This week was a microcosm of modern African American history. When I wrote this, the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) just opened its doors in Washington, D.C. A testament to years of hard work in getting the museum funded, the NMAAHC has already received considerable media coverage. It is also part of the Smithsonian’s system of museums–more than likely “the last great museum on the (National) Mall.” Intellectual historians will have plenty of time to consider the “civil religious” ramifications of a museum devoted exclusively to the Black experience (although it should not be limited to within the United States). But events to the south and west of Washington, D.C. put into stark relief the continuing irony of African American history.
There’s no better primary source for illuminating the intellectual, cultural, political, and economic life of Philadelphia in the mid-18th century than an issue – any issue — of Ben Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette. It doesn’t much matter which number you pick – there are more telling details about life in that prosperous, bustling, contentious, connected colonial world in one printing of that newspaper than it would be possible to explore, or even to “cover,” in a week’s worth of lectures or course discussions.
For class a couple of weeks ago, I picked a number at random from Franklin’s paper and used that to anchor a discussion that also served as an orientation to the primary source analysis paper my university students will be writing. I had already planned to include excerpts from the May 9, 1754 number (with the famous “Join or Die” cartoon) in my lecture slides for that night. But to introduce the idea of “close reading” a primary source, particularly a newspaper, I wanted to have students discuss a “non-momentous” number – just “a day in the life” of Ben Franklin’s town.
Readers of this blog, especially those with an interest in the history of economic thought, will want to check out friend-of-the-blog Corey Robin’s new piece in Raritan, “Edmund Burke and the Problem of Value.” For the moment, at least, it’s unpaywalled and available online. Corey sees three late writings of Burke – A Letter to a Noble Lord, Letters on a Regicide Peace, and Thoughts on Scarcity – as putting forward a novel, if ambivalent, theory of value that is at odds with Adam Smith’s labor theory of value that dominated late 18th-century political economy. Burke shifts between arguing the market itself determines value and suggesting that capitalists unilaterally determine it, a tension that parallels a broader one in Burke’s thought between a commitment to capitalism and a belief in tradition, order, and hierarchy. Ultimately, Corey suggests, the dissonance between these two aspects of Burke’s understanding of value would only be resolved by economists of the Austrian School a century later.
 Corey tells me that he doesn’t know how long it will stay that way, so you may want to download it now. If you somehow miss it, it’s in Volume 36, Number 1, Summer 2016, pp. 82-106.
Last week, I wrote a little bit about my current relationship to Theory, and found myself stumbling into a term which I thought I had borrowed from the great intellectual historian Peter Novick: “the Epistemic Left.” (more…)
How do you tell a well-known story from a different perspective? Many historians probably ask themselves this question on a somewhat frequent basis. And when they find an answer it might mean that they have a new project on their hands. Ideally, this process would involve a new trove of documents or new ideas about how to interrogate familiar sources. However, what do you do when you have neither option, but know that the perspective you wish to recover is an important one?
Historians of what at the time many regarded as the ‘new social history’ tried to do so by examining quantitative evidence. By applying pressure from the right angles on statistical and other forms of “dry” data they tried to write history ‘from the bottom up.’ Although such scholarship has proven illuminating for the purpose of social history, for intellectual historians such methods can only achieve so much. For at the end of the day intellectual historians must have some form of subjectivity to work with. We need to examine texts written by historical subjects if we wish to do right by them. Otherwise we invite too much speculation—or maybe more speculation is exactly what we require…
More than a few people have noticed that historians tend to write alone. A philosopher friend of mine recently pitched the idea that we write something together somewhere down the line. That sounded like a great idea, but it got me thinking some about the phenomenon of writing alone in an empty house. I mean, we wouldn’t actually write together, right? I generally don’t like writing in my office, so I find myself hauling books now and again from there to home. I don’t want to be interrupted, of course, but there’s something charming about knowing that no one else can see you writing. I sometimes imagine being surveilled while writing alone at home, but the imagining stops once I realize that anyone watching would be pretty disappointed for having peeked in.
There’s a sense of ownership of the space. Between bouts of writing at home, I can do pretty much whatever I want within reason, yet I tend to act as if someone were watching anyway. The work at home has a kind of ethical pull, not dissimilar from that moment early in The Republic when Socrates and his friends talk about Gyges ring, which allows the wearer to be invisible at will. They wonder if a person would be just if others could not see them. Writing always happens for most of us when others can’t see what we’re doing. This is probably why many of us talk about how, when, and where we write. It’s also why I suspect many of us would like to know where our favorite thinkers did their writing. It’s a perfectly acceptable, boring version of voyeurism. I want to imagine what it looked like when they made those words!
This got me to thinking about people in empty houses, say, James Agee’s weird, pretty much erotic obsession with the Gudger house in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, but especially one piece of writing, Henry James’ short story “The Jolly Corner” (1908). James describes a character, Spencer Brydon, who returns, after an extended absence abroad, to his childhood home in New York. He owns the house and has kept it vacant and unfurnished. It’s the story of encountering a self that might have been in an empty house full of memories.