U.S. Intellectual History Blog

“We Have Talked Our Extinction to Death”: Mark Greif’s Age of the Crisis of Man

crisismanI snagged the title of this post from a Robert Lowell poem, “Fall 1961,” which was published in his collection For the Union Dead. It is the poem that contains the relatively famous and unforgettably eerie, arch-Eliotic sentence, “We are like a lot of wild / spiders crying together, / but without tears.” The punning sentence quoted in the title, however, seems to me to express unaccountably well some of the ambivalence about the “age of the crisis of man” which pervades Mark Greif’s new study, already reviewed here thoroughly and insightfully by Patrick Redding and Daniel Wickberg. Greif’s book is, I think it’s fair to say, well worth this kind of extended coverage on the blog; not only is it clearly an important book historiographically but it is also an exceedingly rich book with which to think. Few first books, I believe, balance the different modes of historical exposition, cultural criticism, and conceptual innovation as well as this book does.

Adding to the complexity of the book is the consistently ambivalent tone it takes to its subject. One of the more interesting of such moments of ambivalence in the book comes early in the introduction. “These intellectuals attempted to wrench the question [‘What is man?’] free of the context of homiletics, invest it with the utmost urgency, and answer it inductively in a single book, sometimes of 300, 600, or 700 pages. Their seriousness was not a hoax” (8, emphasis added), Greif writes, anticipating an accusation few intellectual historians ever consider a likely rejoinder to their project. Greif is striking out not just at the possibility that critics might ask, “So what?” or “Why bother?” but at the potential for a more thoroughgoing skepticism: “Surely you can’t be serious.”

I am not so sure that Greif’s preemption isn’t a form of shadowboxing: it is not clear to me that Greif’s readers are likely to be as skeptical of the value of the “discourse of the crisis of man” as Greif himself is, as uneasy as he is of the low intellectual status of the “twenty-five-cent or fifty-cent reprints [of] worthy and earnest paperbacks that my parents’ generation inherited” which constitute the piebald ranks of titles comprising Greif’s archive (x). Certainly there are few individual thinkers with whom Greif deals who require apology or extenuation: Mumford, Arendt, Marcuse, Niebuhr, Trilling, Bellow, Ellison, Macdonald are far from unconventional figures.

Even as we acknowledge that Greif’s signature contribution—the exhumation of a diagram of discourse reconnecting these conventionally disparate figures—may strike the reader at first as unlikely or as excessively synthetic, can it really be that we will ultimately disbelieve what Greif himself seems to think should become self-evident: that there really was a discourse of the crisis of man, readable from across the room, on the very spines of these yellowing paperbacks? If all Greif really has to do is quote the titles of these books to us to summon an immediately palpable mood of intellectual argument and agitation, why worry so much about potential reader distrust that this mood was in earnest, was “not a hoax?”

I’d like to hazard a theory: the problem is with the titles, and the problem is that “man” is not at the center of the discourse that Greif has so brilliantly disinterred, and perhaps is not even at the center of Greif’s book.

Consider the titles quoted by Greif as exemplary entries in the Preface: The Nature and Destiny of Man, The Condition of Man, “The Root Is Man,” Existentialism is a Humanism, The Human Condition, One-Dimensional Man, The Family of Man, Man the Measure, Modern Man is Obsolete, The Science of Man in the World Crisis, Education for Modern Man, Human Nature and the Human Condition, Who Is Man? along with some of the titles he or others added to the list, such as Man’s Search for Meaning, An Essay on Man, Problems of Men, The Dignity of Man, The City of Man, and The Atom Bomb and the Future of Man. What is interesting to me is that the conventional shape of these titles—with some exceptions—places “Man” so seldom in the nominative. “Man” is almost always either genitive (“Man’s” or “of Man”) or dative (“for Man”); where it is in the nominative, it often appears in the predicate (“‘The Root Is Man,’ Who Is Man?).[1] Even more telling is the fact that the appearance of the non-gendered language of the “Human” appears only when an adjective or an ism is called for, as “man-ism” has never been popular and “manly” has mostly inapposite connotations for this context.

