From the Archive: Passage and Place: Loci in Humanist Travel Writing

by Madeline McMahon (November 2015)

12th-century Church of the Sepulchre of Mary, Jerusalem (Wikimedia

12th-century Church of the Sepulchre of Mary, Jerusalem (Wikimedia)

After midday on August 14, 1483, the Dominican friar Felix Fabri and his fellow pilgrims to Jerusalem began to prepare for their celebration of the feast of the assumption of Mary. They constructed a small kind of tent around the altar in the very “place from whence the blessed Virgin was carried off” to heaven after her death and created “a beauteous holy grove,” adorned with “leafy boughs of olive and palm trees, strewed with grass and flowers.” In the evening, incense intermingled with the scent of the branches, and the pilgrims sang “Et ibo mihi ad montem myrrhae.” After the service, a group of Eastern Christians used the same space, although Fabri was unimpressed with their hymns: “they seem to wail rather than to sing.” Nevertheless, the liturgical calendar dictated when both Fabri’s Western Christian companions and their Eastern Christian neighbors celebrated this particular feast. But because they were in Jerusalem, the actual place associated with the Virgin’s death also played a central role in their liturgical celebrations: they circled her sepulchre in a procession and sat vigil around it throughout the eve of her feast (Fabri, Evagatorium, trans. Stewart, 7.193-4).

Later in his journey, Fabri returned to where “Mary departed from this world,” but described it very differently. On a walking tour, Fabri’s group “came at no great distance to another place enclosed with a higher dry stone wall, wherein tradition says that the house of the blessed Virgin stood, wherein she lived a domestic life for fourteen years” (8.328). Rather than singing solemnly and adorning the place with branches, Fabri elaborated on the tradition surrounding the Virgin’s life after the death of Jesus. In fact, his understanding of that tradition is perhaps surprisingly inclusive (although mediated and confirmed by a Christian source, Nicholas de Cusa): “We are told in the Alcoran of Mohamet that she only survived five years [‘after our Lord’s ascension’], and that her years in all were fifty-three, as is said also by Nicholas de Cusa, Book II, chapter xv” (ibid.). The physical location (or locus) of Mary’s house led Fabri to cite two passages (loci) in order to solve—or at least state possible answers to—a chronological conundrum. Two meanings of the Latin word locus, textual passage and physical place, overlapped.

As the center of the liturgical celebration, Mary’s grave might be seen as a lieu de mémoire, a site for formally memorializing a long-ago and otherwise inaccessible event (Nora, ‘Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire’, Representations, 26 (1989), 7-24). But in Fabri’s walking tour, Mary’s house functioned as a kind of commonplace heading on the topic of her life after Christ and death. By analogy, the landscape could become a commonplace book, with each new holy site a potential topical heading to organize various related texts and relevant oral knowledge. Text could be inscribed on the terrain.

A book inflecting the way space was approached was nothing new, of course—that was the essential premise for pilgrimage itself. Petrarch populated his 1358 Itinerarium to the holy land with famous literary figures. He celebrated the cities on route to Jerusalem for being where Vergil wrote the Georgics, or Pliny the Elder died in volcanic ash (trans. Cachey, 10.3). And he assumed that his reader was comparing his itinerary with the words of famous authors ringing in their ears: “It should not surprise you that Virgil in the third book of the divine poem [the Aeneid] apparently placed [Scylla and Charybdis] otherwise. He was describing in fact the voyage of one who was arriving while I the voyage of one who is departing” (12.1). He also expected them to see “everything through the Gospel, which is fixed in your mind as you look” (16.4). But the reader’s familiarity with scripture often meant Petrarch felt he could pass over enumerations of minor holy sites and instead recount classical texts and histories. In contrast to Fabri’s later narrative, Petrarch’s imagined itinerary did not elicit the same references to specific texts, though he referred readers to Josephus for further information on a historical point (16.6). His guide to the holy land was meant to help his reader appreciate the landscape. The itinerary itself only loosely organized the texts that Petrarch alluded to reference to it.

Cyriac of Ancona's drawings of stone carvings on the Church of the Dormition of the Virgin in Agia Triada, Greece (Milan, Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Cod. Trotti 373, f. 115r,

Cyriac of Ancona’s drawings of stone carvings on the Church of the Dormition of the Virgin in Agia Triada, Greece (Milan, Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Cod. Trotti 373, f. 115r,

Sometimes, though, the landscape could provide textual loci of its own. Cyriac of Ancona (1391 – 1452) traveled for mercantile business from a young age in the Mediterranean and was struck by the remains of classical and (to a lesser extent) Christian antiquity. He wrote six travel diaries, describing how his friends and hosts in Frankish towns and Venetian colonies guided him through fields to inspect “remnants” (reliquiae or monumenta) of antiquity, including ancient temples, floor mosaics, and hundreds of inscriptions (Diary V, trans. Bodnar, II.307 – 9). He believed, as his lifelong friend Francesco Scalamonti wrote, that “the stones themselves afforded to modern spectators much more trustworthy information about their splendid history than was to be found in books” (Scalamonti, Life, trans. Mitchell, Bodnar, and Foss, I.48 – 9).

Nonetheless, Cyriac frequently made use of texts to make sense of objects in the landscape. He identified the iconography of the Parthenon—then dedicated to the Virgin Mary— “from the testimony of Aristotle’s words to King Alexander” (quoted in Brown, Venice and Antiquity, 84). The landscape induced both Fabri and Cyriac to turn to texts, but Cyriac was more concerned with the material buildings and remains than Fabri, who used pilgrimage sites in his account to recount memories or textual loci. Texts made the landscape interesting to Petrarch, but both fifteenth-century travellers toggled back and forth between physical and textual loci to make them speak to each other. Cyriac even replicated the loci in the landscape for his friends, sending drawings and transcriptions of monuments across the Mediterranean. Most of his own manuscripts are now lost—as are many of the inscriptions he copied. But his writings circulated widely through scribal copies in his circle, preserving the landscape that so fascinated him in text.

Madeline McMahon is a 4th-year PhD candidate in history at Princeton University (and a former editor of JHI Blog). She studies the intellectual, religious, and cultural history of early modern Europe. Her dissertation examines episcopacy and scholarship in the Church of England and the Catholic Church in Italy after the Elizabethan Settlement and the Council of Trent, when the ancient institution of episcopacy was reimagined for a changed present.

What can we even think about immaterial spirits?

By guest contributor Matthew Rukgaber. See the full article in the Journal of the History of Ideas, “Immaterial Spirits and the Reform of First Philosophy: The Incompatibility of Kant’s pre-Critical Metaphysics with the Arguments in Dreams of a Spirit-Seer.”

Perhaps it is because Immanuel Kant’s life was so uneventful that his minor controversies seem to take on a heightened significance. Kant’s Dreams of a Spirit-Seer, Elucidated through Dreams of Metaphysics from 1766 is a moment of self-created controversy that resulted in a worrisome review from Moses Mendelssohn that could have derailed his entire future. Charged with making metaphysics into a laughing stock, Kant made clear to Mendelssohn in correspondence that that had not been is intention. But it seems that Kant is laughing at something in the text and scholars have had a rather hard time figuring out what exactly.

Dreams of a Spirit-Seer is nominally concerned with the visionary theosophy of Emmanuel Swedenborg. Perhaps this is the target of his laughter? After all, throughout Kant’s life he was a critic of what we know under the untranslatable term of Schwärmerei, which he defined as “a delusion of being able to see something beyond all bounds of sensibility, i.e., to dream in accordance with principles (to rave with reason)” (AA 5:275). Mendelssohn himself seemed unable to determine whether Kant’s aim was to make Swedenborg’s communion with the world of spirits into something credible or ridiculous. Even today some scholars argue that Kant’s text has a hidden agenda to support esotericism. Although entirely mistaken about such esoteric undercurrents, the Swedenborg apologists are certainly justified in attempting to counteract the unusually large influence that Dreams of a Spirit-Seer has had on the fortunes of Swedenborg’s thought. The reason that they are justified is that Kant’s text says almost nothing of substance about Swedenborg. When Kant finally turns to Swedenborg’s writings in the sixth of seven chapters, he abruptly ends the discussion for fear that in reproducing these ecstatic visions that he might frighten pregnant women (AA 2:366). Although Kant has some rather harsh words for these “spirit-seers,” he ultimately sees them as akin to ecstatic poets, whose imaginings hold a sort of internal logic that, while detached from true reason and fact, are not the sheer irrational nonsense of complete madness. He concludes that his own philosophical treatise is not of much use to such prophets of the netherworld, but he does offer a brief account of why people are drawn to the possibility of spirit-seeing: we are afraid of death and hope for an afterlife.

When Kant sardonically cuts off his discussion of Swedenborg, he pulls back the curtain and confesses that he had “a purpose in mind” that is in fact “more important” than the purpose that he claimed to have in discussing spirit-seeing (AA 2:367). According to some scholars, that more important purpose is in fact to ridicule metaphysics as a whole and the dominant rationalist Schulphilosophie. His claim to Mendelssohn to not be doing so and to actually hold that that “lasting welfare of the human race” depended on metaphysics (AA 10:70) must be, according to this reading, Kant recognizing that he had insulted one of the most respected thinkers in Germany. He was in no position at this stage in his career to burn such a bridge. Those who believe that Dreams of a Spirit-Seer intends to demolish metaphysics in general see within his Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime from 1764 a shift towards a common-sense, anti-metaphysical school of thought referred to as Popularphilosophie. This skeptical destruction is presumably a step along the way to Kant’s mature philosophy as spelled out in the Critique of Pure Reason in 1781. But there are serious textual problems with such a reading, not to mention the fact that Kant seems to return to the metaphysics in the 1770 “Inaugural Dissertation” that he supposedly laughed at in 1766. If Kant is laughing at metaphysics in the 1766 text, then that also means he is repudiating over a decade of his own previous publications. Major works interpreting Kant’s early writings have claimed that this is so. But is there any evidence that Kant has tossed his previous labors out the window?

