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Think Piece

Coming to Agreement: The State of Urban Public Life in American History

By Daniel London

We live, Daniel Rogers tells us, in an Age of Fracture – and judging by the headlines and your Twitter feed, it is easy to agree. Our debates seem to be characterized by an incapacity, and often an unwillingness, to find common ground across economic, cultural, and political lines. We are faced with a classic question of political theory: under what conditions and to what extent can a community defined by deep pluralism agree on the forms, functions, and outcomes of public life? Intellectual historians can open our public sphere to more open-ended deliberations by examining societies faced with similar dilemmas, contextualizing and de-naturalizing our often rigid assumptions about what constitutes our interest and who belongs within the circle of ‘we’. Unfortunately, an overview of extant research into one relevant terrain for such inquiries –the late 19th and early 20th century American city – reveals how much work is needed before such ground can be fruitfully explored for our own purposes.

Why should we look to the turn of the last century for historical insights, when our dilemmas seem so clearly a product of the Post-War era – of the decline of the New Deal order and the rise of conservatism? Books such as The Origins of the Urban Crises and Running Steel, Running America have been invaluable for explaining the racially-riven metropolitan landscapes we have inherited. Intellectual historians have helped us better understand the varied strands which shape so much of contemporary thinking, from Chicago-School economics to Evangelical Christianity to Geertzian anthropology. However, we should not be too quick to exclusively rely upon the recent past for historical insights. A growing number of historians argue that the post-war era was an exceptional period in global history in which economic growth, full employment, redistributive policies, and decreasing inequality went hand in hand. As these conditions fade in our lifetimes, the New Deal (or in the European case, the Social-Democratic consensus) increasingly appears as a mere interruption of a longer Gilded Age. As we return to the conditions of the 1880s, the historiographical value of the late 19th and early 20th centuries begins to change – not as mere preludes to “modern” conditions, but as modernity itself.

This insight applies to the social characteristics of the fin de siècle, as well as its economic dimensions. Many of the issues cities faced in those decades – growing inequality, immigration, multiculturalism –are in many ways more akin to those facing our own urban centers than those of the 1950s or even the 1970s. Concerns over inter-group cooperation and trust in trying economic conditions, so much the focus of contemporary social theorists and cultural critics, are prefigured by the conceptions of self, community, and political economy developed in the works of Jane Addams, Alain Locke, and George Hebert Meade. And the way new forms of communication and reportage influenced how urbanites defined public problems and solutions should be of great interest to those concerned with the effects of the Internet on reinforcing or loosening our prejudices.

It is for all these reasons that understanding and explaining the public life of cities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries holds so much promise for gaining insight around contemporary deliberative challenges. Unfortunately, while the operation and development of the public sphere has been extensively theorized, the state of historical research into this sphere’s urban iterations remains relatively uneven and unsystematic. You can get a sense of this by a quick overview of three major interpretive schools that have addressed this subject, all of which hold vastly different conclusions as to the origins and outcomes of urban deliberations during this time.

Works in the first school argue that major elements of Progressive-era statecraft (at least its most Social-Democratic elements) derived from successful cross-class mobilizations to uncover a ‘common good’ through public-sphere deliberations. Class-bridging dialogues in settlement houses, the socializing effects of newspaper publicity, the efforts by public intellectuals to break down divisions between the academy and the polis, and shared exposure to negative social consequences within the dense confines of the city all helped formerly divided groups uncover and clarify shared problems, interest, and goals. At its best, urban life appears in these works as a fluid sphere in which class, ethnic, and religious identities were overlapping and in flux. John T. Fairfield’s The Public and its Possibilities: Triumphs and Tragedies in the American City and David P. Thelen’s The New Citizenship; Origins of Progressivism in Wisconsin, 1885-1900 embody this perspective.

Another body of scholarship argues that the Progressive era was marked by the kind of fragmentation and divisions that seem to characterize our own time. Phillip Ethington makes this contention in his study of San Francisco politics in the second half of the 19th century. He claims that while antebellum San Franciscan civil society divided along class, ethnic, and racial lines, the Republican norm dominating public sphere deliberations delegitimized political claims made upon these bases. In his reading, the language of populism – of ‘the people’ or even the “common good” more generally – worked against social politics. By the post-war era, however, political entrepreneurs eager to capitalize on growing social divisions within the polity began to appeal more directly to different segments of the polity on the basis of group identity. Under this emergent pluralist paradigm, political interventions on the basis of group-needs, along with cultural tolerance for ethnic minorities, was justified. However, such a paradigm ensured that the public good was a lowest-common-denominator, zero-sum aggregation of interest groups that left out radical ideas and segments of the population whose demanded them (like labor unions, racial minorities, etc). This pragmatic, consensus-driven school of the American polity dates back, of course, to Richard Hofstadter’s Age of Reform.

