Friday, February 29, 2008

Lukacs and the History of the Personal

One of the things that irked me to some degree with Lukacs' interpretation of history is his focus on the personal but the dismissal of the more cultural or psychoanalytical approach to personal histories. Being a cultural historian myself, of course I find his opinion short-sighted and mistaken. What goes into the creation of a person and how that person acts has a great deal to do with the culture into which they are born. Environmental factors, home life, genetics and a whole host of other elements go into the creation of a personality. If you want to understand the actions of a particular historical character you have to get into their head. Now the psychoanalytical approach does offer some assistance but only so much since most of that kind of history is based on behavior and writings. The cultural approach takes the same evidence and places it in a different context, specifically the world of representation surrounding that individual, what others were thinking at the same time and how particular cultural products were produced, consumed and then reinterpreted in future cultural products.
For instance, using my life as an example, one has to know a great deal of facts about me to even come close to understanding the way I think and why I behave the way I do. If you want to take a mystical, pseudo-science approach to this (of which I hold with a grain of salt, but I do still hold it) then you can consider my astrological sign, year of birth and even my own name. I am a Scorpio, born in the year of the metal Monkey, and given the name Jordan. Now these are perhaps the most coincidental aspects of my existence. These factors of time and pre-decision on the part of my parents had nothing to do with my own free will, environment or genetics. Even so, I was born into a fixed water sign (intensity and confidence inhabit me) during a year that the Chinese ascribe a great deal of creativity and loyalty (also traits of a Scorpio apparently) while the specific year of the Metal Monkey places a great deal of transformative power in me and claims the metals of silver and gold as my architypical metals (which I find strangely ironic since I work as a jeweler). My own name, a Hebrew (note, not necessarily Israeli) name derived from a river and claims the owner of this name to have a deep current running inside them.
So three disparate elements of astrology and superstitious meaning all indicate that I should be an intense, loyal, creative, adaptive and intuitive person while at the same time manipulative, passionate to a fault and given to attacking when threatened, even if the attack comes long after the initial skirmish (still waters and all that).
These are simply elements that exist whether I was born at that specific time or not. They are generalities and hokey ones at that. They give you hints and indications as to who I am but nothing in the way of specifics. Now I will admit that I do exhibit many of the characteristics but whether that is due to my unconscious behavior as ascribed by these supersitious beliefs or reinforced in a sort of feedback effect as I learn more about them I cannot say for certain. Still, they do exist, so while the generalities remain generalities, you can say that they do shape my personality in their own way.
On the other hand (wait for the pun) I am left-handed, relatively short for the average male with long legs but a short torso. I am a combination of both my father and grandfather, packing the muscle of a six-foot man into the frame of a five-foot-seven slender scrapper. I exhibit no strong tendency to the use of one side of my brain or the other and have feet that angle outwards like a penguin. Brown-eyed, brown hair, olive complexion and a "distinctive chin" I genetically in the middle of the pack.
Culturally, I was born in 1980, thus my consciousness of the world did not take shape until around 1992. Imbued with conservative tendencies by my parents I was also subject to an education that repeated the old 'white guys from Boston' history of the U.S. and a belief in the rule of law. A patriotism that was based on individuality (the competing educational interests of liberals and conservatives was the instigator for this) along with a desire to see the best of the U.S. come about informed my politics throughout my teens. College was different as philosophy and history took hold resulting in my transformation from a proto-conservative to a firm GDI (god-damned independent). Language and culture were my mental playground while a sense of the Political continued to take shape.
So those are the basic facts of my life, without getting into personal details. These are facts that one can glean from when I was born, who I was born to, where I went to school and what I wrote during that period. Does this constitute the totality of who I am, of my character and personality? Does Lukacs believe it? I doubt it. For one, how and why I act the way I do is also a product of the cultural elements surrounding me, whether I was consciously or unconsciously aware of them. My personality now is different than it was ten years ago, the product of time itself bearing down on me. How I interpret the world is different as well.
History is the attempt to make the specific general but when you deal with generality solely as your evidence you cannot create an accurate picture of me. This is why I get riled up at the exegetical focus on particular individual like Hitler or Nietzsche as the evidence available of their lives does not offer anything approaching a complete analysis. It avoids the psychoanalytical and the cultural forces at play. It takes the general facts as specific and then attempts to return them to the general. In doing so it offers neither a general nor a specific analysis. I am more than the sum of my parts and so are figures like FDR or Mussolini or Wittgenstein. The fact remains, contra Lukacs, that you still have to find a way to get into the head of the person or people you are examining. Often that requires taking radically different views of things and then attempting to craft a theory around those different perspectives on the evidence available. So while Lukacs argues that we are approaching a turning point in our historical consciousness I believe that we are simply acknowledging the limitations of any one perspective on historical evidence and the need to use multiple points of view to grasp the subjective-objective analysis necessary to understand a historical person or period.

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