Howard G. Brown. Mass Violence and the Self: From the French Wars of Religion to the Paris Commune. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2018. xii + 283 pp. Illustrations. $50.000 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-5017-3061-0.
Reviewed by Steven Vincent (North Carolina State University)
Published on H-War (May, 2019)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)
Howard G. Brown has had a longstanding scholarly interest in violence and has written highly regarded historical studies of its importance during the era of the French Revolution. His new book, Mass Violence and the Self, takes in a much broader chronological sweep—from the sixteenth century to the end of the nineteenth century—and wishes to have us consider a more general cultural-existential issue: how dramatic historical episodes and their representation(s) have contributed to changes in our sense of self. Brown focuses on four tumultuous episodes of modern French history: the sixteenth-century wars of religion, the seventeenth-century Fronde, the eighteenth-century French Revolution, and the nineteenth-century Paris Commune. In each of these episodes, he is interested in how the explosive violence at certain key moments (the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre during the wars of religion, the marauding armies during the Fronde, the Terror during the French Revolution, “Bloody Week” during the Paris Commune) were depicted in texts and images in the immediate aftermath of these moments, and how these changed the way individuals thought about group identity and their own subjectivity.
The key to understanding the impact of these key moments, according to Brown, is what he terms the “collective trauma” that people experienced when they read about the violence and especially when they saw images of individuals suffering because of this violence. He argues that the viewing of and reading about this widespread suffering had a profound psychological impact, leading individuals to feel empathy and fellow feeling for those who had suffered. In turn, this sense of identification and empathy contributed to the development of a more modern sense of the individualized self. Brown is less concerned with the direct experience of violence than with the cultural representations of the violence, especially as these spread geographically and chronologically beyond the immediate moment and location of the violence. He argues that it was the confrontation with these cultural representations that had a deep impact and that fostered a more introspective sense of individual identity. In his own words, the “visual and textual representations of four major episodes of mass violence generated distinctive collective traumas, which in turn helped to shape new shared identities and contributed to making the self a more significant part of personal identity” (p. 216).
There are various dimensions of this thesis that are of interest. Some have been carefully analyzed by historians. Others are more adventurous and as a consequence more likely to generate further discussion and debate. Five dimensions suggest themselves: 1) the nature of the moments of violence; 2) the various ways these moments were represented in texts and images; 3) the ways these representations were distributed; 4) the ways these representations were experienced by individuals and groups; and 5) the degree to which these experienced representations led to a strengthening of group identities and of the “significance of the self” (p. 227).
Brown does an excellent job giving an overview of the first dimension, with concise but detailed accounts of the moments of violence based on the most recent historical literature. Few academic historians have the flair for concisely summarizing this material in such vivid detail. For historians familiar with traditional histories, the most pathbreaking portion of the book is the new material about the second and third dimension mentioned above; that is, about the images and descriptions of these events and the manner in which these were disseminated in the following months and years. Readers learn about the variety of texts and images and about how new technologies influenced changes in the nature of these texts and images.
The fourth and fifth dimensions—the reception of these texts and images and the nature of the experience resulting from their reception—are more difficult to measure and necessarily more speculative. Brown engages, here, scholarship on the emotions and scholarship on the “self.” The most questionable portion of the argument is the connection of the group identities constructed during these intense periods with the development of more individualized notions of the self. Brown argues convincingly that the empathy that emerged from the consumption of these texts and images—the moments of reflection stimulated by texts and images—first produced enhanced group identity. This seems true especially for Huguenots after 1572 and for workers after 1871. More difficult to assess is how the inner reflection that enhanced collective identity had an impact on individual notions of the self. When discussing the impact of the representations of “Bloody Week” of the Paris Commune, for example, Brown’s central argument is that it reinforced class consciousness. This seems quite different from showing that it enhanced a stronger consciousness of the individualized “self.”
This caveat aside, this is a wonderful book to think with. There is an especially interesting intervention in the scholarship concerning the Terror, one that emphasizes the construction of “the Terror” during the years following Thermidor, when the agenda of the Thermidorians was to draw a clear boundary distinguishing themselves (members of the Convention who had supported the execution of the king) from members of the Committee of Public Safety and of the Revolutionary Tribunals. Brown emphasizes, quite rightly, and in agreement with other current scholarship, that the themes of sensibilité, which had been important during the late Enlightenment and early stages of the Revolution, but which had been submerged during the Terror when stern “virtue” was valorized, returned to underpin the arguments of the anti-Terrorists. This is a significant contribution to the recent analyses of emotions and, more generally, to the historiography about how proto-romantic cultural themes of the late eighteenth century reemerged with force during the early nineteenth. But, again, how significant this was in the development of the modern sense of the “self” is elusive.
One of the strengths of the study is that Brown is fully aware of the difficulties in accounting for the growth of modern selfhood. Standing on the shoulders of previous scholars of the “self,” he shares their perception that medieval ideas of the soul greatly differed from modern notions of the self. And, like previous historians like Jerrold Seigel, Brown’s thinking about the self weaves together the relational dimension that looks at the patterns of belief derived from historically particular social and cultural relations with the reflective dimension that focuses on how individuals thinks about themselves as individuals independent, or partially independent, of these social and cultural relations. He also, like previous analysts, recognizes that there are a number of important historical forces that have led to the distinctiveness of modern selfhood. In both the opening methodological discussion and in the conclusion, for example, Brown notes that the rise of modern selfhood must take into account the effects of the Protestant Reformation, of increased social mobility, of urbanization, of the spread of consumer culture, and of the individualist ideals associated with the French Revolution. What is distinctive about his argument is the claim that a central role must be given to moments of mass violence and to their textual descriptions and pictorial representations.
How far have texts and images created collective traumas that transformed selfhood? It is an intriguing question, but a question about which it is difficult to provide a precise answer. Brown recognizes this difficulty. The history of reception, he writes, “is challenging to assess.... The effectiveness of the representational strategies in eliciting particular emotional responses depends on striking a chord with prevailing cultural values, and sometimes even improvising new ones.” He follows this cautious statement, however, with a bolder claim: “As a general principle, the more emotional responses go beyond pity to empathy and compassion, the more they foster the individual self as part of sharing a collective identity” (p. 220).
. War, Revolution, and the Bureaucratic State: Politics and Army Administration in France, 1791-1799 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), and Ending the French Revolution: Violence, Justice, and Repression from the Terror to Napoleon (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2006).
. Jerrold Seigel, The Idea of the Self: Thought and Experience in Western Europe since the Seventeenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).
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