Building a Better Description

Introduction to the special issue Description Across Disciplines
edited by Sharon Marcus, Heather Love, and Stephen Best

The introduction begins …

Academics don’t necessarily know what description is, but they know they don’t like it. “That talk was wonderfully descriptive; let’s give him the job”—said no one ever. When scholars from multiple disciplines gather to evaluate grant proposals, they can usually agree on one thing: the wisdom of rejecting any project they consider “merely descriptive.” And at least one university department’s grading rubric formalizes its low judgment of work that “is correct but largely descriptive, lacking analysis” by assigning such papers a C. Boring and static, rote rather than creative, reproductive rather than productive: description in such moments does not even rise to the status of a necessary evil. Instead, it is defined by failure or falling short: lacking a compelling argument or organizing perspective; insufficiently self-conscious of its own procedures; basic in the bad sense of naive and mechanical. Even the clearest accounts of description often contrast it to what it is not—not interpretation, not explanation, not prediction, not prescription.

Yet description is everywhere, a ubiquitous and necessary condition of scholarship, and in practice, if not in preaching, attitudes toward it vary across and within disciplines. Although scientists aim at explaining causal mechanisms and identifying predictive laws, many consider description an activity sufficiently worthy in its own right that one can find highly cited articles whose titles identify them as “descriptions”—of forest geckos, road surface roughness, molecular excitations, or valence bonds. Social scientists express more overt ambivalence about description. In 1980, economist Amartya Sen wrote, “It is fair to say that description as an intellectual activity is typically not regarded as very challenging. To characterize a work in the social sciences as ‘purely descriptive’ would not normally be regarded as high praise.” Three decades later, John Gerring similarly noted that in political science description “has come to be employed as a euphemism for a failed, or not yet proven, causal inference. Studies that do not engage causal or predictive questions, or do not do so successfully, are judged ‘merely’ descriptive.” But Sen and Gerring also contest this view by underscoring the fundamental importance of descriptions in social science and by foregrounding the skills needed to produce them. Nor are they alone. Many historians and ethnographers would say that without description, albeit of a highly interpretive kind, they could not produce historical narratives or field notes. Humanists often keep their engagement with description tacit and articulate their explicit discomfort with “mere description” by insisting (rightly) that description cannot be separated from interpretation. Even so, art historians, literary critics, and musicologists must learn to describe the paintings, sculptures, texts, and musical works that they study.

We believe that description is a core, if unacknowledged, method in all scholarship and teaching. In order to proceed, interpretations, explanations, and prescriptions must give an account of—describe—what they interpret, explain, or evaluate. Description makes objects and phenomena available for analysis and synthesis, and is rarely as simple as its critics imply. An elusive object that travels by many names, and sometimes by no name at all, description’s dictionary definitions include representation, drawing, report, portrayal, and account. Description can take many forms, including lists, case studies, sequences, taxonomies, typologies, genealogies, and prevalence studies, and it involves many actions, including observing, measuring, comparing, particularizing, generalizing, and classifying, using words, images, and numbers.

We write from the perspective of literary critics who became interested several years ago in questioning the dominance of interpretive methods in our discipline. In 2009, Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus published a special issue of Representations called “The Way We Read Now.” The introduction to that volume gathered a set of recent developments in literary studies under the rubric “surface reading,” referring to methods trained on “what is evident, perceptible, apprehensible in texts.” In 2010, Heather Love published an essay called “Close but Not Deep” that proposed the observational social sciences as a model for descriptive readings of literary texts. It was in part the controversy generated by these essays that prompted us to take a closer look at description: to assess what were widely cited as its limitations, or even dangers, and to further explore what we still imagined to be its unacknowledged and even untapped potential. What, we wondered, would it mean to acknowledge the ways that our critical and pedagogical practices make description central—to prosody, plot summary, histories of the book, even to allegorical and symptomatic interpretations? What would we learn if we widened our purview to ask scholars and practitioners from disciplines beyond literary studies to reflect on their own practices of description? Continue reading (free access until October 31, 2016) …

Universally practiced across the disciplines, description is also consistently devalued or overlooked. In this introduction to the special issue “Description Across Disciplines,” Sharon Marcus, Heather Love, and Stephen Best propose that description is a critical practice more complex (and less contradictory) than its detractors have taken it to be.  They argue that turning critical attention toward description’s nuances gives us access to the ways that scholars conventionally assign and withhold value and prestige. The authors set forth a number of principles (using their contributors’ essays as a guide) toward the end of “building a better description.”

