Monday, June 15, 2020

Nolan Bennett's "The Claims of Experience"

Nolan Bennett is an Assistant Professor of Democracy and Justice Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay. He is a scholar of American political thought, and his research considers why and to what effect historical actors and movements ground their claims for democratic justice in personal experience. He recovers genres like autobiography, slave narrative, and prison writing as appeals to popular authority and representation not found in state or electoral politics. Bennett is particularly interested in issues of prison reform and punishment in the United States, inspired by the long history of prison writing, and with a committed interest to teaching in carceral spaces.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his 2019 book, The Claims of Experience: Autobiography and American Democracy, and reported the following:
Page 99 of The Claims of Experience is a strange page. For one, it is one of few pages with an image: a picture of the Machinery Hall at the 1900 Paris Exposition. I acquired a stereoscopic print just like this while researching the book, and hoped it would bring readers closer to the experience that Henry Adams was having when he visited that very hall. That’s the subject of the page: Adams’s witnessing there among other technologies the “dynamo,” a kind of rudimentary electric engine. This is recalled within arguably the most famous chapter of Adams’s memoirs, The Education of Henry Adams. On page 99 I explain the dynamo as Adams’s symbol for what he calls “education,” a kind of modern subjectivity whereby individuals process the many multiple forces of the world into a sense of self. As I discuss elsewhere, Adams was one of many in the era overwhelmed by how developments in technology and the sciences (think thermodynamics, the discovery of the atom, lingering implications of Darwinism, advancements in industry and psychology, the rise of secularism) threatened to fragment the individual’s sense of self. At the end of the page I contrast that modern unease with Benjamin West’s famous painting of Ben Franklin: the pinnacle of Enlightenment individualism whose hand served as a conduit for electricity from the heavens through a key on a kite to him. Franklin too famously wrote what some consider the first modern autobiography. Between that image I include in the book and West’s painting, then, you have a good sense of what worried Adams and what I work through in that chapter: as we learn more and more about the world and humanity’s power to reshape it, what then can we know and make of ourselves? And what use is that to others?

Nowhere else in the book do I get so deep into the sciences and technology, and this makes page 99 a strange, idiosyncratic representation of the text. If you were to open the book to this page I do not think you would get a very good sense of what it is about. Were you to come back to this page, though, you would see there a surprisingly good representation of the puzzles that motivated me to write the book. Standing before this massive engine in 1900, Adams describes himself having something like a religious experience, prostrated before a new electric god that he does not understand. The question, then, is not just why this experience mattered to Adams, but why he would write it down in The Education of Henry Adams: why he would write an autobiography (though he would never call his book that). If it took that machine to give Adams this fleeting sense of self, what good would his own recounted narrative be for readers? This question – what is the purpose of life narrative – has motivated a lot of scholars reading works back to Augustine’s Confessions and before. But in The Claims of Experience the question goes further: what makes this political? Adams saw amid those modern developments a sharp decline in political leadership, in national identity: but it is not just in those new technologies that Adams imagines him and other Americans finding a new sense of self, but the very autobiographical form of writing with which he’s experimenting. As is true of the other figures I study – Franklin, Frederick Douglass, Emma Goldman, and Whittaker Chambers – this is what renders his life narrative not just a recounting of the experience but a call to new community formed around experiences like it. But Adams remains the most idiosyncratic among these figures, and this is in part what makes page 99 such a strange point of entry for the book. Though it might not motivate anyone to read further, I will say though that it is also for this reason that page 99 is perhaps my favorite in the book. The puzzle posed there was the most difficult to unravel in my research, and thus it is the chapter I am most proud of. Unlike Adams, I wrote my own book for others – and so while I would recommend they start elsewhere, page 99’s image of Adams in the Machinery Hall in 1900 has inspired me throughout the book’s writing and still today.
Visit Nolan Bennett's website.

--Marshal Zeringue