U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Worth a Read

In lieu of an extended post, I’d like to call your attention to a few essays and articles touching upon themes and topics that may be of interest to our readers, from Ferguson, Missouri to the mechanisms if not the mindset(s) of the ruling class to the vintage pages of The New Republic.

At the Huffington Post, historian Martha S. Jones reflects on the long history and fraught memory behind her journey to Ferguson, Missouri this past October. Her very moving essay – “From Michael Stewart to Michael Brown: A Reflection on #Ferguson Octoberexemplifies the complicated, often heartbreaking, but perhaps ultimately hopeful intertwining of memory and history underwriting and energizing the work of many African-American scholars. “I’d hoped to spare the next generation,” Jones writes. Instead, she spoke – and speaks – unsparingly of her own memories, in hopes of breaking a brutal cycle of history.

Yesterday, friend of the blog Michael Kramer tweeted a link to our own Andy Seal’s piece in N+1 magazine from last year, “How Does the Ruling Class Feel When It Rules?” In this review essay, Seal assesses the insights and inadequacies of Chris Hayes’s Twilight of the Elites and Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind. “We need better rhetorical, analytic, and imaginative tools for figuring the ruling class as a class,” Andy writes, “for conceptualizing not how a member feels but how the group acts. Hierarchies, and the preference for psychologizing that travels with them (what an older generation might have called bourgeois humanism), draw us toward character. We need to be thinking about plot.”

And, from the way-wayback machine, I offer you an essay by the inimitable Irving Howe weighing in on that urgent (and now quaintly dated) question, “Should students read the Western canon in college?” Howe spills a lot of ink arguing that, yes, they most certainly should. His argument – first made in the pages of The New Republic in 1991, and more recently republished this fall in celebration of the magazine’s 100th anniversary – is one exemplar of a whole genre of canon-anxious works appearing in the wake of the Bloom boom and the Stanford kerfuffle (so, a primary source for my purposes). However, unlike most of the polemics in that genre from that time, Howe does some fairly handy splitting on the issue, distinguishing between his own brand of canon advocacy from that of “the conservatives,” and distinguishing conservatives from one another.  At the very end of the essay, he imagines an interlocutor offering this worried critique: “What you have been saying is pretty much the same as what conservatives say. Doesn’t that make you uncomfortable?” Howe’s answer draws (too nice?) distinctions among conservatives in a way that might not fly with the author of The Reactionary Mind.

Please feel free to discuss any of these articles, or add your own links in the comments below for other readings of interest.

11 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Thanks for posting Andrew Seal’s wonderful review, LD. On Hayes, I think Andrew is on point, except that I would add that Hayes brings not only an affect-based critique, but a moral critique: he has shaped himself into the foremost secular preacher of jeremiads in the US radical left. It would be productive to think the history of moral and affect-based politics together, one can trace quite an intricate genealogy that goes through the civil rights movement and the rise of populism, and to the colonial era. It is also provocative that Andrew is putting Robin side by side with Hayes, specially since the latter is not a historian and doesn’t pretend to produce scholarly work. Picking up on Robin’s aim of listening to a “metaphysical pathos” and following up on the discussion on idealism, one might ask, in the spirit of being polemical, if there isn’t a bit of idealism going on in his project, how it doesn’t attend to both the material conditions and limits that shape such pathos. I think this is part of what Andrew does here beautifully, as he criticizes the theoretical framework of hegemony and affect.

  2. Well, I have a link to add —

    From VQRonline, an essay by Emily Raboteau on the problematic history of “Zwarte Piet,” the black and buffoonish companion of St. Nicholas in Dutch tradition.

    Who Is Zwarte Piet?”

    Writes Raboteau:

    “This is the Dutch spin on the old story of the mythic dyad (a pair considered to be one) of good and evil represented by Saint Nicholas and his darker half: The conquered devil is an African man.”

    What’s very interesting is the author’s report of her Dutch interlocutors’ sense that Raboteau’s critique was misplaced, that she was importing a peculiarly American race-consciousness to inappropriately critique the traditions of a country without a similarly racist past.

    “But there is at least one thing my Dutch friends ignore in their defense of Zwarte Piet: The historical baggage of slavery is not limited to America’s shores.”

    Anyway, a fascinating read.