SHARON MARCUS is Dean of Humanities and Orlando Harriman Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University as well as the co-founder and co-editor in chief of Public Books, an online review of books, arts, and ideas.

HEATHER LOVE is R. Jean Brownlee Term Associate Professor at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History (Harvard) and the editor of a special issue of GLQ on Gayle Rubin (“Rethinking Sex”).

STEPHEN BEST is Associate Professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of The Fugitive’s Properties: Law and the Poetics of Possession (University of Chicago, 2004).

New Special Issue on Description

DESCRIPTION ACROSS DISCIPLINES

edited by Sharon Marcus, Heather Love, and Stephen Best

Number 135, Summer 2016 (read on Highwire)

Now available

1.cover-source

SHARON MARCUS, HEATHER LOVE, and STEPHEN BEST
Building a Better Description (the issue introduction: free access until October 31!)

LIZA JOHNSON
Observable Behavior 1–10 

KATHLEEN STEWART
The Point of Precision

LORRAINE DASTON
Cloud Physiognomy

JOANNA STALNAKER
Description and the Nonhuman View of Nature

GEORGINA KLEEGE
Audio Description Described: Current Standards, Future Innovations, Larger Implications

CANNON SCHMITT
Interpret or Describe?

JILL MORAWSKI
Description in the Psychological Sciences

MICHAEL FRIED
No Problem

Royal Accounting as Political Discourse

From Virtue to Surplus: Jacques Necker’s Compte rendu (1781) and the Origins of Modern Political Rhetoric

by Jacob Soll

The essay begins:

In modern politics, it is common for politicians, political theorists, and economists to discuss the legitimacy of their administrations and the health of their states through the impersonal terms of budgets, deficits, and (of the prime political virtues) surpluses. Balance sheets are part of the elemental rhetoric of modern political debate, true or false as they may be. Yet we don’t have a clear history of how political virtue came to be described as a budget surplus. Indeed, few political historians have examined the role of accounting language in political culture and in the rise of a modern, depersonalized fiscal state.

image.aspx

Jacques Necker. Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

In the case of France, there is one clear moment when the modern tradition of accounting language in politics began. Building on a series of eighteenth-century debates about government accounting and transparency, Jacques Necker (1732–1804), the famed Protestant Swiss banker and director general of French finances, linked accounting language with modern political discourse to define the effectiveness of a state. The author of the Compte rendu au Roi (1781)—an explanation of royal accounts and one of the best-selling pamphlets of the late eighteenth century—Necker has generally been seen as a leader in French financial pamphleteering. In the Compte rendu, Necker claimed a budget surplus of 10,200,000 livres based on a chart of royal accounts of tax receipts and expenditures, which, he stated, was the essence of his political virtue. He boasted—not altogether truthfully—that the publication of his accounts represented the first time in the history of the French monarchy that a finance minister had shown himself accountable for his administration by revealing his calculations to the public. The importance of Necker’s act was not so much in its questionable accuracy, as historians have argued. His lasting legacy, in fact, was his popularization of the use of accounting calculation as a language of political publicity, credit, and good government. In the process, the modern state came to be defined not as the domain of a king, but rather as an impersonal entity managed by financial professionals.

Numbers and accounts have been a part of politics since the dawn of states. However, in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, with the rise of political economy and political arithmetic, proto-economists such as the French duc de Sully, the Dutch Pieter de la Court, and the Irish William Petty, to name a few, began measuring the management of states via financial accounts and economic statistics. What Necker did was part of another, less-known tradition. He popularized the work of earlier French political economists who fused classical political rhetoric about virtue, corruption, and political transparency from the Machiavellian, Tacitean political tradition to account books. J. G. A. Pocock and other historians of ideas have talked about a critical, often republican tradition in political language that emphasized exposing political secrets. Necker and his predecessors were well aware of this tradition, and they saw how state accounts were more and more becoming essential state secrets, or arcana imperii. Thus, to expose political corruption and bring virtue to the rising administrative states, political critics and reformers saw the force of exposing not only diplomatic or political secrets but also financial ones. Necker’s Compte rendu was part of this tradition, while at the same time it was directly responsible for popularizing the idea of good financial management as a classical political virtue and helped to enshrine this idea in the French Revolution. Continue reading …

This article explains how, during the time of the French Revolution, the financial language of accounting became part of modern political discourse with surpluses representing virtue, and deficits, failure.

