U.S. Intellectual History Blog

What Is Called History at the End of Modernity?

[Note to the readers: this is the first installment of a four-part series of posts by James Livingston.]

What Is Called History at the End of Modernity?

by James Livingston

In his foreword to the new Modern Library edition of Absalom, Absalom!, which first ran in the New York Times Magazine, the celebrated essayist John Jeremiah Sullivan equates the “collapsing of time” in William Faulkner’s great novel with historical consciousness as such: “The book attempts something that had never been tried before in the art of fiction, and as far as I know has never been since—to dramatize historical consciousness itself, not just human lives but the forest of time in which the notion of human life must find its only meaning.”

Sullivan could not be more wrong about the art of fiction, nor about what Faulkner attempted and achieved in Absalom. Go ahead, forget Faulkner for the moment, try to name a novel or short story that doesn’t enrich rather than erase the centrifugal times gathered by memory—not even Robbe-Grillet will serve this purpose. But about historical consciousness, which once presupposed acknowledgement of profound differences between past and present, he is perhaps right. For in offering these preposterous assertions about Faulkner’s achievement in Absalom, Sullivan adopts the same attitude that animates the new “history of capitalism,” a field convened by the denial of elementary differences between here and there, this and that, now and then—present and past—as if the night in which all cows are black has finally fallen.

I’m paraphrasing Hegel, of course, from the preface to The Phenomenology of Spirit. He was making fun of the Absolutes concocted by German Idealism—Schelling and Fichte—when he tried out this joke, which was already a colloquial aphorism. In quoting it, he was ridiculing a “monochrome formalism” that “has lost hold of the living nature of concrete fact.” Hegel detested this synoptic style of thinking, as he called it, because it “turns with contempt from the distinctions in the schematic table [of history], looks on them as belonging to the activity of mere reflection, and lets them drop out of sight in the void of the Absolute, and there reinstates pure identity, pure formless whiteness.”

In quoting Hegel, I’m making fun of the moral absolutes curated by contemporary historiography—curated, more specifically, by the notion that capitalism is a trans-historical, even universal phenomenon to be detected, and excoriated, wherever greed, exploitation, markets, debts, and money have determined individual motivations and shaped social norms. Under the pressure of this notion, the “history of capitalism” becomes the history of humanity as such, pretty much as Werner Sombart presented it in Modern Capitalism (1902), then again in The Quintessence of Capitalism (1913).

You might say that David Graeber led the way back to Sombart, with Debt: The First Five Thousand Years (2011), a book that adds up to moral philosophy plus anthropology minus history. But American historians with more parochial concerns were moving in the same direction long before sleeping bags covered Zucchotti Park in lower Manhattan. They were driven by questions about the nature of digital capitalism in view of the dot.com bubble and bust, about the relation of American capitalism to the alternative models that proliferated in the 1990s (in Eastern Europe, East and South Asia), and about the configuration of race and class under capitalist auspices. At the End of History, in the neo-liberal moment at the turn of the last century, how could the question of globalized capitalism not intrude on every academic’s research agenda?

The salient result of that intrusion, for my local purposes, was a reconsideration of the relation between capitalism and slavery in the western hemisphere. This reconsideration exploded the historiographical consensus that slavery at the South was a pre-capitalist or anti-bourgeois social formation, or at any rate a deviation from the “liberal” norm. Leading historians then decided that because greed, exploitation, markets, debts, and money animated the spirits of southern slaveholders—they, too, located their “honor” on the bottom line—there was no point in claiming that the slave South was an exception to the rule of capitalism in North America.

So, the moral of the story of slavery now goes like this. History never ended because it never even started, because capitalism rules, then as now. I don’t detest this synoptic style of thinking, as Hegel (and Marx and Weber) did. But I do claim that it repudiates modern historical consciousness.

