Tuesday, March 5, 2013

British History and Texas Music

A SHORT, insightful new book about the making of the modern world – told in microcosm – has just come from the pen of a noted indie rocker.

Here at The Misread City, we’ve been impressed with the melancholy genius of Matt Kadane since the first record, What Fun Life Was, from his old band, Dallas slowcore quartet Bedhead. Like the group that followed, The New Year, Bedhead was defined by melodic songwriting and intricate, understated guitar playing – VU’s hushed third record, with a bit of Sonic Youth and New Order, a hint of Texas twang, and almost no effects. (I wrote about The New Year for the LA Times in 2008, and the video for their song "Disease" appears near the end of this post.)

Turns out Kadane (who led both groups with his bearded brother Bubba) spent much of his musical career getting a doctorate at Brown; these days he teaches history at Hobart and William Smith College in upstate New York.

In any case, Kadane’s new book is The Watchful Clothier: The Life of an Eighteenth-Century Protestant Capitalist. This is the kind of history we like – lucid, free of jargon and with a clear narrative and analytical direction. (Full disclosure: The Watchful Clothier appears on Yale University Press, the house on which I will publish my own work on the perils of the creative class, sometime next year.) It takes off from some ideas of one of our favorite historians, Christopher Hill. whose book on English radicalism, The World Turned Upside Down, inspired song sung by Billy Bragg song. (The Watchful Clothier, for what it's worth, includes an endorsement from the important historian Joyce Appleby, though it awaits its treatment by a British pop artist.)

What follows is my Q and A, conducted by email, with the historian and indie rocker. I ask Kadane about both sides of his amphibious identity.

Protestantism and the market economy are two of the key forces in the modern West, and have been specially joined at least since Max Weber and maybe since the Puritans. How did your "watchful clothier" seem like the right lens though which to gaze at these big issues?

The clothier, Joseph Ryder, lived in eighteenth-century Leeds where he ran a small business.  Leeds was one of the great cities of the industrial revolution and was undergoing big changes during Ryder's life, which ended in 1768, right around the time that industrialization was noticeably beginning.  But already while he was in his active years, the population was growing at an unprecedented rate, more and more people were becoming wage laborers, the cloth that the town produced was heading to markets further and further afield, and all these things played a major role in laying the framework for modern capitalism.  Ryder was, at the same time, a deeply pious and traditional Protestant and wrote a two and a half million word diary to document his religious life.  So he lived at the intersection of these big religious and material forces, and he's an ideal case study for seeing how they interacted.

Today, Protestantism and capitalism seem pretty comfortable with each other -- in many parts of the American South and Midwest, for instance, they both stand triumphant, with arms joined. But in the 18th century you chronicle, they seem to be in some serious tension with each other, don't they?

I agree that they now they seem designed for each other.  Mega-churches meet all the basic definitions of big business.  There are also, to be fair, subplots that complicate the story, more selfless social activists within the various denominations, and so on.  But the way things largely stand today is pretty different from how they were envisioned in the centuries closer to the Reformation.   Sermons back then railed against acquisitiveness, successful parishioners wrung their hands even when they balked at the idea of maximizing profits.  What complicates this image is that the Puritan ethos was also partly responsible for a new more relentless mode of striving in the world.  For reasons that I think Max Weber was basically the first to see, and however much the argument may need to be modified, Protestantism at its most scrupulous, at its most unguided by external authority, and in the right economic setting could encourage secular ambition as a way to overcome anxiety about salvation.

The nature of Christianity changed during this period, as Newton took hold and the Enlightenment reinforced the prestige science and rationalism. "A watchful God had become a watchmaker," you write. What happened and how was it felt at the time?

Christianity in the eighteenth century is hard to describe without qualification.  This is, after all, the age of the first great awakening.  But if traditional Christianity in western Europe was reasserting itself, this was in large part because it was also changing in the hands of rationalists, who may have been a minority of the population but who for that very reason were also radically vocal.  In the eyes of these anti-traditionalists, Jesus was often seen as a mere man, God was conceptualized as a sort of mathematician who designed a universe according to such sublime laws that it could run itself without Providential intervention, and the notion that humans are fundamentally depraved no longer seemed tenable.  Religious figures who were coming to think this way were also especially successful by the later eighteenth century in getting their message across to the emerging industrialists.  Churches throughout the north of England that had more or less been Calvinist at the beginning of the century were actively looking for religious radicals, particularly Unitarians, to start leading the flock.  Historians have more or less known that this was happening, but what has been missing from the story is the sort of parishioner's first hand account that Ryder offers.