JACOB SOLL is Professor of history and accounting at the University of Southern California. He is the author of Publishing “The Prince”: History, Reading, and the Birth of Political Criticism (2005), The Information Master: Jean Baptiste Colbert’s Secret State Intelligence System (2009), and The Reckoning: Financial Accountability and the Rise and Fall of Nations (2014).

 

Badiou’s Paradox

Heideggerian Mathematics: Badiou’s Being and Event as Spiritual Pedagogy

by Ian Hunter

The essay begins:

This paper is an experiment in redescription and reinterpretation. It seeks to take a text that enunciates a Heideggerian metaphysics of the “event”—understood as an encounter in which a subject meets itself emerging from the “void”—and to treat this text itself as an event in a quite other sense: as an ordinary historical occurrence. I will thus be approaching Alain Badiou’s Being and Event historically, in terms of the publication of a written work, but of a highly particular kind. This is a work whose discursive structure programs a refined spiritual pedagogy, and whose composition and reception only make sense within the historical context of the elite academic-intellectual subculture in which this pedagogy operates.

If we consider that Badiou regards his text as a “metaontology” that enunciates the emergence of events and indeed of historical time itself from the domain of nonbeing, then to treat this work as a kind of writing that occurs wholly within a particular historical subculture will imbue our redescription with an indelibly polemical complexion. It should be noted at the outset, however, that this complexion arises from the choice of a particular intellectual-historical method, rather than from any normative contestation of the content of Badiou’s work. This method or stance treats even the most abstract objects of reflection as products of an open-ended array of historical intellectual arts: rhetorics of argument, formal and informal languages, mathematical calculi, “spiritual exercises,” pedagogical practices. As a result, even a mode of reflection that claims to apprehend its objects at their point of emergence from the “void” and the “unthought” will be described in terms of the contingent historical use of a particular array of such arts. These will be those arts through which a philosophical elite learns to fashion an illuminated self whom it imagines keeping watch at the threshold of the void for the emergence of things newly minted from nonbeing through their naming. It is the task of a certain kind of philosopher to fashion such a self. The task of the intellectual historian, however, is to describe the intellectual arts used in this “work of the self on the self,” and the historical circumstances and purposes governing their transmission and use. Continue reading …

This essay provides a historical redescription and reinterpretation of Alain Badiou’s major work, Being and Event. The work is approached historically, as a text that uses Heideggerian metaphysics to perform an allegorical exegesis of mathematical set theory and does so as a means of fashioning a supremacist spiritual pedagogy for a philosophical elite in the context of a national intellectual subculture.

IAN HUNTER is an emeritus professor in the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities, University of Queensland, Australia. He has published a number of studies on early modern philosophical, political, and juridical thought, most notably Rival Enlightenments: Civil and Metaphysical Philosophy in Early Modern Germany (Cambridge, 2001). Professor Hunter has also published a series of papers on the history of “theory” in the humanities academy, including “The History of Theory,” Critical Inquiry 33 (2006), and, most recently, “Hayden White’s Philosophical History,” New Literary History 45 (2014).

T. J. Clark Lecture

NASSR 2016 poster finalOn Friday, August 12, T. J. Clark will give one of two keynote lectures for the 24th Annual Conference of the North American Society for the Study of Romanticism (NASSR). The lecture, “Too Deep for the Vulgar: Hazlitt on Turner and Blake,” will take place at 6 pm in room 2050 of the Valley Life Sciences Building at UC Berkeley.

Clark is Professor Emeritus of Modern Art at Berkeley and was a long-time member of the Representations editorial board. His books and other writings, several of which found form originally in Representations, have influenced a generation of scholars.

The NASSR conference will take place from August 11 to 14 at various venues in Berkeley. More information and a full program are available at http://nassrberkeley2016.wordpress.com/.

Fireworks from the Archive

If you need a little respite from neighborhood shenanigans this weekend, consider these two flares from the Representations archive:

Michael Rogin’s “The Two Declarations of Independence”

and

“Glenn Ligon and Other Runaway Subjects” by Huey Copeland

In the former, Michael Rogin asks “What is the bearing of our radicalized national culture on the color-blind innovation of individual rights?” Discussing the American Declaration of Independence in light of the affirmative action debates of the 1990s, Rogin traces the declaration’s legacy through race relations in both the old and the new Hollywoods.