A final school believes that deliberations over a shared “public good” during this time were stymied from the outset by the interference of middle-class reformers, whose hegemonic impulses hobbled the kind of fundamental reforms that might otherwise have resulted from such discussions. In the view of David Huyssen and Shelton Stromquist, these reformers preached a vision of social reconciliation that made no allowances for political mobilization based on what we would today call ‘identity politics’ – particularly race and class. However, these reformers ignored how their own actions and beliefs were decisively implicated in the maintenance of racism, inequality and exploitation. They refused to see the world around them in class terms or pursue policies that would more fundamentally alter class power, such as breaking apart monopolies or encouraging union growth. Furthermore, their emphasis on ‘civic virtue’ as a requirement for civic inclusion provided them with ample justification for race and ethnic-based exclusions. Suspicious of a discourse of “common good” or even broad-based populist mobilizations, these authors seem to advocate for a confrontational and partisan political culture.

It should be clear from this overview that these three schools differ on a number of fundamental points. The public sphere is alternatively shaped by bottom-up civil-society interactions, top-down machinations, or middle-out mobilization. The results of these interactions vary from altruistic mobilizations of citizens whose private identities and interests have been sublimated into a transcendent ‘public good,’ pragmatic assemblages of groups motivated around material interests, or a stifling period of bourgeoisie hegemony. Furthermore, contending schools often draw upon similar policy points to make their case! Utility regulation is seen by some as a triumph of popular consensus, others as an example of pluralist compromise. Some see charter reform as a triumph of pluralistic mobilization or civic uplift, others as a class conspiracy to marginalize working-class neighborhoods. Of course, it is quite possible that these three paradigms of inter-group communication were occurring simultaneously within the city. But until a more systematic and comparative lens is applied to the historic public sphere, we will not be able to tease out how and whether different deliberative patterns – pluralist, populist, militant, consensus – led to fundamentally different consequences. And without these insights, our ability to assess our own patterns of political dialogue is hampered.

Where role can intellectual historians play in this revised study of the urban public sphere? Up until now, many works in this vein focus on a Benderian play of ideas in public, tracing the conversations through which the meaning of a concept was transformed over time. This is important work, but I also think a dash of conceptual history directly targeting three constitutive elements of public life itself – communication, commonality, and community – is needed. How were these terms theorized and practiced by different actors in different contexts? How did their meaning and usage correlate with different patterns of self-identification, affiliation, group relations, and mobilizations? And how did these concepts reflect and shape broader dynamics in American social, political and economic life?

The study of the public sphere is too important to remain locked in a zero-sum battle between ideal-type Habermasian rationality and Fraser-esque swarms of militant counter-publics. We need open-ended, systematic, and above all historical insights if we are to learn whether and how, in the words of Craig Calhoun, “public communication can be something different than the mirror of mere power politics, the mere expression of personal experience, or mere reproduction of cultural traditions.” Perhaps this is impossible: but I’d rather hear that from a historian’s monograph than a social-theorist’s manifesto any day.


Featured Image: George Bellows, “New York,” 1911. Courtesy of Wikimedia.

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Think Piece

Woodrow Wilson and the Politics of Race: Notes on an Ongoing Controversy

by guest contributor Georgios Giannakopoulos

The wave of student protests for racial tolerance and university reform in America recently crashed against the name of Woodrow Wilson. The eagerness to address Wilson’s racism prompted a discussion about his political legacy and the history of the university he came to represent. The controversy, enacted through petitions and counter-petitions, took on a symbolic dimension following demands for the renaming of a handful of institutions bearing Wilson’s name in Princeton and elsewhere in the United States.

Although some may argue that the so-called ‘Wilson controversy’ is somewhat disconnected from the very real challenges of people in color in universities today, it merits further attention. The debate brings out hitherto underappreciated connections between race, education, domestic and international politics, for Wilson’s name has come to define a moment in world history.

