politics

Houses of Glass and Veils of Secrecy: Metaphor in Discourses of Political Publicity

By guest contributor Katlyn Marie Carter

We often use metaphors and analogies to talk about politics. The legislative process, you may have heard, is akin to sausage being made. Such metaphors stand to tell us a lot about how we think about politics and different aspects of government. In the case of sausage being made, one might think back a century to Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, which exposed the meatpacking industry in Chicago as a horrifyingly dirty, disgusting, and degrading affair. In our popular culture, sausage making carries generally negative connotations. When we talk about lawmaking like this, the implication is that it is messy and, though the outcome may sometimes be good, getting to the product is not something that bears scrutiny well. On the flip side, so-called “sunshine laws” are proposed as remedies to corruption or foul play in government. The moniker suggests transparency as a potential cure for the worst aspects of the sausage making process. The use of these particular metaphors sheds light on how we, in early twenty-first century America, think about the ills of the legislative process and how best to remedy them.

Studying the metaphors and analogies people in the past used to talk about politics can similarly enrich our understanding of their thinking and help us identify constitutive relationships between thought and practice. If we want to understand how revolutionaries in the late eighteenth century thought about the legislative process, at the moment when modern representative institutions were first being founded, we would do well to consider the metaphors and analogies they used to describe it. These expressions provide us with ways to deftly discern how thinking about such practices was evolving and how ideas were being shaped through experience with their practical application. Furthermore, paying attention to the way concepts were described metaphorically can reveal anxieties as well as ideals by anchoring ideas more firmly in the cultural context in which they were being applied and developed.

I am by no means the first to suggest paying attention to metaphors in revolutionary politics. More than two decades ago, Lynn Hunt urged analysis of narratives and images of the family applied to politics during the French Revolution—a metaphor which was also ubiquitous in struggles between Britain and the American colonies.  Mary Ashburn Miller has pointed to the application of images and analogies from the natural world in order to argue that French revolutionaries often portrayed political events and violence as beyond human control. Perhaps the most widespread analogy used in political discourse in the late eighteenth century was that of the theater, which scholars of the French Revolution in particular have examined at length. Paul Friedland and Susan Maslan have both pointed to the rampant application of the language of theater to politics and read it as anxiety over the evolving meaning and contested implementation of political representation. Describing politics in terms of theater could carry implications of debauchery, debasement, and downright danger. Examining the connotations of such metaphors and analyzing the way they were applied to politics enriches our understanding of the conceptual development and practical implementation of ideas central to the revolutionary period.

Veils of secrecy and houses of glass, along with references to working “behind the curtain,” “unmasking” traitors, and penetrating “conclaves” permeated both American and French political discourse during the Age of Revolutions. These metaphors were particularly prominent when discussing elected representatives and legislative deliberations among them. They were part of debates—in both France and the United States—over the questions of publicity, or transparency as we would call it today, and secrecy in government. In 1788, Patrick Henry critiqued constitutional provisions allowing for the discretionary use of secrecy in the future federal government, declaring on the floor of the Virginia constitutional ratifying convention: “I appeal to this Convention if it would not be better for America to take off the veil of secrecy. Look at us—hear our transactions” (Convention Debates, June 9, 1788). A year later, in response to a proposal to shut the doors of the Estates General meeting to the public, Third Estate deputy Constantin-François de Chasseboeuf de Volney proclaimed: “I cannot respect he who seeks to hide himself in the shadows; the fullness of day is made to shed light on the truth, and I am proud to think like the philosopher who said that all his actions never had anything secret and that he wished his house was made of glass.”

The question of when secrecy was appropriate versus what should be done in public view was central to the conception and implementation of representative government in the late eighteenth century. Such references are evidence of this fact; but the way in which these concepts were articulated merits further scrutiny. Interrogating the metaphors and analogies employed can help us identify the concerns underlying calls for more publicity and the way in which critiques of secrecy were linked to understandings of how representative government should (and should not) work. Likening the exposure of the legislative process to public view to removing “the veil of secrecy” was not an intellectually or culturally neutral way of describing the procedural decision to deliberate with open doors. Exploring its connotations illuminates the way in which deploying this particular metaphor was both constitutive and reflective of thinking about the purpose of publicity in representative government.

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“Les Aristocrates anéantis,” Artist unknown, 1790. Hand-colored etching on paper. Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Estampes et photographie.

This 1790 depiction of a National Guardsman revealing a formerly masked “demon of aristocracy” provides a visual representation reflective of the language used to talk about secrecy and the value of publicity in revolutionary politics. An eye appears in the right-hand corner of the image. Rays of sunshine emanate from this eye. This image resonates strongly with the iconography used in popular society publications urging vigilance over elected officials as well as potential enemies.

We know, for example, that veils—which were often referred to in both American and French political discourse—were associated on the most basic level with hiding and thus could have implied intentional obfuscation. In the Dictionnaire critique de la langue française of 1762, a voile was defined as a piece of cloth used to hide something, especially the faces of women who were widowed or residents of the so-called “Orient.” Referring to a veil could thus carry feminine connotations as well as a link to the “East,” which was often associated with despotism in the eighteenth century. A common figure of speech, the dictionary definition went on to detail, was that “a man has a veil covering his eyes when prejudices, biases, love, hate, or other passions prevent him from seeing things as they are.” Though curiously not defined in Samuel Johnson’s 1755 dictionary of the English language, when Noah Webster released his American Dictionary of the English Language in 1828, a veil was similarly defined as “a cover; a disguise,” and the verb form was defined as “to cover with a veil; to conceal,” or “to hide.”

Even a cursory look at contemporary dictionary definitions provides some leads when it comes to better understanding the implications of the term’s use in calling for publicity or criticizing the secrecy surrounding legislative deliberations. The metaphorical lifting of a veil—when it came to publicizing political activity or government work—suggests that publicity was conceived of and portrayed as a remedy to combat active and intentional concealment. Such hiding, which could have carried connotations of femininity or despotism, might even have implied the operation of prejudice or the prevention of adequate information among those who were covered by the veil: the representatives who were deliberating. Talking about removing the “veil of secrecy” from a representative legislature may have been a way to posit publicity as constitutive of such a regime, in contrast to a despotic one. More than that, it also suggested specific purposes for publicity in such a system. Representatives were not only to deliberate in public view for the purposes of honesty and to combat implications of conspiracy or corruption, but also to maintain communication with the broader public for the purposes of their own information.

This is just one example; further unpacking the cluster of metaphors and analogies that eighteenth-century actors applied when they were talking about government secrecy and calling for greater publicity could continue to enrich our understanding of how these concepts were being defined and deployed on both sides of the Atlantic. When Volney made reference to working in a house of glass, he gestured to an ancient sage who reportedly declared his wish to live in a house that would allow constant monitoring of his actions. Referring to a house could have conjured publicity, or transparency, in a Rousseau-ian sense, as making one’s soul legible to the outside world for the purposes of guaranteeing authenticity. Further use of the metaphor in the context of defending one’s individual actions as a representative enforces such a connotation. In 1793, deputy Bertrand Barère responded to suspicions of potential past links to the monarchy by citing the same metaphor, stating: “A Roman citizen said: ‘I wish that a house open to all gazes would be constructed for me, so that all my fellow citizens can witness my actions.’ Citizens, I would have wanted to live in such a house during my time as a member of the Constituent Assembly.” A member of a representative assembly, such references suggested, was obliged to live transparently, perhaps without separation of private from public. Furthermore, the reference to ancient Rome was rife with republican signaling. Using the metaphor of a house of glass to describe the way a representative should live, think, and deliberate on behalf of the people illuminates the way in which transparency was constitutive of an ideal representative as republican and completely open to public scrutiny in all his actions.

In discussing publicity using these metaphors and analogies, politicians, polemicists, editors, and theorists implicitly laid out a case for why it was necessary, for what they felt they were combating by imposing it. They also defined secrecy as a particular type of threat, linked to dissembling, eastern despotism, femininity, carnival (in the case of masks), or religious superstition (in the case of conclaves), among many other references. Metaphors matter when trying to explain how people in the past thought about and articulated concepts; they give deeper meaning to what might otherwise be encountered as ideas isolated in the intellectual realm of philosophical tracts or constitutional frameworks. Looking at metaphors and analogies has the potential to firmly anchor political ideas to their social and cultural contexts and, in so doing, to expose the way ideas were interdependently shaped and translated from thought into practice.