There are four parts to what follows, which began as a talk I gave at the College of New Jersey last year. In Part I, I argue that modern historical consciousness is a debate about the meanings of revolution, but also a matter of faith in the world to come—in other words, an intellectual formation specific to the 19th century that is nonetheless derived from the residues of religious belief. In Part II, I ask the practical questions about writing history that follow from this specification. In Part III, I compare the rhetoric that moves the new “history of capitalism” to the rhetoric of Absalom, Absalom, asking how invisible linguistic devices persuade without argument. In Part IV, I ask the obvious question: who cares, or, why does it matter that historians now assume that the slave South was a capitalist society?

OK, maybe the joke’s on me.


Historical consciousness as we know it and practice it today—as it appears in best-selling biographies, in classrooms, on the news, and in everyday conversation—is a strikingly modern phenomenon. You might even say this consciousness constitutes modernity, because it assumes that the future will be different from the present, even though the past weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living—if the future will be the same as the present, there is no reason to study the past—and because this consciousness also assumes that the future will be determined by the purposeful efforts of social movements, not kings and warriors, nor gods and demons.

Before the 19th century, these two assumptions were unwarranted, because the legacy of the English Revolution was still unknowable except to the antiquarians who had collected the pamphlets from the 1640s—when freedom of the press briefly reigned and a torrent of vernacular speech forced its way into print—and because the legacies of the American and French Revolutions were still matters of debate. This belated debate about how revolution mattered was conducted at many levels of discourse, of course, but first in what we call romantic poetry, then in what we call philosophy, a.k.a. German Idealism. In any event, this debate marked the birth of historical consciousness as we know it.

To be modern, according to this still speculative specification, was to know without thinking that “the people” would now and hereafter make history, because “man as man” was free to exercise his inalienable rights: to repeat, it was to assume that the future would be determined by the purposeful efforts of social movements, not kings and warriors, nor gods and demons. Close attention to the people’s everyday lives and hopes was no longer a distraction from historical or artistic significance; it now became the only plausible or realistic way to recognize and articulate the growing difference between the past and the present, thus to sketch the impending future. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the English romantic poet who made a close study of German Idealism, put it this way: “One of the two cardinal points in poetry consists of faithful adherence to such characters and incidents as will be found in every village and its vicinity.”

The poets and the fabulists, some of them novelists, got there first, then, followed quickly by the philosophers, among them the man often called the last philosopher of history, G. W. F. Hegel. Their revolution of The Word, whether fabulous or philosophical, resides in and flows from the characteristic rhetorical gesture of the New Testament, and more specifically from the Protestants’ magnification of that gesture in making their Reformation.

From the New Testament these poets, fabulists, and philosophers derived the notion that the ideas and utterance of the most servile and thus least important people were not merely comic relief from the dignity and solemnity that, according to ancient, classical standards, accompanied the speech of the noble and the well-born. These anonymous people had emerged from slavery, invisibility, and insignificance because the social movement we call Christianity had caused the change of moral climate we call equality: like their hero, a vagabond carpenter executed alongside thieves, they could be tragic, magnificent figures on a world stage, because in the eyes of this new God, this Son of Man, they were the equals of anyone, even the noble and the well-born, even their masters, even their God.

They could represent themselves hereafter, given the chance. The subaltern could speak. The spare, paratactical prose of the Gospels—where no sentence and no person is subordinate to any other because “and” is the only connective tissue, where beggars, prostitutes, and princes speak the same language—this is where the people silenced by the ignorance and condescension of their masters discovered their voices. It was the founding moment of the rhetorical gesture finally realized in modern historical consciousness, a thousand and more years later. You might say, following Erich Auerbach’s lead, that Augustine was the turning point in this rhetorical revolution, with The Confessions of 398. You might say, following M. H. Abrams, that Wordsworth’s Prelude, written exactly fourteen hundred years later, was the hinge because, in good Protestant fashion, it sentenced God to eternal irrelevance: “Here must thou be, O Man!/ No helper hast thou here.” Or you might say, following Ian Watt, Michael McKeon, and Jacques Ranciere, that everything waits on the modern novel, which comes of age in the hundred years between Defoe and Dickens.