Less well known than Rogin’s other writings on race and film, this short essay appeared in Representations‘ special issue “Race and Representation: Affirmative Action,” edited by Robert Post and Michael Rogin in 1996. The issue quickly went out of print, but is now back in circulation in pdf format.

MICHAEL ROGIN was the author of many books on race, culture, politics, and history, including Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot and Independence Day, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Enola Gay. He taught for many years at the University of California, Berkeley, and was a founding member of the Representations editorial board.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Am I Not a Man and a Brother? Woodcut, 1837. Courtesy Library of Congress

Am I Not a Man and a Brother? Woodcut, 1837. Courtesy Library of Congress

Huey Copeland’s 2011 essay “Glenn Ligon and Other Runaway Subjects” looks at contemporary artist Glenn Ligon’s multiple engagements with the history of American slavery, particularly as evinced by his 1993 installation To Disembark. As Copeland shows, in casting himself as a runaway slave, Ligon points up the relationships between regimes of power, violence, and resistance that continue to produce black subjects as fugitives in life and in representation.

HUEY COPELAND is Associate Professor of Art History at Northwestern University, where he teaches modern and contemporary art. He is the author of Bound to Appear: Art, Slavery, and the Site of Blackness in Multicultural America.

Artistic Relationships

Brushes, Burins, and Flesh: The Graphic Art of Karel van Mander’s Haarlem Academy

by Aaron Hyman

The essay begins:

With male bodies of deep brown-reds, and others of an eerie bluish cream, Cornelis van Haarlem’s enormous Fall of Lucifer pulses warm and cool at once, creating an energy more appropriate to a bacchanal than to a scene of damnation. The canvas’s surface is filled with naked men: a bare butt turns out to us in the foreground, knotty flesh is seen through gently parted thighs, scrotums punctuate splayed legs, and penises respond to the forces of gravity. Insects, traditional iconographic elements of northern European depictions of falls from grace, are here used to conceal genitals. Yet, ironically, the insects instead serve to fix our attention on male groins. The man standing at the left side of the canvas renders sexual innuendo explicit, as his outstretched hand leads the viewer’s eye toward two men in an overtly sexual position. Across the canvas, the strange foreshortening creates the illusion that the reclining nude in the foreground stares directly at the anus of the man who straddles his face. A penis and testicles appear to hang just inches from this reclining man’s nose.

H. Goltziuz, Icarus, 1588. c. Trustees of the British Museum, London. Use by Creative Commons Copyright.

H. Goltziuz, Icarus, 1588. c. Trustees of the British Museum, London. Use by Creative Commons Copyright.

These are the figures of Karel van Mander’s so-called Haarlem Academy, a mysterious and posthumously applied term for an important group of artists who collaborated for a brief, but intense, period at the end of the sixteenth century. The figures in this painting instantiated a web of relationships between the members of this “academy”: the painter Cornelis van Haarlem, the engraver Hendrick Goltzius, the patron Jacob Rauwert, and the art theorist Karel van Mander. These men—a theorist and chronicler of art and his closest colleagues—quite literally defined the northern European canon as it was taking form at the end of the sixteenth century. In the year this painting was begun, 1588, the work and lives of these four men were profoundly interconnected, entwined with the sprawling, muscular, nude men of their art. It was the same year in which Cornelis painted a second, highly disturbing work—Two Followers of Cadmus Devoured by a Dragon (The National Gallery, London)—one that is equally important to exploring the relationships of this group. In Karel van Mander’s renowned artistic treatise, Het Schilder-Boeck, these two canvases are signaled as the high point of Cornelis’s early career; Goltzius made reproductive prints after them; and Rauwert, to whom a print of the Cadmus piece was dedicated, owned both. These works acted as nodes through and around which relationships between these men were formed and conceptualized.

