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The Platonic Crises of Form: Chartier’s Evaluation of Dualities

The Platonic Crises of Form: Chartier’s Evaluation of Dualities

More information is lost every day than is saved, which is as true of today’s digital information overload as it was in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The origins of overload, argues Roger Chartier in Inscription and Erasure, are located in its own success.

An early image of an archive, complete with a mention of its organizational system.
An early image of an archive, complete with a mention of its organizational system.

In obsessively saving, organizing, and preserving the written word from destruction, our grasp of the seemingly boundless amount of information spirals out of the control of its makers. Between fear and overload, oblivion and loss of control, and erasure and inscription lies written culture. These dualities, according to Chartier, underpin the foundational tension between producing and consuming the written word; however, this has been obscured by historiographical dualities, specifically between the materiality of the book and the book’s content.

His volume reorients the discussion, uniting the symbolic meaning of the text with its textual forms. Appropriating the structure of the dualities he critiques, Chartier uses a series of juxtapositions as the basis for his essays on how the process of writing and publishing were incorporated into literary works. Though this approach is at times uneven and occasionally leads to unconnected tangents (like the three pages on whether or not Cyrano de Bergerac was homosexual, which I found particularly out of place), this allows Chartier to deconstruct two axioms of written culture: the fixity of print and the universal experience of the reader.

First, in his project to unite material culture with the sociology of the text, Chartier argues that variations in the text of a publication could occur at any point in the production of the work, calling into question fixity of print. Chartier is pushing Adrian Johns’ argument that in early modern Europe print was not considered fixed because of the ever present specter of plagiarism one step farther. For Johns the search for fixity is the search for authority, but for Chartier fixity was never really part of the equation, as fixity or as authority. Because publishing was necessarily collaborative and because, even after publication, changes could be made (via stop press corrections or page cancels), the manner of production automatically renders print not only unfixed, but unfixable. Instead print existed exclusively in relation to other modes of knowledge—handwritten manuscripts, oral transmission, and memory—essentially a definitive feature of print. As he argues, “Every work exists only in its simultaneous and successive forms.”[1]

Not relegated to early modern Europe, this coexistence is seen even into modernity. For example, Soviet Russia’s underground literary scene required multiple though simultaneous modes of textual transmission. Mikhal Bulgakov’s masterful The Master and Margarita has no definitive original text. Instead the book as we know it today was a compilation of several different manuscripts which secretly circulated in the 1930s and were constantly being revised. I assert, and I think Chartier would agree, that none of these versions are anymore fixed than any other; instead, they should be understood in relation with each other, with their multiple revisions, and with their historical context.

Second, this approach allows Chartier to question the universality of readership, suggesting that not only did the experiences of texts differ but so too did their modes of readership. Although this argument is most pronounced in “Commerce in the Novel” where Chartier argues that the dichotomy between extensive and intensive reading is a figment of the historiographical imagination and that the innovation of silent reading coexisted with more traditional modes, it is also suggested in “Text and Fabric.” Using the lens of gender in this chapter, Chartier attempts to reconstruct the relationship between text and textile.

This argument starts out strong by connecting the “word” of Italian comedy to the textile trade, but then he gets bogged down in establishing the feminine connection to authorship via their traditional connection to textiles, specifically in needlepoint. In sewing letters onto canvas, Chartier argues, women were reaffirming their feminine role as purveyors of fabric while also subverting the assumption of female passivity in reading. Here he wants to see readership in its multiplicity, that of the feminized textile and the masculine craft. Though I agree that readership should never be seen as universal or teleological, this particular example does not hold any water. Not only does he ignore the very literal connection between text and textile—that paper originally was made with rags—this supposedly subversive act was not of authorship or readership at all. Instead, these needlepoint letters were graphic and part of a larger culture of needlework and female craft.

Chartier’s instinct to take a gendered approach to readership, however mistaken in implementation, is sound in principle. Heidi Brayman Hackel uses marginalia, another form of writing which exists between erasure and inscription, to reach a similar conclusion. Though the social and material limits on female reading and writing were more restricted in early modern Europe than on their male counterparts, women still showed profound variation in the types of material they read and how they expressed their understanding of their reading. In the end, she concludes as Chartier does, that even gendered readership was not uniform, universal, or totalizing.

Unifying the material and social aspects of literary works in this way reminds scholars that when studying written culture, in all of its many forms, one must maintain a dynamic tension between the permanency and ephemerality, between historically and historiographically constructed dualities.

Works Mentioned:
  1. Brayman Hackel, Heidi. Reading Material in Early Modern England: Print, Gender, and Literacy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
  2. Chartier, Roger. Inscription and Erasure: Literature and Written Culture from the Eleventh to the Eighteenth Century. Translated by Arthur Goldhammer. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007.
  3. Johns, Adrian. The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1998.