One would expect such a radical change in Kant’s thinking to be rather obvious. Given the divergence of interpretations, it obviously has not been. What has plagued the interpretation of Dreams of a Spirit-Seer is the fact that the first four chapters of Kant’s text obscure what his own view is. The first chapter offers a “metaphysical knot” that asks what sense we can make of the idea of immaterial spirits. Because Kant wants the most charitable reconstruction of what we may be thinking of when we talk about immaterial spirits, he uses his own past metaphysical writings to illuminate this concept of a sort of entity that is in space and time but that will never constitute an impenetrable body no matter how many are combined together. Those scholars who believe that Kant is rejecting his own past metaphysical beliefs and the rationalist metaphysics that dominated Germany at the time must contend that this charitable reconstruction is a) an accurate representation of his earlier thinking and b) that he rejects this attempt to make intelligible the notion of an immaterial spirit. In the article “Immaterial Spirits and the Reform of First Philosophy: The Compatibility of Kant’s pre-Critical Metaphysics with the Argument in Dreams of a Spirit-Seer” in volume 79, issue 3, of JHI, I show that (a) is false: this is not a legitimate application of Kant’s philosophy from the 1750s and early 1760s. So although (b) is true, it does not have the implication that most scholars have claimed. It neither repudiates all metaphysics nor overturns Kant’s earlier reflections on the metaphysics of simple substances (i.e. monads). Instead, the view that Kant ultimately holds is that although legitimate philosophical metaphysics leads us to the idea of metaphysically simple substances at the foundations of rational physics, rational psychology, and rational theology, the nature of such entities is not given to us and cannot be made comprehensible. It is this fact that is overlooked by metaphysicians using reason and spirit-seers using mystical visions. Thus, they both mistakenly believe that the idea of an immaterial spirit is something we can understand. Kant makes very clear that even the possibility of immaterial spirits is beyond the limits of human understanding, whereas the metaphysical notion of simple substances is a necessary rational posit indicating a nature that remains beyond our understanding.

Besides the fact his early works are generally misread as advancing a Leibnizian-Wolffian philosophy that they actually diverge from in numerous ways, a contributing factor to misreading Dreams of a Spirit-Seer is that Kant ignores his own view of the limits of legitimate metaphysics in order to reconstruct a notion of what spirits are that he then facetiously allows to spin out of control in the second chapter dedicated to “occult philosophy.” He counteracts the excesses of the second chapter in the third chapter by offering a reductive, physiological explanation of all this talk of spirits that he calls the position of “ordinary philosophy.” Spirit-seeing may not be full-blown madness, but ordinary philosophy views talk of spirits as the result of a non-rational disturbance in the body. Neither the second nor the third chapters actually represent Kant’s own views. The first chapter does at least give us an accurate picture of Kant’s metaphysical beliefs, but the extension of those beliefs for the sake of rendering intelligible the idea of immaterial substances is not something Kant endorses or had ever endorsed.

At the end of Dreams of a Spirit-Seer, Kant seems to have contained his laughter fairly well. Although his harshest comments are certainly directed towards the visionaries like Swedenborg, ultimately he believes that a passionate hope in a future life, which is not to be sneered at, naturally leads us down this path. Although we may continue to hope for such things, we should not deceive ourselves into believing we either see or understand the possibility of a ghostly realm of souls and spirits. But that real purpose that Kant announces when setting aside Swedenborg is the goal of reforming metaphysics towards a more critically restrained and, therefore, less laughable version of itself. This is what Kant had in fact been doing his entire career and would continue to do.



GIFs, Archives, and Riverscapes – Process and reflections on Floating Archives

By artist and contributing writer Jacob Rivkin

What are the subtle histories embedded into each landscape? Floating Archives asks Philadelphians to consider our beloved “hidden river” as a source of narratives that tell of the ever-changing borders between land and water. (The original name for the Schuylkill River comes from the Lenni Lenape, Tool-Pay Hanna, which translates to Turtle River. The moniker ‘hidden river’ originates from the name given by Dutch settlers in Pennsylvania.) Some stories show us who shaped the river, and the funds and materials they used to harden its edges. Other stories are more difficult to surface, obscured by centuries of persistent structures of power and displaced ecologies of humans, animals, and plants. Floating Archives playfully and vividly reminds us of these submerged histories.

Floating Archives was a public art intervention on the lower Schuylkill River in Philadelphia. The project was supported through the Mellon Artist-in-Residence program at the Penn Program in the Environmental Humanities, in collaboration with Bartram’s Garden and the Science History Institute. On three Saturday evenings in September 2018, hand-drawn animations based on archival materials were projected on a screen suspended between two canoes. As these floating silent images present traces of the past in vibrant color, they invited us to see still other rivers, as they were, as they are, and as they could be. Specific animations were projected as Floating Archives approached the place that each original image referenced, creating a spectral layering of landscape, history, and wonder, both literally and figuratively. These drawings and animations also provoke us, in times of rising waters and changing coastlines, to consider the labor, capital, and energy that have and will shape the river’s future course.

1. Floating Archives Dusk

Floating Archives on the Schuylkill River, 2018

The inspiration for Floating Archives originally came from making animations for a film on the history of taxidermy, and its contemporary alternative scene, with the Distillations podcast at the Science History Institute. The film, Death and Taxidermy, included animated explanations of the history, process, and personal stories involving taxidermy. The section on history included conducting research on advances in scientific methods of preservation and the buildings and landscapes where these scientific developments occurred. The process of reimagining physical actions and motions of people and animals in these historical spaces proved to be very enjoyable as an artistic practice. I started thinking about how I could bring this sensibility to my own independent research as an artist.


Clip from Death and Taxidermy, 2016

My work as an artist addresses how we experience and internalize the idea of landscape, and by association, wonder. These include creating devices that record the multi-sensory elements of a landscape through creative coding and physical computing, speculative biological systems, and films which explore the awakening of sentience and complexity within digital images. As an active canoer on the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia, I started thinking about the viewscapes created by the flow of water and the edges that border the river. Taking this as my lead, I started combing through digital archives and was led to reading Redemption of the Lower Schuylkill by John Frederick Lewis from 1924. This book, or perhaps manifesto, which contains a passionate argument for how the river in that time could be improved in cleanliness and recreation, is also filled with photographs and historical images of the river. This is where I would start the process of creating the animations for Floating Archives.

The process for creating animations is as follows. I find an image that contains some portion of the Schuylkill River – this can be a photograph, etching, or drawing. All of the images came from archives or images that were digitized. This was necessary because I made most of the drawings and animations while participating in an arts residency at the Fine Arts Work Center during the winter of 2018 in Provincetown, MA. I then study the image for clues of what kind of industry, recreation, labor, or leisure may have taken place there, if it is not immediately apparent. This image is imported into a computer program specifically for hand-drawn animation. The image is cropped to either focus on the action or create a more visually engaging composition. The layer the image is placed onto is then locked, and the opacity is reduced to about eighty percent. On a new layer above, I use a digital pen and tablet to trace over the contours of the image below using a bright pink color with a two-point wide mark. This is so I can more easily delineate between the old and new background and ensure parts of the image below are not missed. A new layer is then created that contains the character or objects that are moving. Separating these different elements out of the image allow for further applications of independent motion or effects. The last elements to animate, also on separate layers, are the atmospheric effects of water, clouds, and smoke. The line drawings of the background layer and animation layers each receive its own independent color layer as well by using a paint bucket to fill in the outlines of the layer above. The process of creating several layers of images, motion, and color allows for the quick rearrangement of timing and compositing because less erasing and drawing is involved than if every image were on the same layer. For example, erasing the outline of a figure begins to erase the color and lines of the background. In the end, a final seamless two-dimensional animation is created.

4. Process animation-1

Animation is an accessible medium of communication. By translating archival images, many toned by the hue of time, into hand drawn animation containing consistent lines, weights, and vibrant colors, the original cultural currency imbued in the image is transformed into a source of contemplation, more playfulness, and less cultural gravity. The sense of seriousness contained within the original image can become a barrier for imagining the embedded narratives. The language of hand-drawn animation references a childlike association with Saturday morning cartoon series and films produced by Disney, and, by proxy, increases the sense of wonder around an image.

5. GIF_shaq cat-1

Shaq vs. Cat GIF

Moreover, the animations take their inspiration from the culture of GIF (Graphic Interchange Format) animations. GIFs are a file type originally associated with rotating logos and website “under construction” signs, which now exist as a quotidian form of communication and expression in digital culture. One important element of GIF animations is that embedded image and actions are on constant repeat, looping, sometimes seamlessly, in time. Each of the animations created for Floating Archives also loop seamlessly. The resonant link between history and repetition, the constant cycle of development and redevelopment, and the ebbing transition of wilderness to the flow of culture, seems analogous to the way images through history depicting the Schuylkill River have portrayed the river as a confluence of labor, resource extraction and transportation, and leisure.

Water, progressing from higher elevations to lower ones, carries the sediment of upper creeks and tributaries to the shores and banks in the wetlands below. The movement is ever forwards. The physical history of a distant, yet interconnected, place becomes present for a brief geological moment, then continues its journey downstream and out to the vast ocean. In animation, one drawing follows another seamlessly. Images move forward sequentially in time to reveal the illusion of movement and convey meaning embedded into each frame. Yet, we cannot hold onto a particular image, as its meaning is conveyed by the images that came before and the images that come afterwards. By placing water and animation, these two vehicles of motion and meaning, in proximity to each other, Floating Archives can offer, for perhaps longer than a moment, a fleeting perspective of history and landscape illuminated by projection, streetlamps, and glimmering reflections in the river below.

7. Floating Archives, 2018 - Main Image Still - 72ppi(2)

Floating Archives, 2018

Jacob Rivkin is an interdisciplinary artist living and working in Philadelphia, PA. He is a former Fulbright Fellow, a recipient of the Visual Arts Fellowship at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and teaches Fine Arts courses at the University of Pennsylvania. His animations have screened at the Japan Media Arts Festival in Tokyo, Japan, Animation Block Party in Brooklyn, NY, Vox Populi in Philadelphia, PA, and the Peephole Cinema in San Francisco. His sculptures have been exhibited at the Vancouver Art Gallery in Vancouver, BC, The Chemical Heritage Foundation Museum, Philadelphia, PA, the Arlington Art Center in Arlington, VA and Julius Caesar Gallery in Chicago, IL. He previously worked with the Penn Program in the Environmental Humanities as an Ecotopian Toolmaker in 2017 with ecological designer Eric Blasco. Their project, the Bio Pool, was described by the Philadelphia Inquirer as “a giant Brita filter for the Schuylkill River.” It continues to filter water and be a habitat for cattails and red-winged blackbirds near the public dock at Bartram’s Garden.

