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“Brilliantly Devised, Grossly Packaged Confusion”: Eames’s “World of Franklin & Jefferson” Exhibition and Reclaiming Revolution during America’s Post-Traumatic Decade

By Thomas Cryer

In the 1970s, American foreign policy become a national confession booth, a place to reclaim the giddy idealism of a nation rocked by the retreat from Vietnam and the awakening, via Middle Eastern oil crises, to global interdependence. As the Harvard sociologist Daniel Bell famously warned, “there is no longer a Manifest Destiny or mission. We have not been immune to the corruption of power. We have not been the exception.”

The 1970s, suggest Keys, Davies, and Bannan, were consequently characterized by a “search for recovery after trauma- for a new equilibrium and a revised sense of what America stood for in a changing world.” By sheer chronological coincidence, this introspection was punctuated by 1976’s American Revolutionary Bicentennial, a 200th national birthday inundated with both soothing nostalgia and cultural despair. For doomsayers including the political theorist Sheldon Wolin, America had been “forced to enter history a second time… The first time we entered proclaiming our independence and liberty, the second time frantically trying to conceal our dependence and servitude.”

Yet 1976 remained a remarkable opportunity to signal America’s future direction, particularly vis-à-vis foreign policy. The United States Information Agency (USIA) particularly sought to utilize international Bicentennial commemorations, to which 102 countries pledged over $100,000,000, as a “rostrum from which to reaffirm U.S. goals.” This effort is powerfully illustrated in the travelling exhibition ‘The World of Franklin & Jefferson,’ an IBM-sponsored $500,000-dollar “colonial Who’s Who” as chaotically crammed with high-minded ideas and orotund rhetoric as the 1970s in America itself. What the Guardian’s Hugh Hebert labelled “7,500 feet of brilliantly devised, grossly packaged confusion” consequently provides vital insights on how Americans used their Enlightenment heritage to reclaim their revolutionary reputation amidst this era of global decolonization and national atonement.

In the wake of history’s recent ‘memory boom,’ scholars are increasingly aware that memory works beyond the confines of the nation, travelling and evolving within different contexts and assuming multivalent and multi-directional resonances therein. Scholars have also emphasized memory’s frequent incorporation into American foreign policy and diplomacy, Michael Hunt suggesting that a culturally-driven foreign policy promotes “a relatively coherent, emotionally charged, and conceptually interlocking set of ideas.” Lending foreign policy this intellectual ballast was critical in a decade where the sources of American power were redefined, a transformation that Daniel Sargent argues was “neither foreordained nor planned” but instead “followed a series of adaptations to unexpected and confounding circumstances.”

Since its creation in 1953, the USIA had been the hub for such Cold War-era public diplomacy. As early as March 1973, USIA planners identified the Bicentennial as a “special opportunity to inform our audiences worldwide about America’s past, present and future as we see it.” A further paper entitled ‘Portraying the US to Foreign Audiences’ cited three chief goals: “let the world know what America stands for,” “show confidence in the United States,” and “show the United States on the frontiers of modern man’s existence.” Few episodes from American history would better demonstrate this than the Age of Revolution(s), USIA planners aiming to demonstrate the “exchange of ideas which were current on both sides of the Atlantic during the Age of Enlightenment and the resultant contribution to American thought.”

‘The World of Franklin and Jefferson’ met this purpose perfectly. Jefferson was particularly resonant in the 1970s, exemplifying the effusive, world-changing effect of America’s soft power and revolutionary ideas, particularly to decolonizing nations in the Global South who increasingly questioned America’s revolutionary credentials. Franklin was added later to safeguard against presenting a one-note celebration of Jefferson but both figures were attractively multi-valent, being presentable as forefathers of the founding documents, wide-ranging polymaths, and men of thought and action who bridged both sides of the Atlantic across a cumulative span of 120 years.

This commission was passed to the husband and wife team Charles and Ray Eames, best known for designing chairs, but also celebrated for several informationally-laden exhibitions on historical figures including Newton and Copernicus. These exhibitions blended the forms and functions of the museum and art gallery. Overwhelming informational bombardment- the Eames’ signature style- consequently provided the ideal mechanism for celebrating Franklin and Jefferson’s supposedly universal contribution to philosophical and political enlightenment.

Indeed, the exhibition’s final brochure emphasized that Franklin and Jefferson were not isolated geniuses but instead, “members of an international community who believed that the sublime impartiality of sound knowledge could guarantee free men everywhere from arbitrary powers.” The Eames sought to revive an entire trans-Atlantic community of thought, the exhibition’s main features being two parallel Euro-American timelines presenting Franklin and Jefferson’s lives “against a background of major political, philosophical, military and social milestones, both in America and in Europe.”

The overall emphasis was cultural comity and universally-applicable ideas, the brochure transporting viewers to a moment where “transplanted Europeans became Americans almost without knowing it,” and the “immediate needs and opportunities of the American situation,” provided the “special combination of theory and circumstance that made the American experiment possible.” The Constitution and Declaration consequently featured as “bridge[s] between the cosmopolitan political theory of the Enlightenment and its American practice.”

As for the medium of this message, Charles Eames decided upon a popular approach, variously describing the exhibition as a “citizen’s exhibition,” or “the largest coloured tabloid the world has ever seen.” He informed the Times that 1976 was “clearly going to be a period of superlatives: this, the first trumpet, is a superlative commemoration of the prophets and founders who believed in a world run by reason and justice.” Nineteen Eames staff thus worked towards an exhibition-cum-extravaganza modelled after Jefferson’s neo-classical University of Virginia that contained 40,600 words, 1,000 prints (translated into French, Polish, and Spanish), and perhaps the most infamous stuffed bison in the history of American design.

This travelling roadshow first toured in Paris, Warsaw, and London, where Jack Marsh, President Ford’s de facto Bicentennial advisor-in-chief, celebrated the “great interest and enthusiasm in the exhibition” at the “highest levels of the British government and cultural world.” The pointed brochure “‘The World of Franklin and Jefferson’-Inspired by British Political Traditions” argued that “the roots of the American republic lie deep in the soil of Britain,” identifying both figures as “direct product[s] of English civil libertarianism.” For the British, Eames offered an olive branch: “when a daughter leaves the family to start a new life, the trauma of that separation can be like a battle, or a war. But nobody thinks of it as the daughter’s victory, or the mother’s defeat. Four, six, ten years go by, and everyone comes together to celebrate the setting up of the new household.” Indeed, Queen Elizabeth II was apparently “fascinated by the farm implements used by Jefferson at Monticello and by his plans for the garden.”

Continental reviews were also glowing. The exhibition proved “the most successful United States exhibition ever presented in Europe,” receiving record audiences of 50,000 in Paris, 53,000 in Warsaw, and garnering one of the British Museum’s largest recorded audiences. Le Monde called it a “revolutionary presentation…. a feast… a living entity for those who do not come for a history lesson but more for impressions.” The French Press Agency also lauded “a living exhibition, with a great photographic appeal, whose first care is to please the visitor, but the effort of animation never detracts from the quality of the historic account.” The message remained readily appropriable for local contexts- L’Express noted that the ‘real theme’ was liberty, at a moment where it ‘ceasing to be a dream, became the law of the country,’ whilst the Polish émigré literary magazine Kultura, prominent amongst anti-Soviet dissidents,revealingly lauded its depiction of Jefferson’s “revolt against a reactionary Europe.”

Nevertheless, a distinct sector of Anglo-American arts criticism found the exhibition kitsch, offensively so. The TLS observed that “the bright hygienic colours and textures and the immaculate state of ‘period’ repair of every American monument never carry much conviction; but photographed, en masse, they are oppressive.” Most prominently, the New York Times’s Hilton Kramer lambasted a “contemptible way to make use of works of art” which made “a mockery of the museum function.” The exhibition was “mostly a lot of glossy color photographs” which “give us an anonymous, immaculate, idealized, unreal glimpse of a never-never land—a world at once cozy and glamorous, without flaws or imperfections, where the light always glows with an amber warmth and all emotions are either noble or picturesque.” Their effect was “deliberately sedative, deliberately designed to comfort and reassure.”