A handful of commentators have taken upon themselves the task of assessing Wilson’s racism. A New York Times op-ed highlighted the segregationist side of the Wilson administration and argued that, under his tenure, the White House reversed earlier policies of racial tolerance. Forgotten stories about Wilson’s treatment of Black politicians have resurfaced. Others have turned to the links between race and international/imperial politics and have insisted on de-provincializing the discussion. Finally, another thread of the debate revolves around efforts made by scholars to discern between the racial hierarchies underpinning Wilson’s vision of inter/national order and the purported benevolence of ‘Wilsonianism’. This maps onto a broader theme regarding race, liberalism and the empire.

There are three interesting points I wish to raise with respect to the debate. The first connects with the centrality of ‘race’ as an analytic category in the history of twentieth century international politics across the Anglo-American world. One may think of Robert Vitalis’ recent work on the Birth of American International Relations. Vitalis has sought to recover the neglected contribution of racism and imperialism in the the emergence of the discipline of International Relations. Another example is recent work by Duncan Bell on the hefty racial baggage of projects for Anglo-American unity in the turn of the twentieth century. Such works problematize the standard narratives of Wilson’s idealist benevolence, to which many Europeans like myself were exposed in their undergraduate years. In our diplomatic history textbooks in Greece, Wilson was synonymous to national self-determination and was portrayed as the tragic hero of an unfulfilled world order.

Yet Wilson’s fame never quite rose up to Truman’s reputation in Greece, as attested by the fascinating story of the Truman statue in Athens, which over the years have become a symbol of Anti-American sentiment. This brings me to my second point, the contentious politics of institutional memory—be it public artworks and monuments or simply naming practices. As a matter of fact, Larry Wolff recently reminded us of the relation between Wilson’s appeal as a harbinger of a new inter/national order in Eastern Europe and the politics surrounding the practice of lending his name to cities and train stations. From this perspective, the student demand to efface the name of Woodrow Wilson from the institutional memory of the university is not new. Although commentators have rightly raised suspicions about the validity and effectiveness of such claims, the fact remains that they bring about broader questions on the politics of institutional memory.

How are institutions of learning to deal with the racist baggage of their founding fathers? Moving across continents, similar concerns have recently been raised against the imprint of Cecil Rhodes’ figure in contemporary South Africa. A few months ago, Cape Town University students succeeded in removing a statue of his located prominently in the campus, while other students staged protests in Rhodes’ intellectual home, the University of Oxford. The more one reads about the #Rhodesmustfall protest movement, the more one is convinced that institutions of higher learning have a lot to do to facilitate critical reflection on their own history. Moreover, the eventual withdrawal of Rhodes’ statue from the campus brings in another dimension in the debate. Does it suffice to argue that such a move ought to be complemented with the erection of theme parks along the lines of similar developments in post-communist Europe? Although in Cape Town it might make sense to imagine a statue park of disgraced segregationists and white supremacists, many would argue that such a move would be unimaginable in the United States.

Such events—in contexts as diverse as Cape Town and Princeton—beg the question of how do we make space for polyphony and critical thinking without silencing voices or conveniently effacing aspects of embarrassing and politically charged histories? Here cultural and intellectual historians have a role to play. And this role exceeds the customary emphasis on Wilson’s culpability or the degree of his racism. In seeking ways to deal with this, I propose we turn to the field of contemporary art and, more specifically, to the so-called movement of institutional critique, as a means to make institutions, such as the modern university more responsive to the challenges of critiquing their own foundations.

Still from a video of UCT students covering the Cecil J. Rhodes statue (YouTube)

The striking image of Cecil Rhode’s statue, covered in cloth, awaiting to be deported to another safer location, brought to my mind one of Hans Haacke’s widely discussed installations. The German-born artist is well known for his public artworks and his provocative attitude towards the the institutions which commission and facilitate his work.