Katlyn is a postdoctoral fellow at the Weiser Center for Emerging Democracies at the University of Michigan, where she is currently working on a book manuscript about the relationship between state secrecy and representative government during the Age of Revolutions. You can contact her at katlync@umich.edu.

Politics the only common ground

by Eric Brandom

Le congrès des ecrivains et artistes noirs took place in late September 1956, in Paris. Among the speakers was Aimé Césaire, and it is his intervention, “Culture and Colonization,” that is my focus here. This text has been the subject of significant scholarship. Like all of Césaire’s writings it is nonetheless worth reading carefully anew. I look to Césaire now in part to think through the differences between two attempts to take or retake a dialectical tradition for anticolonial politics. How might such a project take shape in and against specifically French political thought? In this post, I hope one unusual moment in Césaire’s talk can be useful.

Put broadly, for Césaire, the problem of culture in 1956 was colonization. By disintegrating, or attempting to disintegrate, the peoples over which it has domination, colonization removes the “framework…structure” that make cultural life possible. And it must be so, because colonization means political control and “the political organization freely developed by a people is a prominent part of that people’s culture, even as it also conditions that culture” (131). Peoples and nations, must be free because this is the condition of true living–having already made this argument with quotations from Marx, Hegel, and Lenin, Césaire next gave his listeners Spengler quoting Goethe. There was a politics to these citations. At issue here was Goethe’s vitalist point, from the heart of “European” culture, “that living must itself unfold.” This was contrary to Roger Caillois (also an object of enmity in the earlier Discourse) and others who “list…benefits” (132) of colonization. One might have “good intentions,” and yet: “there is not one bad colonization…and another…enlightened colonization…One has to take a side” (133).

On an earlier day of the conference Hubert Deschamps, a former colonial governor turned academic, had asked to say a few words from his chair. Inaudible, he had been allowed to ascend to the podium, and had then given a longer-than-expected ‘impromptu’ speech. Deschamps seems to have offered a limited defense of colonization on the basis of the ultimate historical good of the colonization “we French”—the Gauls—experienced by the Romans. Responding the next day Césaire plucked from his memory a pro-imperial Latin quatrain written in fifth century Gaul by Rutilius Namatianus, ending “Urbem fecisti quod prius orbis erat” (“thou hast made a city of what was erstwhile a world”). I pause over this performance of total cultural mastery for two reasons. First, this comparison of ancient and modern imperialism was more powerful for the French than one might think and second, Césaire was surprisingly ambivalent. He notes that both Deschamps and Namatianus come from the ruling group, so naturally see things positively. Of course like the modern French empire, Roman empire did mean the destruction of indigenous culture—and yet Césaire commented that “we may note in passing that the modern colonialist order has never inspired a poet” (134). It seems to me that Césaire was not without sympathy for the idea of the “Urbs,” but recognized its impossibility.

Culture cannot be “mixed [métisse]”, it is a harmony, a style (138). It develops—here Césaire is perhaps as Comtean as Nietzschean—in periods of “psychological unity…of communion” (139). The different origins, the hodgepodge, that results in anarchy is not a matter of physical origins, but of experience: in culture “the rule…is heterogeneity. But be careful: this heterogeneity is not lived as such. In the reality of a living civilization it is a matter of heterogeneity lived internally as homogeneity” (139). This cannot happen in colonialism. The result of the denial of freedom, of “the historical initiative” is that “the dialectic of need” cannot unfold in colonized countries. Quoting again from Nietzsche’s Untimely Meditations, Césaire compares the result of colonialism for the colonized to Nietzsche’s “concept-quake caused by science” that “robs man of the foundation of all his rest and security” (140). Colonialism denies its victims the capacity to constitute from the people a collective subject capable of taking action on the stage of the world. From this failed subjectification, everything else flows. In colonized countries, culture is in a “tragic” position. Real culture has withered and dies or is dead. What remains is an artificial “subculture” condemned to marginal “elites” (Césaire puts the word in quotes), and in fact “vast territories of culturally empty zones…of cultural perversion or cultural by-products” (140).

What, Césaire asks, is to be done? This is the question presented by the “situation that we black men of culture must have the courage to face squarely” (140). Césaire rejects the summary choice between “indigenous” or “European”: “fidelity and backwardness, or progress and rupture” (141). This opposition must be overcome, Césaire maintains, through the dialectical action of a people. Césaire’s language itself contains the fidelity and rupture he will no longer accept as alternatives: “I believe that in the African culture yet to be born…” (141). There will be no general destruction of the symbols of the past, nor a blind imposition of what comes from Europe. “In our culture that is to be born…there will be old and new. Which new elements? Which old elements?…The answer can only be given by the community” (142). But if the individuals present before Césaire in Paris—including among other luminaries his former student Fanon and old friend Senghor, as well as Jean Price-Mars, James Baldwin, and Richard Wright—cannot say what the answer will be, “at least we can confirm here and now that it will be given and not verbally but by facts and in action” (142). Thus “our own role as black men of culture” is not to be the redeemer, but rather “to proclaim the coming and prepare the way” for “the people, our people, freed from their shackles” (142). The people is a “demiurge that alone can organize this chaos into a new synthesis…We are here to say and demand: Let the peoples speak. Let the black peoples come onto the great stage of history” (142).

Baldwin, listening to Césaire, was “stirred in a very strange and disagreeable way” (157). His assessment of Césaire is critical:

Césaire’s speech left out of account one of the great effects of the colonial experience: its creation, precisely, of men like himself. His real relation to the people who thronged about him now had been changed, by this experience, into something very different from what it once had been. What made him so attractive now was the fact that he, without having ceased to be one of them, yet seemed to move with the European authority. He had penetrated into the heart of the great wilderness which was Europe and stolen the sacred fire. And this, which was the promise of their freedom, was also the assurance of his power. (158)

Political subjectivity, popularly constructed, is the necessary ground for cultural life–this was Césaire’s conclusion. Baldwin was not wrong to see in Césaire’s performance a certain implied political and cultural elitism. Here we can usefully return to Césaire’s great poem, the Cahier d’un retour au pays natal.

A. James Arnold, editor of the new critical edition of Césaire’s writings, there argues that the 1939 first version of the poem is essentially a lyric account of individual subjectivity. Arnold further argues, and Christopher Miller sharply disagrees, that the first version of the poem is superior, that subsequent versions (in 1947 and 1956) warp the form of the original with socio-political encrustations. Gary Wilder, in the first of his pair of essential books, reads the poem in terms of voice and subjectivity, seeing in it ultimately a failure. What began as critique ends with “a decontextualized and existentialist account of unalienated identity and metaphysical arrival” (288). Looking at Césaire’s attention in 1956 to the poetry of empire, his evident sympathy even in the face of Deschamps’ condescension for the Urbs, impossible though it be in the modern world, we may read the poem differently. Taken together with, for instance, Césaire’s appreciation for and active dissemination of Charles Péguy’s mystical republican poetry in Tropiques, we might see the subjectivity the poem dramatizes as essentially collective, and its project as the activation, the uprising, of this collectivity. It seems to me that we can read the shape of the dilemmas that Césaire confronted in the 1956 talk–between elite and people, decision and growth, culture and civilization, nation and diaspora–at least partly as the pursuit even at this late date, of an impossible republicanism.

Cogito ergo sumus

by contributing editor Eric Brandom

As insipid slogans of dubious provenance go, “be the change you wish to see in the world” is not so bad. On a bumper sticker or the signature line of a well-meaning colleague’s email, it is presumably meant to inspire. If it registers at all, it manages only to scold. The idea is not a new one, although it is also not ancient. In any case it is unsurprising that moral reform of the self should seem a good place to begin at a moment when many people who have not recently or perhaps ever thought about how to organize themselves politically are trying to figure out how to do so. With that complex of problems in mind, in this post I look back at a particular document, published in France in 1892, which served as a manifesto of sorts for a durable program of moral, and ultimately political, action. The Union for Moral Action, renamed the Union for Truth in 1904 and extant until 1940, engaged in we might now describe as advocacy and agitation, but was above all a venue for clarifying discussion. It was founded in the context of concern with the disintegration of social bonds—the social question—and emerged strengthened in unity and purpose from the great trial by fire that was the Dreyfus Affair. Paul Desjardins, a young literary-critic-turned-reformer, was the animating spirit of the Union, which in the end was a locus of progressive activity: Dreyfusard, solidariste, and concerned about the political status of women.

