Niall Ferguson’s American Empire: A Matter of Mimesis

It is probably not surprising that in the five or so years following September 11, 2001, writing on American empire ballooned in both periodicals and academic literature.[1] Journalists and scholars from across the spectrum offered their “expert” opinions on the goals, nature, and relevance of American empire, often in ominous and prescriptive terms. There were both opponents and proponents of empire, with, for the most part, the left in the former group and the right in the latter.[2] Some writers got more attention than others, either for making polemical claims or having popular names; some even got attention for both. Perhaps no one squeezed more out of this combination of claim and name to get his ideas to the public than the conservative historian Niall Ferguson.[3] Already a well-known historian and polemicist by the early twenty-first century, Ferguson had no difficulty finding a platform for his supposedly incontrovertible ideas. At breakneck speed, he wrote several books, essays, and articles on empire in general and American empire in particular. His first book, Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power, is self-explanatory in its project, as is its sequel, Colossus: The Price of America’s Empire, though there is more to both book’s than the titles suggest.[4] Along with his other writing, these books are the foundation of Ferguson’s imperial ideology.

Yet, unlike his books, Ferguson’s essays have not been extensively discussed by other commentators on the subject of empire. Most analysts look to Colossus for his take on American empire, and although this is understandable, it fails to acknowledge Ferguson as a public intellectual who desires and thrives on access to the public. As a public intellectual, his goal is not simply to reach the public but also to reach them as much as possible and in multiple ways. And there is arguably no historian with a greater appetite for a an audience than Ferguson. As the late Andrew Porter pointed out in 2003, “Niall Ferguson is a glutton for exposure.”[5] Understood this way, all of Ferguson’s published material is equally important, for all of it is meant to be read, analyzed, and reflected on. Failing to recognize this precludes a serious consideration of the various essays that Ferguson wrote about empire and its American variant in the several years after 2001. This paper ventures where few other scholars have thought necessary to go: Niall Ferguson’s essays. I attempt a reading of Ferguson’s essays on American empire in order to discover how each of the essays articulates a unique stance (or not) and how each essay contributes to a larger imperial ideology (if at all). Specifically, I analyze four essays, each from a different publication, from the years 2003 and 2004.[6] I focus my analysis on these two years because it was during this time period that writing on American empire, the so-called “new imperialism,” and empire more generally flooded the pages of periodicals and the shelves of bookstores and libraries.[7] Ultimately, I hope to show that Ferguson’s interpretation of the goals, form, necessity, and limits of American empire is, in the last analysis, a product of his understanding of the British Empire. This is not necessarily a novel observation, given that Colossus is regarded as a sequel to Empire, but the point I want make is that Ferguson’s notion of empire is not a fluke or a haphazard creation; rather, it is a coherent understanding of empire, so much so that it can even be ascertained solely from his essay work.

Contextual Commentary

In order to set the stage for Ferguson’s imperial ideology between 2003 and 2004, and to give texture to an interpretation of his views, I want to discuss a few essays by other writers.[8] The essays are not representative of any specific trend or take on empire; rather, they demonstrate some of the viewpoints that came out in conjunction with Ferguson and, therefore, offer a glimpse into the general tone of the commentary published in magazines and newspapers at the time. The first essay I want to discuss is Michael Ignatieff’s “The American Empire; the Burden,” which in some ways can be considered as the foundational text of the period.[9] It was not the first text of the era, and it came out at the very beginning of 2003, prior to the invasion of Iraq, but it is arguably the best example of the type of writing that came out in 2003-04, as evidenced by the numerous references to the text in other writings from the period and those written after.[10] In the essay, which today would be given the hashtag longread,[11] Ignatieff attempts to show that the new American empire can take many different forms, based on the decisions it makes, but all of them, in the final reading, are burdensome. Ignatieff spends little energy convincing the reader that America is an empire; in his eyes, no other moniker is appropriate:

What word but ‘empire’ describes the awesome thing that America is becoming? It is the only nation that polices the world through five global military commands; maintains more than a million men and women at arms on four continents; deploys carrier battle groups on watch in every ocean; guarantees the survival of countries from Israel to South Korea; drives the wheels of global trade and commerce; and fills the hearts and minds of an entire planet with its dreams and desires.[12]

If empire were a job, then no other country but the United States would be qualified for the position. It has the perfect resume, complete with all the appropriate action words: it polices, maintains, deploys, guarantees, drives, and fills the most influential military, economic, and ideological tasks. For Ignatieff, it would be futile to deny that the US is an empire; yet this is exactly what it does. This is one aspect that is considered unique and representative of American empire, or the “new imperialism.” As Ignatieff states,

the 21st century imperium is a new invention in the annals of political science, an empire lite, a global hegemony whose grace notes are free markets, human rights and democracy, enforced by the most awesome military power the world has ever known. It is the imperialism of a people who remember that their country secured its independence by revolt against an empire, and who like to think of themselves as the friend of freedom everywhere. It is an empire without consciousness of itself as such, constantly shocked that its good intentions arouse resentment abroad. But that does not make it any less of an empire, with a conviction that it alone, in Herman Melville’s words, bears ”the ark of the liberties of the world.”[13]

As Ignatieff makes plain, if it looks like an empire, acts like an empire, and talks like an empire, then it is an empire, regardless of whether it admits it or is even aware of it. It is a de facto empire, and empire comes with responsibility. This is the burden: whether or not it admits it is an empire does not change the fact that the choices the United States makes are imperial in kind or that their consequences are those of imperial choices. Ignatieff describes a heavy burden, and although he does offer some advice, he does not paint a bright picture of the future for American empire or its objects.

The next essay I want to discuss is “American Empire, Not ‘If’ but ‘What Kind’,” by Ivo H. Daalder and James M. Lindsay.[14] The authors remind the reader early on that “in the last six months alone, as debate on Iraq peaked, the phrase ‘American empire’ was mentioned nearly 1,000 times in news stories, while bookstores have been quickly filling their shelves with freshly minted tomes on the subject.”[15] Michael Ignatieff published his essay for New York Times Magazine in early January 2003; Daalder and Lindsay published their essay for the New York Times in May 2003. Ignatieff’s essay falls within the timeframe that Daalder and Lindsay consider, which begins in November 2002, and is presumably included in the count they give, which is indicative of a huge surge in writing on American empire. Daalder and Lindsay take it upon themselves to enumerate the different stances taken in the surge and, like Ignatieff and other writers of the period (including Ferguson, as we will see below), make recommendations for the American empire going forward. Also like Ignatieff, Daalder and Lindsay are quite certain that the US is an empire: “for all the debate over whether or not the United States should be an empire, that question is beside the point. Like it or not, the power and reach of the United States have already turned it into an empire.” “The real debate, then, is not whether to have an empire, but what kind.”[16] For Daalder and Lindsay, “what kind” is a question of unilateralism versus multilateralism—that is, should the US run its empire alone, or should it work with other nations? The authors favor multilateralism, because “a unilateral exercise of power will breed more and more resentment abroad to the point that other states may decide to work together to obstruct the chosen American course. Then, the United States could stand alone, a great power frustrated in the pursuit of its most important goals.”[17] An empire of multilateralism, then, is the kind of empire Daalder and Lindsay believe the US should be, for it is the surest way for the US to achieve its imperial goals.

Finally, I want to look at Amitav Ghosh’s New Yorker essay “The Anglophone Empire,”[18] which was published in April 2003 and, therefore, possibly part of Daalder and Lindsay’s count. This is perhaps the most creative interpretation of American empire in the 21st century, though this is hardly surprising, given that Ghosh is a novelist who is recognized as one of the Anglophone world’s most talented writers of both fiction and nonfiction. Ghosh opens his essay by writing, “during the past few months, much has been written on the subject of a ‘new American empire.’ This term, however, is a misnomer. If the Iraq war is to be seen as a kind of imperial venture, then the project is neither new nor purely American.” Ghosh confirms what Daalder and Lindsay say about the increase in writing on American empire, but this is where the similarities end. Unlike Ignatieff and Daalder and Lindsay, Ghosh refocuses his lens to reject the Ameri-centric spatial and temporal assumptions undergirding the “new American empire.” As he notes, “what President Bush likes to call the ‘coalition of the willing’ is dominated, after all, by America, Britain, and Australia—three English-speaking countries whose allegiances are rooted not just in shared culture and common institutions but also in a shared history of territorial expansion. Seen in this light, the alignment is only the newest phase in the evolution of the most potent political force of the last two centuries: the Anglophone empire.”[19] Rather than seeing the American empire as distinct from the British Empire that came before it or Australia’s expansionist history, Ghosh does away with the stale interpretation of empire that is centered around national histories and argues that the American empire is not a descendant of an earlier empire but rather a continuation of what he calls the Anglophone empire. Beyond what he says in this claim, Ghosh shows that the parallels between the Americans in Iraq and the British in India are too obvious to ignore, and, in concert with his peers of the time, offers lessons and warnings. He closes, for example, by saying, “as George Orwell and many other observers of imperialism have pointed out, empires imprison their rulers as well as their subjects. In today’s America, where people are increasingly disinclined to venture beyond the borders, this has already come to pass. But perhaps, in these accelerated times, it won’t be long before most Americans begin to long for an escape from the imprisonment of absolute power.”[20] Ghosh has some hope for Americans burdened by empire, but as we saw above with Ignatieff, not everyone from this period does. At this point, we might ask ourselves what Niall Ferguson has to say on the matter. Is he hopeful or fearful? More generally, how does he define and understand American empire? Let us now turn to his essays to find out.

An Empire in Denial

Ferguson opens his essay “An Empire in Denial: The Limits of US Imperialism,” published by Harvard International Review in 2003, by saying, “it used to be only foreigners and those on the fringes of US politics who referred to the ‘American Empire.’ Invariably, they did so in order to criticize the United States.”[21] Things have changed, he informs us, for empire is now a topic of academic and mainstream discussion, not all of which is critical. “Officially, however, the United States remains an empire in denial.”[22] Effectively, this is the raison d’être of the essay; it is from this observation that Ferguson attempts to demonstrate that the US is in fact an empire and that refusing to recognize this is leading to/has the potential to lead to the decline of America on the global stage. Regarding his goal to prove that America is an empire, Ferguson first addresses the terminological game many commentators play when discussing US power and influence around the globe. Although other terms get thrown around, he maintains that empire is most appropriate, because the imperial character of the US simply cannot be denied. Ferguson argues this point by constantly comparing the activities of the United States and the British Empire, which he sees as the archetypal empire in modern history and a precursor to the American empire. Take this passage: “the expansion of the original 13 US states westwards and southwards in the course of the 19th century was itself a quintessentially imperialist undertaking. In both the US and British empires, indigenous populations were vanquished, expropriated and marginalized.”[23] Not only is Ferguson saying that the destruction of native populations is a mark of empire, but he is also linking US actions to those of Britain’s, suggesting that those actions should be interpreted as imperial. This also suggests that the US has been imperialistic since its inception.