Perhaps the most problematic section was the concluding portion, “Jefferson and the West,” home to the exhibition’s notorious bison, several “wilderness paintings” and various “indigenous artefacts.” Here, the brochure suggested that Jefferson “was fascinated by the western wilderness, its unspoiled fertility and the societies that populated it.” Into this populated ‘wilderness,’ Jefferson fought for “fair constraints on the use of the land” which protected “an expanding society of society of responsible freeholders.” The exhibition concluded in 1826, arguing that at this point “the expansion and the individualism that were part of the Jeffersonian vision had brought America to the edge of a new wilderness- a new complexity of commerce and production, that would alter the conditions of the American experiment almost beyond recognition.”

Even at this moment then, ‘The World of Franklin and Jefferson’ wholeheartedly eschewed mentioning colonial wars or those enslaved by Jefferson, epitomizing its rarefied intellectual presentation and nullifying, sedative focus, useful to a divided America, on comity and collective national will. The museal rendering of history as “an eternally present spectacle” thus returned viewers to an era of essential values and lost national purpose, attempting to excavate a Revolutionary ethos of participation and responsibility that could be re-embedded into the America of the ‘Age of Narcissism.’ As Charles Eames declared in response to his critics, “the ultimate use of any of these experiences is to plough them back into the business of life itself.”

The exhibition’s obscured outsourcing to IBM further asserts that memory is not reclaimed but instead produced in articulation with pre-existing material hierarchies and that, as De Certeau has suggested, the past revived as all-encompassing mise-en-scène necessarily “disguises the praxis that organizes it.” To echo Hayden White, Eames’ vicarious ‘emplotment’ of America’s Revolutionary story within Franklin and Jefferson’s lives highlights how common historical narratives represent a ‘structure of relationships…endowed with meaning… as part of an integrated whole.’ Memory’s stabilizing functions consequently add a useful nuance to recent intellectual histories of the 1970s which predominantly emphasize inexorable fracture and “a discomfort with preciseness in signification and representation.”  

That the exhibition’s American hosts were New York and Los Angeles, not Washington, also indicates the Bicentennial’s broader move towards dispersed and local commemorations noted by Tammy Stone-Gordon and M. J. Rymzsa-Pawklowska, the Los Angeles exhibition bringing commemorations far beyond Revolutionary America’s original geography. To be sure, this was far from a narrative unhindered by racial or gendered logics. In retrospect, the silences sound like thunder. Yet the allocation of planning to Eames indicates the American state’s comparatively laissez-faire approach to public memory and the perennial capacity of rhetorics of American patriotism to “mediate both vernacular loyalties to local and familiar places and official loyalties to national and imagined structures.” Studying memory as a field of cultural and intellectual negotiation thus allows intellectual historians to look further beyond the nation, following trans-Atlantic networks of Cold War cultural diplomacy and tracing complex and often implicit histories of argumentation, reception, and contestation within imagery, design, and even the occasional stuffed bison.

Ultimately, by describing 1776 as an exceptional and daringly experimental outpouring of idealism the Eames encouraged subsequent pragmatic, non-violent change whilst doing little to take this Enlightenment-infused story beyond one corner of the North Atlantic. They consequently reasserted that one revolution proved enough and that America’s revolution, a ‘law-and-order’ revolution that was an organic confluence of European ideas and American circumstances, set the basic precedent for all subsequent revolutions, even those whose means and methods departed drastically from this American beau idéal.


Thomas Cryer is a LAHP-funded PhD student at UCL’s Institute of the Americas, where he is studying memory, race, and nationhood in late twentieth-century America through an intellectual biography of the historian John Hope Franklin.

Featured Image: Jefferson Memorial, Washington DC, USA. Photo by J. Amill Santiago on Unsplash.

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Left, Liberal or Social Democrat? Traversing Political Affiliation in Recent US Intellectual History

By Christopher Sarjeant

Students of intellectual and political history, interested in the modern American left, face an acute ambiguity. In thinking about the modern American left, what metrics should we select when attempting to distinguish true believers from liberals? A commitment to the traditional logics of class inequality or an emphasis on identity politics? Protection for workers or open borders? The pursuit of common values or the celebration of cultural difference? We frequently find ourselves dealing with terminologies and ideological labels that contain both historical and analytical valence.

In the case of my own research, focused on the recent history of a group of what many scholars continue to refer to as “left-liberals”, matters continue to remain complicated. Here I find myself in a double bind — hampered not only by competing interpretations of the left but also by the ever evolving characteristics of what historian Gary Gerstle famously described as the uniquely “protean” traditions of American liberalism. While on the one hand, the notion of a “left-liberal” might make perfect historical sense — think back to an era in which liberals and leftists were clearly divided over the big questions of the day, most of which tended to revolve around the economy and the role of the state — its analytical or descriptive currency has been largely devalued in an age in which a different set of questions have become predominant and in which scholars and pundits alike, argue over the extent to which the two parties still exist in any kind of adversarial relationship, if at all.

It is in this context that I have found myself drawn to the somewhat overlooked category of social democracy in an effort to re-establish key ideological and intellectual anchor points capable of tethering the thematic strands of my research whilst preserving the political contours of the left/liberal debate themselves. While historians of the U.S. may once have had good cause to dismiss the typically European-inflected traditions of social democracy in favour of more Americanised hybrid forms, the moment to reassess its utility as a descriptive device has arrived.

Whatever the historically evolving complexities of American liberalism, the principle causes of today’s taxonomic confusion lies in recent transformations within the left. Many—like the celebrated essayist and academic Louis Menand—locate the origins of these transformations in the rise of the New Left during the 1960s, a time when “individual freedom and authenticity” became primary goals of “political action”. Historian Rhodri Jeffries-Jones on the other hand, places greater emphasis on a moment sometime during the early 1970s when the New Left itself was forced to give way to an even “Newer Left” determined to “diversif[y] beyond the goals of socialism, opposition to the Vietnam War, antipoverty and civil rights”. In either case, as these changes took hold, so the effects were the same: the older distinguishing characteristics of the left — its emphasis on class solidarity, its faith in nation-building — were gradually joined, or displaced, by new categories and commitments.

Writing in 1998, the cultural historian Eric Lott gave explicit voice to the primacy of these new commitments. “[B]lacks, Latinos, women, queers and others”, he argued, had “transformed the very meaning of “the poor””. Activists engaged in the politics of the resulting “new social movements” had in fact not given up on economic justice as some critics argued, rather they had recognised that any attempt to line said groups up behind the universalist nostrums of the old left risked divesting them of the very autonomy they had fought so long to establish. Those that chose not to confront this paradox head on, Lott argued, revealed themselves to be heirs to that peculiar American religion that preached universalism on the one hand whilst jealously guarding the privileges of a select few on the other. In the hands of “Boomer liberals” as he branded a particular set of opponents, “class solidarity” functioned like “colorblindness”: as a rallying cry for a group of ex-radical white males engaged in a rear-guard action to protect not only their influence at the intellectual apex of the post-war left itself but also their new found status as court intellectuals for a new Democratic establishment wholly set against substantive reform.

Whatever the force of Lott’s accusations — and it is certainly true that the movement he sought to skewer was predominantly both white and male — twenty years later, not all historians perceive much distance between traditional liberal values and the aims and assumptions of Lott’s radical left itself. Doug Rossinow, for instance, notes that however hard radicals railed against the various Enlightenment-derived axioms in which American liberals have traditionally placed their trust, they themselves consistently struggled to find alternative grounds upon which to stake out their own campaigns. Fellow historian Andrew Hartman, a committed Marxist, has taken this a stage further. The very reason that the left was so successful in “radicaliz[ing]…the culture” in the wake of the 1960s, he has argued, is precisely because its aims “aligned” so readily with the “liberal tradition” against which it set itself up in putative opposition. For Hartman, this alignment possesses disturbing consequences, diverting attention within the left away from collective notions of the “social good” and training them instead on questions of “individual ascent”. He argues that this process has intensified with the rise of modern identity politics and consequently, the left’s appetite and ability to resist the “neoliberal dismantling of the social welfare state” has receded.

Support for at least some aspect of Hartman’s interpretation comes from a different point on the ideological spectrum: not all who perceive the connection between identity-based politics and the traditions of American liberalism are critical of the relationship. For historian Kevin Mattson, it is quite the reverse: in his eyes, modern campaigns to end racial, gendered and sexual injustice ground themselves in the very best of an American liberal tradition. In its rejection of overly simplistic solutions— the reductive economic populism promoted by Richard Rorty, Todd Gitlin, whom Eric Lott places squarely in the “Boomer Liberal camp”, and more recently Presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders— the post-war liberal tradition underwrites the kind of pluralistic space in which alternative viewpoints and analysis can be heard. In Mattson’s view, these figures belong to the left precisely because they construe power as operating “purely on a socioeconomic axis”. It is the mark of the liberal, Mattson argues, to observe that questions of power are in reality a good deal more complex and multifaceted than that.

