts to grow meat in laboratories via cell culture techniques, an effort designed to fix the massive problems in our system of animal agriculture and meat production. The resulting book will weave together the anthropology and history of science, intellectual history and food studies, and I hope to make some contributions to the history of the future of food, as well as to the history of the philosophy of life – Arendt’s friend Hans Jonas will be a major figure for me in this book, as will Hans Blumenberg, for whom the categories of the “organism” and “the artifact,” and the tension between them, determine much about modern intellectual history. But if Thinking in Public is a traditional work of European intellectual history, I’m now interested in writing something that feels genuinely new in both method and content.

Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft lives in Oakland, and is a visiting researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he writes about laboratory-grown meat and the futures of food. A native of Cambridge, Massachusetts, he studied at Swarthmore College and did his graduate work in European intellectual history at Berkeley. In addition to his scholarly work, he regularly writes on contemporary food culture.  He is @benwurgaft on Twitter. The editors thank him for very kindly agreeing to be interviewed for the JHI Blog.