However, just because the US was imperialistic, it does necessarily follow that it still is imperialistic. What makes the US an empire is, according to Ferguson, the combination of mainly two things: military and economic dominance—two things that, in his understanding, define empire in general. Although the US does not control territory in the same way as the British, it is the dominant military power around the globe, with “752 military installations located in more than 130 countries” and a military “budget [that] equals the combined military expenditures of the next 12 to 15 states.”[24] Its military dominance is so substantial that it even overshadows its British forbear. As Ferguson notes, “in military terms, the British Empire did not dominate the full spectrum of military capabilities, as the United States does today; it was never so far ahead of its imperial rivals.”[25] This raises the question: if the US exceeds even the British Empire in military power, then how can it not be considered an empire? Ferguson concludes that “if military power is the sine qua non of an empire, then it is hard to deny the imperial character of the United States today.”[26] Militarily, then, the US is undoubtedly an empire, and this holds true economically as well. Ferguson informs the reader that America’s global output is currently larger than that of any other country and even “exceeds the highest share…ever achieved by Great Britain by a factor of three. In terms of raw materials, then, the United States is already a vastly more powerful empire than Britain ever was.” He goes on to explain how the economic health of the US “partly explains how the United States has managed to achieve a unique revolution in military affairs while at the same time substantially reducing the share of defense expenditures as a portion of gross domestic product (GDP).”[27] Thus, as in the military domain, the US outdoes the British Empire in the economic domain. Allowing the reader to make the connection between Britain’s economic health and its military dominance, Ferguson makes the connection explicitly vis-à-vis the US. The parallels are too obvious to ignore, but even more telling is that the US surpasses the British Empire both militarily and economically. “In short,” concludes Ferguson, “in terms of military capability and economic resources the United States not only resembles the last great Anglophone Empire but exceeds it.” For one to outmatch another, both parties have to be playing the same game. The game here is imperialism.

Next, Ferguson ruminates on what is at stake in the recognition of the US as an empire. Answering his own question of whether or not it makes a difference if the US acknowledges that it is an empire, Ferguson responds, “the answer is yes. The problem with an empire that is in denial about its own imperial nature is that it tends to make two mistakes when it chooses to intervene in the affairs of lesser states. The first is to attempt economic and political transformation in an unrealistically short timeframe. The second is to allocate insufficient resources to the project.”[28] If the US cannot admit that it is an empire, then it cannot sufficiently achieve the goals of intervention. It will always disappoint the “lesser states” or leave them wanting because it cannot contribute enough resources to deliver on its promises. In other words, only an open declaration of American empire can produce the results the US desires in its excursions abroad. Without this declaration, those excursions are useless. “And this is perhaps the reason why this vastly powerful economy,” suggests Ferguson, “with its extraordinary military capability, has had such a very disappointing record when it has sought to bring about changes of regime abroad.”[29] It is important to note that Ferguson is not recommending that the US step away from imperial activity; rather, he suggests that the US continues its imperial undertakings as a bona fide empire. In another comparison to the British, Ferguson asserts, “there is no question, as we have seen, that the United States has the raw economic resources to take on the old British role as underwriter of a globalized, liberalized economic system. Nor is there any doubt that it has the military capability to do the job. On both scores, the United States is already a far more powerful empire than Britain’s ever was.”[30] Ferguson is a fan of the regime change and “globalized, liberalized economic system” of which he speaks, but he is also a fan of that empire on which the sun was never supposed to have set. If the US is the heir to the British Empire, and if it has the capabilities to match it and surpass it, then it should continue its work. In sum, for Ferguson, it is not just a name that is at stake with American empire, but also the “liberal ethos” that the British worked so hard spread and the Americans are now responsible for.[31]

Recovering Our Nerve

In a 2004 article for The National Interest, Ferguson attempts, as the title “Recovering Our Nerve” predicts, to make the case for America’s continued presence in Iraq, following its invasion of that country in March 2003.[32] Predictably, Ferguson believes that the invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam Hussain was a good thing; however, he is unsatisfied with the way in which these acts were carried out and expanded on. As he sees it, the United States committed seven mistakes in this regard: failing to think about reconstruction, basing assertions of weapons of mass destruction on weak evidence, employing mutually exclusive diplomatic tactics, ignoring the Geneva Convention in its use of torture at Guantanamo Bay and in Abu Ghraib, setting an unrealistic departure date, negotiating with rebels, and calling in the United Nations after bypassing it previously. For this discussion, I want to focus on failing to think about reconstruction, because it highlights Ferguson’s views of American empire. As in the essay “An Empire in Denial,” Ferguson does not think the invasion of certain countries is a bad thing; rather, it is failing to think beyond the invasion that he deems faulty, especially in the case of Iraq. For example, he writes, “in planning for a war to topple Saddam, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld did a brilliant job. But in planning for the peace that would follow, he did a dreadful job.” “Only the State Department appears to have had a serious plan for the postwar period,” Ferguson continues, “and only Secretary of State Colin Powell appears to have understood that this was an implicitly imperial undertaking.”[33] In Ferguson’s view, Iraq needed to be invaded, and in its invasion of that country, the US performed well. Nevertheless, it failed to think about putting Iraq back together after invading it and toppling its government. Only Colin Powell was prescient enough to think of a plan for reconstruction, and this was the result of his understanding of US actions in Iraq as imperialistic. In other words, Ferguson is claiming that admitting its imperial nature and accepting the responsibilities of an empire would have allowed for the US to avoid this misstep.

Apparently, the same holds true for the US’s other mistakes. As Ferguson writes, “all of these mistakes have one thing in common. They betoken a failure to learn from history. Among the most obvious lessons of the history of modern imperialism is the lesson that an empire cannot rule by coercion alone. It needs legitimacy above all—in the eyes of the subject people, in the eyes of the other great powers and, above all, in the eyes of the people back home.”[34] Indeed, legitimacy is gained by taking on the burden of responsibility that comes with being an imperial power and delivering the benefits of liberalism; and it must come from all those effected by imperialism. However, Ferguson is actually saying a bit more here: legitimacy is not just one aspect of empire, it is also the most important aspect. An empire’s success—the American empire’s success—rests not on coercion alone, but on a mixture of coercion and legitimacy, with an emphasis on legitimacy. This, history suggests, is what makes for a successful empire. As Ferguson queries, after mentioning that only Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley recognized explicitly at the time that the US invasion of Iraq was an act of imperialism, “did no one else grasp that occupying and trying to transform Iraq (with or without allies) was a quintessentially imperial undertaking—and one that would cost money and take many years to succeed? Why did nobody bother to read about the last Anglophone occupation of Iraq?”[35] These questions are meant to demonstrate a few things. First, Ferguson points out that the invasion of Iraq was so archetypically imperial that pretending otherwise is pointless as well as detrimental; legitimacy cannot come without money and time, two things that an overt imperial commitment would presumably provide. Second, he compares America’s imperial exploits to those of Britain during its imperial heyday, a technique, as we saw above in his Harvard International Review essay, central to Ferguson’s ruminations on American empire. He does this as a way of suggesting that America should learn from the British. The British Empire, Ferguson makes plain, has much to teach its shy descendent, and America would do well to learn a thing or two, unless it wants to repeatedly blunder its unofficial imperial operations.

A World without Power

The next article I want to discuss is from the magazine Foreign Policy. Published in 2004, “A World Without Power” approaches American empire from a cautionary perspective.[36] In the article, Ferguson warns readers about what the world could look like absent of American hegemony. Most people tend to argue (or simply assume) that the opposite of a unipolar world is a multipolar world, assuming as they do that there is always a struggle for power among so-called “great powers,” whether empires or nation-states.[37] However, multipolarity is not the only alternative to unipolarity; just as viable is apolarity—a world with no dominant power. And this is not a good thing. As Ferguson puts is, “anyone who dislikes U.S. hegemony should bear in mind that, rather than a multipolar world of competing powers, a world with no hegemon at all may be the real alternative to U.S. primacy. Apolarity could turn out to mean an anarchic Dark Age: an era of waning empires and religious fanaticism; of endemic plunder and pillage in the world’s forgotten regions; of economic stagnation and civilization’s retreat into a few fortified enclaves.”[38] Ferguson submits that apolarity could lead to fanaticism, plunder and pillage, stagnation, and—gasp!—civilization’s retreat, which is perhaps the item on the list that is meant to scare the reader the most; after all, what kind of world is possible without the blinding light of civilization? If civilization’s light showed us the way out of the “anarchic Dark Ages,” then the removal of light can only bring us back to a dark world. The hegemonic power maintains civilization, along with all that it provides and prevents; “today [2004], it is the United States; a century ago, it was the United Kingdom. Before that, it was France, Spain, and so on.”[39] Therefore, Ferguson argues, the US is the only thing keeping us from anarchy, regression, and degeneration.

Admittedly, Ferguson does not use the word “empire” in the above passage, but there is little doubt that what he means is just that. For one thing, we know from prior analysis that he already uses the term empire in conjunction with the US. Second, his willingness to use hegemony and primacy interchangeably suggests that he does not play the linguistic game that many other scholars engage in when discussing American power in the world—that is, hegemony equals primacy equals empire. Third, and perhaps more tellingly, he makes his typical (favorite?) comparison between the US today and the British Empire (see the second quote in the previous paragraph). It seems that, in this essay, he is taking American empire as a given to highlight another aspect of his argument: the absence of US power. Yet, there does seem to be a point of slippage, when, for instance, Ferguson writes that “the United States suffers from at least three structural deficits that will limit the effectiveness and duration of its quasi-imperial role in the world.”[40] Why quasi-imperial? The issue is not really that severe, for Ferguson clears up any confusion the reader may have just after. After explaining the first structural deficit facing the United States, Ferguson writes, “it is difficult to recall any past empire that long endured after becoming so dependent on lending from abroad.” Here, Ferguson uses empire explicitly and in its unmodified form, relieving any doubt that he was somehow copping out of calling America an empire. His use of “quasi-imperial” reflects his contention that the US does not recognize that it is an empire, which prevents it from fully committing to its imperial projects. As Ferguson notes of the US, “its republican institutions and political traditions make it difficult to establish a consensus for long-term nation-building projects. With few exceptions, most U.S. interventions in the past century have been relatively short lived.” Again, we come to the disjuncture present in US nation-building projects and interventions and the recognition of these as imperialistic; hence, the use of quasi-imperial. Although Ferguson does not say it explicitly in this essay, he implies that the US is quasi-imperial because it is not imperial à la Britain (admittedly imperial and dedicated to long-term interventions).

By the end of the essay, the reader has no doubt that Ferguson sees the US as an empire, and that that empire is a good thing for humanity. In closing his article, Ferguson warns,

if the United States retreats from global hegemony—its fragile self-image dented by minor setbacks on the imperial frontier—its critics at home and abroad must not pretend that they are ushering in a new era of multipolar hegemony, or even a return to the good old balance of power…. The alternative to unipolarity would not be multipolarity at all. It would be apolarity—a global vacuum of power. And far more dangerous forces than rival great powers would benefit from such a not-so-new world disorder.[41]

It is clear that, in Ferguson’s eyes, the US is indeed an empire, one that needs to stay in power if the world is to avoid falling into “a not-so-new world disorder.” And the anti-imperialists at home should think of this world disorder before hastily calling for a retreat of empire and civilization.

The Empire Slinks Back

In an essay written for New York Times Magazine in 2003, Ferguson points out what he thinks are the two main weaknesses of America’s imperial undertakings in Iraq.[42] The first is a lack of what he terms “stamina:” an imperial power’s willingness to stay in the territories it invades as it attempts to nation-build. For Ferguson, stamina is “the one crucial character trait without which the whole imperial project is doomed.”[43] If the US is not willing to stay in Iraq, then its empire—even if unacknowledged by the American people and their representatives— will disintegrate along with its projects. This would be an unfortunate loss, because the US has all the components necessary for empire. As Ferguson maintains,

the United States unquestionably has the raw economic power to build an empire—more, indeed, than the United Kingdom ever had at its disposal. . . . There’s “soft” power too—the endlessly innovative consumer culture that Joseph Nye argues is an essential component of American power—but at its core, as we have seen in Afghanistan and now in Iraq, American power is far from soft. It can be very, very hard. The trouble is that it is ephemeral. It is not so much Power Lite as Flash Power—here today, with a spectacular bang, but gone tomorrow.[44]

In Ferguson’s opinion, the US has the economic power, soft power, and military power that are needed to build and sustain an empire, but it refuses to use them adequately. The implementation of any or all of these different powers will have no lasting effects if the US refuses to stay in Iraq for a significant length of time. For what is power if it is ephemeral? Therefore, rather than continue with its current strategy (to get out as soon as possible), Ferguson insists the US should look to the British imperial encounter with Iraq, which lasted officially for 12 years and unofficially for 40; this long-term strategy was the key to realizing the British Empire’s goal:

The British regarded long-term occupation as an inherent part of their self-appointed “civilizing mission.” This did not mean forever. The assumption was that British rule would end once a country had been sufficiently ”civilized”—read: anglicized—to ensure the continued rule of law and operation of free markets (not to mention the playing of cricket). But that clearly meant decades, not days; when the British intervened in a country like Iraq, they simply didn’t have an exit strategy.[45]

Thus, concludes Ferguson, “the crucial point is this: when the British went to Iraq, they stuck around.”[46] Likewise, if the Americans want their plans in Iraq to succeed, they just need to stick around and give it the old college try.

