New York

Synthesis, Narrative, and Conversation: On Thomas Bender

by guest contributor Daniel London

New York Intellectual, Global Historian, a conference honoring New York University’s Thomas Bender last week, attracted humanities practitioners from across departments and disciplines: urbanists, intellectual historians, journalists, law, film studies, and public historians among others. This came about in part from the character of Bender’s scholarship, which has made contributions to a wide range of fields in such books as New York Intellect and A Nation Among Nations. But it also spoke to his methodological, professional, and ethical commitment to bridging and bringing into dialogue all such fields, blurring the lines between national and international, academy and public, wholes and parts. To a large extent, this conference represented a taking-stock of how different scholars have taken up his “conversational imperative” and what the challenges and opportunities for such dialogue are today.

© Daniel London

New York Intellectual, Global Historian, September 18-19th, 2015 NYC (photo © Daniel London)

This theme was directly addressed in the opening panel, “The Significance of Synthetic Thinking in American History.” Participants reflected on Bender’s influential 1986 article “Wholes and Parts: The Need for Synthesis in American History” and its call for an integrative framework wherein histories of particular social groups could be brought into conversation with one another around the broader narrative of the nation-state’s development. The tension here between ‘narrative’, with its potentially valorizing and reifying connotations, and ‘conversation’ attracted sustained attention. Amy Richter framed her teaching and research inquires by highlighting intergroup conversations in which the meaning of different terms, like ‘community,’ are debated, discussed, and misunderstood. The extent to which a society (or a classroom) agrees on the meaning and value of a certain term is one that can be empirically explored, with ideas left out being as important as those included. Film historian Saverio Giovacchini, in a particularly inspiring analogy, compared Bender’s approach towards historical synthesis to that of Jean Renoir in La Règle du jeu (Rules of the Game), who began his project by attempting to condemn the French bourgeois but found himself unable to explain or understand that group without seeing their relations to a wider social network of workers, aristocrats, celebrities, and so on. Such activity does not eliminate questions of right, wrong, and power, but foregrounds them with the actual reasons and relations of different actors with one another.

Panelists then examined the influence and further applications of Bender’s call for synthesis. Giovacchini found that the ethos behind television shows like The Wire suggested a kind of “Benderian” vision highlighting interdependencies rather than single groups. Andrew Needham found that monographs today are increasingly evaluated by their degree of connection with broader sets of stories, which was not the case earlier in the 1990s. On the other hand, Nathan Connolly stressed that a lack of diversity within history departments provided a structural limit to the degree of synthetic narratives they could produce: “You can’t hear those voices unless they are in the room.” Bender believes that journalists, who combine archival skill with the capacity to write for a broad audience—have begun taking the place of historians as crafters of synthetic historical stories. In contrast, Alice Fahs wondered whether historians themselves needed to become popularizers of their own work, or if some fruitful division of labor was necessary. There was an “assumption that everyone needs to be able to speak to everyone,” she stated, but perhaps “we do not all need to do this.”

The second panel of the conference, “Framing American History,” placed the previous day’s theme of synthesis in the context of divisions between national and international history. Daniel Kotzin found that beginning his survey of Buffalo’s history with European developments rather than the more traditional Erie Canal narrative “opened up” the subject to his students. Marc Aronson seconded this, claiming that most of his students have a far deeper connection with global events and cultural currents than with their local community (particularly business majors). Growth of the International Baccalaureate (IB) program in America promises to enhance interest in global history. Andie Tucher explained that highlighting narratives relating to her globally-diverse student body reaped great dividends, but worried that she was indulging in the politics of representation rather than deeper narrative cross-pollination.

Other panelists stressed the still-pervasive barriers within history departments that prevented international dimension in research and teaching. Tracy Neumman recounted that no Americanists in her department wanted to teach the Post-World War II global history survey with the excuse that they weren’t trained to look outside national borders – surely a self-fulfilling prophecy. Heightened standards for transnational scholarship that stresses multi-lingual archival research enhances its already considerable expense and length, exacerbated by the pervasive unwillingness of grant makers to support multi-national research.