Hans Haacke, "Und ihr habt doch gesiegt" (Et pourtant, vous étiez les vainqueurs), 1988, Graz, Autriche, via imagesanalyses.univ-paris1.fr
Hans Haacke, Und ihr habt doch gesiegt (1988, Graz, Austria; via imagesanalyses.univ-paris1.fr)

On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Anschluss, Haacke joined sixteen artists from eight countries invited to produce public artworks on the theme of ‘Guilt and Innocence in Art’, with reference to Hitler’s annexation of Austria in 1938. Haacke ventured to reconstruct a Nazi obelisk covering one of Graz’s older monuments, the “Mariensäule”. The ‘Column of the Virgin Mary’ was erected in the late seventeenth century to commemorate victory over the Turks. In 1938, the Nazis encased the column in an enormous obelisk, draped in red fabric, bearing the inscription Und Ihr Habt Doch Gesiegt (‘And You Were Victorious after All’). Haacke’s reconstruction added one crucial feature: an epigraph around the base of the obelisk listing the victims of Nazi aggression in Graz. The ambivalence of the inscription fuelled a heated debate in the public arena. A few days before the end of the festival, the reconstruction, which now stood in the square as an art piece, was firebombed causing sever damages to the engulfed Virgin statue. In the aftermath of the event, local artists and political groups protested against the act of vandalism. The press referred to the ruin of Haacke’s memorial (Manhmal) as a ‘monument of shame’ (Schandmal). Haacke’s intervention surfaced the lurking tensions with regards to thorny matters of historical memory. Crucially, Haacke’s installation was made possible only because a public institution, in this case the cultural foundation linked with the city of Graz, commissioned it.

steirischer herbst 1988 Bezugspunkte 38-88 Hans Haacke, Und ihr habt doch gesiegt
Hans Haacke, Und ihr habt doch gesiegt (steirischer herbst 1988 Bezugspunkte 38-88)

One may wonder, how does Haacke’s work relate to the so-called ‘Wilson controversy’, or even to the Cecil Rhodes incident? This brings me to my third point. There is something in the movement of institutional critique, and in similar artistic practices, that points to creative ways through which an institution can critically engage with its own history. The past, no matter how traumatic, is not to be effaced, neatly forgotten or even deflected. This example says much for the ways in which institutions of learning today, be it Princeton or Cape Town, or even Oxford ought to make space for the critical exploration of their own historical foundations and facilitate, if not actively promote, the uncovering of inconvenient truths.

Georgios Giannakopoulos holds a PhD in History from Queen Mary, University of London. He is Visiting Fellow at the Remarque Institute, NYU. His research revolves around ideas of nationalism, internationalism and the prehistory of area studies, with an emphasis on Anglo-American debates on South/Eastern Europe.

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Think Piece

Haunting History

by contributing editor Brooke Palmieri

Even Thucydides, the celebrated father of historical realism, found it impossible to avoid revising the past in the telling of it. “With reference to the speeches in this history,” he writes in the opening to The History of the Peloponnesian War, “it was in all cases difficult to carry them word for word in one’s memory, so my habit has been to make the speakers say what was in my opinion demanded of them by the various occasions.” Dead men cannot verify the truth of the words put into their mouths. Which makes the past into something of a puppet show. Or at least makes history at its core a discipline shaped by desire, the desires we have to make sense of what has happened.

Some place greater demands upon and have wilder desires for their sources than others. Consider Voices from the Spirit World, composed by Isaac and Amy Post and published in Rochester, New York in 1852, a work which can only be described either as spectral historical revisionism, or social justice fan fiction.

Title page © British Library
Title page © British Library

In it, the ghosts of famous dead people contact the authors, who then translate the “spirit rappings” they receive into a series of letters from the spirit world with advice for the living. “Benjamin Franklin” is the editor, who writes in the preface in typical Ben Franklin fashion that “Spirit life would be tiresome, without employment.” Franklin is also credited with contacting the other luminaries of public life, although Thomas Jefferson complains: “I find more difficulty in arranging my communication than when embodied.” The purpose of these spectral communications is, again, in typical Ben Franklin fashion, improvement. “Let no man claim that he has made great improvements in the arts and sciences, unassisted by spirit friends …. It is our object to spread light in the pathway of those who have been blinded by their education, traditions, and sectarian trammels. We come not to blame any; we present these truths, that man…may realize what he is, and what he is to be; to tell him by what he is surrounded.”

It is an incredibly literal way to enact the basic truth that history does offer precedents that can be built off of in the name of progress. But the aims of Voices from the Spirit World go deeper still: Franklin claims his purpose is that “death will have no terrors” for the living who are aware of the spiritual world. That is the best that the Spiritualist Movement had to offer: it was about facing death without fear, it was about ensuring that those who had died had not done so in vain, that their lives could offer wisdom and guidance in times of difficulty. The table of contents is a mixture of founding fathers, famous thinkers, Quaker leaders (the Posts were Quakers), close personal friends, and anonymous ghosts moved to speak.