Probing these works and the collaborative working conditions that brought them into being, this essay explores how making art in the early modern period could create a representational space in which relationships could develop and be worked through. With its distinctive treatment of naked male bodies, The Fall of Lucifer points toward a homoerotic dimension of the Haarlem Academy and of this type of collaborative milieu of making in the period more generally. This essay does not pursue a claim—and, indeed, dispenses with the expectation—that the painting evidences (or even could evidence) homoerotic encounters that took place between these men in Haarlem, in the world. Such an interpretive tack has become standard in an early modern art history seeking to give voice to the makers and users of art from within a silenced space of the homoerotic—or homosexual, as is often claimed post hoc for the early modern. Art historians have often proceeded from the belief, explicit or not, that art has the potential to present homosexuality, the desires or sexual practices of makers that become represented in the work of art and that might be confirmed by dint of historical documentation to verify such a reading. The charge made during the social turn out of which much of this now-canonical literature on homoerotism in the early modern period emerged was to give the picture a weight equal to that of the written word in documenting personal (erotic) experience. But if the artwork might offer the art historian initial insight into social dynamics, it is nevertheless inscribed as the historical and methodological endpoint: practices existed, they were documented, and the work of art represents them. The stake in choosing how to treat the work of art is therefore nothing less than the relationship between representation and history. Continue reading …

This essay examines the erotic works produced collaboratively by members of Karel van Mander’s so-called “Haarlem Academy” to suggest that early modern art making created a space in which slippages could occur between homosocial relationships and homoerotic practices. Hierarchical power relations inherent to collaboration, and to early-modern precursors to formalized academies, facilitated these dynamics because they structurally replicated essential conditions of homoerotic relationships. In turn, the piece proposes ways in which formal readings of works coupled with the interrogation of collaborative artistic production can help explore how works of art do more than index homoerotic relationships and, instead, instantiate them.

AARON M. HYMAN is a PhD candidate in the Department of History of Art at the University of California, Berkeley, and currently the Andrew W. Mellon fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts (2015–17) and Mellon fellow in Critical Bibliography at Rare Book School (University of Virginia). His research has also been supported by the Social Science Research Council, the Belgian American Educational Foundation, and the Jacob K. Javits fellowship.

Neoliberalism in Translation

Kokoro Confidential: Edwin McClellan, Friedrich Hayek, and the Neoliberal Reading of Natsume Sōseki

The essay begins:

In a 1962 letter to the conservative Relm Foundation, Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek (1899–1992) discussed plans for disseminating his brand of neoliberalism in Japan. Hayek would win the Nobel Prize for economics in 1974, and by then he had long since established himself as one of the most influential neoliberal thinkers of the Cold War years. In the letter, he discussed a “deliberate campaign” that would bring “libertarian scholars” to Japan, and that would culminate in a Tokyo meeting of the neoliberal network he led, the Mont Pèlerin Society. Hayek emphasized that “there seems now to be a receptive atmosphere for libertarian ideas in Japan, and if this is true the effects of some well directed efforts may be of crucial importance with this volatile people.” Hoping to capitalize on this “receptive atmosphere,” he also arranged for his recent book, The Constitution of Liberty (1960), to be translated into Japanese by Paul Nishiyama, one of his graduate advisees on the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. Hayek would visit Japan four times between 1964 and 1971, and he once wrote that these were “immensely enjoyable” visits that had led his wife to “[take] up the study of Japanese.”

Today, Hayek’s ideas are part of larger dialogues in Japan, the United States, and elsewhere about the culture and politics of neoliberalism. These discussions have only become more urgent in the years since the global economic collapse of 2008. In particular, the question of whether neoliberal reason is the cause or the cure of our current economic and social strife has recently attracted the attention of scholars in fields ranging from political science and economics to history and anthropology. This essay aims to contribute to these discussions by thinking through the cultural dynamics of neoliberal reason from the perspective of modern Japanese literature.

1446182My analysis is premised on a concrete connection between the seemingly disparate fields of modern Japanese literature and Hayekian neoliberalism: In 1957, the most famous novel of modern Japan, Kokoro (1914) by Natsume Sōseki (1867–1916), was translated into English by Edwin McClellan (1925–2009), who was at the time one of Hayek’s advisees on the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. McClellan was born in Japan to a Japanese mother and a Scottish father, and he counted both Japanese and English as native languages. The novel he translated while working with Hayek, Kokoro, is a literary masterpiece that centers on the relationship between an alienated university student and an older man, known only as “Sensei” (my teacher), who shares his thoughts on the loneliness of the modern world with the student before committing suicide just after the death of the Meiji Emperor in 1912.

