Monday, May 7, 2012

Jerrold Seigel

From a Q & A with Jerrold Seigel, author of Modernity and Bourgeois Life: Society, Politics, and Culture in England, France and Germany since 1750:

What inspired you to research this subject?

I've long thought that making sense of the relationship between modernity and bourgeois life is crucial to understanding how the world we live in came about, how it differs from the past forms of life out of which it developed, and the roles particular kinds of people play in it. A great deal of work by historians and others has recognized this in one way or another. I was already trying to deal with these questions, less explicitly and with less awareness, in some of my earlier writing, especially my books on Marx (who assigned bourgeois people a crucial role in modern history) and on French bohemianism (which rested on a much closer relationship to bourgeois life than has often been supposed). I have also had to confront these questions often in my teaching, which came together with my research and writing to give me a deepening dissatisfaction with the ways they have usually been dealt with. Reading Georg Simmel's brilliant book The Philosophy of Money turned on a kind of light bulb in my head. Simmel's notion that money is a "social tool" allowing people to act through "long chains of connections" led me to think about modernity and bourgeois life in relation to the growing weight of distant relations in people's lives, and thus to the extension and thickening of what I call the "networks of means" that provide vehicles for them.

What did being ‘modern' mean to Europeans in the nineteenth-century?

Many things of course, depending on who was talking and in relationship to what. The term had long simply called up what belonged to the present in contrast with some real or imagined past, and for many nineteenth-century people it still did. The shocking and exciting political and economic changes at the end of the eighteenth century made the world appear to be changing very fast, leading some thoughtful people to associate "modern" with rapid, constant change; the "all that is solid melts into the air" of The Communist Manifesto or the "ephemerality" Baudelaire saw as the essence of le moderne. But applied to particular things, such as industry or politics or society, the term referred to specific techniques, institutions or attitudes, such as machine production, party organization or some kind of liberated individuality. "Modern" could have negative connotations as well as positive ones, for instance having a kinship with decadence or moral decline. A certain number of nineteenth-century people recognized that modernity had much to do with the spread of distant relations of one or another kind, a perspective to which I give some emphasis, since it is close to the one I try to develop in the book. Modern is a very slippery term and I think we can only use it well if...[read on]
--Marshal Zeringue