Statement from the judging committee: In The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America, 1933–1973, Mark Greif is in pursuit of the mid-century Americans who pursued the idea of human nature, despite their dark fear that such a thing might not exist. If some philosophies of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment had insisted that there was something intrinsically dignified in mankind, confidence in that belief took a beating during the racism, genocide, and global war that defined all public life from the 1930s onward. Greif demonstrates that the perceived “crisis of man” represented both concern that universal human nature (and human rights) might not exist and anxiety that such rights might not be extended beyond the white men who had traditionally represented mankind, to the exclusion of others. As a problem in moral philosophy, the crisis of man was profound—so much so that it flowed abundantly into American literature. Rather than accept the problem, Greif endorses a re-enlightenment to revive conviction that humans have basic, intrinsic value. This book will be at the heart of many arguments over twentieth-century thought.
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Here are a few interesting articles and pieces we found around the web this week. If you come across something that other intellectual historians might enjoy, please let us know in the comments section.
On 16 April, I had the pleasure of attending “Nearness | Rift: Art and Time in the Textiles of Medieval Britain,” a one-day symposium hosted by the University of Chicago’s art history department and organized by Ph.D. student Luke Fidler. Named after the image of the crumpled handkerchief famously invoked by Michael Serres to describe a topology “wherein disparate points unexpectedly fold onto and away from each other,” the symposium set itself against a sexier theoretical backdrop than one might suppose any conference on “medieval textiles” has any right to. Fidler, as he made plain in his introduction, aimed to start a conversation that engaged head-on with some of the key historiographical assumptions in the study of medieval art history. Throughout the day, one had the feeling that the scholars he had brought together were collectively attempting to carve out new ways of thinking with textiles as puzzling and ontologically unstable objects of labor and aesthesis, reminding us that our very notion of context (from the Latin contextus, meaning woven or entwined) is historiographically complex and unstable.
The keynote lecture was given by Thomas E. A. Dale (Professor of Art History, UW Madison), whose paper, “Materiality, Metaphor and the Senses: Elite Textile Cultures of Medieval England in their Global Contexts,” considered opus anglicanum textiles as a site for exploring how the intimate and the global fold onto each other, as well as for the recent “sensory turn” in medieval art historical studies. Examples of opus anglicanum, such as the vestments of St. Cuthbert and the lavish cope of John of Thanet, serve both as prime examples of medieval English textiles’ globality (both in their wide circulation and reflection of elites’ exotic tastes for Eastern materials and ornament) and also of their “multi-sensorial desire.” While Meyer Schapiro saw in Reginald of Durham’s account of the inventio of St. Cuthbert a surprisingly modern sensibility in his purely aesthetic enjoyment of the saint’s vestments, Dale helpfully guided our attention away from Reginald’s connoisseurship to the aesthesis effected by the garments themselves that is given such vivid witness in Reginald’s account (the “completely undecayed” body still seems to somehow breathing, wrapped in luminous and beautifully detailed vestments that “crackle” when they are unfolded). Thanet’s cope is notable for both its pseudo-Kufic inscriptions and its image of Christ resting a hand on a T-O globe, indicating the importance of Christianity’s global character. Like St. Cuthbert’s vestments, its distinctive use of gold threads and taste for Orientalist exoticism points to the importance of globalism and multi-sensorial piety to opus anglicanum aesthetics.
Dale, as part of a move to consider the broader theological-aesthetic contexts for these objects, then considered the eschatological significance of veils and the metonymic action of “putting on Christ” entailed in the adorning of garments that shine forth with light. Dale’s talk concluded with a case study of sacral kingship analyzing the lavish robes worn by Richard II and his patron saint St. Edmund in the Wilton Diptych, which crystallizes these themes in a secular context. In his equal emphasis on the semiotic significance of the materials and sensoria of opus anglicanum as well as their global context, Dale raised important questions about the potentially widespread geographical genealogies of this class of textiles while also pointing to their ability to crystallize complex social and politico-theological relations and networks.