It is here, that the somewhat schizophrenic contemporary nature of what were once comparatively solid categories comes into view. We are not simply dealing with divergent political viewpoints, rather we are encountering profoundly different linguistic approaches to political history. When Eric Lott invokes a term like “Boomer liberal”, it is not in an attempt to highlight the general openness and pluralism of his chosen subject, but rather an effort to associate them historically with a tradition that, according to many critics, has repeatedly failed to live up to the weight of its own promises. Both Hartman and Mattson meanwhile, despite their divergent aims, base their definitions on a more analytical interpretation; they define the category of liberalism in accordance with the varying promises (openness, pluralism, individual freedom) made on behalf of liberalism itself.

The shift from the analytical to the historical is well illustrated by dwelling further on Rorty, Gitlin and at least some of those others whom Lott described as “Boomer Liberals”.  In their case, a signature preference for at least some form of socialist-inspired economic organization, on the one hand, combined with a strong defense of the legitimating moral force of democracy on the other, has led many historians to continue to refer to the group as “left-liberal” — a choice which does benefit at least from the virtue of taking this particular subset of historical actors at their word.

Nevertheless, a problem remains. Were we discussing the group in relation to debates within the left occurring prior to the process of diversification, when — to paraphrase Andrew Hartman’s underlying historical conceit — an explicitly Marxist left continued to work to establish itself in direct “tension” with the very traditions (as opposed to historical failures) of American liberalism, we would probably raise little objection. But, in relation to debates that occurred some two decades after the cultural turn of the 1970s — debates that in one guise or another spoke directly to the formation of new cleavages and diversification of interests that followed — we are liable to experience a sense of disorientation. It is by no means necessary to embrace the full, critical implications of Andrew Hartman’s analysis to ask in what sense Todd Gitlin’s call for a reaffirmation of “liberal” patriotism, Richard Rorty’s ethnocentric pragmatism, the political theorist Michael Walzer’s thinking on the various cultural and structural limits of equality, or the critic Susan Linfield’s defense of value judgement in the arts as metaphor for their application in the sphere of public ethics, can be usefully located on the “liberal” left of a contemporary radical movement likely to perceive such positions as markedly less liberal than their own views on corresponding issues? What we may at very least have to concede at this point is that in its diversification, the political and ideological landscape around us has outpaced the vocabulary available to describe it.

It is here that the turn to social democracy offers a solution. Despite the fact that a number of Lott’s “Boomers” themselves used terms like liberalism and social democracy interchangeably on occasion, rarely did they consider the two traditions one and the same. It is precisely here, in the points at which social democracy departs from the liberal creed that we can plant ideological stakes in the ground and attempt to resolve the potential contemporary paradoxes invoked by use of the term “left-liberalism”.  

Writing for the political quarterly Dissent in 2013, the former Princeton philosopher, Avishai Margalit laid out some of social democracy’s core distinguishing characteristics: its faith in community; its commitment to institution building; its belief that national borders continue to represent the tangible limits of “effective” solidarity. This moves us beyond the contentious dichotomy between class and identity politics and trains our attentions to more analytical themes. For Margalit, what, above all, singles out the social democratic worldview and underpins all other commitments, is its insistence that the pursuit of the good life should be thought of as a profoundly “intersubjective” process – one neither formulated according to any “objective” standard, nor left entirely up to the “subjective” conscience of the individual. Within this framework, he explains, “equality” is to be seen as a “means” rather than an “end”. 

Margalit’s taxonomy is, naturally, a subjective one. We should be careful not to overdetermine the distinctions between social democracy and other left-leaning ideological traditions, and we should be alert to the fact that not all self-identifying social democrats ascribe to precisely the same ways of thinking. Nevertheless, taken as a starting point for moving beyond the somewhat restrictive left/liberal dualism familiar to historians of US political and intellectual history, a reconsideration of ideo-political categories like social democracy offer compelling ways of navigating the otherwise complex range of caveats required to switch between the historical and analytical idioms with fluency and precision. In the effort to make sense of the shifting sands of recent progressive debate in the United States, it becomes clear that whatever the varied responses to the “diversification” of the left from a political standpoint, for historians and other dispassionate observers, a parallel diversification of the language used to talk about and observe the left is long overdue.


Christopher Sarjeant is currently a PhD candidate at University College London’s Institute of the Americas. His core research interests focus on the modern intellectual history of the American left with a particular emphasis on both the domestic and foreign policy debates of the 1990s.

Featured Image: The United States Capitol. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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“Through Nature We Know God”: Religion and Science in Early Modern Dutch Periodicals

By Charlotte Meijer

The Dutch Enlightenment has often been characterized as moderate and protestant compared to its counterparts elsewhere in Europe. This was partly because, as Dorothée Sturkenboom has argued, thinkers in the Netherlands sought to unite Christian revelation and reason, rather than using reason to critique Christian thought. Moreover, as has been shown by Eric Jorink, the discourse on the so-called liber naturae, or book of nature, was more uniform in the Netherlands than in other European countries. One characteristic expression of these beliefs was the idea that good Christian practice involved improving one’s knowledge of the natural world.

In the following, I will explore how ideas about religion and the natural world were connected in the Dutch press, using examples from three periodicals which have thus far received relatively little attention from historians: the Verstandige Natuuronderzoeker (The Sensible Scientist, 1751-1753), the Natuurkundige Verlustigingen (Natural Delights, 1769-1778) and the Ryk der Natuur en der Zeeden (The Empire of Nature and Morals, 1770-1772). Research by Joost Kloek and Wijnand Mijnhardt estimates the number of publications in the eighteenth century to be double what it had been in the previous century, with about 200,000 titles published. Periodicals like the three addressed here—which were not quite newspapers, but not ‘regular’ journals either—would appear around two to three times a week, with themes ranging from science and news to satire and opinion. Their contents reflect changes on the political and intellectual scene both domestically and abroad: as the Enlightenment spread around the world, the Netherlands was building towards a year of revolution. In 1795, the ruling house of Orange collapsed, and revolutionaries seized power with the help of French allies.

The Dutch Republic was a promising place to explore new (religious) ideas. Historians still generally agree the Dutch were relatively tolerant in religious matters, but religious freedom differed by religion and by jurisdiction. Toleration, moreover, relied less on benevolence and more on the fact that the Dutch Reformed Church was itself a minority, so it would have harmed political stability and prosperity—and been practically impossible—to engage in widespread religious persecution. Nonetheless, this relative openness made an attractive refuge for people whose religion or ideas weren’t tolerated in their own country. Indeed, as Geert Janssen has argued, even contemporaries characterized the early modern Netherlands as the ‘republic of the refugees.’

In this unique context, according to Ernestine van der Wall, the European trend of theology losing its hold on intellectual culture and being replaced by new philosophies had distinctive effects. Across the continent, one religious response to this trend was the rise of physico-theology. This movement used new scientific findings to make arguments for divine creation, examining the relationship between nature and God. Dutch intellectuals quickly adopted this approach under the name godgeleerde natuurkunde.

The most common strategy for uniting God and nature was to describe nature as a second book of revelation, as Jorink’s study of the liber naturae demonstrates. Although the idea of the liber naturae could be found in many Protestant countries, it was only explicitly included in the confession of the Dutch Reformed Church. In the Verstandige Natuuronderzoeker, written by the Dutch doctor Johannes Wilhelmus Heyman (1709-1774), we find one of the clearest expressions of this idea of nature as a book of Scripture:

Because the most honored and revered book of H. Scripture, through which the Supreme Being has liked to reveal himself to us humans, consists, so to speak, as of two parts, of which the first is Nature, and the second the Revelation, and of which the latter steadily exhorts us to consider the first. Both should therefore be considered with great attention

p. iv; 1777

Heyman emphasizes how the world is a ‘stage’ that proves the existence of a perfect, eternal Supreme Being, who is both the creator and organizer of everything (p. v; 1777). He even declares how lucky he is to be alive at a time in which people have been ‘pulled from the former darkness’ and ‘put in broad daylight’ (p. vii; 1777), a clear reference to the Enlightenment and a reminder that these ideas were (at least partly) inspired by what Anne-Charlott Trepp characterizes as the ‘rational cognition of nature inspired by the Enlightenment’ (p.137; 2020). According to Ann Blair and Kaspar von Greyerz, these ideas of a rational, omnipotent, and wise God who is actively present in the natural world were some of the key characteristics of physico-theology across Europe (p.7-8; 2020). But, in the closing words of the final installment of the Verstandige Natuuronderzoeker, Heyman takes this argument further and argues that God has kept caring for ‘miserable’ people even after the Fall, seemingly believing in a God that is still actively involved in human affairs, rather than only as a creator of natural phenomena as many of his contemporaries believed (p. 201; 1777).