From the Archive: Images of History

by John Raimo (July 2016)

As often as historians and art historians talk past one another, they also come together before common problems, questions, and sources. Both groups recognize the sheer power of images. Such a moment has reappeared in intellectual history. The recent one hundred and fiftieth celebrations of Aby Warburg’s birth underscored how widely Warburg’s terminology could stretch between art and cultural history. Historians such as Carlo Ginzburg and Patrick Boucheron take iconography as a starting point for deeper and deeper reconstructions of political and intellectual milieus. The work of art historians such as Georges Did-Huberman and Giovanni Careri follow similar patterns shuttling between contextual and formal considerations. Anthropologists too have not been far behind, finding in images the source for new methodologies across disciplines dealing with ideas both in and of history. And many museum curators do not shy away from presenting both ethical and historiographical challenges to the public in precisely this tenor, perhaps most spectacularly in the recent Conflict, Time, Photography exhibit at the Tate Modern.


Guerre 1939-1945. Occupation. Destruction de statues pour récupérer les métaux. La statue du marquis de Condorcet, homme politique français, par Jacques Perrin (1847-1915). Paris, 1941. JAH-REP-34-8

Four ongoing or recent exhibits in Paris also directly engage with the stakes that images—and specifically photography—hold for intellectual history today. Exhibitions dedicated to Seydou Keïta (1921-2001) at the Grand Palais, the photographers of France’s Front populaire (1936-1938) at the Hôtel de Ville, Lore Krüger (1914-2009) at the Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme, and Josef Sudek (1896-1976) at the Jeu de Paume have this much in common: their images possess immediate documentary and historical charges, intervening histories challenge any recovery of the same, and the images themselves pose different meanings—political and otherwise—in our own time. How does one reconcile these knotty realities to one another, let alone relate them to questions of sheer aesthetic value, enduring or otherwise? Perhaps counter-intuitively, the question touches at once upon the artists themselves as much as upon each show’s respective curators. Together, they answer for the most part magnificently just how ideas and patterns of thinking flow into and out from photographs.


Seydou Keïta, Untitled (1956-1957)

Perhaps no exhibit succeeds so brilliantly as that dedicated to the Malinese photographer Keïta. Self-taught and a portraitist by trade in Bamako, Keïta carefully arranges various customers against complex cloth backdrops in plain-light settings. Several layers of history collide in what only first appear as beautiful, if straightforward portraits. Keïta’s private practice runs from 1948 to 1962, shortly after Mali achieves independence from the French colonial empire. His customers find themselves at a crossroads: both women and men dress in traditional clothing as often as in European or American fashions, often modeling themselves upon the figures of the latest films and popular magazines. A watch ostentatiously displayed, a certain hairstyle, new western clothing, or certain postures together subtly betray consciousness of new cultural models, economic statuses, and social change ranged against Keïta’s brilliantly-patterned backgrounds. Both the circumstances of the photography session and the material object—the photo itself, as the exhibit makes clear—are intended to circulate by word of mouth and hand to hand. Yet an alchemical change also occurs. Keïta’s subjects prove subjects in every sense of the term; their glances say as much, even as they slowly come to look out upon a new country.

At the same time, a personal iconography emerges across the œuvre. Keïta’s workshop feature props (pens, glasses, flowers, and so on) that appear regularly throughout the portraits. An iconographic vocabulary similarly developed in the photographer’s carefully-choreographed poses. An uneasy sort of modernity can be teased out in the tension between these hugely personable figures, their clothing and possessions, and those objects and gestures which both they and Keïta saw fit to add to the compositions.

The art proves doubly-reflexive, looking inwards to the person and to life in Bamako as much as outwards to a rapidly changing Africa and globalization. Keïta’s own touch emerges in the gap. He arranges women into odalisque reclinings, organizes groups of civil servants into full profile portraits, and captures others at their ease wearing traditional clothing. The hindsight of a retrospective allows us to see how closely Keïta simultaneously engages European art history, the stock imagery of popular culture, and a Malinese society in transition throughout his career. The complex of ideas here reveal the subject much as the same ideas flow from the same person, the photographer himself, and finally the image in its own right.

The Front populaire exhibition at the Hôtel de Ville attains a similar achievement, albeit on a different scale. The show follows upon a burst of renewed popular and academic interest in Léon Blum’s government and the period immediately preceding WWII. What emerges in the photos of such luminaries as Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Chim (David Seymour), Robert Doisneau, and Willy Ronis among other photojournalists is little less than a unified, if contested image of a society rapidly refiguring itself. Here technology proves the first hero. The portability of cameras, wide lens and higher resolution photography, and the ability to turn shots into next day’s paper gave birth to a new documentary language. Close-ups from within a crowd, odd angles, photos taken from rooftops hold their own with group portraits of politicians at ease in saloon lounges or mid-speech before thousands.

Fred Stein.jpg

Bastille Day demonstrations, Vincennes 1935 (©

The great range or even discrepancy of Capa and company’s interests and work suggest a whole society falling at once under the same photographic lens, even as history jostles against advertisements and film stars in the daily papers. The photos appear on equal terms. Even publicity in the sense of public relations proves nascent, if not off balance. Airs of improvisation and the same-old business surround political figures like Blum and his contemporaries. Striking workers and public amusements achieve a glamour just as photographers accord the homeless and unemployed a new dignity. And slowly certain dramatic poses and compositions take on a new regularity across the exhibit. The vocabulary hardens and situations reprise themselves. New understandings of personal and sexual relationships, masculinity and femininity, and modernity itself track across the years. (One gentle criticism should be added here: it would have done well to have included far more female photographers.) What happens, as Michel Winock and others argue, is that French society comes to understand itself in images just as photographers came to learn their full historical potential—‘History’ with a capital ‘H.’

The German photographer Lore Krüger’s work confronts many of the same issues, if more obliquely. Her career and biography stagger the mind. Krüger studies photography with Florence Henri and other Bauhaus-trained photographers while attending lectures with László Rádványi in 1930s Paris, all the while absorbing the lessons of interwar avant-garde photographers (and living in the same house as Arthur Koestler and Walter Benjamin). An exile from Nazi Germany, Krüger passes through Majorca—witnessing Franco’s troops massacre Republican forces in 1936—and mainland Spain at the height of its Civil War before making her way to New York, where she and her husband work for the exile community’s German-language press. Giving up photography after the war, Krüger eventually returns to a quiet life as a translator and author in Eastern Germany before dying in 2009.


Lore Krüger, “Jeune Gitan, Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer” (1936; © Estate of Lore Krüger)

The exhibits’ curators posthumously assemble what remained of Krüger’s photography. In their composition, lighting, and psychological reach, her work achieves a uniform excellence across still lives, landscapes, portraits of friends, and above all in her studies of interwar gypsies. The balance between all her influences is remarkable, not least as Krüger too follows in the wake of glossy magazines and photojournalism. Yet a dichotomy of sorts also arises. For every ‘political’ image or photograph taken on the street, Krüger veers to high avant-garde experimentation elsewhere. These activities both overlap and command longer periods in her work, persisting until the end of Krüger’s artistic career. Something new emerges at the same time: what might be called the private lives of an avant-garde and an artist in wartime apart from any political engagement. The exhibit’s repeated argument that Krüger’s œuvre forms a consistent whole here seems to miss a much more interesting set of questions. How do we reconstruct private intellectual life, the persistence of international movements once contacts have been severed, and the experience of artistic experimentation continued under the hardest conditions?


Josef Sudek, “The Last Rose” (1956, Musée des Beaux-arts du Canada, Ottawa. 2010 © Estate of Josef Sudek)

All the same issues confront any attempt to wrangle the great, protean Czech photographer Josef Sudek into a coherent retrospective. The portraitist, the architecture and the landscape photographer, the artist of still lives, and the commercial man all jostle against one another over a career spanning the complicated histories of interwar and then communist-era Czechoslovakia. To reduce Sudek’s photography to any political (or apolitical) stance or simpler historical context would be a mistake on the same order of privileging one genre above the others. Yet the Jeu de Paume’s curators attempt something like this. Moving backwards from the interior studies, they claim a certain artistic unity which in turn drives the late Sudek into a sort of inner exile. An impression grows of intervening notions organizing a narrative: the late Romantic artist gradually finds himself confined to a window by the history beyond it, something like an uncritical reprise of Günter Gaus’s old notion of East Germany as a ‘niche society.’ This is not to say that the merits of Sudek’s work do not shine through the exhibit, or that the curators entirely mute his own thinking. The problem is rather that later ideas and contexts—historical or otherwise—drown out the images. As confidently as Keïta’s or as loudly as the Front populaire journalists’ pictures speak to audiences today, others such as Krüger’s and Sudek’s talk to historians, art historians, and all of us in much quieter tones.

Exhibitions reviewed: “Seydou Keïta,” Grand Palais (31 March to 11 July, 2016); “Exposition 1936 : le Front populaire en photographie,” Hôtel de Ville de Paris (19 May to 23 July, 2016); “Lore Krüger : une photographe en exil, 1934-1944,” Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme (30 March to 17 July, 2016); Josef Sudek : Le monde à ma fenêtre,” Jeu de Paume (7 June to 25 September, 2016).

Sovereignty, Property, and the Locus of Power

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, published 1776

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

Norse fantasies and American foundings

By Editor Derek Kane O’Leary

Leif photo

The monumental, bronze face of Leif Erikson gazes westward from Boston’s Commonwealth Avenue toward the nearby Charles River, which wends by Cambridge toward its modest source in Hopkinton. Since 1887, Leif has towered there as a pioneer in contrapposto, powerful, jaunty, and lightly arrayed in a nineteenth-century rendition of Medieval chic. Leif’s red sandstone pedestal rests on the prow of a diminutive knorr, the infamous Norse vessel of commerce and warmaking. In Old Norse runes, “Leif the Lucky, son of Erik” is engraved on the block’s front. On its back, in English, “Leif the Discoverer, Son of Erik, who sailed from Iceland and landed on this continent, AD 1000.” On one side of the block, Leif in miniature holds the same pose atop the craggy shore of the New World, as his crew clambers behind him. We peer out with him upon the continent. As the late nineteenth century contemplated the eleventh, we contemplate both from the twenty-first.