But these, a sharp-eyed reader might protest, are just the non-fiction titles: what about A Good Man Is Hard to Find, The Man without Qualities, The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, Dangling Man, or Invisible Man? Here “man” is definitively the subject, fully in the nominative case.[2] And here I think we find an interesting split which perhaps goes to the heart of what both Redding and Wickberg have pointed out as the unusualness of the structure of Greif’s book: as Wickberg says, “it consists of a center of literary criticism set within a frame of intellectual history.” Wickberg suggests that the literary criticism “appears to be where Greif’s strongest interest lies,” while Redding points out that this unorthodox structure requires that fiction—and the literary criticism which set forth the challenge that Bellow, Ellison, et al. tried to answer—bear not only an analytical load but a sort of causal one as well, serving as the prime vector of this discourse as it was conveyed to a new generation who would eventually repudiate the universalism of “man” for various gendered and racial particularisms.

It’s very possible that I’m making far too much of this rather meager pattern—non-fiction’s “Man” primarily in the genitive or dative; fiction’s “Man” primarily in the nominative. Maybe if we keep adding more titles the pattern will entirely disappear. But I think of the way that “democracy,” for instance, so often has appeared generally in the pattern Democracy and X (e.g., Democracy and Social Ethics, Democracy and Education, Democracy and Distrust, Democracy and Leadership, Democracy and Its Critics). I don’t see a similar pattern of Man and X, at least not among the works which Greif cites.

If this is a pattern, I think it gives some basis for Greif’s characterization of the discourse of the crisis of man as an “empty discourse” and also gives a rationale for why Greif obviously considered the section on fiction so necessary to the structure of the book: fiction is almost the only source for “man” in the nominative, and thus the only hope for filling in, at least partially, the “empty discourse” “of man.”

What I take Greif to mean by an “empty discourse” is precisely that we look for “man” to take the nominative case but consistently find “man” somewhere else: we expect to find “man” as the yolk of this particular egg but we find him scribbled on the shell or maybe spread thinly in the albumen. But is there really no yolk at all?

I would not say so. Instead, I would look to Greif’s own title—The Age of the Crisis of Man—and ask, what if “man” is not the subject of the book but, most centrally, “age” and then “crisis” and only lastly “man?” What if “Man” is simply a sort of—let’s switch up the metaphor—electron cloud: mostly empty space, but the site of collisions, of bonds with other atoms, and of changes in energy: the action most detectable to observers. But the nucleus of the discourse is really the protons and neutrons of “age” and “crisis.”

It is, in short, less the “philosophical” or “fundamental anthropology” of the “discourse of man” that I find to be the unifying impulse among the dense network of texts and intellectuals covered in this book but rather a particular consciousness of temporality, a sort of ultra-historicist consciousness obsessed with pinching Benjamin’s “empty, homogeneous time” into discrete lumps: periods or ages or cycles, conveniently separated by “crises,” of which the figures involved saw their own moment as one.

Has there really been a period as anxious about periodizing as the mid-twentieth century? Has there been an era as supremely confident in not just the heuristic utility but the genuine existence of decades, generations, and centuries as cohesive bundles of events united by a common temper or character? It is that kind of consciousness of the essential uniformity in spirit or mood suffusing a unit of time that makes the title of Lowell’s poem “Fall 1961” comprehensible: the poem exudes the names “Kennedy,” “Cold War,” “Khruschev,” “Castro” and the atmosphere they create.[3] The same effect comes off in Auden’s “September 1, 1939,” with its sloughing off of a “low dishonest decade.”

It is that desire to capture an atmosphere, the temperature of an era or the “climate of opinion” that I want to isolate as something completely characteristic of this midcentury moment. Let us, then, not think of Man the Measure or The Nature and Destiny of Man; let us think of The Brown Decades and American Renaissance, of The Mauve Decade and The End of American Innocence (subtitled “The First Years of Our Own Time”), of The Age of Jackson and Andrew Jackson: Symbol for an Age, of The Age of the Democratic Revolution. Let us think of both Carl Becker and—a holdover of mid-century—the late Peter Gay.