Following Dale, Valerie Garver (Associate Professor of History, Northern Illinois University) discussed “Garments as Means of Communication Between Anglo-Saxon England and the Carolingian World.” She followed Bernard L. Herman in attempting an “object-oriented approach” to history in her reading of the extensive body of letters left behind by Alcuin of York. Garver paid particular attention to Alcuin’s discussion of clothing in his letters to various Anglo-Saxon correspondents, warning them of Frankish excesses in dress. Garver’s talk, more reliant on texts than the others at the symposium, highlighted the usefulness of a historicism that assumes that objects produce texts, rather than the other way around, especially in the context of the early Middle Ages, a period often weighed down with historiographical problems for its relative dearth of surviving objects.
Christina Normore (Assistant Professor of Art History, Northwestern University) was next, and her “Linear Narrative, Liturgical Time, and the Bayeux Tapestry” confronted some sacred cows in the scholarship and teaching on the famous textile: namely, its secularity and the linearity of its narrative. Normore’s talk was primarily concerned with the history of the tapestry as an object. She began with an intriguing (and humorous) discussion of British school curricula that have students reenact and interpret the “feelings” of the tapestries’ “main characters.” Normally, “we medievalists” would like to assume that we’re above the teaching methods of grade schools, but Normore showed such methods to be symptomatic of a series of assumptions in Bayeux tapestry scholarship that ignore its materiality and liturgical settings. She suggested that the tapestry’s sheer length and weight lead to a persistent tendency, even need, to fragment, skim, and reduce its scale just to engage with the tapestry at all.
Normore’s talk was followed by a paper by Clare Jenson, a doctoral candidate in Art History at the University of Chicago, on her research on the wonderfully idiosyncratic writings and vestments of John Grandisson, Bishop of Exeter (d. 1369). Jenson discussed Grandisson’s exceptionally detailed writings on the role of vestments in the liturgy, revealing a personality with an exhaustively fastidious attention to detail, such as color coordination and the arrangement of the liturgy.In Jenson’s telling, Grandisson was a keen theorist of liturgy, cultivating a praxis that fastidiously considered liturgical actors individually as well as their “total effect” on the audience as a coordinated group..This praxis was derived not only from his study of theology, but also the examples of “great” bishops before him, such as Anselm. Remarkably, a considerable collection of objects and vestments survives that was created under his patronage and according to his liturgical preferences, allowing for a truly unique research opportunity questioning the relationship between Grandisson’s texts and the objects those texts theorized. Consistent with many other works of opus anglicanum, these vestments also delight in legible juxtapositions of international, exotic styles.
Nancy Feldman (Lecturer in Art History at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago) gave the final paper, entitled “Cultural Politics: The Term ‘Opus Anglicanum’ in Late Medieval England.” It was by far the most technical of the papers given, analyzing changes and variations in the threading techniques of English textiles, as well as the shift from a predominance of gold to silver threads in the textiles, which Victorian historians considered a degradation of the style. Feldman’s paper pointed to an essentially global character to the genre of opus anglicanum itself, a term that wasn’t coined until the late thirteenth century and was used most frequently in continental inventories, justifying historically a recent shift in scholarship away from nineteenth- and twentieth-century accounts that use the term to refer to a local phenomenon.
Overall, “Nearness | Rift” stimulated a fruitful discussion that made one feel in the presence of genuinely productive and fresh scholarly conversation. As Aden Kumler (Associate Professor of Art History, University of Chicago) noted in her closing remarks, the papers collectively raised questions and prompted conversations about fundamental and under-theorized issues in textile studies, including the study of technique and movement, forcing scholars to confront the fact that art history today still hasn’t found a way to really grapple with “the applied” as not just a functionalist but an aesthetic category. Kumler reminded us of the fact that textiles are, at their core, assemblage objects made from a stratified aggregation of labor practices and techniques that make them ontologically, topologically, and temporally unstable, leading her to ask the important question of whether or not it even makes sense to see textiles as a medium at all. At the end of the day, what made “Nearness | Rift” feel like success was that it asked more questions than it answered, opening up ambitious avenues for new research.
