Thomas Carlyle & Bodily Autonomy

Jan 20

This is a subtweet thread. I will not mention what prompted it. Let me say that if I’m annoyed with someone enough to give a snark response, that’s (often) an accomplishment; if I write the outline for a Winter Break Seminar for 1-2 credit hrs? Congratulations, I never want to meet that trash fire.

If I ever have to write a full continuing ed course or semester long seminar about your dumbass idea, you should probably move to another country, change your name, become a cobbler. (The asshat who approved amitriptyline with that LD50? How IS your life mending shoes?)

Also, in this case? I am barely qualified to write on this as an historian. I am *not* a historiographer. I have a master’s in history, but on the demographics & statistics side of history, not anywhere near the How We Write About History & The Historians Who Write About It. 

Plus, my area is Industrial Revolution, not 20th century.

But in a way, that’s good, because first we’re going to talk about an egregious example of Why We Treat Historical Context With Such Care & Why We Try To Avoid Secondary Sources When Possible. 

Once upon a time, there was a strange man who wrote a very strange history of the French Revolution. His name was Thomas Carlyle and even his friends thought he was a bit… off. He was a polymath in the age of polymaths, very intelligent (& also wrote fashion criticism & did math) but… 

For how weird? He wrote his history of the French Revolution in the present tense. He wasn’t born until 1795 (the first year of the Directoire, so after Rev & Terror was dun-dun-done)… in Scotland. Which he didn’t leave until until 1831. 

So he’s writing “you are there” when he wasn’t.

Also, Tom was cranky. All the time. Often savage. (I’m often fond of witty, cranky asshats; I’m fond of Thomas Carlyle, except for his history of the Revolution.) And even though he in theory gave up Calvinism, he’s ethically Calvinist, and it shows.

Per him, some people are fated to lead, some to follow; everybody better know their place cuz the Elect is Real, no negotiation. Pray you get eaten first, it shows how much God loves you. 

Another thing to know is that Carlyle had this thing against Poland. 

Not just a little thing, a big honkin’ “Lovecraft’s cat’s name” hate-on for Poland. Racist Polish jokes? He’d love them, then tell you why Poland must be burnt to ash. And this in the 1830s, when a lot of English people couldn’t tell you where Poland was or if it even had a government.

(It did, an incredibly innovative one throughout most of the 15th-18th centuries. Read about the Sobieskis. Ever want to play Time Traveler Fixes Europe? Jakub & John Sobieski is where I’d start. A little more money, a few more troops, slightly better roads & translators…

With the caveat that yes, all Europe in that time was islamophobic, though that had much to do with how the Ottoman Empire was handling expansion. Let’s just say that kidnapping children & turning them into child soldiers is NEVER a way to win friends, no matter the faith.

The Sobieskis, btw, did not Know Their Place. 

There are really impressive Poles all through this era, BTW. Try Tadeusz Kościuszko and Casimir Pulaski to start: both were (at least part-time) immigrants who got the job done in the American Revolution. )

Anyway, Tom’s friends were often pretty much wtf, dude? with him. At least once, a friend was so disturbed by what Tom wrote that the manuscript got “accidentally” burnt. I really like Bill Bryson’s skepticism on the burnt MS, btw. It’s hard to burn several hundred pages by accident.

Next time you have an open fire, toss an old phonebook or something by James Dobson or Debbi Pearl on it. (Books we won’t miss…) Don’t crumple, just put it in. Time how fast til it’s gone. Probably 20 minutes, easy. That’s with cheap modern paper that burns like whoa. 

Victorian paper was heavier, thicker, more like burning cloth since it was still at least part linen & cotton rags. Trust me, JSMill could have pulled that manuscript out of the fire if he wanted to save it. There would have been some singeing, but the MS would have survived. The Mills did it on purpose.

Now that we have context, Thomas Carlyle is one of THE great Victorian Historians. In a couple important ways, he RE-INVENTED writing about history. He’s incredibly influential, and his History of the French Revolution influenced historians for the next century (as well as A Tale of Two Cities.)

