Think Piece

Nazi Culture Revisited

By Alin Constantin

Whether in the image of Hitler leading the Beer Hall Putsch, the brown-shirted, jack-booted thug harassing people in the street, or book burnings, Nazism was associated from early on with a civilizational relapse into barbarism. “Whenever I hear the word ‘culture,’ I reach for my handgun,” an expression often falsely attributed to Joseph Goebbels or Hermann Göring, neatly encapsulates this perception. Scholarship on Nazism—and fascism in general—has challenged this view, showing that Nazi officials were invested in the cultivation of Greco-Roman aesthetics, Wagnerian opera, and cinema, among other pursuits. Following the publication of George L. Mosse’s anthology Nazi Culture: Intellectual, Cultural and Social Life in the Third Reich in 1966, historians have placed such interests within the category of “Nazi culture.”

The concept of “Nazi culture” helps us understand intellectual activity in the Third Reich not as dissonant with its widespread practices of violence, but as directly intertwined with them. Cultural history has become the lens through which much of the literature on Nazism and, even more so, Italian Fascism, is written today. This is a direct legacy of the work of George L. Mosse (1918–1999). A teenage émigré from Nazi Germany, Mosse settled in the U.S. Trained as an early modern historian, he eventually turned to the twentieth century. Mosse pioneered many topics we take for granted today, ranging from the influence of European racial thought on the development of the Holocaust, to the relationship between “abnormal” sexuality and authoritarianism, to the way in which monuments, memorials and public ceremonies constitute and cement national feeling. One of Mosse’s early works, the 1964 The Crisis of German Ideology, approached the evolution of National Socialism through the history of ideas. If historians had until then preoccupied themselves with the diplomatic, military, economic and institutional aspects, Mosse focused on the breeding ground of its ideology. Major studies such as Jeffrey Herf’s Reactionary Modernism (1984), Ruth Ben-Ghiat’s Fascist Modernities (2001), and Dagmar Herzog’s Sex after Fascism (2005) further expanded this cultural orientation. As Rabinbach articulates this field’s main finding, “The success of National Socialism, so [Mosse, among other] historians argued, derived not merely from political and economic frustration, German thought, nor even hatred of the Jews, but from a deep cultural, intellectual, ritual, liturgical, and ceremonial repertoire firmly established in Germany during the nineteenth century” (174).

George L. Mosse (1918-1999)

One of the preeminent historians of German-Jewish relations, Anson Rabinbach, trained under Mosse after reading The Crisis of German Ideology. Like his Doktorvater, Rabinbach’s work would show a versatility on display in a new collection of his essays, Staging the Third Reich: Essays in Cultural and Intellectual History (Routledge, 2020), edited and with an introduction by Stefanos Geroulanos and Dagmar Herzog. Split into three sections, the book contains writings on Nazi culture, antifascism, and various German and Jewish intellectuals. Most of the essays previously appeared in print, while a number have been edited or updated. When broaching subjects such as sexuality or abnormality, Mosse steered clear of theory, something which cannot be stated of Rabinbach. Ernst Nolte’s Der Faschismus in seiner Epoche (1963) was an important text in postwar historiography insofar as it looked at French, Italian, and German manifestations of fascism together. However, few scholars followed Nolte’s phenomenological approach to fascism on either side of the Atlantic. Alongside Tim Mason and Geoff Eley, Rabinbach looked to Marxism for insights into the development of fascism, and studied the history of labor and the organizations that mediated between workers and the regime to gain insight into why the working classes acceded to fascism. Rabinbach’s analyses from the 1970s of the Beauty of Labor office and Strength through Joy program exemplify this approach. Though they were written when materials on big business and the Nazis were only beginning to come out, these essays show nuance and restraint. While his engagement with Critical Theory and psychoanalysis did not lead to a methodological commitment, he nonetheless remained sympathetic to them as shown in his chapter on Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich’s The Inability to Mourn (1967).

George L. Mosse, The Crisis of German Ideology (1998 [1964])

Today Rabinbach sees National Socialist ideology as transcending the dichotomies with which many scholars made sense of it (e.g. modernist vs. traditional, rational vs. mystical). It is not that these dichotomies do not exist, but that Nazism managed to subsume all of them at once and thus appeal to different parts of the population and quell factionalism within the party. Rather than offering an exact program, Rabinbach explores how Nazi culture was perceived “from below” and proposes we understand Nazism as an ethos (Gesinnung) and a form of “cultural synthesis.”

The section on antifascism is valuable for a number of reasons. From the 1980s onward, conservative historians contested the legacy of Communist antifascism, claiming that its connection to Moscow directly implicated it in Stalinist crimes. On the left, a celebration of this legacy has occasionally led to an ahistorical romanticization of the movement. As such, historicization of the phenomenon is all the more necessary. As Rabinbach shows in the case of Germany, communist antifascism was never a monolithic current, and figures like Willi Münzenberg understood the threat of National Socialism more so than his Soviet superiors. The essay on the controversy among historians in the 1980s known as the Historikerstreit, “The Jewish Question in the German Question” (1988), makes for an especially valuable read these days, as it touches upon the merits and limitations of student and activist antifascism in West Germany. In the book’s concluding section, Rabinbach echoes Mosse’s interventions in the Historikerstreit when he accuses Andreas Hillgruber, one of the main German figures in the debate, of having attempted to instill a “myth of Teheran” by reopening the discussion of whether Germany lost its eastern empire unjustly. As Perry Anderson showed in his “On Emplotment: Two Kinds of Ruin” (1992), while far from perfect, Hillgruber’s position was neither mystificatory nor unwarranted. In general, Rabinbach shows little sympathy for German historians, whom he faults for not adequately researching the Holocaust, and in the interview that closes the book he indicates approval of Nicolas Berg’s 2003 book, which stressed the inadequate and sometimes problematic nature of West German historians’ dealings with the Holocaust. Yet if German historical scholarship is as lacking as he makes it out, how did Germany come to have such an appreciation for its responsibility for the Holocaust, to the extent that, as one recent book claims, other nations could do some “learning from the Germans”?

Also dedicated to exploring the role of culture within the Nazi enterprise is Moritz Föllmer’s Culture in the Third Reich (2020), which was recently translated from German. Föllmer is perhaps best known for the article “Was Nazism Collectivistic? Redefining the Individual in Berlin, 1930–1945” (2010) and the later monograph Individuality and Modernity in Berlin: Self and Society from Weimar to the Wall (2012), works which directly challenged the totalitarian paradigm in the study of Nazi Germany and highlighted continuities with the Weimar Republic. Far from inhibiting the development of individuals at the expense of the collective, Föllmer argued, National Socialism was an alternate form of modernity in which individualism was not incompatible with a commitment to the Volk. His latest book carries many of the same lines of analysis over to the study of the arts, cinema, painting, and book culture during the Nazi period. In chronological order from the Weimar Republic to the immediate postwar period, readers are introduced to several ordinary people who recorded political changes and who reappear throughout the narrative. When it came to culture, Nazism was no more “revolutionary” than it was in regard to individualism: there were deep continuities with Weimar literary and artistic traditions. Though some modernist works were condemned as degenerate, modernism as a whole was not, and many important writers, painters, and composers collaborated with the regime. The most important holdover from pre-1933 was bourgeois neo-classicism, which appealed to the middle-class segment of the German population. Though suspicious of pop culture productions, the bourgeois could approve of such content as long as it adhered to patriotic, pro-marriage, and pro-family ideals. Jewish authors were forbidden early on, and the regime invested heavily in censorship and oversight to protect “Aryan” consumers from “Semitic” cultural products. Yet censorship was laxer in other regards. For example, readers continued to have access to books translated from American and British writers. Though frowned upon, jazz was never banned. The secret of Nazism thus consisted in combining radical and conservative cultural policies without developing a clear aesthetic program: a Nazi official could enjoy the neo-classical sculptures of Arno Breker alongside the expressionist paintings of Emil Nolde.

Many of these points were already made by Rabinbach. Though Föllmer uses some archival sources, the book relies mostly on secondary literature and is best understood as a popular account for lay audiences wanting an up-to-date account of Nazi cultural policies. However, the book is not without its problems. Early on he notes that “those interested in Weimar culture usually focus on Berlin rather than Braunschweig and what was new then and is still fascinating today” (12). While true, there is little in this monograph that challenges this model. We get instead what by now seem like the standard references to Carl Schmitt, Gottfried Benn, and Ernst Jünger. “Inner emigration” is described as a postwar term and therefore rejected. Yet the same issue applies to many of the concepts and terms we apply to the study of the National Socialist period (the Holocaust is probably the main example). Figures like novelist Erich Kästner, who is mentioned by Föllmer, identified as being in inner immigration during the Third Reich. Moreover, as Eric Kurlander has shown in his study of liberals during the Nazi period, figures such as Theodor Heuss, Wilhelm Heile, Siegfried von Kardorff found in publishing the possibility to explore historical and societal issues other than those of the regime. Although studies of advertising, consumption, and travel during the Third Reich have proliferated in recent years, these topics remain unexplored in Föllmer’s book.