And that is, I think, where a very full discourse can be found at midcentury: not in “man,” but in “mind” or “civilization” or “temper” or “character,” as in “American mind” or “Roman civilization” or “modern temper” or “Victorian character,” all of which were in a strong sense periodizing gestures as much as they were essentializing notions: they were all the equivalents of “The Age of X.”

This post has now gotten very long, but I hope I have introduced some ideas which may prove fruitful for discussion. I urge you to read The Age of the Crisis of Man; I know it’s a book I will continue to think with for a long time.

[1] Obviously, Man the Measure and One-Dimensional Man are the outliers here; The Organization Man, Modern Man Is Obsolete, and Moral Man and Immoral Society are other instances in which “Man” appears both in the nominative and not in the predicate.

[2] An important exception is André Malraux’s La Condition Humaine, translated into English as Man’s Fate.

[3] “Fall 1961” is not, as far as I can tell, a specific reference but rather a sort of intimation of the gathering storm; the Cuban Missile Crisis would break in the next year.

11 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Greif was serious — but don’t call him “Shirley”!

    Seriously, Andy, this is a remarkable work of interpretation — and oh! at the writing.

    My sense is that you are onto something about 1) the anxiety for periodization and 2) the subordination of “man” to the genitive or dative case. That grammatical subordination — technically, it would be a declension (!!!) — may reflect that anxiety about the loss of individual agency within the mass structures of modernity.

    On the anxiety about periodization, my hypothesis would be that World War I may have deeply informed that developing sense of unease, and that the entree into the atomic age would have intensified it. Our secular era has not escaped the terror of apocalypse — an apocalypse that requires no divine intervention. The end of time as the work of man.

    This is a really wonderful path you’ve illuminated here Andy — I hope everybody will wander down it as far as it will take us.

  2. Thanks for another great post Andy. It seems like Patrick, you, and I all mostly agree on the virtues and problems with the Greif book–it’s almost like we all read the same book! Which is only unusual in that the way Greif frames the “emptiness” of the discourse tends to reproduce that emptiness in Greif’s own text, allowing the reader to fill it with his or her own concerns. What you call “good to think with” is, in Greif’s terms, “maieutic”.
    I didn’t get into this in my review, but I think you’re right that a concern with modernist notions of time and period, of historical consciousness, haunts the text. That is, Greif identifies “History” as the second of his fourth categories, but it supersedes the abstract anthropology of Man, by creating abstract stadial forms of history: Ancient, Medieval, Modern (with the question of what is modern?); 18th c. Enlightenment, Victorian Progress, Twentieth-Century Decline. The notion of Man is universal; the idea of crisis relies on history. Maybe the book should be called The Age of the Crisis of the Age of Man? Or The Crisis of the Age of Crisis of Man?

    Anyway, thanks for your post (and Patrick for his review as well); all good to think with.

  3. Andy, as usual, you’ve zeroed in upon something really important here, namely, the undertow of ambivalence that runs throughout this book. I think you (and Dan) are onto something when suggesting that a key to the book lies with the terms “age” and “crisis” rather than just “man.” But I’d like to hazard a different theory–an institutional one–for Greif’s ambivalent and sometimes apologetic tone for his subject matter.

    If I may speak cavalierly for a moment as a representative of the discipline of literary studies (which is Greif’s disciplinary home as well): it may be hard for an audience of historians to grasp the fumes of hip ironic detachment that reliably waft through the corridors of the English department. In many quarters of the literary academy, it is frowned upon to identify too much with writers of great moral seriousness, esp. the existential posture towards art adopted by many of the New Critics or the New York Intellectuals. For many, the writers that Greif studies—Arendt, Trilling, Bellow, Ellison, O’Connor –exist to be critiqued, presented as complicit participants in an dubious ideological and political consensus, not held up as models for how to live a life of the mind, however flawed or compromised we know these figures to be. And here, I suppose, is where I take my stand.