And yet, we really don’t quote Carlyle about the French Revolution, because 1) he wasn’t there so he’s not a primary/contemp source, 2) he doesn’t really refer to his sources, so we can’t fact-check him, and 3) his issues with what caused the Revolution taint his work. 

We don’t quote him about Poland at all except to note that dude had some issues, like maybe he liked a Polish girl who told him to get bent or he got scammed by a Polish dude or something. He’s just not rational about Poland because They Didn’t Know Their Place.

This is historiography 101: we must be aware that the people who write a history are the product of their time. So when we read a history they wrote, we have to know their context. As historians, we build on what the historians before us did, but we also don’t take them as gospel. 

It’s why historians do prefer primary sources. 

Fr’ex: William Shakespeare is interesting as commentary on his recent history. The War of the Roses is within generational memory for Will – he knew people with 1 degree of separation from those event. 

People were still telling first hand War of the Roses stories when Will was a kid, like we GenXers almost all know people who can tell 1st hand World War II stories, and a lot of us heard 1st hand World War I stories. And Will lived under the last successor of the victor of that war (the Tudors.)

So all of Will’s writing about the Richards & Henrys are filtered through the lenses of

  1. Don’t piss off the Queen
  2. Both sides pretty much sucked
  3. We got the best possible outcome given those losers
  4. Yay, Queen!! YAY MONARCHY!

Don’t read Shakespeare for history. Do read Shakespeare to understand how people thought about that past in the aftermath. Compare & contrast how his opinions changed after the Tudors are gone & Will starts writing for James, whose family wasn’t involved in War of Roses at all.

(Why, yes, my friends, I do a lot of thinking about thinking, and how cognition works. I do it in my history work, too. The stats are just the excuse to publish on metacognition.) 

Okay. The article that triggered this is a piece about lesbian history and reading second wave feminist thought. The author is… well, not a historian. Definitely not a meta historian, nor a historiographer. 

The big issue is that second wave feminism was a product of its time. The foundations of gender studies were just being laid. DNA was still a technical term that some scientists knew & most nonscientists didn’t. Chromosomes were thought to be almost only binary, therefore gender was binary.

To put it simply, 2nd wave feminists were just… wrong on their assumptions. I make a lot snide comments about Freudians; it’s because their theories are so completely at odds with the biochemistry & electrochemistry of the brain that their theoretical basis cannot be reconciled with objective fact.

Freudianism is not even good *metaphor* anymore. It’s so broken that we only teach it as historical context. Its therapy model is bad & exploitative, the structure is based on a sexist, classist, misogynist model… I can go on for DAYS why you should run from Freud.

2nd wave Feminism is equally wrong. They made massive, flawed assumptions about gender, based on what they knew at the time.

How do we know they are wrong? We control for variables & it turns out that boy babies aren’t more aggressive than girls. Women aren’t more nurturing.

Seriously, we can watch on fMRI how the very same brain changes when exposed to the right levels of testosterone, estrogen or blockers. And we see how behavior changes. Gender is a construct, because if it wasn’t, we wouldn’t be able to see that fMRI or alter socialization. 

Which is not to say 2nd wave feminist thought is worthless. It’s not. It’s just broken, and should be treated as broken, like Freudian theory. It’s trans-exclusionary by default. The idea of trans-inclusion couldn’t exist inside the context in which most 2nd wave feminists were born & educated.

Not saying they’re bad for thinking this way, just don’t quote them as authorities on anything except 2nd wave feminist thought. They’re not reliable sources. They weren’t scientists, they weren’t demographers, they were writing about their own experiences & understanding. 

That’s where their authority ends. Period. Just like William Shakespeare is not an authority on the War of the Roses. Just like Thomas Carlyle was not a source on the French Revolution. 2nd wave, Shakespeare & Carlyle comment first on their time, and their reactions to the past. 

It’s not necessary for today’s LGBTQIA folk to read 2nd wave feminist history. If you’re doing gender studies? Sure. If you’re interested in history? Yeah, but if you find it triggers you or you don’t like it, feel free to return the book to the library. Nobody HAS to study anything. 

