The Age of Questions: An Interview with Holly Case

“The book’s cover is based loosely on a patch of wallpaper in a rented apartment. While thinking about the age of questions and staring at the wallpaper, the design began to suggest the book’s structure. As the several threads come together and push apart, sometimes the light makes the pattern they describe flash out all the more clearly. And how apt that it’s wallpaper, because the idea was to see the patterns that emerge after staring long and hard at something that otherwise appears only as background.” –Holly Case

In The Age of Questions (Princeton University Press, 2018), historian Holly Case (Brown University) presents seven interpretations of the many “questions” of the long nineteenth century—the Eastern, Social, Woman, American, Jewish, Polish, Bullion, and Tuberculosis Questions, among others.

Previous historians have questioned the reality of several such “x questions,” demonstrating, for example, how bourgeois nationalists sought to impose the categories of nation on people often unaccustomed or resistant to thinking in such terms. Holly Case sets herself a more ambitious task. She seeks to understand why nineteenth-century actors frequently framed political matters as “x questions”, what thinking in “x questions” served to do and collectively inclined toward, and how the many “x questions” were entangled across regions and domains of life.

Case’s work enables us to more forthrightly confront how current questions, scholarly and popular, are interpolated with the “x questions” of the long nineteenth century. In offering half a dozen distinct interpretations, internally coherent yet sometimes conflicting, she introduces a novel mode of writing history. It is a book ideally composed to provoke questions and invite common debate in today’s “age of fracture.”

Liat Spiro (Harvard University/College of the Holy Cross)

LIAT SPIRO: You answer this question in the book, but for readers who do not yet have their hands on it: Having previously worked on the “Transylvanian question,” what brought you to a project on questions at large?

HOLLY CASE: The Age of Questions is what happens—for better or worse—when you start to see your historian self within history, as having unconsciously participated in a particular historical venture in your earlier work without understanding its origins or trajectory. There are only a couple of places where there are glimmers in Between States of what was to come; in the chapter on the relationship between the Jewish and the Transylvanian questions, for example. It was only when a friend of mine, Paul Hanebrink, asked me at a conference in 2008 whether those two questions might be related to others (like the woman or the social question) that I started down the rabbit hole that ends with The Age of Questions. At the time it was a question I could not answer.

SPIRO: You demonstrate how the x questions often contained a spatial argument—emancipation as “going out,” from ghettos or plantations for instance, and equality as “going in” to rights of citizenship. On inclusion/exclusion, how much were the x questions about the meaning and potential contradictions of liberalism?

CASE: This is a matter I take up in part in the second chapter (“The Progressive Argument”), which begins with an 1842 quote from Bruno Bauer: “[T]he question of emancipation is the question of our time.” The chapter ends by suggesting that this emancipationist and progressive agenda represents the “true essence” of the age. Beware, however, because as you know six other chapters make very different claims regarding the age’s “true essence.” Part of my reason for structuring the book like this is because the subject matter tempts people to pose questions like: “Isn’t this all really about x?” where “x” ranges from “emancipation” to “modernity” to “the death of God” to “the rise of Russia” (or “liberalism”). The short answer is no, not because those things have nothing to do with the age of questions, but because they do not have everything to do with it. Furthermore, the tendency to say things like “this problem is really about x” was a feature of the very queristic tradition such statements seek to characterize (querists chronically redefined and sought to bundle and simplify the questions of their time in accordance with what problems and outcomes they were most invested in).

But the methodological question is: how does one get people to stop thinking this way? The method I chose was to show how thinking that way could produce numerous vastly different, yet equally plausible arguments regarding the age’s “true essence.” In the book I elaborate six such arguments, and work through them to try to reach a different mode of analysis in the seventh and final chapter.