The idea of Nature being God’s second book of revelation appeared again in Natuurkundige Verlustigingen, a periodical written by the Dutch amateur zoologist Marinus Slabber (1740-1838). Here Slabber, an elder of the Protestant Waalse Church, describes what he saw as the Christian duty to learn more about God through nature:

But also, on the other hand, the research of Nature is our duty, because of all Creatures here on Earth, we are the most admirably created Creature, gifted with reason, which makes us Human: so we are the most perfect; so that we, above all other creatures, can glorify God in the most perfect way in his complete creation

p. i; 1769

By giving thorough descriptions of insects and organisms that can only be observed through a microscope, Slabber intended to show his readers all of God’s wonders, provoking awe, and, in turn, reverence for God. As shown by Jorink, this idea that even the ‘lowest’ creatures are worthy of attention – and, accordingly, can be used to increase the awe for God – was popularized nearly a century earlier by Dutch scientist Johannes Swammerdam (1637-80).  The Dutch interpretation of physico-theological thought was thus embedded in much older traditions of thinking about God and nature in the Netherlands.

Slabber does not, however, pretend to know everything about every little creature. For example, when he writes about the spinybacked orbweaver (aranea conchata), Slabber observes that the spider has something resembling eyes, although they don’t seem to function as such, and declares that he does not know why the Creator put them there. But ignorance is part of the argument, as he later writes, ‘…we, mortal Creatures, will never know the true goal of the wisest Supreme Being,’ (p. 65-66; 1769). He then proceeds to describe the placement of ‘real’ eyes and argues that their intricacy shows God’s inscrutable wisdom (p. 5-7; 1769). Even unassuming creatures, like worms and fleas, are described with a sense of awe, and are, according to Slabber, ‘worthy of the astonishment of a being gifted with Reason.’ (p. 23; 1769) Using personal scientific insights to show God’s might and care in creating Earth, Slabber’s Natuurkundige Verlustigingen is a prime example of how practitioners of godgeleerde natuurkunde combined the new scientific tradition with the older biblical one.

A second religious response to the growing influence of Enlightenment philosophy was the emphasis on piety. According to recent research by Joke Spaans and Jetze Touber, religion in the eighteenth century ‘gradually distanced itself from its sixteenth century confessional moulds’ and shifted its emphasis to the Christian lifestyle. Piety remained a central aspect of Christian writing and became ‘increasingly identified with civic virtues’ (p. 9; 2019). On the other hand, Blair and Von Greyerz identify a more conflictual aspect to the new literature, with polemics against deism and atheism being one of the main components of physico-theology (p. 7-10; 2020). On this point, there is greater variation between the journals. Although a lack of sources makes it hard to pinpoint why, some authors preferred to emphasize the wonders of God’s creation, hoping to instil emotions of reverence, whereas others used a combination of showing wonders and scare tactics.

For Slabber, despite his role in the Church, the struggle against infidels was less relevant than for the other authors, who were actively opposing the perceived threat of atheism and deism. In the Ryk der Natuur en Zeeden, for example, the authors don’t hide their dislike of ‘people without morals’ and ‘godless’ people. Although originally published in German, the Ryk became popular in the Netherlands once translated. Its sixteenth instalment was dedicated to the question ‘How and when is the best time to tell someone without morals the truth?’ The authors cite the influence of the devil and Beelzebub (p. 121; 1771) and declare war on anyone promoting his ‘follies’ and ‘slander’ (p. 8; 1771). This more confrontational mode shows that physico-theology was not just a way for early modern thinkers to unite ideas about the natural sciences and the biblical tradition out of sheer curiosity, but also a very practical response to socio-religious changes of the time.

Heyman, in the Verstandige Natuuronderzoeker, not only warns his readers about the ‘godless’, but also about God’s revenge on them. He claimed that some natural phenomena, such as hail, were created by God as a form of revenge. The hail we know—not big enough to kill people on a large scale, but enough to scare them and occasionally destroy crops—is meant as an example (‘image’) of His ‘awful punishment and judgement of the Godless’ (p. 138;  1777). Here we see a less benevolent view of God as punisher, who not only uses nature to reveal himself but also to warn, and potentially hurt, infidels. To Heyman, this did not make God—a being of ‘infinite Goodness’ (p.iii; 1777) — any less good. On the contrary, it showed how much He cared about the safety of those who do believe. In this context, it is useful to remember that physico-theology was, at least in part, a response to the perceived threat of atheism and deism.

These late eighteenth-century periodicals offer a unique view into the minds of early-modern Reformed thinkers in the Netherlands. The growing influence of new philosophies, the fear that theology was losing its hold on society, and the perceived threats of atheism and deism led intellectuals across Europe to innovatively combine the new (natural) scientific insights of their time with ideas about religion. Far from the view that religion and science are antithetical, these authors regarded the scientific tradition as compatible with, and even proof of, the biblical tradition. It was knowing nature, after all, that would bring them closer to knowing the Creator.

The specific context of the Netherlands is no less interesting in this regard. Due to its climate of relative openness and toleration, the Dutch Republic became a place of international intellectual exchange, which led to stimulating discussions as well as fierce polemics. With the Dutch Reformed Church including the dogma of the liber naturae in its confession, the Dutch Republic proved to be a fertile ground for physico-theological ideas. It’s as if the journals have come full circle: from writing about a religious revelation to, in a sense, becoming a historical one.


Titular quote from Meier, G. F. e.a., Ryk der Natuur en der Zeeden, trans. G. Bom (Amsterdam, 1771).

The author would like to thank Dr. Peter Forshaw for his thoughtful comments on an earlier version of this essay.


Charlotte Meijer is a graduate student in history at the University of Amsterdam. Her research interests include big history and environmental history.

Featured Image: R. Muys after P.M. Brasser after Martinus Slabber, Spinybacked Orbweaver, 1778, in Natuurkundige Verlustigingen, p. 1.

Categories
Think Piece

Theorizing the 1930s: Black Radicalism, Antifascism and Anticolonialism in Interwar Britain

By Theo Williams

In May 1938, the Trinidadian Marxist and Pan-Africanist, George Padmore, published an extraordinary article—“Why Moors Help Franco”—in the New Leader, the newspaper of the British Independent Labour Party (ILP). The eyes of the international socialist movement were fixed on Spain, where a civil war (1936-1939) between Republican and Nationalist forces was being waged. For many on the Left, the Spanish Civil War was the central battlefield of a global struggle between socialism and fascism. The Communist International formed military units—International Brigades—to fight on behalf of the Popular Front government against the far-right Nationalists. Foreign radicals outside the orbit of the international Communist movement volunteered to fight alongside other socialist and anarchist groups on the Republican side.

“Why Moors Help Franco” provides an insight into the ways in which Black socialist ideas were engaging with and reshaping wider British and global socialist ideas during the 1930s. In the article, Padmore commented on the vitriol directed at the Moroccan troops who formed part of Francisco Franco’s Nationalist forces. He observed that the left-wing press in Britain and elsewhere had called these troops “scum of the earth,” “black riff-raff,” and “mercenaries.” For Padmore, however, the blame did not lie with the Moroccan troops. As he wrote in the article:

It is not the politically backward Moors who should be blamed for being used by the forces of reaction against the Spanish workers and peasants, but the leaders of the Popular Front, who, in attempting to continue the policy of Spanish Imperialism, made it possible for Franco to exploit the natives in the service of Fascism.

This was a cautionary tale. Padmore urged that “the British workers have much to learn from this tragic affair,” as any socialist government that failed to break from colonialism risked suffering the same fate as the Spanish Republicans. It was the government’s “treachery” that led to the deaths of “the Spanish workers and peasants, on the one hand, and the Moors, on the other.”

