Thursday, October 2, 2014

Lynn Hunt's "Writing History in the Global Era"

Lynn Hunt is Distinguished Research Professor at UCLA, former president of the American Historical Association, and author of numerous works, including Inventing Human Rights and Telling the Truth about History.

Hunt applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Writing History in the Global Era, and reported the following:
Any single page probably gives a good sense of a writer’s style but not perhaps of their arguments. Page 99 falls in the third of four chapters of my book on how history will be written in the era of globalization. The first chapter recounts the rise and fall of cultural theories such as postmodernism or postcolonialism. The second chapter focuses on globalization; is it the new paradigm for writing history that replaces cultural theories and what might be its pluses and minuses? The third chapter, in which p. 99 appears, is about rethinking society and the self. Even as talk of globalization reshapes the writing of history, certain long lasting categories of history and social science have also come up for discussion, including society and the self. You might think these are self-evident but they are not. Page 99 shows that the concept of society has changed over time and that its highlighting in the eighteenth century served very distinct political and religious purposes.

From page 99:
Society, the individual self, and secularization were all closely linked together in the eighteenth century. Society was the space of autonomy or freedom from the demands of authoritarian rulers claiming a transcendental ground of legitimacy. Its emergence as practices and concept implied a challenge to that transcendental ground of legitimacy, whether in the form of the divine right of kings or the Biblical link between the father’s authority and the authority of the crown. In other words, the increasing attention to society propelled secularization by undermining the supernatural grounds of authority. Society authorized itself. It was self-regulating, though not always with the greatest success.

Over the course of the eighteenth century, society came to be seen as composed of individuals and not just families and status groups such as the nobility, the clergy, or the many guilds of professions and occupations. As a consequence, government was increasingly seen as representing individuals, especially individual property owners, rather than status groups. Thus, the first issue in the French Revolution of 1789 was whether the Estates General should vote by order (clergy, nobles, Third Estate) or by “head” (by individual deputy). Voting by head won out. The nation was to be composed of individual citizens, not differentially privileged status groups. In short, society’s autonomy from authoritarian rule was not enough; individuals had to be as autonomous as possible from the pressures of their families and communities as well.
Learn more about Writing History in the Global Era at the W. W. Norton website.

Writers Read: Lynn Hunt.

--Marshal Zeringue