Studies of fascism and authoritarianism aimed at a popular audience have understandably proliferated in recent years as events such as the Capitol uprising, the infiltration of QAnon conspiracy theorists in the Republican Party, and the continued success of right-wing populist parties across the world drive interest in historical precedents. Ruth Ben-Ghiat’s Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present (2021) is one notable study of the way in which masculinity has been employed by anti-democratic leaders including Mussolini, Hitler, Franco, Pinochet, Gaddafi, Mobuto, Erdogan, Putin, and Trump to capture and maintain political power. Essentially a series of interconnected biographical sketches, Ben-Ghiat follows these figures from the moment they come to power, unleash their destructive regimes, and fall out of power, either violently (as in the case of Mussolini) or by way of democratic transition (as in Spain and Chile).

Strongmen are characterized as heads of state “who damage or destroy democracy and use masculinity as a tool of political legitimacy” (p. 4). Though psychoanalytically inflected studies of fascism have been a mainstay since the days of Wilhelm Reich, in Anglo-American academia it is Mosse who pioneered the analysis of gender and sexuality in the development of fascism in books such as Nationalism and Sexuality: Respectability and Abnormal Sexuality in Modern Europe (1985, new edition 2020) and The Image of Man: The Creation of Modern Masculinity (1996). Unlike Mosse’s Europe-specific studies, Ben-Ghiat’s cast of characters is international. While attuned to national characteristics, one nonetheless ends up with a rather free-flowing definition of masculine behavior. Though the debate about whether Donald Trump can be characterized as a fascist has run out of steam since he left office, it is likely to still be with us for some time, whether one is for or against the label. It is far easier to fit Trump within the pattern of strongmen Ben-Ghiat lays out than it is with that of the fascists. Nonetheless, even among strongmen the differences outweigh the similarities. It was said by one of Trump’s lawyers that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and get away with it. As distasteful as this claim was, there was nothing in Trump’s presidency that resembled the assassination of Giacomo Matteotti in Fascist Italy or the extra-legal murders in Pinochet’s Chile. Yet it remains to be seen how our present experience will impact the way in which historians look at fascism in the past. As things stand now, there is still much to learn from the cultural approach championed by Mosse.

Alin Constantin is a Ph.D. Student in the Department of History at Stanford University, where he works on Jewish history and the histories of fascism and communism in East-Central Europe.

Featured Image: Adolf Hitler at the Vienna State Opera, 1937. Courtesy of the Austrian National Library

Think Piece

Notes on Negative Theology and Adorno’s Negative Dialectics

By Gordon Finlayson

In his new book, Migrants in the Profane, and in a recent interview on this blog, Peter E. Gordon addresses questions about Adorno and negative theology which I address in my own work on Adorno (2002 & 2012). Though we agree there is an analogy between aspects of Adorno’s negative dialectics and negative theology, we differ on significant points that I will attempt to bring into sharp focus. Put briefly and crudely, I hold that negative theologians are more philosophical, and Adorno’s critical theory less theological, than Gordon maintains.

Our specific disagreements concern:

  1. what via negativa is – that is the procedure of denial or negation (apophasis) that negative theologians deploy, and to what end they do so
  2. how far, and in what respects, this is analogous to Adorno’s philosophy

My view is that there is an analogy between Adorno’s conception of the task of philosophy, which is to think what is non-identical to thought, and certain doctrines of negative theology concerning the human inability to describe, express, or know God’s essence or nature. The analogy holds only if one construes the non-identical in Adorno strictly as “the figure of something wholly beyond reason and completely other to discursive thought and hence unknowable and ineffable” (Finlayson, 2012, 4). Some, like Elizabeth Pritchard (303), reject this interpretation of non-identity in Adorno, on the grounds that he says in his Negative Dialectics that “metaphysics cannot … be conceived after the mode of an absolute otherness terribly defying thought”(407). Indeed, Adorno frequently denies that the non-identical is not wholly transcendent and ineffable. The trouble is he just as often says that it is. Since the textual evidence is ambivalent, I take the following to be decisive. Adorno conceives non-identity as what is non-identical to thought. By Adorno’s lights, thought is conceptual. To think is to use concepts, and to use concepts is, ineluctably, to identify. There is no such thing as non-conceptual thinking and so we cannot so much as conceive of what is non-identical, let alone say what it is. It follows that Adorno’s Negative Dialectics can be understood as a way of addressing the paradox of the ineffable. This interpretation of Negative Dialectics is not forced, because Adorno himself more than once refers to the non-identical as “the ineffable” and claims that the central concern of philosophy, is to try “against Wittgenstein to say what cannot be said…The task of philosophical reflection consists in unravelling this paradox.” (21).The analogy with negative theology holds, then, not because there is a theological dimension to Adorno’s thinking, which, pace Angermann, I deny, but because Adorno’s central thesis that the concern of philosophy is to think what is non-identical to thought faces the same philosophical difficulty as negative theology does in its attempt to talk about, and to know, a God that is wholly transcendent.

Gordon accepts the analogy between Adorno’s philosophy and negative theology but claims that it “ultimately breaks down”. I agree it breaks down in the sense that it is, in the end, only an analogy, not a thoroughgoing similarity. But we differ in our judgments of where the analogy breaks down. According to Gordon “Adorno pursues the via negativa to liberate us from the illusions of ideology, but he does not stop short before any kind of final or metaphysical truth. Instead, he … pursues it (the negative) right into the heart of theology itself where it dissolves the metaphysical object it was originally meant to serve. He would loathe the thought that this negativity is only a passing moment on the way to reconciliation.” So Gordon argues that, in spite of their best attempts not to, negative theologians end up affirming a “metaphysical truth” presumably concerning God’s existence or nature. They thus aim at “reconciliation.” Adorno, by contrast, remains consistently negative.

While I accept that negative theologians believe in God, and Adorno probably doesn’t, I reject the stark contrast that Gordon draws. Gordon’s claim (53) about Adorno, resembles Scholem’s claim about Judaism, that it is more negative than negative theology. I think the difference is vanishingly small. For the negative theologians, while they assume (or argue) that God exists, insist that God’s existence and divine nature are completely unknowable. Most acknowledge, as Augustine and Basilides also do, that even statements such as that God exists, or that God is ineffable and unknowable, already say too much.[1] They also claim that apparent assertions about God can be understood as disguised negations. But this is merely a way of showing that God’s attributes, say God’s goodness, are incomparable with human attributes and human goodness. They hold that one cannot come to know God either by way of assertion or by way of negation. To the extent that there is no way to God, there is strictly speaking no ‘negative way’ either.

We should not conflate this view with a thought that can be found, for example, in the neo-Platonist, Plotinus. Neo Platonism, which insists that the One is beyond being, and unknowable and ineffable, has a close affinity with negative theology. Plotinus claims that we can sculpt the self by removing what is bad, or vicious or imperfect in ourselves, and that in this way, like the sculptor, human beings can achieve perfection and reach the idea of the “Good that lies beyond” (I, 69) Now there is an obvious incoherence in thinking of negative theology like that. Although it works by subtraction, or negation, it is not negative in its result. To my knowledge, none of the negative theologians, Maimonides included, make this mistake. They know that the via negativa, is not a way to godliness, to God, or to knowledge of God. Take Eckhart, for instance: “If a man thinks he will get more of God by inwardness, by devotion, by ecstasies, or by special infusion of grace, than by the fireside or in the stable, that is nothing but taking God, wrapping a cloak round His head and shoving Him under a bench. For whoever seeks God in a ‘way’ gets the way and misses God, who remains hidden in the way’.[2] Negative ways are no different than any other way, like asceticism or mendicancy. They are ways of living a human life. To assume they are ways to God is to commit the sin of idolatry. Similarly, negative propositions won’t bring us any closer to knowledge of God. So even the claim that God exists stands outwith the bounds of the knowable and the effable. And with that thought negative theology subverts its own status as a discourse to/about/from God. Hence, I disagree with the conclusion that negative theology ultimately aims at a “metaphysical truth” or to “reconciliation” with God.  This conception of negative theology is too positive and too close to theism.