    It frustrates me that a critic of Greif’s high caliber and moral seriousness is so excessively worried about the potential uncoolness—at least from the point of view of the English dept.— of his mid-century subject matter. He’s so worried, in fact, that he repeatedly signals to the reader that he doesn’t identify with this discourse or aim to recuperate it today, that, in truth, he often finds the object of his historical research rather tedious and longwinded. At various points in his book, Greif goes out of his way to describe the books of the crisis of man as “painfully laborious” for readers today (53). These titles are rightly viewed as dispatches from the dustbin of history; these quaint paperbacks deserve to gather mold in our parent’s basements. He has read them so we don’t ever have to.

    Why does Greif show such disdain towards the materials from which his historical archive has been built? I would speculate that his defensiveness and embarrassment towards his subject matter is related to the general presentism that guides research in English departments (despite the fact that many call themselves “historicist”; historians see most of us as “Whiggish”). In such departments, projects of historical retrieval are justified if and only if they can be seen as usefully illuminating a pressing theoretical topic in the present (how Melville anticipates queer theory, or how Mark Twain understands transnationalism, etc.). Greif is deeply anxious to defend himself from being perceived as—quelle horreur!—an old school liberal humanist in the mold of the authors he writes about, someone who takes seriously the idea of philosophical crisis—someone with an existential investment in ideas about literature and morality.

    If you want to catch the flavor of the deflationary English dept. attitude that I’m describing, look no further than the blurb on the back of the book by English professor Mark McGurl, who pronounces the ideas discussed by Greif as “deader than the paper they are printed on,” and goes on to reassure the reader that Greif does give these ideas any “credence.” Grief is to be praised, according to McGurl, for giving us “new tools for understanding our present, when the category of the human has never seemed a less reliable beacon to the making of a better world.” Greif’s history, in short, is directly useful to today’s theoretical struggles, which (McGurl confidently assumes) need tarry no longer over such futile and destructive matters as the nature of the “human.” Anxiety about philosophical anthropology—how utterly passé! We’ve known since Foucault that the end of man has arrived.

    Yet Greif is not nearly so scornful of “the category of the human” as McGurl implies. On p. 316 of the Conclusion, Greif describes “human rights and humanitarianism” and the poststructuralist “critique of the subject” as “equally attractive camps.” To force us to choose between affirming or dismissing “the human” is pure “folly,” says Greif. He sees the wisdom and value in both impulses. Greif’s history carries a far more complex message for the present than McGurl seems to think, though it is a message that Greif himself seems to regard rather ambivalently (as I noted in my review).

    In short, there’s a lot of latent humanism in Greif’s antihumanism. He’s more sympathetic towards the humanist intellectuals in his book than he sometimes lets on. Consider, for example, the chapter sections he writes about Reinhold Niebuhr, Lionel Trilling, Hannah Arendt, and Susan Sontag. It is clear from both the tone and the exposition that Greif finds much to admire in these figures, that their ideas are not “dead” for him but continue to live on as provocations of thought today. It is also clear from external evidence that Greif continues to admire the Partisan Review circle (he teaches a non-fiction class at the New School about American “little magazines”), an enterprise about which he has recently written in the Chronicle of Higher Education (http://chronicle.com/article/Whats-Wrong-With-Public/189921/).

    Why does Greif feel the need to damper down his enthusiasm and sympathy for the philosophical problems facing mid-century intellectuals? Because it is deeply uncool in the literary academy to identify with this posture of moral strenuousness. Here, for example, is Louis Menand on the legacy of Lionel Trilling: “The Liberal Imagination” belongs to the age of (it feels a little funny just typing the words today) heroic criticism . . . [but by the 1960s] the age of heroic criticism was over, and thank God.” http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2008/09/29/regrets-only-2

