In the fall of 1786, after parting with the woman he loved, a disconsolate Thomas jefferson recorded a dialogue between his head and his heart. When this remarkable dialogue prompted one of my students recently to exclaim of Jefferson, “he was so weird!” I was thrilled. I recalled how Allan Bloom argues in the preface to the second edition of his translation of Plato’s Republic that when students say of philosophy “this is outrageous nonsense,” their passions really become involved with ideas. It is heartening that students could look at the Founder with whom most are somewhat familiar from popular American mythology, and declare him “weird.” I believe I am doing my job best as an intellectual historian and teacher if my students find complexities and problems in the most well-known, sanitized thinkers and texts from the American past, and if they identify with or find urgent relevance in the most obscured, seemingly distant thinkers and texts. Jefferson’ head-heart letter is an incredibly rich source for students, but historians, too, would do well to reexamine this letter and consider the challenges it poses to our traditional categories of reason and emotion, and our traditional understanding of Jefferson as “Enlightenment thinker.”
On The Virtues of Never Knowing Where To Stop, or, The Not-Paranoid-Enough Style in American Politics, or, Bakersfield: Capital of the Twentieth Century (Guest Post by Kurt Newman)
(Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series of weekly guest posts by Kurt Newman.)
Preparing for upcoming exams, I recently had occasion to reexamine Richard Hofstadter’s The Paranoid Style in American Politics and some related secondary sources: David S. Brown’s excellent 2006 Hofstadter biography (which dwells at great length on the question of the “paranoid style”) and Lisa McGirr’s now-classic Suburban Warriors (2001), still the site, I think, of the best contemporary critique of Hofstadter’s notion.
I haven’t always known how to feel about the backlash against the idea of the “paranoid style.” Certainly Hofstadter’s writing on the topic is a kind of vulgar Freudianism. On the other hand, “paranoia” really is present in many scenes of American history, and it sometimes seems that anti-Hofstadter polemics have made it more difficult to understand certain reactionary formations, conspiracy theories, and outbreaks of “ordinary psychosis.”
The end result, in any event, is that “paranoia,” as a historical category, ends up locked away in a cabinet of forbidden analytical tools.
My proposal is this: we should all become a little more “paranoid.” In the process, we should think carefully about whether historiography can really do without the concept of “paranoia.” (more…)
Reading about the death of publishing giant André Schiffrin, the longtime editor in chief at Pantheon Books who also founded the New Press, led me to reflect on the importance of books in my life. Without independent-minded publishers like Schiffrin, who was willing to lose money in order to publish books he deemed important, would I have become an academic? It’s a serious question.
Two of the books Schiffrin published at Pantheon were crucial to my early intellectual development: The Chomsky Reader (1987) and Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman’s Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (1988). These books, and Noam Chomsky in general, taught me how to read texts through a critical lens, and how to recognize the biases of the politically powerful in even the most seemingly of objective expressions. Even though I have since come to different understandings of power and knowledge—even though, for example, I see the merits in Foucault, whom Chomsky famously debated in 1971—Chomsky was my gateway drug to a hermeneutics of suspicion. (more…)
News began circulating online yesterday that Michael Kammen, the Newton C. Farr Professor of American History and Culture (emeritus) at Cornell University, had passed away on November 29, 2013. As of this writing, I can find no obituaries to confirm this report or offer more details. I’ll add links to this post when major obituaries appear. (Updated 12/3: Obituaries are now appearing; links are below the fold- BA)
As most readers of this blog no doubt know, Kammen was one of the major intellectual and cultural historians of his generation, who received the honors that go along with such a career: a Pulitzer Prize in 1973 for People of Paradox; the Francis Parkman Prize and Henry Adams Prize for A Machine That Would Go of Itself (1986); the Presidency of the OAH (1995-1996); and the AHA’s Scholarly Achievement Award (2009) for his lifetime of work. Follow me below the fold for some reflections about his work and legacy. (more…)
PBS has recently finished up their miniseries, “Many Rivers: The African Americans.” Hosted by Henry Louis Gates, the miniseries offered an overview of Black American history from the era of slavery and colonization until Barack Obama’s election in 2008. It was an interesting look at a fascinating aspect of American history, and featured plenty of historians both behind the scenes and in front of the camera. With the series wrapping up, however, I find myself asking questions about the present and future of Black American history. This isn’t to say that the series didn’t do a good job. On the contrary, I found it to be both an excellent analysis of Black American history and a showcase of where most of the (popular, at least) scholarship is at this moment. But I do find myself wondering where the field of Black American history can go from here, to paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Today’s guest post is from Michael J. Kramer, it is part of an exchange that Kramer is having with Christopher Shannon over the legacy of Christopher Lasch. Apart from Kramer’s occasional reflections here, he teaches at Northwestern University and maintains an engaging and robust online presence, writing at Culture Rover, The Republic of Rock Blog, and Issues in Digital History.
What is the “common life” and how do we achieve it? What is “tradition” and how do we use it to grapple with present conundrums and concerns? These seem to me to be the stakes of Shannon’s critique of my recent post on Christopher Lasch, a post that served as a preview of a longer article I published in the print edition of The Point magazine this fall. To address Christopher Shannon’s critique demands attention to the intellectual orientation from which I understand him to be approaching Lasch—and from which he comments on my interest in recovering the mid-career work of this impressive but certainly not perfect thinker.
Shannon uses my recent writing on Lasch to retrofit and restate his general position on secular modern liberalism, a stance of rejection and condemnation that he first mapped out in his striking book Conspicuous Criticism (and expanded in A World Made Safe for Differences). This leads him to contest my contention that the mid-career Lasch is worth recovering in comparison to the later Lasch, who I view as retreating from his earlier confrontations with pressing social issues on their own terms. Not entirely, but in crucial ways, Lasch gave up on that mission in exchange for a seemingly more stable conservative vision that was, because of its intensive efforts to locate authentic and fixed roots for the common life, paradoxically a kind of escapist turn. (more…)