The following is a guest post by Nils Gilman.
Earlier this week, Ben Alpers mused in these pages on the possibility of an intellectual history of “irrational” thought. His particular examples were the late writings of Philip K. Dick, which might (charitably) be described as mystical, and the writing of L. Ron Hubbard, which might (less charitably) be called commercial in nature. Whether either of these sets of texts is “irrational” is open to debate, but what I found most interesting about Alpers’s riff was his suggestion that virtually any text is a potential subject for intellectual history.
I have to confess, I had a pretty allergic reaction to this claim. It bothered me for much the same reason that Daniel Rodgers’s much-celebrated Age of Fracture rubbed me the wrong way: it didn’t seem to offer any basis for defining what sorts of texts were appropriate to include in a discussion of “the ideas of the age.” Alpers stated quite resolutely in the comments to his piece that he really felt that in fact, yes, any text could be given the intellectual history treatment. The discussion then migrated over to Twitter, where I started asking, rhetorically, whether it would be appropriate to write an intellectual history of, say, Glenn Beck’s half-baked rantings. When I got some affirmatives to that, I went yet further, and asked, How about an intellectual history of Honey Boo-Boo‘s utterances? Yes? Then how about an intellectual history of moans by porn stars? All verily texts, no?
What these admittedly snarky tweets were trying to get at, however, was actually something quite vital: my point was that, in fact, everyone has their standards for what qualifies as worthy of “intellectual” treatment — it’s just that some people’s standards are a lot lower than others’. What I’d like to do in this post is sketch out, in a more serious manner, what I take to be the appropriate limits of the enterprise of intellectual history.
I should begin by noting that I am definitely favor broadening the scope of topics that intellectual historians turn their sights on. For example, my own work (both scholarly and in industry) has dealt primarily with “policy intellectuals,” a topic/category that would likely have seemed bizarre to intellectual historians of Henry May or Perry Miller’s era. In the intervening years, however, we’ve seen many wonderful intellectual histories written on all manner of unlikely topics, ranging from punk music (Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces) to cooking (Nathan Myhrvold, Chris Young, and Maxime Bilet’s Modernist Cuisine, v. 1) to college football (Brian Ingrassia’s The Rise of the Gridiron University). While all of these books are arguably cultural histories as much as intellectual histories, in each case they demonstrated that these topics contain surprising intellectual depths and textual complexities.
The question that books like this raise, then, is precisely the one that Alpers and I took up: is there any topic at all that isn’t amenable to intellectual history?
To answer this question, we must begin by noting that the central methodological feature of intellectual history is *close textual reading* — that is, careful, sustained interpretation of a text in order to “unpack” meanings that might otherwise appear obscure, inscrutable, or difficult. (I use the word “text” very broadly here – it could include music, art, etc.) Within that broad rubric, there are of course many different approaches to this sort of careful reading: Exegesis, Talmudism, New Criticism, Deconstruction, and so on. But regardless of these particulars, what sets intellectual history off from other forms of historical inquiry is this sustained, close examination of texts.
To some extent, virtually all historians do this sort of reading in their work. In other words, most historiography contains intellectual-historical “moments,” in which the historian engages in a sustained close reading of some text, be it a personal letter, a political speech, or a private diary. But it’s also clear that close reading is not the only or even the primary sort of reading that most historians do. When historians examine, for example, bills of lading, or birth and death certificates, or bureaucratic forms, or financial accounts, they certainly scrutinize them for credibility, but they don’t usually analyze them in terms of complicated textuality: these documents are mainly assumed to be modestly functional in their communicative purpose. In sum, the sort of close reading I am referring to as the hallmark of the intellectual-historical method is in fact generally, and rightly, reserved for certain types of texts.
So, what are the types of texts that deserve this sort of sustained critical reading?
I would argue that to be worthy of the intellectual-historical approach, a text needs to have two essential features. First, the text should have been “carefully wrought” by its author(s); that is, it should be something that was self-consciously produced to be read with care. Texts produced for simple functional reasons really don’t merit this approach: there’s no such thing as a close reading of a telephone book (as even Avital Ronnel would probably admit). Second, the text needs to be one that situates itself within a tradition of similar texts. Most such texts will usually signal this intertextuality in relatively overt ways, that is, by referencing or commenting on other, similar texts. When you think of what it is that intellectual historians mainly do when they engage in close reading, it is precisely unpacking these intertextualities.
Keeping these two defining features of “intellectual history-worthy” texts in mind, it becomes clear why it makes no sense to speak of an intellectual history of, say, Honey Boo-Boo, or porn movie grunts, or elevator music – these are simply not works of ideas that require exegesis. These texts are, fundamentally, not intellectual objects – they are objects that operate in terms other than intellectual ones. To treat them as intellectual objects is at best silly. To be harsh about it, there’s simply no reason to apply our pearly methodology to such swinish texts. Or, if you prefer a martial metaphor, applying intellectual history methods to such texts is likely killing a fly with a bazooka.
I should hasten to add that this is not at all to say that such objects are without historical interest. They absolutely are. Historians of American life in the early years of the 21st century will certainly need to reckon with the significance of Reality TV and ubiquitous pornography. My point here, rather, is that such reckonings will be much better accomplished using tools other than close textual reading. For example, future historians may wish to contextualize such objects in terms of the political economy of their production, or examine the psychological (and physiological) nature of the reactions the produce in audiences, or any number of other techniques. As they say in Britain: horses for courses.
Before concluding, let me address one possible objection directly, which is whether the distinction I’m making is a fundamentally elitist, Arnoldian one. The answer is, yes it is. In practice, the distinction I’m making almost always ends up reproducing a high/low culture distinction. And I have no problem defending this distinction, for in fact some cultural objects are much more “rich,” “complex,” “textured,” “difficult,” or whatever other metaphor you wish use to describe what separates great works from non-great ones.
Let me go further and say this: everyone knows this in their gut, even if twenty years of reading French Theory has caused them to somehow forget it. Honey Boo-Boo’s or Jenna Jameson’s utterances just aren’t as rich a vein to mine using the technique of close reading as, say, John Rawls or bell hooks. Anyone who claims otherwise is, I’m sorry, full of it. (And yes, in making this sort of absolute claim I fully realize that I am engaged in disciplinary boundary work.) My ultimate point is that we all have our standards, we all have our intellectual hierarchies, and the only question is how honest and transparent we are about them.
Postscript: I should note one thing I did change my mind about over the course of last week’s Twitter exchange (yes, I remain capable of occassionally changing my mind!): perhaps it is true, after all, that virtually all overtly political texts fall into the category of “texts worthy of close reading.” This is because, however clumsy or misconceived, virtually all political texts are not only self-consciously wrought, but also situate themselves in some sort of inter-textual tradition, if only implicitly. In which case, maybe Glenn Beck is worthy of the intellectual history treatment, after all, and maybe Daniel Rodgers wasn’t quite so unreasonable when he chose to start Age of Fracture with Peggy Noonan. My gut still tells me that including these sorts of writers defines the project of “intellectual history” awfully far down, but there’s at least a case to be made that their writings meet the criteria I’ve laid out above. So I’ll have to think more on this one.