U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Agency Part III: Deromanticizing Agency

As I mentioned in the first post in this series, both history, as a discipline, and agency—as a concept so central to the premises that inform the discipline—are well embedded within western humanist tradition. As such they are also products of the same romantic impulses that constructed the human subject as a central—perhaps the most central—trope in western imagination. Indeed, it is no coincidence that the modern discipline of history has its roots in the German romanticism of Johann Gottfried Herder and Johann Gottlieb Fichte, which shrouded both individuals and nations with a romantic aura in touch with the sublime.

Such romantic impulses, I would like to argue in today’s post, are still with us and still inspire a stronger commitment than warranted to the paradigm of agency in American history over the last several decades. Consider for example the following passage from the preface to Eugene Genovese’s Roll Jordan Roll: “[m]any years of studying the astonishing effort of black people to live decently as human beings even in slavery has convinced me that no theoretical advance suggested in their experience could ever deserve as much attention as that demanded by their demonstration of the beauty and power of the human spirit under conditions of extreme oppression.”(1) Invoking the sublimity of the human spirit, Genovese explicitly contends that focusing on the agency of black people under slavery deserves more attention than the agency of the people who enslaved and subjugated them or the suffering that went along with the work regimen and violence intrinsic to slavery.

As Clarence Walker stressed in the interview I had with him several weeks ago, slavery was fundumentally a system of labor, and the scholarship of slavery must highlight that above all else if it is to remain true to the greater historical truth of slavery—otherwise it is likely to lead us astray. We might, for instance, come to think of slavery as less horrific than it was and inadvertently inspire lingering agendas to romanticize slavery itself. I think that Genovese at times fell into this very trap. In a particularly odd paragraph in Roll Jordan Roll, he contends that slavery was not nearly as bad as many forms of oppression in Europe contemporaneous with it, as he romanticizes the paternalism of late antebellum slavery. “Were anyone perverse enough to bother,” maintains Genovese at the end of this tortured paragraph, “he might easily find that the living conditions of a large minority or even a majority of the world’s population during the twentieth century might not compare in comfort with those of the slaves of Mississippi a century earlier.”(2)

Indeed, when I say “warranted” above, I mean that there is an objective truth we must seek as best we can to capture and convey—despite the numerous limitations intrinsic both to the form and content of writing history. I still view the best way to explicate this predicament in the same vivid fashion I first encountered it in a seminar I took during my first year of graduate school with a leading scholar of early America. I do not recall what book we discussed that day in a seminar about cultural encounters in North America, but if it was not The Middle Ground, it was certainly a book written in a similar vein. A good friend of mine who made quite a name for himself in that class as the radical leftist of the bunch decided to relate an old Russian joke that Slavoj Zizek once told to make a similar point. The very macabre joke (*trigger warning*) tells of a violent encounter between a Russian peasant and his wife and a Mongol warrior during the Mongol occupation of Russia in which the Mongol determined to rape the wife while the husband watched. Before committing his terrible deed, however, the warrior commanded the peasant to hold his testicles while he raped his wife so that they won’t get dusty in the process. Once the Mongol completed his dreadful business and went on his way, to his wife’s great amazement, the husband burst out laughing. “How can you laugh after witnessing the brutal rape of your wife?” she asked. “I got him, I made sure his balls got dusty in the process,” replied her husband.

The point, according to both Zizek and my friend, was that focusing on the agency of the husband in this case misses the greater objective truth that highlights the atrocity committed against his wife. Cutting the Mongol’s testicles, by contrast, would have rightfully commanded our attention. There is certainly agency in this story but it is the terrible agency of the warrior, not the feeble “resistance” of the peasant, which best captures the encounter. The problem, though, is that there is nothing romantic and sublime about that form of agency. It is not inspiring, but it is the truth. To those interested in an even odder rendition of this point I suggest watching this video.

Such a critique applies quite well, I think, to the history of slavery and Native American history and it is my contention that romantic impulses have much to do with this oversight. Now, it is certainly true that comparing the formidable resistance of Natives to colonialism or the perseverance of slaves in the Americas over hundreds of year to the actions of the peasant in the Russian joke is not a fair comparison. But it does, I think, drive home a much-needed critique. In other words, though I think that scholarship such as Roll Jordan Roll or Richard White’s The Middle Ground has its place, it should not overshadow—as it too often does—the greater truth that, for instance, White himself captured so well in his earlier and less known The Roots of Dependency, which unlike The Middle Ground situated interactions in the North American borderlands within a world systems analysis.