[1] Chartier, 33.

Of Vodka Lines and Books

Of Vodka Lines and Books

Three of my favorite anti-alcohol posters from Soviet Russia.
Three of my favorite anti-alcohol posters from Soviet Russia.

Winding their way through city centers, suburban spaces, and rural outposts, the ubiquitous vodka line simultaneously personified a long-standing history of Russian alcohol abuse, Gorbachev’s perestroika of the late 1980s, and the role of culture in defining what is and is not a commodity. Vodka was one of the earliest and most important units of exchange in Russia. From serf wedding negotiations to the rations paid to soldiers, it represented Russian manhood and was the cornerstone of the Russian working day.

I wonder what one of these men in line would say if you asked him about the value of their vodka. Is it the price of the vodka, which was cheap, that they would mention? Or, as Arjun Appadurai argues, commodities carry a cultural value along with their economic one, so the men would forefront vodka’s cultural value in their lives? According to Appadurai’s definition of a commodity, one which accords with Igor Kopytoff’s and Sidney Mintz’s, value is particular: in this case it was the judgment made about vodka by its makers and drinkers at that particular moment.

The existence of these lines, lines which men would spend hours in each day, is an example how vodka’s value was not as a thing, but as a relationship between the thing and the context. The price of the vodka was cheap, the demand was perpetually high, but its availability was strictly controlled. Its value is not only reflected in the price these men paid, but in their time, the social experience of the line, the state’s exercise of supply control, etc. This illuminates a far more complicated evolution of commodities (commodification?) which correlates to a concurrent evolution of meanings—meanings which are almost too numerous to adequately define, but incorporate both society’s relationship to the thing and the thing’s relationship to society (or culture in Kopytoff and Mintz).

Vodka in this context and sugar in Mintz’s share one meaning: a commodity which gradually became a necessity. Life without vodka or sugar was no longer livable, something evident in the presence of the vodka lines. This almost sacred relationship not only shifts the value of object to its individual consumer, but also to the larger system of value exchange. Just as sugar proved that the British colonial system worked, vodka lines in Russia did not bode well for the health of the Soviet economy.

The meaning of these commodities has thus far been literally consumable; however, what does this process look like when applied to another commodity—the book. The book, and the other print material this represents, is not always a commodity. Appadurai and Kopytoff argue that all objects are potential commodities, but are not necessarily always commodities. When a librarian cannot bear to cut the unbroken pages of the library book, when my sister organizes her library by color, and when I refuse to touch my illustrated Animal Farm with a pin, the book is no longer a commodity (though it might be a fetish). It is resingularized or a potential commodity in those moments, but its value comes from the culture not the economy.

But what if this idea is flipped? It is clear that not all objects are commodities, but one of the major questions which remain is whether or not Appadurai thinks all commodities are objects. A book has value as an object, but it also has a value as a unit of knowledge. Whether or not this knowledge, this non-object can achieve the status of commodity carries profound implications for this shifting understanding of value, a question which Appadurai raises but does not answer.


Materials Referenced:

1) Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penquin Books, 1986.

2) Appadurai, Arjun. “Introduction: Commodities and the Politics of Value.” The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspectives. Edited by Arjun Appadurai. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Book Review: Making War, Forging Revolution

Book Review: Making War, Forging Revolution

Holquist, Peter. Making War, Forging Revolution: Russia’s Continuum of Crisis, 1914-1921. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002.

The title of Peter Holquist’s work, Making War, Forging Revolution: Russia’s Continuum of Crisis, 1914-1921, is simultaneously misleading and apt. Though one expects a broad survey of Russia from WWI through the Civil War, instead one finds a detailed, political history of the Don Cossack Territories. Using a wide-range of governmental sources (e.g., memos, budgets, requisitions, court proceedings, etc.) from each form of central authority (i.e., Provisional Government, Soviet state, Red Army, Communist Party, and various state-sponsored organs) and local, Cossack authority, he pieces together a complex reciprocal relationship between the mobilization of WWI and the Russian Revolution.

This diachronic history focuses on the Don Cossack Territories, a region centered around the lower and middle Don River which was notable for its grain production, unique presence of the Cossacks (a hereditary-based, military-centered social group), and location on the ever-moving frontline of the war, the revolution, and the subsequent civil wars. By organizing his work around three key themes present in this region—food supply, purpose-serving violence, and surveillance as an educational tool—the implications of Holquist’s study go far beyond this region and into the Provisional and Soviet governments as well as Europe as a whole.

Collage with the Red Army, on left, and a WWI cartoon map of Europe.
Collage with the Red Army, on left, and a WWI cartoon map of Europe.