Here, Padmore was engaging in a debate that animated many in the British and global socialist movement during the 1930s. He, like many others, sought to explain the relationship between capitalism, colonialism, fascism and war. Disagreements about the nature of the relationship between these four phenomena go a long way towards explaining left-wing alliances and divisions during this period. Padmore had been a member of the Communist International during the 1920s and early 1930s, and played a crucial role in recruiting and organizing Black workers and trade unionists. He broke from the movement in the mid-1930s. Scholars contest the reasons for this break. It is unclear if Padmore jumped or if he was pushed, but what is indisputable is that during the second half of the 1930s, Padmore and the Communist movement held vastly different conceptions of the relationship between capitalism, colonialism, fascism and war. While the Communist rallying cry became “against fascism and war”—even if this meant compromising struggles against capitalism and colonialism—Padmore maintained that the only way to truly defeat fascism and war was to overthrow their root causes: capitalism and colonialism.

After advocating an uncompromising “Class against Class” policy from 1928, the Communist International shifted its priorities after Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in 1933. The movement saw Nazi Germany as an existential threat to the Soviet Union, and therefore global communism. The Soviet Union joined the League of Nations in September 1934 and signed a treaty of mutual assistance with France in May 1935. The Seventh Congress of the Communist International, held in the summer of 1935, advocated a “Popular Front” against the menace of fascism. This front would include bourgeois elements, so long as they opposed fascism. Communists, in seeking alliances with liberal antifascists in imperial powers like Britain and France, felt the need to moderate their anticapitalism and anticolonialism. The Popular Front enjoyed limited success in Britain, but Popular Front governments were formed in Chile, France and Spain.

By this point, Padmore was a central figure in a group of Black radical activist-intellectuals in London, which included Amy Ashwood Garvey, C. L. R. James, Chris Jones, Jomo Kenyatta, T. Ras Makonnen, and I. T. A. Wallace-Johnson. These activist-intellectuals first came together in 1935 as the International African Friends of Ethiopia, in the months before Italy’s invasion of one of only three independent Black-ruled states in the world. They regrouped as the International African Service Bureau (IASB) in 1937. Several of the group’s members—such as Jones and Kenyatta—had also previously been associated with the Communist movement, but broke from the movement as a result of the Popular Front.

As far as the IASB was concerned, the Popular Front made a grave theoretical and programmatic error in compromising anticolonialism in the name of antifascism. For one, the IASB argued that the systems of racial domination created by colonialism and fascism were analogous. More than this, however, the group made the case for a profound relationship between colonialism and fascism. Padmore argued in his 1937 book, Africa and World Peace, that:

Were the imperialists of Britain or France to lose their colonies to-morrow, or were they faced with a challenge for power by their working classes at home, they would dispense with democracy and apply the same ruthless methods of dictatorship at home by which they govern their colonies. About this the white workers in Britain and France should have no illusions. “Democratic” Imperialism and “Fascist” Imperialism are merely interchanging ideologies corresponding to the economic and political conditions of capitalism within a given country on the one hand, and the degree to which the class struggle has developed on the other.

pp. 251-2

For Padmore and the IASB, then, fascism was no aberration from liberal democracy, but the refuge of an embattled bourgeoisie. Liberalism in Europe went hand-in-hand with brutality and racial oppression in the colonies. The possession of colonial empires might help to forestall fascism at home, but also propped up capitalism and was the primary cause of war. Following this logic, it was impossible to separate the struggles against colonialism and fascism. As Padmore concluded in Africa and World Peace, “in the present epoch there is no way out except Social Revolution.”

One especially intriguing aspect of this Black radical politics is the influence it had on the wider British socialist movement, especially in the Independent Labour Party. This influence should compel historians to incorporate the histories of Pan-Africanism and Black radicalism into the history of the British socialist movement as a whole. At its annual conference in 1937, the ILP declared its opposition to “the tactic of the Popular Front, which aims at combining the working class forces with the ‘democratic’ elements within the Capitalist parties in opposition to Fascism and Reaction. This tactic ignores the fact that Fascism and Reaction are inseparable from Capitalism and can only be defeated by the overthrow of Capitalism.” The following year, an article in the New Leader argued that “one of the worst features of the Popular Front Policy advocated by the Communist Party is the betrayal of the colonial workers which it involves.” Although no member of the IASB was officially a member of the ILP (C. L. R. James was once a member, but left in 1936) the two groups were closely allied. The ILP incorporated a range of Black radical ideas into its official thinking, and even let the IASB move into its offices in 1938.

Of course, not every group on the British Left was as receptive to the IASB’s ideas as the ILP. Tensions over questions of capitalism, colonialism, fascism and war played out at the Conference on Peace and Empire, held in London in July 1938. The conference was organized by activists associated with the Communist Party of Great Britain. There were fierce debates between those delegates who wished to build a Popular Front, such as the Communist Party and left-wing members of the Labour Party, and those who rejected what they saw as pleas to support colonialist policies under the guise of antifascism, such as the IASB and ILP.

The conference’s general resolution declared that “the national freedom and independence of all colonial countries and subject peoples are indispensable to world peace.” However, the resolution alienated the IASB and ILP by couching the importance of national independence within the language of the “strengthening of the democratic and progressive movements everywhere” and “halting Fascist aggression.” The ILP tabled a series of amendments to explicitly support the self-emancipatory struggles of colonial peoples, and to “correct the emphasis of the resolution” so that independence was demanded as a “death-blow to Imperialism rather than as a means of securing assistance for European ‘democracy.’” T. Ras Makonnen, representing the IASB, asked “How can you have peace with empire? What you really want is peace of mind to continue to loot your empire. In fact we want war not peace, because only war will settle the contradictions latent in this empire, and show how false its pretensions are.” The ILP amendments were defeated, and the general resolution passed. (The Communist-aligned Colonial Information Bureau reported that the resolution passed by an “overwhelming majority,” and the ILP reported it was by a ratio of three-to-one.) Nevertheless, the IASB and ILP were happy to have caused such a stir at a Communist-organized conference.

Seven years later, the ILP’s general secretary, John McNair, extended fraternal greetings to the Fifth Pan-African Congress on behalf of his party. The congress, held in Manchester in October 1945, was primarily organized by IASB members like Makonnen and Padmore. McNair declared that, “We believe, with Lenin, that no nation is free which oppresses any other nation. We must remember that human liberty is absolutely indivisible.” We can see from this address the continuation of a deep comradeship and a set of ideas that offered one way out—a way out not taken—of the crises of the 1930s.


Theo Williams is a lecturer in twentieth-century British history at Durham University. His book Making the Revolution Global: Black Radicalism and the British Socialist Movement before Decolonisation is forthcoming with Verso.

Featured Image: George Padmore smoking, reading and fighting imperialism.

Categories
Think Piece

“You Know It’s Fake, Right?” Fandom and the Idea of Legitimacy in Professional Wrestling

By Aaron D. Horton

When mentioning one’s fandom of professional wrestling to a layperson, the most likely response will be some iteration of the question: “you know it’s fake, right?” Such inquiries, often asked in a derisive and condescending tone, are charged with implications of the fan’s ignorance of professional wrestling’s predetermined nature, amusement that said person would bother watching a “fake” sport, or surprise, even indignation, that an otherwise intelligent individual could be duped into following such a “lowbrow” form of entertainment. Those asking such questions are often fans of so-called legitimate sports, such as football and baseball, or of film, television, and other forms of mainstream entertainment widely considered more acceptable than professional wrestling. “You know it’s fake, right?” assumes that the fan in question is either ignorant of professional wrestling’s “worked”  nature or, more likely, wasting their time watching an illegitimate sport. This is not a new phenomenon. Since the late 1800s, numerous sources in mainstream media have derided pro wrestling as fake, with limited impact on its popularity. While pro wrestling has largely been “worked” since the turn of the twentieth century, promoters and performers began increasingly prizing entertainment value over maintaining the appearance of legitimate contests, with top wrestlers determined increasingly by their looks and popular appeal rather than their actual grappling skills.

