The Age of Questions

Guest Post by visiting fellow Holly Case, Brown University

For a month last summer (mid-May to mid-June, 2016), I had the privilege of joining the Reluctant Internationalists project group for research and interaction on themes of common interest. Among the project leader (Jessica Reinisch) and other members and guests (among them Heidi Tworek and Elidor Mehilli), the intellectual energy was remarkable. At several conferences, talks and workshops organised over the course of the short time I was there (on the Armenian genocide, the history of medicine, expertise, etc.) a broad range of interests was paired with impressive regional and temporal depth of knowledge. It is not surprising to me that so many of the project members have found jobs and received honours in the meantime.

Beyond the scholarly merit of the project, I was above all taken with the comradery within the group. The tenor of discussions was always productive and the atmosphere intense intellectually, but relaxed socially. It was truly a joy to think and work among such young scholars and enhances my faith in the future of historical inquiry that they are the faces of the next generation.

As for my own research, Britain was just where I needed to be this summer. Much of my time outside of Birkbeck was spent between the National Archives in Kew and the British Library. In both places I found a wealth of documents and pamphlets relating to the book project I am currently completing on “The Age of Questions,” tentatively subtitled “First Attempt at a History (in Aggregate) of the Eastern, Social, American, Jewish, Polish, Bullion, Tuberculosis, and Many Other Questions from Roughly 1800 to 1945, and Beyond.” The Reluctant Internationalists did me the honour of asking me to deliver the opening address for their new Centre for the Study of Internationalism, for which I spoke on my book project.

What was “The Age of Questions”? From a spattering of references to the American and Catholic questions in the mid-to-late eighteenth century, there followed an interrogative deluge in the nineteenth. Before long, publicists, scholars, statesmen, novelists, religious authorities, millers, doctors, and others competed to derive the best solutions to the Eastern, Belgian, woman, labour [worker], agrarian, and Jewish questions. These were folded into larger ones, like the European, nationality, and social questions, even as they competed for attention with countless smaller ones, like the Kansas, Macedonian, Schleswig-Holstein, and cotton questions. The most prominent figures put their pens to them: Alexis de Tocqueville, Victor Hugo, Karl Marx, Frederick Douglass, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Rosa Luxemburg, and Adolf Hitler, to name just a few. That questions were construed as problems is evident from another familiar formulation: the “definitive” or “final solution.” My book wonders: Was there a family resemblance between questions, or certain patterns that recurred or migrated across them? Have they disappeared, or are they still with us?

Being among the Reluctant Internationalists at Birkbeck helped me bring this project to completion. My archival and other findings at Kew and the BL filled the last of the holes in the analysis relating to the origin of the age, in which British politicians and publicists played the leading role. I left London just days before the Brexit vote. As such, I will always remember that month as an especially wonderful time before the general unravelling that has since ensued, and that shows all the more the unquestionable relevance of the Reluctant Internationalists project.