David Hollinger characterized Bender as the embodiment of the “cosmopolitan idea as properly understood,” that being the “effort to take in as much of human experience as you can while retaining the capacity to function, live a real life, and make decisions.” Expanding on this theme, Hollinger examined how his professional and scholarly work strove both to foster heterogeneous dialogue and recognize the necessity of deep scholarly reflection and pragmatic action. In New York Intellect for example, Bender stressed the need for urban universities to cultivate a “semi-cloistered heterogeneity” in order to conduct cosmopolitan thinking in ways that even diverse metropoles cannot sustain, even as they take part in matters of public concern and debate on the local level. Community and Social Change critiqued the over-drawn framework of Gesellschaft and Gemeinschaft present in much of modernization theory, switching criteria for community to the shared experience of mutual understanding and obligation that transcend mere proximity or locality. This understanding arguably informs much of social history since, such as Lizabeth Cohen’s Making a New Deal. Hollinger also recounted the story of how once, in a California conference on intellectual history co-organized with Carl E. Schorske, Bender had no qualms excising the long winded and jargon-ridden contributions of philosophers from the resulting book in the interest of a more balanced and cohesive whole.


New York Intellectual, Global Historian, September 18-19th, 2015 NYC (photo © Daniel London)

The final panel, “A Historians’ Historian and the Future of the Humanities,” took up the question of how humanities practitioners can remain publicly engaged, relevant, and employed – one to which Bender drew attention in The Education of Historians for the Twenty-First Century. Valentijn Byvanck described the wealth of local historical societies and re-enactors encountered during his planning of a proposed national museum on Dutch History, namely organizations suggesting a popular interest in history which historians ignore at their own peril. Robert W. Snyder concurred, adding to the list K-12 teacher-training workshops, local history organizations, and oral history projects conducted by libraries. Jeanne Houch recounted her work in documentary film as a means of drawing a broader public into fundamental questions being debated in academia. Stephen Mihm intriguingly suggested that historians work alongside business, STEM, and mathematics practitioners in order to reach the public, but I am not entirely sure what this would look like. Issues like climate change certainly call for multi-disciplinary engagement, but are there others? These opportunities were leavened by vivid accounts of still-pervasive institutional constraints on public engagement by historians: ‘alt-academic’ projects are rarely taken into consideration by tenure committees, and graduate students are rarely trained on how to apply for public-history fellowships or job openings. All too many historians are—to use Claire Potter’s analogy—content to stay in their boxes.

The conference ended on a somewhat ambivalent, if still optimistic note. Both Bender and Barbara Weinstein stressed that we have been here before: excepting the classes of 1955 to 1963, one-third of all history Ph.Ds in the 20th century did not take academic positions. The jobs crisis of the late 1970s (worse than the one today) was unrelieved by the still-nascent opportunities of public history. Any implication for quiescence was stilled by Bender’s further resolution that in the future “things are going to be unimaginably different” for both the academy and the humanities more generally; in other interviews and an SSRC essay, he suggested what this might look like.

I have long been inspired by Bender’s commitment to bridging institutional barriers within and without the academy, and it was heartening to see the extent to which they will continue to be built upon and practiced by generations of scholars. His championing of public history as a valid activity for historians has garnered a particularly enthusiastic, and hopefully long-lasting, response. At the same time, the academically-anchored political historian in me pined for more examples of unashamedly scholarly work taking up his original call for robust historical synthesis, arrived at through an analysis of “public conversation.” Mary Ryan’s Civic Wars stands out as a particularly notable model, but fewer works come to mind that cover periods beyond the late 19th and early 20th century or that engage with more recent developments in historiography, particularly the history of capitalism and the institutional turn.

This is unfortunate, as I think Bender’s concept of “public conversation” has the potential, via integrating network dynamics, social history, and cultural/intellectual considerations, to dramatically re-orient the way we talk about American political development and – possibly – help us make our work more popular and relevant in the process. But this is just a personal hang-up. All in all, the conference succeeded where it was supposed to by doing full justice to the man – ideas, spirit, and all.

Daniel London is a Ph.D candidate in American History at New York University. He studies the growth of social politics in the late 19th/early 20th century North Alantic, focusing on metropolitan space and the urban public sphere as his corpus. Follow him on twitter at @dlondongc, and check out his blog at

*Corrections (10/4/15): an SSRC essay was incorrectly referred to as an interview, and the broad statistic of one-third of history PhD. taking non-academic positions was revised to reflect different career paths chosen.