Table of Contents © British Library
Table of Contents © British Library

The “sentiments” each spirit leaves behind offer advice on a range of topics; Jefferson discusses political economy, Emmanuel Swedenbourg offers a lecture on magnetism, Voltaire oozes witticisms, Napoleon gives an account of “justice” in the afterlife that reads like a warning out of A Christmas Carol (1843):

From Napoleon Bonaparte © British Library
From Napoleon Bonaparte © British Library

But overwhelmingly the spirits speak with one voice: they denounce war, the slave trade and women’s inequality from cover to cover. In a “Communication from G[eorge] Washington. July 29, 1851” the first president condemns slavery: “I regret the government was formed with such an element in it…I cannot find words to express my abhorrence of this accursed system of slavery.” A communication, surprisingly, from John C. Calhoun admits: “It is very unexpected to me to be called upon by Benjamin Franklin, informing that you desired to hear from me…It seems to me unaccountable that my mind should have been so darkened, so blinded, by selfishness, as to live to spread wrong, while I endeavored to persuade myself I was doing right.” Andrew Jackson publishes an apology for his entire life: “I was wrong in almost everything.”

Andrew Jackson's apology © British Library
Andrew Jackson’s apology © British Library

Coincidentally, Isaac and Amy Post were passionate advocates for abolitionism, pacifism, and feminism throughout their lives. So it comes as no surprise that their dabbling in the spiritualist put spectral communication to work within the social justice movements they held dear, and this is what sets Voices from the Spirit World apart from other forays into spiritualism, which deal more expressly with grief and bereavement. The political nature of the work, the view of the other side offered by the Posts is nothing less than a utopia of ghosts.

There are no controversies, no “Sectarian Trammels” in the spirit world, there is no single religion that is better than others, no class, race, or gender-based inequalities. “It seems to me when spirit laws are understood,” Ben Franklin writes “every one will rejoice to be governed by them; hence the earnest desire that fills my heart to spread light before the earthly traveler.” So in place of a theory of progress that culminates, for Marx writing a few years earlier, in communism, the ghost of Ben Franklin would see the pinnacle of the living as submitting to the authority of the dead.

Yet for all its quirks,Voices from the Spirit World fits firmly within a tradition of Quaker publications dating two hundred years earlier to the 1650s, during the Commonwealth period in England. The origins of the movement were drawn from the revolutionary chaos of the English Civil War, and in common with other sects, the Levellers, Ranters, Diggers, Seekers, Baptists, turned their religious enthusiasm to the task of social reform: Quakers over the years advocated prison reform, education reform, gender equality, and racial equality. Particularly, Quakers in the colony of Pennsylvania committed to the abolition of slavery, with petitions against slaveowners (including other Quakers) being written in 1696, and throughout the 18th century until the movement came to a consensus on abolition around 1753, a story well told by Jeann Soderlund in Quakers and Slavery (1985).

The Posts were both Hicksite Quakers, a schismatic spin-off of the Society of Friends who followed the lead of Elias Hicks (1748 – 1830) in arguing that the ‘Inner Light’ (the presence of divinity in each human being) was a higher authority than Scripture. But this too is a more common fate for Quakers than simplistic histories suggest: controversy and schism was constant from the very beginning of the movement, and the ‘Inner Light’ was always a source of conflict, between Quakers and the government, and later between Quaker leaders and members. As a critic John Brown framed the problem in Quakerism the Pathway to Paganisme (1678): “we have much more advantage in dealing with Papists, than in dealing with these Quakers; for the Papists have but one Pope…But here every Quaker hath a Pope within his brest.” In Voices from the Spirit World, the Posts address this history of confrontation particular to the movement through various of its leaders: George Fox, William Penn, Elias Hicks, making them repent their fixation with schism: “O! What I  lost to myself by my Sectarian trammels!” Hicks exclaims.

Voices from the Spirit World is less about the way in which we are haunted by history than about how relentlessly we might haunt the annals of the past, hunt the dead beyond their graves, draw words from their mouths to make meanings of our own circumstances and support our own causes. As Isaac Post writes in the introduction: “To me the subject of man’s present and future condition is of vast importance.” While the form of the book rests as a real limit case to historical revisionism, in spite of the absurdity there is an earnestness to the Post’s project that makes more rigorous and less utopian historical initiatives fall flat.

