31 Mar

Will Herberg, Protestant, Catholic, Jew (1955)

Will Herberg was an historian of American religion and a sociologist in the mid-twentieth century. Herberg published Protestant, Catholic, Jew in 1955. This book examined the increase in American religiosity and church membership after WWII. Herberg argued that the majority of Americans defined themselves either Protestants, Catholics, or Jews. But, these American did not focus too much on creeds and theologies. Instead, they promoted religion as Americans’ faith in faith. Herberg called this the “American Way of Life.” Herberg’s work foregrounded the relationship between religion and nationalism, what scholars today refer to as American Civil Religion.


In the 1950s, Americans appeared more religious than ever before. According to recent polls, the majority of Americans identified themselves as either Protestants, Catholics, or Jews. Church membership numbers had increased dramatically. Money spent on church construction also increased. Polls also suggested that Americans recognized religious leaders as the ones doing the most good for the country. Religion and the church gained respectability in American social life and politics. American used religion to talk about the “Godless” Communists. Americans also expected public officials to “testify to [their] high esteem for religion. Herberg argues that Americans recognized “religion as a ‘value’ or institution” in American life. Moreover, religion gained a new intellectual prestige in cultural life. Philosophers and theologians were successful in selling their “religious books” as many of them made the best-sellers lists. Religious ideas and topics were also popular in journals of literature, politics, and art. What did this new esteem of religion mean?

Herberg argued that despite people’s profession of religion, they were not actually more religious in any denominational or creedal sense. Rather, Americans’ increased religiosity was evidence of a common religion. Herberg defined America’s common religion as “the American Way of Life.” Robin M. Williams Jr.’s defined “common religion” as common ideas, rituals, and symbols that supplied an overarching sense of unity. According to Herberg, “The American Way of Life is, at bottom, a spiritual structure, a structure of ideas and ideals, of aspirations and values, of beliefs and standards; it synthesizes all that commends itself to the American as the right, the good, and the true in actual life.” The American Way of Life was “an organic structure of ideas, values, and beliefs that constitute a faith common to Americans and genuinely operative in their lives, a faith that markedly influences, and is in influenced by, the ‘official’ religions of American society.” The American Way of Life provided an undergirding unity among Americans with a particular value system as its center. This center upheld certain characteristics as foundational to American life: democracy, the Constitution, free enterprise, equalitarianism, economic competition, high mobility, idealism, individualism, “deeds, not creed,” progress, self-reliance, character, optimism, moralism, and activism. This American Way of Life “is, of course, anchored in the American’s vision of America.” Americans looked to the Puritans who defined America as “the new Israel” and “the Promised Land.” The American Way of Life was also a middle-class way of life. American perceive themselves as a middle-class people. Most importantly the American Way of Life had been shaped by American Protestantism.

Hererg argued that historical religions in America had been “Americanized” and imbibed these qualities.  The American Way of Life had secularized Judaism and Christianity so that they had become “integrated as parts with a larger whole defined by the American Way of Life.”  The American Way of Life promoted the belief of faith in faith. Americans held a common religion based on the elevation of religion as a value. Americans believed in the goodness of religion in general. Herberg attributes the seeming increase in piety, religiosity, and church membership to Americans’ participation in the American Way of Life. Practicing individual religion was a ritual in the American Way of Life.

For Herberg, the American Way of Life was detrimental to Judaism and Christianity. Herberg argues that the American Way of Life looked like the “civic religion of the American people.” According to Herberg, “civic religion has always meant the sanctification of the society and culture of which it is the reflection, and that is one of the reasons why Jewish-Christian faith has always regarded such religion as incurably idolatrous. Civil religion is a religion which validates culture and society, without in any sense bringing them under judgment.” Herberg calls for Americans to recognize the wrong in the American Way of Life, of common religion. He urges Americans to separate common religion from “real” religion. The American Way of Life opposes major tenets of the Jewish-Christian faith. The American Way of Life is too man-centered. There is no sense of the transcendent God and there is no sense of the “nothingness of man.” The American Way of Life promotes a religion that mobilizes God to serve man, instead of mobilizing man to server God. The American Way of Life does not call man to seek humility or his consciousness. Rather, “it is something that assures him about the essential rightness of everything American, his nation, his culture, and himself; something that validates his goals and his ideals instead of calling them into question…[it] offers him salvation in easy terms instead of demanding repentance and a ’broken heart.” For Herberg, the American Way of Life was “a strong and pervasive idolatrous element” in America. American civic religion had co-opted the Jewish-Christian faith in America. American civic religion was at odds with American religions. American civic religion was immoral and bad for the American people.

31 Mar

William E. McLellin, Journal (July to November 1831)

William E. McLellin is known for his conversion to the Church of Christ in 1831. McLellin became an Elder in the Church and was an original member of Joseph Smith’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. The Quorum was made of men who were considered apostles, or thought to have a special calling as evangelists. McLellin is also known for his excommunication from the Church by Joseph Smith in 1838. McLellin spoke out against the Church after his excommunication, but rejoined after Smith’s assassination in 1844.

