Instead of focusing on the parts I was supposed to, I’ve been rereading the introductory chapters of Griffin’s monograph, out of – I must admit – sheer aesthetic pleasure in the clarity and cleverness of phrase characterizing the descriptions of the book’s project as such. Here are a few excerpts; perhaps typing them up will help to get the more frivolous elements of aesthetic indulgence out of my system and let me get on with actual work. In any case, we all know that it’s the introductory chapter that counts, right?
“The Leitmotif of the book is that a key element in the genesis, psychology, ideology, policies, and praxis of fascism was played by the ‘sense of a beginning’, the mood of standing on the threshold of a new world. It is a mood of heady expectancy which is the dialectical twin of the obsession with the closing of an era explored by English literary historian Frank Kermode in his seminal text on modernism, The Sense of an Ending, four decades ago. Whereas his focus was the significance of ‘apocalyptic time’ as a central topos of the modernist imagination, the theme of this book is the way the belief that transcendence can be achieved through cultural, social, and political transformation leaves its stamp on the ideology, policies, and practice of Fascism and Nazism.” (1-2)
“The overarching interpretation it offers draws attention to its own constructedness, and the contested nature of its theoretical foundations, like a modernist building that deliberately exposes its lifts, supportive structures, and the tubing that supplies its power and plumbing. It is based on the premise that not only is there room in the human sciences for ‘lumpers’ as well as ‘splitters’, but that they are indispensable to all fields of specialist research.” (5-6)
“At the core of our synoptic historical interpretation lies the proposition that, not only were Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany both concrete manifestations of a generic political ideology and praxis that has come to be termed ‘fascism’, but that fascism itself can be seen as a political variant of modernism. This peculiar genus of revolutionary project for the transformation of society, it will be argued, could only emerge in the first decades of the twentieth century in a society permeated with modernist metanarratives of cultural renewal which shaped a legion of activities, initiatives, and movements ‘on the ground’. In its varied permutations fascism took it upon itself not just to change the state system, but to purge civilization of decadence, and foster the emergence of a new breed of human beings which it defined in terms not of universal categories but essentially mythic national and racial ones. Its activists set about their task in an iconoclastic spirit of ‘creative destruction’ legitimized not only by divine will, reason, the laws of nature, or by socio-economic theory, but by the belief that history itself was at a turning point and could be launched on a new course through human intervention that would redeem the nation and rescue the West from imminent collapse.” (6)
On the “Methodological Crisis in the Humanities”
Griffin defines his approach to the subject matter as a “synoptic historical interpretation.” He wants to “syncretize different areas of the humanities into an overarching interpretative framework” – without imposing what is referred to as a “metanarrative”. As part of his explication of his methodological framework he directs more than a few kicks at the “oppressive climate of reflexivity under which academic research is now pursued” (35). A few excerpts from this part too, as I find the explication of his approach both interesting and enlightening:
“Known by the shorthand ‘the cultural turn’ (CT), and fuelled at least partly by a triple alliance of formidable ‘isms’ (postmodernism, poststructuralism, and deconstructionism), a sustained methodological self-consciousness has installed itself – some might say with the insidiousness of computer spyware – within every field of research. All would-be experts have become gleefully or painfully aware of the subjectivity that conditions all human understanding, the constructed nature of the key concepts used to explore the world, and hence the radical incompleteness and arbitrariness intrinsic to nay bid to formulate definitive ‘truths’ or supply the ‘big picture’ on any topic.” (35)
“The methodology adopted in this book means, ‘sleeping with the enemy’, by self-consciously and deliberately – perhaps even passionately – acknowledging the reflexivity imposed by the protracted cultural turns that have taken place in art history, and intellectual, social, and political history, thus making it integral to the formulation and application of the central thesis structuring any research monograph. At this point the narrative template or ‘Gestalt’ shaping the reconstruction and analysis of the segment of reality under investigation ceases to present itself as the ‘controlling metanarrative’ smuggled surreptitiously – sometimes even unbeknown to the author – into the analysis for the discerning critic to ferret out. Instead it becomes a reflexive metanarrative, a self-consciously exploratory and heuristic, overtly constructed one that dissolves the sinister subliminal, myth-making connotations of the prefix ‘meta’. It may even be (as here) a systematic synoptic interpretation, a full-blown grand récit, but one which never makes ‘totalizing’ claims.” (37)
Griffin defends “the possibility that bold, overarching, highly speculative, really big hypothesis (‘historical interpretations’) are still legitimate as long as they are cogently formulated (rather than being implicit), scrupulously substantiated – not ‘proved’ – through references to a wide range of secondary sources (rather than being plucked out of thin air), and applied as rigorously as possible to the interpretation of concrete historical phenomena.” (38)
I’m not well-versed enough in the ‘isms’ that he attacks to really be able to judge if he’s being entirely fair in his presentation of their effects – that reservation aside, this type of approach appears reasonable. What do you think?