Past (and present) imperfect

In an intriguing article in The Baffler, Jessa Crispin looks at the concept of ‘original sin’, on the occasion of a new book by Stephen Greenblatt (The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve) and a recent one by James Boyce (Born Bad: Original Sin and the Making of the Western World).

I haven’t yet read either book, but I found that the article made some good points.

I should say that it goes rather off the tracks toward the end where it luxuriates a bit in the John-Gray-school of cultural pessimism (abandon all hope, ye who enter here…):  after all, in raising questions about notions of progress (which is something it seems that Crispin wants to do) it’s not, of course, necessary to discard them.

Nonetheless, the piece makes  a cogent point about the uses to which the concept of ‘original sin’ and the biblical Adam-and-Eve story in which it emerges can be put. There are many such uses, and it seems that Greenblatt and Boyce trace one of them, namely, that of original sin as a form of oppressive  irrationality.

However: there are many other versions of ‘original sin’, and any properly historical argument should take them into account, even (or, indeed, especially) the ones that go directly counter to it.

I ran across versions of this concept over the last six years or so in the course of my current research on Christian social thought in the mid-20th century.

For instance, the image of the inherently ‘sinful’ nature of humankind was a frequently employed element in influential Christian reactions to totalitarianism and what seemed the terminal crisis of western-liberal-capitalist-democracy in the 1930s and 1940s.

This might sound at first  like a typically ‘reactionary’ stance; however, the idea was typically employed by those anti-totalitarian churchmen and Christian thinkers (many of them clearly ‘on the left’ at the time) who saw in the concept of ‘original sin’ not a literal depiction of the creation of humankind but rather a way of asserting its fundamental and inescapable imperfection.

Adam and Eve may not have been seen (literally) as the first man and woman in such views, but their story was considered to contain  a useful warning for the actually existing men and women  who were, in those years, trying to work out a way to defeat totalitarianism and maintain freedom and social decency.

Many of those  who deployed the notion of ‘sin’ in this context did so, in fact, on the assumption that it granted Christians a more ‘realistic‘ vision of the world than many of the competing worldviews of the day: whether, on the one hand, Fascism, Communism or National Socialism — with their common idealisation of a ‘new man’ and a perfected earthly society — or, on the other, secular liberal democrats guided by a more gradualist (but no less, in their view, progressivist) vision of utopia.

What original sin thus taught, so went the lesson, was that a sustainable democratic politics had to be built upon a realistic view of human nature and an awareness that it was not, ultimately, fully malleable. It was primarily an argument against ‘utopianism’ of all kinds.

It was employed as a way to avoid either a dangerous social perfectionism or a hopeless pessimism.

In my research, I was struck by how strongly (and how often) the assertion of ‘human nature’ — a concept we today generally associate with evolutionary psychologists than preachers — featured in overtly Christian arguments about the social order. And it was often employed with the aim of resisting totalitarianism and enabling a social politics that one can argue was (at least moderately) ‘progressive’.

An important example of this thinking comes from Archbishop William Temple’s The Church and Social Order, which was something of a runaway hit in war-time Britain when it was published by Penguin in 1942.

As Temple (who was regarded as left-wing and who was — before his untimely death in 1944 — in favour of moves toward what would become known as ‘the welfare state’) put it:

‘Political issues are often concerned with people as they are, not with people as they ought to be. Part of the task of the Church is to help people to order their lives in order to lead them to what they ought to be. Assuming they are already as they ought to be always leads to disaster. It is not my belief that people are utterly bad, or even that they are more bad than good. What I am contending here is that we are not wholly good, and that even our goodness is infected with self-centeredness. For this reason, we are exposed to temptation as far as we are able to obtain power. The Church’s belief in Original Sin should make us intensely realistic and should free us from trying to create a Utopia. For there is no such thing as a Christian social ideal to which we should try to conform the society we are in as closely as possible. After all, no one wants to live in the “ideal society” as depicted by anyone.’

(I’ve left my copy in the office, so I can’t give page numbers, but there are excerpts available here [pdf].)

One of the other most influential formulations of this view — though far from the only one — comes from Reinhold Niebuhr’s classic text, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, published in 1944. (For a good introduction to Niebuhr, see this discussion.)

Niebuhr wrote:

‘The thesis of this volume grew out of my conviction that democracy has a more compelling justification and requires a more realistic vindication than is given it by the liberal culture with which it has been associated in modern history. The excessively optimistic estimates of human nature and of human history with which the democratic credo has been historically associated are a source of peril to democratic society; for contemporary experience is refuting this optimism and there is danger that it will seem to refute the democratic ideal as well. A free society requires some confidence in the ability of men to reach tentative and tolerable adjustments between their competing interests and to arrive at some common notions of justice which transcend all partial interests. A consistent pessimism in regard to man’s rational capacity for justice invariably leads to absolutistic political theories; for they prompt the conviction that only preponderant power can coerce the various vitalities of a community into a working harmony. But a too consistent optimism in regard to man’s ability and inclination to grant justice to his fellows obscures the perils of chaos which perennially confront every society, including a free society. […]

But modern democracy requires a more realistic philosophical and religious basis, not only in order to anticipate and understand the perils to which it is exposed; but also to give it a more persuasive justification. Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary. In all nondemocratic political theories the state or the ruler is invested with uncontrolled power for the sake of achieving order and unity in the community. But the pessimism which prompts and justifies this policy is not consistent; for it is not applied, as it should be, to the ruler. […]

The consistent optimism of our liberal culture has prevented modern democratic societies both from gauging the perils of freedom accurately and from appreciating democracy fully as the only alternative to justice and oppression. When this optimism is not qualified to accord with the real and complex facts of human nature and history, there is always a danger that sentimentality will give way to despair and that a too consistent optimism will alternate with a too consistent pessimism.