Leif stands along the central axis of the entrancing neighborhood of Back Bay. Lined with manicured Victorian brownstone houses, shaded by its nineteenth-century elms, Back Bay is the version of Boston that travel guides feature and visitors seek out. A mile away, a row of monuments begins at the Boston Commons. An imposing equestrian statue of George Washington heads a series of significant Bostonians–Phillis Wheatley, William Lloyd Garrison, Samuel Eliot Morrison, among others. The monumental path ends with Argentinian President Domingo Faustino Sarmiento and the Norseman, Leif.

The statue owes much to Eben Norton Horsford, an outstanding nineteenth-century American chemist and Harvard professor, who in his last decades immersed himself in the history and archaeology of the area. With the considerable wealth generated from his chemical patents (including a reformulation of baking soda and lucrative Civil War contracts with the government), he commissioned, donated, and dedicated the statue of Leif with great fanfare in the nearly-completed Back Bay. At the dedication, elite Bostonians, Scandinavian societies, and eager lookers-on heard celebratory speeches at  Fanueil Hall before proceeding across the city to the statue’s unveiling. With this, Horsford realized what a coterie of like-minded Bostonians had dreamed of over the preceding decade (a fine discussion of the creation, form, and reception of the statue, here).

But why should late nineteenth-century Brahmins be so compelled by an eleventh-century Norseman? Horsford was convinced that Leif had once alighted on Boston’s shores. In nearby Watertown (a short walk from Horsford’s own home), Leif would have planted the obscure settlement of Norumbega, whose location had been a mystery to scholars for centuries. Horsford wrote several books on local archaeology, which superimposed this story of Medieval European settlement onto Boston’s backyard. (As Patricia Jane Roylance insightfully explains, he reinterpreted a local landscape through the prism of Norse settlement, placing the mundane within this compelling past.) Leif became the metonymy for this settlement and the alternative hemispheric history that it furnished.

In the late nineteenth century, it was not a uniquely Boston or Brahmin phenomenon to announce the Norse as the first European settlers of North America, at some beachhead or another on the jagged coast between Newfoundland and New England. The American fascination with the antecolumbian Norse settlement emerged earlier, cultivated by the Dane Carl Christian Rafn, the guiding force of Denmark’s Royal Society of Northern Antiquaries. From the society’s founding in 1825, Rafn built a network of American readers in key literary and scientific institutions along the East Coast. He also undertook an extended publicity campaign about his research into the Norse settlement of North America.

John farmer certificate

Carefully preserved, the large 1838 recognition of leading American genealogist John Farmer’s membership in Denmark’s Royal Nordic Society of Northern Antiquaries, led by Carl Christian Rafn. It represents the paper rituals that connected historians and antiquarians around the Atlantic, as well as the cachet that Rafn’s institution and its version of antecolumbian Norse settlement attained in the antebellum U.S. Over the years, Rafn was also inducted as corresponding member in many, including the American Antiquarian Society and the New England Historic Genealogical Society.

One of his many correspondents, New Hampshire historian-genealogist John Farmer received word from Rafn in 1828 via the Danish minister resident in the U.S. Farmer was the seminal American genealogist of the nineteenth century. His years of soliciting masses of dispersed biographical data from a network of eager, meticulous New Englanders coalesced into his 1829 Genealogical Register of the First Settlers of New England. Farmer was obsessed with situating his contemporaries vis-à-vis their puritan progenitors, “those who first landed on the bleak and inhospitable shores of New England” (iii). However, Rafn’s claim about a far older and non-English historical narrative resonated with him. “From a very early period of our history,” he responded to Rafn, “it has been the opinion of some of our learned men that America was known to Europeans long before it was discovered by Columbus…but materials for such a work being few at that time in our country, and there being but little intercourse between our learned men and the learned bodies in Europe, the work was necessarily small and imperfect.”

Rafn's Mass Bay

Carl Christian Rafn’s 1841 Supplement to his Antiquitates Americanae, which depicts Massachusetts and Rhode Island within the sweep of the Norse’s Vinland colony.

For Farmer and others, this moving Norse past could displace the narrative of American founding anchored in Columbus’ voyages and the depredations of Spanish colonialism. Through his correspondence and eventual publication of Antiquitates Americana in 1837, the Dane introduced Farmer and a range American history writers and readers to this counter-narrative of the hemisphere.

Longfellow's skeleton

Walter Crane, “The Skeleton in Armour” (1883). “Four sketches, ink and graphite on board, for a six-panel mural frieze designed for Catherine Lorillard Wolfe as a room decoration for Vinland, her Scandinavian-style house at Newport, Rhode Island.” (Beinecke Rare Book and Manscript Library). Rafn projected the lost Norse colony of Vinland over the familiar landscape of New England, inspiring New Englanders to imagine a new history for themselves. In his 1841 poem “The Skeleton in Armor”, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow recast Newport Tower, a colonial windmill in Rhode Island, as a Medieval Norse edifice (center-left). Before it, an armor-clad skeleton previously unearthed in nearby Fall River, Massachusetts is reanimated as a medieval Norse settler. (For most contemporaries, the skeleton was clearly an indigenous American.)

American children watched the Norse sail into their schoolbooks in the 1840s as the first European settlers of the continent, among other firsts (see figure 2). Into the 1850s, audiences pondered prolific lecturer Asahel Davis’s query: “it is not a laudable curiosity that leads one to ascertain what white men first trod regions in which the modest wild flower waster its sweetness on the desert air?” Emanuel Leutze, famed German-American artist “Washington’s Crossing” (1851), “Departure of Columbus from Palos (1855), and “Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way” (1860), preceded those dramatic passages of American history with another: “The Landing of the Northmen” in 1845 (since disappeared, it seems). After the Civil War, historians along New England’s coast disputed the location of Norumbega. Yet in all such expressions of national history, Leif’s endeavors along the early eleventh-century New England coast could predate Columbus on the first page of national history: the first European born on the continent, the first Christian mission to the natives, the first commercial exchange and productive use of the land–all pivotal moments in the narrative of seventeenth-century puritan settlement, too.

Norse landing

In his 1844 Pictorial History of the United States, secondary school educator John Front positioned Norsemen in tableaux paradigmatic of the seventeenth-century Puritan colonies on those very shores.

All agreed that the Norse settlement of America was fleeting, leaving no human lineage on the continent. The New England settlers documented by Farmer remained the genealogical touchstones that many Americans turned to. Nonetheless, American historians, authors, artists, and audiences could conscript the Norse into their national story. Through the second half of the century, the early Christianity and seemingly free government of the Norse were increasingly cast as historical antecedents to the founding of the Anglo-Saxon nation, which for nineteenth-century readers seemed destined to steward world history forward.

At the 1887 celebration of Leif’s statue, Harper’s Weekly mused that in his gaze gleamed the

prophetic of the future, of the later republic founded by kinsmen of the Icelanders, who for love of liberty dared the harshness of the bleak New England, as the Norsemen before them had braved the rigors of that uninhabited Iceland, with its geysers and jokuls, in the ninth century, to establish their republic of law and letters. The knit brow and noble bearing of Leif tell not only of the firm resolve and daring of the explorer, but also that he was a worthy forerunner of the Pilgrims.

Here, the Norse are placed in the Pilgrim mold, and the Pilgrims are themselves depicted as intrepid, freedom-seeking individuals (as opposed to long-standing critiques of their religious extremism). Horsford argued as much himself, lauding that Leif’s “ancestry were of the early pilgrims or Puritans who, to escape oppression, emigrated 50,000 of them in sixty years from Norway to Iceland, just as the early Pilgrims came to Plymouth” (quoted in this fascinating discussion of the broader appeal of Medieval history and aesthetics in the second half of the century, by Robin Fleming). If this late nineteenth-century depiction of New England’s settler generation could be used to rarefy the image of rapacious Norsemen, the revision of Norse identity could also affirm the values and identity espoused by Americans claiming descent from it. More specifically, as Fleming argues, it linked a socially, culturally, and racially-select cohort of the living to an imagined Teutonic past, conceived as the Old World origin of the exceptional institutions and ideals brought to fruition in the U.S.

Back bay in 1857

View of Back Bay, to the upper left, from the dome of the Massachusetts State House in 1857.

Alongside this longer transatlantic intellectual tradition and historical revisionism, three decades of colossal land reclamation had made Leif’s 1887 placement in Back Bay possible. By the middle of the nineteenth century, Boston’s population strained both the capacity of its scant landmass and, with the influx of impoverished Irish immigrants, the sensibilities of the native-born Protestants population. In Back Bay, city planners and proponents envisioned an orderly suburb that would staunch the migration of affluent Protestant Bostonians beyond the Charles River and craft a physically and morally pristine space within Boston. In its special planning committee’s words, the neighborhood would “secure upon the premises a healthy and thrifty population and business, and by inherent and permanent causes, forever to prevent this territory from becoming the abode of filth and disease” (In Stephen Puleo, City So Grand : The Rise of an American Metropolis, Boston, 1850-1900, Beacon Press, 2010, 87-88). Stately, rectilinear streets were laid over six hundred acres of formerly fetid, briny tidal basin to house the city’s Anglo-Protestant elite. Much of the labor was performed by the very immigrants Back Bay was supposed to be purified of. As Back Bay neared completion and Leif’s statue appeared in 1887, a new influx of diverse European immigrants to the region stoked old racial and class anxieties. Many of these were Italians, who could claim some lineage with Columbus as the quadricentennial of his landing in Hispaniola approached. In contrast to them, Scandinavian immigrants appeared the “fairest among the so-called white races”, having “been trained to industry, frugality and manly self-reliance by the free institutions and the scant resources of their native lands” (Professor H.H. Boyeson, “The Scandinavian in the United States,” North American Review, Nov., 1892).

When Horsford convened the Bostonian elite to sanctify Leif’s statue and the historical arc it embodied, he aligned this rendition of the nation’s past with the geographic reimagination of ethnicity and class within the city.  In Leif, a version of the nation’s past coincided with the meaning embedded in that contemporary urban geography.