The problem with this approach is that it hides its own novelty behind the familiar. Indeed the method invites the reader to revisit familiar terrain, but precisely in order to make it unfamiliar and strange through juxtaposition with the other chapters. The arguments that carry across are very different from the standard story of the nineteenth century: that there is an intimate relationship between ideas about federation and general war (and not as merely a threat, but as a prerequisite); regarding what made the First World War thinkable; regarding the misguided fixation on acceleration (and anxiety about that acceleration) in the historiography of the nineteenth century; or regarding the magical automatism attributed to words, etc. Furthermore very deliberately not once does the word “modernity” appear. Because the book does not explicitly stake out historiographical territory, pick fights, or tell you where you’re starting to see something differently, the reader may assume it is fully compatible with existing interpretations. Nothing could be further from the truth. The method seeks to make new thinking possible on its own terms, rather than by contrast to existing ways of thinking. It is an attempt at substitution rather than an act of deconstruction or critique.

SPIRO: Early on in the book, you explain that the The Age of Questions is not a Begriffsgeschichte (a history of concepts) in genre or method. Can you say more about the theory and methods you have developed to undertake such a project? How do you historicize something like automatism in thinking?

CASE: Insofar as what I have done constitutes a theoretical intervention, it is one very much derived from my attempt to solve a problem—two, actually. The two thought-models that most impeded my thinking were structuralism and Begriffsgeschichte. They are very dominant ways of seeing that behaved like overlays on the evidence, following some of its basic outlines, but in places so far off the mark that they obscured rather than made sense of the material. It took me some time to work out what was wrong and to understand that structures are not the same as patterns and questions are not the same as concepts and to be able to explain why. The explanation is partly built into the method itself. Each chapter makes a very different argument, and the chapters also argue with one another, drawing on the same body of evidence to make vastly different claims regarding the essence of the age of questions. The method is meant to show both the attractiveness as well as the inadequacy of these arguments, and to contemplate how to reconcile them. The reader is thus asked to do the very thing the age of questions sought to do, namely reconcile contradictions, and is thereby (ideally!) made aware of the scale, dangers, enchantments, and stakes of the task.

Of course, who knows if it really works that way. But I was pleased when I saw someone warning a professor off assigning an excerpt from the book for an undergraduate class. The book is not long, but if you break it up and only read a part, you will miss the point entirely. I would much rather the book not be read than read only in part (with apologies to both the press and the zeitgeist, which no doubt have different views on the matter).

That said, The Age of Questions is not a theory. Or rather, if it is, then I would like to apologize in advance to anyone who feels compelled to apply it. Consider Rogers Brubaker’s Ethnicity Without Groups. If we call that a theory—that ethnicity is contingent and that groups are not a given but made—then the manifestations of its widespread application have largely been the equivalent of a bureaucratic disclaimer, like the one you put on the syllabus that says “this material could change at any moment without warning.” How many times have we read—or written—some caveat gleaned from the latest theoretical intervention, then followed by a work that is either a full-on imitation (albeit in a different time/place) of the theorist’s own, or effectively ignores it minus the caveat that “as Rogers Brubaker writes, ethnicity is contingent, etc.” or some contorted language like “self-declared-at-that-moment-for-that-precise-contingent-purpose ‘Romanians’” (citation: Brubaker et al.)? Perhaps historians will feel tempted to behave in a similar way vis-à-vis “questions,” but I hope not. Historiography can and should move forward by degrees, but ideally an author is on their way somewhere that is more interesting for them—and potentially also for me—than whether or not “Serbs” exist or that the “question” formulation has a history of its own. I would much rather have a student who is forced to read this book conclude: “This book showed me what thinking looks like and what it can do,” and only secondarily, “This book taught me how and what to think about questions” (with apologies to the oral examiner, who may have different views on the matter). This is, at least, what reading thinkers like Rogers Brubaker taught me.

SPIRO: In your account, the age of questions began in the British empire in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The story you present of questions over the very long nineteenth century is predominantly a European one. Have you come across the “x question” form in other places prior to European influence or conquest? Also, to what extent do the historical routes and trajectories of the “x question” mirror the circuits—from “creole pioneers” in Atlantic empires to continental Europe to anti-colonial polities beyond Europe—described by Benedict Anderson in Imagined Communities?