(Again: I don’t have my copy to hand, but  I grabbed this passage from an online copy available here.)

There are strengths and weaknesses, of course, to this kind of ‘middle-way’ thinking, which was something of a trademark within the group I looked at in my research. But whether this argument is true or not is a separate issue from the one, which is more at the heart of Crispin’s article, of fairly accounting for the varied uses to which such religious allegories has been put in different eras of history.

And I think — much more so than I would have, say, a decade ago, before I spent years wrestling with the worldviews of people with whom I certainly don’t entirely agree — that there is something to her conclusion:

‘Religious concepts like original sin help us understand this about ourselves, and offer suggestions on what to do about it. If, then, we place original sin outside of its Christian context, we can still use it to understand this brokenness, this illness that exists in us. There is no amount of external maneuvering that can wash us clean of this inborn stain. We can only acknowledge it, try to reckon with it, and then struggle to choose to behave differently. Religion is simply one context in which to accomplish this.’

It’s important not to forget, of course, that there are also better angels to that human nature.

But otherwise, I think this is a pretty wise statement to which I can only add: amen


Collections in crisis?

I was intrigued to see the announcement last week by the historian Peter Webster that he has a new book under contract that will address the recent history of the edited collection as an academic publishing format.

While this might seem at first glance like a somewhat esoteric or very narrow topic, it goes potentially to the heart of a more general issue: in what ways and in which formats do scientists and scholars present their research findings to their colleagues and (potentially) to a broader public.

As Webster puts it, in what looks like a brief précis of his forthcoming volume:

In recent years, the edited collection of essays has undergone a crisis as a form of scholarly publishing. Without fanfare or particular crisis event, the perception spread that publishing in such collections was less prestigious than in journals; that such chapters were less visible to readers, and less acceptable to those assessing a scholar’s work; and that publishers were in retreat from such volumes.

As I’ve worked in three academic systems (the US, the UK and Germany), I have developed a sensitivity to certain issues that seem to be unique to each of them.

And, indeed, the edited collection seems to have suffered in the last couple of decades in the UK. It’s certainly not that they’ve disappeared, but it does seem (as I’ve at least anecdotally heard via colleagues), that British publishers take far more convincing to publish a collection than they once did.

And I know more directly that when I was involved in the 2000s with my then-institution’s submission to the 2008 “Research Assessment Exercise” (RAE, now known as the more buzzwordy “Research Excellence Framework” or REF) that collections and contributions to them were clearly considered  to be less valuable (today, I suppose, “less excellent”) than journal articles.

(There might be an exception here with those various series of mammoth — and mammothly priced — “handbooks” put out by prominent publishers at an increasing rate in recent decades. But that seems like a story for another day.)

I can’t speak for other countries, but I don’t have the sense that there’s been any comparable decline in Germany, where, in fact, the essay collection — or “Sammelband” — seems to be alive and well. (Maybe somebody has statistics on this, but I’m speaking merely subjectively.)

To make a long story short, I think the factors leading to this difference are obvious.

1) German academics are still largely free from systematic research assessments and rankings. (This is one of German academia’s great virtues, whatever other problems it might have.) There are recurrent moves toward a more thorough and comprehensive assessment system, but nothing has emerged that is remotely like the highly centralised and enormously powerful directives and bureaucracies that dominate the British scene. German education systems are highly federalised, which may play a significant role here.

The amount and quality of your work, of course, is taken into account. But this is done more variously and individually by different committees at different times and in different contexts (external grant applications, hiring committees, etc.) rather than in one recurrent assessment that has a significant impact on your career (and the future state funding of your institution).

Moreover, there is a strong — if less tangible — commitment to an ideal of scholarly independence, which most academics can largely take advantage of (except, of course, those who are employed to work on specific projects).

Academics the world over are as susceptible to an incentive system as any other occupation (as one sees maybe most clearly in the UK), but, so far, there’s been no clear message that I can see in Germany that one needs to prioritise articles over chapters in collections.

While the distinction between peer-review and non-peer-review has become more observed in Germany, the obsession with it and with “impact factors” and the like has yet to take hold, at least in comparison, again, with Britain.

Indeed: having a long list of chapters in essay collections (or several of one’s own collections) won’t generally count against you here. On the contrary: it might well be to your advantage, and it seems to be expected that someone will produce at least a few collections in the course of their career. The demonstrated ability to bring fellow scholars together and to synthesise their thoughts into a coherent collection is something that is, overall, valued.