Such questions persist, despite the fact that professional wrestling has been increasingly open in the past several decades, with promoters and wrestlers freely admitting to the sport’s predetermined nature. In February 1989, World Wrestling Federation owner Vince McMahon declared to the State of New Jersey Senate that his business’ primary purpose was “providing entertainment to spectators rather than conducting a bona fide athletic contest,” a move intended to free the WWF from state athletic commission regulation and oversight. McMahon and others’ recent transparency about the performative nature of pro wrestling contrasts sharply with the rigid maintaining of kayfabe throughout most of the sport’s history. Despite widespread openness among promoters, wrestlers, and fans about the fact that wrestling is not a competitive sport in the past several decades, sports media personalities such as Colin Cowherd have continued to deride and mock pro wrestling and its followers. Cowherd notoriously made light of the deaths of Eddie Guerrero (2005) and the Ultimate Warrior (2014) and has repeatedly referred to wrestling fans as “booger eaters” on social media. Cowherd’s attention-seeking sensationalism aside, a brief examination of pro wrestling history will reveal that its fans have almost always prized entertainment value above “legitimacy,” despite ongoing derision from mainstream sports media and numerous exposés from both media and insider sources. Indeed, many fans eagerly embrace wrestling’s recent openness, as the preponderance of WWE-produced behind-the-scenes documentaries, shoot interviews from Kayfabe Commentaries and others, and the publication of seemingly countless memoirs and other books that acknowledge the underlying reality beyond the performance.

Professional wrestling, as detailed by Tim Corvin, Gerald Mortion and George O’Brien, and Scott Beekman among others, emerged in the nineteenth-century United States as a combination of legitimate grappling styles, from collar-and-elbow wrestling, popular among Irish immigrants serving in the Union army during the Civil War, to the misleadingly-named Greco-Roman style (developed and popularized in France), to catch wrestling (from “catch-as-catch-can,” with an emphasis on submission holds such as armlocks, leglocks, and chokes) from Lancashire. Many early matches, such as those involving Greco-Roman grappler William Muldoon, the top star in American pro wrestling in the 1880s, appear to have been a mix of works (predetermined matches) and shoots (legitimate contests). Contemporary newspaper accounts frequently questioned the legitimacy of professional wrestling matches, with regular accusations of “hippodroming” (fakery). For example, a November 14, 1877, article in The Brooklyn Eagle claimed of professional wrestling that “there has scarcely been an important contest in which the result had not been known beforehand.”

A pair of Muldoon’s matches against Clarence Whistler illustrate one likely impetus for wrestling’s shift toward predetermined matches. In 1881 (exact date unknown), the two wrestled to a grueling eight-hour draw in New York City, a likely shoot match the New York Herald referred to as a “torture marathon” (p. 65) that left both competitors bloodied and bruised, and spectators exhausted and frustrated. According to an account in the Sacramento Daily Record-Union, their rematch in San Francisco on November 1, 1883, was a far more entertaining affair. The two-of-three falls match featured several spectacular elements, including a quick Muldoon pinfall after a slam in the first fall and a second-fall tumble out of the ring, during which a “desperate gang of toughs” attacked Muldoon, supposedly because they had bet money on Whistler. When the undersized Whistler pinned Muldoon in the second fall, after a series of exciting near falls, the crowd “[jumped] into the main floor, cheering and throwing their hats in the air.” The match was stopped in the third fall after Whistler broke his collarbone when slammed by Muldoon, but the latter agreed to split the $2,000 purse with his opponent as a gesture of respect. While determining the match’s work-shoot ratio is difficult, the contrast with their earlier bout is striking, and implies that the two may have, at the very least, agreed to cooperate to make the match more exciting, even if the outcome was not predetermined.

Many early matches were worked not to entertain, but rather to maximize gambling profits, with many spectators betting throughout the match. Wrestlers would often make it appear one was on the verge of victory, leading to an influx of bets on the “sure” winner, only for the impending loser to make a surprising comeback. The wrestlers had accomplices among the bettors, placing money on the “sure loser,” only to reap considerable profits from the “surprise” ending. Wrestlers and promoters also became increasingly aware of the correlation between matches’ entertainment value and box office receipts. A match with an exciting or controversial finish was far more likely to draw paying spectators to a rematch than a lengthy, dull contest that left fans bored or resentful.

The first pro wrestling superstar, heavyweight Frank Gotch, who drew the then-largest attendance (approx. 30,000) and gate ($87,000) for a September 4, 1911, rematch against rival George Hackenschmidt at Comiskey Park in Chicago, was a skilled shooter who few could likely defeat in a legitimate contest. While his biographer, Mike Chapman, insists that all of Gotch’s matches were shoots, several instances suggest otherwise, chief among them Gotch’s upset loss to Fred Beall on December 6, 1906, in New Orleans. Beall (167 lbs.) pinned Gotch (202 lbs.) in two straight falls after Gotch “accidentally” fell and hit his head either on the mat or ring post, depending on the account. There were a suspiciously high number of bets on Beall to win, and in their rematch for the American heavyweight championship on April 29, 1907, in Chicago, Gotch duly reclaimed his title. The Dawson Daily News account of the rematch claimed that it was “considered an exhibition.” In contemporary newspaper accounts, referring to a match as an “exhibition” was a circumspect way of claiming that it was not a legitimate contest.

In the 1920s, Ed “Strangler” Lewis became wrestling’s top attraction. He and his promotional partners, manager Billy Sandow and former wrestler Joseph “Toots” Mondt, began staging full pro wrestling cards, rather than the single or handful of bouts at past events, with a focus on exciting, entertaining (and entirely worked) matches that would encourage fans to keep spending money to attend events. There were occasional unplanned shoots, usually when a legitimate grappler decided to steal a championship from a “show” wrestler; for example, shooter Dick Shikat, full of animosity toward Lewis’ promotional cartel, submitted champion Danno O’Mahoney, a “show” wrestler who rose to prominence due to his looks and popularity among Irish-Americans, at Madison Square Garden on March 2, 1936. However, the overwhelming majority of matches were held strictly for entertainment purposes, to maximize ticket revenues. Wrestlers such as O’Mahoney and Jim Londos were pushed due to their looks, popularity, and drawing power, rather than any legitimate grappling skill. This was a gradual transition, as some promoters, including Sam Muchnik, founder of the National Wrestling Alliance (1948), and Verne Gagne, founder of the American Wrestling Association (1960), continued to prefer champions who could shoot, including longtime NWA champion Lou Thesz and Gagne himself, ostensibly so they could defend themselves against any attempts at a Shikat-like attempt to “steal” a title. Despite some promoters’ lingering attachments to “legitimacy,” the long-term trend most definitely favored colorful characters over skilled shooters, especially after the beginning of the television era.

As wrestling pivoted increasingly toward entertainment, with more spectacular (and therefore increasingly implausible as legitimate) moves and performances, there was a proportionate increase in direct attacks on wrestling’s legitimacy from mainstream sports media. Dan Parker, sports columnist for the New York Daily Mirror, regularly poked fun at pro wrestling, often predicting outcomes of matches beforehand in order to demonstrate that the “burpers” (his oft-used derisive term for wrestlers) were “phonies.” For example, in his February 20, 1935 column, he noted that he found his “entertainment” at wrestling events in the “preposterous acts of buffoonery enacted by the gentlemen of the ensemble, as you might call the burpers in the supporting bouts.” Parker also frequently questioned the mechanics of wrestling maneuvers, arguing (correctly) that many could not be done without cooperation. In 1937, the first book-length exposé, Marcus Griffin’s Fall Guys: The Barnums of Bounce, discussed in detail the history and inner workings of the business, despite numerous factual errors. Most likely, both Parker and Griffin were fed insider information from promoter Jack Pfefer, who began exposing pro wrestling’s secrets in the 1930s in retaliation against the Lewis promotional cartel, who had blackballed Pfefer from promoting events in the lucrative New York market. Over fifty years before McMahon admitted that pro wrestling was not a legitimate competition, these figures openly discussed the worked nature of pro wrestling, with limited impact on its popularity among fans, who continued to buy tickets to see Jim Londos and other top stars.

