U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Embodiment and Intellectual History

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 experiencing these recordings only raises again the question that I’ve asked above: as intellectual historians, how do we deal with these embodied aspects of the people we study?  
Broader cultural changes certainly affect my reactions to a half-century old recording of Leo Strauss, which might be utterly different from those of a University of Chicago student taking the course at the time the recording was made.  Listening to such a recording while walking my dog as a tenured faculty member in Norman, Oklahoma, is very obviously a different experience from sitting in a no doubt challenging class as an undergraduate in Hyde Park.  

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.

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* 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.

11 Thoughts on this Post

  1. perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of embodiment in intellectual history is that it offers a way out of the “great thinker” trap. Embodiment as a performative act of interpretation of has allowed me to draw in a whole of host of inidividuals who didn’t necessarily write extensive theoretical tracts, but who participated in a community of activists and academics that collectively produced key concepts of feminism

  2. There is much to consider in this post. I simply wish to add the name of another intellectual who is revered by former students in much the same way as Strauss–and who left little “archival trace.” I never knew or studied with Sidney Morgenbesser, but James Ryerson’s tribute to him in the New York Times Magazine in 2004 came to mind as I read this post.

    Its lede: “To Bertrand Russell, he was one of the cleverest young men in the United States. To Noam Chomsky, he was one of the most profound minds of the modern era. But to anyone who visits a library to gauge his influence, Sidney Morgenbesser, who taught philosophy at Columbia University from 1955 to 1999, is practically a nonentity: the author of a small stack of seldom-cited papers, the editor of a few anthologies. Not since Socrates has a philosopher gained such a reputation for greatness while publishing so little of note. Certainly no one else shaped so many seminal thinkers while leaving behind almost nothing in the way of major doctrines or ideas. ‘Moses published one book,’ Morgenbesser pleaded in his own defense. ‘What did he do after that?'”

    Here’s a link: http://www.nytimes.com/2004/12/26/magazine/26MORGENBESSER.html

  3. Ben, what a great post.

    You have laid bare an elegiac anguish haunting the heart of history (at least for me). I am reminded of these lines from Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem, “Dirge without Music”:

    Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
    Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
    A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
    A formula, a phrase remains –but the best is lost.

    The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love,
    They are gone…

    It is an act of profound faith (or, perhaps, profound folly) for historians to take all that remains — the text, the thought on the page, the remnants of a thoughtful life — and try to work backwards from there to find the thinking persons and the lively world they made and moved about in.

    We have discussed elsewhere on this blog the vocation of the historian, and how or whether we owe any debt to the dead, so I won’t rehash that here. (Besides, I’m writing a conference paper about the historian’s vocation — gotta save it for those pages for now.) But I do think that part of what makes the work of historians matter so much is the extraordinary care with which we handle what does remain. Whether we do that for the sake of the dead or for the sake of the living is another question entirely — one of the questions I hope to explore.

    Thank you, though, for this post. And in answer to the question that you raise here — “as intellectual historians, how do we deal with these embodied aspects of the people we study?” — I suppose we might first have to deal with the embodied aspects of ourselves.

  4. This great question leads directly to the importance of intellectual biography, I think. For it is in biography that the embodied person may legitimately take up space and attention, and the reactions of others to that person’s persona be most freely reported. In writing about Jane Addams, whose intellectual influence was more popular than academic, I felt repeatedly challenged to capture the nature of her being, her presence, because, as so many who knew her reported, it was such a powerful part of her influence. In the end, I think I failed because it required a novelist’s touch — and maybe even a novel — to do it.

    Certainly writing both books about her led me to ponder to what degree her importance as an intellectual was a direct result of the powerful, integrated impact of her presence and thought. Framing the question answers it for me. How could personality (or something more profound than that tired word) not be crucial to influence?

    We have reached the limit of the importance of ideas here, and have edged into the field of rhetoric, where how words are delivered (via whatever medium) merits analysis because they convey not only logos, but pathos and ethos (ethos being about the credibility of the speaker). By “how,” of course, I mean not so much the style of delivery (lost to us unless the speaker was recorded) as the ways available means of persuasion were used (to cite Aristotle’s definition of rhetoric). No doubt a rhetoric scholar has analyzed Leo Strauss’s lectures, or will soon.