I accept the claim that Adorno’s negative dialectic is more negative than negative theology in that it does not imply the existence of God. But the salient question is: does Adorno’s negative dialectics imply the existence of the non-identical? It is not obvious that the answer to that question is No!

Even if it is, Adorno’s negativism is not as rigorously and consistently negative, as Gordon supposes. Some programmatic statements of Negative Dialectics verge on incoherence, for example that the central concern of philosophy is to try “against Wittgenstein to say what cannot be said…The task of philosophical reflection consists in unravelling this paradox.” (21). He writes elsewhere that “the whole point of philosophy” is to say what cannot be said 55). But trying to say what cannot be said is incoherent. There is no way of expressing the ineffable, whether dialectically by determinate negation, by way of mimesis, or by thinking in ‘constellations.’ It is equally misconceived to intimate that the non-identical is akin to bliss, happiness, or utopia, or to claim, as Adorno does in Negative Dialectics that “what cannot be subsumed under identity…is the ineffability of utopia” and then say that it is equivalent with “what Marx calls use value” (22). On such occasions, Adorno does not tiptoe round the paradox, but falls right into it. In “Adorno on the Ethical and the Ineffable,” I argued that it was, however, coherent and philosophically respectable to attempt to show what cannot be said, without saying it, and to interpret some of Adorno’s moves in Negative Dialectics as just such attempts. I made the same claim about negative theology and argued that this was the crucial analogy between Negative Dialectics and negative theology. Both yield a theoretical doctrine of radical epistemological modesty, and a practical ethics of human finitude. I took it that I had both explained how Adorno’s philosophy of non-identity forms the reverse side of his normative ethics of resistance and had provided the lineaments of a solution to the normative problem of Adorno’s ethical and critical theory.

My interpretation made a lot of assumptions, for example that there is a distinction between saying and showing, that there are ineffable insights, and that ineffable insights arise from being shown something that cannot be said, without disclosing in any way what it is an insight into. Whether what cannot be said, can be shown, is highly contentious. According to a well-known philosophical legend, Wittgenstein’s answer in the Tractatus is ‘Yes!’ While Frank Ramsey’s answer is ‘No!’. At least, that is the way in which Ramsey’s legendary quip “But what we can’t say we can’t say, and we can’t whistle it either” has been interpreted. If so, it would apply not only to Wittgenstein’s use of nonsensical propositions in the Tractatus, but also to the self-subverting dialectics in some negative theology and in Adorno. Because it has so many controversial premises, I’m not convinced nowadays by my conclusion that Adorno’s attempt to think the non-identical can serve as the normative basis of his ethics and critical theory.[3] Though I still stand by the claim that negative theology and negative dialectics are analogous in respect of their treatments of the paradox of the ineffable, and that the analogy, and the analogs, can be understood philosophically, without attributing any theological, religious, or Messianic dimension to Adorno’s thought.

And this is the crux of my disagreement with the second part of Gordon’s claim that negative theologians like Maimonides “pursue the via negativa to liberate us from idolatry and illusion such that we may arrive at a proper understanding of the divine.” Everything depends on what that means. If Gordon is referring to Maimonides’s cosmological argument for existence of God, I reply that this is not a negative theology, but rather a positive doctrine of theism, that Maimonides thinks (wrongly in my view) consistent with negative theology, insofar as it tells us nothing about what God is. Alternatively “a proper understanding of the divine” is that no human understanding of God is possible. In that case we agree, but what is at issue is “a proper understanding” of God’s transcendence and unknowability and of the limited and radically finite nature of human understanding. In which case, the difference is not that Adorno’s rigorously negative dialectic “dissolves the metaphysical object it was originally meant to serve” whereas negative theology illicitly reveals it. On my reading, negative theology is in the same boat in respect of the all too human aspiration to understand God, as negative dialectics is in its attempt to think non-identity by means of concepts.

How does all this help us interpret the theological motifs in Adorno? I think that Gershom Scholem went too far when he described Negative Dialectics as “one of the most remarkable documents of negative theology”. Mind you that remark occurs in a letter to Adorno, and Scholem was not above flattery, or enlisting others into his projects. Adorno’s guarded response is that he does not object to Scholem’s interpretation: “provided that this reading remains as esoteric as the subject itself.”83). I’m not sure what to make of that remark. It could be just a diplomatic way of saying: That’s what you think! Gordon’s reading of the theological motifs in Adorno in Migrants in the Profane suggests that he might take it more seriously than I do.

  1. He denies that they “can be stripped away as merely metaphorical husks for a purely secular philosophy” (138).
  2. He states, rather, that for Adorno, the “negation of religion fulfills its truth” (Gordon 2021a, 140), and that Adorno sees in modernity “the realization…of a religious truth he could not affirm.” (141).
  3. Finally, he allows that Adorno “appeals to theology” but “only to illustrate what our critical practice is like.” And that Adorno “found in religion, the critical energy” that his criticism of a damaged existence required (138, 142).

This interpretation is subtly different to Gordon’s earlier reading of what Adorno, in a letter to Walter Benjamin, once called his ‘inverse theology’. In Adorno and Existence, Gordon interprets Adorno’s inverse theology as a “counterfactual appeal” to transcendent standpoint that functions as a “limit concept.” (97). The earlier view implies that Adorno’s theological tropes are indeed merely metaphors. On that view, Gordon could still claim that the metaphorical appeal to the standpoint of theology was an illustration of critical theory, perhaps a precondition of it, but he’d not be able to claim as he does now, that Adorno “found in religion,” the standpoint that his criticism required. Adorno’s theology, Gordon now argues, is more than just a transcendental idea, since even though its religious content is negated, and not affirmed, it’s function is not only regulative. According to Gordon in Migrants in the Profane, “negative theology completes itself in negative dialectics” (140). The completion, or fulfillment of which Gordon speaks, is supposed to take place by determinate negation. I’m not sure that rescues the position. For “determinate negation” has a positive result, for all Adorno’s subtle attempts, he never shows how negation can be “determinate” and not have a positive result. If the negation is abstract, Adorno has no theology: if it is determinate it is not analogous to negative theology.

By contrast to Gordon’s most recent view, but closer I think to his earlier one, I hold that Adorno’s philosophy is “purely secular,” even though distinctions between secular and religious are not always clear cut. On this, I agree with the excellent – and sadly now departed – Adorno scholar, Deborah Cook. The wealth of biographical and historiographical material now available gives us no reason to think Adorno was anything but a secular humanist and atheist. And, as I’ve shown the analogy with negative theology can be understood entirely philosophically and does not warrant attributing any theological or religious dimension to Adorno’s work, not even one that is allegedly ‘fulfilled’ only ‘by negation,’ or realized, but ‘not affirmed.’ Adorno’s appeal to theology is, in my view, as he held Kafka’s theology to be, “feigned,” and a feigned theology is not one.[4] At best, Adorno adopts an “as if” theology, an attempt to cantilever a transcendent perspective which discloses this world as abject and in need of redemption. I even hesitate to claim that Adorno’s “as if” theology is a transcendental idea, in the sense that it is a necessary condition of critical theory. That’s because I don’t hold that Adorno has a unitary and coherent theory or practice of criticism. He has an ensemble of delicately but loosely interlocking criticisms and theoretical reflections on critical practice, which he attempts, sometimes successfully, to hold in tension. So, I’ll only go so far as to say that Adorno’s quasi theological motifs are among the most vivid and memorable images that he uses to reflect on his critical practice. To misquote Marx: If you don’t like the theological principles of Adorno’s critical theory, that’s ok. He has others.

[1] Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, 1958, 10-11. Basilides in Hyppolytus “Refutation of All Heresies” 7.20 = PG 166 3302C..

[2] Eckhart, Quint, 5b. Vol 1, Sermon 13, p. 106.

[3] Gordon also claims that his interpretation of Adorno’s theology answers the normative question (142).

[4] Adorno, Letter to Benjamin, December 17, 1934.

James Gordon Finlayson is Professor of Social and Political Philosophy and Director of the Center for Social and Political Thought at the University of Sussex. He has written many articles on German Philosophy and critical theory, and is currently working on a monograph about Adorno and transcendental homelessness.

Featured Image: Gustave Doré, Paradiso, Canto 31. 1867. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Think Piece

Franz Boas and the “School of Rebellious Women”

By Gesine Krüger

After a long period of necessary colonial criticism, more and more books have recently appeared that move beyond viewing the disciplines of anthropology and ethnology, which emerged in the 19th century, solely as servants of imperialism and colonial rule. Historian H. Glenn Penny, for example, proposes in his recent book In the Shadow of Humboldt: A Tragic History of German Ethnology (2019) that the extremely rich ethnological collections in German museums do not (only) bear witness to a colonial collecting frenzy and asymmetrical power relations, but should above all be seen as documenting the richness and diversity of different human practices, ideas, and worldviews. Indeed, Adolf Bastian, the long-time director of the Ethnological Museum in Berlin, was convinced of the existence of one, uniform humankind encompassing many variations, which would be best expressed in testimonies of material culture gathered from all over the world.