CASE: I have not, and I’m doubtful that such a trajectory will emerge even with further research for one simple reason: Anderson did not derive his argument about the emergence of nationalism based on when the word “nation” or “nationalism” appeared, but rather on when and how something he (and presumably others) understood as nationalism emerged and evolved. The Age of Questions takes rather the opposite approach, limiting the scope of analysis to instances where the “x question” formulation was used. The difference is significant. For example, there are certainly those who have argued that the “Jewish question” goes back to the time of Moses. It may be that what some consider to be the essence of the “Jewish question” goes back that far, but the term itself is really of nineteenth-century vintage. The Age of Questions wonders what happens when that formulation comes on the scene; who uses it, what they use it for, and what possibilities it creates and constraints it imposes. I do not wish to suggest thereby that this is the only way to study or examine “x questions,” but rather that it is a way that offers some insights one would not otherwise glean.

For example: Anderson writes of Hungarian nationalism in the same breath as Balkan and other nationalisms. According to the Andersonian definition this makes perfect sense. What the analysis in The Age of Questions reveals is that the Hungarians were terrified of nationalism, and indeed the very word “nationality” scared them so much that they spent much of the second half of the nineteenth century trying to find some other word to replace it because they were convinced it would mean their demise. This does not mean they were not “nationalists” in the Andersonian sense: they absolutely were. But if you change your perspective, you see their utter existential fear of “nationality” was no less real than the sense of “kinship” Anderson describes, maybe more so.

In order to see the creole origins of “nationalism,” Anderson had to move away from the word itself and define its presumed essence. This is what most scholars who write on questions have done, namely used the “x question” formulation as though it referred to a matter with clearly definable, fixed content that extends well beyond the actual phrase “the x question.” One example of this is an excellent book by Maxine Berg, The Machinery Question and the Making of Political Economy 1815-1848. The book begins with the sentence “In the eighteenth century there was no Machinery Question.” That’s true. The problem is, there was also no “Machinery Question” in the nineteenth century for the most part. The formulation of a “Machinery Question” is largely Berg’s own invention, and she derived her own definition for the purposes of her analysis. I have found only a spattering references a “machinery question” in British sources prior to 1848, none of which point to the themes Berg addresses in her book. In short, if there was a “national controversy” around machinery in Britain prior 1848—which Berg’s book convinces me there was—it was not generally called “the Machinery Question.”

There’s nothing wrong with scholars setting up their own categories, defining their own terms, or offering their own definitions of contemporary “x questions.” Berg offers an exciting and thought-provoking analysis which should not be discounted merely because the term and its definition are largely hers and not her protagonists’. But the process by which scholars deployed the language of the “x question” is nonetheless one that can be historicized, which I sought to do in the book (most explicitly in Chapter 5).

Another point with respect to Anderson: Arguments like Koselleck’s, Hobsbawm’s, or Anderson’s have become so reified in the historian’s consciousness that oftentimes we see things that don’t fit their models merely as deviations, exceptions that have to be accounted for in relation to the presumed rule, rather than trying to think through a body of evidence on its own terms. In this book I experimented with doing the latter. It was at once a terrific challenge and an incredible rush. It also had an intriguing side effect. Grad school is largely an exercise in disenchantment. As grad students we learn how to undertake rigorous critique and precise slotting of any given primary or secondary work into a body of pre-existing positions and emerging historiographical trends. Disenchantment is an important element of intellectual growth and maturity, but heaven forbid it should be the goal or endgame of thought. Thinking—like learning languages—requires a willingness to start all over, again and again, and from different starting points, with awe. Writing this book did not undo what I learned in grad school, but rather brought me to a different starting point from which I had the privilege to begin again.