    I could list other examples of this sarcastic stance (Donald Pease on F.O. Matthiessen, Michael Szalay on Trilling and Howe, or indeed, McGurl on the banality of earlier efforts in “evaluative criticism” in _The Program Era_). Perhaps among intellectual historians it is still true that, as Andy notes, “there are few individual thinkers with whom Greif deals who require apology or extenuation: Mumford, Arendt, Marcuse, Niebuhr, Trilling, Bellow, Ellison, Macdonald are far from unconventional figures.” For Greif’s colleagues in literary studies, though, I’m afraid this observation no longer holds. Other than Ellison, the figures in this list are mostly infrequently taught or read, and to engage with them demands extensive justification. (Why, just last year I attended a talk at Columbia Univ., “What, Ultimately, For? Trilling, Leavis, and the Limits of Cultural Criticism” (http://heymancenter.org/events/what-ultimately-for/) in which historian Stefan Collini was berated by literary critic Mary Poovey for choosing to think with and against such outdated and irrelevant mid-century critics.)

    This is getting gossipy and a bit bitchy, so let me be clear. I know it’s easy and ultimately futile to diss one’s disciplinary colleagues, and I don’t want to contribute to the journalistic sport of trashing the MLA convention or literary theory tout court. And, like Greif, I don’t want to indulge in nostalgia for the style and authority of Trilling and Macdonald any more than for Richard Hofstadter or Perry Miller. But I do dissent from the notion that discussing, or admiring, critics who are out-of-fashion today requires us to treat them with disdain, as slightly comical figures who were engaged in the absurd enterprise of treating literary works as instances of philosophical anthropology. Menand writes in his review that today “Most people don’t use the language of approval and disapproval in their responses to art; they use the language of entertainment.” Insofar as Greif seeks to conceal his attraction to the “language of approval and disapproval,” his book partakes of an unfortunate literary fashion. But I think his heart, and the heart of the book, lie in the other direction. Why else did he do all that research? I encourage readers to return to the Conclusion for some indications of Greif’s seriousness of purpose—his desire to treat literature and theory as more than entertainment.

  4. Wow, what fantastic comments!

    L.D.,
    There can never be too many philological jokes–hooray!
    I will have to do a lot more thinking about the apocalyptic shadow over this anxiety about periodization, but my intuition tells me you are completely on the money. I also want to think more about how to periodize the urge to periodize: I think WWI, as you say, marks an important development, but I’m not sure we can’t push it back further. After all, H. G. Wells’s Time Machine and War of the Worlds go back to the 1890s. And otoh, I do think there’s something distinctive about more or less the period Greif marks out–if not 1933-1973, something around there.

    Dan,
    I completely agree–Greif’s book is itself maieutic, calling for something more than it can reasonably provide. And the tension you’ve identified–between the historicism of crisis and the universalism of man–was precisely what I was trying to identify, although I couldn’t do so as concisely or as clearly. Thanks!

    Patrick,
    You make incredible points here. I read the book without much thought of the other half of Greif’s audience, but you’re completely right: the English department’s tastes and tendencies can very much be felt as pressures on the book.
    I don’t know if you’ve seen this yet, but William Deresiewicz has reviewed Greif’s book, praising him outright as the heir (more or less) of Trilling. Deresiewicz pretty much ignores any of the hedging or insecurity on Greif’s part which has, I think, irritated us, and makes the book into a sort of brief for the serious moral criticism which you describe. I don’t think it’s too insider-baseball to point out that Deresiewicz taught in the Yale English Department for much (all?) of the time that Greif was in Yale’s American Studies program, but left Yale (and academia altogether) and has published a book, Excellent Sheep about how elite colleges fail to educate their students in life.
    At any rate, I don’t see Greif going full Deresiewicz any time soon, but I think you’re absolutely right to point to this quite deep-rooted concern about the relation of the academy and what we could call “serious moral purpose.”