McLellin was born in 1806 in Tennessee. He married Cynthia Ann in 1829. Cynthia Ann died before July 1831 when McLellin lived in Paris, Illinois and worked as a teacher. From July to November 1831 McLellin kept a journal of his interactions with the two travelling preachers, his baptism into the Church of Christ, and his early evangelism. McLellin’s journal is an important source for historians of American religion. It reminds scholars that in the nineteenth-century the Church of Christ appealed to many Americans. It was entertaining, a part of the evangelical print culture, and represented Christian truth. The movement looked like other Christian movements in the 1830s and emphasized similar ideas and theologies. It was also new and mysterious to many others. In any case, the new Christian movement attracted many Americans including McLellin.


McLellin first heard about the Church of Christ when he was teaching school in Paris, Illinois. Two men came to town and advertised an afternoon meeting in a local town where they would preach. The men said they were travelling to Zion ,”which they said was in upper Missouri.” They also had a book with them called the Book of Mormon, which they claimed was revelation from God. After school one day, McLellin set out “Anxious to see and hear those quear [sic] beings.” The two men preached outdoors in a sugartree grove. They talked about signs of the time, explained why they believed in the Book as a revelation, and “expanded the Gospel the plainest” McLellin “ever heard” in his life. One of the men described having “seen an Holy Angel who made known the record to him.” McLellin pondered “these strange things” in his heart and invited the men to preach in Paris. He also travelled with them to another town to listen to their testimonies and to talk to them more about their religion. McLellin “was induced to believe something about their mission.” The two men invited McLellin to travel with them to Jackson County, Missouri where he could meet other members, and Joseph Smith, a Prophet and the translator of the Book. McLellin accepted the invitation and travelled West.

McLellin’s journal catalogues his journey to Independence, Missouri. He stayed some nights and ate meals with his friends and family who he told about the travelling preachers and the Book of Mormon. Other days and nights he spent with the two men and attended meetings where they preached. One day he took them to the graves of his dead wife, Cynthia Ann, and their infant. Before departing with the two men again, McLellin bought the last Book of Mormon they carried with them. Other nights he stayed in towns. In all cases, he usually paid for his and his horse’s room and board. McLellin also bought a pocket Bible for 75 cents one day. At one of his stops he sold his copy of the Book of Mormon to a lady who boarded him. Two Elders had visited the town and preached, but they ran out of copies of their book to sell. The women convinced McLellin to sell his copy to her.

When McLellin arrived in Independence, he talked with the local people to see what they thought about the traveling preachers. The villagers called them “Mormonites.” They said the Mormonites were honest, but “much deluded by Smith and others.” McLellin met with the Mormonites and saw peace, love, harmony, and humility among them. They engaged in family prayer and talked about the Second Coming, and the rise and progress of their church. They gave testimonies about their conversion experiences. McLellin rose early the next day and prayed to God. He recorded in his journal, “I was bound as an honest man to acknowledge the truth and Validity of the book of Mormon and also that I had found the people of the Lord—The Living Church of Christ.” McLellin was baptized into the Church by immersion in a river and laying on of hands. Nevertheless, like many evangelicals, McLellin had doubts after his baptism. He attended a “sacrament meeting” where there was plain preaching and witnessing by men and women of the works of god. McLellin, however, was disappointed by the lack of shouting, screaming, jumping, and shaking of members at the meeting. Nevertheless, he felt happy and “saw more beauty in Christianity now than I ever had seen before.” A few days later, McLellin was ordained as an Elder in the Church of Christ and was called to preach the Gospel himself.

McLellin travelled with other Elders and preached at meetings. He had not been trained to preach, but God gave him an animated and burning heart. McLellin, like the other Elders, preached for hours on end. At two different meetings, Methodist ministers challenged McLellin and the other Elders. One Methodist accused them of teaching “a supernatural Religion.” Other Christian preachers accused them of being false prophets. McLellin continued to preach with the other Elders. They preached about the literal Second Coming of Jesus in Zion in Missouri, and encouraged people to prepare and gather in Zion. They also continued to sell the Book of Mormon. McLellin eventually returned home to Paris after his preaching circuit.

31 Mar

Jeanne Boydston, Home & Work: Housework, Wages, and the Ideology of Labor in the Early Republic (1990)

Jeanne Boydston traces the history of unpaid domestic labor among white working- and middle-class women in the northeast in colonial and antebellum America. Home & Work sets housework within a Marxist framework to understand “the intimate relationship between the gender and labor systems that characterized industrializing America” (xii). Boydston argues that in the antebellum period the “growing social invisibility of labor women performed for their own families made housework in many ways the prototype for the restructuring of the social relations of labor under conditions of early industrialization” (xx). Boydston terms the invisibility of women’s labor “the pastoralization of housework.” By the 1820s and 1830s, economic life and labor were “spherized” such that women’s labor was ideologically separated from the “productive” labor of men. This notion was cemented in Americans’ imagination although housework was physically taxing, time-consuming, and supported family life and economy.

This book is an important contribution to the study of women’s labor in American history. Boydston’s book challenges other scholars’ definition of labor, and its relation to industrialization, capitalism, and Marxism. In The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State, Friedrich Engels argues that domestic work enslaved women and prevented them from participating in industrialization and the larger economy (199). In this traditional capitalist narrative, women’s domestic labor is separated from industrial labor that takes place in public, male spaces. Women’s housework is viewed as private, unproductive labor that is ancillary to the progress of the economy and society. The legacy of Engel’s narrative can be traced to Herbert G. Gutman’s Work, Culture & Society. Gutman’s work moves the study of labor history beyond a “narrow ‘economic’ analysis” that isolates labor from “American cultural and social history” (10). This “new” labor history emphasizes “the frequent tension between different groups of men and women new to the machine and a changing American society” (12). Yet, like Engels, Gutman defines labor in terms of production, public space, and profit.