SPIRO: You describe a transition from timeless questions in the medieval and early modern periods to ones hyper-aware of temporality in the “age of questions” of the long nineteenth century. You also show the origins of the question form in mathematical proofs applied to political quandaries (though, you argue, medical modes would replace mathematical ones in the late nineteenth century). Where might the “political arithmetic” of seventeenth-century economist and statistician William Petty, calculating national wealth or the value of a laborer as part of a vision of social engineering for the British empire, come into play? How does the timeless-to-temporal shift make us think about political economy as a way of knowing or debating?

CASE: Confession: Every time I see the phrase “political economy” I feel the urge to look it up, and every time I satisfy that urge I’m astonished by what I see. If that’s the definition, why does Mill belong, but de Tocqueville has to be retrospectively squeezed into the canon by a sociologist? Just because one wrote a book titled Principles of Political Economy and the other didn’t? My nonplussed-ness on this matter could indicate one of two things: that in spite of having read some Malthus, Marx, Mill, etc., I retain a stubborn naivete regarding what is at stake in their writings (quite possible!), or that there is more to be said than has been on what you elegantly refer to as “political economy as a way of knowing or debating.” Also, now that you mention it, some of the same patterns of The Age of Questions do seem to repeat, such as scholars shaping as well as thematizing “political economy,” deciding on its content and commenting on its trajectory even as its declared protagonists do… Yours is a very good question. It makes me want to ask you how 17C “political arithmetick” (which would seem a better, prior example than the Leibniz I used in Questions) would figure in the trajectory of “political economy.”

SPIRO: You mention the resurgence of forms of the “Eastern question” today, from Greek debt to the Kurds in Turkey. But there are aspects of the Eastern question and the interwar minority questions which have not necessarily returned–such as the Assyrian question. Certain Christian groups may stress the plight of Assyrians and the press may show the suffering of Yazidis, but these are not framed as questions. Within the bundle of Eastern questions or generally, why are some questions revived and others not? What might this tell us about geopolitics or anything else?

CASE: Great question. What you call “the resurgence of forms of the Eastern question today, from Greek debt to the Kurds in Turkey” implies a particular understanding of what the “Eastern question” was, is, and can be. I cannot emphasize enough that these definitions were never self-evident and always strategic. As a result, there have been nearly as many definitions of the “Eastern question” as there have been querists using the phrase (definitions that include: that the Eastern question is about the Second Coming of Christ, or about Poland’s right to exist). If one wishes to range the fate of Yazidis or Assyrians under the “Eastern question,” therefore, one is doing what Maxine Berg did; namely defining the question in accordance with one’s own understanding (or accepting some historical querists’ understanding) of it. In effect, one is becoming a querist. Again, there’s nothing wrong with that, but it is a different intellectual endeavor than the one I have undertaken in the book.

The matter of which questions resurface and how querists relate them to historical forms is one I address to some extent in the book (towards the end of Chapter 1, for example), but there is obviously much more that could be done on the subject and I hope others will.

SPIRO: You argue that the “x question” and the practice of bundling made World War I thinkable as a potential resolution. This claim was really interesting to me because so much of the World War I literature focuses on the “sleepwalking” into war of diplomats or the heady nationalism of the masses, and I often wonder what convinced people, some with explicitly internationalist politics, to go to war. How would you put your argument about the role of questions in thinkability in conversation with other analyses of World War I?