    • Very well said, Lucy! I do think that these issues are of particular interest to those writing intellectual biographies. But, in fact, many intellectual biographies don’t deal with them very much. Neither of the two significant intellectual biographies of Strauss (both in other ways excellent books, it should be said), Daniel Tanguay’s Leo Strauss: An Intellectual Biography (Yale, 2007) and Eugene Sheppard’s Leo Strauss and the Politics of Exile (Brandeis, 2006), talks much about Strauss’s style beyond the printed page (Sheppard deals a little in passing with Strauss as a lecturer and teacher; Tanguay, if memory serves, mentions it not at all).

      And I also believe that those of us working in non-biographical genres need to pay more attention to these aspects of the actors about whom we write.

  5. Ben,

    Aside from my own musings about this in relation to Mortimer J. Adler, who was known as an effective public speaker and dynamic small seminar leader, the first thing I thought of in relation to your musings is our conversations, here (and here) and elsewhere, about the digital humanities. You need to write an “interactive book” about Strauss and the Straussians that allows you the latitude to “reproduce” an extra-textual experience with Strauss and his followers.

    If you do this first, you’ll be the go-to guy in intellectual history on how to make this work. Or, if you solve the problems in the course of doing it, you can start a publishing company or be the editor of an academic presses series (e.g. MIT?) that covers USIH topics.

    – TL

  6. Ben Alpers writes at the beginning of the post that Walzer’s and Said’s gestures are evocative. What are they evoking? I have seen/encountered Walzer in person several times over the years (starting when I was an undergrad in the late ’70s), and I’m not sure Walzer’s body language in the photo is that … evocative. Slightly bored, perhaps a bit antagonistic, I’ve-heard-this-before pose, I guess, but really not that unusual, is it? I think looking at physical presences is interesting but I’m not quite sure what it was B. Alpers saw in this picture. I’m not trying to be snarky but would like more specificity.

    • Thanks for the comment (no snark taken). I meant that this image evokes (at least for me) Walzer’s and Said’s strong and distinctive self-presentations. And the rest of my post really concerns these self-presentations. I take it, LFC, that you simply disagree with me, at least as regards Walzer. Maybe you also disagree with me about Walzer’s self-presentation in general. I was trying to be careful not to say that we can learn much from this picture itself. It’s really those performances that are of greater interest to me; the picture was just a starting point. Finally, I didn’t even try to describe Walzer-being-Walzer and Said-being-Said in any detail…I’d be the first to admit that I’m not very good at that sort of thing (which was another point of the post). YMMV on all of this, obviously!

    • Thanks for the reply. Well, I’d say Walzer presents himself as (and actually is) someone with fairly strong views on various matters but who offers them in a thoughtful, rather measured way. He is not an exuberant, rapid-fire speaker, but more a self-consciously careful one. And I suppose one could read his pose in the photo as enacting or expressing that quality, so if that’s part of what struck you I’d agree with you.

      I’d also note however that Walzer has not always chosen his public words with quite the care that the self-presentation just sketched would imply (of course, he’s done a lot of speaking in public over the years so I suppose that’s not surprising). I mostly have in mind here the anecdote about Walzer from c.1977 recounted by Mark Whitaker in his recently published memoir My Long Trip Home. I won’t take the time or space to tell it here but I think you would find it interesting — the book’s widely available so it shouldn’t be hard to get your hands on it.

  7. I 2nd Lucy’s point about intellectual biography. For me the challenge, especially with the old canon of intellectual history, and i think think the new canon of theory (and certainly Said counts), would be to avoid a sort of great-man effect. talking all the time about Derrida’s hair, or Foucault’s lack thereof, or something. which is perhaps the opposite of what professor Moravec finds useful about embodiment.

    more along that line: I just finished Marable’s biography of Malcolm X. Obviously here biography is an absolutely essential part of what makes the person historically interesting and important, and along with that, the physical presentation, the embodiment, of certain ideals. Maybe Malcolm X isn’t a good example because this aspect of what he was doing is so obviously important?

    Maybe the frame for considerations of embodiment with the likes of Said is really the sociology of intellectuals?

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