Boydston’s revolutionizes the ways that scholars should think about labor. Labor does not only occur in public, male spaces. Labor also takes place in homes and is carried out by unpaid women. Thus, Boydston challenges traditional Marxist notions of labor that are defined in terms of profit, public spaces, and mechanical production of goods. Boydston goes further in her analysis to suggest that scholars must recognize the relationship between domestic labor and industrialization. With the war of 1812, Boydston suggests that Americans began to believe that their “household economies and their identity as a nation depended on growing cash markets and capitalized manufacturing” (54). This notion contributed to an understanding not only that there was “a gendered division of labor,” but that there was “a gendered definition of labor” (55) in the early American Republic. Boydston urges scholars to recognize that the processes of early industrialization and emerging capitalism transformed perceptions about women’s labor in the household. This is made clear when Boydston describes the innovations in household technologies that were influenced by industrialization and notions of material consumption.

Recognizing the relationship between labor and industrialization allows Boydston to historicize and challenge notions about the ideology of separate spheres in antebellum America. Other scholars, like Kathryn K. Sklar, have recognized the relationship between domestic labor and industrialization. In Catharine Beecher, Sklar argues: “the ideology of domesticity was an effort to overcome the relative deterioration in the status of women that occurred when economic production was transferred from the household to the factory” (193). Yet, Sklar does not challenge scholarly notions about sphere ideology. Rather, Sklar reinforces the notions that sphere ideology was an accepted antebellum reality. The parlor was the “cultural podium…the base from which their [women’s] influence on the rest of the culture was launched” (137). Elsewhere Sklar notes, that the home was “a new kind of space within which they forged their [families’] identities and around which they organized their social and political interaction” (xi). Thus, nineteenth-century New England homes remain private, domestic spaces in antebellum reality. Homes are free of strenuous domestic labor, and are the realms of spiritual mothers basking in cultural and social leisure.

Boydston, following Linda K. Kerber, challenges the reality of sphere ideology in an effort to explain the invisibility of women’s domestic labor. Boydston notes, “the ideology of gender spheres was partly a response to the chaos of a changing society—an intellectually and emotionally comforting way of setting limits to the uncertainties of early industrialization” (143). The mother and home were perceived as shelters from the dangers of an industrial society. Thus, “Woman-in-the-abstract” was “defined as the embodiment of all that was contrary to the values and behaviors of men in the marketplace, and thus, the marketplace itself” (144). Eventually, the metaphors of sphere ideology were accepted as women’s actual behaviors. The conflation of “ideology and behavior was to obscure both the nature and the economic importance of women’s domestic labor” (146). This culminated in what Boydston terms the “pastoralization of housework” (161). Women, like Harriett Beecher, could detail their strenuous domestic labors—cooking, cleaning, caring for children, varnishing furniture, mending clothes, making household items, dealing with tradespeople, visiting neighbors, writing, and managing landlords—and still suggest that “I don’t do anything” (163). The sphere ideology masked the reality of women’s works such that women themselves understood their work as dissociated from “productive,” industrialized labor. Separate sphere ideology began as a metaphor and was then accepted as reality.

While Boydston’s work provides notable insights into the relationships between domestic labor and industrialization, the relationships between labor, capitalism, and Protestantism could have been complicated to better understand the history of the invisibility of women’s work. Boydston argues that women’s domestic labor was not always invisible in American society. Women’s labor was recognized by colonial Americans, particularly early Protestants, as significant to the family’s economy and well-being in the community. Boydston suggests that the Puritan “calling” infused “secular work with an ethical dimension: the goal of labor was to be useful to the larger purposes of creation, as expressed in the commonweal of society” (20).  This analysis is important for understanding the relationship between religion, labor, and industrialization.

Yet, this analysis is problematic on several levels. First, Boydston relies on the notion that there is a division between the sacred and “secular work.” Thus, Boydston’s history of labor assumes a secularization framework where the progress of capitalism and labor are evidence of the absence of religion. Religious studies historians have discounted the secularization thesis that proliferated through the 1980s. Second, Boydston assumes that when Puritans’ notion of “the calling” was deemphasized, later Protestantism had little impact on conceptions of labor and capitalism. In fact, Protestantism vanishes from Boydston’s history after the 1640s even though evangelicalism proliferated through the antebellum period and influenced notions of labor and labor reform through “the benevolent empire.” Gutman refers to some of these influences in Work, Culture & Society in his discussion of pre- and post-millennialism Protestant labor reform movements (79-118). Finally, Protestantism does not figure into Boydston’s analysis of the ideology of gender spheres. This is deeply problematic because, as Sklar notes in Catharine Beecher, this ideology can be traced to Calvinist beliefs about gender roles. Moreover by the mid-nineteenth century, sphere language promoted the home as the center for children’s religious formation, and mothers in homes as the arbiters of religious life. This is especially seen in Catharine Beecher’s Treatise on Domestic Economy, which Boydston’s quotes extensively without mentioning its Protestant leanings. Beecher urged women to teach their children Christian values, and to literally construct a Christian home by modeling the architecture of the home on nineteenth-century church plans. The domestic economy for Beecher, and other women who promoted or misrecognized the ideology of the gender spheres, mirrored the divine, Protestant economy. Future analysis of women’s labor must also analyze Protestantism in relation to nineteenth-century ideas about gender, capitalism, and industrialization.


