Friday, February 15, 2013

What is the Subject of Intellectual History?

Cross-posted in slightly different form at the US Intellectual History group blog.

Last week, Ben Alpers mused on the possibility of an intellectual history of “irrational” thought. His particular examples were the late writings of Philip K. Dick, which might (charitably) be described as mystical, and the writing of L. Ron Hubbard, which might (less charitably) be called commercial in nature. Whether either of these sets of texts is “irrational” is open to debate, but what I found most interesting about Alpers’s riff was his suggestion that virtually any text is a potential subject for intellectual history.

I have to confess, I had a pretty allergic reaction to this claim. It bothered me for much the same reason that Daniel Rodgers’s much-celebrated Age of Fracture rubbed me the wrong way: it didn’t seem to offer any basis for defining what sorts of texts were appropriate to include in a discussion of “the ideas of the age.” Alpers stated quite resolutely in the comments to his piece that he really felt that in fact, yes, any text could be given the intellectual history treatment. The discussion then migrated over to Twitter, where I started asking, rhetorically, whether it would be appropriate to write an intellectual history of, say, Glenn Beck’s half-baked rantings. When I got some affirmatives to that, I went yet further, and asked, How about an intellectual history of Honey Boo-Boo‘s utterances? Yes? Then how about an intellectual history of moans by porn stars? All verily texts, no?

What these admittedly snarky tweets were trying to get at, however, was actually something quite vital: my point was that, in fact, everyone has their standards for what qualifies as worthy of “intellectual” treatment — it’s just that some people’s standards are a lot lower than others’. What I’d like to do in this post is sketch out, in a more serious manner, what I take to be the appropriate limits of the enterprise of intellectual history.

I should begin by noting that I am definitely favor broadening the scope of topics that intellectual historians turn their sights on. For example, my own work (both scholarly and in industry) has dealt primarily with “policy intellectuals,” a topic/category that would likely have seemed bizarre to intellectual historians of Henry May or Perry Miller’s era. In the intervening years, however, we’ve seen many wonderful intellectual histories written on all manner of unlikely topics, ranging from punk music (Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces) to cooking (Nathan Myhrvold, Chris Young, and Maxime Bilet’s Modernist Cuisine, v. 1) to college football (Brian Ingrassia’s The Rise of the Gridiron University). While all of these books are arguably cultural histories as much as intellectual histories, in each case they demonstrated that these topics contain surprising intellectual depths and textual complexities.

The question that books like this raise, then, is precisely the one that Alpers and I took up: is there any topic at all that isn’t amenable to intellectual history?

To answer this question, we must begin by noting that the central methodological feature of intellectual history is *close textual reading* — that is, careful, sustained interpretation of a text in order to “unpack” meanings that might otherwise appear obscure, inscrutable, or difficult. (I use the word “text” very broadly here – it could include music, art, etc.) Within that broad rubric, there are of course many different approaches to this sort of careful reading: Exegesis, Talmudism, New Criticism, Deconstruction, and so on. But regardless of these particulars, what sets intellectual history off from other forms of historical inquiry is this sustained, close examination of texts.

To some extent, virtually all historians do this sort of reading in their work. In other words, most historiography contains intellectual-historical “moments,” in which the historian engages in a sustained close reading of some text, be it a personal letter, a political speech, or a private diary. But it’s also clear that close reading is not the only or even the primary sort of reading that most historians do. When historians examine, for example, bills of lading, or birth and death certificates, or bureaucratic forms, or financial accounts, they certainly scrutinize them for credibility, but they don’t usually analyze them in terms of complicated textuality: these documents are mainly assumed to be modestly functional in their communicative purpose. In sum, the sort of close reading I am referring to as the hallmark of the intellectual-historical method is in fact generally, and rightly, reserved for certain types of texts.

So, what are the types of texts that deserve this sort of sustained critical reading?

I would argue that to be worthy of the intellectual-historical approach, a text needs to have two essential features. First, the text should have been “carefully wrought” by its author(s); that is, it should be something that was self-consciously produced to be read with care. Texts produced for simple functional reasons really don’t merit this approach: there’s no such thing as a close reading of a telephone book (as even Avital Ronnel would probably admit). Second, the text needs to be one that situates itself within a tradition of similar texts. Most such texts will usually signal this intertextuality in relatively overt ways, that is, by referencing or commenting on other, similar texts. When you think of what it is that intellectual historians mainly do when they engage in close reading, it is precisely unpacking these intertextualities.