Back Bay disentangled the local Anglo-American and Protestant elite from a city transformed by the influx of struggling Irish and, by late century, Italian and Eastern European immigrants. And the statue consecrated a historical arc from Leif the New England settler, through the seventeenth-century colonists, and toward the individuals embedded in that very neighborhood.

Many thanks to Brendan Mackie for his thoughtful editing of this.

From our archive: Personal Philology

by guest contributor Richard Calis (April 2015)

For those who care to look closely enough, the world of early modern philology has many treats in store. Contrary to its reputation as nit-picking, dull scholarship, philology is in fact a discipline full of love, strife, passion and emotion. One such passionate and dedicated, yet now sadly unknown practitioner was Pieter Fontein (1708-1788). A student of the renowned Dutch philologist Tiberius Hemsterhuis in Leiden, Fontein became a teacher at the Mennonite Church in Amsterdam in 1739 and would remain so until his death some fifty years later. Over his career, Fontein amassed an impressive collection of Latin and Greek classics, all of which he bequeathed to his church, except for a small group of related books on the Greek philosopher Theophrastus. It is this collection of forty-three Theophrastiana (currently in the Special Collections of the University of Amsterdam) that brings back to life the philological achievements of a scholar who never made it into the annals of classical philology.

Casaubon's annotated copy of Theophrastus. By permission of the Special Collections of the University of Amsterdam. Shelf mark: OTM: Hs VII D17.

Casaubon’s annotated copy of Theophrastus. By permission of the Special Collections of the University of Amsterdam. Shelf mark: OTM: Hs VII D17.

It is still unclear when exactly Fontein amassed his books, but our story begins in 1754, when he was spending his days reading a rather special book from the collection of the then-famous botanist and Professor of Anatomy Willem Röell (1700-1775). The book that Fontein found so absorbing was a 1542 edition of Theophrastus’ Opera Omnia, printed at the famous Froben press in Basel. Moreover, the book was nothing less than a working copy of that great Theophrastus scholar Isaac Casaubon (1559-1614), who, over a century earlier, had adorned its pages with numerous notes and annotations.

In 1591, Casaubon had published his own edition of Theophrastus’ Characteres, a lively set of character sketches known for its problematic text and manuscript transmission yet also the philosopher’s most popular work. Ever since, Casaubon was known to the world of scholarship as the single most important authority on Theophrastus, a reputation that was not lost on Fontein. In fact, the primary reason that Fontein took an interest in Röell’s book was because of Casaubon’s marginal notes. This, at least, is suggested by the way in which Fontein treated them: when he went to examine the book, Fontein bought and brought with him his own clean copy of the same 1541 edition —no mean feat more than two centuries after its publication— and herein copied nearly every single annotation that Casaubon had left in his book. For pages on end, Fontein faithfully transcribed Casaubon’s notes in his own beautifully regular eighteenth-century hand.

Casaubon's notes. By permission of the Special Collections of the University of Amsterdam. Shelf mark: OTM: Hs VII D17.

Casaubon’s marginal notes. By permission of the Special Collections of the University of Amsterdam. Shelf mark: OTM: Hs VII D17.

Fontein's transcription of Casaubon's notes. By permission of the Special Collections of the University of Amsterdam. Shelf mark: OTM: Hs VII D19.

Fontein’s transcription of Casaubon’s annotations. By permission of the Special Collections of the University of Amsterdam. Shelf mark: OTM: Hs VII D19.














We may pause for a moment to appreciate the great intimacy of this —to my knowledge— unique practice of relocating marginalia from an annotated copy to a pristine one. To Fontein, these were not only notes explicating a text, but also the material evidence of the reading and annotating practice of one of his greatest predecessors. We know of scholars who organized their information in commonplace books but buying a two hundred year old edition to copy notes in was not everyday practice; not even for Fontein, whose book collection does not seem to include any other such inscribed copies. It will come as little surprise then that Fontein would even go on to buy Röell’s book in 1767, when the latter found himself in rough financial waters. After all, a transcription of Casaubon’s annotations was surely no replacement for the original.

By then, Fontein had steadily collected more and more Theophrastus editions dating from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries. Some of them were densely annotated. This collecting spree was undoubtedly aimed at gathering every bit of information on Theophrastus that was available. As another copy from his library attests, Fontein was concurrently working on his own edition of the Characteres, Originally, he drafted his material in a small, handy octavo reprint of Casaubon’s edition, published in Cambridge in 1712. Yet today it can hardly be recognized as such: the edition is now completely interleaved with huge folio-sized pages, all of them awash with Fontein’s corrections, notes and interpretations. From these ‘additions’, one can observe how he continuously reworked the text. Fontein crossed out sentences, rewrote entire paragraphs, emended or explicated words, and crammed new notes in the margins of the margins. There are at least four drafted introductions to the work and its author, some prolegomena and countless comments and notes on the Greek; horror vacui takes on a whole new meaning.

Fontein's working notes on Theophrastus. By permission of the Special Collections of the University of Amsterdam. Shelf mark: OTM Hs. XVI A5.

Fontein’s working notes on Theophrastus. By permission of the Special Collections of the University of Amsterdam. Shelf mark: OTM Hs. XVI A5.

Sadly, the project came to nothing, as Fontein died before its completion. But even in his final days, the philologist’s passion for the project burned steadily. In his will —made in 1769, specified in 1775, and now in the Amsterdam City Archives— Fontein gifted all his books to the Mennonite Church with the sole exception of the Theophrastiana, which he wanted to keep to himself. We can almost see how the elderly Fontein with only a handful of necessary books unceasingly fine-tuned his views on a notoriously elusive text, while continuously adding new material to his already massive commentary. Again and again he kept revising, never gave up, and continually worked on a more accurate edition, with Theophrastus on his mind and his cherished Casaubon on his desk. What a character he was.

Richard Calis is a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate in history at Princeton University. He has worked for Annotated Books Online (ABO)—which provides online access to three of Fontein’s books— and is predominantly interested in books and their readers, antiquarianism, and the history of scholarship. His dissertation offers a microhistory of Martin Crusius (1526-1607) and his ethnographic interests in the Ottoman Greek world.


‘The Pins, the Joints, the Binding’: Textual Materiality and ‘Encyclopaedic Forms’

By guest contributor Marianne Brooker

Material textuality has been both the condition and the limit for encyclopaedism throughout its long history. Ephraim Chambers’ alphabetised Cyclopaedia, or an Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences loomed large over the efforts of later compilers. It was first published in two extra-large volumes in 1728, then republished six times before Abraham Rees produced an enlarged five-volume edition between 1778 and 1788. Later, in the British romantic period, revisionary takes on the scope, shape and function of the encyclopaedia reached a fever pitch. By 1819, Rees’ Cyclopaedia had reached thirty-nine volumes; it was completed in 1820, having reached a staggering forty-five volumes. The fifth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica was completed in 1817 in twenty volumes; eleven volumes of Brewster’s Edinburgh Encyclopaedia had been published by 1817, to be completed in 1830 in eighteen volumes; and the second edition of the Encyclopaedia Perthensis was published in weekly instalments from 1796-1806, when it was republished as a set in twenty-three volumes.

Encyclopaedism had long been characterised by voluminous heft but in the early nineteenth century more experimental plans began to arise. Samuel Taylor Coleridge sketched out his abortive plans for the Encyclopaedia Metropolitana in 1817, and in the same year Jeremy Bentham mapped out an entirely new encyclopaedic nomenclature in his fourth appendix to Chrestomathia.

Many of these projects begged, borrowed or stole from the same pool of entries. In the ‘Publisher’s Address’ to what would become the twenty-two volume London Encyclopaedia (1829), the publisher Thomas Tegg wrote that his materials had been proudly ‘purloined’ from other sources, and argued that the encyclopaedist’s ‘occupation is not pillaging but collecting’ – such ‘works are supposed, in great measure, assemblages of other people’. Encyclopaedias were the work of multiple compilers, where ‘compile’ registers both aspects of the word’s dual meaning: ‘to make, compose, or construct’ on the one hand and, from the Latin, to ‘plunder, pillage, rob, steal, snatch together, and carry off’ on the other (OED Online).

Chambers had set the precedent for this logic of assemblage in his first preface: ‘the reader here will have Extracts and Accounts from a great Number of Authors of all Kinds’. His encyclopaedia tests and amplifies the relationship between composition and compilation: the nature of the authorship impacts upon the nature of the text. Collecting and pillaging by turns, Chambers sought to depart from previous lexicographers by bringing a ‘structure’ to what was otherwise a mere collection: thus the ‘cento’ was transformed into a ‘system’.

In the course of this professed transformation, Chambers articulated a problem that would persist for over a century: ‘the chief Difficulty lay in the Form; in the Order, and Œconomy of the Work: To dispose such a Variety of Materials in such manner, as not to make a confused Heap of incongruous Parts, but one consistent Whole’. Here, profuse, heterogenous ‘materials’ must be brought into order by a certain ‘form’, ‘manner’, or process: a method. The resulting system arises not only from the interaction between an author and a community of editors, compilers, and sources, but through an internal ‘Communication […] between several Parts of the Work.’

Chambers elaborates this process through a material textual metaphor: ‘In any other Form [here, a dictionary], many thousand Things must necessarily be hid and overlook’d: All the Pins, the Joints, the binding of the Fabrick must be invisible of course; all the lesser Parts, one might say all the Parts whatsoever, must be in some measure swallowed up in the Whole’. In the Cyclopaedia these ‘parts’ are the ‘matter of knowledge’ and must be made visible by explicit cross-referencing. Chambers’ metaphor relied on his readers’ awareness of the architecture of the material book – ‘the pins, the joints, the binding’ – to shore-up his epistemological argument. Such an awareness would only increase as the eighteenth century progressed. The Encyclopaedia Britannica, for example, was published between 1768 and 1771 in slim, sixpenny instalments then bound by readers into a three volume set replete with 160 engravings.

After a century of controversial innovations in encyclopaedic practice, critics of Chambers’ venture and its legacy flipped his language on its head. For Chambers, the ‘Form’ of the encyclopaedia was a relatively simple question of the ‘Order, and Œconomy of the Work’; by the 1820s, an essay in the Edinburgh-based Blackwoods Magazine called ‘encyclopaedic forms’ into question. This inversion shifts its emphasis from the practical ordering of the encyclopaedia to a particularly encyclopaedic thinking or method.