Protestants notions about labor, gender, and capitalism are important because nineteenth-century American aligned middle-class respectability with Protestant parlor piety and the marketplace. This is important because Boydston assumes that separate sphere ideology defined womanhood and motherhood “as the embodiment of all that was contrary to the values and behaviors of men in the marketplace, and thus, the marketplace itself” (144). But, this is not true. Protestant women brought the marketplace into the home in very specific ways. Protestant advice literature advised women to buy mass-produced products for display in their homes. These things were religious objects and images that reflected the families’ wealth, religiosity, participation in the marketplace, and class. Class and social status were central to nineteenth-century Protestants conceptions of home and work. Boydston mentions class in her analysis of home and work. “It was, after all, in the middle classes that women had presumably been freed from the necessity of labor that had characterized the colonial helpmate….Indeed, in the celebrations of middle-class ‘Motherhood’ lay the fullest embodiments of the marginalization of housewives as workers” (158). But, class was not only defined by motherhood in terms of nurturing children. It was defined by the marketplace and things. Mothers were to educate their children and decorate their homes with Christian things. But decorating homes cost money that many American families did not have. Women were instructed to work to decorate homes so they would appear to be upper-middle class, white Protestants. The appearance of class through display and home decoration contributed to the invisibility of women’s labor. Women were supposed to present themselves and their homes as if they could afford things and servants. White, middle-class Protestant aspirations contributed to the invisibility of women’s domestic labor. Protestant things and the marketplace were essential to “the pastoralization of housework.”


Despite Boydston neglect of religion and the marketplace in the home, Home & Work revolutionizes the ways scholars should think about women’s domestic labor. Women’s domestic work and its dissociation from “real” labor, economy, and capitalism cannot be understood without recognizing how housework was transformed in its relationship to industrialization and separate sphere ideology in the nineteenth-century.

31 Mar

Mohammed Alexander Russell Webb, Islam in America and “The Moslem World” and “Voice of Islam” (1890s)

In the introduction to Yankee Muslim, Brent D. Singleton outlines Mohammed Alexander Russell Webb’s Islamic mission to America from 1893 to 1897. The mission, officially known as the American Islamic Propaganda (AIP), was funded by Hajee Abdulla Arab and Moulvi Serajuddin Ahmed of Bombay. Webb stationed the mission headquarters in New York where he established a free lecture room, a library, and the Moslem World Publishing Company (MWPC). In 1893 the MWPC published Islam in America, a short book in which Webb explained why he became a Muslim. It also outlined the practices and beliefs of Muslims in other counties. The MWPC also issued the pamphlet “A Guide to Namaz,” and the newspapers The Moslem World (from May 1893 to 1893), The Voice of Islam (from November 1893 to June 1984), and The Moslem World and the Voice of Islam (from January 1895 to February 1896).

According to Singleton, financial exigencies and dissent among AIP members contributed to the dissolution of the mission in 1897. Singleton argues that Webb contributed directly to the failure of the AIP: “His main failure was the inability to truly imbibe the teachings of Islam with regard to class and race…It is clear that by choice and ideology Webb left himself only a small window for success, pinning his hopes on a meager cohort of the American intelligentsia” (47). Singleton’s comments are noteworthy because they suggest that the AIP failed because Webb reached out to the wrong audience, “a meager cohort of the American intelligentsia.” This suggestion is intriguing and deserves more attention. Did Webb reach out to the wrong audience with his publications?

To answer this question, I think scholars must situate Webb, the newspapers, and the Muslim mission in their historical contexts. Race and class were important to Webb, but not in the way that Singleton suggests. In other words, the newspapers and mission’s failure had little to do with Webb’s inability to “imbibe the teachings of Islam with regard to class and race.” Historians must move beyond recognizing Islam as a force that engulfs believers. Islam, like Christianity, has no one message about race and class. People practice religion, for better or worse, based on their geographic location, historical circumstances, and local and familial traditions. Webb probably believed that he imbibed the true teachings of Islam in Victorian America. This leads me to the second point. Scholars must situate American Islam within its American context to understand how and why Webb’s mission flourished or floundered. This investigation may start by examining the publications of the AIP and the historical context of 1890s America.