A special thanks to bookseller Fuchsia Voremberg of Maggs Bros. Ltd for bringing Voices from the Spirit World to the author’s attention.

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Think Piece

Institutionalized: Between American Political Development and Intellectual History

By Daniel London

Two different kinds of literature sit uneasily next to each other on bookshelves. One group falls under the rubric of American political development (APD) scholarship, an innovative subfield of Political Science. The other books are more generally works of intellectual history and ideas, dedicated to understanding the development, articulation, and life of concepts. Looking to how APD scholars have theorized the role of ideas in their methodology, how can practitioners of both approaches better speak to and inform one another’s research?

Such cross-fertilization saw their last great period of flourishing in the 1950s as historians enlisted theories from both the social sciences and the humanities to explain American politics. Richard Hofstadter exemplified this tendency. Hofstadter conceived of politics neither as a pluralistic constellation of self-contained institutions nor as a terrain of materially-driven social conflicts. Rather, Hofstadter drew from the fields of cultural anthropology, social psychology, and Karl Mannheim’s theories on the sociology of knowledge to posit politics as a sphere of behavior in which culture—broadly defined in terms of ideas, attitudes, and values—determined the content of policies. For example, Hofstadter understood the source of Progressive-era politics as deriving from the collective rationalization of a middle-class aspiring to a particular status, rather than strictly class-based goals.

Ironically, Hofstadter’s formulations helped set the stage for a general reduction of politics to ‘the social’ for a generation of historians. New Left historical work in particular saw state institutions as epiphenomenal to the interests and ideologies of the groups which made them up. In response, during the late 1970s and early 1980s, several political scientists dubbed “Neo-Institutionalists” attempted to rescue political history from historians by devising a more complex and historically-grounded definition of their subject matter. Their efforts led to a seminal 1985 edited volume, Bringing the State Back In, which in turn gave impetus for the establishment of the journal Studies in American Political Development the following year. The rest is…well, you know.

Richard Hofstadter (photo by Bernard Gotfryd, circa 1970)

APD scholarship explains durable shifts in governing authority via a historical-institutionalist lens. Institutions – governmental or nongovernmental –– function as “bundles of rules” that, while constantly evolving and interacting with broader social/cultural processes, nonetheless contain enough stability and authority to shape the behavior, power and policy preferences of political actors both within and without their boundaries. The activities of these institutions are, in turn, constrained and enabled by: a. the simultaneous and intercurrent activities of other institutional actors (even those who might formally comprise a single “political order”, such as a political party); and b. past policies whose consequences continue to shape the political terrain via “path-dependent” processes. Within this complicated environment, occasional openings for shifts in governing authority can open up: the ultimate subject of inquiry for an APD scholar becomes how and why institutional-grounded actors attempt to control these shifts at a given moment, why some succeed and others fail, and what the consequences of these shifts prove.

What attracts me to books influenced by the APD framework – classics include Theda Skocpol’s Protecting Soldiers and Mothers: The Political Origins of Social Policy in the United States and Richard Bensel’s The Political Economy of American Industrialization 1877-1900 – is their ability to ground enormous and significant questions in empirically robust and temporally complex narratives. There are no “black boxes” in these books and few monocausal explanations or unidirectional narratives: rather, they account for political transformation via detailed analysis of the resources, motivations, and interactions of a constellation of political actors while situating them in a dynamic context that, from the very beginning, is shaped by deeply historical constraints and opportunities. The sins we usually associate with political science – a-historical functionalism, game theory, rational choice theory – are not in evidence here.

Where do ideas fit into the APD framework? Let us begin with the six-step ideal-type sequence of how political development actually occurs that political scientist Roger Smith sketched:

  1. Contexts of Human Institutions, Practices, Ideas, Natural Orders
  2. Formation of Ideas, Interests and Goals
  3. Coalition Formation and Competition
  4. Capture of Governing Institutions & Policies
  5. Modification of Contexts
  6. Formation of New Contexts

From a given context, political actors inherit and modify their own sets of ideas, interests, and assumptions about the world. These, in turn, create opportunities and constraints for devising new policies and building new alliances within and across institutions in order to achieve them. The third stage comprises actual attempts by these modified institutions to acquire the resources and positions necessary for implementing their policies – typically through the capture of strategic institutions or the formation of new ones. The fourth stage involves the nitty-gritty of getting policies passed and implemented within these transformed institutions, often involving quite a bit of compromise and horse-trading along the way. The consequences of policy implementation then modifies the contexts we began with, thus repeating the cycle. This ideal-type directionality is complicated by the facts that: a. no single stage constitutes the primal “ground” from which the spiral proceeds; every stage is a product of what has come before and feeds into what comes after; b. what drives activity along this spiral, what the consequences of action along the spiral are, and by what route processes proceed through the spiral are completely open, historical, and empirical questions; and c. the real-time actions of other intercurrent actors are constantly influencing every stage of this cycle.