Keeping these two defining features of “intellectual history-worthy” texts in mind, it becomes clear why it makes no sense to speak of an intellectual history of, say, Honey Boo-Boo, or porn movie grunts, or elevator music – these are simply not works of ideas that require exegesis. These texts are, fundamentally, not intellectual objects – they are objects that operate in terms other than intellectual ones. To treat them as intellectual objects is at best silly. To be harsh about it, there’s simply no reason to apply our pearly methodology to such swinish texts. Or, if you prefer a martial metaphor, applying intellectual history methods to such texts is likely killing a fly with a bazooka.

I should hasten to add that this is not at all to say that such objects are without historical interest. They absolutely are. Historians of American life in the early years of the 21st century will certainly need to reckon with the significance of Reality TV and ubiquitous pornography. My point here, rather, is that such reckonings will be much better accomplished using tools other than close textual reading. For example, future historians may wish to contextualize such objects in terms of the political economy of their production, or examine the psychological (and physiological) nature of the reactions the produce in audiences, or any number of other techniques. As they say in Britain: horses for courses.
Before concluding, let me address one possible objection directly, which is whether the distinction I’m making is a fundamentally elitist, Arnoldian one. The answer is, yes it is. In practice, the distinction I’m making almost always ends up reproducing a high/low culture distinction. And I have no problem defending this distinction, for in fact some cultural objects are much more “rich,” “complex,” “textured,” “difficult,” or whatever other metaphor you wish use to describe what separates great works from non-great ones.

Let me go further and say this: everyone knows this in their gut, even if twenty years of reading French Theory has caused them to somehow forget it. Honey Boo-Boo’s or Jenna Jameson’s utterances just aren’t as rich a vein to mine using the technique of close reading as, say, John Rawls or bell hooks. Anyone who claims otherwise is, I’m sorry, full of it. (And yes, in making this sort of absolute claim I fully realize that I am engaged in disciplinary boundary work.) My ultimate point is that we all have our standards, we all have our intellectual hierarchies, and the only question is how honest and transparent we are about them.

Postscript: I should note one thing I did change my mind about over the course of last week’s Twitter exchange (yes, I remain capable of occassionally changing my mind!): perhaps it is true, after all, that virtually all overtly political texts fall into the category of “texts worthy of close reading.” This is because, however clumsy or misconceived, virtually all political texts are not only self-consciously wrought, but also situate themselves in some sort of inter-textual tradition, if only implicitly. In which case, maybe Glenn Beck is worthy of the intellectual history treatment, after all, and maybe Daniel Rodgers wasn’t quite so unreasonable when he chose to start Age of Fracture with Peggy Noonan. My gut still tells me that including these sorts of writers defines the project of “intellectual history” awfully far down, but there’s at least a case to be made that their writings meet the criteria I’ve laid out above. So I’ll have to think more on this one.


Chase Richards said...

Nils, I'd say one way out of the aporias that you mention would be to consider not only close reading and intertextuality, but also the sociocultural work being done by the texts in question. Whether it's a think tank memorandum, a philosophical treatise, or a realist novel, we're talking about texts that play a highly ramified role in society, one often wholly out of proportion to their numerical readership and commercial significance. This may be on account of the frequently expansive claims made by such texts, the position/connectedness/influence of the entities invested in their production, or whatever. And, of course, intellectual historians also look at how these figures interact with one another, how this affects other texts, redounds to shape discourse and power relations, etc. So, to come down from the clouds a bit, could intellectual historians study reality TV stars or porn stars? I'd be entertained if they'd try, but unless their farts and grunts form decisive, impactful interventions into some social/cultural/political frame or other, probably not. As for Glenn Beck, if his writings are tightly bound up with how the Beltway operates, if they contribute to the formation of identifiable planes of discourse between centers of power, then sadly yes. But I suspect the resulting monograph would end up a contribution to the history of madness as well as to the history of politics.

Nils said...

Chase: I agree all around!

Nils said...

Some responses to the discussion over on the US intellectual history blod:

There are (at least) FOUR issues at stake in this debate, which need to be unpicked. One is the intellectual complexity or aesthetic rarification of a particular historical object; another is the normative assessment of the quality of the object; a third is the historical importance of that object; and finally, there is the question of the appropriate method for assessing the object. My basic argument in the original post was that the intellectual-historical method of close reading (in all its various technical guises) is most appropriate for intellectually complex historical objects, and less useful for (possibly very historically important, and very historically valuable but) intellectually simple objects – like, say, James Deen’s or Jenna Jameson’s grunts and exclamations.

