French Revolutionary Violence, Democracy, and the Self

AHA Session 94
Friday, January 6, 2012: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Michigan Room A (Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers)
Samuel Moyn, Columbia University
Collective Trauma and the Self after the Paris Commune
Howard G. Brown, Binghamton University (State University of New York)
Tocqueville's Self: Reconciling Individuality and Individualism
Gerald N. Izenberg, Washington University in St. Louis
Jan Goldstein, University of Chicago

Session Abstract

Since the publication of Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (1992), historians have become increasingly interested in exploring the historical evidence for changing understandings of "selfhood." The widely accepted premise of this search is that so-called "western" societies evolved in particular ways that encouraged individuals to think of their personal identities as centered on a "self." Such thinking is qualitatively different from simply having a sense of individuality, whether spiritual or physical. As the pace of social change accelerated and the array of choices in life grew increasingly more varied, individuals came to think in terms of both understanding and performing their personal identities through the concept of "the self." An analogy explains the trajectory: awareness of individuality is to selfhood what trade is to capitalism. The latter is based on the former, but it is the historically acquired sophistication and cultural salience of the latter that comes to matter most.

Much historical work on the emergence of the modern self is rooted in intellectual history. As important as it is to appreciate the various ways in which leading thinkers have conceptualized the essence of individual identity over time, however, it is equally important to appreciate how personal and collective experiences helped to forge new understandings of selfhood. Fortunately, the three papers that make up this panel address each of these aspects. The intellectual history of selfhood is central to Gerald Izenberg’s paper. Here he explores Alexis de Tocqueville’s recourse to the concept of the self as a means to reconcile individuality and individualism, and thereby provided the basis for a political theory capable of stabilizing society in a revolutionary age. In contrast, David Bell’s paper analyzes personal experience through the lense of "self-fashioning." He does so by focusing on Charles-Philippe Ronsin, who, after trying on a series of personas, all based on well-known archetypes, helped to invent a new archetype in 1793-94: the revolutionary terrorist. Finally, the relationship between the self and collective experience is the subject of Howard Brown’s paper. He posits that the emergence of cheap newspapers and the new medium of photography combined with new forms of collective solidarity and the greater importance of "selfhood" to turn the violence of the Commune into a genuine collective trauma, that is, an event that caused serious psychological harm to those who did not otherwise suffer directly. Together these three papers should provide a stimulating look at the impact of revolution, violence and democratic theory on changing concepts, as well as personal and collective experiences, which mobilized and transformed the sense of self in nineteenth-century France. The rapidly evolving nature of this field, the conceptual sophistication of the papers, and the notable expertise of the commentator should make this panel of interest to a wide array of historians.

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