The colloquialism “give it the old college try” is not insignificant. In fact, it brings us to the second weakness of American imperialism in Iraq that Ferguson identifies: not enough graduates from America’s top universities want to go to Iraq in the service of imperialism. As Ferguson reminds us, “America’s educational institutions excel at producing young men and women who are both academically and professionally very well trained. It’s just that the young elites have no desire whatsoever to spend their lives running a screwed-up, sun-scorched sandpit like Iraq.”[47] The professional ambitions of American graduates from elite institutions lean heavily toward the private sector, where they hope to run multinationals or financial institutions. These Ivy League graduates have no ambitions to join the American imperial apparatus in the same way Oxbridge graduates sought a position in the Indian Civil Service. This is a huge problem, claims Ferguson, by way of an anecdote: “’Don’t even go there!’ is one of those catch phrases you hear every day in New York. Somehow it sums up exactly what is flawed about the whole post-9/11 crypto-imperial project. Despite their vast wealth and devastating weaponry, Americans have no interest in the one crucial activity without which a true empire cannot enduringly be established. They won’t actually go there.”[48] Essentially, Ferguson is saying that the American form of imperialism in Iraq does not benefit from the infamous “man on the spot,” something—rather, someone—the British Empire relied on during its imperial reign; in fact, the man on the spot was what made the empire possible. As Ferguson describes him, the man on the spot was “indispensible” because he “learned the local languages, perhaps adopted some local customs—though not usually to the fatal extent of ‘going native’—and acted as the intermediar[y] between imperial authority and the indigenous elites upon whose willing collaboration the empire depended.”[49] Men on the spot were indispensable to the functioning of the British Empire, but the American empire does not have them; as such, it suffers from a serious deficiency. As Ferguson states, “until there are more [university-educated] Americans not just willing but eager to shoulder the ‘nation-builder’s burden,’ adventures like the current occupation of Iraq will lack a vital ingredient. For the lesson of Britain’s imperial experience is clear: you simply cannot have an empire without imperialists—out there, on the spot—to run it.”[50]

Taking Stock

Looking at four essays written by Niall Ferguson between 2003 and 2004, we see that his analysis of American empire is shaped and perhaps limited by his persistent faith in the lessons of the British Empire. In “An Empire in Denial: The Limits of US Imperialism,” written for Harvard International Review in 2003, he argues that the US is an empire by comparing its military and economic capabilities to Britain’s during its imperial reign. In his piece for The National Interest, “Recovering our Nerve,” he avers that the American empire cannot survive or thrive without legitimacy, perhaps the paramount lesson from Britain’s imperial adventures, particularly those in Iraq. Ferguson’s Foreign Policy essay “A World without Power,” from 2004, suggests that the American empire must continue the civilizational mission of its imperial predecessors, most notably the British Empire, its immediate predecessor, if the world is to be without chaos. Lastly, in “The Empire Slinks Back,” a longread written for New York Times Magazine in 2003, he maintains that the US flubbed Iraq because it failed to follow the British Empire’s model there. Taken together, Ferguson seems to be making the case for a perverted form of what Ghosh calls the Anglophone empire. But whereas Ghosh believes the Anglophone empire already exists, Ferguson believes the Anglophone empire is something to be strived for. After all, in his eyes, notwithstanding the American empire’s current role as global hegemon, it was the British Empire that made the modern world.

 


[1] Books from this period include Andrew Bacevich, American Empire: The Realities and Consequences of U.S. Diplomacy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002); John Bellamy Foster and Robert W. McChesney, eds. Pox Americana: Exposing the American Empire (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2004); Deepak Lal, In Praise of Empires: Globalization and Order (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004); and Charles Maier, Among Empires: American Ascendancy and Its Predecessors (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006). Articles from the period include John Agnew, “American Hegemony Into American Empire? Lessons from the Invasion of Iraq.” Antipode 35 (November 2003): 871-885; Sebastian Mallaby, “The Reluctant Imperialist: Terrorism, Failed States, and the Case for American Empire.” Foreign Affairs 81 (March/April 2002): 2-7; and Arthur Schlesinger Jr., “The American Empire? Not so Fast.” World Policy Journal 22 (Spring 2005): 43-46. See also the collection of essays in Leo Panitch and Colin Leys, eds. The Socialist Register, 2004: The New Imperial Challenge (London: The Merlin Press, 2003). Review articles, news articles and other pieces from popular periodicals are too numerous to list here; however, a cursory online search should be enough to show the reader the popularity of American empire at the time.

[2] The association of the left with anti-imperialism and the right with pro-imperialism is obviously reductionist, but it is indicative of a general pattern in the literature.

[3] Although most people would consider his views to be conservative, Ferguson considers himself to be a centrist who is right of center. This may carry some weight, given the emergence of the alt-right, which espouses a conservatism that does indeed push Ferguson closer to the center. Notwithstanding the 2016 election, however, Ferguson’s views are considered by most commentators to be conservative; I have not come across a critic on the right or the left who considers Ferguson to be a centrist. Anyhow, he is constantly placing himself in opposition to (American) liberals, so it is rather Ferguson’s own burden to show that he is not conservative, given that that is where he rhetorically positions himself.

[4] Niall Ferguson, Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power (New York: Basic Books, 2002); Colossus: The Price of America’s Empire (New York: The Penguin Press, 2004). These two books were also published as Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World (London: Allen Lane, 2003) and Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire (London, Penguin Books, 2005).

[5] Andrew Porter, review of Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World, by Niall Ferguson, Reviews in History, March 2003: review no. 325, http://www.history.ac.uk/reviews/review/325 (accessed November 25, 2016). Porter continues by informing the reader that “from January to mid-February 2003 six one-hour television programmes, four lectures to substantial audiences in the University of London’s Senate House, and a large glossy book have been devoted to his theme of ‘empire’ or, as he also puts it, ‘how Britain made the modern world’. Elsewhere, for example in The Times (6-7 January 2003), there have been extracts taken from the book.” Note that this doesn’t even include any of Ferguson’s work, written or otherwise, on American empire.

 

[6] The four essays included in this study are not Ferguson’s only pieces on empire or American empire in this timeframe. See Niall Ferguson, “Hegemony or Empire?” Foreign Affairs 82 (September/October 2003): 154-161; “The Last Iraqi Insurgency,” New York Times, April 18, 2004, http://nyti.ms/2ei0n8f (accessed November 26, 2016); “Power,” Foreign Policy 134 (January/February 2003): 18-24; Niall Ferguson and Laurence J. Kotlikoff, “Going Critical: American Power and the Consequences of Fiscal Overreach,” National Interest 72 (Fall 2003): 22-32. See also his interview with Frank Bures: “Our Imperial Imperative,” Atlantic Unbound, May 25, 2004. http://www.theatlantic.com/past/docs/unbound/interviews/int2004-05-25.htm (accessed October 23, 2016).

[7] For a fuller understanding of Ferguson’s imperial ideology, a look at his later pieces would be quite beneficial. See, for example, Niall Ferguson, “Cowboys and Indians,” New York Times, May 24, 2005. http://nyti.ms/2emxMfY (accessed October 19, 2016); “The Unconscious Colossus: Limits of (and Alternatives to) American Empire,” Daedalus 134 (Spring 2005): 18-33; “The Nation That Fell to Earth,” TIME Magazine, September 11, 2006, http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1531303-1,00.html (accessed November 26, 2016); “An Interview with Niall Ferguson: The Truth About Empire; How Empire Benefits World Order in the 21st Century,” Harvard International Review 28 (Winter 2007): 74-77. See also his exchange with William Dalrymple: “The Question of Empire,” New York Review of Books, July 19, 2007, http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2007/07/19/the-question-of-empire/ (accessed October 19, 2016).

[8] As with Ferguson, I chose to focus on other writers’ essays about American imperialism rather than their books. The essays speak to each other in a way that books cannot, given the audience demands and stylistic concerns.

[9] Michael Ignatieff, “The American Empire; the Burden,” New York Times Magazine, January 5, 2003, http://nyti.ms/2d6zuAs (accessed November 25, 2016).

[10] I urge anyone interested in the writing of this period to read this essay.

[11] For insight into “long” things such as longreads, see Matt Buchanan, “The Origin of #Long Things,” BuzzFeed, April 11, 2012, https://www.buzzfeed.com/mattbuchanan/the-origin-of-long-things (accessed November 28, 2016).

[12] Ignatieff, “The American Empire.”

[13] Ibid. Emphasis mine.

[14] Ivo H. Daalder and James M. Lindsay, “American Empire, Not ‘If’ but ‘What Kind’,” New York Times, May 10, 2003, http://nyti.ms/2dLLyZn (accessed November 25, 2016).

[15] Ibid.

[16] Daalder and Lindsay, “American Empire.”

[17] Ibid.

[18] Amitav Ghosh, “The Anglophone Empire: Can Occupation Ever Work?” The New Yorker, April 7, 2003, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2003/04/07/the-anglophone-empire (accessed November 25, 2016).

[19] Ghosh, “The Anglophone Empire.”

[20] Ibid.

[21] Niall Ferguson, “An Empire in Denial: The Limits of US Imperialism,” Harvard International Review 25 (Fall 2003): 64.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ferguson, “An Empire in Denial,” 65.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ferguson, “An Empire in Denial,” 69.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ferguson, “An Empire in Denial,” 69.

[31] Ibid., 66.

[32] Niall Ferguson, “Recovering Our Nerve,” The National Interest 76 (Summer 2004): 51-54.

[33] Ferguson, “Recovering Our Nerve,” 52.

[34] Ibid. 53.

[35] Ferguson, “Recovering Our Nerve,” 53-54.

[36] Niall Ferguson, “A World without Power,” Foreign Policy 143 (July/August 2004): 32-39.

[37] Ferguson uses terms of polarity here less as terms of his own liking and more as terms of communication. Like other jargon, these terms are favorites of political scientists, surely one of the target audiences of Foreign Policy, and thus it is no surprise that Ferguson uses them in this article; in fact, it’s actually quite prudent. I bring this up because I am not going to challenge the stability of these terms; instead, I am going to use them as Ferguson uses them—as terms of communication. Therefore, I will not use quotation marks with the terms.

[38] Ferguson, “A World without Power,” 34.

[39] Ibid., 32.

[40] Ferguson, “A World without Power,” 34. Emphasis mine.

[41] Ferguson, “A World without Power,” 39.

[42] Niall Ferguson, “The Empire Slinks Back,” New York Times Magazine, April 7, 2003. http://nyti.ms/2egckeU (accessed November 11, 2016). This piece, like Ignatieff’s, is a longread.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Ferguson, “The Empire Slinks Back.” Joseph S. Nye Jr. coined the term “soft power” in his 1990 article of the same name: “Soft Power,” Foreign Policy 80 (Autumn 1990): 153-171. For a discussion of soft power contemporaneous with the Ferguson article discussed in this section of the paper, see Joseph S. Nye Jr., “Soft Power and American Foreign Policy,” Political Science Quarterly 119 (Summer 2004): 255-270.