Of course, this “collecting” took place under colonial rule and oppression, and ideas about “vanishing races,” whose instruments, tools, and works of art had to be seized quickly for the purpose of preservation, played just as much a role as the assumption that European scientists alone were capable and authorized to define this “one humankind” and to showcase it in their museums. However, the anthropological view of the world, and the attempt to show the beauty, differentiation, and meaningfulness of the cultures of supposed “primitives,” also held a potential for intellectual subversion—as can be seen in the work of Jewish German-American anthropologist Franz Boas and his circle of “renegade anthropologists,” among others.

In a time when the public and academic engagement with Europe’s colonial past coincides with the increasing popularity of racist interpretations of the world, much can be learned from the history of a discipline whose core has always been a preoccupation with (cultural) difference. Especially the classic school of cultural relativism, which is indebted to Franz Boas, offers some astonishingly topical reflection points. First, cultural relativism was not about the consideration of differences and otherness in the sense of “othering,” or even about a moral and political arbitrariness, but about the realization that we—i.e. all of human society—actively create our social worlds and therefore can also change them. Second, it held that our view of others is shaped by precisely this self-created world, hence the documentation of cultural relativity in museum collections, which were perceived as demonstrating an understanding of culture as neither biologically inherited nor divinely given. Hence relativism did not mean a disregard for human rights or emancipation in the name of a “culture” immune to criticism. And finally, with the renunciation of a naturally or religiously based claim to superiority of white culture, the justification for colonialism ceased to exist.

Charles King, Professor of International Affairs at Georgetown University, describes a sometimes closely intertwined, sometimes loosely linked circle of scholars in his book Gods of the Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century (2019). The group around Boas, according to King, sought to use cultural anthropology to develop a practice-based social theory that was decidedly antiracist and challenged conventional gender roles. At the heart of this “school of rebels,” as King’s book is titled in its German translation, was Franz Boas, who—after studying in Heidelberg and Bonn and completing his first major expedition to the Arctic—emigrated to the United States in 1868.

Franz Boas with wife Marie in study, ca. 1900. Via American Philosophical Society.

Serving as Professor of Anthropology at Columbia University from 1899 onward, Boas was at the center of a network of friends and colleagues, and kept open house together with his wife Marie Krackowizer. He wrote thousands of letters, and more or less successfully directed a circle of anthropologists bound together by love affairs, competition, joint work, marriages, and jealousy. When he died in New York in December 1942, his last sentence is rumored to have been, “One must never tire of repeating that racism is a monstrous error or an impudent lie.” Throughout his life, Boas fought against racial mania in both his old and his new home, seeking to refute the concept of race empirically as well as theoretically. At the same time, he and his students developed new models for explaining (cultural) difference based on participant observation and self-reflection.

How can respect in the face of cultural strangeness succeed without denying one’s own culture and either erasing difference or pushing it aside in the sense of “othering” and locating it hierarchically? To Boas and his allies, this was the central research question for both one’s own society and foreign societies. And in pursing this question, cultural relativism always meant researching the self as well, as implicated as it might be and as obstructed as one’s own gaze might be: Why do some foreign practices repel us? How are we ourselves shaped culturally and historically? How does this influence our views of others? And how can we examine our own culture?

The German title of King’s book is “School of Rebels,” but in actuality it should be called “Rebellious Women”—because in addition to Boas, the scholarly circle included anthropologists Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, Zora Neale Hurston, and Ella Cara Deloria. The all-important question of one’s own culture arose in particular ways for Hurston and Deloria (also known as Anpétu Wašté Win), since they belonged to communities that were marginalized in their own country. Both were considered scholars in their own right, far beyond the Boas circle, but at the same time they took on a double role as both analysts and witnesses of their own culture, if not at times objects of investigation themselves.

Ella Cara Deloria /Aŋpétu Wašté Wiŋ. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

This was especially true of Deloria, who was born into a family with Yankton Dakota, English, French, and German ancestry and acted as both a linguist and an informant when working on Dakota Grammar togetherwith Boas. With parents of mixed ancestry and a dual role within the Boas circle, she said of herself, “I stand right in the middle.” Part Native American, she faced the task of exploring a culture that was present to her but whose rituals, in a society obsessed with racial fitness and linear cultural development, were treated as folklore of the past, for example by Boy Scout ceremonies in summer camps for white middle-class children.

Zora Neale Hurston, 1938. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Zora Neale Hurston, meanwhile, ironically referred to herself as the “sacred black cow of Barnard” (the women’s college in New York). She was on the one hand celebrated and courted and on the other hand confronted with the pejorative judgments about African-American culture that even Boas and his students shared up to a certain point, which would become central to her own work later on.

Despite all intellectual openness and the desire at some universities and in intellectual circles on the East Coast to break with antiquated theories, Hurston and Deloria ultimately ran up against racial barriers, just as Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict, both already extremely famous during their lifetimes, faced gender boundaries in US society. Benedict, considered by many to be Boas’s official successor, did not receive a regular professorship until shortly before her death, and Mead, despite 28 honorary doctorates (!), received a position at the Jesuit Fordham University in New York relatively late, and it lasted only for two years.

Boas and his female colleagues did not have to step outside of the proverbial ivory tower with their work but acted as public intellectuals from the start. On the one hand, this had to do with the self-image of the group: they wanted to have an impact on society at a time when, despite broad-scale appeals to the Enlightenment, a system of ethnic disenfranchisement was being perfected in the US, as King writes. On the other hand, their status also arose directly from their methods. Boas, for example, had carried out anthropological measurements on behalf of the government in the early 1900s, to determine whether the children of immigrants born in the US looked more like their parents or would rather become a new “American type.” From today’s perspective, both the premise and the method are certainly questionable; yet based on the collected data, Boas came to the conviction that “race” was not a stable category, and that therefore any immigration policy that classified and favored or rejected individuals based on their origin or ancestry was pointless. After just one generation, Boas claimed, the children of immigrants resembled each other more than their parents, for example in terms of height. The Dillingham Commission thanked Boas kindly for his work, yet effectively ignored his findings and instead set the foundations for a racist immigration policy in their official report.

Boas’s opponent, the jurist, eugenicist, and lobbyist Madison Grant, fared quite differently, which is instructive for the history of racism beyond the US context. Grant’s book The Passing of the Great Race (1916) was a crude racist work of fiction that, although never becoming a bestseller, gained him some social influence, in particular in relation to the Immigration Act of 1924. The German translation of the book, published in 1925, was promptly reviewed as scientifically worthless in the journal Anthropos—but it did influence Hitler, who wrote Grant an enthusiastic thank-you letter, and is still held in high regard by Alt-Right circles today. Boas, meanwhile, whose 1881 German doctorate was annulled by the Nazis and whose books were burned during the Third Reich, tried in vain to fight racist policies with scientific data. It is a sad irony that his defeat is yet another indication that racist policies need no scientific justification.

Ruth Benedict, 1937. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Ruth Benedict, another prominent representative of the Boas circle, also attempted to intervene politically with her study Chrysanthemum and Sword: Forms of Japanese Culture (1946). The book represented an attempt to understand Japanese culture as different, but not as different and inferior, in a time when Japanese Americans were regarded as potential enemies and held captive in internment camps during World War II. Chrysanthemum and Sword sold millions of copies and eight editions were printed within the first five years after publication, and it was also translated into Japanese. In Japan, it was criticized for overemphasizing the perspective of the Japanese middle class—in which Benedict’s collaborators were embedded—and that of the military. Still, the book marked a significant attempt at understanding and transposing between supposed cultural enemies.

The experience of Zora Neale Hurston proved to be different yet again. Her work was criticized precisely for the fact that she saw herself not as a simple translator but as a documentarian, collector, and storyteller. She understood Black culture in the American South neither as a remnant from Africa, the geographical origin of slaves, nor as a corrupted version of whiteness. Instead, she was interested in Black American culture as complete in itself, as a valuable and creative expression of individuals who did not understand themselves primarily as either resistance fighters, activists, or victims of slavery, but rather as mothers and fathers, teachers and musicians, poets and civic leaders, storytellers and workers. This approach drew accusations of promoting a glorified view of the South and of denigrating the people she observed because she apparently reproduced their language unadulterated in her books. For her, however, this language was both beautiful and exactly as it should be. And it is one of the peculiarities of Hurston’s texts that she did not write in the ethnographic present tense­–which grammatically freezes individuals in time—but instead described their actions in the past tense. “In doing so, she put on permanent display on the deepest of Boasian messages: that all cultures change, even while anthropologists are busy trying to write up their field notes about them,” as Charles King notes.