The discussion thread has migrated to a separate issue, namely whether my “Arnoldian” provocation conflated the first two or maybe three of these issues. To me, the issue is not a matter of conceptual conflation, as the thornier problem that IN FACT there is a strong correlation between the first two of these categories, and a weak correlation to the third. This correlation is not, however, absolute by any means. There are many intellectually rarified products that are clearly of minimal importance in the wider stream of historical change – the many intellectual “dead ends” that one commentator referred to being the limit case. Likewise there are many historically crucial events and objects that are clearly awful as a normative/aesthetic matter – Treblinka, Nagasaki, the Middle Passage, and so on.

Nils said...

And yet, and yet… there is a correlation. Let me try to illustrate what I mean by this through a foodie example. By way of metaphor, let us consider the comparative complexity, quality, and historical significance of, say, Alain Ducasse’s various “three star” restaurants versus that of the Chicken McNugget. On the one hand, if you want to understand what’s special about the gastronomy of Alain Ducasse you need to understand the lengthy history of the production of high-end French cuisine; you’ll also need to understand the cultural details of that eating culture, its service culture, the nuances of how you are expected to behave while you are being served, and so on. Such appreciations are only (and can only be) available to a very privileged subset of humanity: to full appreciate Ducasse’s accomplishments, you will need to be very rich, since to understand the nuances and refinements of what he does, you’ll need to have eaten many meals at similarly rarified establishments, at the cost of tens of thousands of dollars. It is a realm of extreme privilege. On the other hand, to appreciate the foodie qualities of the McNugget, you don’t need to have any refinement at all. The basic aesthetic and gastronomic appeal of the McNugget requires no training whatsoever: fat, sugar, salt, meat. Punkt. Any two year old appreciates a McNugget for the very first time in the same way that I appreciate it on my 200th eating (OK, that was a personal confession).

My first point about this comparison is simply that as an aesthetic object, the meal at Alain Ducasse is clearly a much more complex and nuanced thing than a six-pack of McNuggets served via a drive-through. By that I mean, quite simply, that understand Ducasse’s appeal requires a much more cultivated (and privileged) education in gastronomy than does appreciating the foodie-aesthetic qualities of a McNugget. It requires a privileged training to fully see all the nuances of what Ducasses does.

But here’s the Arnoldian rub: Ducasse is just also flat-out better than the McNugget. It is of higher quality. This is a matter of taste, in both senses of the word. Of course, there might be some who would prefer the McNugget to the Ducasse meal, but this would reflect the quality of their gastronomic education, not the objective quality of the gastronomic objects. One is simply BETTER than the other. Just because it takes an education to see the difference doesn’t mean that the difference isn’t ontological.

In fact, neo-Arnoldian that I am confessing myself to be, that in fact this same principle applies to many, many realms of aesthetics: the more complex, nuanced, and rarified objects are of BETTER quality than the ones that are more banausic and simple to appreciate. Thus “Pride and Prejudice” isn’t just “different” from, say, “Fifty Shades of Grey” – it is BETTER than “Fifty Shades of Grey”; the bas reliefs on temple at Angkor Wat aren’t just “different” from my stick-figure drawings, they are BETTER than my stick figure drawings; Yo-yo Ma’s way of playing the cello isn’t just “different” from the way I play it, it is BETTER than the way I play it. What’s more – no matter the howls of outrage that this claim is going to produce here on this blog – every single last one of you knows in your heart (and hopefully also in some other organs) that this claim about aesthetic superiority is true. Yes: true. It’s not that I am conceptually conflating complexity with quality, it’s that in fact these two things are highly correlated.

Nils said...

So I’ve established that in fact there is a strong correlation between complexity and quality. The next question is whether there is such a correlation between quality/complexity and something we call “historical importance.” And here, I would argue, there is very little correlation at all.

To illustrate this point, let’s go back to the food example. If we ask which is the more “historically significant” object, the McNugget or the Alain Ducasse meal, I would answer that it’s not even close: clearly the McNugget is the far more “significant” object – it is eaten by millions, and the conditions of its consumption and production transforms diets and bodies, ecosystems and economies, the planet over. Ducasse, by contrast, is simply the creator of pleasure palaces for the privileged few. It’s not even close.