[45] Ferguson, “The Empire Slinks Back.”

[46] Ibid.

[47] Ferguson, “The Empire Slinks Back.”

[48] Ibid. Emphasis mine.

[49] Ibid.

[50] Ferguson, “The Empire Slinks Back.”


Bibliography

Works by authors other than Ferguson and released between 2002 and 2007

Agnew, John. “American Hegemony Into American Empire? Lessons from the Invasion of Iraq.” Antipode 35 (November 2003): 871-885.

Bacevich, Andrew. American Empire: The Realities and Consequences of U.S. Diplomacy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002.

Daalder, Ivo H., and James M. Lindsay. “American Empire, Not ‘If’ but ‘What Kind.’” New York Times, May 10, 2003. http://nyti.ms/2dLLyZn (accessed October 14, 2016).

Foster, John Bellamy, and Robert W. McChesney, eds. Pox Americana: Exposing the American Empire. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2004.

Ghosh, Amitav. “The Anglophone Empire: Can Occupation Ever Work?” New Yorker, April 7, 2003. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2003/04/07/the-anglophone-empire (accessed October 14, 2016).

Ignatieff, Michael. “The American Empire; The Burden.” New York Times Magazine, January 5, 2003. http://nyti.ms/2d6zuAs (accessed October 14, 2016).

Lal, Deepak. In Praise of Empires: Globalization and Order. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

Mallaby, Sebastian. “The Reluctant Imperialist: Terrorism, Failed States, and the Case for American Empire.” Foreign Affairs 81 (March/April 2002): 2-7.

Maier, Charles. Among Empires: American Ascendancy and Its Predecessors. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006.

Nye, Jr., Joseph S. “Soft Power and American Foreign Policy.” Political Science Quarterly 119 (Summer 2004): 255-270.

Panitch, Leo, and Colin Leys, eds. The Socialist Register, 2004: The New Imperial Challenge. London: The Merlin Press, 2003

Porter, Andrew. Review of Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World, by Niall Ferguson, Reviews in History, March 2003: review no. 325, http://www.history.ac.uk/reviews/review/325 (accessed November 25, 2016).

Schlesinger Jr., Arthur. “The American Empire? Not so Fast.” World Policy Journal 22 (Spring 2005): 43-46.

Pieces by Niall Ferguson

Ferguson, Niall. Colossus: The Price of America’s Empire. New York: The Penguin Press, 2004.

——. Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire. New York: Penguin Books, 2005.

——. “Cowboys and Indians.” New York Times, May 24, 2005. http://nyti.ms/2emxMfY (accessed October 19, 2016).

——. “An Empire in Denial: The Limits of U.S. Imperialism.” Harvard International Review 25 (Fall 2003): 64-69.

——. “The Empire Slinks Back.” New York Times Magazine, April 27, 2003. http://nyti.ms/2egckeU (accessed October 19, 2016).

——. Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power. New York: Basic Books, 2004.

——. “Hegemony or Empire?” Foreign Affairs 82 (September/October 2003): 154-161.

——. “An Interview with Niall Ferguson: The Truth About Empire; How Empire Benefits World Order in the 21st Century.” Harvard International Review 28 (Winter 2007): 74-77.

——. “The Last Iraqi Insurgency.” New York Times, April 18, 2004. http://nyti.ms/2ei0n8f (accessed October 19, 2016).

——. “The Nation That Fell to Earth.” TIME Magazine, September 11, 2006. http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1531303,00.html (accessed October 8, 2016).

——. “Recovering Our Nerve.” National Interest 76 (Summer 2004): 51-54.

——. “Slinking Globalization.” Foreign Affairs 84 (March/April 2005)

——. “The Unconscious Colossus: Limits of (and Alternatives to) American Empire.” Daedalus 134 (Spring 2005): 18-33.

——. “A World without Power.” Foreign Policy 143 (July/August 2004): 32-39.

Ferguson, Niall, and Frank Bures. “Our Imperial Imperative.” Atlantic Unbound, May 25, 2004. http://www.theatlantic.com/past/docs/unbound/interviews/int2004-05-25.htm (accessed October 23, 2016).

Ferguson, Niall, and Laurence J. Kotlikoff. “Going Critical: American Power and the Consequences of Fiscal Overreach.” National Interest 72 (Fall 2003): 22-32.

Ferguson, Niall, and William Dalrymple. “The Question of Empire” New York Review of Books, July 19, 2007. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2007/07/19/the-question-of-empire/ (accessed October 19, 2016).

Miscellaneous

Buchanan, Matt. “The Origin of #Long Things.” BuzzFeed, April 11, 2012, https://www.buzzfeed.com/mattbuchanan/the-origin-of-long-things (accessed November 28, 2016).

Nye Jr., Joseph S. “Soft Power.” Foreign Policy 80 (Autumn 1990): 153-171.

Tolerance in Two Recitations

The prompt for this paper asks students to compare the cultures of toleration in Heda Margolius Kovály’s Under A Cruel Star: A Life in Prague, 1941-1968 and Ian Burma’s Murder in Amsterdam: Liberal Europe, Islam, and the Limits of Tolerance.[1] Assumed in this directive is a definition of tolerance,[2] but exactly what definition that is remains to be interpreted. At one level, tolerance can be read as “sympathy or indulgence for beliefs or practices differing from or conflicting with one’s own.” On another level, tolerance can be interpreted as the “capacity to endure pain or hardship.”[3] Because both definitions are equally valid interpretations of tolerance in Kovály’s and Buruma’s book, it makes it difficult (and perhaps detrimental) to read for only one of them. “Read for” is appropriate here because it requires a conscious attempt to recognize the different registers of tolerance in the texts. It is because of this nuance that, for this paper, I have also decided to analyze different registers of tolerance. However, because of the detail inherent in an analysis of this kind, I have decided to focus on only one text—Under a Cruel Star. Rather than a slight to or dodge of Buruma, this decision is a reflection of my belief that analyzing tolerance on two levels in one book is equivalent to analyzing tolerance on one level in two books. Choosing the former method not only allows for a deeper understanding of one text, but it also prevents a superficial understanding of two extremely rich ones. In the end, I hope to show that life in Prague between 1941 and 1968 was one of social intolerance as well as one of individual tolerance (an individual’s ability to withstand pain and hardship).

First, I want to look at the representation of social intolerance in Under A Cruel Star. Social intolerance is present throughout the entire book, but the first major wave of it comes after Kovály escapes from the Germans and returns to Prague to attempt to restart her life. The first person she visits is an old friend named Jenda, who, prior to the deportations, told Kovály, “whatever happens, I shall be your anchor. If you can, send me your messages. Should you be separated, count on meeting again at my place. If anything happens to me, I’ll find a replacement. I’ll never stop waiting for you to come back. You’ll always have somewhere to come back to.”[4] Yet, when Kovály shows up at Jenda’s apartment, he was anything but the anchor he promised to be. As Kovály writes, “I saw that he felt ashamed of himself and guilty, but that his fear was stronger than anything else. All he could think of was the deadly danger that had walked in with me: Was I sure no one had seen me on the stairs? He wanted not to know me, to know nothing about me and live. Live in peace and quiet in the middle of death and deportation.”[5] If I term this social intolerance, some will no doubt object that it is too harsh a reading of Jenda and his actions, but let us remember that tolerance can be defined as sympathy for someone with beliefs and practices that conflict with one’s own. Kovály, who believed Jenda would help her and attempted to practice that belief, represented for Jenda a life in conflict with his own. The resulting fear paralyzed Jenda, as he did not offer help to Kovály or run after her when she left his apartment, realizing as she had that she was not going to find a helping hand in Jenda. In not wanting to know Kovály and “to know nothing about [her] and live,” he was practicing social intolerance, for voicing hatred or disagreement is not the only way to be intolerant. In fact, one could argue that the “silent treatment” is the cruelest form of intolerance because it is an attempt to erase the person with whom you conflict from existence. After all, engagement, even if conflictual, is tacitly an act of tolerance.

Unfortunately, Kovály’s encounter with social intolerance did not end after the particular fears of the Second World War wore off. After her husband Rudolf was arrested in 1952 in connection to his alleged role in conspiring against the state, she once again came up against fierce social intolerance. As Kovály describes it,

By that time, I had become like a leper, to be avoided by anyone who valued his life. Even the most casual encounter with me could arouse suspicion and invite disaster. I could understand that and could bear the situation better than most people in the same situation. The war inured me to it and, besides, I knew that I had no right to expose other people to danger. Why should anyone risk his job or the safety of his family or, perhaps, his freedom, just to talk to me? It is natural for people to think first of those for whom they are responsible. If everyone were a hero, what would courage be worth? And so it was largely without bitterness that I watched people suddenly cross the street when they saw me coming or, if they spotted me too late to cross, avert their eyes. To those few who insisted on continuing their acquaintance with me, I myself would say, “Don’t stop. Don’t talk to me. It makes no sense.”[6]

Although this is a long quote, it needs to be shown in full if we are to get a sense of the full meaning behind what is being said. Because Rudolf was accused of conspiring against the state, he was considered a traitor politically as well as socially. Kovály, by marital association, was also considered a traitor, and, therefore, she was treated “like a leper, to be avoided by anyone who valued his life.” Notwithstanding Rudolph’s probable brush with torture and eventual death, Kovály perhaps suffered a harsher punishment: the shunting of a society with which she had unavoidable contact every day. Because contact with Kovály “could arouse suspicion and invite disaster,” people avoided her and ignored her in the most casual ways and circumstances. Indeed, one could reasonably claim that, given the political and social climate, these people had no choice but to avoid her, lest they too would attract the state’s suspicion and its resulting consequences. But they did have a choice—they just chose to ignore her. They chose the path of intolerance. Fear may have been the cause of this choice, but that doesn’t make it any less intolerant. Even if it can be shown that political intolerance breeds social intolerance, the burden of toleration rests not on fear but on sympathy and indulgence.

At this juncture, I would like to address the second definition of tolerance: the capacity to withstand pain or hardship. You’ll notice that the long paragraph quoted and analyzed above has more to it than examples of social intolerance. Imbedded in it also are expressions of Kovály withstanding hardship. For instance, notice that every description of social intolerance is coupled with an example of Kovály withstanding social intolerance. After comparing herself to a leper, she states, “I could understand that and could bear the situation better than most people in the same situation. The war inured me to it and, besides, I knew that I had no right to expose other people to danger.” From this, we see that Kovály’s experience in concentration camps during the Second World War gave her a high level of tolerance for hardship, specifically the pain that comes with social intolerance. However, we also see what I am going to call her tolerance for intolerance. Kovály “understands” why people are avoiding her, and she asserts “that I had no right to expose other people to danger.” She goes on to ask, “why should anyone risk his job or the safety of his family or, perhaps, his freedom, just to talk to me? It is natural for people to think first of those for whom they are responsible. If everyone were a hero, what would courage be worth?” Kovály, the victim of intolerance, is here practicing tolerance in the manner of our first definition, which is about having sympathy for those with conflicting beliefs and practices. She sympathizes with those who are putting their own lives before hers. Even though their beliefs and practices conflict with hers and, because of sheer numbers, have a greater effect on her than hers has on them, she responds with indulgence. In fact, she was so indulgent that “to those few who insisted on continuing their acquaintance with [her, she herself] would say, ‘Don’t stop. Don’t talk to me. It makes no sense.’” At this point in Kovály’s recollection, the two forms of tolerance—sympathy for views different from one’s own and withstanding hardship—have fused into one. That is, tolerance defined as the “capacity to endure pain or hardship” becomes tolerance defined as “sympathy or indulgence for beliefs or practices differing from or conflicting with one’s own.”