Margaret Mead as a student at Barnard College, ca. 1923. Illustration from Charles King, Gods of the Upper Air.

Ultimately, however, it was Margaret Mead who had the greatest public impact among the “rebellious women.” Singled out as one of the most important women of the time, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1976 and proved tremendously productive in both academia and public discourse, regularly writing columns and articles for popular magazines and appearing on radio and television. The fact that the FBI amassed a file of more than 1,000 pages on her persona can perhaps be taken as indirect evidence of her popularity and effectiveness as well. Mead’s work on sexuality and puberty, and on gender and gender relations, attracted particular interest. In her book Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies (1935), she criticized the idea that gender and social behavior inherently belonged together. All societies assigned certain roles to men and women, Mead argued, but these did not have to be directly related or even tied to biology. Moreover, she posited almost a hundred years ago, that closer observation would show that individual differences between those who fell within the respective categories “man” and “woman” were greater than those between the categories as such.

The history of these “renegade anthropologists,” as Charles King calls them, teaches us that cultural relativism as an anthropological method and political approach is not necessarily synonymous with justification for oppression, hostility to women or contempt for human rights. Rather, it serves as a recognition that there are ways of life other than the familiar ones, and this has nothing to do with justifying anti-human practices and ideologies—or at least should not. The circle of anthropologists around Boas also saw misfortune in other societies and analyzed less successful social designs and less desirable conditions. They also had to admit that not only scientific concepts were culture-bound and by no means universal; rather, this was true for all conceptions. Nevertheless, they maintained that it was possible to recognize others and to learn from other societies, for example with regard to the permeability of gender concepts.

The fact that Boas and his students took anthropometric measurements may seem irritating from today’s perspective. So does their use of language when they speak of “primitives,” “natives,” “Indians,” and “negros”— such terms, though they are marked as racist today, were deployed to defend an antiracist stance at the time. In his afterword, King explains why he, too, uses these terms beyond quotations: for him, history becomes another culture that should be portrayed in its own terms. This is debatable, but one does not have to agree with it to appreciate the larger historical point.


This article was originally published on Geschichte der Gegenwart.
Translated from German by Anne Schult.

Gesine Krüger is Professor of Modern History at the University of Zurich. She is also one of the editors of Geschichte der Gegenwart.

Featured Image: Margaret Mead with Fa’amotu Ufuti, a Samoan friend and informant, American Samoa, ca. 1926. Illustration from Charles King, Gods of the Upper Air, 2019.

Think Piece

Italian “Secrets,” Forgery(?), and a Pearly Obsession

By Giuseppe Bruno-Chomin

We tend to believe “forgery” is immoral because it is illegal. But “forgery” pivots around the idea that “imitations” can be equal or even superior to an “original.” Might we then also think of “forgery” as a practical manipulation of the values we ascribe to material objects? For centuries people have, for instance, replicated precious stones. But what did gemstone “forgery”—if it can so be called—truly aim to accomplish? And, perhaps more importantly, what does this practice reveal about the material culture of the society in which it occurred?

Throughout history the pearl—perhaps more than any other gem—has been the object of a cult-like obsession. Pliny and Seneca, in Natural History and On Benefits, both remark on the penchant for pearls in antiquity. Pearls, also called margarites, were prized by many 16th century Europeans, including Caterina de’ Medici (1519-1589), Henry VIII (1491-1547), and Elizabeth I (1533-1603). And their popularity was recorded by Italian painter and engraver, Cesare Vecellio (1521-1601), in his popular fashion anthology, Degli habiti antichi et moderni (1590), wherein pearls are depicted as an embellishment par excellence.

In time, however, the pearl also became an instrument of the sociopolitical machine. Religious authorities sought to regulate pearl ownership through sumptuary laws, and financial concerns occasionally superseded those of religious modesty. We also read in  Disciplinare il lusso, la legislazione suntuaria in Italia e in Europa tra Medioevo ed Età Moderna, edited by Maria Giuseppina Muzzarelli and Antonella Campanini, that some rulers designed pearl protocol to their own advantage. These restrictions—though perhaps unintendedly—empowered and emboldened a faux pearl trade. In 16th century Venice, pearl “forgery” became so advanced that even wearing a pearl-like item could result in a hefty fine. And rather than surrender illegally owned pearls, many women either paid a penalty or turned in imitations instead. Evidence of the link between sumptuary laws and pearl “forgery” is even documented by Vecellio who writes that, “…in their place, many women often wear round items similar to pearls, since prostitutes are prohibited to wear them.” (portano molte volte in loco di perle certi tondini simili alle perle per esser vietato a donne di partito).

“Forgers” had become so skilled that imitation pearls were easily mistaken for those naturally occurring. Paride Nucchelli Colucci has observed that because assets and material worth influenced social status and the outcomes of marriage, gemstone imitation developed to mitigate the need for tangible and ostensible wealth. In the early modern period, the so-called “oriental pearl” was favored by Europeans for its brilliance and “exotic” associations. And the pearl frenzy was so widespread that “books of secrets” boasted an array of “do-it-yourself” recipes. Girolamo Ruscelli, under the alias Alessio Piemontese, in his De’ segreti (1555), provides a recipe for faux pearls. He even promises that these would surpass the quality of natural stones, and guarantee a profit, if presented in decorative boxes and displayed in small quantities.

Two anonymous manuscripts, at the University of Pennsylvania’s Kislak Center [dated 1585-1599, in Misc. Mss. Box 2, Folder 24], shed light on the practice of early modern pearl “forgery.” But the 16th century art of pearl imitation went beyond replicating organic stones from scratch. On occasion, alchemists undertook to modify “undesirable” pearls to enhance their appeal and value. These “forgeries” were considered equal, if not superior, to their naturally occurring counterparts. Indeed, as Jessica Kerwin Jenkins discusses, Venetian pearl makers were so very skilled that Elizabeth I purchased hundreds of imitations, which she combined with natural pearls, to decorate her dresses.

The “secrets” contained in these manuscripts range from increasing pearl size  [ad ingrossare una perla nella grosseza che vorrai], to the ideal shape [per far la veste alle perle], to giving them color [per rendere il colore alle perle]. These “secrets” also claim to replicate the highly valued “oriental pearl,” [per fare perle orientali che habbino il vero lustro orientale…] and their techniques diverge and vary. One recipe requires the dissolution and reconstitution of smaller pearls, another calls for the application of mercuric chloride, and another prefers the slimy secretion of talc-fed snails. A number of practical suggestions are also provided:

Note that some people believe they can create larger pearls with the juice of unripe lemons, but when they dry, they have no sheen […]  Some people line them in the bowels of fish,  or feed them to a dogfish, that they keep in a bucket of water. Others soak them in goat’s milk or in snail slime […] Those who are wiser give them their luster with talc water, by repeatedly applying and drying until they acquire a shiny coating. But this requires much energy and time.

Explicatory illustrations might indicate active usage. And a third-party testimonial, embedded within the text, seems to imply that they were successful: “…I made a pair of large pearls, each weighing an ounce, that were given to Gregory XIII and valued at a sum of 25 thousand scudi for their beauty and greatness.” (io fece secondo detta ricetta un paro di perle grosse d’un’uncia l’una, et furono donate a Gregorio 13, e furono stimate di valore di 25m per la loro bellezza e bontà). While this claim is naturally difficult to prove, historical sources do show that Gregory XIII owned and wore pearl embellished jewelry:

This beautiful gem is not only remarkable for its fine qualities […] it is also of some interest in an historical point: it is mounted as a gold ring surrounded by eight Oriental pearls, and was worn by Pope Gregory XIII. It may be presumed that this ring was made to keep either an hostie or some relic […] 

The dozen or so “secrets” concern the creation/modification of pearls, with the exception of a tooth whitening recipe [a fare i denti bianchi] and a random recipe for fruit preserves [a fare qualsivoglia conserva di frutti]. If pearls could be created or enhanced by human techniques, and thus be ascribed equal or greater value, pearl “forgery” was evidently perceived, by 16th century standards, as a viable means for maintaining, displaying, or even attaining, elevated social status.