The publications are important for understanding Webb’s mission because late-nineteenth-century America was inundated with newspapers and missionary literature. In this light, I think scholars can ask: How did the form and content of the AIP publications work compared to other mission literature? Did the AIP publications do what readers expected them to do (i.e., relate the truth and Words of God, quote from scriptures, etc.)? Scholars should also examine the actual content of the publications for more evidence about the failing of the AIP. Articles written by Webb in The Moslem World and the Voice of Islam suggested that the mission failed for reasons other than those stated by Singleton. Singleton argued that Webb did not proselytize among the American masses, people who, Singleton suggested, would have accepted Webb’s Islam. However, Webb suggested in his articles that: 1) he was so popular in the American presses that damaging rumors spread about the mission before he could control them; 2) American Christian missionaries in the East were sending damaging reports about Muslims back to America; and 3) that the American press blamed unrest in the Ottoman Empire on Muslims and supported Armenian Christians. It seems that Webb was very popular among the intelligentsia as the presses published numerous articles about him (some serious, others mocking). Thus, it appears that Webb was more well-known in America than he has been given credit for. Rather than Webb’s unpopularity, targeting the wrong audience, and inability to practice Islam, the failure of the AIP appears to have more to do with the American and international context in which the AIP emerged.

By examining only a few the articles written by and about Webb, scholars have overlooked the contentious context in which the AIP arose in America. They have also ignored the surplus of American print media that Webb and the AIP would have had to contend with. This appears to be a general problem with studies of Islam in America. Muslim missions and movements are treated as anomalies that emerged in America and cannot be explained. American religious, historical, and international contexts (especially the cultural exchange between other American missionaries) are ignored. Scholars must recognize the American contexts in which groups and individuals practiced Islam. Late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century America were times of religious, spiritual, social, and economic restlessness and reform. Some upper-middle class, white Americans, like Webb, looked to non-Christian forms of religion for Truth. These men and women were formed by liberal Protestantism which lauded progress, whiteness, and respectability. Scholars cannot extract people from their historical context and expect to fully understand the success or failure of their missions. Like other Americans Webb and his followers were searching for their identities in new and thought-provoking ways. Webb targeted white, middle-class Americans who were also searching for Truth in religion and media. After all, this was the heyday of Spiritualism and spirit photography. The failure and floundering of the AIP must be explored in these historical terms and relationships.

30 Mar

Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936)

Walter Benjamin wrote “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” in 1936 for a small circle of academics discussing art and mass media. The article was published in French in 1936, in German in 1955 and 1961, and in English in 1968. Benjamin argues that the work of art transforms over time and that historians must recognize this transformation. Art works in particular ways in the age of mechanical reproduction. Benjamin situates his analysis of the work of art in Marxist terms. Marx recognized commodities as history-less objects whose value was determined by exchange rather than their actual material form and the labor relations in their production.


A work of art has always been reproducible in the sense that replicas have always been made for craft, diffusion, and gain. Mechanical reproduction “represents something new” (218). Mechanical reproduction advanced from replicating small bronze statues and coins to the production of woodcuts, lithographs, and photographs. Photography was special because in this process of reproduction the artists’ hands were freed from reproduction. The photographer only needed his eye and the lens in the process of reproduction. Mechanically reproduced images and sounds culminated in film in the twentieth century. The “reproduction of works of art and the art of film” have had the most profound influence on art in its traditional form (220).

Mechanical reproductions of art lack unique existences and histories. The presence created by time, space, and history give a work of art is authenticity and authority. Mechanically reproduced artworks lack history, or the presence of the maker. Since mechanically reproduced artworks don’t have a specific history they can be “inserted into situations which would be out of reach for the original itself” (220). Thus, mechanically reproduced artworks lack authenticity and authority. “The authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced” (221). When the historical testimony of an artwork is affected, the authority of the object is jeopardized. History matters for works of art. When history is eliminated “that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art” (221).

The human sense of perception can be historicized to understand the current decay of aura in the age of mechanical reproduction. In the 1930s, Benjamin recognized that the human sense of perception relied on “the masses.” “Namely, the desire of contemporary masses to bring things ‘closer’ spatially and humanly, which is just as ardent as their bent toward overcoming the uniqueness of every reality by accepting its reproduction.” The masses wanted mechanically reproduced images in magazines and film. Benjamin argued that the masses’ sense perception was the “sense of the universal equality of thing.” Mechanical reproductions were sensed by the masses as equal works of art because the works of art had no particular histories. Art work was not unique.

For Benjamin, “The uniqueness of a work of art is inseparable from its being imbedded in the fabric of tradition” (223). This is exemplified by artwork in ritual. Artwork in ritual is thought of as unique and having aura because it is embedded in place, location, time, and a particular history. Mechanical reproduction posed a problem for artwork because “it emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual” (224). In other words, mechanical reproduction does not focus on the ritual and history of an object. Mechanical reproduction is based on the practice of politics.

Works of art have been received based on different value planes. One is the cult of value, which recognizes value as the existence of the material thing and ritual. The other is exhibition value which recognizes value based on the display of things. Exhibition vales does not favor ritual history. In the 1930s, people favored exhibition value. This changed the nature of the work of art, like photography and film, which took on a new function based on exhibition value.

Photography did not take on this new nature from the beginning. People favored photography at first for its cult value. Photographs created a “cult of remembrance of loved ones, absent or dead” where the cult value and aura resided in the photographed face. As men withdrew their faces from photographs, something changed. You could no longer see the cult value in images. Their meaning depended on the captions and other images that surrounded them, particularly in film. “When the age of mechanical reproduction separated art from its basis in cult, the semblance of its autonomy disappeared forever” (226). In other words, without history and ritual and cult value, art could not act of its own accord. The meaning of art had to be created by the other images which surrounded it. Films could be taken out of their actual context and create their own meaning, their own history.