Old Ships, New Harbors

By John Raimo

Transatlantic Theory Transfer: Missed Encounters?, a wonderful conference held last weekend at Columbia University’s Deutsches Haus, explored the American reception of key twentieth-century German thinkers. So capacious a theme may seem untenable at first, and so indeed it proved in the best possible way. Every paper called the conference title into question. Anna Kinder and Joe Paul Kroll began by suggesting how the extraordinarily messy processes of circulation and reception could substitute for clean conceptual ‘transfers.’ These former include an author’s reputation, initial sales figures, publishers’ stature and funds, the sale of foreign rights, government assistance schemes, copyright law, available translators, informal intellectual connections, formal academic networks and US teaching positions, citations and reviews in journals, varying audience interests, and—it may finally turn out—something inherently resistant or hard to assimilate in texts wherever foreign audiences are concerned.

Dr. Joe Paul Kroll

Dr. Joe Paul Kroll

Style and intellectual difficulty as such do not quite catch at that last possibility. To borrow from Tim Parks, could it be that cultural specificity and baggage limit theory’s range just as much as they do fiction, say? And do certain ideas and ways of thinking wholly frustrate effort translation? As per Philipp Felsch and Robert Zwarg, ‘theory’ considered as a genre here opens certain doors while closing others. How does one consider theory as an export or place it on an academic map? How does one narrow it to a disciple or a department, let alone go about teaching it in the university or using it as a means towards social change (as one exhausting debate after another from 1968 onward in such journals as Telos insist)? Moreover, just how far each author identified their writing as ‘theory’—even those within the famous publishing phenomenon of the “Suhrkamp Culture” (as George Steiner termed it)—remains an open question, even if a ready definition could be derived from the ‘theory’ shelves of college bookstores. It may even be that theoretical texts meet wholly different expectations and needs among readers, say social and political ones as Dagmar Herzog reasons happened with the psychoanalyst Alexander Mitscherlich (an eclectic or even incoherent thinker) among the German and American New Left as well as among student movements.

‘Missed’ turns out to be misleading. So too does ‘encounters’ in the briefer or more climactic sense. Figures such as Gershom Scholem, Siegfried Kracauer, Hans Blumenberg, Reinhart Koselleck, Niklas Luhmann, Mitscherlich, Friedrich Kittler, and Alexander Kluge all indeed found interest among certain groups of readers. Yet this happened belatedly and in unexpected quarters just as these thinkers also failed to gain larger traction in America. Their great unspoken counterparts would be the figures associated with the Frankfurt School, including Walter Benjamin, and then ‘obliquely’ theoretical figures such as Max Weber. Wholly ‘missed’ receptions occurred much more rarely, though as Ernst Bloch’s publisher (the great Siegfried Unseld) conceded, they do happen.

Much more interesting and perhaps even common were overlapping, diffused, partial, and blocked receptions. Hence in Scholem’s case, as Yaacob Dweck argues, it might be that a popular reception threatened to overwhelm a strictly academic reception. As Johannes von Moltke suggests in situating Kracauer’s readers, influence can also be so variously pervasive as to become invisible. The failure of an ‘instrumental reception’ can doom a thinker to smaller historical and philosophical readers, as William Rasch believes became the case for Luhmann once American sociologists gave up on what (even admirers will admit) is pretty turgid prose. And ‘homegrown’ thinkers like David Riesman or the so-called ‘Cambridge School’ of historians can present such strong affinities to German theorists like Mitscherlich and Koselleck that the latter (fairly or quite the opposite) never gain a foothold. Someone beat them to some of the punches.

Johannes von Moltke

Professor Johannes von Moltke

Similarly, only parts of different œuvres found ready audiences on political, disciplinary, and pedagogical grounds. According to Stefan-Ludwig Hoffmann, Koselleck’s late work garnered relatively less attention than his early studies given how neatly the latter slotted into Cold War categories. Strongly-marked early, middle, and late career stages stretched Kittler between media, communication, and German studies as his commentator and translator Geoffrey Winthrop-Young finds. And for Paul Fleming, another scholar-translator, the lack of a ready “hook,” exemplary methodological statements, introductory texts, or full translations (e.g. of Latin passages, &c.) keep Blumenberg from both undergraduate and graduate syllabi.

Finally, temporality further muddies the picture as concerns de- and re-canonization (just think of used books’ circulation), waxing reputations in America and waning ones in German (and vice-versa), and the sheer speed and availability of good translations. Unsung translator heroes emerge (such as Fleming and Winthrop-Young) as do such editors as Thomas McCarthy of the MIT Press series Studies in Contemporary German Thought. And indeed, several instances of retranslated works or books translated decades after their initial appearance undercut any notion of a flash-in-the-pan trend. One here can also consider a critical interregnum, say regarding an unsettled posthumous status in Kittler’s case or—as Devin Fore, Kluge’s American editor, contends—a strange moment before canonization could or even should occur.