  5. Well, LD has goaded me into gossip, and so show must go on. It turns out that I was at Yale during some of the years that Greif was there, though we never met (I was in English, he in American Studies). And I served as William Deresiewicz’s teaching assistant for one semester. These personal facts suggest that it is sociologically impossible (eh, Bourdieu?) for me not to admire Greif’s instincts as a critic, along the same lines that Deresiewicz does. I share Greif’s desire to write seriously about serious things in a way that is both philosophically searching and yet readable. (This is also why I admire Deresiewicz as a reviewer, though less so as an educational polemicist). I was an avid reader of n+1 during the years that Greif’s essays appeared frequently, and WD’s account of their power and range seems right on the money to me. (Thanks for sending WD’s paywalled article to me, Andy!)

    Where I differ from WD, and apparently, from Greif himself, is in their demand that Greif connect the “crisis of man” discourse to the theoretical situation of the present. By contrast, I’m perfectly happy to read the book as a superb work of intellectual history–as a brilliant reconstruction of an important moment in American history. The story doesn’t need to end with a moral about how this discourse informs theory or politics today. (One last piece of gossip: about a month ago, I heard Greif talk about a chapter of the book at the Columbia Seminar in Literary Theory. There were several historians present–James Livingston, Casey Blake–but it strikes me as rather telling that Greif’s book was discussed in relation to _literary theory_ rather than to _history_, as if its primary value lay less in empirical reconstruction than in offering new categories for speculative thought.)

    For some reason, Greif isn’t finally content with “just” being a historian. His Conclusion explicitly addresses this identity problem (n+1 essayist vs. academic): as an academic “historian,” he tells us, the only lesson to be drawn from the book is that the discourse rose, spread, and foundered upon political and demographic challenges in 1960s America. Its a good story–about the past. But as a “cultural critic,” Greif feels history should teach us something about today. He claims (p. 327) that his book first began to take shape in the shadow of Iraq war–as if historical research on the crisis of man was jumpstarted by the violence of that particular moment. This presentist motive doesn’t seem entirely accurate–Greif had written a senior thesis at Harvard in the late 1990s, well before the start of the war, on Holocaust discourse in America at mid-century. So these intellectual preoccupations have haunted him for longer than he may care to remember; like a good historian, he’s more interested in the past for its own sake than he seems inclined to acknowledge. What’s interesting to me is that Greif feels obliged to fulfill his role as “theorist” as much or more than his role as “historian”: he feels compelled to push past the goal of historical reconstruction and explain how his history matters today. This is what makes me think that his imagined audience is primarily literary academics, for whom this presentism remains important, rather than primarily historians. (It is interesting to note that, as a matter of composition,the penultimate chapter on “Universal Philosophy and Antihumanist Theory” and the Conclusion–the two sections where Greif brings his story up to the present–were the major sections added by Greif when revising from dissertation into book. The book version is more preoccupied with present relevance than the dissertation version, submitted in 2007).

    In this sense, both Greif and Derewiewicz exhibit the presentist symptoms of literary academics, a deep-seated fear of antiquarianism, of being bluntly empirical, plodding through the stacks. At one point in his review, Deresiewicz confesses that he grew quite bored with Greif’s book until he reached the end: “Still, I kept thinking, what exactly is the point? Who, beyond the specialist, should care?” History doesn’t _really_ matter for Deresiewicz unless it can be regarded as an act of contemporary cultural criticism. Neither he nor Greif is satisfied with doing two separate things in body: to address present conditions of intellectual life in public journalism, and to tell stories about the past in historical writing. They want these two identities + methods to fuse. I’m not so sure they do so or need to do so–it seems like a lot to ask of one writer. Most of us just can’t do both things as well as Greif can.

    This takes me back to a question I was hoping somebody could answer: how should we characterize Greif’s method of intellectual history? In one sense, Greif tells us he has written a “history of discourse.” He shows the way words were used, along the lines influentially laid out by Quentin Skinner, David Armitage, and others in the so-called Cambridge School. But this empirical style of discourse analysis is not used for large sections of Greif’s book. Like Collingwood or David Hollinger, Greif is just as interested in the ways intellectuals and writers _implicitly_ responded to an unstated question of the period–what is man? This is what leads to Greif’s notion of “empty discourse”–he is trying to point to the underlying, hidden _motives_ behind the discourse–its phenomenological reality for participants–rather than simply show how certain words like “man” or “human” or “crisis” were used in these years. Ultimately, his object of analysis is not just speech, but an atmosphere, a mood, a sensibility–a feeling of crisis so strong that it led many writers to write long, dense, and often confused books trying to answer a question they only partially understood.

