W. H. Auden observed shortly after Sigmund Freud’s death that he was “no more a person now but a whole climate of opinion.” The intellectual historian Samuel Moyn has edited a newly-released critical edition of Freud’s 1930 Civilization and Its Discontents (Norton, 2022), which features James Strachey’s classic translation, a new critical apparatus, and commentaries from a remarkable range of thinkers, including Thomas Mann, Herbert Marcuse, and leading contemporary critical theorists Amy Allen and Judith Butler. Moyn’s short preface captures the enormous intellectual, cultural, and social impact Freud and his heirs have had on the modern world. Psychoanalysis once “communed with an age of crisis,” as Freud observed “enlightened” Europe descend into war and fascism. But Moyn laments that it has so dramatically fallen out of fashion in recent decades, replaced by pop psychology and pills, and mirroring the downfall of other grand theories. Yet for Moyn “a new age of crisis has begun” in which younger generations no longer take for granted the triumph of reason. If psychoanalysis did one thing, it was to teach us to face the irrationality in our midst, rather than turning away from it dismissively. Even as Freud situated himself resolutely on the side of enlightenment, texts like Civilization and Its Discontents identify dark drives in both psyche and society, disabling the “benevolent illusion” of progress. In our own “war-torn and unequal world,” Moyn writes that “rationality finds itself enthroned” once again through technocracy, leaving us in need of reexamining “the political meaning of our disorderly psyches.” In The New Republic, Udi Greenberg suggests that Moyn overplays the political value of Freud’s text as one with which to think the present (if not as a “guide,” which Moyn does not claim), instead finding in Freud a lesson much broader and more enduring: “that human life is always dominated by ambiguity, uncertainty, and inconsistency, and that there’s no escape from the haunting torment that this entails.”
Pablo Martínez Gramuglia
I have finally found the time to read Ink under the Fingernails, by Corinna Zeltsman, probably the most ground-breaking book of 2021 in Latin American print studies. Unlike many recent works -some indeed excellent-, this is not a case study around a newspaper, an author, or a print workshop. Zeltsman goes beyond in her effort and works with the whole Mexican “long” 19th century (from late colonial times to 1910’s Revolution) to review the politics of printing. I enjoyed reading the nuanced narratives of specific experiences that nonetheless kept building on a general rationale, i. e., all the political actors of that jolted century embraced printing, and printers and other workers engaged in political activities. The study of legal debates, interventions in the public arena, and practical negotiations between printers, authors, and authorities, sheds light on a complex world that combines intellectual and manual labor. By paying entrepreneurial printers and political figures equal attention, and from the outskirts of Western civilization, Zeltsman dialogues with (and sometimes corrects) well established narratives of the public sphere as a gradual acquisition of liberty and reason or of print capitalism as a driving force behind the birth of modern nations. Rather than following a technology that mirrored political history, the book shows that the printing press has a history of its own, and that it is worth -even fun- studying it.
In the American sporting imaginary, Spring-time means baseball season. Whether you play yourself or just enjoy watching a game at the ballpark, there are unique and thought-provoking ways to further enhance an appreciation of the sport. One such avenue I might recommend is reading Alva Noe’s latest book Infinite Baseball: Notes from a Philosopher at the Ballpark (2019). Written from the perspective of a trained philosopher, Infinite Baseball examines and highlights the intricacies of baseball from a phenomenological point of view. According to Noe, baseball operates outside of mechanical or stringently enforced rational principles; rather, it develops in and through change, flux, and disruption on a level of lived experience. Whereas other sports like boxing (a recurring example for Noe) reflect on the game after the fact by tallying scorecards and numbering punches hit versus punches missed, baseball incorporates and weaves scoring—that is, thinking about outcomes—into the game while it is happening first-hand. Furthermore, this fusion between living (i.e., playing) and scoring (i.e., observing or reflecting) baseball occur simultaneously within a culture of infinite possibilities. Once you are able to understand Noe’s phenomenological interpretations and the paradoxes that animate them, it becomes more apparent why and how he takes particular positions on some of the sport’s most fundamental questions, such as: Why is baseball such a slow game; should we speed it up? Is baseball simply a numbers game, and can the code be cracked? How do players communicate and what are the varieties of formulas that they employ? Why does the American ballpark live in our hearts and minds in the way that it does? In addition to his own claims, Noe provides a helpful bibliography by which readers can acquaint themselves with a growing literature on the sport beyond our natural attitude of it. For theorists, this book will no doubt enrich your understanding of the sport. For baseball fans and players, it will uncover much of the philosophy that dwells just beneath the surface.
