- Stranger History
It still haunts me, and induces a sort of home-feeling with the past, which I scarcely claim in reference to the present phase of the town.—Nathaniel Hawthorne, The House of the Seven Gables (1851)
These words [of the workers] had to be removed from their status as evidence or symptoms of a social reality to show them as writing and thinking at work on the construction of a different social world. That is why [Proletarian Nights] renounced any explanatory distance. It instead sought to create the sensitive fabric required to make this upturning of the order that keeps times and discourses in their place resound in our own present. That is why severe theorists and historians deemed it to be literature.—Jacques Rancière, Proletarian Nights: The Workers’ Dream in Nineteenth-Century France (1980)
In his preface to the New English Edition (2012) of Proletarian Nights: The Workers’ Dream in Nineteenth-Century France (1980), Jacques Rancière makes this proposal: in order to engage the past in a politicized fashion we must ignore its pastness as such. This is because the distinction separating past from present replicates a larger failing of intellectual work that claims to ally itself with the oppressed. The primary offense against the proletariat on the part of “mandarin” intellectuals, he argues, is to reinscribe ad nauseum the self-credentialing belief that some unspecified difference separates the compromised intellectual formations of those “below” from the “science” generated by the intellectuals who stand “above.” His history of class struggle includes a long and tawdry tale of self-nominated scientists seeking to speak for and on behalf of those whom the scientists characterize as ideologically blinded to their proper roles as revolutionary agents of History. Rancière summarizes the force and direction of his argument as follows: “The equality of intelligences remains the most untimely of thoughts it is possible to nourish about the social order.”1 [End Page 154]
Rancière’s signature notion of the equality of intelligences inaugurates his early break with his teacher Althusser, but more importantly, it interrogates the role of self-designated intellectuals in the unfolding of human equality. In Proletarian Nights, Rancière prosecutes the case that the self-declared intellectual class has obstructed the otherwise open-throated voice of what we can heuristically call the people. If this obstructing is a problem in general, he suggests, it is an especially acute one when it comes to the fraught distinction separating past historical actors from present ones. Too often intellectual work on the past takes for granted the superiority of the current critic’s knowledge when measured against knowledge generated in the past. “If only they knew then what we know now,” in other words, represents a pernicious manifestation of a position that rejects the equality of intelligences across time. For the spatial hierarchy of above and below, substitute the seemingly benign chronological pairing of present and past. As an antidote to this hierarchical rendering of present and past, Rancière offered something— call it a disposition toward the past formulated as a “sensitive fabric” of writing—that certain “severe theorists and historians” who took issue with his book would criticize as “literature.” These severe critics denigrated Proletarian Nights as literature for trying to do the seemingly impossible: allow past “times” and past “discourses” of the proletariat to “resound in our own present.”2 Rancière’s literature sought to accord past knowledges and past peoples a fundamental equality with the present.
Several recent approaches to nineteenth-century American writing propose methodological shifts that entail some version of Rancière’s rethinking of the present’s relationship to the past. J19’s and C19’s charters, for example, reference the “long nineteenth century,” echoing Giovanni Arrighi’s The Long Twentieth Century, which in turn recalls the Annales school’s longue durée. Given the Annales’ emphasis on continuities rather than ruptures, and recalling Rancière’s injunction to respect the equality of intelligences across time, it is easy to see how those of us writing about the nineteenth-century United States might be tempted to stretch “our” present to accommodate what has been thought of...