Puvis de Chavannes, Scene from the Life of Saint Genevieve, patroness of Paris - Printed for the Union for Moral Action, 1898 (BnF)

Puvis de Chavannes, Scene from the Life of Saint Genevieve, patroness of Paris – Printed for the Union for Moral Action, 1898 (BnF)

My object here appeared as an unsigned text in a summer number of the Revue bleue, with the unassuming title “Simple notes for a program of union and action.” Desjardins signed a brief paragraph introducing the manifesto, suggesting that he had solicited it and hoping that some people, at least, would find their own ideas reflected therein. In fact Jules Lagneau, Desjardin’s philosophy teacher, wrote the text and it would later be reproduced under his name in the Union’s Bulletin.

The first person plural rules the “Simples notes,” which are divided into three sections: our spirit, our rule, our action. “The weakening…of the social bond” is both a cognitive and a moral problem, and therefore the spirit of the Union is reason. This is not individuating reason, but rather, “a principle of order, union, and sacrifice…the ability to pass beyond one’s self while affirming a higher law, the idea of which man finds within himself and only the reflection outside himself.” The group is open to all who have “practical faith” but especially to those “without positive faith…who believe that in man, the spirit must command and not serve, because it alone has in itself its end and meaning, and that life has no value except where spirit has marked it.” The Union, then, welcomes all for whom truth and certitude are something one does not arrive at once and for all, but that are sought constantly.

The Union will not simply be one of good will, but rather one in which a certain minimal agreement of principle is constantly shaped and refined through action: “We are the beginning of a society that expects progress only through determination and the rigor of its principle: we tend to realize unanimity, we do not pretend to start from it.” Fanaticism will be avoided by constantly testing in life one’s ideas, which become mere words when they cease to be “the expression in action of interior freedom [l’expression en acte de la liberté intérieure].” If we act in everyday life in a way consistent with this principle, then “it matters little who brings truth to light, who brings salvation… What deserves to be will be.” This is not irenic faith in progress. There is no easy convergence of good intentions here, but rather a Pascalianism, perhaps of the left, which valorizes “discipline” and “renouncement” and wishes to teach “the unavoidable necessity of suffering… to combat false optimism… [and] the faith in salvation through science alone and through material civilization, lying mask of civilization, [a] precarious external arrangement that cannot replace intimate agreement.” Above all, the immoral idea that “the goal of life is to freely enjoy” must be met with the counter-example of the Union itself, which must model, as we might say now, good and social behavior: “For the people is what we make it: its vices are our vices, looked upon, envied, imitated, and it is right if they come back to us in all their weight.” The union must therefore offer “résistance réfléchie” to popular fashion, and rely on moral authority rather than popularity. “We forbid ourselves irony,” and prefer “un gaieté sérieuse.” We will be, the manifesto declares, simply as we are, without false modesty, pedantry, or pride.

Through a “pure and active charity” the Union will “save l’esprit publique.” And this is not a metaphorical charity, but rather one that, by setting aside the desire to save, hopes to create “the material conditions for morality.” The Union understands that impersonal charity corrupts, but individual and direct interpersonal charity “will be the vehicle of love, the spark that wakes the flame… In true charity, the one who receives merges with the one who gives.” True charity allows the spirit to rise above the immediate “sensible” good, and carries the spirit “infinitely higher through the contagion of love.” Acting first of all on those who are closest to us—and this is the most difficult—we make them happy by “unburdening them of their egoism and putting our love in its place. To make one’s self loved by loving with a male love that is absolute will, which is to say sacrifice, and in this way to learn to love—this is everything.” And the circle of love will expand—along the rails laid down by the division of labor: “the chain of necessary service is the link forged by nature between hearts and the divine path of charity through which we enter into to the soul of the people.” Thus we will create “progressively, naturally, an inner society founded on love, peace, and true justice, within an exterior society founded on interest, competition, and legal justice.” Such an operation requires, first of all, self-abnegation from those who wish to bring it about. In the end, the only model available is a monastic and revolutionary one: “an active Union, a militant laïque Order of private and social duty, living kernel of the future society.”

Demonstration at the place Gambetta in Carmaux, (late 1895) (Archives de la ville de Blois)

Demonstration at the place Gambetta in Carmaux, (late 1895) (Archives de la ville de Blois)

Lagneau’s program is a remarkable one in several ways. It traces a circle from the idea of law as such to the instantiation of law in a quasi-monastic order that would effect change in society by disciplining itself—is this a pre- or an anti-sociological approach to social change? More, in as much as we have to do with a democratic movement here, it is a moral rather than a political one. François Chaubet, historian of the Union, identifies Lagneau’s frankly elitist position as spiritualist republicanism, although here it appears in idealist and not materialist form. Action and even articulation was indeed clarifying: Lagneau’s manifesto drove the future maréchal Lyautey out of the original group, but Lagneau would not follow Jean Jaurès to the workers at Carmaux, and so himself split from the Union when it resolved to support the strike there. Lagneau’s austere, aristocratic, and mystical project for moral action can speak directly to us only in fragments—reduced, that is, to decontextualized quotations like the one with which I began. It is certainly possible to read Lagneau’s manifesto as an example of intense desire—visible in so many places at that moment, and perhaps our own—to be a subject, rather than object of history. Yet I think we can better read it as a usefully wrong answer to questions that are still asked today. There is an unmistakable urgency in his prose, and the moral urgency of truth as an ongoing collective project, grounded in collective action, is surely one we still feel.

Social Media in an Analog Age: The Henry Subscription (1898-1899)

by guest contributor Elizabeth Everton

In a 2009 interview, Twitter’s founder, Jack Dorsey, drew upon the dictionary definition of “tweet” – “a short burst of inconsequential information” – to characterize his creation. Ten years after Twitter’s inception, few would persist in dismissing it as inconsequential; from the Arab Spring to Occupy and Black Lives Matter, the degree to which political and social movements thrive on social media is clear. Yet politics has always existed on the margins – dominant discourses have always been baited by smaller counter-discourses, composed not only of grand speeches but maddening collections of inconsequential information.

One legacy of the Dreyfus Affair is a welter of words, from Emile Zola’s justly famous “J’Accuse” to the hundreds of works of non-fiction and fiction inspired by the case.  The Affair also produced innumerable bursts of inconsequence, in the form of signatures on petitions and manifestos; letters, such as the 2000+ sent to Alfred and Lucie Dreyfus; postcards and songs, stickers and cigarette rolling papers; and names published in newspapers, intended to expose (lists of Jewish officers in the French military) or extol (lists of members of newly founded leagues).  And perhaps the most infamous, the Henry Subscription, the “Golden Book” of anti-Dreyfusism, the list of names and messages published between December 1898 and January 1899 in the anti-Jewish newspaper La Libre Parole.

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Sticker, “Français! N’achetez rien aux Juifs!” (Archives Nationales de France, 1898/1899)

The origins of the Henry Subscription lie in the byzantine efforts of the French Intelligence Bureau to block the reopening of the Dreyfus case, specifically the retroactive proof of Dreyfus’s guilt forged by Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph Henry in 1896.  Produced to the right people at the right time – that is, military and civilian officials casting about for reasons not to look further – this document seemed to settle the case until “J’Accuse” cracked it open in January 1898.  Reexamined under electric light, the forgery was discovered and its creator questioned and arrested. The next day, Henry committed suicide.

For Dreyfus’s supporters, this was proof not only of Henry’s guilt but Dreyfus’s innocence.  Historian Joseph Reinach, one of the foremost Dreyfusards, published a series of articles arguing that Henry had colluded in the treason for which Dreyfus was convicted.  Henry’s widow Berthe protested, bringing a suit for defamation.  La Libre Parole, an adversary of the Jewish Reinach, called upon the “good folk” of France to send money to pay the widow’s legal bills. The subscription drive started on December 14, 1898; by the time it wrapped up on January 15, 1899, over 130,000 francs had been raised from about 20,000 donations.  During the drive, La Libre Parole published subscriber names and messages, thousands upon thousands of them, a window into the identity and attitudes of the donors and, by extension, the anti-Dreyfusard movement.