Although there are other examples in Under A Cruel Star of both readings of tolerance, it seems appropriate to end the paper with that last analysis—and even inappropriate to continue beyond it—given that it leaves us with what is perhaps the ultimate lesson of the book: the two registers of tolerance are simply, and perhaps unexpectedly, two sides of the same coin. Social intolerance requires of an individual the ability to with withstand hardship, which can then in turn lead to social tolerance. This is not to suggest that social intolerance is necessary for social tolerance, but rather that social intolerance does not inevitably lead to only more intolerance. There exists a constant tension between tolerance and intolerance in the book, and this tension played itself out in the history of twentieth-century Europe. It even haunts twenty-first-century Europe, as Buruma demonstrates in Murder in Amsterdam. However, although social intolerance remains a specter over Europe, Kovály shows us that social tolerance in such an environment is not only possible but also worthwhile.


[1] Heda Margolius Kovály, Under A Cruel Star: A Life in Prague 1941-1968 (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1986) and Ian Buruma, Murder in Amsterdam: Liberal Europe, Islam, and the Limits of Tolerance (New York: Penguin Books, 2007).

[2] Toleration is a more limiting noun than tolerance, so, admittedly, I am taking some creative license here, but I think it is a freeing and therefore, necessary maneuver.

[3] Both definitions of tolerance come from the entry for tolerance (noun) at merriam-webster.com: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/tolerance.

[4] Kovály, Under A Cruel Star, 26.

[5] Ibid., 27.

[6] Kovály, 117.

Influencing the Young Albert Camus: Perspectives on Jean Grenier

In the family of historical subfields, intellectual history is often treated as a shunned stepchild among blood-related siblings. This happens for many reasons, but one main reason is that intellectual history is simply misunderstood. Most people think intellectual history is the study of a specific idea’s development over time, which is indeed one way of doing intellectual history but certainly not the only one. In fact, this way of doing intellectual history has fallen out of favor, since it has the tendency to look at ideas without regard for their interaction with other phenomena. (I am avoiding the word “context” because genealogy is a form of context.) This type of analysis is referred to as “vertical”; however, “horizontal” analysis has come to replace it. As the historian Stefan Collini explains the change, “instead of works which cut a ‘vertical’ (and often teleological) slice through the past… the tendency of recent work has been towards excavating a more ‘horizontal’ site, exploring the idioms and preoccupations of a past period as they manifest themselves in thought and discussion about various issues that cannot readily be assigned to current academic pigeon-holes.”[1] Horizontal thinking, then, allows for a more ecumenical analysis, one that goes beyond a discussion of an idea’s development to maturity. It is with this horizontal mode of analysis that I want to frame my discussion of Albert Camus, one of the France’s most famous writer-philosophers in the twentieth century.

What does this mean for my historiography, you may ask? Well, it means that I had to get creative when choosing a topic in order to avoid, for example, looking at how different authors interpret absurdity in Camus’ thought generally or in one of his texts. This would be vertical history, or an interpretation of it, and that is something I wanted to avoid. I knew I wanted to use Alice Kaplan’s Looking for the Stranger: Albert Camus and the Life of a Literary Classic,[2] but it was not until I read a few essays in The Cambridge Companion to Camus that I arrived at an effectual topic:[3] Jean Grenier’s intellectual influence on Camus before the publication of The Stranger in May 1942. Jean Grenier was one of Camus’ mentors as a young writer,[4] and his influence on can be seen in much of his writing; however, I am focusing on the years before The Stranger because that is where the literature focuses its interpretive energy. Admittedly, this takes me away from Camus himself, but focusing on Grenier allows me to avoid falling into literary criticism or biography. It also allows me to cover something related to Camus that is not so “been there, done that.” Ultimately, I hope to show that, although opinion differs about Jean Grenier’s influence on Camus—for example, with regard to extent and effects—the authors agree that Grenier did have a noticeable influence on Albert Camus’ intellectual upbringing.

Perhaps it is obvious that one’s mentor is tagged as one of their main intellectual influences, but it is not something that it often discussed. More often than not, discussions of an author’s intellectual influences center on canonical writers that that person reads; often that person responds to those influences in their own writing. Rarely, however, is an author’s teacher or mentor discussed, for, in the intellectual history most people imagine, an idea is studied hermetically, without regard for context. In this intellectual history, Camus can be studied without knowledge of his teacher, in the mode of literary criticism. But to understand Camus prior to the birth of The Stranger and at least some of the ideas that run through it, we need to learn about the man who shaped Camus’ intellectual world to a great extent. Camus met Jean Grenier in 1930, the same year he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Although he was seventeen, and had already been influenced in some way by his primary school teacher Louis German and his uncle Gustave Acault, it was Jean Grenier who really set Camus up for a life of the mind. As Kaplan summarizes it, “In 1930, Camus met Jean Grenier, his lycée and then his university teacher, who guided his early reading and encouraged him to take the double path of literature and philosophy.”[5] It may be too much to say that Grenier is responsible for giving us Camus, but as someone who is in graduate school because his own mentor encouraged it, I would suggest that it might also be accurate. After all, not only did Grenier introduce Camus to the thinkers he would grapple with throughout his life as a writer (e.g. Schopenhauer, Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche & Bergson),[6] he also recommended the book that convinced the young Camus that he could be a writer: La Douleur (grief), by André de Richaud. As Kaplan puts it, “[Camus] considered La Douleur his license to write,”[7] because it showed that one didn’t need to write about bourgeois concerns like André Gide or Marcel Proust to become a successful writer.

Toby Garfitt’s “Situating Camus: the formative years,” chapter two of The Cambridge Companion to Camus,[8] is devoted entirely to Grenier’s influence on Camus, with special attention focused on the early nineteen thirties. Although Garfitt mentions early influences in Camus’ life,[9] he, like Kaplan, sees Grenier as a distinct moment in the development of Camus’ intellectual life. And yet, Garfitt speaks about Grenier’s early influence on Camus in a slightly different way than Kaplan. For example, after quoting Camus at age sixteen, Garfitt writes, “It was in the following year, 1930-1, that Camus encountered the man who was to unlock the world of books and ideas for him. The man was Jean Grenier, who at the ago of thirty-two arrived back in Algiers (where he had already taught for a year in 1923-4) to teach philosophy at the Lycée.”[10] Whereas Kaplan points to Grenier as a teacher who “guided” and “encouraged” Camus’ intellectual passions, Garfitt calls him “the man who was to unlock the world of books and ideas” for Camus. If this doesn’t reveal a big enough difference, Garfitt’s next sentences should. As if anticipating someone questioning Grenier’s mentor credentials, Garfitt writes,

But Grenier was not only a teacher of philosophy and a practicing philosopher himself; he had recently begun to publish essays in the Nouvelle Review Française (NRF), and he had even worked for a while for the publishers Editions de la NRF (Gallimard), so that he brought with him all the prestige of the Parisian literary world. His aim was less to teach the official syllabus than to open his pupils’ minds to culture in a broad sense.[11]

Grenier was a teacher, yes, but he was much more than that, according to Garfitt: he was a practicing philosopher, a published writer in one of France’s most prestigious literary magazines, and an employee of Gallimard, one of the literary world’s top publishers. While Garfitt writes that Grenier “brought with him all the prestige of the Parisian literary world,” it seems that what he really wants to suggest is that Grenier brought the Parisian literary world to Camus. That is, Garfitt believes Grenier gave Camus a Parisian literary education, or at least as much of a Parisian literary education as he could expect to receive in French Algeria. However, as the last sentence in the quoted passage demonstrates, Grenier also gave Camus a cultural education that went beyond the official syllabus dictated by Paris. In other words, Garfitt maintains that Grenier was more than just Camus’ teacher: he was the person who set in motion the intellectual curiosities that would allow Camus to one day write some of the most stunning pieces of writing, including his first breakthrough novel The Stranger, and he while doing this, he represented the possibilities of intellectual life. As Garfitt puts it in the conclusion to his chapter, “The period 1931-4 was crucial for Camus’s intellectual development, and it is clear that many of the elements that he absorbed in those three years were introduced to him, and mediated, by Grenier.”[12]

Significantly, Grenier was to have a more direct impact on The Stranger. Garfitt, for one, points out that Grenier noticed his influence in The Stranger. Grenier recommended Dostoyevsky to Camus during the period 1931-4, and, as Garfitt tells it, “He later noticed that Dostoyevsky’s analysis, in Notes from the Underground, of man’s awareness of his total impotence within a blind, even absurd world, was very similar to that found in L’Etranger: it may well have been his own teaching that got Camus thinking along those lines.”[13] We would never be able to prove definitively that this specific Dostoyevsky piece was on Camus’ mind while he was writing The Stranger unless he had written it down in his journal, which he apparently did not, since Garfitt makes no mention of it. (Even if he had written it down, we would still need to handle the claim with caution, less we make the mistake of taking autobiographical claims at face value.) But the suggestion by both Grenier and Garfitt is enough to show that Grenier’s teaching stayed with Camus in some noticeable way, at least until The Stranger.

If this is not direct enough for you, Kaplan does one better by providing an example of how Grenier influenced The Stranger in a more tangible way. After writing a novel titled A Happy Death, which contains elements that would eventually end up in The Stranger, Camus sent Grenier the manuscript for feedback. Grenier’s feedback was not good, and Camus took it to heart. As Kaplan writes, “Camus burned Grenier’s response with the rest of his correspondence in October 1939—burned the harsh words of reproach. We know how harsh the letter must have been because the fussy and often disapproving teacher carefully saved Camus’s response.”[14] Kaplan quotes Camus’ response to Grenier at length, but for our purposes, the beginning of the response is enough to get an idea of how Camus reacted to Grenier’s harsh criticism: “First of all, thank you. Yours is the only voice that I can heed with profit. What you say always revolts me for a few hours. But this forces me to reflect and to understand. . . . Today what you are saying is absolutely right.”[15] Clearly, Grenier’s opinion carries great weight with Camus, and Kaplan does a good job of showing this. After the quote, the remainder of which being full of dejection, Kaplan adds, “Then as he poured out his heart for many pages, Camus asked Grenier a question that gave his teacher enormous power over his future: ‘Before going back to work, there is one thing I’d like to know from you because you’re the only one who can tell me straight: Do you sincerely believe I should continue writing?’”[16] As if pouring his heart out for pages was not enough, Camus asks Grenier to decide his future for him. Grenier’s response was apparently so harsh that Camus felt he was not even qualified to make the decision himself. Kaplan informs the reader that “Camus realized he could only answer the question for himself,” but she leaves us with no doubt that Grenier is an important figure in Camus’ life intellectual life. If fact, in the next chapter, Kaplan informs the reader that Camus, although he attempted rewrites, abandoned A Happy Death; furthermore, character and plot points of the novel that would become The Stranger began to emerge in noticeable form during this time, after Camus abandoned A Happy Death. If The Stranger emerged in the period following Grenier’s letter, then the proposition that Grenier set the novel in motion is not that ludicrous; this is exactly the proposition Kaplan makes by telling the story in this way. To be clear, I do not think Kaplan is suggesting the Grenier is the sole cause of The Stranger; rather, I think she is suggesting that Grenier was integral to its development. In this way, Grenier was also integral to Camus’ intellectual development as a thinker and writer.