McClellan’s translation of Kokoro deeply moved Hayek. In fact, McClellan’s literary rendering of Sōseki’s poetic prose so powerfully affected Hayek that he later hired McClellan to polish the language of his own writings, including such classics of neoliberal thought as The Constitution of Liberty and Law, Legislation and Liberty (3 volumes; published in 1973, 1976, and 1979). While moonlighting as an editor (of sorts) for Hayek, McClellan was better known as an influential professor of Japanese literature at Chicago and, later, Yale. During this time, his translation of Kokoro was probably the most widely assigned novel in courses on modern Japan taught in America. The prominence of the translation, though, can make us forget that it was actually undertaken at a time when the field of Japan studies in American academe did not yet exist, and by a graduate student who was trained by scholars who knew almost nothing about Japan.

In the 1950s, after all, McClellan was studying with social scientists, philosophers, and economists affiliated with the Committee on Social Thought at Chicago—not Japanologists. In a 1956 letter of recommendation, in fact, Hayek described McClellan as a political scientist: “[McClellan] is an unusually cultivated man of wide interests and is now employing his good background in economic and political science for a study of certain very important intellectual trends in Japan—an aspect of the influence of Western ideas on the political developments in that country.” McClellan’s translation of Kokoro would go on to become standard reading for generations of students interested in modern Japan, but the point of departure for my own analysis is that it was originally composed and received within the context of a nascent neoliberal movement led by his advisor, Hayek.

This essay focuses on the possibility that intellectuals in 1950s America who knew little about Japan may have found in McClellan’s translation of Kokoro a literary rendering of the neoliberal sensibilities that they were then conceptualizing in expository texts of their own. I begin by examining McClellan’s contacts at Chicago in the 1950s and limn his position within a circle of neoliberal thinkers who became the first readers of his Kokoro translation. I then read the translation itself in the context of the neoliberal conviction that “great books” and other expressions of bourgeois culture reveal the universality of the human condition. I pay particular attention to how the translation might have engaged the antihistoricst sensibilities of McClellan’s Chicago contacts in passages where he scrubbed Sōseki’s language of its cultural specificity, and in passages where the formal qualities of the narrative itself distribute readerly sensibility in the direction of a timeless humanism beyond the boundaries of cultural and historical particularity. These analyses lead me to conclude that McClellan’s translation supplied a way of feeling the ambience and atmosphere of neoliberal reason without ever invoking the sign of “neoliberalism” per se. For in moments when Sōseki’s translated prose led readers to forget the name of the neoliberal ideas that it allowed them to feel, the aesthetic atmosphere of McClellan’s Kokoro itself became, as it were, all the names of neoliberalismContinue reading …

As a graduate student at the University of Chicago in the mid-1950s, Edwin McClellan (1925–2009) translated into English the most famous novel of modern Japan, Kokoro (1914), by Natsume Sōseki. This essay tells the story of how the translation emerged from and appealed to a nascent neoliberal movement that was led by Friedrich Hayek (1899–1992), the Austrian economist who had been McClellan’s dissertation advisor.

BRIAN HURLEY will be joining the faculty of Syracuse University in the fall as an Assistant Professor of Japanese literature, film, and culture. His research has also appeared in the Journal of Japanese Studies and in the Japanese-language journal of literary criticism Bungaku. He is currently working on a book manuscript that examines the confluences of literature and thought in modern Japan.

The Logic of Forgiveness

Why Forgive Carlyle?

by Elisa Tamarkin

The essay begins:

