I recently came across this picture of a Palestinian / American Jewish Roundtable sponsored by the journal Tikkun in the late 1980s. It shows (from left to right) Michael Walzer, Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, Michael Lerner, Edward Said, and Letty Pogrebin.*
What struck me immediately about this image, really the instant I saw it, was how distinctly both Walzer and Said are performing themselves in it. My ability to say this about Walzer and Said comes from having seen both of them in action: Said, twice, in graduate school, and Walzer, on a number of occasions over the years, most recently at the latest S-USIH conference last November. For anyone who experienced Said, or who has experienced Walzer, in person, their gestures in the above photograph are extraordinarily evocative. (For all I know, the same might be said about Abu-Lughod, Lerner, or Pogrebin, but I have no personal experience of any of them.)
Long before I experienced Walzer or Said in person I had read Just and Unjust Wars and (parts of) Orientalism.** But seeing each in person altered my relationship to the words on the page…and indeed, expanded my sense of each as a thinker beyond the words on the page.
Historians–perhaps especially intellectual historians–tend to be oriented toward the written word. Over the years some of us have become better at working with media like film, photography, radio, or the plastic arts that are less dependent on the written word. But one thing I don’t think intellectual historians always do as well as we might is deal with the way intellectuals — and I mean that term broadly — embody their ideas, the way in which the physical qualities of an intellectual — the tone of her voice, his self-presentation, her very physical presence — can have an impact on the transmission, perhaps even the shape, of thought.
If anything, reminding ourselves and our students of the importance of intellectuals’ physical presences may grow more important as disembodied communication technologies become more and more ubiquitous.
These questions are a particular issue in my current project on the legacies of Leo Strauss in American public culture. Leo Strauss by all accounts possessed an extraordinary pedagogical charisma. Richard G. Stevens has even declared that Strauss was “the greatest classroom teacher in the history of Western Civilization.”*** Strauss’s students and students’s students so esteemed Leo Strauss’s classroom performances that, for decades, they privately circulated transcribed recordings of Strauss’s classroom lectures.****
But these transcriptions were not generally publicly available. And such a written record would presumably be a pale reflection of the purportedly extraordinary performances that they recorded.
In recent years, however, the Leo Strauss Center at the University of Chicago has begun to put online recordings of classes offered by Leo Strauss at the University of Chicago, Claremont Men’s College, and St. John’s College from 1958 through 1973. This effort is the culmination of a slow but steady growth in the openness with which Strauss’s students and his students’ students have treated the legacy of Strauss. Through the 1970s, many of his students avoided even mentioning Strauss’s name in print. By the late 1990s, the classicist and Strauss student Seth Benardete published Leo Strauss on Plato’s Symposium, based on transcribed lectures from a course on Plato’s political philosophy that Strauss had given some four decades earlier.*****
There are now recordings of more than thirty courses taught by Strauss available online; twenty more will soon join them. For those of us interested in Leo Strauss, they’re an extraordinary resource that gets us a big step closer to the experience of sitting in the classroom with Strauss himself.
And yet, a voice recording is still not the same thing as watching someone lecture. I would not have my reaction to the photograph above had I only listened to audio recordings of Walzer and Said.
Having access to such records of the objects of a study is, of course, a luxury reserved for historians of the fairly recent past. Motion picture records of historical actors are only a little over a century old; audio recordings just a few decades older.
And to the extent that we can translate from our experience of such recordings to that of those present for the original performance (we often have the written remembrances of those who experienced the person in question to help with this process), how should we incorporate this knowledge into the intellectual history we produce?
Most often, I think, these embodied aspects of the people about whom we write get relegated to introductory paragraphs, in which we describe the person we’re writing about before turning to the more important matters of the ideas (and texts!) they produced. But I suspect, at least in certain cases, these embodied aspects of intellectual production are more important than we usually make them out to be. But I’m not sure what to do with this thought in my own historical practice.
* This picture appeared in Allen Graubard, “From Commentary to Tikkun: The Past and Future of ‘Progressive Jewish Intellectuals,'” Middle East Report, May-June 1989, 17-23 (JSTOR Link).
** In the interest of full disclosure, I may have experienced Said as a dinner guest of my parents during the year they were all at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford (t-shirt slogan: “The Leisure of the Theory Class”). But as I was in fifth grade at the time, I don’t think this counts.
*** Richard G. Stevens, “Martin Diamond’s Contribution to American Political Thought: Editor’s Preface,” The Political Science Reviewer v. XXVIII (1999), 3.
**** These transcriptions were also particularly valued for another reason: Strauss and his students, drawing in part on Plato (as they understand him), have often prized philosophers’ oral “teachings” above written ones. This is, in effect, a special case of the general Straussian assumption that careful speakers and writers tailor their words for their audience. The audience for a written work is necessarily broader and less in the author’s control (which is just one of the reasons, Strauss believed, that philosophers write esoterically). But philosophers can be more frank when talking to their students. For decades, students of Strauss (and their students in turn) privately circulated transcriptions of Leo Strauss’s classroom lectures, each bearing the headnote “Recipients are emphatically requested not to seek to increase the circulation of the transcription.”
***** This project began while Strauss was still alive, but he was apparently never satisfied with the material so it remained unpublished for decades.