There is no visible indication that the manuscripts were bound to a larger work, and textual features arouse questions about their origin, utility, and compilation. We read, for instance, that one “secret” was inexplicably “taken from a bookseller” [strappata da un libraro] and that another came from the Tuscan town of Cortona. The main text and marginalia appear to be in the same hand, and the scribe even took care to include illustrations of the instruments required: “vial shape [forma del orinale], “long neck vessel shape” [orinale col collo lungo], and “stil head” [anti notorio].

Editing practices, interchangeable word spelling, and declarations of provenance evoke a number of possible scenarios: a) the recipes were compiled for a future “book of secrets,” which would account for the corrections and amendments b) the manuscripts were copies to be presented to another party, interested in pearl “forgery” c) the recipes were actively used by one or more individuals, drawing from multiple sources and modifying instructions and procedures, on the basis of experimentation. But if they were, in fact, intended for private use, then the statements of success peppered throughout the text—“true and authentic secret” and “rare secret used many times”—would be unnecessary.

Whatever the case may be, these manuscripts bridge a proverbial gap between the spheres of fashion, politics, and alchemy. On the one hand, they corroborate the early modern “obsession” with pearls as emblems of wealth, high fashion, and social rank. On the other, they provide an occasion to reflect on the concept of “forgery,” its past expediency, and current pejorative connotation.

Today, cultured pearls are created on farms by inserting sand into an oyster to stimulate, assist, and ensure stone growth. And the fascination with stone “forgery” surfaces in unexpected places. Kits like Il piccolo chimico (the Italian version of  Chemcraft Chemical Outfit) provided children in the 1990s the opportunity to “create” or “imitate” pearls at home.

Both practices are perfectly acceptable, even desirable. So, has really all that much changed since the 16th century in terms of pearl creation, amelioration, and imitation? And what actually constitutes “forgery”?

*For their consultation, I thank Eva Del Soldato, Meredith Ray, Luna Sarti, and Peter Stallybrass

Author Bio: Giuseppe Bruno-Chomin is Lecturer in Italian Studies at the University of Pennsylvania and Instructor of Italian at Curtis Institute of Music. His research interests include Intellectual History, History of Science, Mediterranean Studies, and Paleography. 

Featured Image: Nobile Ornata (131r). Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Think Piece

Self-fashioning in the Curriculum Vitae: Leonardo, the Duke, and the CV

By Luna Sarti

The over 3.5 million Italians who were watching the episode on Leonardo da Vinci in the popular historical program Ulisse probably rejoiced as much as I did to the news that Leonardo da Vinci had to write a CV. After an initial moment of joyful relief in the perception of such a shared experience across the centuries—if even a genius had to write a CV!—I started delving into the history of the Curriculum Vitae as a genre in professionalized labor, thus speculating on the practices it might entail as a nodal site between narrative, identity, and conceptualizations of work. 

Leonardo da Vinci’s Letter to Ludovico il Moro. Codice Atlantico, f. 1082r. Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Milan. Facsimile from Museo Galileo.

Often an obvious element in any job application, the Curriculum Vitae is an interesting textual genre which offers insights into the relationship between individual experiences and socio-economic structures as the writer fashions a document which is supposed to represent an equitable token to successfully navigate those very structures. Although a comprehensive history of the genre seems yet to be written, Leonardo da Vinci is often popularly credited as having crafted the first CV. Truly enough, the Codex Atlanticus, conserved at the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan, includes the draft of a letter that Leonardo wrote in his 30s to Ludovico Sforza, ruler of Milan, with the intent of securing a position at his court.

Despite being formally shaped by different criteria if compared to our contemporary expectations of what a CV should look like, it is interesting to note that this letter of service is often interpreted through the modern perception of the Curriculum Vitae. As Leonardo introduces himself to Ludovico, in fact, he engages with strategies for constructing and presenting his own professional persona in a particular occupational context. He accordingly rearranges past experiences, acquired skills, and imagined scenarios in a narrative that responds to the ruler’s possible expectations and desires. In this text, which operates in the tradition of patronage letters, Leonardo fashions himself as a military engineer who can occasionally work as a painter, an architect, or a sculptor.

To my knowledge, most of the work on the modern CV is situated within sociological studies and focuses on its relation to notions of labor and education in late capitalism. Scholars in the field agree in identifying a lack of historical research on the genre while recognizing in Leonardo’s letter a possible origin and highlighting the 1950s as a turning point in the meaning and function of CVs. Although historical analyses of the CV as a textual form and as a contemporary idea are still sparse, there seems to be a shared commonsensical perception of such a history, which is very popular with websites and institutions dealing with strategies to produce CVs. The UK National Career Service, for example, produced an infographic that highlights the salient points of such a history, which starts with Leonardo and culminates with the development of a Lifelong Learning Account. 

As Eva Forsberg discusses, the CV acquired its central, fundamental, and axiomatic role for those seeking to enter and to move within structures of education and labor during the second half of the 20th century, when a new society emerged “in which access to a given occupation was determined (supposedly) neither by family background, nor social status, but formal merits.” Within this context, a CV is asked to function as a rational, quantifiable token that highlights achievements and thus guarantees equitable access to the structures of work and socio-economic success. It could be argued that the CV as a genre thrives on the tension between self-narration and assessment, thus constituting a form for organizing, packaging, and mediating content in a way that supposedly guarantees, thanks to quantifiable parameters, a “fair” selection between applicants. 

Focusing on the tension between self-narration and assessment, Nod Miller and David Morgan have proposed a reading of CVs through the lens of Goffman’s influential work on performance, thus concluding that the meaning of a CV occurs at the intersection between self and audiences who “share a common culture and a common set of rules and expectations.” From this perspective, they view the rules that govern CV-writing as being shaped “in conformity with commonsensical constructions of individual life-courses as well as with administrative understandings of experience and expertise.”

Although situating the origin story of the genre in Leonardo’s text involves some methodological issues, it is a helpful starting point for reflecting on the construction of the CV as a textual genre whose story is entangled with the historical development of education, labor, and class. Leonardo’s text, in fact, widely evokes the contemporary CV because it activates some of the expectations we recognize as governing this particular genre today. From this perspective, the fact that a 15th-century letter of presentation can be conflated with the category of the CV provides us with the opportunity to unravel some of the implications in those “commonsensical” rules that govern the production of a contemporary Curriculum Vitae.

In his popular work Fortune is a River, Roger Masters refers to the letter to Ludovico Sforza in relation to Leonardo’s struggle with socio-economic conditions and his attempt to secure an independent source of income that could support his household and his research (36-37). In this context, the letter takes on a different meaning and shifts from the glorious position it gains within the origin-story of a modern genre toward a less appealing one. The practices of self-fashioning that it underpins in relation to the audience’s expectations acquire new significance as they overlap with cartographies of power and socio-economic hierarchies. Whose language and values is Leonardo using in the narrative? His own or the Duke’s?

The rules of CV-writing require both the writer and the audience to engage with a particular conception of the past in which individual experience is rationalized by extracting certain valuable portions while striving for authenticity and excellence. As Chan, Johns, and Moses describe in Academic Metrics and Positioning Strategies, “the writing and tweaking of a CV is at once an exercise in self-appraisal, a response to past appraisal, and a task undertaken in anticipation of future appraisal.” (187) In its ideal form, the construction of a modern CV is supposed to quantitatively and qualitatively structure experience, thus facilitating objective comparisons between candidates in relation to potential employment. In the implicit engagement between the applicant-performer and the imagined evaluating audience, the practice of CV writing involves silencing as much as selective storytelling. As scholarship on the sociological significance of CVs in academia highlights, the production of CVs is rule-governed and institutionalized. Thus, investigating what criteria shape the rules and how they have been historically produced constitute the preconditions for asking whether these institutional practices really guarantee equality or rather contribute to reinforce existing power cartographies while relying on a widespread intellectual representation of a CV as a commonsensical parameter for equity.

At first, I started reading Leonardo’s letter with the hope he would mention the maestri d’acqua (water experts) while talking about his work as a hydraulic engineer. Then, I was amused by his witty manipulation of biography aiming to self-fashion a more effective persona in order to secure a position. It seemed to be an instance of how remarkably talented individuals can overcome the challenges of their time and live successful lives. However, wary of the controversial making of success stories, I started thinking about the history and implications of CV-writing. Now, I propose the question: is the contemporary iteration of professional self-fashioning deployed in the CV really a token for justice and social mobility? 

Luna is a Ph.D. candidate in Italian Studies at the University of Pennsylvania and a primary editor at the JHI Blog.

Featured Image: Leonardo da Vinci, Self portrait. The Flight of Birds Codex. Raitre. WikiArt.

