The book is written in the belief that changes in attitudes and beliefs during the eighteenth century can be studied at least as fruitfully from the vantage point of more ordinary people--those who read newspapers, frequented coffee-houses or societies, shared in popular entertainments, became interested in current social issues, or simply walked around town with an open mind.I don't know what I was expecting from this book, but I sure as hell didn't get it. How could a volume with such an encouraging opening chapter have let me down so badly? Yes, please, tell me about the social and cultural layers below the educated elite! But alas. The narrative soon descends into a textbook recitation of Darntonian clichés and finishes on the inspiring note that "some ground had been won" (a whiggish conclusion which should remind us how close we still are to the nineteenth century). The method here is still the method of stodgy old institutional history, except the "institutions" are defined a little more broadly. (Institutional history, incidentally, was in bad need of a revival and, in the form of neoinstitutional history, has finally gotten one. But Munch does not seem to benefit from it.) This means that the voices of the people, whoever they may have been at that point in in time, are nowhere to be found in this supposed "social history."
... Nonetheless, some points stand out. The argument that an elite, driven by fear or disdain, somehow 'acculturised' and gradually suppressed the burlesque rudeness and semi-pagan deviance of an identifiable popular culture seems quite inappropriate at least for the eighteenth century. In any case, if a distinct popular culture ever existed, we shall probably never be able to see it in anything like an authentic form. In an age of ideological and religious ferment, of continuing high geographic mobility, of increasing social mixing both formally (in public places) and substantively (in step with economic development), cross-fertilisation and assimilation was inevitable. Two important conclusions may follow from this. First, if we acknowledge that 'common culture' was in reality a great pot-pourri of mutual influences and subtle contrasts, depending on many forms of communication other than the printed word, then its muddied reflection in the great range of disparate sources that survive may be less inadequate than we thought. Second, if we accept the view that innovation, transmission of ideas and social activism could take many forms, only the narrowest and most abstract definition of the enlightenment would allow us to ignore the social and cultural layers below the educated elite. The enlightenment was socially diverse, highly complex and at times self-contradictory: to suggest otherwise would be to miss its essence.
- Thomas Munck, The Enlightenment: A Comparative Social History 1721-1794
But then, what was he supposed to do? Read court cases? That seems to be the only go-to source for social historians that yields anything even resembling the voices of the lower strata. But court cases represent a methodological problem of their own, which is rarely appreciated by social historians (who tend these days to be somewhat atheoretical). In reading a court case, what we're getting is not a picture of daily life or a voice; it's a representation of a person pleading or genuflecting or making requests to the state. Even the indirect reporting of stories is likely to be warped by the unavoidable presence of the authoritative uniformed observer, which gives us historians a Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle all our own. In Althusserian terms, reading court cases allows us to interact with people only as already-interpellated subjects. (Whatever that means. You get my drift.)
So how do we get access to daily life at all? To help clarify this question, we might construct a rough hierarchy of levels of "daily life" as it is experienced phenomenologically:
- Liminal states of consciousness (waking up or falling asleep), moments when rational control is lost.
- Fleeting thoughts, memories, emotions; sounds overheard by chance.
- Cogent, structured rational conversations with oneself. ("What do I need to get from the store? Milk, eggs, onions, ground beef. OK, I will make sure to remember that.") Sustained emotions or sequences of sensations (e.g. a movie).
- Abstract conceptions of events and processes relating to levels above individual experience (ideas about goings-on in one's own town, region, nation, world).
- Abstract conceptions of theoretically-mediated processes and structures at levels above the immediate (theories of historical and social development, evolution, the natural world).
So it's only with level 3 that history-writing can really begin. Unfortunately, the detail, medium, and accessibility of people's conversations with themselves--whether in writing or in their heads--is likely to vary along any of 10 different axes, and the ones we are interested in here (18th-century, sub-elite, intellectual, and so on) are exceptionally unlikely to correspond in a single place. Only a few historians, like Darnton himself, would fail to take this as an excuse to lay down their arms, and good for them; I'm usually not astute enough to squeeze more that the prima facie out of my sources. The question then becomes: how should we feel about being unable to write about daily life the way we ought to?
The answer is: not too badly. For level 3 is a troublesome spot even for people who are in the process of living their own lives. How many times have you left your shopping list at home? How many times have you forgotten what you were thinking? This is not simply a question of esoterics, as reconstructing levels 1 and 2 would be, because we routinely manage to forget even the social, technological, and institutional structures that impinge on our self-conversations. It would be a rare human being who would be able to get her own life sufficiently in mental order that she could write a proper daily-life history of it, complete with social aspects. Autobiographies tend to demonstrate this quite well. (This is one case in which I think Carl Becker's "Everyman His Own Historian" can have a misleading effect.) So let's not blame Munck for his lack of follow-through, and let's not blame ourselves for our incompleteness! We're just doing the best we can.