Book Review

Embodied Self: The New Causal History, Part I

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.

In her introduction and first chapter, Hunt narrates the demystifications of assumptions in professional historical writing. She recounts that “[h]istory…grew as a discipline in a symbiotic relationship with nationalism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (3).” Specifically, the discipline of history served the purpose of reinforcing national identity by telling a story that aimed to “bind together disparate peoples, whether of different ethnic groups, different classes, or different regions” (3). National histories constructed a common past, a common destiny, for readers. As early as the 1950s, however, social history challenged national history by turning to the study of “groups outside elite circles,” including the “experiences of workers, slaves, indigenous peoples, women, and minorities” (6). Social historians destabilized consensus about the aim of history, for historyintheglobalerainstance pointing out that history has often been “just another form of myth or ideology used to justify bias and inequality” (7).

Some historians, Hunt notes, attempted to patch up the holes that social historians shot through their nationalist narratives. These historians turned to “Marxism, modernization, the Annales school, and in the Unites States especially, identity politics” (13). But, Hunt writes, these approaches to historical writing, like the national histories before them, were based on certain assumptions about the world. Marxism et al. supposed that economic and social relations underpinned “cultural and political expressions” (18). The cultural theories—“poststructuralism, “postmodernism,” “postcolonialism,” and others—that emerged in the 1960s to 1990s challenged this belief, maintaining instead that “culture has its own autonomous logic; language and cultural expressions shape the social world, including the economic and cannot simply be derived from them” (19). While post-World War II theories of history placed economics at the center of history, cultural theorists maintained that “reason, truth, science, the autonomous self, and the distinctiveness of humans was merely a product of language” (19). Joan Scott for example argued that “[a] more radical feminist politics (and more radical feminist history), seems to me to require a more radical epistemology” (37).[i] For Scott, Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault provided the linguistic turns needed for this undertaking.

But like national histories in the 1950s, so go—or, Hunt argues, so went—cultural theories. According to Hunt, for proponents of cultural theories “[i]ndividuals see and respond to the world only through the veil of language or culture.” For them, “the self and its experience have no autonomy; only culture does” (42). Thus, though yielding insights into how “the self, the body, the emotions, and even reason itself are the products of language, discourse, and culture,” cultural theories insist that “there is no meaning, experience, or identity outside of society and culture” (41, 42). Scott exemplified this view (101), writing: “Subjects are constituted discursively and experience is a linguistic event.”[ii] Consequently, Hunt observes, cultural theorists and by extension cultural historians had their own presuppositions of how the self and the world work: both boiled down to language.

And here is where Hunt makes her major intervention: she demystifies the successors of cultural theory. According to Hunt, cultural theories, by assuming the self and society to exclusively be the effects of language, desert causal arguments, leaving an opening for the history of globalization (61). Hunt recounts how, beginning in the 1990s and just after the triumph of cultural theories, historians’ discovery of “globalization” as a category of analysis permitted them to reconsider how individuals and the world became more interconnected and more interdependent. Yet once again, a new trend in historical writing carried assumptions. Although the “globalization paradigm,” Hunt argues, productively “shifts attention to macro-historical (worldwide) and especially macroeconomic trends,” “it ensconces the assumption that economics shapes all other aspects of life.” “[T]he globalization paradigm reinstates the very suppositions that cultural theories had criticized, and thus potentially threatens to wash away the gains of the last decades of cultural history” (59). According to Hunt, “globalization”—the word and concept as it is currently and commonly used—is ideological, a “Trojan horse,” that resurrects old paradigms—above all modernization theory (52). And for Hunt, historians who unreflectively talk globalization talk do not simply reinforce the idea that economics lies at the heart of all cultural and political expressions. Their writings sanction the Western model of the self and society, using it as the yardstick with which to understand how the entire world became and will become interdependent.

Hunt however presses forward rather than return to earlier forms of historical writing. And for her, this means reconsidering what rests beyond the binaries that cultural historians rendered into linguistic events. Hunt stresses that cultural historians’ work, though pioneering, did not address “whatever it is in the self that interacts with, limits, and sometimes chooses between different kinds of social construction” (107). For Hunt, however, “what is inside the black box of the self” (107) is essential; “it” is what straddles, what connects, mind and body, “universalism and difference,” “biology and nature,” “a stable self and a decentered one,” “timeless psychology and chronologically rooted history” (118). And because “it” bridges these binaries, because “it” is what transcends these divisions, the historian who can address “it” can identify historical subjects’ agency and pinpoint the reasons for historical change—precisely the terrain abandoned by cultural historians. According to Hunt, “it” is the embodied self—the self that emotes, has bodily excretions (133), or seeks stimulus (145). This embodied self acts as a hinge between body and mind as well as between individuals and society (110). And as the hinge, the notion of the embodied self can help historians move beyond “troublesome philosophical and historical dichotomies” while at the same time uncover historical differences in the development of selves and of social relations (118). The idea of the embodied self thus grounds historians in the terrain of causal arguments without assuming economics to be at the center of all cultural activity.

