Paul Breines: Reflecting on George Mosse’s Reading of Michel Foucault: A Response, Part II

Following Kilian Harrer’s post, historian Paul Breines, one of Mosse’s PhD students, offers his insight into Mosse’s annotations and interpretations.

In my first comment on Kilian Harrer’s blog post we saw how George L. Mosse read Foucault. I argued that his reading was characterized by a fundamental misinterpretation.

Foucault - la volonteHow to explain the fact that reading The History of Sexuality, vol. 1 evidently did not even come close to diverting George from his work on Nationalism and Sexuality, or to prompting rethinking of one or another of his tasks as he understood them? Harrer provides a clue: early in his post, he observes that, “How thoroughly Mosse appreciated [Foucault’s] approach remains uncertain.” In this connection, he quotes Lorenzo Benadusi and Giorgio Caravale’s George L. Mosse’s Italy, which emphasizes that Mosse rightly kept his distance from “that current of historical study permeated by post-structuralism intent on deconstructing language and meanings, which is so often prone to excessive interpretation and anachronisms.” (p. 3)

They aren’t alone in the thought. His friend Gert Hekma’s eulogy for George speaks of the latter’s involvement in gay studies, but also of his disinterest in postmodernism, and even the then new Queer Theory, of which The History of Sexuality, vol. 1 is, of course, a founding text. Clearly, such perspectives conclude that, as historians of sexuality, Foucault and Mosse were far apart.

As I’ve tried to show, Harrer’s substantial achievement is to adjust such emphasis on the differences by underlining the resonances and parallels between Foucault and Mosse that George’s annotations suggest, but, I don’t think Benadusi, Caravale, Hekma, and others are wrong; nor does Harrer argue that they are. They succeed, however, in reminding us that Mosse was robustly an historian who was dubious of, and likely disinterested in, what E. P. Thompson, with poststructuralist Marxists in mind, derisively called “lots of theoretical heavy breathing.”

And not only of so-called “French Theory,” which included Foucault and The History of Sexuality, vol. 1, and which had famously invaded academia in the U.S. in the 1970s and 1980s. Already in the 1960s, as the “Critical Theory” of the Frankfurt School, with its links to Freudian sexual theory, became iconic among Mosse’s New Left students, he was fascinated by the intellectual historical question of how it was that such esoteric German marxisant theorists as Marcuse, Horkheimer, Adorno, and Benjamin “resonated” with many who sat in his lectures and read his books. In conjunction with his own research at the time, moreover, he was familiar with Frankfurt School studies of Fascism and authoritarian personalities.

But, I don’t believe those studies much affected Mosse’s own pathbreaking interpretations of modern mass movements. He knew where he was going with his books, and he took up only what he saw would help him to get there; Steven Aschheim, or Jeffrey Herf, or George himself once spoke aptly of his method as that of a scavenger, which is part of the way in which he read Foucault. Mosse looked for ideas he could use in the project on which he was working at any given time. In conversations with students, moreover, he frequently warned against subordinating history to “theory,” a term that was usually enunciated with reverence by its New Left partisans, an inflection that George found entertaining.

Also worth considering, as I highlight what I believe was George’s minimalist approach to theory and method, is the pivotal role in his oeuvre played by popular culture, in particular, popular writers – novelists, essayists, science popularizers, as well as artists and sculptors, and the like whose writings and works had impacts on their times. These figures and their output gave George access to the stereotypes, symbols, and myths that he saw as being central to nationalism, masculinity, and respectability. But, issues of writing, textuality, speech, and language to which both pre-Deconstruction and Deconstruction criticism attended exerted little pull on him; he was drawn, instead, to best-sellers and their authors.

So what? One might reasonably ask. After all, without an explicit theory of writing, and writers, or of the visual, or the colloquial, Mosse recast our understanding of the Reformation era, nationalism, modern mass movements, Nazism and Fascism, masculinity, World War I, German Jews, and more. Who cares that he didn’t occupy himself with genealogical and archeological methods? Benadusi and Caravale are spot on: we’re better off for George having ignored postmodernist theorizing. Sure, one could argue further, typical Mosse: he dismisses Queer Theory, and then he writes the book that queers nationalism.

1985 - George Mosse - Nationalism and SexualityAs everyone knows, however, inattentiveness to or rejections of theory are themselves almost always already theory. They are constituted by presuppositions about how the world works, unstated, and unconsciously held, assumptions without which the stated argument, or analysis, won’t work. In writing Nationalism and Sexuality, and when reading La volonté de savoir, Mosse saw no need to enunciate it, but I believe that he nevertheless proceeds on the methodological, or theoretical, basis of what Foucault calls “the repressive hypothesis.”