White opens The Middle Ground by casting more traditional narratives of Indian-white relations—such as the one told in his former book The Roots of Dependency—as simple: “Indians are the rock, European peoples are the sea, and history seems a constant storm.”(3) Later he alludes to his former effort more explicitly: “I am, for example,[in The Middle Ground] describing imperialism, and I am describing aspects of a world system. But this is an imperialism that weakens at its periphery. At the center are hands on the levers of power, but the cables have, in a sense been badly frayed or even cut.”(4) In The Roots of Dependency, nevertheless, White did not avoid complicating the story and portraying the relative dependence of the Spanish, for instance, on the Indians of the old southwest. As with all of White’s scholarship, both books meticulously portray the ambiguous nature of the North American borderlands. The difference, however, is that in The Roots of Dependency he sought to explain and highlight the greater historical truth of decline and oppression, whereas in The Middle Ground he chose to stress the agency of Indians and marginalize the overwhelming historical trajectory.

According to White, he chose to frame The Middle Ground differently because in the process of telling stories of decline we “miss a larger process and a larger truth. The meeting of sea and and continent, like the meeting of whites and Indians, creates as well as destroys. Contact was not a battle of primal forces in which only one could survive. Something new could appear.”(5) To be sure something new appears. It must. But as White established quite well in The Roots of Dependency it was neither the larger process nor the larger truth. Ultimately, more than I take issue with White’s choice to highlight a different aspect of the historical process than he did in a former study, I take issue with the tacit decision in the discipline to heed the more romantic and attractive note he struck in The Middle Ground than the more somber and less gratifying one he struck with The Roots of Dependency.

In the next and last post in this series I will explore two other impulses that I suspect have something to do with our attraction to agency—its use as a historiographical contrivance and its appeal to a white American  scholarly community and audience seeking to come to terms with the American past on a more positive tone. I will also attempt to address the recent developments in Native American history and the history of slavery, which, I hope, are turning away from the agency paradigm.

[1] Eugene Genovese, Roll Jordan Roll: The World the Slaves Made (Vintage Books edition, 1976), xvi.

[2] Genovese, Roll Jordan Roll, 59.

[3] Richard White, The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815 (Cambridge Uni. Press, 1991), ix.

[4] White, The Middle Ground, xi.

[5] White, The Middle Ground, ix.

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. There’s a dissertation to be written — if it hasn’t been written already — about the (unfortunate) place of the rape joke in academic discourse. In past generations it has been deployed more, uh, “urbanely,” I suppose — for example, I’m thinking here of some of Schlesinger’s asides in The Vital Center. And just yesterday or the day before I came across what I suppose could be classed as a “date rape” witticism in the middle of, of all things, Clark Kerr’s Uses of the University.

    Of course it wouldn’t have occurred to scholars of that generation to set up the joke with a “trigger warning.” But my surmise is that rape-as-analogy has been a more frequent illustrative trope than one might wish.

    I think there are some additional complicated valences in your usage above, since the institution of slavery involved the actual rape of black women and the humiliation and frustration of black men who were not able to protect them or prevent this predation. In the twice-distanced anecdote above (i.e., my friend told this joke that Zizek told), the husband is the butt of the joke. I certainly don’t think that’s what you’re aiming for in discussing how slaves’ agency has been magnified/romanticized by historians in ways that blunt/diminish the awful historical realities of slavery (including the predatory rapaciousness of masters).

    As you know, I’m hardly the PC police — pretty much a free speech absolutist, in fact. You wanna make your point with a rape joke? Knock yourself out. But in an analysis of the shortcomings of scholarly discourse that has (as you argue) minimized the suffering of the oppressed, it seems like a strange choice.

    • I’m sorry you found it in bad taste. I certainly knew that it might prove problematic, especially coming from a man. Indeed I knew this whole post about the romanticization of the history of blacks and Natives is problematic coming from a white male. I thought to go with it anyway and let the chips fall where they may.
      As per the joke, I thought both to give credit where credit is due–in terms of what led to this type of analysis–and since I’m partial to vivid polemics.
      Anyhow, as someone who is privileged enough to afford to go out on a limb, I totally accept the chastening tone.

  2. Actually, rape jokes are problematic whether they come from a woman or a man. Best to avoid them completely, not because they traumatize readers who have been raped, but because they are in really bad taste and reflect poorly on the writer — even when channeling Zizek.

Comments are closed.