The camera guided the audience’s interpretation of the film, not the actor’s aura. Benjamin argues that “for the first time—and this is the effect of the film—mas has to operate with his whole living person, yet forgoing it aura. For aura is tied to his presence; there can be no replica of it. The aura, which on stage, emanates from Macbeth, cannot be separated for the spectators from that of the actor. However, the singularity of the shot in the studio is that the camera is substituted for the public. Consequently, the aura that envelops the actor vanishes, and with it the aura of the figure he portrays” (229). The audience did not have a relationship with the actors themselves or the set. The camera guided reception and meaning. The cult of the actor (or the Hollywood persona) and films were commodities. They were taken out of history, out of time, place, and context. Capitalism set the agenda of films. While some films could “promote revolutionary criticism of social conditions, even of the distribution of property” the films that Benjamin was concerned with were not doing this. Benjamin concludes, “In Western Europe the capitalistic exploitation of the film denies consideration to modern man’s legitimate claim to being reproduced. Under these circumstances the film industry is trying hard to spur the interest of the masses through illusion-promoting spectacles and dubious speculation” (232). Films could create a new reality with camera equipment, lighting, and machinery. The work of art was, indeed, to present a reality. “Thus, for contemporary man the presentation of reality by the film is incomparably more significant than that of the painter, since it offers, precisely because of the thorough going permeation of reality with mechanical equipment, an aspect of reality which is free of all equipment. And that is what one is entitled to as from a work of art” (234).

But, the “mechanical reproduction of art changed the reaction of the masses toward art” and transformed reality. Mechanical reproduction changed the way art worked. Film allowed art to be viewed by mass audiences. Individual reactions to this art were constrained and formed by the mass audience response. Films changed the ways and the numbers of people who reacted to art. The camera also introduced us “to unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulse” (237). The camera was the meaning-maker. The camera was sinister. Mechanical reproduction was responsible for the loss of aura and for a “change in the mode of participation.” Mechanical reproduction meant that “the distracted mass absorbs the work of art.” Benjamin concluded “Reception in a state of distraction, which is increasingly noticeable in all fields of art and is symptomatic of profound changes in appreciation, finds in the film its true means of existence. The film with its shock effect meets this mode of reception halfway. The film makes the cult value recede into the background not only by putting the public in the position of the critic, but also by the fact that at the movies this position requires no attention. The public is an examiner, but an absent one.” The masses absorbed the realities created by film.

In the “Epilogue” Benjamin contextualizes his argument for the decay of aura in the age of mechanical reproduction. “The logical result of Fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life. The violation of the masses, whom Fascism, with its Führer cult, forces to their knees, has its own counterpart in the violation of an apparatus which is pressed into the production of ritual values.” Benjamin recognized that art as film had been commoditized. It lost its aura because there was no recognizable history in the making of the film. Fascists used history-less art to create their own history in films which created alternative realities. The masses bought into these realities because they could not recognize the production of film beyond its created aesthetics and commodity form. Mechanically reproduced art supported the Nazi party and controlled the distracted masses. Benjamin argued that Communism recognized this creation of history through history-less things. Benjamin called for this recognition by politicizing art.


Historians have read Benjamin as suggesting that mechanical reproduction decays the aura of mass reproduced art. And, this is his argument. But, scholars must be careful in their application of Benjamin to their projects. Benjamin recognized the decay of aura above all in film. Photography and lithography did not erode aura in the same way or to the same degree as film. Benjamin also recognized the decay of aura in a particular time and place. He argued that the mechanical reproduction of images via film hid the realities of twentieth-century Fascism, which created new realities through film. Film, as a commodity, did not have a history because its production was concealed. Film was used a propaganda to create new histories among the masses. Mechanical reproduction via film changed the form of art and its reception among the masses. Mechanically reproduced art concealed reality. Film was a means of control. Film lost it aura, or its history of production and in doing so it created something sinister, something with no authenticity.

30 Mar

Arjun Appadurai, “The Thing Itself” (2006)

“The Thing Itself” examines the relationship and problem between the profusion and abstraction of things. In the Social Life of Things (1986), Appadurai and other scholars investigated the “idea that persons and things are not radically distinct categories, and that the transactions that surround things are invested with the properties of social relations” (15). Appadurai continues thinking about people and things in this essay. He argues that scholars must also recognize “the thing itself” not just the social relations of things and persons.

Things can move in and out of categories, from commodities to singularities and back. Things are always in motion in terms of their object status, but they are also moving in terms of their position, materiality, and permanence. “These underlying materials are ever volatile, which is why museums always insist that “we do not touch” them. What is at risk is not just aura or authenticity but the fragility of objecthood itself” (15). This illusion of permanence comes through not just in the material composition of the thing. It comes through when we can see the production of the thing, or the traces of its maker and production. These traces require further action through restoration and conservation. These actions are a “testimony to the fact that the very objecthood of art objects requires action in order to resist the historical processes that turn one kind of thing into another kind of thing” (16). Art objects are constantly in motion. They require action to maintain them and these actions often change their status. Appadurai argues that “all art is a momentary assemblage of mobile persons and things and that art objects, assemblages, events, and performances vary only in the intensity of their interest in denying or celebrating the social trajectory to which all things are subject” (16).