The Blackwoods piece, written by the little-known philosopher Alexander Blair and published in 1824, begins with a broad-brushed invective: ‘All attempts at bringing knowledge into encyclopaedic forms seem to include an essential fallacy. Knowledge is advanced by individual minds wholly devoting themselves to their own part of inquiry’. Rather than the bloated encyclopaedia and its persistent diffusion and ‘confusion’ of knowledge, Blair argued for a ‘speculative’ knowledge economy, an ‘ideal community’ or ‘imaginary community’. Such an ideal economy was ‘restrained and embarrassed’, ‘unavoidably confined’ by the close, material bounds of encyclopaedism. Blair’s ideal knowledge must ‘transcend by almost infinite degrees – the capacity and means of knowing’ – the ‘Pins, the Joints, the Binding’ that Chambers pulled into the foreground.

Jon Klancher has argued that the essay’s ‘extravagant formal gesturing’ – the way in which its persistent anaphora and catalogues create a sense of burgeoning excess – mimics the essay’s own claim that ‘the Human Mind is extending its empire’. Can we extend Klancher’s reading to take material textuality into account? What relationship do ‘the pins, the joints, the bindings’ have to the particular kind of knowledge economies that Blair participates in, advocates for, and repudiates; what relationship do these material constructions have to the formal and to the ideal?

Blair’s chief criticism of the encyclopaedists is that they have neglected the ‘practical connexions’ of the Sciences and deluded themselves with their ‘imaginary conjunction … as if this must needs [sic] to be found somewhere, embodied and real […] as if that circle of the Sciences, […] did not yet truly exist unless it were materially constructed’. Here, proof of construction is evidence of negation: by their very embodied nature, forging connections between finite articles, encyclopaedias eclipse the world of knowledge beyond their reach. This seething hypothesis, and the long and diverse history of encyclopaedism it rejects, underscores the complex relationship between the practical and imaginary, material and ideal, multitude and individual.

For Blair, the bound volume comes to symbolise the paradoxical pretension of capacious encyclopaedias: the material book enables, even encourages readers to ‘look beyond [their] own minds’, yet ‘We have found that within our own circle we follow a receding circumference. […] The art in which we have no skill appears to us all-accomplished. The knowledge for which we have no measure, has to our eye reached its bounds’. The apparent expanse of the encyclopaedia distracts from a lack of depth.

According to Blair, attempting to ‘exhibit all Science in one body […] to one mind […] are two forms of the attempt to encyclopaedize knowledge’. Unintentionally, this formulation – encyclopaedizing – rehabilitates and vivifies the encyclopaedia: its materials become themselves a method with transformative verbal force. Chambers’ project, then a century old, was not merely a fusty repository, but harboured a threatening efficacy, one that might diffuse and diversify knowledge at the same time as rendering it static and bounded. Moreover, Chambers professed that his Cyclopaedia would ‘contribute more to the propagating of useful Knowledge thro’ the body of a People than any, I had almost said all, the Books extant.’ As the definite article opens out into an indefinitely capacious ‘a’, ‘People’ cohere together in an enormous, embodied assemblage.

Current scholarship on encyclopaedism has focussed in very different ways on the shape and status of ‘complete’ knowledge: Seth Rudy has read seventeenth- and eighteenth-century encyclopaedism in relation to epic poetry, while Tilottama Rajan, focussing on German romanticism, has focussed on the ‘tangled’ systems upon which ‘ideal’ encyclopaedism has been modelled. In both cases, the possibility and potential of complete knowledge is brought into question. Rajan argues that in Chambers’ ‘material encyclopaedia’, the cross-references and talk of systems are merely an internal ‘logic of unification’ – they are supplementary, ‘strictly indexical and not conceptual’. The rhetoric of encyclopaedists and their critics tempts us into emphasising a binary in which the ideal and the material are starkly opposed, yet reading the reception of Chambers’ project through more experimental examples from the early nineteenth century reveals some of the ways in which the formal or ideal is enshrined, reified and visualised through the ‘Order, and Œconomy’ of material assemblage.

Marianne Brooker is a PhD student in English & Humanities at Birkbeck, University of London, and a sessional lecturer in Romanticism at Canterbury Christ Church University. Her research explores the ‘materials of method’ and fugitive knowledge in the romantic period, particularly in relation to encyclopaedias, poetry collections, bookkeeping ledgers, artists’ manuals, and museum guidebooks.

Theory Revolt and Historical Commitment

By contributing writer Jonathon Catlin. This and John Handel’s “The Principle of Theory; or, Theory in the Eyes of its Students” respond to the May 2018 “Theses on Theory and History” by Ethan Kleinberg, Joan Wallach Scott, and Gary Wilder.

Theory Revolt has initiated a session of analysis with history’s collective unconscious; it presents a timely occasion for critical reflection not only about the discipline’s current practices and institutions, but also its most fundamental aims and commitments. In that spirit, I’ll start by placing my own theory cards on the table: I research and am deeply invested in Frankfurt School and French critical theory. I worked at the theory journal Critical Inquiry for several years. I wrote a sympathetic review of Ethan Kleinberg’s most recent book, Haunting History: For a Deconstructive Approach to the Past for the JHI Blog earlier this year. I also attended two theory of history programs this summer that featured Kleinberg prominently: The Bielefeld and Wesleyan Summer School on Theories for Historical Research in Bielefeld, Germany, which could be considered the education arm of Theory Revolt, as well as the third International Network for Theory of History Conference in Stockholm, where Theory Revolt was invoked approvingly as a testament to the enduring legacy of the late Hayden White (1928–2018).

Critiques of Theory Revolt are already many. Scott McLemee captures the basic objection in Inside Higher Ed. “In Yogi Berra’s haunting words,” he writes, the theses left him feeling “déjà vu all over again.” Many of its points were made decades ago—and in some cases more provocatively—by the likes of Hayden White, Dominick LaCapra, and Joan Scott herself. This time around, the authors “rely on the old tropes to rally new forces.” For McLemee, the theses represent a Baudrillardian nightmare: “What came after the End of History was post-postmodernity: social reality as tape loop, life as an eternity of reruns… The only thing really new about ‘Theses on Theory and History’ is that it comes with a hashtag.” But Theory Revolt has no pretense of faddish novelty: it argues that many of those lessons were not learned the first time, or were engaged briefly only to be handily dismissed, as if theory’s relevance passed together with its heyday in the 1980s and ’90s. The authors wrote this manifesto now because new subfields widely regarded as the future of the historian’s craft—digital humanities, Big Data, global history—are, in their view, simply repackaging the “ontological realism” that has long stifled “objectivist” history. As a rearticulation, a synthesis, a call to arms, and a gadfly probing the discipline for self-consciousness and criticality, this manifesto is both necessary and welcome.

According to the Wild On Collective, the contemporary historian’s anti-theoretical bias starts early: doctoral training in history tends to neglect theory and emphasize historiography and producing original research from primary sources, “as if ‘doing history’ is a self-evident technical undertaking and students need simply to develop the methodological habit of gathering factual evidence to be contextualized and narrated” (I.8). At the broadest level of the discipline, this conclusion is spot-on. At the Bielefeld summer school I attended, students from around the world agreed that it is difficult to find courses in theory of history, and even more difficult to do research in this field. To study theory, one often has to go to a philosophy department or repackage one’s work as intellectual history. The Bielefeld program attempts to correct this dearth of theory by offering participants—all students of history—a week of courses on practice theory (Pierre Bourdieu, Anthony Giddens, Theodore Schatzki), actor-network theory (Michel Callon, Bruno Latour, John Law), systems theory (Nicholas Luhmann), discourse theory (Foucault), and a general introduction by Kleinberg ranging from Droysen and Dilthey to Reinhart Koselleck, Hayden White, Joan Scott, Dipesh Chakrabarty, and Ewa Domanska. Yet at the level of graduate pedagogy, this theory revolt is not the first. I hope that exploring a distant predecessor may help us understand the current revolt’s aims, limitations, and importance.

At Princeton University—one of the allegedly conservative and anti-theoretical bastions of the discipline—my cohort-mates and I can claim that Hayden White’s Metahistory was the first book we read in graduate school. It typically kicks off the syllabus of the required introductory course “HIS 500: An Introduction to the Professional Study of History” (a relatively recent course title that no doubt reflects the problematic “guild” mentality described in the manifesto). The syllabus regularly includes thinkers such as Marx, Weber, Foucault, Scott, Chakrabarty, and Michel-Rolph Trouillot alongside a wide range of historiography old and new.

The first iteration of this course, proposed in 1964 and held in the 1965–66 academic year, was conceived and taught by Professors Arno Mayer and Lawrence Stone. (Professor Mayer shared his course documents with me.) The two sought funding from bodies like the Social Science Research Council for the course “Theories, Concepts, and Methods of the Social Sciences for Historical Studies,” which aimed, according to their proposal, “to sensitize first-year graduate students in history to the contribution the social and behavioral sciences can make to formulating sharply focused analytic and topical questions for historical investigation.” They complained that among graduate students, “both enthusiasm for and professional commitment to history seemed disappointingly weak.” The culprit: “Part of the trouble appeared to lie in their struggle to cram their minds with vast masses of information from broad fields in preparation for the General Examination…a deadening process, intellectually as well as psychologically.” Students thus confronted with the pressures of mastering their subfields “seemed reluctant to use this mass of information to think about history analytically or comparatively.” They lacked the intellectual courage and theoretical innovation of some of the first guest speakers Mayer and Stone brought in to teach the course: Thomas Kuhn and Clifford Geertz. (Scott was also brought in later, but, according to Mayer, soon clashed with the Princeton “boys club.”)

HIS 500 1968 Syllabus

HIS 500 Syllabus from Spring Term 1968

Mayer and Stone’s theory is quite different from Theory Revolt’s theory. The former also invited speakers to present then-in-vogue positivist social-scientific “techniques” including demography, statistics, and economic history—the Big Data of that time. Yet while they valued such developments in adjacent disciplines, they also found “that the classical social scientists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries like Max Weber, speak more effectively to the concerns of our students and ourselves than do many contemporary practitioners of sociology and political science.” Hence they determined that “incoming students are now asked to spend part of their summer before arrival at Princeton reading from the works of Marx, Freud, Weber, and Durkheim.”