    Greif sometimes calls his study a “philosophical history” (xi) or a “moral history” (133-4), and he offers Arendt’s _Origins of Totalitarianism_ as one such model (90). I suspect that few practicing historians today model their work on Arendt’s methods of research! But I do think Greif’s choice of phrasing is interesting (“moral history” is also the way Alfred Kazin described his style of analysis in _On Native Grounds_–a book that resembles Greif’s in its ambition and scope). Greif writes intellectual history in a style different from the Cambridge School. There has been a revival by some, notably Darrin McMahan and Peter Gordon in essays collected in _Rethinking European Intellectual History_ and Dan Wickberg in his recent essay on Lovejoy (MIH 2014), to rethink the meaning and practice of “the history of ideas.” I would love to hear other people’s thoughts about where to locate Greif’s book within these recent debates on method.

    • Patrick,
      I wish I had taken up your question of how to characterize the kind of intellectual history that Greif has written earlier–it’s a fabulous question.

      One fruitful passage, perhaps, is the top of page xi:
      “But this is not meant to be a story of the persistence, changes, or rise and fall of an idea (say, ‘the Man idea’). The history that matters is how a particular set of collisions and concentrations–which do not rise to the level of ‘idea,’ which will come to belong to all political and intellectual orientations (even those initially outside it), and which seemed to participants simultaneously bound to a tiny moment (anti-Nazism) and eternal (what is humanity?)–alters the obligations of intellect and thus what counts as a serious question or answer.”

      Well, what to make of that? One way that I parsed this passage was to focus on the last part: Greif is recounting a meta-level shift in the rules of the game of being an intellectual (to put it unpoetically). Under those rules, one had to orient oneself toward the discourse of man in order to be taken seriously. We could read the back part of the book–the part on the Sixties and after–as a second shift in the rules, where intellectuals now had to choose consciously whether or not to take up the “discourse of man” as a sort of preliminary (and yet ultimate) rite of intellectual passage. (Cf. 316)

      The other way to parse it (and I think these might be complementary) would be to focus on Greif’s rejection of “the Man idea” in favor of “collisions and concentrations.” The notion that this discourse does not “rise to the level of ‘idea'” may, again, be part of Greif’s discomfort with the unfashionability of this discourse, or it could be a more deliberate methodological choice not to follow the usual narrative and analytical patterns of histories of ideas. Certainly, as we’ve discussed, the book is constructed unusually: not the step-by-step progression following an idea through time and pausing at certain key moments in its evolution. Instead, there’s a sort of intentional chaos in order to allow for a fuller appreciation of the diversity and energy of those “collisions and concentrations.”

  6. I was trying to make a joke after you tweeted “go on”! I’ll add this caveat to free ourselves of legal redress: the thoughts expressed here are solely those of the author, and bear no relation to the ironic metacommentary of his social media interlocutors.

  7. Re the current status (for lack of a better word) in certain parts of the academy of these mid-century figures: political theorists write about Arendt all the time. She may be out of fashion in English depts. (along with some of the other writers listed), but that’s definitely not true in the political-theory branches of political science depts. (What exact bearing, if any, this fact has on the discussions above I’m not sure, but thought I’d mention it, fwiw.)

  8. Patrick–
    If what you say about literary studies remains true, it seems a sad commentary. Other areas of the humanities have apparently taken so-called “postmodern” critique seriously, but it has not prevented them from expanding their range in a more pluralistic way. Because historians generally have not had the problem of having their interest in a particular area of study constitute an endorsement of its moral, aesthetic, or social value, they have perhaps been more willing to explore discourses and modes of thought which are seen as historically important without feeling that anyone will accuse them of taking those modes of thought seriously as something to believe in the present. Historians are not embarrassed to study the historical, whereas it seems that perhaps many in literary studies are really uncomfortable with the idea that their object of study is “the literary,” understood as a particular space of textual expression of philosophical, aesthetic and moral value. But high profile works like Greif’s or Jason Stevens’s _God-Fearing and Free_ are perhaps moving literary studies away from the dead-end of critique as an end in itself? Most of the reviews of Greif that I’ve seen, however, are by intellectual historians: James Livingston and Angus Burgin are two of the notable ones (I think Burgin’s assessment, by the way, is really very good).

    Andy, I’m actually at something of a loss about how to characterize Greif’s method. I agree with you that it is not a history of ideas in any recognizable form. And it’s differential treatment of works of fiction vs. works of philosophy, theology, and social thought, as well as its failure to explain why some texts are foregrounded and others absent, makes it not really a discourse study, at least as I understand that term. There are large generalizations about a body of thought and its categories that are intended to characterize the discourse as a whole, but they tend not to be supported by empirically-based arguments; they are complemented by specific analysis of texts in relationship to one another. Perhaps these are the “collisions and concentrations”. But I honestly found the whole thing a little maddening, because as a historian I wanted to see the range and density of repeated patterns of thinking; I wanted to see an argument that demonstrated a collective pattern of thought, but what i got was something more like a claim or assertion, a kind of categorical description of the discourse, followed by particular expressions.

  9. Dan–I wish I could offer you some reassurance to the contrary, but your description of my field seems largely correct to me. That’s a very interesting observation about how historians and lit critics have different attitudes towards their objects of study–Michele Lamont makes a similar point (backed up with extensive empirical data) in _How Professors Think_, namely that fields like history and economics have a high degree of internal coherence vis a vis other disciplines (pretty much all its practitioners agree on what the basic methods are, if differing in conclusions), while fields like anthropology and literary studies are agonized and divided over the basic identity of their discipline. This disciplinary incoherence, Lamont shows, makes it harder for English scholars to solicit funding from external agencies!

    Anecdotally, I’d add that literary critics tend to be quite good at understanding the complexity of language and the complexity of argument, feeling, ideas, etc., but less good at understanding the complexity of history. In my experience, they (we!) tend to read deeply but not widely. The object of analysis for a literary critic tends to be known beforehand and analytically established–usually a text of some cultural importance–and the logic of analysis leads from order (text) to disorder (additional complexity of meaning). This stands in contrast to the historian’s research process, who must largely _create_ the object of analysis in order to tell a story. The logic runs from disorder to order: they (you!) comb through the archives, searching widely in the published record, then gathering and organizing one’s notes, so you can then _impose_ categories and narrative order on a seemingly chaotic mass of material. To put the contrast another way, these fields display different attitudes towards the value of “complexity”: literary critics tend to be obsessed with semantic/narrative complexity and ambiguity (all the many ways a text/genre can mean), while historians tend to be more obsessed with source selection/narrative complexity (all the other stories about the past that might be told). Sara Maza’s great article in MIH on historians and New Historicism really helped me to understand these tensions better.

    “the range and density of repeated patterns of thinking”–that’s a great phrase, and a nice description of what I’m looking for in works of historical scholarship. For an interesting counterpart to Greif, you might enjoy Michael LeMahieu’s _Fictions of Fact and Value: The Erasure of Logical Positivism in American Literature, 1945-75_. He, too, covers Bellow, O’Connor, and Pynchon, but places them in a far more “dense” intellectual framework, one that exhibits “repeated patterns of thinking.” Notably, he does a lot of archival research into drafts and letters.

    I wish I could believe that Greif and Jason Stevens were indicative of a turn in the field–from what I can tell, Stevens has written a well-reviewed book but now seems to be without an institutional home after floating around from Harvard, Pittsburgh, etc. And Greif is far from leading the life of a “normal” literary academic–his job is half creative writing / journalism, half scholarly. Hard to take comfort in these two innovative but unrepresentative figures. It can get pretty lonely out there in literary studies for the empirically-minded–but then, that’s why I keep coming back to this blog!

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