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Masthead advertising Henry Subscription (La Libre Parole, 23 December 1898)

Dreyfusards and anti-Dreyfusards alike immediately identified the Henry Subscription as a watershed.  In 1899, Dreyfusard Pierre Quillard published a compilation of subscription entries organized by profession, social status, and attitudes expressed in messages.  For Quillard, the Henry Subscription represented an outpouring of anti-Semitism, inflected with militarism and clericalism; his goals in compiling and publishing the entries were to name and shame subscribers and reveal the latent hatred at the subscription’s core. Historians studying the Henry Subscription tend to use this compilation – the original submissions being long gone and the published lists published unwieldy – but in so doing, they unconsciously reproduce Quillard’s Dreyfusard perspective. There is no question that many subscribers and messages were anti-Semitic; it was, after all, published in an anti-Semitic newspaper with the tagline “for the widow Henry against the Jew Reinach.” But the Quillard compilation decontextualizes the lists and imposes a new ordering system defined by a Dreyfusard interpretive framework exterior to the subscription itself.  For Quillard, the individual messages, excepting those that particularly reflect this whole, are unimportant –so many bursts of inconsequential information. This epistemological framework, in the end, obscures the perspective of the milieu that created the lists: the anti-Dreyfusards.

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Excerpt from the third list of the Henry Subscription (La Libre Parole, 16 December 1898)

Let us look again at these messages. The Henry Subscription as monument fades away, to be superseded by an image of the subscription as a work in progress, a collective project undertaken though the collaboration of thousands of subscribers, guided by the active intervention of the editors of La Libre Parole.  The first aspect of the subscription to be recovered is their temporal dimension.  The Henry Subscription lists existed not only to put anti-Dreyfusard attitudes on display but also to inspire further subscriptions, to be published on subsequent days.  This encouragement came not only from La Libre Parole but from the subscribers themselves, such as a December 15, 1898, message scolding of the Minister of War for not having subscribed. These sorts of appeals did not go unheard or unremarked; the name of General Mercier, the former Minister of War who engineered Dreyfus’s arrest and conviction, appeared at the head of the December 16 list.

What we see with the Henry Subscription, then, is a complex form of multidirectional communicative exchange.  It functioned as a public site where subscribers could communicate with the newspaper, with each other, with non-subscribing readers, and with those involved in the anti-Dreyfusard movement more broadly.  These communications ranged from the generic – the first message printed was an uncontroversial “for the love of France and its army” – to the surprisingly personal, including expressions of anger, sorrow, and shame.  Subscribers published these messages with the expectation that they would be read, and so they were.

Meaning can and should be found not only in the content of the lists but in their construction.  I suggest that the Henry Subscription can be read as a project akin to the Enlightenment Republic of Letters as expounded upon by Dena Goodman: a system of reciprocal exchanges working towards a common Enlightenment project, out of which emerges an oppositional public sphere. Drawing a connection between the Henry Subscription and the Enlightenment Republic of Letters seems absurd, given the disdain many anti-Dreyfusards felt for the legacy and values of the Enlightenment.  But similarities exist nonetheless, in its collective, collaborative nature and creation of an oppositional counter-state.  Few observers in 2016 can be surprised that counter-discourses and the technologies that amplify them need not be progressive. La Libre Parole described the lists as a “patriotic hodgepodge” in which people of all ages, genders, professions, and walks of life could rub shoulders.  The only commonality was their membership in the true nation, a sort of anti-Dreyfusard silent majority given voice by the subscription.  But the lists pose a conundrum.  For the anti-Dreyfusards, the nation was rooted in ethno-nationalist concepts of identity that excluded religious minorities and those identified as “foreign,” in sharp contrast to the assimilationist republic. We find in the lists, however, contributions from foreign nationals, from Protestants, and even from Jews.  In sending money and publishing their message, subscribers of all backgrounds could stake their claim in the nation.  To admire Madame Henry or the army, to denigrate Reinach and the Dreyfusards – these actions placed one within the “patriotic hodgepodge.”  Membership in the true nation, writ small in the lists of the Henry Subscription, can therefore be seen as not only a function of ethnicity but also of action.  Further examination of this document may reveal even more cracks in the seemingly solid veneer of the anti-Dreyfusard nation, not to mention the power of new technologies to shape or even create public spheres.

Lest the interviewer be fooled by his description of tweets as inconsequential, Jack Dorsey expanded upon his statement, explaining “bird chirps sound meaningless to us, but meaning is applied by other birds.  The same is true of Twitter: a lot of messages can be seen as completely useless and meaningless, but it’s entirely dependent on the recipient.”  What was true of Twitter in 2009 was true of the Henry subscription 110 years earlier and is true of other dribs and drabs of text that accumulate around political events.  Like the messages of the Henry Subscription, these texts may be partial, adulterated, or untrustworthy in various ways; in listening to them, we are as much at the mercy of their creators as we are with any other work.  Yet they can and should still be heard. The language of birds may be obscure, but it is not incomprehensible; with patience, these words too can be understood.

Elizabeth Everton is an independent scholar living in Charlotte, NC. She has a PhD in history from UCLA. She is currently working on a manuscript titled National Heroines: Women and the Radical Right during the Dreyfus Affair.

“They’re Going to Be Bused, Whether You Like it or Not”: Urban Whites and the Surprising Origins of Metropolitan School Desegregation

by guest contributor Michael Savage

In the United States, segregated metropolitan areas are a national phenomenon, with heavily minority inner-cities typically ringed by much wealthier and predominantly white autonomous suburbs. According to 24/7 Wall St., America’s three most segregated cities are in the North. Cleveland possesses the dubious honor of being America’s most segregated metropolis, followed by Detroit and Milwaukee. Boston takes seventh place, just edging out Birmingham, Alabama, a city whose terroristic violence against African Americans once earned it the nickname “Bombingham.”

This segregation did not occur as the result of impersonal market forces. Significant discrimination – both public and private – produced today’s segregated metropolises. Federal policies instituted during the New Deal had the effect of guaranteeing mortgages for whites only, while the refusal of many whites to sell to African Americans and the considerable community violence that often greeted black “pioneers” who moved to all-white neighborhoods helped solidify metropolitan racial divisions. Historians have told these stories and told them well. This history, however, is incomplete.

For a deeper understanding of metropolitan segregation, historians need to examine the alternate visions of metropolitan desegregation articulated by a most surprising source – segregationist urban whites. In battles over urban school segregation in the American North, it was urban whites of clear segregationist leanings who most forcefully pushed for desegregated metropolitan areas, demanding that desegregation reach beyond the political boundaries of the central city. While this may seem counterintuitive, it was simple pragmatism. Segregationist urban whites proposed metropolitan desegregation to weaken suburban support for integration but also because successful metropolitan desegregation meant a dispersal of the black student population throughout the region, ensuring the maintenance of white majority schools. These metropolitan proposals had the potential of combatting metropolitan inequality. Their failure, in the years following the push for civil rights in the American South, helps explain the near total separation of city and suburb and why Northern metropolises top the list of the most segregated regions.

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A fact sheet on the Freedom Stayout prepared by the suburban Brookline Committee for Civil Rights. Courtesy Northeastern University Archives and Special Collections.

Boston, most known for its vehement opposition to desegregation busing, witnessed the longest and most widespread consideration of metropolitan school desegregation. When faced with 1965 Racial Imbalance Act that declared any school with over 50 percent “nonwhite” students “racially imbalanced,” the Boston School Committee responded with a strategy designed to weaken suburban legislative support for integration by proposing that the suburbs participate in mandatory desegregation. This strategy is evident in School Committeeman Joseph Lee’s satirically titled “A Plan to End the Monopoly of Un-light-colored Pupils in Many Boston Schools.” Lee’s first suggestion was to “notify at least 11,958 Chinese and Negro Pupils not to come back to Boston schools this autumn.” These students, a majority of Boston’s minority student population, were to attend suburban schools in order to integrate the suburbs. The suburbs, home to three times Boston’s population, averaged less than one percent black students in their public school populations, which Lee called “racial imbalance, if ever there was.” Though clearly designed to undermine the law and certainly not indicative of any moral commitment to civil rights, Lee’s satirical plan nevertheless raised valid questions about segregation in the metropolitan context.

Lee’s plan bore similarities to the voluntary Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity (METCO), which voluntarily bused black students from Boston schools to several suburban communities with available school seats. Jointly created by liberal suburbanites and Boston civil rights advocates in 1966, METCO offered city students access to superior suburban schools, provided a measure of socioeconomic integration, and made a contribution to lessening school segregation in the region. However, like the Racial Imbalance Act, METCO functioned at the farthest limits of suburban liberalism. It did not require that suburbanites send their children to black city schools, did not couple black school attendance with increased black residence in the suburbs, and its suburban founders, fearful of a loss of suburban support, downplayed their aims of full metropolitan desegregation.

The Boston School Committee faced several legal challenges to its segregation, none more important than the Morgan v. Hennigan case initiated by the Boston Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in March 1972. In its filing, the NAACP urged the “inclusion of suburban school systems as appropriate in the plan for desegregation, in order to achieve, now and hereafter, the greatest possible degree of actual desegregation.” In May the Boston School Committee voted four-to-one to ask the court to include 75 suburban communities as its co-defendants, seeking a metropolitan desegregation plan in the almost certain outcome of being found guilty.