In the 1950s, owing partly to the rapid rise in television ownership in the United States, professional wrestling experienced a surge in popularity, with the four major broadcast networks regularly airing wrestling events during the decade. Pro wrestling was ideal cheap programming for early television. Promoters booked arenas for their events, so unlike many television shows, they did not usually require studio space. Thus setting up a single, stationary camera at arenas was the only significant production cost, one often borne by promoters rather than networks. Despite receiving little to no revenue from early televised events, promoters used television to build interest in their stars and thus encourage fans to buy tickets to attend shows at their local arenas. Wrestlers such as “Gorgeous” George and “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers pushed the envelope of showmanship, with more emphasis on outrageous characters and “gimmicks” than on perceived or actual grappling ability, though respected shooter Lou Thesz and other “legit” wrestlers continued to be top draws alongside the “entertainment” performers. Newspaper coverage in the era largely reported results and angles without questioning wrestling’s legitimacy, hoping to capitalize on the sport’s television-fueled popularity to attract readers. There were, of course, continuing mentions of wrestling’s predetermined nature, as in a December 17, 1955, Associated Press article, “Fair Bouts Could Kill Wrestling, Official Fears,” in which California state athletic commission chairman Norman O. Houston acknowledged that wrestling was predetermined, and that any attempts to force promoters to feature actual competitive contests would likely kill the sport, presumably because shoot matches would fail to attract spectators. This and other articles demonstrate a widespread awareness of wrestling’s “fakeness” that had little effect on its popularity around the country, with major territories (regional promotions) often drawing thousands of fans to their events, including Vincent J. McMahon’s World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF, formerly Capitol Wrestling Corporation, renamed in 1963), which regularly sold out events at Madison Square Garden. Even the occasional attempts to stab or otherwise harm “heel” (bad-guy) wrestlers, an act especially common among older women, represented a small portion of the overall audience, and some of these individuals were probably simply caught up in the moment, rather than genuinely believing in the reality of the performance.

In the 1980s, several high-profile exposés of pro wrestling had little effect on its popularity, fueled by Vince McMahon’s rapid national expansion, aided by cable television and his top star, WWF champion Hulk Hogan. In autobiographies, disillusioned wrestlers publicly admitted wrestling’s “secrets,” including British grappler Jackie Pallo and Japanese wrestler Satoru Sayama. Newsletters such as Dave Meltzer’s Wrestling Observer and Wade Keller’s Pro Wrestling Torch began offering subscribers legitimate journalism on wrestling’s inner workings and backstage machinations, indicating a growing market for insider information among hardcore fans, whose fandom was enhanced rather than harmed by such knowledge. Former NFL player and preliminary wrestler Jim Wilson spoke openly about wrestling’s predetermined nature on the “Pro Wrestling Exposed” episode of 20/20 (December 28, 1984), remembered largely for WWF wrestler “Dr. D” David Schultz slapping reporter John Stossel multiple times in response to the latter declaring his belief that wrestling was fake. Wilson also appeared on a 1989 episode of the Morton Downy Jr. Show, explaining the inner workings of pro wrestling while claiming he was blackballed from the business for refusing promoter Jim Barnett’s sexual advances. The Downy episode was particularly fascinating, as wrestling personalities such as Schultz, Lou Albano, Paul E. Dangerously, and others lambasted Wilson’s claims, with most accusing him of simply being bitter that he wasn’t “good enough” to succeed in the business. Albano even declared that if his wife believed he was faking matches, she would have divorced him.

The wrestling personalities’ adamant insistence upon wrestling’s “legitimacy” is especially remarkable, because by 1989, the only people who seemed overly concerned with maintaining the pretense were those within the business, many of whom seemingly believed, as their forebears surely had decades earlier, that any acknowledgment of wrestling’s predetermined nature would destroy their profession. Of course, that same year, Vince McMahon openly admitted that pro wrestling was not a legitimate sport, with little effect on the WWF’s popularity or revenues. While pro wrestling in the United States experienced a decline in viewership and attendance in the early-to-mid 1990s, due to a variety of factors unrelated to its perceived legitimacy or lack thereof, the industry reached unprecedented heights of popularity and revenues in the late 1990s, during an intense period of competition between the WWF and Ted Turner’s WCW, despite the fact that few, if any, fans could possibly believe wrestling was anything other than entertainment. Throughout its history, pro wrestling has elicited derision from mainstream media for its obvious “fakery,” to the point that one finds it implausible that the majority of fans, whether in 1910 or 2010, or many points before, after, or in-between, have ever truly believed pro wrestling was a legitimate sport.

Historically, those most insistent on pro wrestling’s legitimacy were not fans, but rather wrestlers, promoters, and other insiders, who feared that acknowledgment of wrestling’s worked nature would destroy their lucrative profession. Since its early days, the majority of pro wrestling fans have been willing participants in the performance, allowing themselves to suspend disbelief for the sake of entertainment. While outcomes are predetermined, which seems to be the primary fixation of those decrying wrestling as “fake,” matches often feature a great deal of physicality and risk, evidenced in long-term (and occasionally immediate) damaging effects on most performers’ bodies. In most sports, predetermined or not, colorful characters tend to sell more tickets and draw better ratings (or pay-per-view purchases), building fans’ interest in the outcome of a game, match, or fight. Boxing legend Muhammad Ali and various MMA fighters, including Chael Sonnen and Conor McGregor, deliberately adopted pro-wrestling style heel personas in order to build interest in their fights, resulting usually in great financial success. At its core, pro wrestling shares much in common with other sports, specifically the concept of generating anticipation among fans for an upcoming contest in order to maximize profit. The fact that pro wrestling’s matches and outcomes are performative rather than competitive, has rarely been relevant to the majority of its fans, who are no more bothered by its predetermined nature than a moviegoer would be upset upon realizing that Robert Downey Jr. is not actually Tony Stark.


Glossary

Angles: “Storylines” intended usually to build toward a major match.

Kayfabe: Maintenance of the illusion of pro wrestling’s “reality.”

Push: To promote a particular wrestler as a top star, usually by giving them a series of wins or a championship.

Shoot: A legitimate contest or any element, such as an interview, that acknowledges the underlying reality behind wrestling’s established characters and conventions. The opposite of “work.” A “shooter” is a wrestler who possesses legitimate competitive grappling skills.

Work: A bout or element in which the participants cooperate with each other for the purpose of entertainment, rather than competition. The opposite of “shoot.” A good “worker” is a wrestler who is skilled at performing technically sound, entertaining matches.


Aaron D. Horton is a Professor of History at Alabama State University, and specializes in modern German and modern East Asian (Japanese and Korean) cultural history. He is the author of POWs, Der Ruf, and the Genesis of Group 47: The Political Journey of Alfred Andersch and Hans Werner Richter (Fairleigh Dickenson University Press, 2014). His recent publications, including several book chapters and the edited volume Identity in Professional Wrestling: Essays on Nationality, Race and Gender (McFarland, 2018), deal with the confluences of identity and popular culture, including film, music, and sports.

Featured Image: Ring in Detroit, from a 1972 issue of Body Press Wrestling Magazine.

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Dispatches from the Archives

A Patient, a Gymnast, and a Little Dog: Curing Breast Cancer with Movement in Nineteenth-Century Britain

By Lotta Vuorio

In 2018, while working on my Master’s thesis, I ran into a peculiar anecdote in a Victorian health manual called The Prevention and Cure of Many Chronic Diseases by Movements. Written and published by physician Mathias Roth in 1851, the manual concerned ways to apply physical activities for curing diseases, a method that was also known as “movement-cure” at the time. The anecdote that caught my attention, rather than a fully fleshed out story, was actually just a mere one sentence hidden within the instructional text. Curiously reading through the manual’s appendix listing various diseases that had been cured with movement-cure—or at least claimed to have been—I scanned the list alphabetically: abortus, after-pains, apoplexy, apparent death, bleeding from the nose, and then there it was. Under the title cancer, it read:

A lady who suffered from a malignant cancer on the breast, was cured by a little dog frequently sucking her nipple.

I had already moved on from cancer to cold and cough when I abruptly turned back and glanced at the description once again. A malignant cancer on the breast? A nipple-sucking little dog? How on earth were these related to each other, or to movement-cure, in any way?

As I was reading the manual 170 years after its initial publication, this one-sentence story seemed irrelevant and bizarre at first. Yet upon closer inspection, I realized that it revealed a broader logic of health, the body, and physical education that was likely anything but odd to the cancer-stricken woman and her contemporaries. Indeed, I argue in the following, this anecdote illustrates the need for reconsidering the meaning of “movement” and moving one’s body in the historical context of physical education and physiology of mid-nineteenth-century Britain.

From Roth’s The Prevention and Cure of Many Chronic Diseases By Movements, pages 272–73

The British discourse on health and education took off in the 1850s and continued throughout the following decades among physicians, physical educators, and social reformists. Historian Gertrud Pfister has been very clear about the bottom line for discussing physical education and health in nineteenth-century Britain and Europe more generally by drawing attention to several major developments, such as the Enlightenment and the faith in science, that were connected to the rising demand to better understand the human body. As historian Tiina Kinnunen reminds us, this interest in understanding bodily functions was also connected to knowledge about shaping one’s body. In the context of physical education, the human body was not merely considered a godly creation that was untouchable and pre-determined. Instead, its shape and composition could be transformed by means of diet and exercise, for example. More broadly, physical education was understood to be based on scientific facts that would contribute not only to “the harmonious development of body and mind” but also to British nation-building. Sociologist Herbert Spencer, for example, noted “the relationship between the evolution of the race and of the individual,” which was subsequently used as an argument for developing national physical education. The goal was to educate citizens to follow a healthy lifestyle so that they could perform their duties as British citizens. Hence, the making of the individual healthy body was deemed crucial in producing a healthy and thriving British nation.