For Hunt, historians who focus on changes in the experience of the self thus neither—as cultural theorists did—reduce history to the plane of discursivity nor—as globalization talk currently does—place economics at the heart of all cultural and political expression. Instead, Hunt argues, historicizations of the embodied self can show that emotional energy “helped fuel the spread of capitalism” (149)—the choice to use stimulants in the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe for instance “encouraged the establishment of new social organizations such as coffee-houses, which in turn fostered the proliferation of newspaper and intensified discussion of public issues” (150). And with a “democratic spiral of expanding [embodied] selves and societies… [i]nternal European factors interacted with global ones; individual choices and experiences prompted new social organizations, which in their turn influenced individual choices and experiences” (150) The historicization of the spiral between embodied self and society permits the historian to avoid the pitfalls of much of globalization talk while also speaking to the interdependence and interconnections between Europe and the globe. By causally tracing the transformations of the embodied self, historians may again take a seat at the table alongside social scientists and hard scientists alike.

Gregory Jones-Katz is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His dissertation is an intellectual biography of “The Hermeneutical Mafia,” orJones-Katz Photo Yale School of Deconstruction, and is by extension an institutional, reception, and cultural history of deconstruction in America. His most recent publication is “Constantly Contingent: An Interview with J. Hillis Miller” (Derrida Today 8:1 [2015]: 41-76). Gregory is currently working on an article titled “The (Fe)Male School of Deconstruction: Epistemology and the Politics of Representation in the United States, 1960-1990,” which explores female theorists’ central role in actualizing deconstruction in America.

[i] See Joan Scott, Gender and the Politics of History (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988),

[ii] Quoted in Hunt, 101.  Joan Scott, “The Evidence of Experience,” Critical Inquiry 17:4 (1991): 793.

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  1. I eagerly await part two. But, in the meantime, Hunt’s new proposal of a focus on the “embodied self” feels like either a new humanism, a new realism, or a combination of both. Hmmm… – TL

  2. I am intrigued by Hunt’s effort to revive talk of “causality” in the wake of the new cultural history, a movement she did so much to consolidate. Yet I was disappointed by her remedy in this book: “the embodied self” seems like a rather vague category of historical analysis for linking “self” and “society.” William Sewell’s analysis of these matters in _Logics of History_ is much more compelling to my mind because he focuses on on the intermediary category b/t self and society, namely “social structures.” In Ch. 2, “The Political Unconscious of Social and Cultural History, or Confessions of a Former Quantitative Historian,” Sewell deftly shows how the new cultural history grew within the academy at the same time that neoliberalism gained dominance across the globe; he provides a powerful sociological account (indeed, a causal account) of why this trend in historical methods took off precisely when it did (capitalism effects even the way we work and think in the academy). I’m all for a reconsideration of the important place of causal argument in historical narratives, but I find Sewell a better guide to Hunt in these matters (if less capable of reaching a popular audience). I wish Sewell’s writings on method were as well known among historians as Hunt’s!

    • Thanks for the comment, Patrick. I have unfortunately not read William Sewell’s _Logics of History_, though based on your endorsement, I certainly will. The way I see it, Hunt’s notion of the “embodied self” seeks to incorporate a number of approaches, which I touch on in Part II of my review. Hunt cautions against thinking about all aspects of life as the result of economic shifts. She does in fact mention Sewell’s analysis of the rise of cultural history in her book (39-40). However, she writes that his call for a “renewed attention to socioeconomic structures and processes” advocates “a kind of updated Marxism.” In other words, it once again places economics at the center of analysis. Hunt might argue that Sewell’s approach largely aligns with “globalization talk,” and is not necessarily a way forward.

      It’s a short book, and I believe it does quite a lot of work in its pages. Hunt doesn’t necessarily provide historians with a program, but rather gestures at possibilities. I imagine a reader, who has been reared in the neo-liberal academy, engaging with Hunt’s book and experiencing the revelation that we don’t have to think of all historical processes in economic terms. The book may appear rather modest, but I think it’s quite insightful.

  3. Thanks, Gregory. As I see it, Hunt’s major contribution (as you point out so eloquently above) lies in her critique of the successors to cultural history. “Globalization” simply reinstates the very problems that cultural history was designed to supercede, namely, economic determinism (whether of a Marxist or neoliberal variety).

    So I agree with you that her account is really helpful as a description of the current state of the field, and in identifying one of its blindspots. I find her account of the “embodied self” a less helpful heuristic for moving forward. This is where I think Sewell is more helpful–his social theory is more robust and more dialectically sophisticated than hers. Putting economics as the “base” of all historical analysis is precisely what he does _not_ to. See his final chapter, “Refiguring the ‘social’ in social science: an interpretivist manifesto.” He wants to use the insights of Geertz _without_ losing the key concepts of structuration that most sociologists take for granted. I guess I just feel that Sewell offers a much more rigorous account of where to go from here than she does–his critique inspired me to think harder about how to construct successful historical narratives; hers just left me with a clearer sense of why others were headed in the wrong direction. I like a hearty dollop of constructive historiography with my critical diagnostics!

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