The first section of Carl Becker’s 1932 classic The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers is titled “Climates of Opinion.” In our present, any title with “Climate” in it quivers with a certain adumbration of doom, but Becker’s “climates” have (unsurprisingly) little to do with anthropogenic climate change or the geological/historical category of the Anthropocene. (That link will take you to a great recent essay regarding the disputes about where to begin dating this proposed new stratigraphic era and what kind of politics different starting points will entail.) In actuality, neither “climate” nor “opinion” seem to me to offer a fair indication as to how Becker uses the term, but regardless of its somewhat inapposite handle, it remains an intriguing concept that I wish to play with a little here. (more…)
Lynn Hunt. Writing History in the Global Era (New York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc, 2014) 208 pages.
This is the first of a two part series on the new Lynn Hunt work, Writing History in the Global Era. Part II will go up next Sunday evening.–RJG
Review by Gregory Jones-Katz
In her compact book, Lynn Hunt—esteemed historian of the French Revolution and innovative practitioner of the “new cultural history”—considers how historians have approached their discipline and reflects on the emergence of global history, specifically the use of globalization as an explanatory historical framework. Hunt’s book, not least because of her crisp and engaging prose, has ambitions beyond an introductory text. Her text also hopes to challenge the assumptions behind the discourse of globalization, the discourse that might turn out to be the reigning orthodoxy of the historical profession during the early twenty-first century. She asks: “Is globalization the new theory that will reinvigorate history? Or will it choke off all other possible contenders, leaving in place only the inevitability of modernization of the world on the Western model? (1)” Writing History’s persuasive answers to these timely questions will give pause to historians who are perhaps too comfortable with globalization talk. The text is a compelling ideology-critique, unearthing the presuppositions of many studies of global history in order to uncover the principles with which many of my generation learned to read and write history.
The most recent issue of the Boston Review includes a provocative review essay by Harvard Law Professor Randall Kennedy. In the essay, Kennedy assails what he interprets as a recent historiographic trend that praises the exploits of prominent Black Nationalists Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, and Huey Newton. Kennedy’s reviews of Manning Marable’s Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, Peniel Joseph’s Stokely: A Life, and Joshua Bloom and Waldo Martin’s Black Against Empire¸ all reveal a discomfort with the praise the books offer for these complicated historical figures. For Kennedy, Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, and Huey Newton were nothing more than, at best, misguided young men handed a prominent media stage too early in their lives. At worst, they were Black Nationalists who accomplished little and, in fact, rendered more harm than good to the greater African American freedom struggle.
It (the talking, the telling) seemed (to him, to Quentin) to partake of that logic- and reason-flouting quality of a dream which the sleeper knows must have occurred, stillborn and complete, in a second, yet the very quality upon which it must depend to move the dreamer (verisimilitude) to credulity – horror or pleasure or amazement – depends as completely upon a formal recognition of and acceptance of elapsed and yet-elapsing time as music or a printed tale.
–Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!, Chapter 1
For the past few weeks we have been publishing James Livingston’s essay “What Is Called History at the End of Modernity?” in installments. We published the fourth and final installment of the essay last Saturday. On behalf of the S-USIH community of writers and readers, I want to thank Jim once again for bringing this work to us and letting us publish it here at the blog.
Livingston did not write the essay for serialization; he thought we should publish it all at once, of a piece. The serialization was my idea — and I really had to fight for it, right up to the last installment. In this post I want to explain to our readers why I thought it was best to present the essay as we did, reflect on how the form of publication may have affected the force and flow of the argument as it unfolded, and suggest some ways we might follow up on this initial publication. (more…)
This week, my colleague Bob Lifset and I taught Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed in our Honors colloquium on America in the Seventies. I’ve taught the novel in other contexts in the past, but this is the first time I’ve really thought about it as a Seventies text. Le Guin’s novel was published in 1974 to considerable critical acclaim, unusually so for a science fiction novel at the time. It went on to become on of the few novels to win both the Nebula (1974) and Hugo (1975) awards, the most prestigious prizes in science fiction. Since then it has been extraordinarily influential within its genre. It has also been the object of much critical analysis, especially for a science fiction novel. But relatively little of the work on The Dispossessed seems to concern the context of its publication.
Le Guin’s novel concerns two planets that revolve each other, Urras and Anarres. Each considers the other its moon. Urras, a lush and Earthlike world is divided into a variety of countries and dominated by two powers in a kind of Cold War with each other, the capitalist A-Io and the state-socialist Thu. The much drier and resource poorer Anarres houses a society whose ancestors came from Urras to settle the other planet and put into practice a communitarian anarchist ideology called Odonionism. After settlement, all human travel between the worlds was ended, though freighters come regularly from Urras to trade minerals mined on Anarres for various goods. The novel begins as Shevek, a celebrated Anarresti physicist, becomes the first citizen of his planet to travel back to Urras. In chapters that alternate between two timelines, Le Guin tells the story of Shevek’s trip to Urras as well as the chronologically earlier tale of how Shevek came take his trip. The Dispossessed is essentially a work of utopian literature, though the anarchistic utopia of Anarres is deeply imperfect. An early cover blurb referred to the novel as “an ambiguous utopia,” a phrase which, in more recent editions, has become a subtitle.
The politics of the novel are complicated. Indeed a long collection of essays on The Dispossessed by political theorists of various stripes was published a few years ago. Though the political issues raised by the novel are by no means dated, their particular manifestation reflects the world of the 1970s in many ways. For example, energy scarcity and environmental destruction both play key roles in the novel. But in rereading the book for my colloquium, I was struck by another ’70s connection: an echo of the upcoming American Revolutionary Bicentennial in the world of the novel. (more…)
Over a decade ago, I watched a talk where Joanne Freeman, a historian of early American history, contributed to a panel discussion on Alexander Hamilton and controversy. In her introduction, she described the confused bewilderment of a colleague about her choice of subject – why, he inquired, would you want to study that man? His response, she seems to suggest, was not too unusual – for Hamilton has probably enjoyed the distinction of being the most hated “founding father” of American history. Indeed, although he falls in and out of favor – and whether or not he is smiled upon at any given moment often correlates, it has been noted, to the current trend in the GDP – his enemies, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, have benefitted until recently from a far more illustrious career of providing historians with alter egos and generally being given the benefit of the doubt, sometimes to the point of absurdity.
All of this came to mind recently while I composed lectures on the first party system for a course I am teaching this spring. As I wrote them, I realized I had somewhat forgotten just how much fun it is to teach early American political history – not because the elites who wrote the constitution and then engaged in a no-pulled punches squabble about what they even meant by it were brilliant, or foresighted, or virtuous, but because so much of the time, they were not any of these things at all. Indeed, it is hard to think of any detailed narrative drama of pitched political battle that is quite as much fun to relate as that of the first party system. Everyone was so astounded and concerned about what was happening to the new nation that it brought out, adorably, the worst in everyone.
Of course, when historians tell these stories we tend to pick sides, consciously or not. Personally, I’ve always preferred Hamilton over Jefferson – initially this was because I thought too highly of Hamilton, and now it is because I think more poorly of Jefferson. (With a significant shift in political perspective, even spending so much time talking about these guys feels a little gratuitous; doesn’t obsessing over who had the less elusive republic distract us from the racism and sexism the actual one was built on?) Yet when I think back to my undergraduate days of Hamilton fandom – which, believe me, was a thing – I believe it was partly because Hamilton has had his share of haters through the ages that I was drawn to his persona. For Hamilton is one of those figures which people just love to hate – and hating people, it turns out, seems to serve several useful functions for almost any intellectual community.