Interestingly, Grenier had a less obvious impact on Camus’s intellectual development prior to The Stranger: he persuaded Camus to join the Algerian Communist Party (PCA) in the late nineteen thirties. Ieme van der Poel mentions this aspect of Grenier’s influence in her Cambridge Companion to Camus chapter “Camus: a life lived in critical times,”[17] which attempts to provide the larger historical context to Camus’ life while giving the reader insight into how Camus negotiated that context in his writing. As Poel notes, “From 1935-1937, Camus was a member of the Algerian Communist Party. In his choice of membership, he was certainly influenced by his former teacher and mentor, the writer Jean Grenier. It is less obvious why, after a relatively short period of time, Camus was struck off the party’s register.”[18] Grenier appears and disappears in one sentence, which is probably not surprising in a chapter devoted to the larger historical context of Camus’ life, but it is significant that Grenier gets a mention in the years before The Stranger was published. Kaplan, too, mentions Grenier’s role in Camus’ decision to join the PCA, though her language is his a bit harsher than Poel’s. As she puts it, “[Camus] joined the Communist Party in 1935, urged on rather cynically by Grenier, who hated the Communists but thought party membership was a rite of passage, and by a school friend, Claude Fréminville.”[19] Although the language is slightly different, Kaplan and Poel agree that Grenier had a hand in getting Camus to join the Communist Party. Garfitt agrees as well, but his take is a little different. “In terms of political commitment,” writes Garfitt, “Camus was under pressure in 1934 to join the Communist Party, but he wanted to keep his eyes open and avoid being ‘blinded by short-term convictions’; in the course of the next year Grenier was to encourage his pupil to follow his natural inclinations and join the party.”[20] Garfitt makes it known that Camus was indeed under pressure to join the Community Party, but he believes Grenier’s influence was one of encouragement, not of pressure. Regardless of the differences in interpretation among the three authors, they all believe that Grenier influenced Camus’ decision to join the Algerian Communist Party in some capacity. To what degree communism had a lasting or even short-term impact on Camus is less important for our purposes than acknowledging that during his time with the Communist Party, Camus was not under Grenier’s tutelage as much as he had been when not in the party. According to Garfitt, this and other breaks from Grenier “had a positive value in helping Camus to establish his intellectual independence.”[21] Thus, Grenier persuading Camus to join the Communist Party may be one of his most important (indirect) influences on Camus in the years leading up to The Stranger.

The Stranger is one of Albert Camus’ most well known pieces of writing, if not the most well known. Those of us who have read the novel can easily see why this book was the one that launched Camus’ career as a literary star. What most readers do not know, however, is that the story behind The Stranger is a fascinating one, filled with hardship and a lot of determination.[22] Even less known is that Jean Grenier, Camus’ first mentor, influenced his intellectual makeup in profound ways. Some of this influence made it into The Stranger, some of it made it into his other writing, and some of it influenced Camus in more general ways that manifest at the level of worldview. Regardless of the exact influence, the authors discussed in this paper seem to believe that Grenier had a significant influence on the young Camus. Looking at their points, it is hard to disagree with them.


[1] Stefan Collini, “Intellectual History,” Making History, 2008, accessed January 2, 2017, http://www.history.ac.uk/makinghistory/resources/articles/intellectual_history.html.

[2] Alice Kaplan, Albert Camus and the Life of a Literary Classic (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2016).

[3] Edward J. Hughes, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Camus (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

[4] Camus’ other mentor was Pascal Pia.

[5] Kaplan, Looking for The Stranger, 9.

[6] Kaplan writes that “Nietzsche was the philosopher who counted most for Camus during those years [at university], in style and substance; he admired Nietzsche, he wrote, as a poet-philosopher ‘susceptible of engaging in contradictions’” (Kaplan 10).

[7] Kaplan, Looking for The Stranger, 10.

[8] Toby Garfitt, “Situating Camus: the formative years,” in The Cambridge Companion to Camus (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007): 26-38.

[9] Garfitt mentions German and Acault, as well as Schopenhauer, Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche and Bergson, but he also mentions Molière. His comments on Molière are relevant and worth quoting. He writes, “At the Grand Lycée in Algiers, where Camus discovered a totally different world from that of the rough working-class district of Belcourt where he grew up, the author who appealed most to him was probably Molière. The implications of that are still to be explored, both for his dramatic practice and for his often unrecognized humour” (Garfitt 26).

[10] Ibid. Emphasis mine.

[11] Garfitt, “Situating Camus,” 26-27.

[12] Ibid., 37.

[13] Garfitt, “Situating Camus,” 29.

[14] Kaplan, Looking for The Stranger, 26.

[15] Kaplan, Looking for The Stranger, 27. The quote continues, “I took great pains over this book. . . . I am still happy that certain parts please you, happy to have made progress. I have to confess that I am not indifferent to this failure. I don’t need to tell you that I am not satisfied with the life I’m leading. And so I had given great importance to the novel. Clearly I was wrong.”

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ieme van der Poel, “Camus: a life lived in critical times,” in The Cambridge Companion to Albert Camus (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007): 13-25.

[18] Ibid., 16.

[19] Kaplan, Looking for The Stranger, 19.

[20] Garfitt, “Situating Camus,” 34.

[21] Ibid., 37.

[22] See Kaplan’s Looking for The Stranger for this story.

Review: Discipline & Punish

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage Books, 1995.

What can you say about Michel Foucault that hasn’t already been said? No other thinker since Foucault has had more of an impact on history, literature, cultural studies, and a number of other disciplines that comprise the humanities and social sciences, if not the gamut of them. This goes without saying. No other thinker has caused so much debate and division within history in the past few decades as has Foucault. Again, this goes without saying. Yet, precisely because of Foucault’s influence, these things must be said and acknowledged time and again. That one individual could have such a huge impact is astounding, and it begs the question:[1] how did he do it? Discipline and Punish (hereafter Discipline) possibly offers the best avenue for answering this question because it is a blend of his theoretical and practical work in a way that was new even for Foucault. Specifically, it was the first time he attempted to employ what he called genealogy. Previously, in The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences and The Archaeology of Knowledge: And the Discourse on Language, Foucault laid out archaeology, a method of analysis aimed at deciphering the discourses that structure discursive formations for a given episteme, or period of knowledge. However, archaeology had a major flaw: it could not account for change. As the Foucault-scholar Gary Gutting writes, “genealogy, the new method first deployed in Discipline and Punish, was intended to remedy this deficiency.”[2] In particular, genealogy was meant to address the deficiencies of archaeology by showing how one episteme became another; in other words, genealogy was about transition and transformation. Discipline, then, is perhaps the most Foucauldian text in all of Foucault’s oeuvre because of its unique place in the development of his methodology. After all, Foucault cannot be separated from his methodology, for, in the end, it was his methodological innovations that allowed him to make his most successful arguments on discourse.

In four parts (Torture, Punishment, Discipline, and Prison), using a variety of French and English sources, Foucault attempts to show how and why punishment moved from being inflicted on the body to being inflicted upon the soul. Another way to say this is, the book is about the transition from one mode of punishment to another. Each mode of punishment comes from a different episteme, according to Foucault, with punishment upon the soul coming from our modern or current episteme and punishment on the body coming from the episteme just before that. What is the soul in relation to punishment? What does it mean to punish the soul? If punishment in our current episteme is the manifestation of the formulation that “punishment … should strike the soul rather than the body” (16), then how did it come to be? And why? These are the guiding questions of the book. Note that Foucault’s focus is on the soul, which indicates that he is primarily interested in the current episteme, and specifically, the transition to the current episteme. As Foucault writes of Discipline, “this book is intended as a correlative history of the modern soul and of a new power to judge; a genealogy of the present scientifico-legal complex from which the power to punish derives its bases, justifications and rules, from which it extends its effects and by which it masks its exorbitant singularity” (23). In Discipline, there is a Point A and a Point B. Point A is punishment of the body. Point B is punishment of the soul under “the present scientifico-legal complex.” Point A interests Foucault only insofar as it represents the beginning of the genealogy; Point B interests Foucault only insofar as it represents the end of the genealogy. Foucault’s main interest is in the genealogy of the soul as the victim of discipline and punishment.

But genealogy is more than an academic rendering of photojournalist Dan Eldon’s oft-quoted adage “the journey is the destination.”[3] Looking at Foucault’s argument a little closer allows us to get a better understanding of just what exactly genealogy was intended to do. In Discipline, Foucault argues that, contrary to what Enlightenment narratives and its dutiful histories would suggest, the move to punishing the soul was a consequence not of humanistic impulses or any newfound revulsion to the mutilated body, but rather of “epistemologico-juridical” changes and relations that evolved together. Contingent legal and scientific developments wove into one another, which led to a power structure that disciplined and punished the soul instead of the body. From this, we see that genealogy is not simply about transition but specifically about “the causes of the transition from one way of thinking to another.”[4] Some scholars and students new to Foucault will no doubt wonder what makes genealogy different from other historical methodologies, which, they may say, are also interested in change over time. Even though genealogy is about change over time, however, it is unique because it is concerned with change at the discursive level, and this change, Foucault argues, is contingent rather than intentional. Whether Foucault demonstrates this adequately in Discipline is how most readers will judge the success of the book and of genealogy. I, on the other hand, challenge the reader to judge success based on the answers to these two questions: first, could Foucault have written Discipline without genealogy? Second, would we have wanted him to? In his attempt, Foucault gave us a book that is both insightful and innovative and, because of that, a book that is now indispensable.


[1] Like Foucault, the phrase “begs the question” is controversial. The philosophical meaning of begs the question does not mean “raises the question,” which is how the phrase is used colloquially. Nevertheless, it has become acceptable to use begs the question to mean raises the question in academic writing, and I have chosen to do so here.

[2] Gary Gutting, “Michel Foucault”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2014/entries/foucault/>. Note that I consulted this piece for the contextual information in this paragraph.

[3] http://www.daneldon.org

[4] Gutting, Gary, “Michel Foucault.”

Empire or Umpire?

Prior to 2003, American empire was but an appellation of the left used to describe US foreign policy and entanglements abroad. Since the United States invaded Iraq in March 2003, however, scholars from across the political spectrum have come around to the idea that the US is in fact an empire, whether it wants to admit it or not. The surge in those claiming empire has only caused those denying empire to be more vociferous, bringing new life to the debate surrounding the existence of an American empire. To some, such as Niall Ferguson, the imperial character of the US is undeniable; to others, it is questionable and misleading. Enter Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman. In her book American Umpire, she argues that the US is not an empire but an “umpire”—that is, a referee, a rule keeper and a supervisor. Making this claim, Hoffman makes it her burden to show that empire is the wrong moniker for the US’s role in global affairs. To do this, she first has to define empire, since her argument depends entirely on what one means by this word. As Hoffman sees it, history demonstrates that empire can take two forms: “The oldest type was that which subordinated multiple ethnic groups in a contiguous territory, like the Mongol, Ottoman, Roman, and Aztec Empires, as well as more recent ones like the Soviet Union. The second, newer type of empire was one that ruled multiple peoples from afar in scattered colonies, like those of the British, Dutch, French, and Spanish, sometimes called saltwater empires” (12). These two forms of empire demonstrate “two ubiquitous forms of government that incorporated and commanded obedience from people who generally did not wish to yield and who continued to seek political release after their annexation” (12). Therefore, besides a brief period between 1898 and 1946, when the US engaged in the second type, Hoffman claims that the US cannot be considered an empire.

An integral part of Hoffman’s definition is that people under imperial authority “generally did not wish to yield [to it] and … continued to seek political release after their annexation.” Whereas this feature can be used to describe the people under both types of empire defined, Hoffman contends that it cannot, as is sometimes argued, be used to describe the nations of the world under the US umperium. Since the rise of the US on the global stage, but even since its birth, other nations have looked to it as an example and guarantor of the economic, political and ideological assumptions undergirding democratic capitalism. Specifically, Hoffman points out three traits that not only made the US an example to the world but also its most natural leader: “access to opportunity, arbitration of disputes, and transparency in government and business” (6, emphasis in original). The larger argument Hoffman makes, then, is that peoples and nations looked to the US for guidance, assistance, and, when necessary, order, because they too wanted access, arbitration, and transparency; in other words, because they wanted those things, they yielded to the US and its desires. Nations yielding to the US by choice is what makes the US an umpire not an empire. As Hoffman states, “the United States acted not as an empire in modern foreign relations, but as a kind of umpire, to compel acquiescence as necessary with rules that had earned broad legitimacy” (17, emphasis in original). Hoffman will surely ruffle feathers with this argument, but that should not keep scholars of American Empire from reading her stimulating book.