In certain academic circles, the phrase is now so familiar that one easily forgets how astonishing and, for many readers, disconcerting it was when one first encountered The History of Sexuality, vol. 1. In a flash, the phrase transforms something so widely and deeply taken for granted – that sex is that which is repressed by power; that, therefore, to speak of it openly is heroic, both because sex is so widely feared and condemned, and the hidden source of the truth of ourselves – into an hypothesis, into one among other ways of looking at things, and not, as I and many others presumed, as the way things are, the only way to look at things, indeed, the only way one could look at things.

The problem is that if one reads The History of Sexuality, vol. 1 from the standpoint of the repressive hypothesis – which is how I first went through its pages, and how, I believe, Mosse read them – it’s next to impossible to make sense of much that happens in the book. So, I want now to sketch my own misreading of it, and, in the process, read my experience into George’s as a way of accounting for his misreading – not because I claim esoteric intuitions about, or insights into, George’s mind, but, because I think that my troubles understanding The History of Sexuality, vol. 1 are precisely not special, but entirely typical, or representative, of many of those who read, and continue to read, Foucault through repressive hypothesis lenses.

In his book, while Foucault doesn’t trace the repressive hypothesis to Freud, the bitingly critical opening pages are clearly aimed at the Left-wing Freudian political culture that had taken shape in the West in the 1960s, and blossomed into prominence in the myriad expressions of sexual liberation in 1968-69 in Paris, Berlin, New York, Madison, and elsewhere. These expressions were inspired in part by the writings of Freud, Wilhelm Reich, who is mentioned in Foucault’s book, and especially Herbert Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud (1955) and his Essay on Liberation (1968), at which Foucault aims two pointed, if allusive, darts.

The idea of liberation, particularly from sexual repression in all its forms, so vital to the Western New Left of the 1960s, was to Foucault only the most exquisite indicator of the movement’s unwitting participation, along with priests, parents, social scientists, attorneys, social workers, and police, in power’s “great incitation” to say all that can be said of sex, “that chimera.” In The History of Sexuality, vol. 1, even Foucault remarks that challenging the repressive hypothesis that power wants always and everywhere to repress sex, will strike many readers as impossible and beyond imagining. When I first read that specific passage, in a moment of deep denial, I didn’t recognize that it, and the opening chapter as a whole, addressed me, my type, with our Neo-Marxist version of the repressive hypothesis, destabilizing nearly all I took for granted about social theory, politics, and myself. For me, the Freudian model, to which I was first introduced in George’s modern Europe introductory survey course, “History 3,” in which Civilization and its Discontents was one of the readings, quickly became not only self-evident, and unassailable; beyond that, my identity as a certain sort of New Left young intellectual was quite bound up with it.

To be certain, George didn’t have my identity issues. He also didn’t call himself a Left Freudian (one with an anti-repression version of the repressive hypothesis), or even a plain Freudian, nor has anyone so designated him. He doesn’t employ psychoanalytic terms or categories. The Introduction to Nationalism and Sexuality, which contains the three critical sentences on Foucault, also mentions Freud, but not methodologically. Rather, Mosse notes that, for all his progressive views on sex, Freud refused to “grant legitimacy” to homosexuals, but he also speaks more positively of Freud ‘s progressive side for having advanced the cause of increased openness about matters sexual, which is the context, or erroneous context, in which Mosse cites, and criticizes, Foucault.

But, in Nationalism and Sexuality with spectacular results, and in his reading of The History of Sexuality, vol. 1, with more modest results, I believe that he proceeds with tools that are essentially Freudian. That is, without discussion or theorization, he moves ahead, scavenger-like, taking up Freudian insights and concepts, and putting them to use in his own, radical reconceptualization of both nationalism and respectability, disclosing their dependence on sexuality, on images and myths of bodily beauty and ugliness, and, perhaps above all, on homoeroticism.

Hilde Mosse
Hilde Mosse mountain climbing, 1920s, courtesy of Leo Baeck Institute 199.

Mosse was, moreover, hardly a stranger to Freud. The latter’s ideas were much in circulation, not least among homosexuals, when, in the late 1930s and 1940s, George attended Downing College in Cambridge, then, Haverford College, and finally Harvard. It’s worth recalling, as well, that he assigned Civilization and its Discontents in his survey course in the late 1950s and the early 1960s when he was completing The Culture of Western Europe (1961), which is dedicated to a psychoanalyst, namely, his sister, Hilde Mosse (1912-1982). Chapter 16 on “Freud and Psychoanalysis,” while not uncritical, is largely sympathetic, and I’m fairly sure that Freud receives more pages of attention than any other nineteenth or twentieth century thinker examined in the book.

Nationalism and Sexuality makes no sense, I propose, in the absence of its psychoanalytic (that is, its repressive hypothesis) presuppositions, especially those regarding repression and sublimation, as they bear on social, rather than individual, life. At the unenunciated heart of George’s thesis regarding the vital role played by sexuality in nationalism and respectability is Freud’s insight into – or his invention of – the psycho-sexual dynamics through which sexual drives are deflected from immediate gratification, deferred, and, astonishingly, transformed, or “repressed” and “sublimated,” into such erotically charged (hence, emotionally powerful), but not directly sexual, behaviors and activities as affection, solidarity, loyalty, brotherhood, nationalism.