As similar events in Detroit demonstrated, the Boston’s School Committee’s courtroom calls for metropolitan desegregation had the very real possibility of implementation. When the Detroit Board of Education approved a modest integration plan in April 1970, anti-integrationist whites formed the Citizens’ Committee for Better Education (CCBE) and successfully recalled integrationist Board members. The rescission of the integration plan prompted a legal challenge from the NAACP. Faced with the likelihood that the Detroit schools would be found unconstitutionally segregated, the CCBE urged the adoption of a plan of metropolitan desegregation just one year after recalling integrationist Board members. It was the first party in the case call for a metropolitan solution, and was quickly joined by the NAACP. CCBE members supported plans of metropolitan desegregation for the same reason they opposed intra-city desegregation – both emanated from a desire to keep their white children in white majority schools. CCBE Attorney Alexander J. Ritchie persuaded CCBE members to change course, telling them that “Your kids are going to go to school, and they’re going to be bused, whether you like it or not… Now do you want your kids to go to school where they’re the minority in a basically black school system, or do you want them to go to school where you’re still the majority?” Divergent motivations produced similar results. So similar were metropolitan plans produced by the CCBE and the NAACP that Judge Stephen J. Roth called them “roughly approximate.”

While Judge Roth accepted the CCBE’s metropolitan arguments and ordered the implementation of a desegregation plan affecting 54 independent school districts, the Supreme Court did not. In a strictly partisan five-to-four decision, in July 1974 Justice Potter Stewart joined Republican President Richard Nixon’s four appointees in reaffirming the separation of city and suburb, ensuring the maintenance of separate and unequal education in American metropolitan areas. As Justice Thurgood Marshall noted in his impassioned dissent, the Court’s decision would allow “our great metropolitan areas to be divided up each into two cities – one white, the other black.” Though this divide already existed, the Milliken decision exacerbated metropolitan segregation and helped codify metropolitan inequality.

As historian Matthew Lassiter’s analysis of desegregation in Richmond, Charlotte, and Atlanta demonstrates, school desegregation plans that incorporated the suburbs provided more lasting integration than plans limited to the central city alone. Affecting the entire region, metropolitan plans did not allow well-heeled whites to simply flee the desegregation mandate by leaving the city. In light of both cities’ re-segregated schools that are attended almost uniformly by the intersecting categories of poor and minority and their persistent residential segregation, it is worth revisiting these proposals. Undeniably conceived in white racism and prone to viewing black students as a problem population that needed to be dispersed, in such metropolitan plans also existed possibilities of meaningful racial and socio-economic integration.

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White Boston parents demonstrating outside Judge Arthur Garrity’s suburban Wellesley home. Though their protests primarily targeted arriving black students and buses, anti-busers frequently trekked to the suburbs to protest busing and decry elite busing supporters whose suburban residences placed them outside the desegregation mandate. Image courtesy WBUR FM.

The metropolitan proposals made in Boston and Detroit have been most influential in their failure. With mandatory metropolitan desegregation an impossibility, middle-class whites accelerated their flight from the central cities and the public schools. Suburbanites worked to ensure suburban autonomy from the central city. In Boston, a program proposed by 56 school districts before the busing decision that was designed to entirely eradicate segregation in the metropolitan area was hardest hit by the renewed push for suburban autonomy. In the program’s first and only year, 1976-77, a mere 210 students from three suburbs and Boston participated in its school pairing program. Suburbanites opposed participation in the program, fearing that it would lead to a metropolitan school district and mandatory busing. While the METCO program continued, it never experienced another period of growth and previously stalwart communities threatened to withdraw when the state planned to modestly trim the funds it provided to participating communities.

While historians have noted an increase in white flight following intra-city desegregation, they have failed to connect this to declining support for metropolitan cooperation and governance in the 1970s. Conversely, the burgeoning literature on “metropolitics” neglects the long history of proposals for metropolitan school desegregation. This is a mistake. A focus on proposals for metropolitan desegregation made by ostensibly segregationist urban whites allows for a broadened understanding of the history of metropolitan reform, urban history, and civil rights. This focus helps explain the growth and persistence of extreme disparities between the central city and its suburbs in America’s metropolises, particularly those in the North, and can help account for the lack of metropolitan solutions to a wide array of metropolitan problems.

Michael Savage is a graduate student in American History at the University of Toronto whose dissertation focuses on metropolitan approaches to school and housing desegregation.

Brexit for Historians

On Friday, September 9 in the Columbia University history department, British historians Susan Pedersen and Sam Wetherell led a conversation about Britain’s referendum to leave the European Union. Intended as what Wetherell referred to as an “air-clearing” for historians who still had thoughts from the summer to process, the event was attended by a range of scholars in different fields. About half the room had some connection to Britain, either through nationality or research field, but others spoke from their perspective as continental Europeans or Europeanists, as political scientists, or from other perspectives. After a brief introduction from Pedersen to the history of Britain’s relationship to the EU and the 1975 referendum on Britain’s membership in the EEC, and a recap from Wetherell of events since June 23, the discussion ranged widely. Jake Purcell and Emily Rutherford felt that they had no choice but to take stock of things for the blog, and a conversation between them follows.

ER: I was looking back over my notes from the conversation, and I was surprised to realize that Susan kicked the whole thing off with some serious national British history to give some political-historical context for this summer’s referendum, because the conversation so quickly veered away from that approach! By the end, participants had raised so many questions about whether historians might best understand Brexit from a historical perspective, from a national British as opposed to a European perspective, and what kinds of lenses on British history (class? race? empire? culture? economics? politics?) might be appropriate to bring to bear. An ancient historian made the most eloquent defense of Leave voters I’ve heard thus far, and in the process invoked ancient notions of Europe and their modern reception. And of course, you’re a medievalist!

I’m a modern British historian who spent the whole summer in the UK, and who understood Brexit to be “really” about this sovereignty question that came up in the discussion, and about issues of national politics, economics, culture, the welfare state, etc. So far, given that markets seem to have stabilized for the time being, the fallout mostly seems to have taken place in the context of the parliamentary system and the national political culture that surrounds it. So I was really struck that this wasn’t actually the focus of Friday’s discussion. What did you think about how this group’s identities as historians factored into the fact that we were having this conversation? Other people present made claims for what an ancient historian or an early modernist could bring to the understanding of this political issue, but what do you think about that from your perspective as someone who isn’t a modern British historian?

JP: I’ll probably circle back to the non-British, non-modernist thing later, but two elements of the discussion struck me as particularly historianly. The first was Sam’s rather plaintive insistence that we were all there to try to get a handle on “what had happened,” and the second was Susan’s rather dense introduction to campaigns for and against British participation in a European economic system throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s. In addition to removing some of the mysticism of the Brexit vote by giving it a clear context, Susan’s comments demonstrated that there were no particularly stances that different parties had to take, or lines of argument that necessarily fell to for or against. The idea that Labour had, in previous votes, been opposed to participating in EEC because it was a vote for capitalism, or that a relatively higher portion of, for example, young people voted to leave in 1975. Contingency! The discussion immediately became a project not just to figure out what arguments worked or didn’t, but why lines of reasoning were deployed or had resonance at this particular moment.

Like you say, the conversation wove through an extraordinary number of topics (I have five pages of legal pad notes, taken in a desperate attempt to keep the different strands clumped together), but do you think it’s safe to say that there was some consensus? Sam suggested that there were two dominant ways of reading the Brexit vote, one about poverty, austerity, isolationism, and the service economy, the other about a nationalist revolt against a lost idea of Britishness, and that the first of these was insufficient in explanatory power, that they had to be moved together. This assessment seemed to agree with Susan’s conclusion, that this moment we’re in is really a culture-emphasizing backlash against a politics that is only about economics. Which reminds me of another, not very historian-like aspect of the discussion, which was a genuine willingness to predict. What about this topic do you think made us willing to get over that particular aversion? Do you think the analyses that emerged gave us the right tools for that project?