The time between the onset of WWI and the end of Russia’s civil wars is a difficult period to conceptualize, challenging both Imperialists and Sovietists alike. The historiographic consensus not only asserts that the Russian Revolution should be seen as a sharp break with the Imperial past (a position favored by Soviet historians), but also that there were two definitive and separate periods—WWI, from 1914-1917, followed by the civil wars, from 1917-1921, with the Revolution sharply delineating the two.

According to Holquist, both of these trends are detrimental: this conceptualization negates the role of WWI in the Russian Revolution and creates a gulf between early twentieth-century Russia and the rest of Europe. Rather, by re-periodizing WWI and the civil wars as composite parts of a greater Russian “time of troubles” (1914-1921) and recasting the Russian Revolution as a fulcrum point in a larger narrative, Holquist asserts that Soviet society emerged from the milieu of a greater, European social and political crisis.

In the Don Cossack Territories, for example, the revolutionary and counterrevolutionary forces did not use the old Imperialist nor the new Soviet social structures to solidify their control, but the structures of a mobilized society—the new lines of communication, the direct control of the state over grain production, the returning soldiers, etc. This sets aside issues of ideological assumption (i.e., taking the professed Bolshevik ideology as material fact) and calls into question historians who assert that the Russian Revolution occurred completely out of a preexisting, particularly Russian crisis.

A second, smaller historiography addressed in this work deals with the Don Cossacks themselves. Historians concluded that the Don Cossack Territories were dominated by Cossack military, cultural, and economic tradition, merely grafting their revolutionary and counterrevolutionary efforts upon preexisting customs. However true this is, Holquist’s study reminds historians that the Cossacks were expressing their various ideologies within the new political, institutional, and ideological realities of a mobilized, wartime society.

As the counterrevolutionary tendencies in the region began to rise, for example, and the so-called “triumvirate” of Kaledin, Alekseev, and Kornilov asserted control over the region’s administrative functions, a crisis of faith in Cossackry itself emerged. People from different social classes and ethnic backgrounds began questioning Cossack military, social, and political control which was expressed by a disinclination to fight the encroachment of Bolshevism.1 While facing dissatisfaction from below, from above too they were being defined as a class enemy. Ostensibly this class definition served the purposes of the Bolshevik party and knit well with their ideological concerns; however, their definition as a class had just as much to do with this as it did with agricultural (land allocations and quotas), educational, and political (creation of a civil society) trends beginning in 1914.

This study of the Don Territories revolves around three themes which act as case studies: the food-supply crises, institutional use of violence, and the educational dimension of surveillance. In the first section, Holquist follows the changing manner of national food-supply acquisition to illuminate the mobilization-revolutionary nexus. The tsarist state and local authorities used the war as an opportunity to modernize the agricultural system, an effort apparent in the grain-producing Don Territories. The old, preexisting supply networks connected producers to the state through acquisition organs or middlemen. Using mobilization as an excuse, the state eradicated this system and established a more direct connection between the production and the state.

This, in theory at least, made the acquisition of grain a quicker, more complete process; however, it also illuminated a disconnect between the peasantry and the state. When famine or “distribution crisis” developed under this reorganized system, peasant anger and blame could not be diffused among various middlemen but directed wholly at the tsarist state. This restructuring of social and economic networks created the space within which revolution could occur. After the revolution, Cossack authorities as well as the Soviet Republic used what Holquist calls parastatal organs, essentially these new, wartime institutions, as a template upon which to base post-Revolution authority.

The implications of this are profound: rather than the Revolution being a sharp break with brand-new structures or, conversely, exclusively using traditional, tsarist structures to expedite the political transition, authority was created within a mobilized society and built upon wartime institutions.

The connection between the food-supply crises and the use of violence in the Don Territories was not incidental, but emerged from the same root cause: the creation of a civil society.2 Russia’s proto-civil society before the war made it necessary for the state to create from above the push for mobilization, seen in the aforementioned restructuring of agricultural structures. Unlike in Germany or France where the people could use these preexisting networks, in Russia these networks had to be built. Within this developing political culture, the violence of total war became, not just a temporary tool to establish legitimacy, but a foundational principle which would remain an “enduring feature” of Soviet society.3

In the Don Territories, this violence was seen in efforts to extract grain requisitions from the region. The use of “shock groups” and, later under the NEP, “assistance detachments” framed the relationships between the farmers and the state, a new relationship slowly developing at this time. As Holquist writes, “The ordeal of the Civil War itself—chaos, devastation, hunger, and want—embedded this violence in Soviet Society.”4 Considering that this Civil War was founded in the Revolution, which was founded in WWI, which was founded in European society, Holquist captures the complicated interconnectivity of context in political and social formulation.

