Sunday, February 13, 2005

Why France?

Apart from the question of "why fascism?" there is also the question of "why France?" And the answer cannot be simply because I know France, and French. This project is also in part an attempt--pointless to deny it--to offer the French experience of citizenship and nationalism as a model for the world. The tension in French citizenship between the national and the universal, which stems from the Revolution and the resulting habit of thinking of France as the cradle of democracy, obviously has its problems. It excuses a certain amount of belligerence, especially when it comes to the colonies and even ex-colonies. It causes a bit of self-righteousness, as with de Gaulle and Chirac, for example. But it is, I think, the best model we have for a national identity that has the necessary flexibility to survive globalization.

And French Fascism has this tension too. It was not simply nationalist, it was universal too. The problem was to create a French version of an incredibly popular international movement--because from their perspective (and they weren't far wrong) Fascism was a wave sweeping over Europe. So this was one step in the development of the French nationality.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Engineers are all evil

Henry at Crooked Timber defends us liberal humanists against the charge that Al Queda's ideology comes from supposed anti-Western nihilism in the academy. Turns out that most of their members are professionals; engineers and architects to be precise. Interesting in light of Herf's study of support of National Socialism among engineers.

Not that Al Queda and the Nazis have anything to do with each other. Except I suppose they both hate freedom.

My senior year in college I shared a house with 13 smart people. I was the only one in the humanities. The rest were mostly scientists and engineers. None of them are either fascist or terrorist, as far as I know.

Fascist membership

From where (geographically, class) did Fascist organizations draw their membership? Soucy (is it Soucy?) claims that they had little success luring workers away from the Socialists, but these people still lived in the city, no? Or the banlieu? This should be pretty straightforward, but it might be the first chapter. Go to Soucy to find where one can get membership records. Police reports? Did the ligues keep membership rolls, and have they survived? Has no one answered this question yet?

A more complicated question is whether they were recent arrivals, or had always lived there. Harder to determine.

If you want to claim there was an urban element to this, this is a simple way to do it.

Why are we here?

What purpose to historians serve?

I mean apart from teaching history, which is a complicated and necessary task in itself, and involves various tasks. Entertaining. Passing on some kind of cultural legacy. Legitimizing certain forms of thought and expression. Ranking students on the basis of these forms of thinking.

But what good does the historian as researcher and writer serve? Is this an entirely selfish endeavor, whose only point is to allow us to surround oneself with the things in human history that we think are cool? A form of self-expression, the presumptuous presentation of one's own worldview as the truth?

No answer at the moment.

Material and Process

The process of producing history necessarily involves raw materials; history can't be produced out of nothing. And what sources one looks at still determines what type of history you do more than the way you read those sources. This is not the same thing as saying that the source yields a clear and uniform meaning, which is rarely or never true.

As far as I see it, there are two motivations behind the act of studying history. The first is an interest in the material of history. Whatever one thinks about the existance or observability of the past "wie es eigentlich war," there exist traces, or signs, which come from the past, and that these are the materials which lie at the heart of the act of producing history. Most undergrads, most people in fact, assume that history is the sum total of all these materials, and that historians are interested in these for their own sakes. I can't deny a childlike fascination with looking at something that possibly no other living person has seen before.

The second motivation is an interest in the process of historical change. No one really knows what if anything lies at the heart of movement in history. Hegel thought he did. Others have ideas. But any answer to this question will always depend on the way in which you shape the materials of history into patterns, and thereby give them meaning. This is of course an entirely unconscious activity, most likely a linguistic one. See Hayden White on this.

There are times when one needs to ignore Hayden White and the postmodernists, though, and pretend that the past actually exists in an intelligable form. Nietzsche, as always, strikes a balance here by reminding us that it's all a fiction ("truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions") but that its a necessary fiction.

Go to the sources. They are true. They will do the work for you.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Contaminated Identities

There's discussion at Language Log about Prince Harry's brilliant Nazi costume idea. Bill Poser essentially tells everyone to calm down, since this is not necessarily a statement in favor of Nazism. I agree with this, and I love that a guy named "Poser" is talking about costumes. Arnold Zwicky argues that "certain identities are highly contaminating culturally, to the extent that playing with them lays the performers open to attributions of actually having the portrayed identities." Homosexuality is his other example: if I pretend to be gay, people assume I am gay.

Zwicky makes no mention (unless it's encoded in the Goffman reference) of why these particular identities are contaminated. The two have certainly been linked in popular imagination--think of Ernst Rohm and Robert Brasillach. I think the connection is one or both of the following:

First, we are worried about whether we might share these identities. This is most obvious in the case of homosexuality. "Gay" is an identity that wasn't an option even a few decades ago, and it's being embraced by more people than one would have thought likely in Wilde's day. Or even Proust's, or even Foucault's. We wonder whether we're gay ourselves. In the Nazi case, this might be less obvious. "Of course we're not Nazis." Well, no, we aren't; we all hate Hitler and think the Holocaust was a bad thing. But aren't we secretly fascinated? Haven't we all been to sporting events and rock concerts where we've felt something like what one must have felt in the thrall of a charismatic speaker who gives your life total meaning? See Susan Sontag's "Fascinating Fascism" essay, and Le Bon too I suppose.

Second, the act of playing or performance is essential to both identities. Homosexuality, again, obviously. Playing straight for so long, then coming out and demonstrating gayness publicly. Fascination with Broadway musicals. Dressing up and marching in a parade. The mass demonstration is the most obvious example in Nazism. To their emphasis on action, one might ask if "act" here means to do or to pretend. (Does this work in German? Does it work in French? Faire can mean "to seem," although it's probably not as striking as in English. Agir is not something you do in a play. Does Action Francaise have this unintended meaning?)

A final question is how to interpret Zwicky's word "contamination," with its suggestion of an inside (the identity) and an outside (from where the contamination comes). One thinks also of various Red Scares, a certain number of communists having infiltrated the State Department, etc. (And one should contrast this imagery with that of a barbarians at the gate, the hun threatening from the East.) Is this a subtle attempt to make the essentialist argument about gays and fascists?

So this is an attempt to determine how we think of fascism. More later on how fascists themselves thought.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005