2) Equally important — possibly more so — is the fact that there is a well-established system for funding the publication of Sammelbände. Like in much of academic publishing in Germany (unlike, in my experience in the US and UK), it is pretty standard to pay the publisher in advance to publish your work, once it has been reviewed and accepted. This includes essay collections. So German academic publishers face little pressure to avoid publishing them out of a fear (which seems to be a factor in the UK) that they’ll be “hard to sell”.

The Sammelband or series of them (Reihe) of them can actually be something of a status symbol in Germany. There are many long-extant collection series put out by particular institutions (or particular scholars). Some of them are prominent and respected. And this is all accompanied by an extensive set of grants and funding opportunities to support such publication.

So some combination of economic infrastructure, status incentives and scholarly ideals has led to a situation where, in Germany, the Sammelband seems alive and well or, at least, not “in crisis” as it seems to be in the UK. (Some related issues were addressed, it occurs to me, by Susan Pedersen some years back on British variants of the Festschrift.)

Is the continuing liveliness of the collection format in Germany a good thing? It’s hard to say conclusively, but I would say, on balance, that it is.

One sometimes hears the complaint that there are too many essay collections being created. This might be true, and it is clearly the case that the quality is variable.

However, I doubt that the range of quality is necessarily any worse than that of the articles flooding out of an increasing number of (sometimes questionable) academic journals. Academic overproduction — in many senses of the term — is a genuine issue, but I think it has little to do with publication formats as such.

Another complaint is that essays in collections are harder to access than articles. And there is something to this: yes, it’s far more convenient — if you have institutional access to a journal that is — to sit at your desk and click “download article” than to actually try to get your hands on a printed essay collection. However, with the advent of e-books, there is not, in theory, any reason why this distinction should matter all that much. (And, in any case, since when did going to the library once in a while become seen as such an onerous task?)

Moreover, the tendency to zero in only on individual articles — even when they’re part of a thematic “special issue” — means that something is potentially lost when readers fail to engage with the broader context in which a journal article was meant to be read.

When they’re done well, I think, essay collections can be enormously valuable, even exciting scholarly works. Being “done well” means that they should have a clear purpose, express a coherent set of ideas (or at least a common set of concerns) and manage to become, as a whole, more valuable than the sum of their parts.

My feelings on this might be affected by having put out my own first Sammelband a couple of years ago, Christianity and National Identity in Twentieth-Century Europe: Conflict, Community and the Social Order.

It was a good experience, not least since it was part of a very good series and I had the benefit of some helpful in-house editorial advice and assistance. The collection had its start in a panel I had organised, but I then approached individual scholars with particular interests to supplement this core group. In this way, the result was something that (at least I like to think) has an internal coherence that makes for the best collections. And the reactions have been positive so far, which is encouraging.

When I  look back on my career (or even just sideways at my bookshelves), I can identify several collections that had a great impact on myself and the fields in which I have worked (mainly the histories of crime, media and religion).

Done well, it’s a format that is as good (an in some cases better) than a journal special issue.

It would be a shame for it to disappear.

However, it seems to me that the “crisis of the collection” is a distinctly British (or maybe transatlantic) phenomenon, one that is clearly rooted in the imperatives both of a centralised assessment system and a more market-oriented publishing model.

Though maybe I’m one of those old fashioned types who likes the way that research turns into tangible forms. With stable covers, an image on the front and an ISBN number.

Listen carefully

Looking through an older London Review of Books today, I ran across a fascinating review by Charles Nicholl of The Merchant of Prato: Daily Life in a Medieval Italian City by Iris Origo.

Medieval Italy is most defintely, as we historians all too often have to say, “not my area”, but the book is now on my list.

I started my studies as a wannabe early-modernist with a focus on the seventeenth century, wrote my MA on the eigtheenth centry, and then my PhD dissertation (which became my first book) on the nineteenth. My second book considered the 1920s, and the forthcoming one concentrates on the 1930s and 1940s.

The relentless forward momentum is hard to overlook.

But more recently, I find myself more interested in returning to earlier periods, at least as a side interest. And Origo’s book sounds like it employs a kind of historical biographical approach that I’ve at least come close to in the last two books (my study of the Pace murder trial in 1928 and my forthcoming book on a British Christian intellectual group in the period around the Second World War).

Nicholl cites a passage from an essay on method from Origo (“Biography: True and False”, published in 1984 and originally written for a lecture in 1958).

Its main idea is one that I can very much second:

“The young biographer who has upon his desk his first intriguing pile of papers, will do well to arm himself with humility, and let them speak for themselves. Later on the time will come to sift, to compare, and to bring to life again; but first he should listen without interrupting. Then, as he deciphers the faded ink, a phrase may stand out which reveals the hand that wrote it. He may see – as suddenly as, at a turn of the passage, one comes upon one’s image in a mirror – a living face.”

The past cannot, of course, “speak for itself”.

But in writing about those who lived in it, one must, indeed, be a good listener above all.