I would say—or rather, speculate—that this turning point comes between Augustine and Defoe, in Act III, Scene 7, of Shakespeare’s King Lear. That is when Cornwall the traitor gleefully prepares to gouge out the eyes of Gloucester, Lear’s most loyal liege, as Regan, the king’s own daughter, urges him on. The servant who speaks in this scene has said nothing hitherto. He has no name, he is called “First Servant.” But he appears without the kind of scene change that typically signals the comic relief of the clowns, the fools, the servants, the slaves. (The exception to these rules is Caliban, but then The Tempest is the exception to all Shakespearean rules.) And this servant speaks in iambic pentameter, not the normal blank prose of those comic scenes. He dies a tragic hero, anticipating and announcing his own death.

The scene goes like this (remember, Cornwall is torturing Gloucester):

First Servant [speaking to Cornwall]:
Hold your hand, my lord:
I have served you ever since I was a child;
But better service I have never done you
Than now to bid you hold.

How now, you dog!

First Servant [to Regan]:
If you did wear a beard upon your chin,
I’d shake it on this quarrel. What do you mean?

[Regan has just “shaken”—tugged on—Gloucester’s beard, the equivalent of the most vulgar physical gesture of our time]

My villain! [He would have pronounced this with a long “a” in the second syllable, because the word didn’t yet mean someone with an evil intent: like “pagan,” it still meant peasant, country dweller, or clown]

They draw and fight.

First Servant:
Nay, then, come on, and take the chance of anger.

Regan [to a bystander]:
Give me thy sword. A peasant stand up thus!

[She runs him through from behind]

First Servant:
O, I am slain! My lord [now to Gloucester], you have one eye left
To see some mischief on him. O!

“A peasant stand up thus!” It’s an amazing moment, in the play, in Shakespeare’s corpus, and in western literature. There’s nothing like it until, in the aftermath of the age of revolution, readers know without thinking and without persuasion that a hereditary aristocracy, perhaps even social hierarchy as such, is a decadent remainder of an inglorious past. By then readers could take a servant’s defiance of his or her master for granted, because by then, they could assume that “all men are created equal.” By then even slave narratives could be published.

But as I said, the poets and fabulists and philosophers who got there first—those who made the revolution of The Word which allowed modern historical consciousness—they derived something more specific from the re-reading, the renovation, of the New Testament accomplished by the Reformation. This is the idea that necessary labor, even the work of the slave or the serf, was the setting in which self-consciousness, freedom, and perhaps grace itself would become legible, and ultimately meaningful, to those who toiled at another’s behest.

Until Walt Whitman included “Song for Occupations” in Leaves of Grass, Hegel and Marx took Luther’s idea of a “calling” as far as it could go, to the point where they claimed that human nature as such was revealed and developed in the labor systems human beings had invented to civilize themselves. “He grasps labour as the essence of Man,” Marx exclaimed in praising Hegel’s enlistment of political economy—Smith, Say, Ricardo—as an empirical answer to the philosophical and theological questions raised by western philosophy, particularly by German Idealism (see paragraph 189 of The Philosophy of Right [1821] for these citations). In The Philosophy of History, Hegel himself dated “the modern time” from the moment when “the repudiation of work no longer earned the reputation of sanctity,” when the “moral validity” of necessary labor became a self-evident truth.

Taken together, these ideas—that the common people were moral agents in their own right because they worked on the world, that they were, consequently, the proper object of dignified, realistic, narrative representation, and that they stood to inherit the earth according to the Gospel—these quasi-religious ideas, just matters of faith when you think about it, made the study of History as we know it possible, and necessary. Karl Lowith got it right.

[Next: Part II]

13 Thoughts on this Post

  1. What a jolt for a Saturday morning! Thank you so much for sharing this exciting work with us; I know I’ll be pondering it all week while waiting for the next installment.

    The question I have, and perhaps it will be answered in one of the subsequent posts, is how the Industrial Revolution fits in here. Rather than, or I should say in addition to, social movements, we get from Blake or Carlyle a vision of mechanical forces separating the present from the past and further transforming the future. Should we understand these visions of a “Mechanical Age” as bound up in or different from the twin ideas you describe in your last paragraph?