Ryder recorded in his diary something like 5,000 sermons that he heard preached throughout Yorkshire, and what this record shows are two really interesting things.  One is that the new religious outlook, with its emphasis on the dignity of humans and the humanity of Jesus, had a natural affinity with emerging commercial self-interest.  Puritanism could also encourage economic striving to overcome anxiety about salvation, but it had a much stricter definition of what counted as economic excess.  And it's much easier to be fully self-interested if, for example, you actually believe that you're worthwhile rather than utterly depraved as Puritans thought.    So to accommodate the remarkable wealth that industrialists were generating, the religion of so many of these people had to soften on certain points.  A more rationalist religion was more compatible with more materially rational expectations.  But then the other thing that Ryder shows is that this religious and cultural shift could unsettle more conservative parishioners, who nevertheless stuck it out with some of the chapels that were basically turning the old Puritan ethos upside down.  Ryder went to his grave feeling like the ministers who were telling him to love himself a little more were actually getting Christianity wrong.  So I think you have to see religious change in the Enlightenment for the incredibly complicated process that it was.  But once you do see that, then the reason that the cultural effort to decriminalize self-interest was so concerted becomes intelligible--and this really was a decades long effort on the part of opinion makers like David Hume, Adam Smith, and others.  It was hard to convince people, the very sorts of industrious people who Smith theorized could make the nation unprecedentedly rich, that the traditional Christian take on wealth was exactly wrong.  Trying to transform self-interest from a vice into a virtue was such a massive cultural project for people like Adam Smith because people like Ryder, however poised they were to bolster the wealth of the nation by virtue of their industry and enterprise, were committed to a sort of morality that Smith and others saw as antithetical to capitalism.

What surprised you the most in your research as you dove into Ryder's life and times?

That he was actually interesting.  I recognized right away that his diary was an incredible source, and I knew I had to try to do something with it, but I was put off by his perspective.  I had originally been much more interested in the radicals.  But I didn't just grow to like him, which is in any case not a necessary condition for writing about someone.  I grew interested in how torn he was.  He equivocates about everything, not just commerce.  He could come across rioters and feel for them, but only if they were rioting from need and in reaction to unfair laws.  He had a deep sense of social propriety but could still feel sympathy for a maligned woman who showed up at his house drunk one night looking for spiritual advice.  He dressed down his household workers who helped him make cloth and afterwards confided to his diary that he was just as undisciplined in his youth and should think twice before feeling superior.  Those same workers were often orphans who he seems to have been attached to in at least of couple of cases, in no small part because he and his wife tried but failed to have children of their own.  And then that wife, a woman he never actually names in his diary, was an object of serious ambivalence.  When they married just a few months after the woman he was really in love with got away, he found her less exciting than his diary.  A few years into the marriage they had grown emotionally attached, and he was devastated when she died before her fortieth birthday and he had to go on alone for another decade and a half.  By all accounts people also liked him.  Maybe not surprisingly.  Ambivalent people see things from at least two angles, and that can make them much more empathetic beings than the dogmatists.

Which historical school or method are you most indebted to, and why is is important to you?

When I was an undergraduate I had a picture of Foucault on the wall beside my desk, still such a great picture from the interview he did in Vanity Fair in '83, not long before he died.  I don't see him in the same exalted way, but one thing I took from him I still believe:  doing history can usefully denature the present.  You get the same insight in Marx, another big influence.  Nietzsche too.  But Foucault also made me think that a key part of the story was the early modern past, especially in western Europe.  In graduate school I fell more under the influence of people like Weber, Pierre Bourdieu and others who more or less assert the importance of culture as a motive force even while staying tuned in to the material.  And when trying to describe culture I've learned not just from Clifford Geertz but from the major figures in semiotics who I avidly read as an undergraduate, from practitioners of microhistory like Carlo Ginzburg, from the British Marxists historians, especially Thompson, Hill, and Hobsbawm, that last of whom, despite his flaws, was particularly inspiring as one of my own teachers in graduate school.  A number of historians have also directly taught me the importance of archival research.  Margaret Jacob stands at the top of that list.  Her energy and curiosity in the archives are legendary, and she has had major insights about the enlightenment and the causes of industrialization because of her willingness to undertake some pretty unromantic labor.  I could say the same about my undergraduate mentor William Taylor, one of the great colonial Latin Americanists, whose footnotes will make you tremble.  Really I could say the same about two other guys who I worked with in graduate school, Tim Harris and Phil Benedict.  When you approach history as a philosophy student, as I did when I first began graduate school, there's a real temptation to be theoretical at the expense of contemporaries' experience.  I'm grateful to the theorists who can so clearly lay out the big questions.  But if I hadn't been encouraged by these historians I've just named, and they're not the only ones, then I don't think I'd have anything remotely useful to say about what happened in the past.

For a musician or music fan, there must be a double resonance to studying northern English industrial cities like Leeds or Manchester. Not only did they experience what you call "the birth pangs of modern capitalism" more acutely than anywhere else, these cities have produced more than their share of great rock music -- Gang of Four, Mekons, Joy Division, Smiths, Stone Roses, many more. Do you see any relation between those early-modern social forces and the culture that emerged much later?

I guess I don't see much of a relationship when it comes to religion.  In the centuries that separate these bands from the people I look at in the book there's a good case to be made that Christianity has almost died in Britain.  With the economy there may be more of a connection.  These bands are to de-industrialization what Ryder was to pre-industrialization.  And without the industrial revolution, Manchester and Leeds would still likely be small towns with little of the context--gritty urban decay, university life, radical class politics, and so on--that helped define those bands and their sound, especially when their music was recorded by Martin Hannett.  It's a great question, and I wish I had a better answer.

Congratulations to Matt Kadane the historian -- what is next for Matt Kadane the indie rock star?

The New Year is two-thirds finished with a new record.  The basic tracks are done and in the case of a few songs we're further along.  My brother and I also have a new band with David Bazan and Will Johnson called Overseas.  We just finished mastering the first record, which is set to come out at the beginning of June, followed by some shows in August on the east coast, west coast, and in Texas.  I'm excited to play music again.

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