Review: Debtor Nation

Hyman, Louis. Debtor Nation: The History of America in Red Ink. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011.

In Debtor Nation, Louis Hyman provides a history of personal debt in America. His story begins in the early twentieth century, when debt was first institutionalized in the United States, and ends in the late twentieth century, when debt took on its contemporary form. Hyman’s thesis can be divided into two parts: first, he argues that the transformation of personal debt into a “legal, sellable, and profitable” enterprise, made possible by credit, was central in shaping the contemporary economic system (1); second, he insists this transformation was the result of individual decisions that led to both intended and unintended consequences. In other words, he argues that the economic system of debt that we have today, characterized as it is by indebtedness, was not a foregone conclusion; rather, it was the product of government policy, the need to make credit profitable, and consumer desires. As Hyman puts it, “this dependence on credit was the creation, intentional and unintentional, of the sometimes unlikely choices of government, business, and consumers” (281). In a sense, then, the history of debt as presented in the book is a history composed of opposing forces—of intention and accident, of action and reaction, of wealth and debt. Understanding this history and its consequences is the larger project of Debtor Nation. As Hyman affirms, “to understand today’s credit system requires understanding the history of how consumer credit and twentieth-century American capitalism co-evolved to create both our prosperity and our insecurity” (9).

The story unfolds in seven chapters supported by an introduction and an epilogue. Each chapter is overflowing not only with history but also with the encyclopedic and sometimes technical vocabulary of finance. This is not so much a critique of the book as it is a warning to the unsuspecting history student who may be unfamiliar or uncomfortable with the language of finance; nor is it a suggestion to that same student to avoid the book. In fact, the finance jargon, if I must call it that, is indispensable to the book, just as mathematical jargon would be indispensable to any history of mathematics. Hyman has a firm understanding of the vocabulary he uses, and he integrates it into his history as seamlessly as financial terms can be integrated into an engaging historical narrative. If this seems a small point, I encourage any of the book’s readers to attempt to integrate discussions of rate caps, option accounts, asset-backed securities and adjustable-rate mortgages into their next books in a similarly readable manner. It is not at all surprising that the seasoned journalists at the Wall Street Journal and The Economist are able to do so, but it is surprising when historians do it, even economic historians. It is the unfortunate burden of economic historians to weave the emphatically unliterary terminology of economics into a story that is at once informative and captivating—a burden political and social historians surely take for granted. Hyman handles the burden well, and this book should be used as a writer’s reference for any economically inclined historians.

Hyman also does a good job at utilizing his sources to narrate debt’s complex history. He pulls from newspapers, financial magazines, annual reports, economic reports, surveys, and speeches, to name just a few of his sources, to tell the story of debt’s development over time. However, although his source usage is good, two aspects of the book stand out above the rest. The first is Hyman’s use of his footnotes. In a book like this, heady as it is, it is imperative that the author keeps the argument in the main part of the text as tight as possible, yet that same headiness also necessitates a judicious use of footnotes, which allow the author to explain concepts further or extend his argument in important ways that cannot or do not necessarily contribute to the argument as constructed in narrative form. For example, after writing in the body of the text that “the average length of a mortgage [in the 1920s] was three to five years, and was not amortized” (47), he clarifies this in the footnote:

To amortize a loan means that every month the borrower pays back both the interest on the loan as well as some fraction of the principal. “Un-amortized” means that there is no structured way for borrowers to repay the borrowed funds. Borrowers have to exert discipline and save up the principal. It is standard today, but in this period was primarily found in installment purchasing plans, as made clear in Chapter 1(303n10).

This is not insignificant material. Although Hyman does define amortize in the body of the text, the information in the note is clearer and expanded. This footnote is representative of the type that Hyman writes for all his chapters, which are unique for their clarity and relevance for understanding the main topic.

The second aspect of the book that stands out is Hyman’s use of statistics. It is no secret that historians have a certain allergy to quantitative methods, so it is quite shocking when a historian not only uses statistics, but also uses them extensively. Justifying his use of statistical analysis, Hyman writes (in what is hands down the best footnote in the text), “while quantitative methods have fallen into disfavor among historians, I think that when used as part of a historian’s tool kit they can answer questions other methods cannot” (330). Indeed they can. Nonetheless, recognizing that some readers may not be comfortable or knowledgeable in statistics, Hyman explains that “for the less technically inclined reader, explanations of some of the statistical methods will be in the notes. For the more technically inclined reader, p-values of relevant tests and regressions have generally been put in the notes” (330-331). Obtaining meaning from large amounts of raw data is one of the powers of statistics, and Hyman’s use on this power helps him in ways unimaginable without it, especially in Chapter Five. Debtor Nation could have been written without statistical analysis, of course, but it would have been a lesser book without it. Read the book for its in-depth history of institutionalized debt, or read it for a lesson in the craft of financial history; either way, you will learn a great deal.

Review: Tangible Things

Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher, Ivan Gaskell, Sara J. Schechner, and Sarah Anne Carter, with photographs by Samantha S.B. Van Gerbig. Tangible Things: Making History Through Objects. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.

A common refrain heard in history departments across the country today is that historians fetishize the written text. The authors of Tangible Things: Making History Through Objects—Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Ivan Gaskell, Sara J. Schechner, and Sarah Anne Carter—take it upon themselves to defetishize the text by focusing attention on physical objects, or things. They are also interested in showing how material things shape the past and how they can be used to understand and reconstruct it. Specifically, they are interested in answering four basic questions, which they lay out in the very opening paragraph of the book:

how can we approach aspects of the past that written words do not record? How can we mobilize not just a few kinds of things that have survived from earlier times, but many, to create history? If we acknowledge that material things of many kinds are traces of the past, how can we make use of them to understand the past? What are the circumstances that shape our encounters with them, and how do those circumstances affect—perhaps even determine—how we might use them? (1)

In other words, the authors want to show that objects are more than just static bits of history or artifacts representative of a time period, mediated and understood by written sources. Objects, in their minds, can give texture to history, in the way, for example, nuts give texture to a bowl of oatmeal or produce gives life to an otherwise one-dimensional sandwich. “We believe,” affirm the authors, “that the mobilization of material things can enhance any comprehensive historical inquiry and that the procedures we advocate will enhance knowledge of the past that is too often constrained by reliance on written texts” (3). Like nuts in oatmeal or produce in sandwiches, material things don’t just add to the historical experience, they complete the experience—that is, they allow it to reach its full potential. Written sources can only take history so far, but written sources along with material things can unleash innumerable possibilities.

The authors don’t stop there, however, for they further argue that material things can do more than simply play a secondary role in driving and writing history: objects can be lead actors. They can tell a story on their own terms, without the need or help of their more-favored written siblings. And this, it turns out, is the thesis of the book. As the authors state, “we want to argue here that just about any tangible thing can be pressed into service as primary historical evidence. Our purpose is not to offer comprehensive accounts of each field to which these sources might relate, but to demonstrate that attention to singular, physical things can reveal connections among people, processes, and forms of inquiry that might otherwise remain unnoticed” (2). The fact that any object can be a primary source is precisely what allows the authors to argue that objects themselves can be actors in history. It is also what makes it possible for objects to “reveal connections” that may be hidden by a reliance on written sources alone. Objects at once reveal unnoticed connections within history as well as between academic disciplines. This, uncoincidentally, leads to the book’s purpose, which is to show that taking material things seriously and interrogating them innovatively establishes connections between academic disciplines and challenges their established ways of thinking about and organizing human culture, society, and history.

Back to that refrain, or the book’s raison d’être. For whatever the claims to establishing the plausibility of material things as primary sources, the central assumption of the book is that written sources are fetishized. It is hard to deny the concern undergirding the refrain, given that written sources exclude as much as (if not more than) they include. “Only a minority of human societies has used writing systems,” explain the authors. “Even within those that have, many people left few traces, if any, in written form” (4). Written sources, in other words, favor certain societies and certain groups within those societies. And oral sources unavoidably favor memory, which is exclusionary in its own way. Thus, conclude the authors, an attention to other sources is necessary. All in all, “with appropriate skills to exploit a wider range of sources—material and visual, as well as word-based culture—historians may uncover what would otherwise be undetectable lives, often of the socially disadvantaged; they will also enrich knowledge of those who have been known to a greater or lesser extent solely from written texts” (4). As necessary as this may be, the authors would benefit from asking themselves a few questions before patting themselves on the back too much. First, does the introduction of more types of sources defetishize the written word in historical scholarship? Or does it actually refetishize it? After all, any desire to defetishize ironically fixates attention on the fetish only more intensely. Second, is it actually possible to escape the centrality of the written word in any form of scholarship? Regardless of the source type—written, oral, material, or visual—academia requires written analysis of all objects of study. Why are scholars so critical and suspicious of writing when it is the object of analysis but not when it is doing the analysis? Is it possible to make history through objects when, in the end, that history is told in writing? Are the objects making history, or are they still just puppets of the written word? Ulrich, Gaskell, Schechner, and Carter make a commendable effort, but they fail to show that objects can tell their own story. The written word must do it for them, and, as such, the written word remains king.

Review: Quagmire

Biggs, David. Quagmire: Nation-Building and Nature in the Mekong Delta. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2010.

The word “quagmire” in history is used most often to describe what are probably the two most infamous anticolonial wars in the twentieth century: the Algerian War (1954-1962) and the Vietnam War (1965-1973).[1] When attached to these wars, quagmire refers to a political situation faced by the colonial powers—France in the case of Algeria and the United States in the case of Vietnam. In his book Quagmire: Nation-Building and Nature in the Mekong Delta, however, David Biggs attempts to reimagine the word and its frame of reference vis-à-vis Vietnam. Quagmire indeed describes the political events that are commonly associated with the term, he argues, but it also describes the environmental quagmire inherent in attempting to build a nation on the Mekong Delta’s muddy, “unsolid surfaces.” (6). As Biggs elaborates, “by exploring the quagmire as both a natural and a political place, this book challenges a prevailing tendency among writers to stretch Vietnam’s history across an invisible national map that ignores its variable, complex terrains” (7). Environment is central to the project and experience of nation-building in Vietnam, not a sideshow or an afterthought. Furthermore, the political and environmental quagmires, along with their social and economic consequences, are intertwined. Understanding this is the only way to a fuller, more nuanced history of nation-building in Indochina.

Biggs is quick to note that his history “is less a critique of the modern philosophy of nation-building or state-centered development than a study of the ways that nature figured into these designs” (8). This is a unique stance in historiography today, when critiquing nation-building is à la mode, but it is an essential stance if the author’s project of recentering the environment in the history of nation-building in Indochina is to be achieved. Critiquing state-centered development as his point of departure would have put politics at the center of Biggs’s study; therefore, decentering that critique allows him to focus his (and the reader’s) attention to the environment. Of course, a critique of nation-building is inescapable in any discussion of the environment, and one need only read this book to know why, but the critique alone does not allow a full appreciation of the environment’s relationship to the work of nation-building and development. Additionally, using the critique as a starting point would prompt Biggs to use the periodization schema of the nation-state in discussing the environmental history of the Mekong Delta. Starting from the delta environment is a way to overcome this. Suggests Biggs, “as a new addition to the genres of both frontier and war literature, this book employs a different approach, one that considers the delta’s colonial and postcolonial pasts as continuous pasts inscribed into the landscape” (10). The periodization schema of the nation-state imposes artificial divisions on all areas of historical inquiry, including the environment, which causes historians to view the environment through the lens of the nation-state. Biggs suggests that historians flip this and view the formation of nation-state through the environment.