  2. Jim, looking forward to more of this. My initial reaction to the “prologue” in its critique of “the history of capitalism” is: “Strawman!,” especially since you refer to Genovese’s characterization of American slavery as anti-bourgeois and anti-capitalist as the previous existing “consensus” of American historians, which it never was. But it sounds like you are intent on taking Walter Johnson, Jonathan Levy, and Sven Beckert (and, heck, Amy Dru Stanley and Jeff Sklansky while we’re at it) to task for an impulse to universalize and dehistoricize capitalism by obliterating the distinctions of history and finding capitalism every where. That’s not my reading of this body of literature, so I look eagerly forward to your arguments that are going to demonstrate that it’s not _you _ who are painting with too broad a brush, but them! In fact, I was under the impression that James Livingston (circa 1990s) was also a historian of capitalism.

  3. Thanks, Andrew, you got me thinking about what we ought to be addressing, the relation between slavery and capitalism rather than positing an identity. For the romantics, Blake and Carlyle among them, the departure from the past as enforced by the mechanics of industry–the satanic mill–was a deviation from the human as such. When Hegel was still a theologian, he agreed with them, calling the labor process in the factories “the moving life of the dead.” Over the next two decades, he came to different conclusions about proletarianization, and Marx recapitulated this itinerary as he moved away from his standpoint of the 1840s. But the question you raise goes deeper, I think, to where we locate, how we periodize capitalism. If the commodification of labor power, and thus the creation of a working class, are the key criteria, then Weber and Polanyi are right, the industrial revolution is the inauguration of capitalism. But that doesn’t make Marx wrong. In any event, the project is not to prove one or the other correct– the point is to change it.

    • Thank you, that is a very illuminating answer. If I can press a bit–because your answer clarified the question I was trying to ask–it seems to me that mechanization (at least for Carlyle, and for some later Victorians as well) posed a threat to the narrative of formation of historical consciousness that you’ve given here that went beyond the question of proletarianization. The Machine was, in a strong sense, also a force that could work on the world and differentiate the present from the past, like social movements. It even had a claim–in contradiction of the gospels and in competition with the meek–to be the true ultimate inheritor of the earth, or more to the point, to be the true disinheritor of kings and nobles.

      Essentially, all I mean to ask is whether there is a way to understand modern historical consciousness as less unified in its origins than you’ve shown us here. This all may be entirely tangential to the main thrust of your argument regarding the relation between capitalism and slavery, but you’ve piqued my curiosity about the essence and limits of historical consciousness as you’re defining it.

      • Andrew, yes, I think I agree, but mechanization as you name it here was synonymous with proletarianization, that is, the conversion of artisans into machine herds. Modern historical consciousness as I define it here may then be a way of assessing the results of proletarianization–the creation of a working class–as well as a way of deciding on the origins and consequences of revolution.

      • Scary thought time. I like the ideas of mechanization as counterposing the artisanal to the proletarian; but the irony of the post Internet era is the re-rising of the artisanal.

        So many now want the artisanal forms of beers, meeds, and distiller spirits over the mass produced.

  4. Dan, I love you, man, I’d give you a kiss if I were in Dallas, you’re my own palm reader, soothsayer, and sachem, and, in the bowels of Christ I can say you read my mind, so yeah, I’m after this very quarry, Johnson, Levy, et al. This gaggle is not a straw man unless you think that the past is not even past–unless you think that William Faulkner and his progeny, John Jeremiah Sullivan and Walter Johnson included, are exemplars of historical consciousness, which, according to my specifications, requires the acknowledgment of fundamental differences between past and present. If you agree with me on those differences, you know that the new “history of capitalism” is fundamentally flawed. And sure, I’ve always been a historian of capitalism. What else is there to do with my time? Or yours?

  5. Maybe I’m just cranky today, Jim, but when you describe the First Servant in Lear as essentially the first-ever inkling in the West that ordinary people had moral consciousness, that strikes me as a very great books-centric (not to mention Anglocentric) attitude. To take just one example, wasn’t the Tale of the Eloquent Peasant, in 4,000-year-old Egypt, making a similar claim? This idea seems to me to stretch back into time immemorial — it’s not an invention of Shakespeare. A minor point, perhaps, but you’re hinging your entire argument on the boundedness of the capitalist idea, and hinging that on the idea of the discovery of ordinary experience at a particular place and time — a “discovery” which seems contrived to me.

