historicality and the one armed nun

When Tom Paine came back to the U.S. in 1802, he wrote a series of letters to sorta reintroduce himself. He began by giving his impression of the New New World, as though he were the survivor of a shipwreck – and indeed, the tone and the some of the sentences irresistibly evoke Ishmael:

“AFTER an absence of almost fifteen years, I am again returned to the country in whose dangers I bore my share, and to whose greatness I contributed my part.
When I sailed for Europe, in the spring of 1787, it was my intention to return to America the next year, and enjoy in retirement the esteem of my friends, and the repose I was entitled to. I had stood out the storm of one revolution, and had no wish to embark in another. But other scenes and other circumstances than those of contemplated ease were allotted to me. The French revolution was beginning to germinate when I arrived in France. The principles of it were good, they were copied from America, and the men who conducted it were honest. But the fury of faction soon extinguished the one, and sent the other to the scaffold. Of those who began that revolution, I am almost the only survivor, and that through a thousand dangers. I owe this not to the prayers of priests, nor to the piety of hypocrites, but to the continued protection of Providence.

But while I beheld with pleasure the dawn of liberty rising in Europe, I saw with regret the lustre of it fading in America. In less than two years from the time of my departure some distant symptoms painfully suggested the idea that the principles of the revolution were expiring on the soil that produced them.”

The divide between 1776 and 1802 is considerable – an abyss. Which brings us to Andrew Abbott’s brilliant essay on the individual and the social structure that LI mentioned in our next to last post.

(We warned you that we were coming back to this topic, gentle reader!)

Abbott gets right to the point with a sentence that makes the Marx-y heart sink: “I wish to argue this afternoon that we should reinstate individuals as an important force in history.” But instead of giving us some implausible ideology a la Ludwig von Mises, Abbott has in mind something a bit more interesting, if a lot less heroic.

“To be sure, social structure can and sometimes does confer on particular individuals extraordinary power to shape the future. But the crucial explanatory question in such cases is not the quality or actions of that individual, interesting as these might be. Rather it is the conditions under which such social structures emerge and stabilize.”

Abbott begins by examining one problem with the individual, viewed in terms of the living trajectory he embodies through history: although we like to think that the periodizations of history have a real counterpart, actually, there are insurmountable difficulties in putting bottom and top bounds on these ‘things’. They are fictions. Worse, as we understand more about the effects of boundaries – via the complexity people – we see that the boundaries aren’t, and can’t be, neutral. In other words, the Weberian ideal type, the modality into which periodization is packed, isn’t just a summing over histories but a selection of ending and beginning points that inevitably effects the whole set. If this sounds like a pomo complaint about metanarratives, it is – but the interesting thing is that the pomo critique instantly transmuted into another failed attempt at periodization. The other option seemed to be sheer nihilism.

Abbott considers these options briefly, with the example of the sociological study of careers – something he has done a lot of in his work. And then he comes to the point he wants to defend:

“In brief, I shall argue that the sheer mass of the experience that individuals carry forward in time—what we might think of in demographic terms as the present residue of past cohort experience—is an immense social force. It is all too easy to ignore this force, for we fall into that ignorance almost inevitably when we take up periodized historical thinking as we so often do when we work at the group level. But the vast continuity of individuals over time in fact forbids periodic analysis, however convenient it may be. In short, individuals are central to history because it is they who are the prime reservoir of historical connection from past to present. This is what I mean by the historicality of individuals.”

Now I know what my readers are saying – you are saying, isn’t this some disguised reintroduction of that awful Dilthey crap about generations? Hey, you in the back, I do not appreciate the joke about Dilthey and the one armed nun, capisce?

Okay, the thought crossed my mind too, but Abbott makes a pretty strong case – one that could be strengthened by using the materialization of memory – newspapers, diaries, movies, media in general – as a strong form of that cohort experience.

One other theoretical note, and then let’s get down to Abbott’s cases:

“Let me start by saying in a little more detail what I mean by historicality. In the first instance, I mean continuity over time. And I argue that individuals have continuity over time to a degree that social structures do not. Note that we assume this relative dominance of individual continuity whenever we
make the common (and somewhat questionable) remark that social change is getting faster and faster. This assertion involves the assumption that individuals last longer than social structures, for only then do they have to endure the changes in the latter and hence come to realize the rapidity of its change.
In a world of which it can be said that social change in it is happening faster and faster, that is, it must be the historical continuity of individuals that provides the sinews linking past and present. It is the historicality of individuals that enables us, even forces us, to know social change.”

Now, what does it mean to say that individuals have continuity over time that social structures lack? This might strike us as exactly backwards. This is how Abbott explains it, first using the example of the corporation and the changes in its various persona – the famous intangible capital of corporations, and then going on to other social organizations:

“… the vast majority of social structures are not corporations or even formal organizations.They are things like neighborhoods, occupations, newspaper readerships, church congregations, social classes, ethnicities, technological communities, and consumption groups: often disorganized or unorganized but nonetheless consequential as social structures. These often do not have formal records. If they do, these records are often of diverse kind, changing rapidly over time. And even their nonrecorded memories are scattered through diverse people having diverse relations to them.Only a few members of them have more than a miniscule connection with the whole body of those memories. Such social structures have quite diaphanous historicality. Their vast riot of memories is embodied in neither a few persons nor a legal being. Because their memories are widely distributed and their records often weak, such structures can change quickly and easily. There is little to keep them coherent over time. My discipline of sociology, for example, has been something like a social reality for about a century. In that period it has drifted quite rapidly from being a progressive and fairly religious common interest group of do-gooders, reformers, and political academics to a group of highly professionalized social scientists with an exclusive disciplinary association that aims to produce college teachers. Much of the reason for this change lies in the sheer ease with which the discipline can forget its past—a past that is expiring as I speak in decent silence in the minds of emeritus colleagues.”

Hmm, this post is getting overlarge. LI will do a couple more posts, going from Abbott to Paine to the end of the target cities of the Cold War – as LI pursues our eternal white whale, what went wrong with America????