Given the constraints of a monograph as a method of presenting information, the author’s success at making his case may come as a surprise. Biggs makes his argument chronologically, which is almost required in a history of nation-building, and organizes his chapters thematically. Indeed, the chronological unfolding of the argument along with the thematic organization of chapters would seem to suggest that each theme is associated with a specific time period, but Biggs does a good job of using the narrative device of history to suggest the continuity of quagmire, overcoming the organizational requirements the discipline believes are inherent in the presentation of historical knowledge. He also does a good job of using a wide variety of sources to make a coherent argument that would almost surely overwhelm other scholars attempting the same project. With knowledge of French, English, and Vietnamese, Biggs is able to write a history of nation-building from many different perspectives and several different time periods. His synthesis of all the language sources is impeccable, but it is his ability to integrate each language into his history that is truly exceptional. No less a feat is his ability to pull from a myriad of source materials, perhaps more skillfully than most can from a handful. Along with accounts, histories, reports, newspapers, and journals, Biggs also uses interviews, geological surveys, photos, maps (contemporaneous and reconstructed) and first-hand observations. In Biggs’s care, nothing is superfluous; each source adds texture to the argument and avoids becoming extraneous information.

Perhaps the most praiseworthy aspect of Quagmire is Biggs’s mastery of the scientific material. It is one thing for a historian to become fluent in the language of the human sciences; however, it is an entirely different undertaking to learn the language of the natural sciences. Not only does a project undertaken like the one in this book require a sound knowledge of the science, but it also requires an ability to explain the science in a way that experts and non-experts alike find satisfying. Furthermore, and perhaps most challenging, the writer has to integrate the science into the history in a way that adds to the argument in a way that doesn’t overburden it. Biggs overcomes all these challenges. His handling of the science never feels forced or uninformed, and his ability to keep it central to the history without it becoming overwhelming is a skill the reader comes to envy by the end of the book. How Biggs was able to learn the science, conduct research in different languages in different countries, construct a convincing argument, and produce a coherent history with what appears to be relative ease is a question all readers will close the book asking. Biggs’s attempt to recenter the environment in the history of nation-building in the Mekong Delta is not only successful, but also a model that the rest of the historical community would do well to follow.


[1] Both wars go by other names, but the reader is probably most familiar with the ones used here.

Review: How Race Is Made

Smith, Mark M. How Race Is Made: Slavery, Segregation, and the Senses. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2006.

It is perhaps best to start a discussion of Mark M. Smith’s creative book with some of his own words: “Modern discussions of ‘race’ and racial identity are hostage to the eye” (2). Although not the thesis of the book, this short statement is the book’s raison d’être. In How Race Is Made, it is Smith’s goal to expand our understanding of race to include the totality of senses: sight, sound, scent, taste, and touch. His argument, then, is that race is not made simply through sight but through all the senses. This may seem counterintuitive to many readers, given that most people associate race with skin color, but Smith reminds us that “the preference for ‘seeing’ race is as much a social construction as ‘race’ itself” (2). Only when we are able to conceptualize race as a rounded sensory construction, Smith maintains, can we fully understand the history of race in America. (Although the argument could easily be made for the construction of race globally, Smith’s evidence makes the case primarily for the United States. Naturally, it is also focused on the south.) To be sure, Smith warns, “seeing remains—and always has been—extraordinarily important for locating racial identity. But remembering that race was mediated and articulated in ways in addition to seeing helps profile ordinarily hidden dimensions of racial thought and racism” (3, emphasis mine). All the senses play a role in making race, and recognizing this reveals how race is made in ways we are not aware of. Each sense makes race in its own way, but it is the sum of the sensorial effects that creates the language of race and the grammar of racism.

Central to Smith’s argument is the claim that “nonvisual senses indexed viscera and emotion more than thought and reason” (2), which benefitted white people. As Smith elaborates, “the senses facilitated the rule of feeling and made men and women unthinkingly comfortable with their racial worlds. . . . The sensory underpinnings of slavery and especially segregation took on a visceral quality that relieved most white southerners of the discomfort of thinking, levied no tax on the mind, and allowed white conceits about blackness to go unchecked” (4). The larger point Smith makes with this idea is that the construction of race and the development of racism were not logical phenomena but emotional ones, and it is for this reason that racism was so pervasive and stubbornly resistant in American society. Although this claim—that the nonvisual senses led whites to be “unthinkingly comfortable with their racial worlds”—seems plausible, Smith isn’t able to sustain it through argument. We might ask, for example, if the senses signify the absence of thinking, how is it that whites “used the putatively premodern, proximate, nonvisual senses to invent ‘modern’ racial stereotypes” (4, emphasis mine)? The verb “invent” connotes thinking and taking thoughtful action to achieve some purpose (even if the purpose is unknown), not emotional reaction. This may be a harsh reading, but I would hope someone making this argument would be mindful of such nuances. Even if we give Smith the benefit of the doubt and say that he meant the sensory stereotypes were invented to facilitate the unthinking, emotional reactions of whites, the ontology of the sense experience comes from whites thinking during the process of invention. Furthermore, if sight—the sense most associated with reason and logic—was used to construct race along with the other senses, then reason and logic were always apart of the race equation, even if only partially.

I am not trying to suggest that Smith’s argument about the senses constructing race is entirely unconvincing; rather, I am saying the argument is unconvincing when he puts too much emphasis on the binary of feeling/emotion and logic/reason. For if white people’s “senses had stolen their capacity for reasoned thinking” (139), then the suggestion that race was constructed in “a fit of absence of mind” is only a few logical steps away.[1] But I don’t think this is the argument Smith is making, nor do I think his lack of attentiveness to logical conclusions ruins his larger point. In fact, the larger point about the role all the senses played in the construction of race and the development of racism is quite successfully made. In other words, although his argument about the emotionality of the senses isn’t quite convincing, his contention about the culpability of all the senses, visual and nonvisual, in the construction of race is.

Part of the success of Smith’s argument comes from the way he presents and navigates the material in six chapters (not including the introduction). The book takes as its starting point the first British encounter with West Africans in the sixteenth century and continues chronologically until the landmark United States Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka in the 1950s. Although this is quite a stretch of time, he focuses mainly on slavery and segregation, as the title suggests, showing how the senses worked to construct race in unique ways during both eras. His sources comprise autobiographies, letters, periodicals, sociological accounts, memoirs, and even a few prints—practically all the sources traditionally used to write history. Though many of the sources have been used by other scholars, Smith’s innovation comes from his culling of the material for sensory qualities. This, avers Smith, is the way to a full understanding of the history of race in America: “Part and parcel of thinking beyond race entails coming to terms with the historical construction of race in all its forms and in all its senses” (10). How Race Is Made allows us to do this, and this is perhaps its greatest strength.


[1] The phrase “in a fit of absence of mind” comes from John Robert Seeley, but he was referring to the British Empire: “We seem, as it were, to have conquered and peopled half the world in a fit of absence of mind.” J. R. Seeley, The Expansion of England: Two Courses of Lectures (Boston, Roberts Brothers, 1883): 8.

Review: Provincializing Europe

Chakrabarty, Dipesh. Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000.

Dipesh Chakrabarty’s Provincializing Europe (hereafter PE) is an intellectual tour de force, and it takes but a few pages to recognize why it is considered a seminal work in postcolonial theory and history. What on first reading seems like an impossible undertaking for any scholar to accomplish in one book becomes a stunning achievement, all the more so because the author’s project is quite consequential. But consequential does not mean convoluted. In fact, in its most basic rendering, Chakrabarty’s project is fairly straightforward: provincializing Europe means decentering Europe from the historical narrative of non-European societies and their political modernity. This is necessary, he argues, because “the phenomenon of ‘political modernity’—namely, the rule by modern institutions of the state, bureaucracy, and capitalist enterprise—is impossible to think of anywhere in the world without invoking certain categories and concepts, the genealogies of which go deep into the intellectual and even theological traditions of Europe” (4, emphasis in original), and these categories and concepts are inadequate for thinking about political modernity in the non-West. However, this is only one part of the argument, and the second part is really what gives PE its analytical traction. Chakrabarty proposes that these concepts are at once inadequate and indispensable in discussing political modernity in the non-West. How can this be? As he puts it, “What historically enables a project such as that of ‘provincializing Europe’ is the experience of political modernity in a country like India. European thought has a contradictory relationship to such an instance of political modernity. It is both indispensable and inadequate in helping us to think through the various life practices that constitute the political and the historical in India” (6). Any discussion of political modernity must take place in the language of Enlightenment universals, but because of their European origin, they are insufficient for grappling with political modernities outside of Europe. In other words, we cannot talk about political modernity in non-European countries only in the language of European thought; we must discuss political modernity in the universals that originated in Europe while also heeding the particulars (historical difference) of non-European cultures.

This is quite theoretical, and, predictably, this is one of the main criticisms historians and students lodge against PE. Specifically, these readers claim that there is too much theory and not enough history. This critique, however, misunderstands the book’s purpose, which is to posit an initial theoretical framework for provincializing Europe and to demonstrate a possible usage of that framework. Furthermore, not only are theory and history built into the book’s raison d’être, but they are also built into the book’s organization. PE is divided into equal haves, with the first half devoted to theory and the second half devoted to history. This history is primarily devoted to the study of middle-class, upper-caste Hindu Bengalis in colonial India, and it is quite successful in its use of Bengali (and a few English) sources, especially if one reads it through the theoretical lens forged by Chakrabarty in the first half of the book. Yet this is perhaps where the book’s organization falls short; in splitting the book in half, with the theory coming first, Chakrabarty forces the reader to make the transition from theory to history. If the book were not organized as a dichotomy, one could argue, it would be harder to highlight. Of course, anyone who reads the book and takes its claims seriously will have to abandon the notion that the physical division of the book is a thoughtful critique, or that calling attention to an apparent imbalance in the ratio between theory and history is any more reflective. Just as one could argue that the theory-to-history format is shortsighted, one could also argue that this format challenges the reader to read disjuncture into the supposedly static categories of theory and history. The latter interpretation would mean the book’s organization is actually a physical manifestation of one of the book’s premises.

A more convincing critique of the theory-history dichotomy—if we want to stick this “problem”—is that the theory is more successful than the history. Readers of the book will no doubt have varying opinions on Chakrabarty’s writing style, but although the passion undergirding the project remains present throughout, the theoretical pieces are clearly better argued. (Chapter Two: Two Histories of Capital, what the author refers to as the “theoretical pivot” of the book, is a true feat of rhetoric.) This does not mean the theoretical pieces are completely successful, nor does it mean that the historical pieces are unsuccessful; rather, it means that an imbalance exists between the theoretical and historical that leads one to distinguish between these two aspects of the text. That Chakrabarty’s rhetoric in the theory-focused section of the book is more successful than the history-focused section may be surprising, given that the theoretical work of the Subaltern Studies collective is considered to be less successful than its practical work, but remembering the book’s thesis should remove any surprise one feels about the theory’s success. Recognizing the inadequacy of European categories of thought for understanding political modernity in non-European countries, while at the same time recognizing their indispensability, is both the central argument and the defining feature of PE. It is also the central tension of the book and, therefore, what propels it forward. Defining the book’s purpose in his own words, Chakrabarty writes, “Provincializing Europe both begins and ends by acknowledging the indispensability of European political thought to representations of non-European political modernities, and yet struggles with the problems of representation that this indispensability invariably creates” (22, emphasis mine). That is, PE begins and ends in struggle—a struggle to recognize and maneuver, both in theory and in practice, the contradictions that resulted from colonialism. This struggle is a distinct characteristic of postcolonial thought, of which this book and its author are representatives, and it is surely one reason postcolonialism remains a thriving field of study.