Think Piece

Quandaries of Quinine

By Jessica Sequeira

Quina quina (bark of bark, or holy bark), from the cinchona tree, is native to the Amazon rainforest and the Andes of South America. Its properties have been known for hundreds of years to the Quechua people of Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Brazil, and other countries of the region, who used the bark as a preventive method and a muscle relaxant against the shivering and fever of the disease later called “malaria”. What is not known is the exact process by which the properties of the tree were introduced to Europe. As Fernando Ortiz Crespo puts it: “The entry of Quina Bark into modern pharmacology has been clouded by unreliable sources, apocryphal ornament and botanical confusion.”

The Spanish physicians Juan Fragoso and Nicolas Monardes wrote about medicinal bark in the New World, but Fragoso didn’t give much detail about the tree in his work Historia medicinal de las cosas que se traen de nuestras Indias Occidentales (Medicinal History of Things Brought from Our West Indies). In the next century, tales circulated about the Countess of Chinchon, wife of the Viceroy of Peru, supposedly cured of “tertian fever” by a local doctor who used an extract from the bark of a Peruvian tree. The facts of this tale cannot be proven, but it captured the European imagination, and Linnaeus named the bark “Cinchona officinalis” after the Countess. The criollo Augustinian friar Antonio de la Calancha also studied the bark, as did the Spanish Jesuit Bernabé Cobo, as well as the Italian Jesuit Agostino Salumbrino, who wrote about its use in Lima to treat shivering. Because it was the Jesuits who brought word of quina quina with them not only back to Europe, but also to other regions of the world such as China where they were involved in missionary work, the bark began to be widely referred to as “Jesuit bark”, “Jesuit’s Powder”, or “Pulvis Patrum”.

Today quinine is often associated with the British empire, a word to be found in a Graham Greene novel or linked to the gin and tonics sipped by colonialists in the tropics. But the drug has a long history before that. The implementation of quina quina in the European context involves overlapping global networks from the 17th to the 21st century with different and at times conflicting aims. South American Jesuits, Portuguese and Spanish conversos, members of London’s Royal Society, merchants and soldiers in Asia and Africa, astronomists, botanists, wartime chemists and a great many more researched or used the tree for medical purposes. And, long before the Europeans, indigenous people lived alongside quina quina without the need for “discovery”, cultivating local knowledge that has still not yet been explored with as much depth and respect as it ought to be.

Jacob de Castro-Sarmento. Mezzotint by R. Houston after R. E. Pine. Wellcome Collection.

One part of this story involves the Portuguese Jews who escaped from the Inquisition and moved to London, where they developed and popularized quinine, a product marketed as quintessentially English under the name agoas de Inglaterra (waters of England). To tell this story in all its complexity would require a structure as delicate and beautiful as that of the cinchona alkaloid, whose synthetization in the 20th century would have been impossible without quina quina.


At the age of 28, the Portuguese doctor Jacob de Castro Sarmento escaped from the Portuguese Inquisition by moving to London. He had studied at Mértola, he matriculated at the University of Evora obtaining a degree in classics and the philosophy of Aristotle, and went on to acquire a medical degree at the University of Coimbra. After completing his studies, he worked with the poor in the region of Alemtejo, where he grew interested in fevers. It was here, however, that he also got involved with underground Jewish practices, and both he and his mother were pursued by guardians of the faith.

It was a common move at the time for Jews like him, averse to converting to Catholicism but even more averse to torture, to make a new life in England, since the two countries enjoyed a political and commercial relationship. Eleven years later, in 1735, Sarmento published his Materia Medica Physico-Historico-Mechanica, reprinted in 1756 under the catchier title Do Uso, e Abuso das Minhas Agoas de Inglaterra (On the Use, and Abuse, of My Waters of England). In the meantime, he continued to experiment and advance his career. By the time the second edition came out, he had had more time to understand the effects of the maravilhoza casca (marvelous bark).

Sarmento heavily criticizes his fellow doctors for writing against his medicine for thirty years, when the bark could have been working its good effects. He also identifies a doctor who vended agoas de Inglaterra with a distinct purposes: “another remedy was circulating with the same name, but with a very different process of invention and preparation; its Author always kept the composition of the remedy secret, and attributed to it virtues or properties other than curing intermittent fevers”.[i] Sarmento repeatedly insists that his version is the correct one, and that great claims which don’t take into account warnings about what the bark can and can’t do, and the specific situations and methods its use requires, are a danger.

At this time, all kinds of fevers were grouped as a possible effect of hot weather. Of course, some attributed these ailments to the wrath of God, gleefully pointing toward them as punishments for evil behavior, akin to syphilis. Categories of “heat” and “lax morality” began to overlap, so that regions with hot climates were attributed with dubious ethics. But since epidemics of fever stretched across many 18th-century cities, including Lisbon, this explanation was a troubled one. The King of Portugal himself grew interested in tackling the matter when malaria ravaged the south of his country. While Inquisitors and other religious officials attempted to explain such disease through religion, “natural philosophers”, some of whom were exiled abroad in London, started to provide other explanations in which God was bracketed off at least temporarily, and physiology allowed to take center stage.

Here is where Sarmento offers his services. Notably, he refers to himself as an “Author”, which seems to indicate that medicine is an act as personal as writing a book, one not yet controlled by corporations or laboratory teams. In an uncertain world characterized by an emerging individual self-consciousness, as well as legal precarity regarding brand names, intellectual copyrights, and patents, makers of potions felt very possessive about their recipes and ingredients. Sarmento refers to his potion as minhas Agoas de Inglaterra (my Waters of England) throughout his work, and On the Use, and Abuse, of My Waters of England is a robust defense of “his” medicine, his right to it, and its correct use according to him. For all the talk of Divine Providence, the glory of Portugal, and the benefit to human furthering of Natural History, human ego also plays a role.

Frontispiece of Do uso, e abuso das minhas Agoas de Inglaterra by Jacob de Castro Sarmento (Universidade de Coimbra Digitalis)

Quina quina may have adverse effects, Sarmento admits, but also miraculous ones if used properly, hence the “use and abuse” of the title. Drug use and abuse are familiar ideas in contemporary societies in relation to an individual patient or recreational consumer, but such ideas can apply to the prudent doctor, too. For a man languishing from fever in his bed in some tropical place, the doctor must administer exactly the right combination of ingredients, with the correct dosage. In the edition that I am reading, handwritten notes appear in sepia ink, perhaps marginalia by a medical colleague reading On the Use, and Abuse, of My Waters of England to learn about Sarmento’s techniques, or by a younger man studying to be a physician. Several of the notes are glosses on the prohibitions and warnings about what one should definitely not do. It is as if, in spite of what else could happen, our mysterious note-taker wants to be sure that if his potion does not bring healing, it will at least not usher in death.


Although it was published in England by the Scottish publisher William Strahan, who also published Adam Smith and Edward Gibbon, Sarmento’s work was deeply tied to Portuguese interests. It was dedicated to Diogo de Mendonça Corte-Real, secretary of state to João V of Portugal, and it begins with these resounding words: “In all of natural history, no greater discovery has been made to this day, nor one more interesting to human Nature and public health, than that of quina quina; and it seems to me that in all of Medical history, nowhere are so many astonishing effects of this admirable bark to be found registered, and with such individuality, as in this little book that I offer to Your Excellency.”[ii]

The second edition recalls how the 1731 edition was written on commission for the minister of Portugal, who was “highly inclined to undertake a natural History of our Brazil”[iii], and reminds His Majesty that “in that Dominion, there lies deposited a far greater providence, and a more priceless treasure to discover by means of our natural History, than all of the precious stones or gold that can be extracted from its mines”[iv]. To put it another way, the quina quina bark in Brazil is a greater treasure to Portugal than even its jewels and gold.

Flipping to the end of Sarmento’s book, readers find a picture of quina quina on the last page, its branches laid flat, its thick leaves accompanied by finer ones, its tiny flowers and its stem in cross-section carefully sliced and sorted in preparation for the mixing of the Agoas de Inglaterra. Pictured this way, its every part exposed, the tree is stripped of sacredness and turned into matter, a resource. In the “Dedicatoria”, the language of Providence signals clear human interests: the world is portrayed as having begun as rude and confused, until humanity gradually learned to turn nature to its uses, as destined by Providence. The “happy discovery”[v] of quina quina forms part of this providential history. Such logic was convenient to the Portuguese government, desperate for a cure for both the “fevers” in their country, and the ones suffered by men posted to Brazil and India.

Quina quina, as seen in the end pages of Do uso, e abuso das minhas Agoas de Inglaterra by Jacob de Castro Sarmento (Universidade de Coimbra Digitalis).