So, where do ideas exist and function in this particular model of APD? Things seem clearest in Stages 2 and 3, which seems to approximate the domain of the Habermasian “public sphere.” The ideas actors use to justify their interests (and the way they frame them) can determine the kind of coalitions they might expect to form in these stages. Whether ideas have this kind of causal power is not a given, however: the influence of ideas, for an APD scholar, must be demonstrated empirically and in explicit relation to the goals, rules, roles, and problems as defined by different institutionally-bound actors at any given time. Ideas also seem to be active in the policy-negotiation stage of phase four, although their precise role is often complicated by the lack of overlap between the goals and assumptions of different negotiators (even within the same political party). For this reason, it is rarely the case that a piece of legislation ‘reflects’ a single idea. On the other hand, following the development of policy formation can often serve to reveal hidden assumptions that could only emerge in the flux of argument, and which can have unexpected influences on the ultimate shape of policy.

It is only partly true APD scholars interest themselves in ideas to the degree that they serve an explanatory function as a “cause” or “enabling condition” for shifts in authority later on. But if we interpret “ideas” broadly here, as political historian George Thomas suggests, there is enormous room for the kind of deep, textured, and hermeneutic work that characterizes the best of intellectual history. In this broader reading, institutions do not merely serve as carriers and receivers of ideas– ideas constituted them. The legitimacy and authority of an institution depends on certain assumptions on what constitutes a fact, on what the “roles” of certain actors are, on where the boundaries between the private and the public lie. Changes in these intellectual underpinnings can (though not always) destabilize the position of institutions and/or provide the basis for the formation of new ones.

I think intellectual historians and their methodology have the most to contribute to APD scholarship on this point. Traditional concerns of intellectual historians – the way a single concept means different things to different people, the way seemingly unrelated topics interact and blend in the minds of actors, and other concerns of intellectual historians – have great potential bearing on the works of APD scholars, not least because they specify the hidden structures of logic and meaning that determine the kind of policies actors believed were possible and desirable. A nuanced investigation of these structures at stage one and two of Smith’s cycle can create a dramatically different explanatory agenda further down the cycle.

At the same time, I believe that the kinds of concerns and approaches adopted by APD scholars can inform the work of intellectual historians. Most obviously, Smith’s “spiral of politics” provides us with broader contexts in which to trace the origin, development, and influence of ideas. The arena of policy negotiation, the process of coalition formation, the structuring and restructuring of institutions: all these hold enormous potential as “sites” of intellectual history. The APD concepts of “intercurrence” and “path-dependence” might also be translated and operationalized into intellectual-history work, though this will take some trial-and-error. But these are only my initial impressions and suggestions. In what ways do you think intellectual historians and APD scholars can borrow from and assist each other – and where might be sources of tension that might have to be addressed for this to take place?

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Conference Report

Synthesis, Narrative, and Conversation: On Thomas Bender


By 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.

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.

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.


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.


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 Atlantic, focusing on metropolitan space and the urban public sphere as his corpus. Follow him on twitter at @dlondongc, and check out his blog at publicspaced.com.

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

Categories
Think Piece

Lincoln Kirstein, Dance, and Intellectual History

by guest contributor Laura Quinton

Last week, New York University’s Center for Ballet and the Arts hosted a panel, “Dance and the Intellectual: Lincoln Kirstein’s Legacy.” The event featured moderator Leon Wieseltier, former literary editor of the New Republic, along with art critic Jed Perl, former New York City Ballet dancer Toni Bentley, and literary scholar and executor of Kirstein’s literary estate, Nicholas Jenkins.