Lawrence Stone and Arno Mayer, Early proposal for HIS 500

Despite Mayer’s own radical Left politics, this theory revolt did not aspire to be a theory revolution. It attempted to shake up the Rankean house but leave it standing, to keep the old but destabilize it with the new. The seminar, Mayer and Stone wrote, “does not try to persuade students to adopt new approaches at the expense of traditional ones. Historical truth can be approached fruitfully from many angles, and a healthy department is one in which a diversity of methods and viewpoints coexist, mutually stimulating and criticizing one another. The primary aim of the seminar is rather to extend the range of methodological and conceptual choice.”

Theory Proposal 1

Lawrence Stone and Arno Mayer, Early proposal for HIS 500

Writing in 1964, Mayer and Stone taught well before the sweep of the linguistic turn—Derrida and Foucault in particular—that motivates Theory Revolt. Yet they wrote on the cusp of a theory wave symbolized by Hayden White’s landmark article “The Burden of History.” Published in History and Theory in 1966, it became a touchstone of debates about the role of theory in history—even if its impact was not as enduring as the Wild On Collective would have preferred.

Mayer and Stone’s attempt to destabilize ossified historical methodologies with new theoretical approaches from other disciplines shares the spirit of this new revolt, even if it was not yet equipped to fully articulate it with the deconstructive tools of the linguistic turn. Yet for this reason it also lacks Theory Revolt’s force: the call for self-critical reflection on history’s own “conditions of possibility,” on how evidence, arguments, concepts, and theories themselves become normatively constituted as legitimate in the first place (I.9). Mayer and Stone don’t step back far enough from their practice as historians to ask one of the fundamental questions of Theory Revolt: What are we really doing when we do history, and why do we do it?

The Theory Revolters rightly combat the most familiar “dismissal of theory”—“The charge that theory—any theory—involves the distorting imposition of fixed ideological categories on self-evident facts” (II.7). As Wesleyan’s Gary Shaw aptly glossed the philosopher Nelson Goodman in Bielefeld: “Behind every fact is a small theory.” In the language of Theory Revolt, “History’s anti-theoretical preoccupation with empirical facts and realist argument… entails a set of uninterrogated theoretical assumptions about time and place, intention and agency, proximity and causality, context and chronology” (I.11). On the contrary, the manifesto proclaims, “Critical history recognizes all ‘facts’ as always already mediated, categories as social, and concepts as historical; theory is worldly and concepts do worldly work” (III.4). If history is the study of change over time, then this manifesto reminds us that the categories, facts, and questions that make up historical research must themselves be historicized and left open to critical contestation. Only thus can we stay attuned to our work’s temporal contingency, institutional situatedness, and relation to power both within the academy and in society at large.

Theory Revolt calls for more theory not as a superfluous garnish to be sprinkled over the meat of real historical work. Rather, it proposes a fundamental re-imagining of what history is for and how we should practice it. On some level, it shares a rather conventional and unobjectionable goal with Mayer and Stone: to move beyond the “impotent story-telling” brought about by disciplinary fixation on facts, empiricism, and objectivity. Theory Revolt’s target is the geographically diverse but theoretically “homogenous” articles published in the AHR, whose “guild”-like disciplinary policing strips the field of innovative methodological approaches: “Only that which is already familiar typically finds its way into the pages of the journal” (I.5). Given such sweeping critiques of “conventional” historical writing, the stakes are high for Kleinberg’s forthcoming book The Myth of Emmanuel Levinas, on the Talmudic lectures the French-Jewish philosopher presented in postwar Paris. Kleinberg claims in the conclusion of Haunting History that this subsequent work will put his deconstructive approach into practice by telling two accounts of the same phenomenon, what Levinas’s onetime assistant Jacques Derrida called a “double session.” Each account can destabilize the authority of the other and leave the past open to alternative meanings: the one a conventional secular intellectual history and the other a theological account inspired by “Levinas’s own counterhistorical claim that divine and ethical meaning transcends time” (Haunting History, p. 147). Kleinberg hopes to stretch the limits of what counts as history, in this case moving beyond assumption that historical scholarship must be secular and operate within the framework of what Walter Benjamin called “homogenous empty time.” An earlier article of Kleinberg’s on these themes published in History and Theory bears the telling subtitle “Deconstruction and the Spirit of Revision.” This idea seems compatible with history as both a theoretical and “scientific” enterprise: being open to critique, revision, the contestation of textual meaning, and, yes, even to deconstruction.

The Weberian and social-scientific focus Mayer and Stone shared with much of their era remains to a large extent trapped within what Max Horkheimer called “traditional theory,” or conventional social science, held back from the self-reflexivity of “critical” theory. They thus remain within the paradigm that Theory Revolt criticizes, whereby disciplinary history tends “to artificially separate data from theory, facts from concepts, research from thinking. This leads ‘theory’ to be reified as a set of ready-made frameworks that can be ‘applied’ to data” (I.9). By contrast, Theory Revolt’s critique of empiricism rests upon an insight clearly articulated in Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno’s 1947 Dialectic of Enlightenment: In the words of the Wild On Collective, positivist historians rest far too heavily upon mere “reified appearances” and “supposedly given contexts.” In his 1938 essay on “Traditional and Critical Theory,” Horkheimer likewise disdained traditional theory, which encompasses the empirical social sciences, for attempting to grasp the external world “as it really is.” Part of this distinction is captured in Theory Revolt’s critique of the historical discipline producing “technocratic” knowledge and “scholars rather than thinkers.” By uncritically condensing that reality into timeless theories and laws, traditional theorists or mere scholars commit the fallacy of thinking that the present world is the only world, operating on the false and conservative assumption that everything has to be the way that it is. For Horkheimer and Adorno, genuinely critical theory did empirical work and attempted to ascertain the ways the social world worked, but always with an eye to how it might also be otherwise—to its fuller realization and emancipation. The Theory Revolters’ final thesis comes to a similar conclusion through the related insights of Foucault’s method of genealogy: “Critical history aims to understand the existing world in order to question the givens of our present so as to create openings for other possible worlds” (III.10).

Fetishizing purportedly “tangible” or “concrete” facts—as if they were self-evidently knowable—traps us in the flattened horizon of our own troubled social world, falsely granting it a quasi-natural status. To thus privilege “the real” over the theoretical—what Theory Revolt phrases in the subjunctive as “the dream”—is to come under what Adorno called the “spell” of reification, the downward pull into crude materialism that leaves us trapped in the lifeless circle of late capitalism and sanctioned state violence. Adorno’s negative dialectics bars positively developing alternatives—the error of Nazism, Stalinism, and other prescriptive utopianisms—but it does enable us to determinately negate spaces of unfreedom in the world as it is, severing our psychic ties to the world in which we find ourselves and opening up theoretical space in which alternatives might eventually be developed. To invoke a line from Negative Dialectics, history—like the metaphysics that preoccupied Adorno—“must know how to wish” (p. 407).

The Theses end with a call for historians to seek out “the navel of the dream.” Dreams push against the ontological realist historian’s sensibilities because they are inherently personal and nonobjective. One of Theory Revolt’s related final points seems closely inspired by the psychoanalytic insights of Dominck LaCapra: “psychically, historians should acknowledge and try to work through, rather than simply act out, their unconscious investments in their material.” In philosophy (which I was trained in) such investments are quite often made manifestly clear: It is widely understood that many people who work on Kant, for example, would identify as “Kantians” and attempt to think and even live their lives within the framework of Kant’s thought. When they speak on contemporary issues, they often do so explicitly and self-consciously from the position of their philosophical background and personal commitments; they then feel free to critique, revise, and dispense with aspects of such traditions that no longer hold or appeal to them.

Working in a history department for the past two years, I’ve found it curious that historians on the whole seem to lack this self-consciousness. They tend to repress the fact that most of us do the research we do because it interests us—which is to say, because we have a psychic investment in our material that is rationalized rather than rational. Either we see something in the past that “speaks” to us today or, on the contrary, we seek out something in the past that gives us distance from the weight and all-encompassing spell of our own moment. It is no surprise that the historian’s identity, life experiences, and politics often shape their choice of research subject. Yet unlike disciplines such as anthropology that productively theorize and “work through” these relations of implication, cathexis, and transference, historians often resort to the pseudo-objective refrain that their subject is simply “important.” But why do we really need to know it? What justifies the time and expense of researching it? Sometimes, to be sure, there’s just a good story to be told. But more often than not there are investments, both personal and collective, that undergird our choice of projects, subconsciously dictate their frameworks, and hence drive them to certain conclusions. Hayden White famously concluded in Metahistory that there were at the end of the day no “objective” or “scientific” reasons to prefer one way of telling a story to another, but rather, in the “ironic” mode he graced us with, only “moral or aesthetic ones” (p. 434). My greatest hope for Theory Revolt would be that it presses more historians to such self-conscious reflection about the relation between themselves, their world, and their work. If “critical history is a history of the present,” that present surely includes ourselves.

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

The Principle of Theory: Or, Theory in the Eyes of its Students

By contributing writer John Handel. This and Jonathon Catlin’s “Theory Revolt and Historical Commitment” respond to the May 2018 “Theses on Theory and History” by Ethan Kleinberg, Joan Wallach Scott, and Gary Wilder.

“It is impossible, now more than ever, to dissociate the work we do, within one discipline or several, from a reflection on the political and institutional conditions of that work. Such a reflection is unavoidable. It is no longer an external complement to teaching and research; it must make its way through the very objects we work with, shaping them as it goes, along with our norms, procedures, and aims. We cannot not speak of such things.”

-Jacques Derrida (1983)

In 1967 Jacques Derrida famously asserted that “there is no outside-text.” This was not a literary formalist screed against historical context, it was rather that context as such was an unstable category–that context itself was endlessly shifting and was never a stable given. Derrida’s injunction to us, as scholars, in whichever discipline we worked, was to question and deny these categories of certainty, to see things in their most capacious sense, to know that our own sight was always already constrained and limited. It was imperative to constantly question the adequacy of our vision. Theory Revolt is a welcome, deconstructive, reminder on this front, as it lays bear many of the central assumptions of the epistemology of the historical profession and what they problematically overlook. Yet, despite its protestations that “Critical historians are self-reflexive,” and “recognize that they are…implicated in their objects of study,” there is little impetus on the part of Theory Revolt to question this further, to turn its sights inwards to the institutional site of knowledge production: the university (III.6). Bringing the ethics of deconstructive criticism back to the university especially in the context of the colonialist, military-industrial, production of post-war American knowledge, was a critical move for Derrida, and likewise, is a necessary mode of critique that Theory Revolt must take up if it is to effect the radical change in the profession that is desires.

