[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.
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]
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  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]