U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea


It’s nautical metaphor week here at the U.S. Intellectual History blog. 
Ray Haberski set the course with his brilliant, aptly lyrical piece on “The Albatross Concept.”  Drawing from Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” Ray explored how the language historians use to bring an elusive idea to ground can become both a mark of distinction and a source of frustration when those historians become forever, fatefully linked to their most well-aimed turns of phrase.  I will allude to some of Ray’s ideas in greater detail below.  In the meantime, I would simply say that, as blog posts go — and sometimes they go very well indeed — Ray’s most recent offering is a star to steer by. 
Mariners also made a brief but jaunty appearance in Ben Alpers’s piece about the impact that Thomas Kuhn’s Structures of Scientific Revolution may have had on the work of intellectual historians.  “History is sometimes said to be the pirate discipline,” Ben wrote, “and I have no doubt that many intellectual historians have raided the Kuhnian castle in their efforts to understand the past.”  The mental image these words evoked became a source of great amusement for me.  Just picture it: David Brion Davis, Linda Kerber, Bernard Bailyn, Jill Lepore, Daniel Rodgers, Lynn Hunt, Jesse Lemisch, Joyce Appleby, David Hollinger, Joan Scott, and a motley crew of elbow-patched accomplices, cuirasses clutched in their gritted teeth, swinging from the rigging to scale the castle walls.  “Look sharp, me hearties! There be paradigms within, and dead men will tell tales!” Sign me up.

Between those two seafaring metaphors, I offered up a tangentially nautical image in response to a comment on my own post.  My figure of speech was drawn from a well-worn folk saying: picture a grad student wracked with angst about writing, about words that either don’t come at all or that don’t work when they do, as someone caught “between the devil and the deep blue sea.”*  And, oh my, is that sea deep, and is that devil daunting! But even in jest, I shouldn’t have singled out anybody to serve as my honorary Mephisto-of-the-moment…especiallya fine scholar who paid me the high compliment of saying that I had hauled up an idea worth using. A kind word like that ought to serve as wind to my sails.  But here I sit, dead in the water, and not even an albatross to show for it.
And make no mistake:  I need an albatross.  In academe, we all do.  In fact, we need a whole brace of them:  dissertation, journal article, first book, tenure book, promotion book.  Bag ’em and tag ’em.  
I think this is why some of us balk sometimes at the blank page:  we see ideas almost as living things, and pinning them down can seem a bloody business.  I think the more conscious we are of the life and liveliness of ideas, the harder intellectual work becomes.  We know that ideas are “in the air” — but not like some inert atmospheric substance that people breathe in unawares, nor even like some materialistic wind whose mechanical movement marks and makes a culture’s or an era’s will.  Instead, we see that ideas take wing and move with a will of their own.  And yet we believe that we must master them — that we must, contra Jim Livingston, assert our “cognitive autonomy” as individual rational agents, as authorial selves.
As intellectual historians, we may very well need to think of authors and authorship as Foucault does, but we dare not see ourselves in such a light — I dare not, anyhow.  I can only think of the “I” who writes as an after-effect of the text after I’ve already written the text.  Otherwise, it’s water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink ideas, ideas everywhere, and not a thought to think. When I’m facing the blank page, I have to believe in the fiction of the independent authorial consciousness, or I won’t be able to write one. damn. word.  (Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief!)
Academic work depends upon this fiction of the thinker who precedes the thought, and we acknowledge amongst ourselves this professional trick of epistemic prestidigitation.  We are aware that we discover and develop our ideas in conversation — this blog is one place where that can happen, at least for me. And we do in fact footnote each other, and gladly so.  The academy is social, associative, collaborative, and we affirm this community of discourse every time we credit another scholar for work that has informed our own.  But we do so knowing all the while that we can no more give credit than we can take credit.   Where does any thought begin?  For every time we dare to think that we have called some new thought into being by the power of language, we might end up recognizing that we are simply giving a name to something that was already there, and present in some way to all of us. We are the servants of each other’s thoughts.
If, as Ray suggests, “civil religion” is an albatross around Bellah’s neck, what makes the term so burdensome may be the expectation it confers upon Bellah to exemplify the necessary fiction of the individual thinker.  Ray notes that “Bellah’s deployment of civil religion struck a particular chord with scholars because, it seems to me, he summarized ideas and sensibilities that were swirling around his era.”  Similarly, Ray suggests that George Kennan’s claim to fame — “containment” — reflects “his ability to bring together streams of thought that had been circulating throughout the upper levels of government and intellectual life; he provided eloquence and clarity to ideas that would have existed in disparate ways without him.”   Ray is not saying that just anybody could have hit upon the term that Bellah used or that Kennan deployed.  We all aim to put thought into words, but not everyone is such an able marksman.  (At this point, I’d be glad to hit a bell jar with a river rock from five yards back.)  These two marksmen, Bellah and Kennan, took aim at some ideas that were “in the air” and brought them within our reach.  
As academics and as writers, that is our work:  to bring ideas within reach.  We do this so that other people can take those ideas up and shape them — or be shaped by them — in turn. As scholars, as the originators of texts, we get our work done by constantly asserting a proprietary — an authorial — claim that we know better than to really believe. Though we may write (or not!) in solitude, we do not sail the seas alone.  In some way, every idea we have comes to us from and through the company we keep.  We are all on the same ship, we are all looking up into the same bright sky filled with wondrous, winged things.
*If you want to listen to the 1931 Harold Arlen song, I’d recommend this 1961 cover by Ella Fitzgerald. In fact, I’d recommend Ella Fitzgerald’s cover of pretty much any song.