Jack Dragu is pursuing a Ph.D. in English at the University of Chicago, where he studies late medieval literature and enjoys thinking about things like poetics, self-induced suffering, resistance to hegemonies, and superfluous historicism. He grew up in Los Angeles but has spent his adult life in the Midwest.
Can the Nonhuman Speak? Breaking the Chain of Being in the Anthropocene a lecture by Joyce E. Chaplin
A syllogism: 1. The environmental crises that go under the name of the Anthropocene represent the most important problems of our generation. 2. As characteristically careful analysts of the human condition, historians of ideas are excellently qualified to address those problems. 3. Therefore historians of ideas should take up the task, however much contemplation of the Anthropocene might challenge assumptions that humans have a distinctive status as idea-generating beings.
Joyce E. Chaplin (BA, Northwestern; MA, PhD, Johns Hopkins) is the James Duncan Phillips Professor of Early American History at Harvard University and director of Harvard’s American Studies program. A specialist in environmental history and the history of science, she is the author of An Anxious Pursuit: Agricultural Innovation and Modernity in the Lower South, 1730–1815 (1993), Subject Matter: Technology, the Body, and Science on the Anglo-American Frontier, 1500-1676 (2001), The First Scientific American: Benjamin Franklin and the Pursuit of Genius (2006), Round about the Earth: Circumnavigation from Magellan to Orbit (2012), and (with Alison Bashford) The New Worlds of Thomas Robert Malthus: Rereading the Principle of Population (2016). She is also the editor of Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography: A Norton Critical Edition (2012) and (with Darrin McMahon) of Genealogies of Genius (2015).
Friday, May 6, 2016 5 pm Fisher-Bennett Hall 401, University of Pennsylvania Reception to follow
Few historical truths are as easy to pin down as the fact that Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) knew how to have a good time. He loved a good party, he loved his wine and his parmesan cheese, he loved to go to the theatre (350 performances in a 9 year span), and his enthusiasm for reading ranged from delight at Micrographia to erotic satisfaction at L’Ecole des Filles (although he burned it after reading).
As only we who are the most practiced hedonists can, Pepys made the best of bad situations. During an outbreak of plague in London he wrote in his diary at the end of July, while noting the death of around 1,700 people:
Thus I ended this month with the greatest joy that ever I did any in my life, because I have spent the greatest part of it with abundance of joy and honour, and pleasant journeys and brave entertainments, and without cost of money.
Or, during a boring sermon in Church, he simply took out his telescope and amused himself:
I did entertain myself with my perspective glass up and down the church, by which I had the great pleasure of seeing and gazing at a great many very fine women; and what with that, and sleeping, I passed away the time till sermon was done.
Reading Pepys’ diary is a pleasure, because everything is fascinating when written about by someone who keeps himself fascinated as a matter of habit — by someone who adapted. Pepys was also adaptable where it counted most: although “a great roundhead” at age 15, witnessing the execution of Charles I with the sense of savage glee (“The memory of the wicked shall rot,” he recalls saying the day the King was beheaded), he was aboard the ship that brought Charles II back to England, and managed to have a successful naval career across an incredible period of political volatility, the span of which is covered at the National Maritime Museum’s exhibition Samuel Pepys: Plague, Fire, Revolution.
This exhibit has everything: a painting of the beheading of Charles I highlighted with a spotlight, draperies stimulating the houses of plague victims, recipes for avoiding the plague, Napier’s Bones, pirate catalogues, portraits of beautiful women (Nell Gwynn as Venus, Aphra Behn as herself), models of warships, mannequins wearing frilly Restoration fashions, ceramic tiles depicting the Popish Plot, elaborate drinking goblets, and multiple portraits Pepys commissioned of himself.
On the one hand, these materials offer an immersive experience into a well-worn concept of the Restoration dramatized in Pepys’ diary. As Lisa Jardine put it in a New Statesman review:
Because of Pepys, the Restoration has been painted with monotonous regularity as the age of the bodice-ripper adventure – men in periwigs doing shady business deals and exchanging confidences in crowded coffee houses, fondling buxom seamstresses and keeping covert assignations with neighbours’ wives, bedding loose women in insalubrious taverns.