ER: Mmm, I see what you’re saying about how historical reasoning crept into the conversation even when it wasn’t explicitly a conversation about how to historicize. Susan was also working in part from a recent book about Britain’s twentieth-century relationship to Europe, Continental Drift, written by a former US diplomat: so from the outset the conversation was framed as one in which history and other social-scientific methodologies for understanding contemporary politics have to work together. It reminds me of how Queen Mary University London’s Mile End Institute held a forum the morning after the referendum, featuring scholars from disciplines from public policy to law to economics, and also including a historian, Robert Saunders, whose blog has provided some of the most measured analysis of political events as they developed this summer. So I guess historians can predict, particularly if they are also drawing on other methodologies, but I’m not sure that it’s something we are innately qualified to do—particularly if we don’t work with the kind of numbers that allow a scholar to project trends in changing demographics, polling data, etc.

As to cultural versus economic arguments: it strikes me that the most interesting things the audience contributed to the discussion were cultural. I was particularly convinced by a few different speakers: one who discussed the internal workings of politics and whether it’s a “game”; another who carefully described a notion of national sovereignty (“take back control”) that can bridge class divides and appeal to people from very different groups for different reasons; and a third who asked about the working-out of loss of empire. I am not sure if all those things amount to one consensus, but they do certainly amount to one emphasis. But maybe that’s because I’m a historian of modern British elite institutions and culture myself! When I lived in Britain I became very susceptible to seeing the origins of the culture of the elite institutions that I was inhabiting in the late nineteenth century that I study; and to slipping back and forth between how a phenomenon like male homosociality worked in the late-nineteenth-century context and in the present day, the one illuminating the other. I still think some of that is true, though I’m not sure it’s the most responsible methodology when it comes to writing history. But maybe that tendency to collapse time, simultaneously inhabiting a mental universe bounded by your research and the normal outside world, is a cast of mind that historians can offer discussions like this one. I started studying Britain shortly after the 2010 general election which returned the Conservatives to power, and since then my research has helped me to understand, and to explain to other Americans, issues from the government’s education policy, to why Guardian headlines are so often ridiculous, to how Boris Johnson is the culmination of 300 years of history of elite education and its relationship to the British state (my current obsession).

But I remain struck by how so many people at the event kept pulling us out of the narrowly British, or even English, context: invoking the view from Germany, Spain, Italy, Greece, America, or from a time before Great Britain. Brexit seems so irrevocably British to me, entwined with the specific context Susan and Sam began with and (I would argue) with a slightly more distant British past that accounts for those cultural phenomena and their effects on voter behavior. But is it possible that modern British history is actually the wrong framework through which to view what seems to me a peculiarly modern British event? Is there anything particularly British about Brexit at all? (This NYRB piece which links Brexit to the upcoming US election seems to think not.) Is it chauvinist to argue that there is? Why, as so many commenters pointed out, should we care about Britain at all?

JP: Yes, you’re right that it was more an agreement about what elements were critical as opposed to what the exact configuration was. Though, who knows if that’s just because of a propensity for institutional and cultural explanations among the people in that room! I like the idea that having a second frame of reference constantly in mind is part of the historian’s contribution; something like built-in “perspective.”

Trying to get out of the British-centric focus was definitely a theme! I think several people in the room would agree that “wrong” is exactly the word for using modern British history as the sole framework, not in sense of “incorrect,” but in the sense of “not quite ethical.” There seemed to be real frustrations that neither campaign discussed the effect that leaving might have on the EU, and the Remain campaign’s lack of critique somehow seemed to tie it even more closely to an all-powerful austerity bloc, at least from the perspective of some people in Southern Europe. Aside from that, even Susan did not quite think that historical context provided all of the answers. When someone asked about old colonial tensions playing out in the Irish vote, Susan pushed back against the specter of “Little England” as an explanatory element, instead pointing to demographic shifts and the massive expansion of higher education. At the same time, it doesn’t seem particularly satisfying to pretend that all populism is the same, or achieves power in the same way, especially if one of the participants whom you mentioned is right and the political game happens at the institutional level, rather than at the national or European level. For all the recent interest in transnational history, it is odd to me that we never quite developed a rhetoric for talking about what similarities in, for example, anti-immigrant politics might mean. (In addition to immigration, I can’t help but feel that the caricature of Brussels as a tiny, antidemocratic bureaucracy controlling the lives of European citizens from its paperwork-lined halls corresponds to a repudiation of Administrative Law in some corners in the U.S.)

I also think that maybe there was a scale problem in the conversation. Yes, you’re probably right that modern British history is exactly the lens that will allow us to explain in important ways the mechanics of the Brexit campaign and vote, in part because British politics has a particular flavor, but the significance—why we ought to care about Britain at all—resides in part at the level of Europe. The Council for European Studies’ major conference this year is on the themes of “sustainability and transformation,” and Brexit is a key component; it is clearly understood to have transformative potential, whatever the current calm. We need lots of national and transnational histories, not just British ones, to figure out what the impact might be.

I find myself returning again and again to the lone, brave, self-professed Leave voter. He suggested that one might support Leave because the EU immigration system disadvantages people particularly from Europe or Africa, and that the idea of a bounded “Europe” remained too closely related to constructions of race and scientific racism for his comfort. I honestly cannot say whether or not this is true, but I’m way more interested in the fact that these lines of reasoning are exactly the same criticisms that usually get leveled against nationalism and the nineteenth-century construction of the state. Maybe historians (especially premodernists, I think) can help to de-naturalize the presence of particular institutions or relationships between ideologies and political positions.

ER: I can’t argue with that!

Reflection without Retreat: Brooke Palmieri interviews Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft on “Thinking in Public” and the role intellectuals play in politics.

Interview conducted by contributing editor Brooke Palmieri

The longer you stare at the words “public intellectual” the harder they are to decipher. They imply the application of thought to everyday life, they imply that the “intellectual” has something of value to give to a public.” But they are also so grand as to push their own ambitions into the realm of pure fantasy: who counts as an intellectual,” and how are they supposedly improving a public” with their opinions? At least, difficulty grappling with the gap between what a public intellectual is and ought to be is a symptom of reading Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft’s new book, Thinking in Public: Strauss, Levinas, Arendt (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016).

Wurgaft shows just how young the word “intellectual” is— it arises as a description of a type of person in France during the Dreyfus Affair — yet it is powerful enough to influence our evaluation, and exaltation, of thinkers long dead and into the present. Wurgaft considers Strauss, Levinas, and Arendt’s relationship to the practice of philosophy in the wake of the Dreyfus Affair, and their studies under Martin Heidegger. But in covering “the intellectual question” at the heart of their works, Thinking in Public is as much about how we write intellectual history as it is about how we might live as intellectual historians. He urges us not to take for granted the value, nor the authority, of “intellectuals”. Instead, the tension between theory and practice, philosophy and politics, must be constantly re-evaluated, and while Wurgaft shows how that process of re-evaluation is the premier question in the writings of Strauss, Levinas, and Arendt alike, Thinking in Public also reads as a provocation to scholars today, creating space to reflect on the value of public engagement in a world where ignoring it is no longer possible.

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Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft, author of Thinking in Public: Strauss, Arendt, Levinas (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016)

JHI: I don’t think you could bring the level of energy and thoroughness to “the intellectual question” that you do if there weren’t some personal ghosts haunting you on the subject of intellectual accountability. How did the topic of Thinking in Public come about? What is your investment in the subject?

BAW: Although I think of it as a traditional work of intellectual history, moving between close readings of texts, contextualization, and interpretation, Thinking in Public is also a counterintuitive book. Where many books about the figure of “the intellectual” advocate for the importance of such persons, or provide a theoretical account of their social or political role, Thinking in Public examines the meaning of discourse about “intellectuals,” especially for a generation of European Jewish thinkers for whom such figures had a particular resonance. Ever since it appeared during the Dreyfus Affair, the figure of “the intellectual” has served as a screen onto which we project our longings, including longings for the life of the mind to influence the political world. Thinking in Public is a book about how Leo Strauss, Emmanuel Levinas and Hannah Arendt understood the connections and gulfs between philosophy and politics, and it’s the first full-length comparative study of these three thinkers.