Picture_of_Thomas_CarlyleIf, for Henry David Thoreau, “hospitality is the art of keeping you at the greatest distance,” then no one was more hospitable than Thomas Carlyle; after all, Carlyle’s ability to keep his friends at a distance was no less than his ability to keep them. Nothing Americans might think, after the publication of his Latter-Day Pamphlets in 1850, could heal over the wound they felt straightaway that Carlyle “mocked the admiration” he lived to gain and that, for all the gratitude he had toward us, he also, says Henry James Sr., “hated us.” There may have been “an inexplicable rapport,” writes Walt Whitman, between himself and Carlyle, but, judging by Carlyle’s anti-egalitarianism, bigotry, and scorn of democracy, Whitman was “certainly at a loss to account for it.” Who could excuse, and in any case who could deny, the harmful effect of Carlyle’s contempt for abolitionism, suffrage, and social reform? He “stands for slavery,” Ralph Waldo Emerson writes; he “goes for murder, money, capital punishment” and is as “dangerous as a madman. Nobody knows what he will say next or whom he will strike.” Apparently, vegetarianism bothered him. If you praised republics, he liked Russian czars. If you urged free trade, he remembered he was a monopolist. “Cease to brag to me,” says Carlyle, “of America and its model of institutions and constitutions…. They have begotten, with a rapidity beyond recorded example, Eighteen Millions of the greatest bores.” The press describes his work “On Heroes”—his attempt to substitute a new “hero-archy” for lost hierarchies in society and government—as a recipe for “unadulterated despotism” and “more especially how to catch masses of people and indoctrinate them with the feeling of obedience.” When we read his essay “Dr. Francia,” an apology for the supreme dictator of Paraguay, it is not hard to see why, by the 1930s, Carlyle’s theory of the hero seemed compatible with German fascism or that essays from that time, including “Carlyle Rules the Reich,” suggest that Hitler’s own belief in his “fulfillment of duty” to the majorities could “be expressed in familiar old phrases from Carlyle.” In 1945, when Joseph Goebbels tried to dispel Hitler’s sense of defeat, he read to him from Carlyle’s book on Frederick the Great–Hitler’s favorite book.

Never was “there a publication so provocative of rage, hatred and personal malevolence,” writes one newspaper of the Latter-Day Pamphlets, though the essays were only Carlyle’s most intemperate attacks on philanthropy and democracy. The effect of his intolerance was “convulsive,” so even if Carlyle exaggerated when he said the pamphlets “turned nine tenths of the world dreadfully” against him, it remains true that even his “old admirers drew back.” His estrangement from John Stuart Mill, for example, dates from this time. And while Carlyle’s violence or “scoffing vituperation” might strike us “more with the rhetoric than with the matter,” so that it might not mean what it is, and while “of course,” as Henry James says, “he has a perfect right to be what he is,” does it ever help us justify or make tolerable the critical confusion of Carlyle’s demand to Emerson over the course of two decades, or else to Mill in 1852, “Oh my friend, have tolerance for me, have sympathy with me”? On the publication of Carlyle’s essay “Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question” (1849), his willful apology for slavery, Mill writes, “I hardly know of an act by which one person could have done so much mischief as this may possibly do.” But it takes courage to answer mischief with friendship, and Carlyle found Mill “thin.” “Who cares that he wrote the ‘Nigger Question’,” writes Walt Whitman, since “there has been an impalpable something [for me], more effective than the palpable.” “About Anti-Slavery,” writes the National Anti-Slavery Standard, Carlyle “is unbearable, and about every philanthropic effort. He scoffs with cruel glee at all abolitionists, and all blacks…. Though all this is true, and though it is true that he is not amiable… it is also true, though one can hardly believe it, that he is the most lovable soul you can meet. His sayings against Anti-Slavery are of no consequence.”

Why forgive Carlyle? Continue reading …

This essay discusses the troubled relationships, both intellectual and intimate, of nineteenth-century essayist Thomas Carlyle to understand why Ralph Waldo Emerson and other contemporaries decide to forgive him, while despising his ideas. Coming to terms with the intensity of their affection was also to admit that their forgiveness was inappropriate to their principles and beliefs. Thinking through forgiveness as a kind of convexity, or dispersal of focus, the essay asks what it means to object, but love anyway, and what the challenge of forgiving Carlyle says about the logic, and the relevance, of their critical judgments.

ELISA TAMARKIN is Associate Professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of Anglophilia: Deference, Devotion, and Antebellum America (Chicago, 2008). She is completing a book on ideas of relevance and irrelevance since 1800.

New Issue, Representations 134

Number 134, Spring 2016 (Read on Highwire)

NOW AVAILABLE

1.cover-source

AARON M. HYMAN   
Brushes, Burins, and Flesh:
The Graphic Art of Karel van Mander’s Haarlem Academy
JACOB SOLL   
From Virtue to Surplus: Jacques Necker’s Compte rendu (1781) 
and the Origins of Modern Political Rhetoric
ELISA TAMARKIN   
Why Forgive Carlyle?
BRIAN HURLEY   
Kokoro Confidential: Edwin McClellan, Friedrich Hayek,
and the Neoliberal Reading of Natsume Sōseki
IAN HUNTER   
Heideggerian Mathematics:
Badiou’s Being and Event as Spiritual Pedagogy
——————————-
FIELD NOTES
Bernard Stiegler   The Digital, Education, and Cosmpolitanism