CASE: You allude to the ways in which this book might serve as a corrective for sleepwalking diplomats (Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers) or heady nationalism (Oszkar Jászi, The Dissolution of the Habsburg Monarchy). My book leaves those arguments—which deal primarily with why the war broke out when it did and why it ended as it did—largely untouched. The matter of “thinkability” is not about the specificities of contingency or what seemed in retrospect like the “necessary” outcome of such a war. Rather, it is a corrective of a different sort. Consider the arguments relating to the mood prior to WWI; the decadence, the catastrophism, the lust for the primitive and destructive, for violence that would force a renewal, of a Romanticism gone berserk. These are often given as causes, or at the very least essential backdrop for the Great War. This is all well and good. But what the Age of Questions suggests is that there was a prior thought pattern that enabled these moods, but a thought pattern of a completely different tone and origin, decidedly un-Romantic and un-decadent. It was a thought pattern whereby one started to see every issue and problem of the time as interrelated with others, and that this interrelatedness was frightening because it meant a spark in one part of the grid could start a blaze that would spread to all corners. But because one saw all these problems as interrelated, the only way one could conceive to prevent such a spark would be to overhaul everything, top to bottom, from geopolitics right down to the social order. Everything had to be fixed at once in order for anything to be fixed at all. Of course, if you have to fix everything at once, you are quickly confronted with the enormous complexity of the task, so you start to wish for a tabula rasa to simplify the matter. And how do you get a tabula rasa? There you are: right back at the universal conflagration that you supposedly need the tabula rasa to avoid. So you both dread the universal war and need the universal war. This dynamic emerges very sharply when you trace the history of questions in aggregate (rather than in isolation), and this is what I see as this book’s contribution to the historiography on the Great War.

SPIRO: It seems like your geographic framing and many examples of an international public sphere cut against histories of exceptionalism in political cultures or social thought, whether American exceptionalism or the Sonderweg thesis in the case of Germany. Could you elaborate on any implications of this point?

CASE: Yes, the book gives small quarter to exceptionalism in places. (Although one should be careful about taking this conclusion too far because, as I mention in the prologue, part of this homogeneity is informed by the method: “Party politics and the exigencies of the French Left’s, or the Russian Slavophiles’, or the German Romantics’ engagement with this or that question will be discussed very little or not at all. The reason is simple: because the emphasis is on commonalities across contexts, contextual particularities do not effectively account for why the Spanish and Czech literature should reproduce the same forms and tropes.”) Still, the convergences are not accidental, either. Part of this story is about how a certain pattern of thinking about issues and problems spread, and how that pattern included the assumption that issues and problems were interrelated (as I mentioned earlier). When a large group of people start to view questions as interrelated, then they may as well be because those people then start crafting policy and strategizing based on that assumption, as I note figures like Clarendon and Marx did with respect to their views on the interrelatedness of the geopolitical questions of the East and the social questions of the West. Where I do give some credence to exceptionalism is in the section on Hungary and the age of questions, where part of the point is to show how—in spite of the many commonalities—there is also an undeniable national-linguistic specificity to the experience of the age, informed by who translates which queristic texts from where, and when, etc.

SPIRO: You explain that the Final Solution emerged not directly from a quest for final solutions, but rather from a period of uncertainty over the epistemic status and reality of questions and solutions, then concomitant despair and radicalization of solutions (as part of bundled, internationalized questions). Where might you see this insight leading for future research beyond the functionalism-intentionalism debate, between those who focus on the structures and dynamics of the Nazi state versus those who emphasize the history of anti-Semitism and elimination as an idea?

CASE: Although I view that sequence of moods and events as a powerful one coming into mid-century, it certainly was not the only one, nor in my mind is it the most interesting or promising one for further research (or politics, for that matter). Also, keep in mind that the above argument is one of six put forward in the book, and is often at odds with the others, which place some of those phenomena in an entirely different frame. The danger is assuming that this was an ineluctable pattern of thinking; it was not, and many were nervous about it at the time and were busily deriving alternative ways of thinking that could address some of the uncertainty and despair it engendered.