1930s - Rudolf, Hilde, George Mosse on holiday
1930s – Rudolf, Hilde, George Mosse on holiday

That central dimension of Nationalism and Sexuality, it seems to me, brings it close to The History of Sexuality, vol. 1. When Mosse writes his “No: to co-opt” next to Foucault’s criticism of notions of power that see it as being entirely repressive of sex, he indicates agreement with the criticism. The “No,” as I read it, means that Foucault is right; power does not aim only to repress or suppress sex, as George will show in the book he’s at work on; power (for George, the nation, the state, and respectability) co-opts (a term much in use among 1960s and 1970s New Leftists) sex and sexuality, or, to cite the term he uses frequently in the book, tames them.

Masses and ManWe can see a similar mix of proximity and misunderstanding in George’s remark on Foucault in Masses and Man. In it, George notes that Foucault rightly calls attention to “[t]he emergence of population as an economic and political problem” in the 1900 period, but adds the erroneous observation that the French theorist thought it served merely to “broaden the discourse about sexuality.” Believing that he is correcting Foucault, George proposes that the emergence of population as an economic and political problem went beyond the purported limit by encouraging “the nation to act as a guardian of sexual normalcy and moderation,” which isn’t far from Foucault’s own contention regarding the focus on population (and “bio-politics”).

In effect, then, George argues that, instead of exclusively opposing and suppressing it, nationalism, the state, and respectability embrace sex, take it in and over, utilizing sex for their own growth and expansion. It’s a virtually Foucauldian argument, and to me, that is exactly the site of best conjunction between the two books. In my view, Mosse was a participant in the repressive hypothesis, but, characteristically, he wasn’t dogmatic about it, and was thus not restricted by it. Harrer puts the substance of the conjunction extremely well: “both [Foucault and Mosse] insisted on analyzing how the power of respectability flows beneath and beyond as well as within institutions, and how it flows through bodies and sex, not just against them.”

Harrer might also be right that Mosse’s reading of The History of Sexuality, vol. 1 should be seen as a significant factor in bringing about the conjunction. He also reminds us of another, possible enabling factor when he speaks early in his post, of “Mosse and Foucault: two of the most important twentieth-century interpreters of European culture, two gay intellectuals sharing an interest in the history of sexuality” –  even though Foucault contends that the so-called field of the history of sexuality is the history of a fiction, it could be said that the two gay thinkers brought the field into (mainstream) being.

Although in The History of Sexuality, vol. 1, Foucault also famously problematizes the 1960s idea of liberation, including Gay Liberation, the book, it’s author, Mosse, and Nationalism and Sexuality are nonetheless among its offspring; they are the children of Harvey Milk (1930-1978); participants, following decades of personal anguish, in the heroic, self-and-world-altering process of “coming out.”As Harrer notes, both men left their respective closets in the late 1960s, which meant having much sex with men, without having shame, which was grand and vital, but because both men were brilliant thinkers who had, as youths and young men, suffered their homosexual desires, and came to know intimately, in their bodies, the damage bourgeois respectability, and power, could inflict, Foucault and Mosse were also able to begin to speak publicly to straight society, and straight scholars, about what gay people had come to know about it, and them.

The publication dates – 1976 and 1985 – place both books at the crest of the wave of Gay Liberation, and the beginning of mass death from AIDS. It’s safe to say that neither Nationalism and Sexuality nor The History of Sexuality, vol. 1 could have been written much earlier. And almost as safe to add that the evidence of historical context, the specifically 1970s-1980s Gay context, can stand alongside Harrer’s rich, annotative evidence of the conjunction, resonances, the parallels, and the similar intuitions and argumentative frameworks that link the two remarkable books across an apparent divide.

Paul Breines

Paul Breines taught European Intellectual History at Boston College from 1975 to 2010. His last ten years there, inspired by George Mosse, he also taught an introductory course on “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Straight History in the West, 1895 – 2000.” He edited the essay collection, Critical Interruptions: New Left Essays on Herbert Marcuse (1970); co-authored with Andrew Arato, The Young Lukacs and the Origins of Western Marxism (1980); and authored Tough Jews: Political Fantasies and the Moral Dilemma of American Jewry (1990). In July of 1961, having taken Professor Mosse’s  Modern Europe survey (the already renown “History 3”), which focused on the theme of intellectuals engaged in political action, he participated, as did several other U.W. students, in the 1961 Freedom Rides to Jackson, Mississippi. The photos accompanying his comments on Killian Harder’s post are from Breach of Peace: Portraits of the 1961 Mississippi Freedom Riders (2008). Obviously, one is a mug shot, one of the few such of Mosse students; the other is more recent, and unincarcerated.

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