On Use and Abuse reads in part as a cookbook, with descriptions of situations given along with specific mixtures required, the fruit of Sarmento’s experience of three decades. Quina quina bark must be ground and combined with other substances and liquids, which vary depending on the specific case. Ingredients include malva, cream of tartar, tamarind pulp, flaxseed oil, sal ammoniac, spirit of hartshorn, vinegar, strawberry syrup, juice of oranges from China, lemon juice, green wine or “the best white wine of Lisbon”, lemonade, rhubarb, valeriana silvestre, pure opium, cinnamon water, spiritus mindereri and Mynsicht’s elixir of vitriol. Some are familiar to us, some less so. It is organized into sections focusing on the different ailments that can be treated with quina quina, from varieties of fever (“intermittent”, “ardent” and “nervous”) to other unexpected situations such as “hysterical affects”, “matrimony” (i.e. sex life), constipation, stomachs cheo de flatos depois de comer (full of flatulence after eating), miscarriages, gangrene following surgical operations and amputations, and bullet wounds. The book ends with two testimonials, a common genre similar to today’s book blurbs, attesting to the efficacy of the medicines and once again reinforcing the “Authorship” of Sarmento. The first is by a physician in the Roman curia, Dr Gaspar Rodrigues de Payva, the second by a physician to the King of Angola, Dr Euzebio Catela de Lemos.

Quina quina is truly portrayed as a miracle drug. It seems that the Agoas can be used for nearly everything, diced and dissolved into different recipes. The trick is to determine the correct combination and timing. Rather than immediately prescribing the Agoas, the prudent doctor will often let the fever run its course for a time first, to avoid the patient’s relapse. Specific ingredients are also recommended as complements, such as contrayerva to slow or retard the effect of quina quina, or else as purgatives to help expel noxious substances prejudicial to the patient’s health. Medicine comes to mirror human activity itself, requiring great circumspection and the equanimity to move backward a bit before one can advance.

Although nominally about medicine, the book displays concern about the human being in general. Sarmento’s experience as a doctor shines through, both in his first-person references and in his vivid allusions to others, such as his story of a feverish patient tucked away in bed next to an open window, afflicted by frights and terrors. In the section about bullet wounds, we also read: “I remember noticing the bullet wound in my Father’s leg, which he received in his youth, and which could clearly be seen; many times I heard him declare that even after he was cured, he continued to suffer, or that even the slightest inconvenience bothered him in the place in his leg where the bullet had lodged, and when he died, at 86 years old, he took it with him to the grave”[vi].

In the 18th century, autobiography was not the stand-alone genre it is today, and it is startling to find such first-person accounts in unexpected places such as this medical manual. It might perhaps fit into an alternate tradition of medical writing that includes works by figures such as Gerolamo Cardano and Leonardo da Vinci, and before them many Greeks and Romans, for whom the health of the soul and the health of the body are bound up, and the life of the doctor is connected to that of the patient.


As a muscular relaxant, quina quina had many uses to tranquilize a body overstimulated by heat, mosquitos or the many other undesirable influences which might persecute a poor human organism from the outside. But it had some undesirable internal effects as well, of the kind doctors warn about even today, should they prescribe tablets to patients. Vomiting is a risk. But even more dangerous is an excessive dose, or one taken at the wrong stage of fever, which could relax the body too much, especially the central organ in charge of distributing blood and life to the rest of the system: the heart. Cardiac arrhythmia is the name for an irregular pulse that reaches the extreme of stopping the body entirely, and quina quina is an antiarrhythmic agent. In such cases, it is not unusual for the patient in question to die.

The dose makes the poison, Paracelsus is said to have remarked, implying that medicine improves life in small quantities but turns to poison in larger ones. Quina quina, like other powerful medicines, is also a poison. During the unstable time of experimentation with its effects, 18th-century amateur scientists occasionally inflicted illness when experimenting with the bark, possibly even death. Many untold stories haunt this period when political and medical interests preferred not to notice the invisible hand that gently closed victims’ eyes.

Sarmento assumed a position of importance in the Royal Society when his predecessor, Isaac de Sequeira Samuda, died at the age of 48. Sequeira, another exile from the Portuguese Inquisition, had also been studying quina quina thanks to his contact with Dr Fernando Mendes, another member of the erudite diaspora committed to battling the new strains of fever, with the added experience of having survived England’s Great Plague. On 25 August 1728, Joseph Israel Carrillo, physician to the King of Tunis, sent Sequeira a long letter about the verbascum flower, also mentioning the “arbor Exotica Indica Melancholica”. Just a couple months later, on 22 November 1729, Sequeira passed away under mysterious circumstances linked to his study. The report of his death describes him as having “stopped”.

Sometimes studying the past can feel like detective work, and I still do not know what the exact links between events might be. Certainly, the brief account given of Sequeira’s death matches the medical description of a stopped heart from quina quina. Or perhaps it was the verbascum he was inquiring about in his letter, also used by indigenous peoples as a poison. Upon Sequeira’s death, Jacob de Castro Sarmento published his book about quina quina, alluding to its tragic consequences if not used correctly. He quickly took over Sequeira’s role as a physician and scientific adviser, and life at the Royal Society went on. In his spare time, out of friendship or guilt, he also made the effort to complete an epic poem about the Lusitanian leader Viriatus which Sequeira had begun.

Having escaped the horrors of the Inquisition, a Portuguese exile might find a subtler arena of human sacrifice in London, where oblations were contextualized in terms of a greater good, if not God’s Providence, than the advancement of natural philosophy. In the early 18th century, as the world opened up with new global networks, scientific discoveries were frequently decontextualized from their original circumstances. A plant held sacred by Quechua people, in the context of an indigenous culture that was aware of its power, respectful of its healing properties, and conscious of its potentially dangerous effects as a poison, was transformed into pure matter, a resource for the Europeans desperate for a cure for the diseases ravaging their nations and empire.

The quina quina plant was used to advance solutions and careers as part of larger accounts of Catholic providential history and Progress. Stories about it often assumed a kind of parasitism and mimesis similar to that of the malaria that it sought to cure. By erasing Quechua knowledge and claiming its “discovery”, the story of modern European pharmacology often became one of narrative parasitism that unfolded in parallel with bodily disease. And ironically, it was many of those who had been victims themselves — the Portuguese who suffered from the Inquisition, for instance — who assumed important roles in these processes.

[i] De Castro Sarmento, Jacob. Do Uso, e Abuso das Minhas Agoas de Inglaterra, ix. “corria outro remedio com o mesmo nome, mas na invençam, e preparaçam muito differente; nem seu Autor, que fez sempre segredo de dizer, o de que se compunha o tal remedio, lhe atribuio ja mais ontras virtudes, ou propiedades, que a de curar as febres intermittentes”

[ii] Ibid., iii-iv. “Em toda a Historia natural, se naō tem feito mayor descobrimento ate este dia, nem mais interessante à Natureza humana, e saude publica, do que o da quina quina; e pareceme a mim, que em toda a Historia Medica, se naõ acharàm registrado tantos, e com tanta individuaçam, os pasmozos effeitos desta admiravel casca, como neste pequeno livro que offereço a V. Exa.”

[iii] Ibid, xii. “muito inclinado a entreprender numa Historia natural do nosso Brasil”

[iv] Ibid., xii. “na quelle Dominio, tem depozitado a providencia muito mayor, e mais inextimavel thezouro, a descobrir por meyo de numa Historia natural, do que todas as pedras preciozas e o ouro que das suas minas se podem extrahir”

[v] Ibid., vi. “feliz descobrimento”

[vi] Ibid., 257. “me lembro, que havendo recebido meu Pay hum tiro de bala, em huma perna, na sua mocidade, e ficandolhe nella, como manifestamente lhe percebia; muitas vezes lhe ouvi declarar, que depois da cura que se lhe fez, ja mais padecera o menor inconveniente ou molestia, no lugar, ou perna, donde lhe ficou a tal bala, sendo que morreo de oitenta e seis annos, e a levou consigo a sepultura”

Jessica Sequeira has published the novel A Furious Oyster, the story collection Rhombus and Oval, the essay collection Other Paradises: Poetic Approaches to Thinking in a Technological Age and the hybrid work A Luminous History of the Palm. She has translated many books by Latin American authors, and in 2019 was awarded the Premio Valle-Inclán. Currently she lives between Chile and the UK, where she is based at the Centre of Latin American Studies at the University of Cambridge.

Featured Image: Quina quina, as seen in the end pages of Do uso, e abuso das minhas Agoas de Inglaterra by Jacob de Castro Sarmento. (Detail). Courtesy of Universidade de Coimbra Digitalis.