  6. Yes, Jeremy, you’re cranky today, maybe because you disagree with Laura Kipnis rather than me? There are any number of narratives in which the heroic protagonist is a peasant, a nobody, a fool–we call them fairy tales if we’re studying the Western European oral tradition, and we know they weren’t assembled for publication until the late-18th century because nobody could take them seriously until then. I’m here affirming, and I hope illustrating, Auerbach’s account of the representation of reality in Mimesis.

    • Fair enough. And to be clear, I do disagree vehemently with Laura Kipnis (and am quite cranky about it), but 1) I read and commented on your piece before reading hers, and 2) I try not to blame people for what other people say, no matter the circumstances. As for whether I disagree with you, I don’t know yet, because I haven’t read the other three parts, but I’m definitely looking forward to them.

  7. I appreciate very much the polemical energy of this text (which, coming from James Levingston is not surprising of course). The drive to polemicize is often put down as presentist or as too close to the realm of feelings (as if historical critique wasn’t infused with affect), but I do think that it can be rearticulated productively, as Levingston does, in order to deconstruct the moral, ideological, and, yes, presentist assumptions that drive our work in the humanities.

    This particular text left me wondering about the divide between framing history as a site of continuities–captured best by Braudel’s model of the longue durée–versus a site of ruptures or discontinuities–which for me brings to mind the Foucaultian model. Levingston’s wager here is for the latter, while Johnson, Levy and company can be associated with the former–with the specter of Eric Williams haunting this type of framework. Is it possible to be in dialogue with both models simultaneously, underline undercurrents as well as the flashes that explode these undercurrents away and freeze them forever as historical ruins?

    Interestingly, the British Romantics are alluded to here. Figures like Blake, Wordsworth, and Coleridge also produced poetics of prophecy, with the French Revolution as a frustrated ideal / incomplete event at its center. As critics such as Jerome Christensen and Mary Favret–I recommend without reservations her lovely book War at a Distance–,have pointed out, the Romantics articulated an untimely approach to history, what Favret describes as “both of and out of their time.” The specter that haunts this work is Walter Benjamin’s Angelus Novus, which looks at the ruins of history to bring about, as he says in his “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” “a real state of emergency.” Is this wager the same as what Johnson and company are doing? And, can we reconcile an approach that emphasizes the reverberations and undercurrents of history, with the emphasis in historical difference? To conclude, I will add another theoretical specter to the mix, just for kicks: repetition, not as it is commonly understood, but as “repetition for itself,” as Gilles Deleuze theorizes it in Difference and Repetition: repetition in this sense never mirrors the identical or the same; it is always multiple: “Difference inhabits repetition” (Deleuze follows here Nietzsche’s idea of the eternal return). How would such an immanent understanding of time affect the discussion of the historical difference of the past?

  8. Thanks for this, Khalil, it’s interesting that you would place me in the Foucaultian camp because I resigned from there long ago, in 1994, because his (Kantian) emphasis on discontinuity didn’t permit an understanding of modern revolution. I’ve since come around to a better, I hope smarter, appreciation of his work. I don’t see how we can operate as historians without both models–the long and the short of it, as it were–so your ambivalence is much appreciated. The question I raise is about periodization: how to understand our circumstances as condition of as well as impediment to the realization of our purposes? And that is of course a profoundly political question.

    • Thanks for so much for your response and the clarification, James (if I may). In tracing the opposition between historical continuities and ruptures I utilized the theoretical figures that were more familiar to me in this regard, coming from literary studies, and the emphasis on historical difference made me reduce your post to the camp of Foucault. I agree with you that the labor of history is to attend to both, my humble question is always how to align this with the issue of temporality, which was what my Deleuzean conclusion tried to suggest. I very much look forward to the next posts, as well as the discussion–and hopefully polemic–it will provoke, gracias.

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