Appadurai turns to the profusion of things in India to explain why the thing itself is important. India is filled with things and people. “In regard to both…what is sought and desired is the warmth of profusion and the enchantment of multiplicity” (17). Profusion means that things are wanted in and of themselves for their thingness, and, so, things are multiplied. Profusion does not recognize a sharp line between people and things. This characteristic exemplifies the arguments of Mauss and Marx about things. For Mauss, things never lose the magic of their makers, owners, or handlers. For Marx, people and things both share in the mystery of the commodity form and are defined by the value of labor. Profusion does not define art objects against everyday objects. This profusion of things calls Appadurai to examine abstraction.

The profusion of things, especially in capitalist societies like the United States, often leads to the abstraction of materiality. Abstraction entails that things are not enjoyed for their sheer materiality. Things are always means to other ends. Abstraction also recognizes that things are convertible and no thing is truly priceless. Things don’t have values in and of themselves. Abstraction also means that there is a deep tension between the singularity and the commodity. This tension was addressed in The Social Life of Things. This tension can also be seen in the gift economy and the commodity economy in the United States. People buy commodities and give them as gifts, but people recognize the commodity as “my” gift. They give a history to the commodity. So, “a gift and a commodity are often one and the same thing” (20). But, no thing is singular forever and ever, and no commodity can be a singularity. This exemplifies a problem: “how to create human relations in a world where all things are potentially in the market or on the market” as commodities (20).

A possible space for redemption of this problem, especially for India, which is an emerging capitalist society, is the “idea of the thing itself.” According to Appadurai, “the idea of the thing itself is a way to capture the stubbornness of the materiality of things, which is also connected to their profusion, their resistance to strict measures of equivalence, and to strict distinctions between the maker and the made, the gift and the commodity, the world of art and the objects of everyday life.” The idea of the thing calls for historians, artists, and critics to focus more on the thing, its physical, material nature, in order to understand its social relations. By focusing on the thing itself, “abstraction may remain the servant of materiality.” Appadurai thinks the idea of the thing itself may help “India’s artists and critics find pathways through the global market without losing entirely the magic of the materiality and the unruliness of the world of things.” The thing itself seems to shift the weight of analysis to the material nature of things in order to observe their social relations and social life. The thing cannot have a social life without the recognition that the thing is a thing itself.

30 Mar

Martin Heidegger, “The Thing” (1950)

Martin Heidegger was a twentieth-century German philosopher. He joined the National Socialist German Workers’ (Nazi) Party in 1933 and served as Rector of Freiburg University until 1934. Heidegger remained a member of the Nazi Party until 1945. Heidegger was banned from teaching after WWII because of his involvement with the Nazi Party, but resumed teaching at Freiburg University in 1950. Heidegger gave the lecture “The Thing” in 1950 as part of the Breman lecture series in Munich to the Brevarian Academy of Fine Arts. Heidegger’s work has become central to Western philosophy, but it is also controversial because of his membership in the Nazi party.


Heidegger examines nearness by observing things, particularly a jug. Things are self-supporting. Objects are representations and stand “before, over against, opposite us” (168). Thingness is not constituted in processes of making or physical appearance. Thingness cannot be observed from voids or extracted from scientific thought that assumes annihilation. Thingness resides in a void’s holding and the outpouring of a gift. The sky and earth dwell in gifts poured out to mortals and immortals. Gathering constitutes things’ thingness by bringing humans nearer and uniting them to the sky, earth, other mortals and divinities.


Heidegger’s work is known for its emphasis on phenomenology, or the study of experience and consciousness. Heidegger departed from Husserl’s notion of phenomenology, which recognized that a person could experience pure phenomena without any presuppositions.  “The Thing” examines how a person can experience and know a thing. Humans do not recognize thingness in the making or producing of a thing. They experience a jug when they experience its pouring a gift. They experience a thing when it pours a gift because they experience the surrounding phenomena too–the sky, earth, other mortals, and divinities. Humans can’t experience unmediated things. They experience things in relation to other phenomena. This decentralizes the physical thing itself. The experiences doesn’t come from experiencing the physical thing, but from what is between the observer and the thing, what is presenced. The physical object matters less than what the first-person experiences through mediation.

30 Mar

Lauren F. Winner, “Becoming a ‘Christian’ Woman” (2010)

“Becoming a ‘Christian’ Woman” examines girls’ needlework in eighteenth-century Virginia. Winner argues that needlework aided girls in their social and religious formation. Needle work became popular among elite colonial Americans by the 1720s. Girls’ embroidered as a means of social and economic display, and as a tool for learning. Pedagogues argued over the value of women’s education, but most often they recognized embroidery as integral to women’s education. Needlework was particularly important for eighteenth-century Virginia girls because it taught them lesson about their social status. Virginia girls were taught that needlework was a necessary tool because one day they would oversee and evaluate their slaves’ needlework. Pictures of the Sacrifice of Isaac taught girls lessons about their obedience to God and parents, and the hierarchy of obedience among masters and slaves. The act of embroidery also disciplined women’s bodies in ways pedagogues deemed appropriate. According to Winner, “Embroidery may be read as a map of the social and religious values parents sought to inculcate in their daughters, and girls’ practice of  making such needlework may be read as a religious act, a domestic, embodied catechesis” (60). Needlework was recognized as religious in two ways. First, the content of embroidery was often religious in the sense that needlework pictures imaged Bible stories, like the Sacrifice of Isaac. Winner also argues that “working embroidery itself may be seen as a religious practice, a contemplative act” (64). Needlework helped girls conform “to an ideal type of Christian femininity” (78).