Screen Shot 2016-06-26 at 20.47.45More personally, Thinking in Public is my first book-length work in intellectual history. Thus it’s the book of a writer trying to synthesize and respond to years of education, and to express a set of mature new thoughts. And of course I’m trying to deal with the conceptual errors of my younger self! I arrived at Berkeley to study intellectual history and modern Jewish thought, thinking of writing on the French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995), on whom I had written an undergraduate thesis at Swarthmore, with the wonderful guidance of Nathaniel Deutsch. At Berkeley, under the mentorship of Martin Jay, I emerged as a scholar of modern European intellectual history more primarily, but many of questions remained from my earlier work on Levinas, and my studies in modern Jewish history with John Efron. I started off wanting to write about efforts to “correct” philosophy in the wake of the Holocaust, which is certainly one way to summarize Levinas’s mature project, but I grew skeptical about Levinas on several levels. For one, his idea of “ethics as first philosophy” began to seem weak to me, and then there was his seeming elision between philosophy and politics – between the ideas of “totality” and “totalitarianism,” you might say. I reached for Arendt and Strauss because, like Levinas, they had studied with Martin Heidegger in their twenties, and, also like Levinas, they made either direct or indirect claims about the way the life of the mind was implicated in the political disasters of the twentieth century. I discovered that the figure of “the intellectual” served all three as a means by which to describe the relationship between philosophy and politics. And the impulse to describe that relationship stemmed not only from political crisis, but also from a sense that philosophy had somehow gone astray. The idea of comparing their views on intellectuals, on the predicaments of modern Jewish identity and history, and on the philosophy-politics dyad, flowed from there fairly naturally.

As your question anticipates, Thinking in Public reflects the quirks of its author, in particular my love of puzzles, paradoxes and contradictions in the life of the mind. Because that’s precisely what the figure of “the intellectual” presents us with. Allowing myself to backtrack for a moment, one of the reasons I practice intellectual history is because I want to understand the way ideas change over time, and to understand the reasons for those changes. Often the ideas in question are crafted by philosophers or social theorists, but here “ideas” could refer to the conceptual infrastructure that guides and supports intellectual life, and the idea of a social type called “intellectuals” or, in the Anglophone world, “public intellectuals,” is one part of that infrastructure, just as institutions such as journals, magazines, and academic departments are practical forms of infrastructure. But some concepts produce more confusion than others, and discussions of “intellectuals” or “public intellectuals” strike me as quite complex and messy, and in a way that apparently attracted me.

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Leo Strauss (1899-1973)

I didn’t want to write a book about intellectuals that would celebrate the social role of such persons, try to map their development historically, or tie a basically functionalist account of intellectuals to a basically functionalist account of public political life. Many such books already exist, and it seems to me that their real function is one of ideological contestation rather than scholarship—praising heroes or damning villains, depending on the politics of the author. I wanted to understand how a series of crises, ranging from the apparent weakness of liberal democracy in the Interwar years all the way through the rise of totalitarian governments through a growing awareness of the Holocaust, made philosophers and political theorists reconsider what it meant to practice their crafts, and even reconsider the substance of intellectual life itself.

JHI: There’s a lot to disentangle about the idea of an “intellectual.” In the book it emerges as a noun that is incredibly relational—giving a name and a location to clashes between philosophy and politics above all, but from there between the private and the public, the individual and society. You show how Arendt, Levinas, and Strauss alike think that philosophy and politics are “basically incompatible” on the one hand, but on the other, that incompatibility doesn’t stop them (especially Arendt) from embodying the role in certain circumstances. What do you think causes them to suspend their logic for the sake of action?

BAW: The book has two parts: in the first, I examine Strauss, Levinas and Arendt’s intellectual biographies with a special focus on their discussions of “intellectuals” and their shifting understandings of how philosophy relates to politics. Those are two very different issues, but sometimes complaints about “intellectuals” become surrogates for complaints about the fate of philosophy on the contemporary European scene – or the American one, because both Arendt and Strauss take refuge in the U.S. and ultimately take citizenship. In the second part, I compare their views, and also explore the senses in which their views were influenced by their varied receptions of modern Jewish history. So, on the one hand the book contributes to ongoing conversations about intellectuals, and on the other it’s definitely part of the sub-genres of books on German Jewish thought and on the wave of intellectual émigrés who reached America in the middle of the twentieth century. But I don’t want to appear to believe that there’s a “core” to Arendt, Levinas or Strauss. Intellectual historians may inevitably engage in synopsis and paraphrase as we conduct our work, but I think we need to be careful to show that a thinker’s views do change over time, and that most writers display the all-too-human feature of inconsistency.

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Hannah Arendt (1906-1975)

As you say, Hannah Arendt certainlydisplays some of the features we commonly associate with the “intellectual” or “public intellectual,” writing on everything from the rise of totalitarianism to the aftermath of the Holocaust to the Pentagon Papers. But what’s really interesting is that Arendt’s greatest apparent failures to understand her audiences, the times when she genuinely offended the sensibilities of people whose agreement she might have sought, occur in cases when she most badly wants to maintain her right to judge by the most stringent standards of detachment – you might say that these are cases in which she refuses to suspend her logic for the sake of action. And I don’t think she ever saw herself as abandoning her sense of the tension between philosophy and politics, when she wrote for wide audiences; after all, the philosophically-trained Arendt disavowed the identity of “philosopher” in her maturity. She seems to have thought that the sheer importance of the public events she wrote about, demanded the full severity of her method. She was no rhetorician, trying to craft her work to persuade her audience. Instead she invited them to think with her. I suppose this is one reason she’s been criticized as an elitist, but I find her insistence on principles very admirable.

But this leads me to one central theme in Thinking in Public: publicness and the figure of the intellectual don’t produce simple antipathy and rejection, for Arendt, Strauss and Levinas. There’s a real ambivalence, a push and pull. Even Leo Strauss, who took the idea of a philosophy-politics incompatibility further than either Arendt or Levinas, felt that he had to respond to the predicaments presented by publicness in the twentieth century; he just chose to do so as a scholar rather than as a writer for popular audiences. Incidentally, Thinking in Public’s main provocation may be to enthusiastic readers of Arendt and Strauss, because I argue that they shared a view of the incompatibility of the vita contemplativa and the vita activa (to use Arendt’s terms) usually attributed to Strauss; their real difference is that Strauss found a basically non-worldly version of philosophy worthy of endorsement, and Arendt did not.

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Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995)

But, along with Levinas, Arendt and Strauss understood that in the twentieth century publicness becomes a kind of unavoidable condition, in Heidegger’s terms something into which we find ourselves “thrown.” What I find especially suggestive is that all three thinkers find ways, ranging from Levinas’s “ethics as first philosophy” to Strauss’s picture of the philosopher in the city to Arendt’s late meditations on internal dialogue, to understand how certain kinds of interpersonal encounter are there at the very beginning, coeval with the practice of philosophy and in some cases prior to it. Philosophy may not be a sociable practice, but for all three it is always conditioned by the possibility of interpersonal encounter. Indeed, Strauss thought that political philosophy was developed in order to protect philosophy proper from the chaos and danger to which the political life of the city was vulnerable.

JHI: I realize you’re not trying to argue for the social importance of intellectuals. But, since you wrote Thinking in Public at a time when the humanities are under attack and regularly dismissed, do you think there’s a need to do more than retreat from public life? Wouldn’t that be a form of abjection? It might even mean abandoning the premise that the humanities improve us – and improve the publics through which they circulate.

BAW: I’m really glad you brought this up. I’m not suggesting retreat, I’m trying to describe some of the complexities of the inevitably public life of the mind. In the early twenty-first century attacks on the humanities occur, ironically enough, at a moment when the Internet makes our intellectual lives increasingly public, whether this is through magazines like the Los Angeles Review of Books (for which I often write, these days), or through the circulation of lectures via YouTube, or through all the other forms of intellectual life that make sophisticated scholarship available beyond the colleges and universities. We obviously have to fight to defend the humanities and social sciences within our educational institutions, and this entails public speech. But what kind? What sort of authority or legitimacy do we wish to claim for the humanities, and to which arguments about their power to improve us, via education, do we want to commit ourselves? That’s the kind of conversation Thinking in Public might point towards. After all, Arendt and Strauss both placed special stress on the civic importance of education, and Levinas spent much of his career as a school administrator.

JHI: Wittgenstein’s concept of “family affinities” is a lovely methodological alternative that you draw from to justify the selection of Arendt, Levinas and Strauss. Who do you have family affinities with?

BAW: You have me feeling even more self-conscious than usual! Bluntly put, “family resemblance,” Wittgenstein’s concept, may appeal to me because I have an anthropologist’s appreciation of the subfield of European intellectual history as a kinship network. That network has been shaped not only by the bonds (and the squabbles) between students and teachers, but by all kinds of other ties as well. It would be very funny to try to construct a kinship chart for the subfield, and maybe I will someday. I’m obviously Martin Jay’s student, and while he doesn’t try to shape his students into a “school” I was certainly influenced by the “paraphrastic” or “synoptic” style of intellectual history associated with him – see, for example, his wonderful essay “Two Cheers for Paraphrase: The Confessions of an Synoptic Intellectual Historian.” And I’ve been the beneficiary of a supportive network of his former students, who were becoming established in the field just as I was working on my doctorate.