  3. Lora: I totally agree with your assessment of the Howe article—well done for its era. And thanks for the other stories/pieces presented above. – TL

  4. Thanks Tim. As you know, the subgenre of jeremiads bemoaning the place of “the canon” in higher education — either bemoaning its loss, or bemoaning its presence — was practically a cottage industry for a while. The Howe piece at least has the virtue of not sounding quite like all the others — though it certainly sounds like all the others in the sense that it is very much of its time, and would be utterly out of place in higher education debates today.

  5. Kahlil, you’re welcome. As I said in the post, I found it via Michael’s tweet.

    That’s an apt point you make re: Hayes’s audience/approach. And I think CR managed to do the (near) impossible these days, in writing an academic book that reached a much broader audience. I see on amazon.com that The Reactionary Mind is “frequently bought together” with Chris Mooney’s The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science–and Reality. This pairing certainly says more about the buyers (or about amazon algorithms) than it says about either book, though I suppose it does suggest that people expect both these books to address a similar question (or that amazon.com has decided that they address a similar question). The whole neurobiology-as-explanation-for-politics thing (not in Corey’s book, but certainly in Mooney’s) is not a helpful explanatory scheme, IMO. It always strikes me as more or less — hopefully less — crudely materialistic. To the extent that Corey’s book is a (far) more idealist project, I think that’s all to the good.

    • That’s fascinating (and kind of scary). Seriously speaking, it underscores how important it is for we lit peeps to pay attention to circulation and market networks, and of course discursive communities, as so many of you have do here.

  6. L.D.:
    Reading your summary of Howe’s article, I remembered that buried in a file somewhere I have one or two brief bits of “hard” (this being way pre-computer days) correspondence from Howe, re a couple of short things I submitted to Dissent when he was editing it (w/ M. Walzer as co-editor) and evidently handling himself a lot of the routine correspondence with contributors. One brief typewritten note accepting a piece I submitted ends with the sentence “proofs will come,” signed (w/ a scrawl) ‘Irving Howe’. (I probably shouldn’t have these items moldering in a file in a closet; OTOH they’re not exactly frame-worthy either.) End of anecdote. Sorry, nothing to do with the Western canon. 😉

    On a more serious note, Howe’s own biography might be of interest as background to your consideration of the New Repub. piece, for which his memoir, A Margin of Hope, might be as good a source as any (though there are now a couple of critical biographies out there).

  7. Louis what a great story! Hell, if I had a letter from Irving Howe telling me he was sending me the proofs for a piece that would run in Dissent, I’d sure frame it. So fun!

    I will try to swoop through the memoir, if only in passing. I’m not on that chapter yet, but I can see it on the horizon.

  8. Some interesting stuff here, and a serendipitous find – in its original publication, the first page of Irving Howe’s article starts on the last page of an article by Fred Siegel on “The Cult of Multiculturalism,” which ends as follows –
    Multiculturalism is in trouble, says the University of Pennsylvania’s Alan Kors, because “you can’t distinguish between the parody and the ‘real’ thing.” But the thing is real. A great deal of what’s turning the humanities in America into an intellectual backwater has already been institutionalized, with junior faculty and academic administrators alike having a vested interest in a multiculluralisi curriculum. Finally the situation is not funny at all. The future may well lie with the Stanford student who, when asked about studying important non-Western trends such as Islamic fundamentalism and Japanese capitalism, responded, “Who gives a damn about those things? I want to study myself.”

  9. Thanks Bill — I always try to look at print sources in hard copy (though “hard copy” is often on microfilm) for just this reason, but hadn’t checked this one out yet. This is helpful.

    “The future may well lie with the Stanford student…”

    Well, he could have just stopped there, right? The future did still lie with the Stanford student — along with the student of Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Penn — no matter what curricular changes did or did not take place. But invoking the case of Stanford in order to gin up outrage over the college syllabus more generally did work very well for certain people/groups who were interested (for various reasons) in undermining public support for higher education.

    As I’ve noted before, the fight in higher education has gone from “what literature, what history, should we require students to study” to “why require the study of literature or history at all?” Showing how the Stanford debate connects to this shift — how it was leveraged, and by whom, to bring us to a place we have not simply stumbled into by accident, or found thanks to the guidance of an invisible hand — is part of the work of my dissertation. I suppose doing that work is also one way of trying to answer the present, pressing question, “why require the study of literature or history at all?”

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