Winner is one of the first historians to suggest that colonial American embroidery was a religious act for girls and women. Winner emphasizes the embodied nature of embroidering that worked to reinforce lessons about society, religion, and women’s bodies.

29 Mar

Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792)

Wollstonecraft wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Women in response to Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord’s 1791 report to the French National Assembly. The report suggested that girls should only be educated with boys until the age of eight. Thereafter, girls should only receive a domestic education. Wollstonecraft attacked this suggestion and the larger inequalities in women’s rights, including their education and social positions. Wollstonecraft argued that women had the right to be educated as men were educated.  She called for women’s intellectual equality.

Wollstonecraft condemned Rousseau’s Emile as well as other educational books that saw men as intellectually superior to women. She suggested that men who defined women as weak and vain did not see that these “characteristics” were based on the failure of women’s education that had been outlined by men. Like other pedagogues, Wollstonecraft outlined methods for educating children. Wollstonecraft recognized that children’s characters were formed by the age of seven. Mothers needed to be educated properly so they could mold their children’s natures. Wollstonecraft did not advocate for complete independence for women. She did suggest that with intellectual equality, women would gain more political and economic equality.

Wollstonecraft developed a plan for national education. She argued against private education as this was for the elite alone and did not allow children to be around one another. She also argued against boarding schools as these had too many holiday interruptions. Day schools were the best option because they allowed children to go to school together and for longer periods. Wollstonecraft also advocated for state supported schools because she didn’t think education should be left to parents alone. She also emphasized the importance of letting children play, like Rousseau.

These ideas were revolutionary because Wollstonecraft argued that girls should be educated equally, alongside boys, not relative to them. She noted that “If marriage be the cement of society, mankind should all be educated after the same model, or the intercourse of the sexes will never deserve the name of fellowship, nor will women ever fulfill the peculiar duties of their sex….Nay, marriage will never be held sacred till women, by being brought up with men, are prepared to be their companions rather than their mistresses” (177). At the age of nine, boys and girls dedicated to domestic employments or mechanical trades would go to other schools. All other boys and girls would remain in school together in the mornings. In the afternoons, boys and girls would be separated to learn specific trades according to their gender. Wollstonecraft suggested that educating boys and girls together would make the sexes more amenable to one another. Women should also be taught anatomy and medicine so they could attend to their children and husbands in efficient ways.

By the end of 1792, Wollstonecraft’s book had been published in Britain, Boston, Philadelphia, and France. Advocates of “Republican Motherhood” in the early America Republic used Wollstonecraft work to support the education of women. Others used Locke’s Some Thoughts Concerning Education and Rousseau’s Emile to attack Wollstonecraft and women’s education in general.  

29 Mar

Linda K. Kerber, Women of the Republic (1980)

In Women of the Republic Linda K. Kerber examines how the American Revolution affected women’s roles in political and domestic life. Kerber traces these roles through the origin and adoption of the language of “Republican Motherhood.” To understand the transformation of the female political imagination, Kerber analyzes political treatises, women’s diaries and letters, published materials, legal documents, probate inventories, and court records.

Kerber argues that Anglo-Americans inherited the Enlightenment tradition from Europe, which ignored the role of women in conceptions of the new social order. Women challenged this ideology during the Revolution as they negotiated contradictory loyalties to their families and the state. Women adopted the language of Republican Motherhood, which “provided the justification of women’s political behavior; it bridged the gap between idiocy and the polis” (11-12). Women exhibited patriotism by serving as army nurses, joining voluntary associations, and signing petitions. Yet, women were not recognized as political beings in the new republic. After the Revolution, courts upheld coverture laws, limited dower rights, and restricted divorce. American women had few legal rights as citizens. The language of Republican Motherhood was also adopted to promote women’s education. Republican mothers were informed citizens, well-read in religious texts, histories, and politics. Yet, education served women’s domestic duties, especially the training of virtuous sons and husbands for the republic.

Kerber’s work is noteworthy for its consideration of the gendered notions of Enlightenment ideals, politics, and freedom during the Revolution and Early Republic. Kerber demonstrates how women participated in politics in their everyday lives by adopting the language of Republican Motherhood. Republican Motherhood was a revolutionary invention in that it allowed for the intersection of women’s domestic life and the polis. Women used Republican Motherhood “to articulate a poltical ideology that blended the domestic and public sphere” (36). Thus, Republican Motherhood represents “a stage in the process of women’s political socialization” (284). Kerber’s work is also noteworthy as it encourages scholars to recognize the limitations of Republican Motherhood. The role was liberating, but it also severely limited women. Republican Motherhood masked women’s actual positions in the polis: “women remained on the periphery of the political community” (12). The American Revolution did not provide women with the same political and legal privileges as it did white males in the early American Republic.

For a historiography of separate spheres and a critique of Kerber’s “Republican Motherhood” see: the tag “separate spheres.”