Although physical education was a middle-class ideology, it aimed at controlling the health of the entire British population and was thus designed for intersectionally diverse groups—including women, children, the blind, the “deaf and dumb,” and the working class. It also reflected concerns about race in its goal to prevent the supposed and feared degeneration of the British nation, caused by industrialization and urbanization. While the primary focus in physical education was on the metropole, it also appeared in the context of Empire, where it served as “a site for constructing their authority, legitimacy and control” and contributed to “making colonialism an embodied experience,” as Sudipa Topdar has argued. Similar debates over the role of physical education in developing the racial body occurred in other European countries, including France.

Within this context of physical education, scientific “movement-cure” aimed at curing specific diseases and unhealthy conditions, like the woman’s breast cancer I happened upon in the health manual by physician Mathias Roth. As Roth himself pointed out, movement-cure belonged in the toolbox of physical education. Indeed, it could help combat what Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli had identified as the “deteriorating physique of the people,” which in consequence would cause “the history of England [to] soon be the history of the past.”

From Roth’s Prevention: page 144, flexion of the knee for movement-cure

Yet, even though medicine was not stringently organized as a profession at the time, Roth certainly did not represent the mainstream of British medical practices in the mid-nineteenth century. Born in Hungary, Roth moved to England in 1849 and began to strongly advocate for the exercising doctrines of Swedish physical educator Pehr Ling (1776–1839) long before Ling’s doctrines became popular in the 1870s and 1880s. The Prevention and Cure of Many Chronic Diseases by Movements (1851) was his first health manual that introduced Ling’s doctrines to a British audience, and he published at least five other books addressing physical education or movement-cure as a scientific method for curing diseases: Movements of Exercises for the Development of Human Body (1852), The Gymnastic Free Exercises of P. H. Ling (1855), Hand-book of the Movement Cure (1856), The Prevention of Spinal Deformities (1861), and On the Neglect of Physical Education (1879). The 1851 manual, like the ones that would follow it, was geared toward medical professionals—such as physicians, surgeons, and orthopedists—who might find the practice of movement-cure useful as a supportive tool alongside their medical practices.

But what was movement-cure then, exactly? According to Roth, it was a medical methodology based on Ling’s doctrines of medical gymnastics, and it was meant for curing or alleviating diseases with scientifically proven methods. The movement-cure process began with identifying the disease, and then prescribing a set of movements or physical exercises targeting at selected body part or bodily function that needed to be cured. As Roth explained, “the effect of a movement is the result of its action and the reaction of our organism.” In other words, moving one’s body was understood to have an organic or physiological effect that would transform unhealthy body functions into healthy ones. The health manual itself relied heavily on exemplary cases in its argumentation, wherein patients’ maladies were cured through carefully selected movements. The examples were often accompanied by a story line where no other method could have cured the case. For example, while sharing the movement-based prescription for curing asthma, Roth asserted: “This patient, after having consulted for a number of years several physicians, and having been treated without any success, resolved finally to take his last resource in the treatment by movements.” The prescription for this patient included rubbings of the loins from the spine forwards, rotating the patient’s feet, and lengthwise “chopping” or tapping of the back. The fundamental idea behind movement-cure was not novel in the nineteenth century, as Roth reminded the reader, but rested on the originality of its scientific method. In order to address the historical background of this method, Roth decided to place an appendix at the end of the manual that consisted of a long list of cases in which many a diseased condition had been cured with treatment by movements.

It was here, in the section of historical cases, that I came across the woman “who suffered from a malignant cancer (and) was cured by a little dog frequently sucking her nipple.” The manual does not specify why the movement-cure was performed by a little dog, but evidently the occurring movement and its healing affect caused the case to be included in the historical appendix and to be retrospectively considered a movement-cure. One can ponder whether the intimacy, warmth, or the relationship between the lady and the dog were decisive for the process. Having a dog as a pet was increasingly popular in Victorian Britain, especially among the middle class as a way to emphasize class distinction. It is also known that throughout nineteenth century, cancer was partly conceived of as a product of the civilized lifestyle, which would explain the connection between the dog and the presumably middle-class woman and her breast cancer. And yet, we cannot truly know the exact relationship between the woman and the dog, especially because the case functioned as a historical example of movement-cure.

What we do know, however, are the grounds for movement-cure. In medical gymnastics and movement-cure, movements were divided into three categories: active, passive, and combined movements. Thus, “moving” one’s body could be achieved in several ways. The body or its parts could be moved independently either by a patient (active) or a gymnast (passive), or the exercises could be performed by a patient with the help of a gymnast (combined). Movements of the body themselves were at issue, and on a theoretical level it did not matter who or what moved the body and caused the desirable organic and curing effect within the body. A little dog would do just fine, then, and treating the cancer by movement did not necessarily require any physical effort from the female patient herself.

From Roth’s Prevention: Active-passive extension of the trunk backwards, and passive-active flexion of the trunk forwards, in high sitting position, with hips held; movement aided by a gymnast, page 201.

Still the question about moving the woman’s body remains. In this case, neither the woman herself nor the little dog moved it visibly or physically. So, where did the actual movement take place, and how should movement be defined in the first place? According to the physiological laws of the time, a crucial element affecting the body was energy, also known as heat, animal heat or vital power. This vital energy could be modified through exercise or nutrition, for example, because it was connected to the circulation of blood, the respiratory system, and digestion, i.e. parts of the physiological system of the body. The skin, in turn, played a central role in regulating the body temperature. Touching it in different ways—by chopping, point fulling, concentric fulling, stroking, vibrating, or even sucking— was thus deemed a relatively common part of different movement-cure exercises. As I see it, then, the case of the cancer patient and her dog was perfectly in line with the physiological understanding of the body in the context of mid-nineteenth-century Britain. As the little dog was sucking on the nipple, the skin around and on the nipple was activated, which in turn affected the organic bodily functions underneath the skin, such as the blood circulation and body temperature. Activating the skin and causing the organic and healing effect was the core mechanism that defined this odd performance as a plausible part of movement-cure.

While the performance of sucking a nipple was certainly not considered as a common part of exercise routines, this case sheds light on the diverse array of meanings “movement” carried within the context of physical education and the purpose the latter held for contemporaries. As Roth and other British physicians and social reformists were trying to design science-based exercises that would bring about a healthy body, their instructions encompassed two kinds of movements: some directly referred to the desirable organic changes in the body, while others aimed at producing these changes. According to Roth’s health manual, the “organo-mechanical movements” of the body could be divided into invisible and visible movements. “The first are manifested only by their effects,” which is why “all the functions of the vital power, the mind, intellect, sensibility, and the material organs serving as the dynamic agents in our organism – – show themselves materially – – in their effects.” On the other hand, Roth categorized involuntary functions of the body—such the motions of the heart—into “internal organo-mechanical” movements that he perceived to be visible movements.

In consequence, the nineteenth-century meaning of “movement” should be conceived of much more broadly than we would assume today: movement did not narrowly refer to physical exercises but more generally to any kind of action that could have an organic or physiological effect on the body. As a concept, it was grounded in both the materiality of the body and a culturally contingent understanding of how that body functioned. The case of the breast-cancer patient Roth featured in his manual is a case in point: from the viewpoint of cultural history, its most interesting facet is thus not whether the patient’s breast cancer was actually cured, but rather the contextual logic in which sucking a nipple as a movement-cure was deemed a successful remedy.


Lotta Vuorio is a doctoral researcher at the University of Helsinki. Her research focuses on the moving body in nineteenth-century Britain, and the lived experience of physical exercises in various forms. She is interested in experimental ways of representing the past in the present, which is why performativity touches upon her research both in theory and in practice. She is also known for her Finnish history-themed podcast called Menneisyyden Jäljillä (On the track of the past) that popularizes historical research and gives voice to fascinating topics that are highly significant in this day..

Featured Image: Illustration from Mathias Roth’s The Prevention and Cure of Many Chronic Diseases By Movements, p. 123.