Neither ‘missed’ nor ‘encounters’ quite work. ‘Transatlantic’ fails as well. The incontestable prominence of French theorists drawing on Heidegger, Nietzsche, and other German thinkers makes this a triangular affair rather than a one-way crossing. Similarly, reputations made in the US cross back to Europe and—quite often—migrate south to the Latin American world and elsewhere. Any sense of a clean map or linear narrative explodes.

What then remains to say? Each figure discussed at the conference encountered unique obstacles in finding an American readership. Yet there were also common challenges, as suggested above, and these in turn imply new directions for twentieth century intellectual history. Social and political history as well as the history of publishing, of the book, and even of reading—as Marxist study groups shaded into looser book clubs, for instance—perfectly complement the history of ideas in the postwar period. As far as reception and circulation go, new figures, subjects, and periodizations will emerge in the latter field, now an increasingly and truly global history leading right to the present moment.

The author would like to thank all the participants who granted permission to take their photos (whether used here or not).

The Politics of Unearthing New Amsterdam in 19th-Century New York

by Madeline McMahon

John Romeyn Brodhead was fascinated by a city beneath his feet that he felt could only be dug up and discovered in the archives of the Old World. New Amsterdam, and its fraught transformation into New York, captivated Brodhead, so that even when he undertook diplomatic work at The Hague, he “divid[ed] his time between study and society.” He returned to New York in 1839 and was appointed by the state’s governor to transcribe documents relevant to New York’s colonial history in the archives of the Netherlands, England, and France.

After a slow start (he at first missed his boat, which turned out to be a good thing since that particular steamship never arrived at its destination), Brodhead seems to have worked furiously for the next few years. He was officially an Agent of the State of New York—an act of the state’s legislature had created his post. He leveraged this position and his former diplomatic ties in order to gain access to the archives. As he later wrote, reflecting back on his journey: “The inspection of the state papers of foreign governments, it is well known, is not a mere matter of course, but is considered a privilege of a high order; and is granted in most cases, only upon applications backed by high personal or official influence.” Brodhead’s quest for support in high places was riddled with failures—even after an interview, the US Secretary of State declined to give him letters of introduction, and he had to appeal instead to American ambassadors in Europe. He also sought audiences with and wrote letters to a vivid cast of European characters, from the king of the Netherlands to the archbishop of Canterbury, all to gain further access to documents. To anyone who has worked with manuscripts and rare books in the 21st century, Brodhead’s archival adventures sound strange indeed.

Nonetheless, when he returned, in 1844, one contemporary wrote that “[t]he ship in which he came back was more richly freighted with new material for American history than any that ever crossed the Atlantic.” Armed with eighty volumes of transcripts, he did what any researcher would do next: he tried to procure further funding. His Final Report (1845) was an overview of the documents he had found. Strictly speaking, it was the culmination of what he had set out to do, but it was also part of his case that he should be the one to translate and publish his findings. But politics were not in Brodhead’s favor as a Democrat, and in 1849, a Whig-controlled legislature assigned the task to two other men.

Although Brodhead wrote that an “antiquarian spirit” motivated his work, he identified with the past. He proudly claimed descent from “a colonial Hollander who stood up manfully for his Republican Fatherland” as well as “an English officer who helped his king to conquer Dutch New Netherland” as indicative of his lack of “partiality.”

Yet the battleground of the past extended beyond English and Dutch tensions in seventeenth-century New York. Brodhead’s expedition to European archives was driven in part by a national debate on American colonial origins. As the New Englander Puritan became ascendant in early nineteenth-century American mythology, New Yorkers fought back, creating the New York Historical Society (of which Brodhead was an active member) to counter that story (Joyce Goodfriend, “Present at the Creation: Making the Case for the Dutch Founders of America,” 261). The volumes of documents that Brodhead hoped to publish had New England counterparts (Goodfriend, 262). Ultimately, it was Brodhead’s identity as a New Yorker, excavating the sources for a local history—a genealogy of sorts—that compromised his impartiality. Yet it also led him to present early America as more than a monolithic English colony, and to search seriously for its sources in international archives.