This, however, is one point where Holquist’s argument is at its weakest. He does not address two important questions which arise: What role did individual agency play in this chain of contexts, in the building of these institutions? As a political history, this may be a bit outside his wheelhouse; however, if Soviet society was based upon a synthesis between the context of WWI and the Russian location, then does not the link between these points occur within the people themselves? In addition, more importantly to my field, what role did tsarist violence play in the foundation of Bolshevik violence?

Using Holquist’s example of the violent de-Cossackization of the Don Territories’ political system, it was not just the violence of WWI and the fears surrounding the revolution which factor into Bolshevik use of violence, but also the antagonistic tsarist-Cossack history of revolution and violent suppression. Here is a connection which, in a narrative of connectivity, should be taken into account.

The use of surveillance as an educational tool, the third case study, starts with the onset of WWI. In Europe the use of surveillance was an example of how civil society self-mobilized in total war; however, in Russia, this mobilization was done without a preexisting civil society and relied heavily on state-sponsored initiatives. Because of this, surveillance was not as much about insuring universal support for the state, tsarist or revolutionary, or rooting out sympathizers and counterrevolutionaries as it was about educating society in such a way that made both the war and the revolution universally supportable.

The best example of this was the Bureau for Organizing Morale, a wartime institution which the Soviet Republic used to promote the revolution among the masses. This understanding of civil society as top-down reveals the vast gulf between those who speak for the people (i.e., the educated) and the people themselves. Just as with agricultural policies, the foundational assumption of institutions like the Bureau for Organizing Moral was that all dissent could be eradicated through proper education. By using surveillance, the state hoped to take advantage of the “backward” peasant minds, creating a group of people educated only in the ideology of the state.

This, however, caused significant disjuncture within late tsarist and early Soviet society. Because educated society presumed to speak for the uneducated, they projected their visions of the political and social world onto the peasantry. When the state in the Don Territories, for example, created state-sponsored monopolies over food production as a way to compel the farmers to not horde grain, they misunderstood peasant motives. Why, after all, would a farmer give up his crop at state-set prices for worthless money when famine loomed specter-like all around? Rather than attempting to address this fear, as the peasants wanted, the state responded with violence and education. Unlike previous historians who trace these surveillance-as-educational tools to organs of the Soviet state itself—the Cheka, the Red Army, the Communist Party—Holquist places the genesis in the prerevolutionary intelligentsia, in a disconnect between the people and those who claim to speak for them.5

Though Holquist claims that the structure of his argument in Making War, Forging Revolution is strictly local, measured in space alone his work’s focus is equally global in scope. Whether connecting German pressure to the declaration of the Don Soviet Republic on March 23, 1917 or seeing the violence of WWI manifested in the foundational principles of the Bolshevik Party, Holquist’s local focus takes on strong comparative aspects. In so doing, his argument occupies a mezzo-level space. On one side, the foundation his work is in the Don Territories themselves. The political structure of this region was complex, comprised of many diverse historical and military factors in addition to a polyphonic ideological web of influences. He allows for this complexity while identifying the aforementioned thematic principles. On the other side, this is just the foundation for a much farther-reaching argument about the creation of the Soviet state and twentieth-century European society. “[T]he dilemmas of the Don Cossack government,” he argues, “were simply the local analogue to… the Provisional Government,” just as Russia was one example of how mobilization affected the long-term development of European society.6 This far surpasses his modest introductory goals.

Time after time, example after example, Holquist persuasively argues for unity and connection between the successive political systems in both Russia and Europe. Each successive layer, each state-based effort to organize society failed; however, these attempts left their mark on the political, cultural, and social structures of the emerging Soviet state. The subsequent revolutionary and counterrevolutionary forces took these failed organs and made them anew, alchemizing the structure of the mobilized society in order to revolutionize it—in the Don, in Moscow, and the whole of Europe.

From here the next conceptual step would be to remove this study from the exceptionality of the Don Territories. How does the Revolution, seen in continuities, read for zemstvo-based regions? For areas with no established military order upon which to mobilize then revolutionize? In addition, Holquist details the disjuncture between the peasants and state exclusively from the perspective of the state, but how does the disconnect read from the peasant side? Gifted at seeing connections where others see disunity, Holquist’s Making War, Forging Revolution is an important book not only for scholars of Imperial and Soviet history, but for any reader wanting to make sense of the larger, wartime European society.

Collage with the Red Army, on left, and a WWI cartoon map of Europe.
Collage with the Red Army, on left, and a WWI cartoon map of Europe.

  1. Holquist, 123. 

  2. Holquist, 109. 

  3. Holquist, 203. 

  4. Holquist, 167. 

  5. Holquist is placing his work, I believe, in dialogue with a growing trend in the Imperial historiography, joining with historians like Stephen Frank and Ben Eklof whose work identify a disconnect between educated society and the peasantry whom they spoke for. 

  6. Holquist, 111.