In the afternoon of March 5th, the Endurance22 Expedition located Ernest Shackleton’s ship Endurance on the Antarctic sea floor. When the Exploration Director Mensun Bound stated, ‘Gents, I want to introduce you to the Endurance’ it reminded me of that well-known greeting by the American-Welsh explorer, Henry Stanley to David Livingstone. Livingstone was “lost” in the African continent. The 144-foot wooden ship, Endurance, which was crushed in the Weddell’s treacherous pack ice and sank in 1915 during Shackleton’s ill-fated attempt to be the first to cross Antarctica,was not. The earth offers less and less of what the exploration world calls “firsts” yet these stories are undeniably fascinating. With much delight I attended the Virtual HistSTM Roundtable on the discovery of the Endurance with Sarah Pickman, Stephanie Barczewski, Henrietta Hammant and Daniella McCahey. Barczewski explained that one is either on team Scott or team Shackleton. She was team Scott. I was most definitely team Shackleton (and not because Ernest and I share the same homeland–it’s complicated). The rich discussion covered the relevance for today of such a ‘discovery’, what it means to locate this particular shipwreck, the legacy of heroes of empire, along with our enduring fascination with shipwrecks. This engrossing roundtable questioned the gender politics of scientific exploration, climate change, and these remote places in our imagination. Mrs. Chippy would have approved!
With the onset of Spring, as the days turn longer, and snowdrops give way to cherry blossoms, I turn to poetry and music to commemorate the annual rebirth of beings in nature. As I revisited Wordsworth’s lyrical ballad on daffodils, written in 1804, I was particularly struck by the relationship between nature and the process of abstraction. When the poet gazes at the flowers, he finds himself overwhelmed by their beauty. In his words “I gazed—and gazed—but little thought, What wealth the show to me had brought.” What “wealth” did he hope to earn from looking at this “host of golden daffodils”? This wealth was nothing but happiness. The poet’s feeling of joy was however not limited to the moment(s) of watching the flowers dance in gaiety. The moment of sharing in the cheerful being of the daffodils becomes eternal through an act of abstraction. By imagining that scene of daffodils in later moments of solitude, the poet notes in the conclusion that his “heart with pleasure fills, And dances with the daffodils”. Nature and seasons may be ever-changing and cyclical, but the poets give us hope that through abstraction, through imagination, spring can become timeless. Therefore, in 1818, Keats noted: “a thing of beauty is a joy for ever”.
To recommend a book which needs no recommendation: Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. I am currently reading it with a group of friends, for the second time. Melville’s magnum opus is of course as enormous as its central metaphor, the whale; its cetacean proportions indeed make it difficult to recommend in brevity. For a blog on intellectual history, then, it is enough to allude to some already-identified themes of intellectual-historical interest. Employing a creative contextualism which he has dubbed “reconstructive literary criticism”, David S. Reynolds has situated Moby-Dick within the variously reformist, sensationalist, and seedy tropes of the popular literature Melville voraciously consumed. The novel’s complex interplay between a demagogic Ahab and his frenzied crew—both of which remain eminently sympathetic—Reynolds deems “the literary culmination of the radical egalitarianism” unique to Jacksonian democracy. Readers might then approach Moby-Dick as “the grand proclamation” of Melville as “the democratic writer”. From another perspective, they might instead read Moby-Dick as Alfred Kazin did, as Melville’s foray into the Emersonian confrontation between Nature and humankind. The novel presents a panoply of metaphors which outgrow their very substance (as Reynolds also suggests): unconquerable Whale and Ocean are limitless symbols that confound the fictional narrator Ishmael as much as the very real Melville. Kazin too calls Ishmael the “last transcendentalist” insofar as he is a dreamer, following the will-bound Ahab towards the Absolute. Coming from a long period of research on the Transcendentalist milieu, I might object to this characterization, and encourage readers to think of Ishmael as an anti-Transcendentalist wanderer: favoring extensivity over intensivity; accepting the unconquerable rather than presuming the universe’s correspondent knowability; skeptical of the Promethean split which Ahab asserts between imperial noumenal will and secondary phenomenal Nature. But, I would warn, Ishmael does not relish that the Transcendental conceit (however caricatured it might be in Melville’s presentation) might be wrong. He laments: “would I could mount that whale and leap the topmost skies”! Moby-Dick remains great because it is unsatisfied with its own conclusions.
Featured Image: Boticelli, La Primavera, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.