I’ve been reading both Samuel Moyn’s The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History, which came out in 2010, and his new book, Human Rights and the Uses of History, which is just out this year. The latter book is a collection of essays—mostly review essays published in The Nation between 2007 and late last year—and it continues the arguments and general project of The Last Utopia. But far more explicitly than that book, Human Rights and the Uses of History makes a diffuse but vigorous argument about what constitutes good historical practice—particularly what constitutes good intellectual historical practice.
One of the more surprising arguments along this line, at least to me, is how frequently Moyn throws cold water on intellectual historical work that constructs rather long intellectual lineages, asserting that the “root” of this or that idea lies in some noble predecessor many centuries prior. Moyn seems constitutionally averse to this kind of claim: on one occasion, he acerbically remarks that a certain figure supposedly influential on a tradition of thought was in fact “too idiosyncratic a thinker to be anyone’s ancestor.”
A very large part of that aversion has to do with the nature of Moyn’s argument about human rights. The most pointed intervention The Last Utopia makes is to knock down the pious narratives of human rights that locate the concept’s essential origins in Stoicism, or in Christian universalism, or (drawing closer) the Age of Revolution or (much closer) the UN’s founding moment, arguing that none of those influences explain the truly salient features of the human rights movement that arose in the 1970s. Moyn insists in The Last Utopia—and also throughout Human Rights and the Uses of History, where he takes on some of the purveyors of these long lineages for human rights, including Lynn Hunt—that this is essentially wishful thinking, resembling church history—which is not a compliment:
[Historians of human rights] regard the basic cause—much as the church historian treated the Christian religion—as a saving truth, discovered rather than made in history. If a historical phenomenon can be made to seem like an anticipation of human rights, it is interpreted as leading to them in much the way church history famously treated Judaism for so long, as a proto-Christian movement simply confused about its true destiny. Meanwhile, the heroes who are viewed as advancing human rights in the world—much like the church historian’s apostles and saints—are generally treated with uncritical wonderment. Hagiography, for the sake of moral imitation of those who chase the flame, becomes the main genre. And the organizations that finally appear to institutionalize human rights are treated like the early church: a fledgling, but hopefully universal, community of believers struggling for good in a vale of tears. If the cause fails, it is because of evil; if it succeeds, it is not by accident but because the cause is just. (Last Utopia 6)
But at times, the intensity of Moyn’s rejection of long, rather abstract intellectual lineages seems to me to suggest more of a general rule for him rather than simply an argument about the history of human rights. He complains that one scholar writes as if “history were a game of connect the dots,” and that’s precisely the problem: Moyn, it seems to me, wants intellectual historians to choke up a bit on their attributions of influence and causality—not to swing from the heels in order to knock the ball from dot to dot, but just to put the ball in play, dropping it in that space between the dots.
In The Last Utopia, Moyn quotes from Philip Roth’s American Pastoral: “People think of history in the long term but history, in fact, is a very sudden thing.” The next sentence in Moyn’s book applies this thought directly to the history of human rights, but it also seems to be more or less apothegmatic for the way that Moyn thinks about how history—maybe especially intellectual history—works. In Human Rights and History, he briefly discusses a passage from Marc Bloch’s The Craft of History which I take to be making the same point. He writes:
In order for the contemporary human rights movement to emerge, old meanings and associations had to be dropped and new ones formed. What Hunt presents as an epilogue to a creation long ago turns out to be what really needs explaining. This is what Marc Bloch meant when, in The Historian’s Craft, he indicted “the idol of origins.” A distant precondition for something is never its cause or trigger, and even continuity in history has to be explained in virtue of not just the long run but also the short term. (Human Rights and the Uses of History, 15)
Moyn insists upon the necessity of a certain quotient of creative destruction within intellectual history that intellectual historians seem to forget to account for. “Distant preconditions” get obliterated under the force of emerging exigencies, and historians later come around, find the fragments of those preconditions and guess at their significance, often reconstructing too much. (I’m borrowing this image partly from my recollection of the Israeli film Footnote, which is, I think you’ll agree if you see it, the greatest film about historicism and language ever made.)
I’m reminded of a joke of sorts that I came across in Jennifer Fleissner’s excellent Women, Compulsion, and Modernity: The Moment of American Naturalism:
[new historicism’s] characteristic move has often been said to lie in the discovery that a tiny element in one piece of writing is mirrored in another, seemingly unrelated text, from a far-removed field of cultural production: “motivating the arbitrary,” as Joseph Litvak puts it… As a result, a “recurrent joke” about the methodology suggests that its “motto” might be “Coincidence? Perhaps!” (47)
It’s a pretty good joke if you’ve read one too many new historicist articles, or too many cultural history articles of a certain vintage.
What connects, I think, this coincidentalism and the church history that Moyn castigates is a sense that history kind of glides through the empty spaces between the pieces of evidence we’ve found, and that we are entitled to go along for the ride. Moyn, I think, advises us that this is very dangerous, that just as we can no longer assume (for fear of being called Whiggish) that history has an upward trajectory, we also can’t assume that the empty spaces between our piles of evidence do not become suddenly very rough without our noticing it. We have to find those rough patches, and explain their sudden emergence. It is a hard and exacting standard.