- Modernity and Bourgeois Life: Society, Politics, and Culture in England, France, and Germany since 1750 by Jerrold Seigel
The concept of modernity has received extraordinary amounts of attention during the past few decades, perhaps because of a fascination with our own “post-modernity.” Jerrold Siegel’s new book thus enters well-trod territory, but its scope and approach allows it to stake new ground. A magisterial work of synthesis, the book is based on a lifetime of engagement with the historiography of modern Europe, and more particularly reading and thinking about the transformative nature of certain aspects of bourgeois “ways of life.” Seeking to revise and rethink Marxist interpretations of historical change and the role of the bourgeoisie, Siegel’s earlier work illuminated how the bourgeoisie could come to dominate society without staging revolutions and worked through how most bourgeois tended toward conservative outlooks, while equally bourgeois men and women could launch artistic and literary movements that directly attacked traditions. Whereas those earlier studies focused primarily on France in the last half of the nineteenth century, Siegel’s new book traces the story back into the mid eighteenth century and it takes a comparative approach, focusing on England, France and Germany. The book’s chronological sweep is not as broad as the subtitle suggests; it mostly treats the “long nineteenth century,” although the conclusion discusses the internet as a more recent phenomenon, with parallels to the trajectories treated earlier in the book.
Modernity and Bourgeois Life begins with a lengthy introduction that clearly explains the book’s approach and argument, particularly its focus on what Siegel calls “networks of means,” a concept, he argues, that illuminates the chronology of the emergence of modernity and the distinct paths taken by various individual countries. He provides a careful definition of this important notion which runs throughout the book: “A network of means is a chain or web of people and instruments that links distant energies and resources to each other, allowing individuals and groups to draw on them together, create synergies between them, and employ the capacity they generate for some particular purpose or goal” (pp. 7–8). One key feature of the emergence of modernity is the expansion of such distant connections, which were in turn created and enlarged through bourgeois activities. [End Page 454] According to Siegel, an essential component of why Europe in 1850 was more modern than it had been in the eighteenth century “was the far more pervasive diffusion of distant relationships into every aspect of life” (p. 11). Examples of these “distant relationships” include money as a form of trust, a prominent focus of the book that makes brilliant use of the theories of the late nineteenth-century German sociologist, Georg Simmel. New forms of transportation and communication such as trains, telegraphs, and newspapers, and the expansion of state bureaucracies also reinforced such connections. The remainder of the book takes a three-part structure. Part One includes six chapters, three on the century leading up to 1850, and three on 1850 to 1914. Each set of three chapters focuses on England, then France, then Germany. These chapters address the question of “separate paths,” demonstrating how each place followed its own distinct route toward modernity. In this multiplicity of “paths,” England appears not as a model but simply a precocious example. Siegel nonetheless makes the argument that in all places, modernity carried with it an essential feature: the expansion of networks of means, something that both fostered and resulted from bourgeois economic and cultural activities. The differences among the three countries lay in the relative importance of politics and the state.
The remaining two parts of the book each contain four thematically defined chapters that incorporate examples from all three countries. Part Two, “Calculations and lifeworlds” has chapters on money, gender, morality, and the unique relationship between Jews and modernity. Part Three, “A culture of means” has three chapters that focus on bourgeois approaches to culture, followed by the concluding chapter that jumps...