Will reading how white women born 1920-1960 navigated their world help you understand how to navigate yours? Maybe? Prolly not, but hey, people read Sun Tzu & Machiavelli as business inspiration. Give it a shot, the same way. Open Germaine Greer, read one sentence, close. 

(I’m not serious on that. Never open GG. Maybe Steinham.) But you know what? You’d be better off with Mary Wollstonecraft or Alice Paul or Emmaline Pankhurst or Ida B Wells. Go for the deep thinkers and the serious activists. Skip the dilettantes. Our time has more in common with the activists.

Here’s the big thing: 2nd wave feminism needs to come with a big disclaimer about trans-exclusion. Because that is toxic, and it’s all over. 

I have no children. I will never have children. It’s part choice, part circumstance.

The idea of a little proto human sucking fluid from *my* body nauseates me. 

That does not make me less of a woman.

Being pregnant strikes me as pretty damn close to the chest burster scene from Alien. My understanding of the 3rd Amendment (quartering of soldiers) is based on forced pregnancy. The right to NOT be pregnant is the hill I WILL die on.

This does not make me less of a woman. 

I’ve hated my period since I got it. I concealed it for months because it was nobody’s business but mine & I didn’t want to talk about it. Tell me to celebrate it? FU. Fingerpaint with it? I will cut you. Have any sort of sex during it? Come closer so I can set you on fire.

This does not make me less of a woman.

Nor does any of this make me a self-hating misogynist. This is my experience of living in my body, which I pretty much like most of the time. I am 1000% behind anyone who wants to continue the species, make art with their tampons, breastfeed, get their red wings. Just don’t make me do it.

I got to decide that I was bisexual, then pansexual. I am monogamous by choice, not default. People close to me in my adolescence made sure I thought about gender early. I am female in part because that’s what my body was assigned, but also because I choose to be. 

That’s the real legacy of both feminism and LGBTQIA activism. That we trust the agency of the person in the body to decide who they are, what they do with their body. That we trust ALL women. That people say what they need, determine who they are, and we go with their decisions.

Radical agency. I swear to all that is sacred, it makes life so much better. Everyone gets to decide for themselves how their body works, what name they use, who they marry, what work they do. That we allow people to be wrong. 

If you tell me your name, I will believe you. It’s YOUR name. Same with gender and pronouns and whether you prefer tea/coffee/soda, white or red wine, vegan or veggie or carnivore. I may not have your soda/wine on hand, we may have to order out, but your name & pronouns are sacred. 

It’s your life. It’s your soul. You’re the captain. As long as you neither tell me what to do with mine, nor try to hurt other people with your choices, we’re good.
But when you use bullshit that’s older than I am to support a flawed idea that causes direct and actionable harm? That’s not agency. That’s being a controlling asshat who needs to deal with her own trauma. (And now I’m talking specifically to the TURFS with an E.)

If you can’t articulate your hate & fear of people experiencing twice the hate you’ve ever got, if you use 60 year old research & justifications to defend your position…well, to quote Mrs Landingham, “Well, Jed, then I don’t want to know you.” Also, you need therapy if you can’t articulate a fear.

You’re wrong. As wrong as Freudian theory. Your intellectual basis has no value in science, ethics, sociology. It is the same rationale that Carrie Chapman Catt & Anna Shaw used to exclude women of color & working class women from 1st wave feminism. It was wrong then, it’s wrong now. 

You wrong, you wrong, you wrong. You’re being mean. You’re scared & you so desperately want to think you’re special that you’re harming other people. That makes your behavior terrible. 

But there’s hope.

There’s always hope.

You can change.

It’s just bad theory.

Let me walk you through the science of gender in the brain. Let’s find you a therapist who will listen and help you deal with your phobia of bodies you consider monstrously flawed. Let’s work on altering your behavior so you’re not an asshat to people who have worse lives than you. 

And to the author of the piece… Jesus wept. Please get yourself into a historiography graduate course. Learn how NOT to accidentally veer into apologetics of anything, but especially transphobia masquerading as Millenial thought.