One of my favorite alternatives comes from the Austrian theosophist Rudolf Steiner, who acknowledged that one could despair of finding a “perfect theoretical ‘solution’” to the social question. “We are no longer living in a time in which one can believe it possible to operate this way in public life,” he wrote in 1919. But instead of the trajectory followed by the likes of Hitler, Steiner—certainly no friend of the Nazis—argued that the question had to be viewed as periodic rather than stable, more like hunger than like a mathematical equation. “Just as an organism becomes hungry some time after being full, so does the social organism proceed from order to disorder. There can no more be a universal medicine for [maintaining] order in social relations than there is a food that will satisfy for all times.” The “social question,” though hardly a new development in human societies, had to be addressed repeatedly and differently each time in accordance with the conditions of that time. I actually allude to Steiner’s idea in three different chapters: the one that ends with the “Final Solution,” but also in two others, in chapter 5 (which argues that the “age of questions” was a farce, naught but “the melodramatic yelp of publicists and politicians in search of an audience”), and in chapter 6 (on time and timing). This repetition was deliberate and crafted to suggest that the sort of hopelessness and loss of faith in solutions which Steiner’s hunger metaphor was meant to address did not have a single, necessary meaning. Querists self-consciously made meaning out of it, and the example of Steiner shows how radically different that meaning could be from the one the Nazis derived.

SPIRO: What is to be done?

CASE: Thanks to the richness of your other questions, I’ve already touched upon some possible areas for further research on the age of questions. In an earlier draft of the book I proposed including an appendix outlining several such possibilities, but was advised to cut it. (If anyone is interested I’m glad to share it.) Instead of elaborating on those possibilities here, however, I’d like to try to answer the question in a different way. One of the epigraphs in the seventh and final chapter of the book is from Ludwig Wittgenstein, who visited Ithaca, NY (where I wrote the bulk of this book) in 1949. There he had a series of conversations with the philosopher Oets Kolk Bouwsma, who then faithfully wrote down the gist of them. Once they were crossing the famous suspension bridge over Fall Creek Gorge—which is scary enough now and must have been doubly so back then—when the surface likely consisted of planks netted together by rope. As they crossed the bridge, Wittgenstein was trying to explain something to Bouwsma: “To understand a certain obtuseness is required,” he said. “One must be obtuse to understand. He likened it to needing big shoes to cross a bridge with cracks in it. One mustn’t ask questions.” The metaphor of “big shoes” frames the argument of the final chapter, which is meant to be a higher-order one encompassing all the previous arguments. The reader can decide what to make of it. But by way of a “Was tun?” I’d like to quote something else Wittgenstein told Bouwsma during those walks around Ithaca:

It’s like this: In the city, streets are nicely laid out. And you drive on the right and you have traffic lights, etc. There are rules. When you leave the city, there are still rules, but no traffic lights. And when you get far off there are no roads, no lights, no rules, nothing to guide you. It’s all woods. And when you return to the city you may feel that the rules are wrong, that there should be no rules, etc…. It comes to something like this. If you have a light, I say: Follow it. It may be right. Certainly life in the city won’t do.

SPIRO: Is your strong historiographic anti-essentialism in this work an anti-foundationalism? Is it aimed at revealing the ways nineteenth-century question-constructs or habits of questions still trick us as historians in order to establish a new foundation? Or does it oppose foundations or synthetic narratives altogether?

CASE: I see why you’ve asked that. If each chapter is viewed not merely as an argument about the essence of the age of questions, but also as an attempt to identify the motor of modern history, the book represents an argument between foundationalism and anti-foundationalism (as between chapters three and five, for example. Incidentally, in an earlier draft the arguments each had names and personae attached to them: Parola, Progresso, Sprofondo, Affastella, Stravolgo, Misura, Contranomo…). The “higher-order” argument in the final chapter amounts to a characterization of the debate itself, suggesting that the encounter between these positions is more telling than the claims put forth in support of them. Although the reader is free to prefer one position over another, my objective was to show a convergence in the patterns of thinking that underpin both the foundationalist and the anti-foundationalist positions. Does the convergence itself then constitute a foundation? Perhaps, but not of the sort you can stand on or jump off from. My inclination is rather to view it as a sign of life, a pulse of sorts. Somehow this metaphor strikes me as a worthy starting point for a new philosophy of history. Accepting meaninglessness is not an option any more than finding meaning is, but to live is to quest.

Leave Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *