U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Tim’s Light Reading (4/17/09)

1. Patrick McNamara on Orestes Brownson—I once wrote a historiographic study on Brownson during my graduate studies at Loyola. The paper was panned, but I never should’ve been allowed to write a historiographic study on a person about whom only traditional biographies had been written. I think only Schlesinger’s book, mentioned in McNamara’s write up, ventured into the historical-biography realm. Anyway, grad-school bitterness aside, Brownson is an important figure mentioned in virtually every intellectual history covering mid-nineteenth century America. I’ll probably hearken back to his 1866 book, The American Republic, for my own upcoming paper on Catholics and world federalism—proposed for a panel with Pat and fellow USIH blogger Ray Haberski for a tentative 2010 OAH panel.

2. InsideHigherEd’s Christine Kelly on The Perils of Grad Student Life and Beyond—Continuing somewhat the grad studies theme, this relatively succinct piece captures a number of concerns that grad students face with regard to life in and, more importantly, out of the academy after graduation. This is important reading for every current, potential, and just-released graduate student, whether studying U.S. intellectual history or beyond.

3. Anna Yeatman’s H-Ideas review of Anne Phillips’ Multiculturalism without Culture—Heretofore I was unfamiliar with the work of Anne Phillips. Since Yeatman’s review was more of a traditional factual relay of the book’s contents than criticism, I feel I can reflect here from the review with a decent sense of Phillips’ arguments. With that, I found Phillips’ assertion that multiculturalism stands against borrowing, crossing, and redefining to be more than intriguing. For instance, that which we commonly call Hip-Hop culture, a movement often associated with multiculturalism, is almost entirely premised on clever borrowing, crossing, and redefining in terms of music, visual arts, and fashion tastes. Phillips defines multiculturalism this way because she sees it as an essentializing discourse with regard to race, class, gender, and ethnicity. This essentializing works against individual autonomy, she argues. This means multiculturalism sometimes undercuts equality as well. Against all of this, Phillips forwards the notion that multiculturalism ought to be seen, or defined, as an “emancipatory discourse” on behalf of autonomy and equality, but against essentialism in terms of one’s cultural background. In sum, multiculturalism should be seen as a means—involving contestation and contextualism—and not as a confining term about cultural ends. This explains the title of the book. I’m not sure what to make of Phillips’ argument, but my first reaction is to like it. It actually seems to make multiculturalism more inclusive, to move it into conversations about democratic or common culture. I mean, we’re all striving for betterment, change, and progress, yes?

4. Allan Brandt’s 1987 book, No Magic Bullet: A Social History of Venereal Disease in the United States Since 1880, has no obvious relation to U.S. intellectual history. But when you read it with questions about the Culture Wars in mind, Brandt’s history becomes an exercise in attempting to understand how ideology and pseudo-intellectualism trump politics in today’s world. It’s amazing how the costs of prevention, versus therapy and treatment, are continually undervalued in U.S. history. It’s also both comforting and sad to know that our utopian ideals about human behavior have continually trumped practicality in terms of social policy and politics. – TL