This finally brings me full circle to the question of method. I’ve sketched out two “methods” for assessing the McNugget-v-Ducasse question. On the one hand, we might use the method that involves assessing the refined aesthetic aspects of the two, in which case we would rightly conclude that the Ducasse meal is the more interesting of the two – and yes, also the one of higher quality. That’s what happens if you apply the “intellectual historical” method to assessing the two. On the other hand, if you apply a different methodology, namely one that looks at the political economy of the two meals, then you’ll come away with a very different view of the relative significance of the two meals. In other words, you need to pick the right methodology in order to really understand what makes the McNugget meal more significant than the Ducasse meal.

This example, of course, isn’t at all hypothetical. It’s exactly what Michael Pollan did in The Omnivore’s Dilemma. As we all know, Pollan is an excellent intellectual historian and aesethetician of food, and has had the privilege to learn very well how to appreciate the exquisite gastronomic nuances of rarified meals. But when he got to his chapter on the McNugget, that was not how he chose to write about it, because to write about the McNugget this way would be to totally miss what is salient and special about the McNugget. Instead he wrote a brilliant history of America’s economic enslavement to corn production, with the McNugget standing at the very end that complex regulatory, economic, political, and legal foodchain. In other words – and this brings me back to the original point of my post – it’s all about methodological appropriateness. As I said: horses for courses.

This then, is one of the key things that intellectual historians do: we don’t necessarily focus on the things that are MOST important. What we focus on is the things of greatest complexity and quality – things which, alas, are often not at all the most important things of their age. In fact, that is an essential part of our own historical role as intellectual historians: to keep alive the memory of (and appreciation for) things that are of high quality and value, even in the face of historical oblivion at the hands of awful, tawdry things that are in many cases more historically significant. I’m not saying that’s the only role for intellectual historians, but it is certainly one of them.

Chase Richards said...

Now that I've caught up on the shitstorm, I'm inclined to think the response would've been quite different had you focused on the question of elite knowledge production and power (democratic justification for intellectual history as a methodology) rather than aesthetic merit (Arnoldian justification). But I've been working on middlebrow culture and politics for a while now, so aesthetic merit isn't something I'm particularly invested in as a historian. Food and drink are another story.

Maxwell Neely-Cohen said...

While I realize it is not exactly the same, the literary world has struggled with something similar for years (both in the dying embers of the academic field of "literary criticism" and the reviewer/writer/literary scene not-so-industrial complex).
Basically at this point it's hard to argue with a straight face that Gravity's Rainbow is deserving of serious textual analysis but The Hunger Games is not, considering how ridiculous, irrational, (and even pseudo-Glenn Beckian) the former can be, and the broad linguistic and cultural impact of the latter.
Personally, I consider (perhaps wrongly) both to fulfill your two criteria for being worthy of intellectual history, but that leads me to all sorts of analogs that I'm curious how you feel about-
Aren't the lyrics of Jay-Z both "carefully wrought" and in a tradition of "similar texts?"
If so, than isn't the perceived elitism of both the field (and of your particular opinion on this subject) more the fault of the subjects selected than the methodology?
There are plenty of "low"-cultural and sub-cultural and mass-market examples of carefully wrought intertextual works that have immense and far reaching intellectual impact (several video games for example I could imagine serving as worthy "texts"), especially considering the intellectual history of younger (read: my) generations.

Nils said...

I think an intellectual history of the evolution of hip-hop lyrics could absolutely be a great topic, yes. (I don't know enough about video games to say.) but I think your point about the selection of topics being the main "problem" is probably right. This is why I started by saying that I am all in favor of extending the method to new topics that have these traits of being carefully wrought and intertextual

Iaian said...

After reading your post, the comments, and rebuttal on USIH, perhaps the discussion should center around how these textual "objects" (read non-fiction, fiction, film, music, business reports, journal entries, et al.) fit within the intellectual historian's "subject" (read idea) that he/she is writing about, and how that fits into the larger study of intellectual history itself.

After all, if one wanted to write about nascent Cold War Culture's view of Americanism in direct relation with consumerism, reviewing advertising from the '50s might prove beneficial to the subject. The object of 1950s advertising (i.e. ads in Saturday Evening Post for Kenmore refrigerators, or GE's new automatic toaster, etc.) has no intellectual merit per se, but in a larger contextualization it does.

I am weary, though, of intellectual historians close reading, say, The Situation's "self-help" book (link: because the act (if permitted and perpetuated) could lead to the deconstruction of intellectual history itself.

So I'm all for boundaries, just not stricture.