In „The Age of Questions“, Holly Case explores the discursive forms, trajectories, interconnectedness, and distinctness of „the Eastern, Social, Woman, American, Jewish, Polish, Bullion, Tuberculosis, and Many Other Questions Over the Nineteenth Century, and Beyond“, as the subtitle ambitiously elaborates. Upon publication in 2018, the book won the Hont Prize for Best Book in Intellectual History; the paperback edition is imminent.
The multiple “questions” of the 19th and early 20th centuries are at the centre of the book’s seven chapters. The disparate issues at stake are bound together by their common discursive framing mode. Still, the subtitle is but an eclectic and – for all its length – incomplete sneak preview of the book’s content. The chapters are structured along the following topical tropes: the national, the progressive, the federative, and the temporal argument, as well as arguments about force and about farce. This sounds contradictory, and indeed: The final chapter addresses a “Suspension-Bridge Argument” that brings the previous six together: It evokes the image of a suspension bridge of the type where „large shoes“ are needed to master, step by step, the cracks between planks. Thus „spanning contradictions“ (p. 109), the reader may reach the other side of the bridge, or, in this case, the connections between the laid-out arguments. By way of a fitting choreographical twist, the image goes back to an observation the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein made while he spent some time in Ithaca, New York. Incidentally, this is where Case wrote the larger part of her book.
Hers is an exercise in chronicling how words matter. The transformative power felt in Europe en suite the French Revolution and the Congress of Vienna of 1815 persisted well into the 20th century. Such power gave shape to a myriad of “questions”, a term that was synonymous with “problems”, “issues”, “crises”, “matters at stake”. The contemporaries perceived a growing gap between (universal) ideas such as freedom and equality, and the socio-political as well as geopolitical – and fiercely timebound – realities. They framed their transformative claims as “questions”. As Case forcefully argues, the communicative patterns that subsequently evolved failed to reconcile semantics with reality – “questions” beg for answers, but these largely failed to materialize. Some did, if partially. But the persistence of many of the questions raised effectively led to frenzy and catastrophe, a catastrophe ultimately synthesized in the expression “final solution”.
There was nothing ineluctable about this course of events, however. The 19th century was marked by a comprehensive and progressive quest for emancipation – of women, slaves, Jews, workers, Slavs, and others. It was marked by ideas towards a European federation and the dissolution of boundaries. Something went terribly wrong. The hype about “questions” acquired features of a farce, of cynical make-believe, of the absense of truthfulness – a pathologizing frenzy instigated by public intellectuals and politicians determined to “get it right”. Case elaborates on how intellectuals and politicians used a mode of public articulation that was anything but innocent. Those who formulated „questions“ framed them according to their political intentions, and more often than not with a particular solution in mind. They sought to define the terms of debate, if not the preferred course of action. Indeed, the word „question“ channelled the public’s understanding of a matter. By systemizing her material into diverse arguments, and letting them contend with each other, Case convincingly shows how each carries a historiographic truth that is as plausible as all the others. She succeeds in creating an almost psychological effect on the reader, who is immersed in an echo of the conundrum the contemporaries were facing: How were the contradictions to be reconciled?
The 19th century was largely a century of peace in Europe – only to formidably end with the hitherto largest conflagration in human history. The contention among the “questions” grew bigger, and the longer they remained unsolved, the bigger grew the frightening frenzy about what to do. Contemporaries understood that the “questions” were very entangled and complex, merging into one huge, inaccessible bundle that needed fixing. It was then that the idea of a universal war as a solution came into being, an idea that was feared and longed-for at the same time. Working through the seven arguments, the reader gains an intense sense of the indissolubilities of the age’s “questions”.
Case comprehensively sketches the path marked by plurifold appeals to and struggles for values such as emanicpation, equality, progress, and the rationalization of international politics. The way these „questions“ were addressed, however, proved to be an expression of zealous confidence, even hubris. The longer they remained unsolved, the grander became the ambitions. Eventually, they were perceived as universal, thus requiring the creation of a whole new world. The barrier towards doing so with formidably violent means became very low, and eventually was consciously removed. The prospect of war and forceful social engineering practices as „solutions“ permeate the book, giving evidence of the multiperspectivic helplessness vis-a-vis the conundrums of the age.
Case has mastered an impressive wealth of materials from archives in eleven countries. Her sources were written in sixteen languages: Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian, Bulgarian, Czech, French, English, German, Hungarian, Italian, Macedonian, Polish, Romanian, Russian, Slovak, Slovene, Spanish, and Turkish (p. 12). As she correctly observes, scholars hitherto have organized their research addressing one or two of the „questions“ permeating the 19th century, rarely reflecting on their entanglements with other, simultaneously debated “questions”. Scrutinizing the writings of the age’s intellectuals and politicians, Case extracted what they had to say about „questions“, and then organized her findings into the mentioned arguments. This makes much sense. A prerequisite for such an innovative and comprehensive intellectual enterprise is stable employment: Case dedicates her book to “tenure, sine qua non”.
The topical organization of the voices she gathered scatters a given individual’s ideas throughout the book. Here and there it would have been insightful to gain access more easily to one or the other intellectual or politician – readers can piece together what, say, Karl Marx, had to say about “questions” only with the help of the index, or with a searchable electronic version of the text. My guess is that this is intentional on the part of the author, as her aim is to give evidence for a pattern of thinking that permeated Europe and North America.
It is this comprehensive, interlinked and common pattern, the “commonalities across contexts” (p. 11), that leads her to critically reflect on the craft of historiography. Most scholars have conceptualized the “questions” of the 19th century as something clear-cut, thus reifying them through their methodological approach. “Aggregate”, as the subtitle has it, is an apt modifier for Case’s quite different approach: she searches for the formal, political, and rhetorical commonalities among the many different discourses in the “age of questions”. This convergence in the patterns of thinking defines the era; and its conundrums channelled into catastrophe.
Historiography being intrinsically linked to the present, it is no coincidence that Case constantly binds her reflections back to current affairs. Several of her chapter arguments resonate in our present, and it is difficult to decide whether they are still with us, or, rather, again: the 19th century’s accelerated mode of transformation; social, gender, and ethnic inequalities; a long period of relative peace in Europe; a palpably fragile international order; and an increased sense of loss vis-a-vis the transformative challenges ahead of us, of which “digitalization”, “globalization”, and “alternative facts” are only the more immediate buzzwords.