Without actively thinking through the institutional forms of power and politics that structure the production of historical knowledge they wish to critique, Theory Revolt’s project itself is implicated in perpetuating them. “Structures of…politics, or even identity that do not conform with convention are ruled out or never seen at all,” they write. Indeed. In focusing so intently on assaulting the “guild” mentality of the current historical profession and its epistemological assumptions and practices, Theory Revolt misses what constitutes their central problem, for it is impossible to explain why we stopped arguing about theory without attending to the political economic transformation of the university: the collapse in undergraduate humanities enrollments, the implosion of the academic job market, and the subsequent proliferation of the precarious labor which manages to keep the university afloat.

This is, in large part, a generational blindness. Theory Revolt argues that the historical profession sees “theory as one more turn (a wrong one) in the ever-turning kaleidoscope of historical investigation. The lure of theory is taken to be an aberrant stage in the intellectual history of the discipline, happily outgrown, replaced by a return to more solidly grounded observation.” (II.3) But, as James Cook has argued in an essay entitled “The Kids Are Alright: On the ‘Turning’ of Cultural History,” “turning” becomes synonymous with a generational rite of passage—most typically, from the new social history of the 1970s to the new cultural history of the 1980s.” Theory Revolt’s emplotment of its own intellectual history rests on the specters of a generational revolt, in particular on the radical critique of post-structuralism that lost the generational fight to a new empiricism. But it is hard to have a generational revolt when your generation has been systematically excluded from the academy. The kids are definitely not alright.

My own brief trajectory at Berkeley provides some anecdotal evidence for this shift. I arrived at Berkeley in the fall of 2015 for graduate school, excited to come to the place that was the birth place of cultural history. I expected to find a place that was the center of radicalism in the United States for so long, the place that founded the journal Representations, that prided itself on being “happily at the margins” of the mainstream historical profession. Instead, I found an institution that was rife with crises. From a culture of systemic sexual harassment to a structural budget deficit that seemed to spell the end of the public research university; from an endemic housing crisis to a campus that was overrun by right-wing trolls and heavily armored police. These were inauspicious years to be at Berkeley.

Somewhere amid the institutional decay that blighted the landscape of Berkeley (not to mention the rest of higher education), the Berkeley of the cultural turn had also seemed to disappear. Where I thought I would find intellectual iconoclasm, all I found was methodological malaise. For instance, at the institution whose connection to Foucault helped bring his work into the mainstream of U.S. academic culture, one of the professors teaching the department’s “Historical Methods & Theory” course notoriously refused to read Foucault with us. “You’re all more or less cultural historians at Berkeley,” the professor informed us, “you all need to read Foucault in chronological order, start to finish on your own, anyways.” What was the use of actually discussing it in a seminar?  The next year this course was replaced with one on professionalization—on using twitter in academic contexts, on building a CV, on networking at conferences, etc. Professionalization for an almost non-existent academic job market had replaced theoretical stakes.

And therein lies the unseen problem of Theory Revolt’s critique of the mainstream practice of history. In ignoring the neoliberal transformation of the university, they miss the reason we stopped arguing about theory in the first place. It is hard to engage in a collaborative rethinking of historical methodology when most of your generation will not end up in the academy. The disciplinary and professional pressures of the historical guild weigh especially heavy when you are fighting for one of the few jobs available in your field. In the midst of institutional crisis, how can we orient ourselves to address both that crisis and the epistemological malaise of the historical profession that Theory Revolt rightly critiques? Ben Mechen argues that as graduate students we can use our precarious position in the university to inform both a new politics of solidarity and critique of the power structures that produced such precarity. Can Theory Revolt’s critiques be joined to this purpose?

One way Theory Revolt’s mode of critical history might work itself in and through its objects of study is in relation to the New History of Capitalism. HoC was a field born in direct response to the new political realities after 2008, as well as a response to the new institutional directives within universities. But the History of Capitalism remains notoriously under theorized. In a programmatic state-of-the-field essay in 2014, Seth Rockman claimed that HoC “has minimal investment in a fixed or theoretical definition of capitalism,” and that “the empirical work of discovery takes precedence over the application of theoretical categories.” In the words of Theory Revolt, this type of empiricism only serves to “reinforce disciplinary history’s tendency to artificially separate data from theory, facts from concepts, research from thinking. This leads ‘theory’ to be reified as a set of ready-made frameworks that can be ‘applied’ to data.” (I.9) Theory is not a lens that can be applied to historical work, it is rather the political stances that every historian, whether implicitly or explicitly, brings to their attempts to understand the past. Despite our protestations to the contrary, we can never get outside theory.

One of the most prescient and enduring critiques of this type of empiricism, especially as it relates to the history of capitalism and the economy, is from none other than Joan Scott, one of the authors of Theory Revolt. In her canonical Gender and the Politics of History, Scott performed a brilliant reading of mid-19th century French statistical reports. Rather than viewing these reports as “irrefutable quantitative evidence,” Scott argues that in merely using these reports in a purely empirical sense, we “have accepted at face value and perpetuated the terms of the nineteenth century according to which numbers are somehow purer and less susceptible to subjective influences than other sources of information.” These statistical reports were neither neutral representations nor sheer ideological constructions, she argued, but were rather “ways of establishing the authority of certain visions of social order, of organizing perceptions of “experience.” Scott’s project constituted a major post-structural attack on the categories that undergirded the basic assumptions of the dominant strains of Marxist and social history at the time and problematized what could be taken and used as historical “facts.”

Years later, Adam Tooze would revisit the ways in which economic historians in particular might make use of numbers as historical facts. “The polemical energy involved in tearing up the empirical foundations of economic and social history, to reveal them as rooted in institutional, political, and indeed economic history, overshot its mark,” he argued. Rather than jettisoning numbers as usable historical facts, Tooze argued that we should adopt a “hermenutical quantification,” where we “move from a generalized history of statistics as a form of governmental knowledge to a history of the construction and use of particular facts.” In other words, we could be attentive to the contingent, cultural construction of numbers, while also acknowledging that those numbers were operationalized and did work in the world for those who used them.

Tooze’s move from questioning the category of statistics to thinking about the particular moments & conjunctures by which certain quantitative facts, once constructed, gain authority is consonant with the radical strains of cultural history influenced by STS & ANT. Revealingly, Tooze takes most of his theoretical cues in that article from Bruno Latour (see for instance notes 51 and 52). Latour’s radical constructivism finds sympathetic allies in Scott’s post-structural wing of the cultural turn, for instance, Patrick Joyce’s insistence on not conceiving “culture” as an essentialist superstructure, but culture as a process, “as for or around practice,” and “located in practice and in material forms.” This continual attendance to the process of knowledge production, rather than ever taking forms of knowledge either in the past or presence as givens, is what I take Theory Revolt to be stressing in their insistence on a “Critical history (that) recognizes all ‘facts’ as always already mediated, categories as social, and concepts as historical; theory is worldly and concepts do worldly work.” (III.4). This kind of critical history, when brought to the history of capitalism and the economy, seems well positioned to cut through the endless methodological stand-offs between economic historians and historians of capitalism.

A critical history thus positioned is also poised to make sense of the broader political moment within which we live. In his 1987 work, Science in Action Bruno Latour asked: “Given the tiny size of fact production, how the hell does the rest of humanity deal with ‘reality’?” In our moment of Trumpian politics that has witnessed the collapse of post-war America’s key sites of fact and knowledge production—from universities to the media—it becomes clear that the answer to this question is “not well.”  Plenty of pseudo-intellectuals have been quick to proclaim that post-structuralism bears at least some responsibility for the collapse of these institutions and the  rise of Donald Trump. It did not take long for critics to marshal these claims against Theory Revolt, and rehearse the “dismissal oftheory as dangerous relativism.”(II.6).

Yet it is precisely here that the type of radical constructivism—a post-structuralist critical history that is always methodologically self-conscious—can make a key intervention in our current political moment. There is no doubt, for instance, that Donald Trump has launched a dangerous assault on facts and facticity, but post-structuralism didn’t cause Trump’s rise, it can help explain him. As Nils Gilman has argued, in the current maelstrom of fake news, “dry fact-checking does not work in the face of a deliberate assault on facts as such.” A critical history that refuses to take any fact as a given, and insists on historicizing how facts are constructed and operationalized, is far more politically exigent than a dry empiricism that attempts in vain to fact check those who refuse the very premise of factuality.

In the age of Trump, knowledge is up for grabs in ways previously unimaginable. On one hand, this is profoundly terrifying, as those in the highest offices of political power seemingly refuse to share the same factual reality with the world around them. But instead of driving us to a knee-jerk and uncritical defense of our universities, it should push us to further critique. The knowledge production of the academy has thus far not been up to facing the challenges within or without. This should force us within the academia to rethink not only the epistemological practices of our discipline but the institutional structures that created them. As the structures of the post-war university crumble, we can, finally, begin to imagine new collectivities, institutions, and forms of professionalism that do not have to replicate the neoliberal logics that have hollowed out these institutions to begin with. Theory Revolt’s critique of historical epistemology is a welcome part of this project, but rather than being a radical move forward, it is too often a nostalgic look backward to the generational revolts of the 1980s and 90s, obfuscating the tectonic shifts in the structure of our institutions and professions that have occurred in the meantime. But it doesn’t have to be. The critical history it advocates can and should be positioned not just to bring its critique to bear on histories of capitalism and neoliberalism, nor just on the high politics, but on the academic institutions that not only have failed to stop these transformations but have, in ways, been complicit in them. For Theory Revolt’s critiques to take shape, and to work their way into our practices of history, they cannot limit themselves to a critique of their own self-proclaimed outside Other—empiricist epistemology—but they must also turn inside, and examine their own sites and sights of power within the university itself.

John Handel is a Ph.D Candidate at UC Berkeley.