But on the other hand, the exhibition intermingles that bodice-ripping with the traumatic highlights of the era Pepys survived (Revolution, Plague, and Fire). Wandering through the exhibition gives the impression that the periwig-wearing caricature of the Restoration Pepys has helped to popularise was a matter of psychological necessity — his own. Maybe the sheer weight of material accrued by the exhibition curators is a faithful re-enactment what a person of his social standing could do in 1666 to try to forget the pain of his own memories.
One of the first things Charles II did upon his restoration to the throne in 1660 is pass the Indemnity and Oblivion Act. Michael Neufeld among others has shown in The Civil Wars After 1660 how these acts kicked off a top-down effort to erase public memory of the Civil War (during which a fourth of the population perished) and Interregnum Period, and minimize violent reprisals. Under the act, only 11 out of the 31 regicides were executed, and records were altered, or ‘obliterated’ to erase any sourcex of embarrassment. But the government’s enforcement of memory loss and its related control on information and record-keeping could only go so far on a societal scale. Consider only for example the failure of the King’s supposed “Surveyor of the Press”, Sir Roger L’Estrange, toward the end of the 60s, in suppressing the publication of seditious materials among groups who had been vocal during the war — non-comformists like the Quakers barely broke their stride in speaking, and publishing, their minds. Against that background, acts of God were much more effective than legislation: pestilence that killed a fourth of London, a fire that levelled the city and incinerated many of its books, archives, and artefacts that people might otherwise use to connect with the past.
Who is to say how people might develop, on top of that, their own behaviours of forgetting, their own coping mechanisms: whether it be going to the theatre obsessively, or drinking wine constantly, or focusing their telescope on Jupiter and churchgoing ladies alike? Novelty can sometimes be deeply therapeutic, and in a London that had been destroyed, there was nothing to do but start over and buy garish new things until the panic subsided and there was truly the time to rebuild.
This form of consumerist coping makes sense when paired with the epistemological optimism of institutions like the Royal Society, which Pepys was elected to in 1665 and president of in 1684: socialising around practices of observing new phenomena and conducting new experiments to re-calibrate an understanding of the way the world works is a wonderful way of moving forward. So too does it fit with his naval career and the expansion of the British Empire. The hunger for novelty to soften the traumas of the past seems, for Pepys, limitless. In The Invention of Improvement, Paul Slack describes it in different terms (indeed, in Pepys’ terms, or even at a later date Benjamin Franklin’s) that hunger becomes about “improvement” and “improvement came to rival and eventually replace alternative roads to better things, such as ‘reformation’ or ‘revolution’. Instead, the condition of England would be bettered by gradual and piecemeal change.”
That Pepys employed each of these strategies, and was involved in each of these scenes — cultural, scientific, political— is a testament to his privileged position: he had worked hard to make the money that allowed him to repeatedly make the best of bad situations. While he leaves an astonishing paper trail, one that makes it easy forget his limits as one man with one perspective (“History’s greatest witness,” the exhibition billboard proclaims), he is not alone in his habits or his emergency spending power. In that case: is the Restoration the first time in English history when it was possible to medicate trauma with material consumption? Did the combination of failed revolution, bubonic plague, and destructive flames create the ideal conditions for retail therapy? As Thomas Browne writes in the the preface to Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646): “Knowledge is made by oblivion, and to purchase a clear and warrantable body of Truth, we must forget and part with much we know.” Over-accumulation of new things serves a similar purpose. And walking through the exhibition has nearly that effect: the dramatic scenes of destruction at the beginning are almost blotted out by the lustre of fine cutlery and maritime instruments featured at the end. The pocket atlases and telescopes and seascape paintings that conclude the exhibition ask of us to look almost anywhere other than at the immediate surroundings, as Pepys himself seems to have done, with tireless optimism.