Lincoln Kerstein in 1932. (NY Times)
Lincoln Kirstein in 1932. (NY Times)

Together, the panelists described a twentieth-century American renaissance man. In addition to co-founding New York City Ballet with the eminent choreographer George Balanchine in 1948, Kirstein (1907-1996) was an early champion of and contributor to the Museum of Modern Art. As an undergraduate at Harvard in 1927, he founded The Hound & Horn, a literary publication that included Gertrude Stein and Walker Evans among its contributors. He was a prolific writer, publishing scrupulous scholarship on dance history and art history, as well as a poet. Wieseltier called Kirstein both “otherworldly” and “this-worldly,” pointing out that concepts Kirstein used to elucidate the differences between ballet and modern dance, “aerial” and “terrestrial,” were equally applicable to this enigmatic and towering figure. Moreover, he emphasized that, while Kirstein strove to encapsulate the metaphysical potential of the arts in his heady writings, this intellectual never ceased being a “man of action.”

Discussing Kirstein’s diverse tastes in the visual arts, Perl similarly noted the difficulties of pinning the impresario down. In addition to supporting mainstream modernists, Kirstein enjoyed “nitpicky realism” and defended artists like Paul Cadmus when the art establishment disavowed them. Although Kirstein often “offended canonical taste,” Perl contended that the breadth of his predilections, which ranged from innovative to reactionary, ultimately reveal “what significant taste is.” Jenkins emphasized Kirstein’s paradoxical character by comparing him to literary figures. He argued that Kirstein simultaneously embodied the “adventurous” characters of Balzac, the “oblique” ones of James, and Fitzgerald’s Gatsby: like Gatsby, Kirstein was “self-creating and self-destroying.”

With the exception of Perl, all of the participants had known Kirstein personally. Bentley shared particularly rich memories of the impresario: she recalled Kirstein’s mighty presence at the School of American Ballet and recounted dinners where he would surprise her with his latest book. Jenkins suggested that – given Kirstein’s relatively recent passing – scholars and friends of this intellectual can only now begin to fully comprehend his outstanding historical significance.

While the speakers did an excellent job explaining the breadth of Kirstein’s expertise and the quirky nuances and ambiguities of his personality, I would have liked to hear more specifically about his involvement with the dance world. More could have been said about Kirstein’s relationship with Balanchine, as well as their diverging artistic visions for City Ballet.

For intellectual historians, Kirstein’s example reveals the stimulating role dance can play in intellectual life. Ballet prompted an outpouring of rigorous historical, critical, and even philosophical writing from Kirstein. The vast historiography of dance that he produced in turn legitimized the project to establish ballet as a national high-art form in twentieth-century America. Kirstein’s efforts to institutionalize ballet in the States also helped to ensure its permanence, offering rare financial security to dancers and choreographers. Moreover, as dance historian Jennifer Homans pointed out during the Q&A, Kirstein’s artistic suggestions were crucial to landmark modernist ballets like Agon (1957).

Kirstein was not the only elite twentieth-century intellectual to engage with ballet. Across the pond, the economist John Maynard Keynes championed the form above all of the other arts. In 1946, as chairman of the Arts Council of Great Britain, he personally engineered the re-opening of the Royal Opera House, which featured the Sadler’s Wells Ballet (later the Royal Ballet) in a new production of The Sleeping Beauty (1890). For Keynes, ballet was “above and beyond language” (Hession, 228), and the Royal Opera House gala was “a landmark in the restoration of English cultural life” that represented “the return of England’s capital to its rightful place in a world of peace” (Moggridge, 705).

Ballet also influenced the work of Keynes’s Bloomsbury friends. According to dance scholar Susan Jones, the early-mid twentieth century witnessed a “reciprocal relationship between modernist aesthetics” in dance and British literature (10). Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes inspired new literary content and formal experimentation by Clive Bell, Lytton Strachey, and Virginia Woolf. Beyond Gordon Square, dance motivated Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot to produce works like “Dance Figure” (1913) and Four Quartets (1943).

Frequently sidelined by intellectual historians, dance was evidently a vital part of elite intellectual life in the twentieth century. Rather than eschewing dance, historians would benefit from considering intellectuals’ complex relationships with this art form: along with expanding the scope of intellectual history, such consideration might yield some surprising discoveries.

Indeed, it was fascinating to see how Wieseltier, Perl, and Jenkins, none of whom are known for their work on dance, were so inspired by and engaged with Kirstein and his dance writings. For the audience, the back-and-forth between Bentley and these thinkers presented a compelling example of how dance and intellectual inquiry continue to intersect today.

Laura Quinton is a PhD candidate in Modern European History at New York University. She researches the history of British ballet.