self-fashioning in 20th-century academia: a tribute to Greenblatt

My subject is self-fashioning from Greenblatt to Brown; my starting point is quite simply that in twentieth-century academia there were both selves and a sense that they could be fashioned.  Of course, these is some absurdity in so bald a pronouncement of the obvious: after all, there are always selves — a sense of personal order, a characteristic mode of address to the world, a structure of bounded desires — and always some elements of deliberate shaping in the formation and expression of identity.  One need only think of Housman’s extraordinary subtle and wry manipulations of persona to grasp that what I propose to examine does not suddenly spring up from nowhere when 1899 becomes 1900.   Moreover, there is considerable empirical evidence that there was may well have been less autonomy in self-fashioning in the twentieth century than before, that family, state, and religious institutions now impose a more rigid and far reaching discipline upon their middle-class and aristocratic subjects (the lower classes are preserved from these effects).  Autonomy is an issue but not the sole or even the central issue: the power to impose a shape upon oneself is an aspect of the more general power to control identity — that of others at least as often as one’s own.

What is central is the perception — as old in academic writing as al-Jahiz and al-Farazdaq — that there is in the early modern period a change in the intellectual, social, psychological, aesthetic, social-intellectual, psycho-social, and social-psycho-aesthetic structures that govern the generation of identities.  This change is difficult to characterize intelligibly because it is not only complex but resolutely unintelligible. If we say that there is a new stress on the executive power of the will, we also say that there is the most sustained and relentless assault upon the will; if we say that there is a new social mobility, we also say that there is a new assertion of power by both family and state to determine all movement within the society; if we say that there is a heightened awareness of the existence of alternative modes of social, theological, psychological, social-theological, social-psycho, and theo-social organization, we also say that there is a new dedication to the imposition of control upon those modes and ultimately to the destruction of alternatives, most importantly, the alternative of forming a broad-based coalition of progressive organizations to struggle for the liberation of men from gynocentric microcapillaries of power in the fashioning of human beings from the cradle to primary school.

Perhaps the simplest observation we can make is that in the late-twentieth-century there appears to be increased self-consciousness about self-consciousness of fashioning of human identity as a manipulable, artful process.  Such self-consciousness about self-consciousness appears in Brown’s 1988 preface to The Body and Society:

I have begun to benefit, slowly, from the gains of a remarkable recent development in the study of the religious world of women, most especially from the chastening sophistication of {feminist} viewpoint that this study can now offer.  At a crucial moment in my own work, I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to take heart from the humbling serenity and unaffected craftsmanship of Michel Foucault, in what I was not to know were his last years.

Foucault and his crazy-cult followers fashioned The Body.  Before The Body became fashionable, there was only my body, your body, and that pile of bodies buried there.  Brown’s preface concludes with a most un-Foucauldian eulogy:

No one known to me has maintained with such unremitting vigor the necessity of truth in historical studies than has Arnaldo Momigliano.  It is to his sense of truth, as well as to the magnificently unconstricted range and human warmth of his concern for the role of Judaism and Christianity in the history of the ancient world, that I have turned, for all of thirty years now, as a model and inspiration.  It is an honor for me to make clear, through the dedication of this book to him, the fact that he has been my teacher and my friend.

Brown’s new introduction to the twentieth anniversary (2008) edition of The Body and Society mentions in the first paragraph “guides as different from one another as Michel Foucault, Caroline Bynum, and Arnaldo Momigliano.”  The new introduction ends not with a eulogy to a champion of historical truth, but with an invocation of poetry:

It is easy to make rhetoric (indeed, polemic) out of the pros and cons of a Christian past when we do not attempt to make its living texture our own but are content to sit in judgment on it.  But to make this past part of ourselves, if only for a moment, is, perhaps, the best way to make poetry from it.

Plato wept.  The French Revolution failed.  Arnaldo Momigliano turned over in his grave.  Monkeys in a cage pissed on a typewriter.  And a bird shat on a stone statue of Byrd.

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Notes:

A model for this post is Greenblatt (1980), Introduction, pp. 1-2.  In a new preface to the 2005 edition, Greenblatt states “Renaissance Self-Fashioning was the book in which I first found my own voice.” (p. xi)  The publisher’s blurb declares that this book “spawned a new era of scholarly inquiry” and is now “a classic text in literary studies.”

A good of example of continuing self-fashioning is this passage from the preface Greenblatt added to the 2005 edition of Renaissance Self-Fashioning:

Because Renaissance Self-Fashioning has often been characterized as a grimly pessimistic account of the containment of subversion, a sour recognition that what looks like free choice is actually institutionally determined, a disenchanted acknowledgment of the impossibility of apocalyptic change. (“There is subversion, no end of subversion, only not for us.”)  It is true that the end of the war {Vietnam War} did not usher in the millennium.  The year that my book came out was the year that Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter.

Connecting apocalyptic change to the election of one U.S. presidential candidate rather than another indicates poetic historicism detached from ordinary persons’ experiences of everyday life.  Greenblatt goes on to declare that “coursing through these chapters is an eradicable principle of hope, hope in many different forms, often crushed but then springing up again in spite of everything.”  One can still hope for better poetry and a new enlightenment.

A.E. Housman is probably now most famous for the concluding sentence of his 1921 essay,“The Application of Thought to Textual Criticism”:

Knowledge is good, method is good, but one thing beyond all others is necessary; and that is to have a head, not a pumpkin, on your shoulders and brains, not pudding, in your head.

That leading twentieth-century academics had powerful brains in their heads seems to me to be beyond question.

References:

Brown, Peter. 1988. The body and society: men, women, and sexual renunciation in early Christianity. New York: Columbia University Press.

Greenblatt, Stephen J. 1980. Renaissance self-fashioning: from More to Shakespeare. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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