But “resemblance” conjures more than direct relation, and your question reminds me of my debts outside my own field. This is a point that has been widely appreciated by others, but I’ve long thought most intellectual historians have an elective affinity for the figures they write about. Thus someone writing about economists or art historians or modernization theorists or phenomenologists needs not just technical vocabulary and inside knowledge of these fields, but also a sympathy for their subjects, even to the point of wishing, on some level, to be one of them. When I write about the history of philosophy it’s partly out of my conviction that philosophical questions and propositions are best understood in light of their times, and in light of the prejudices, fortunes and cultural surround of those who posed them. But it’s also because I want to try to pose those questions and propositions anew. My own short list of influences beyond intellectual history, people whose works influenced me greatly, would include Judith Butler (whom I was lucky to work with at Berkeley), Stanley Cavell, James Clifford, Stefan Helmreich (I’ve benefited from his guidance at MIT), and Steven Shapin.

JHI: What is your next project and do you see it relating to Thinking in Public?

BAW: My next or, I suppose, current project is about biotechnology and the future of food, but it’s also a work of intellectual history with a few connecting threads back to Thinking in Public. As I completed the dissertation out of which Thinking in Public eventually grew, I was intrigued by Arendt and Strauss’s shared antipathy towards the idea of progress, especially progress made possible by technology; in the Prologue to The Human Condition, which was published in 1958, Arendt is especially upset about dreams of transforming the human condition by, variously, leaving the Earth for a life on other worlds, or of modifying our own biology in order to transcend such fetters as the human lifespan. Such doubts about the idea of “progress” certainly aren’t unique to Arendt and they bear at least some comparison to criticisms of the idea of progress made by her co-generationists in the Frankfurt School. Both the idea of progress and its critique were striking for me as a graduate student in the Bay Area, which was ground zero for techno-utopianism as I was finishing my doctorate. I became interested in the history of science and technology, but graduate school didn’t afford much time for them.

But it was my good luck that, in 2013, after my first postdoctoral fellowship at the New School had ended, I received a grant from the National Science Foundation, intended for post-Ph.D. scholars who want to add the history and anthropology of science, or other science studies fields, to their areas of competency. The grant funded a second postdoctoral fellowship, in Anthropology at MIT, and it was an incredible gift to have those additional years of study. My new book project, drawing on several years of ethnographic work conducted during that fellowship, focused on precisely the ideas of progress that Arendt once criticized. I’m writing about contemporary efforts to grow meat in laboratories via cell culture techniques, an effort designed to fix the massive problems in our system of animal agriculture and meat production. The resulting book will weave together the anthropology and history of science, intellectual history and food studies, and I hope to make some contributions to the history of the future of food, as well as to the history of the philosophy of life – Arendt’s friend Hans Jonas will be a major figure for me in this book, as will Hans Blumenberg, for whom the categories of the “organism” and “the artifact,” and the tension between them, determine much about modern intellectual history. But if Thinking in Public is a traditional work of European intellectual history, I’m now interested in writing something that feels genuinely new in both method and content.

Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft lives in Oakland, and is a visiting researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he writes about laboratory-grown meat and the futures of food. A native of Cambridge, Massachusetts, he studied at Swarthmore College and did his graduate work in European intellectual history at Berkeley. In addition to his scholarly work, he regularly writes on contemporary food culture.  He is @benwurgaft on Twitter. The editors thank him for very kindly agreeing to be interviewed for the JHI Blog.

Max Weber and Carl Schmitt: Crossroads of Crisis

by guest contributor Pedro T. Magalhães

Ideas have unintended consequences. Max Weber, the founding father of German sociology, must have been keenly aware of this. In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904/05), he put forward the bold thesis that Protestant asceticism had unintentionally provided the spiritual conditions for the rise of modern capitalism. Ironically, one of Weber’s own political ideas—the notion of a plebiscitary leadership democracy, which he developed in the aftermath of World War I—would also end up being interpreted as having inadvertently paved the way to the rise of totalitarian dictatorship in Germany.

The first commentator to suggest that Weber’s vision of democracy had aroused the inclination of moderate, bürgerlich German minds to accept radical, authoritarian solutions to the predicaments of parliamentary democracy was the historian Wolfgang J. Mommsen. Mommsen argued, in the conclusion to his book, that Carl Schmitt’s theory of the plebiscitary legitimacy of the President of the Reich, astutely exploited in the early 1930s against the supposedly shallow legality of Weimar’s parliamentarianism, constituted a valid and coherent extension to Max Weber’s post-WWI demands. Carl Schmitt was a conservative Catholic legal scholar: drawn early to the political philosophies of the European counterrevolution, and flirting with Italian fascism throughout the 1920s before joining the Nazi ranks shortly after Hitler’s rise to power. It was therefore quite controversial when Jürgen Habermas suggested, in his final remarks at a Weber centenary conference (Heidelberg, 1964), that Schmitt was a “legitimate pupil”—perhaps even a “natural son”—of Max Weber’s.

There is, I believe, something more shocking in the assertion that the ideas of a mainstream liberal thinker—even if of a gloomy, late-modern variety—were “logically,” “legitimately,” or “naturally” taken to unanticipated extremes by a radical colleague than in the numerous instances of des extrêmes qui se touchent in the history of political thought (e. g. the “dangerous liaisons” between Carl Schmitt and the neo-Marxist Walter Benjamin). Extremes frequently meet because they oppose the same status quo—even if for utterly different reasons, or because they share methods, ways of thinking, or a fascination with limit cases. The circular movement of opposites that meet is less disquieting than the drift from the center to the fringes, from moderation to radicalism, because the latter entails a reconfiguration of the political space as a whole, a redefinition of the frontiers of what is politically tenable.

As regards the affinity between the political ideas of Weber and Schmitt, some commentators have tried to relativize the whole controversy. Leading Weber scholars (Lawrence A. Scaff, Joachim Radkau) have claimed that Weber’s politics is a particularly unsuitable key for considering the author’s main intellectual concerns. Others still have sought to defend him from the charge of being a forerunner of Weimar political radicalism, arguing that the supposed similarities between Weber’s ideas and those of notorious radicals—particularly the reactionary Schmitt, but also the Marxist György Lukács, who was a protégé of Weber’s in Heidelberg before joining the cause of Leninist revolution—are outweighed by much more significant dissimilarities (Dana Villa). Indeed, one must agree that the notion of a “natural” intellectual paternity is much too rigid. If one looks at the multiple sources of political ideas in each author’s fundamental theoretical positions and personal motivations, crucial differences surely prevail over the more disturbing points of continuity. But these cannot be explained away that easily. They are interesting and revealing in their own right.

Weber was one of the first observers to recognize that the structural change of modern mass politics threatened the basic tenets of nineteenth-century liberal parliamentarianism. Old liberal principles and beliefs seemed helpless to deal with the new political challenges of mass parties and interest groups in an increasingly rationalized world. To this crisis of liberalism he formulated risky answers, which were later developed in a radical, resolutely anti-liberal direction by Carl Schmitt. Retrospectively, this story became tied, as a paradigmatic instance, to the broader narrative of the collapse of mainstream German liberalism, of its ultimately tragic dislocation to the radical right.

Contexts of crisis are marked by a shifting political center—the space of acceptable political solutions and practices—whose standard answers to the challenges of the day have been exhausted. Carl Schmitt’s escalation of Max Weber’s idea of leadership democracy is a fateful example of the fluidity of such critical contexts. After years of relative stability in Western Europe, the ground of the political center has started to shake again, at least since the dawn of the great recession in 2008. In France, a populist right-wing party conquers relevant shares of the vote election after election. In Greece, a coalition of radical leftists and nationalists tries, with little success, to contest the austerity measures imposed upon the country by foreign creditors. More recently, large-scale migration to the continent from Africa and the Middle East seems to have reawakened dormant culturalist fears, as high walls and barbed-wire fences rise again in some European borders. Every answer to the present political quandaries in Europe is inherently risky, since it can help shift the shaky political center in unforeseeable, and possibly undesired, directions. The story of Weber and Schmitt recommends precaution, but it cannot justify immobility. Ideas have unintended consequences, because the future is uncertain.

Pedro T. Magalhães is a graduate student at NOVA University of Lisbon. His article “A Contingent Affinity: Max Weber, Carl Schmitt, and the Challenge of Modern Politics” appears in the April 2016 issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas.