Foss on Brown (2018)


Brown, Howard G. Mass Violence and the Self: From the French Wars of Religion to the Paris Commune. Cornell UP, 2018, pp. 283, ISBN 978-1-5017-3061-0    

Colin Foss, Austin College

Early in this meticulous cultural history of the “modern self” (6) Howard G. Brown states that his approach “seeks more to explore and explain than to argue or prove” (2). For a book that promises no arguments, Mass Violence and the Self nonetheless offers many corrections to the historical record and original perspectives on well-known events. Brown explores four major moments in French history: the Saint Bartholomew’s Day massacres, the Fronde, the Revolutionary Terror, and the Paris Commune. These case studies support the book’s central theory that visual or textual representations of mass violence described and influenced new manifestations of selfhood. Brown charts the development of mass violence alongside new representational genres and technologies, notably prints, pamphlets, personal writing, and photographs.  

An introductory chapter entitled “A Discourse on Method” develops the technical framework of Brown’s concepts of self and collective trauma. Drawing from psychology, the history of emotions, evolutionary biology, and neuroscience, Brown posits that representations of mass violence created the conditions for collective trauma, a phenomenon that relies on sympathy for others’ suffering. The modern self emerges when those suffering are anonymous or unknown to the sympathizer, who must then erect conceptions of selfhood within virtual configurations of collectivity. The historical evolution of these abstract conceptions of self can roughly be described as a shift from face-to-face communities to imagined communities, but Brown refrains from claiming that subjectivity went through dramatic changes throughout the modern period: by the time he begins his study with the wars of religion, the self is already modern. 

The introduction’s overview of a wide field of disciplinary work on the relationship between self and collectivity is impressive in its ambition, but the specificity of Brown’s definitions make them cumbersome as references. For example, the paragraph-long italicized definitions of “modern self” (13) and “collective trauma” (18) are clear and precise in the context of the introduction but become unwieldy as referential support to later chapters. Brown’s sensitivity to the historical contingency of his key terms operates clearly within each chapter without needing these scientific postulates.  

In the first chapter, “Massacres in the French Wars of Religion,” Brown asks, “what basis did [Huguenot reformers] have to empathize with distant coreligionists” (38), noting the heterogenous and isolated communities of the mid sixteenth century. This chapter suggests that it was visual representations of massacres—in which Huguenots were even sometimes portrayed as performing the massacring—that helped establish an imagined community of fellow worshipers. The document that allowed such distant sympathy was entitled Quarante tableaux ou histoires diverses qui sont memorables touchant les Guerres, Massacres, et Troubles advenues en France des dernières années (Geneva, 1569–70), a series of prints published by Jacques Tortorel and Jean Perrissin. Even if these prints depicted violent events prior to the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacres, Brown notes that their dissemination may have benefitted from current events: “historicizing massacre had the effect of magnifying it” (74). 

The second chapter, “The Fronde and the Crisis of 1652,” turns from prints to pamphlets, in particular to a series known as the Relations written by Charles Maignard de Bernières, a Jansenist who linked “graphic descriptions of poverty and violence with the new place of charity in personal salvation” (92). Unlike other incendiary pamphlets that were hawked in the streets of Paris, the Relations were placed by charitable organizations into the hands of individuals. Brown’s keen reading of these pamphlets and the resulting wave of charitable giving show that the Jansenist “interiorization of piety” (111) still imagined collective responses to individual suffering. 

The violence of the Revolution forms the basis of chapter three, which argues that the “Reign of Terror” was re-interpreted as terrifying via the construction of collective trauma in the Thermidorian regime. Brown presents prison memoirs and the mémoires justificatifs, personal narratives intended to confirm patriotism in the face of public accusation. Here, as in all other chapters, Brown’s examples are efficient and evocative. Of particular interest in this chapter is the demonstration that personal writing post-Thermidor attests to the resilience of the “cult of sensibility,” even in the wake of revolutionary politics of stoic republicanism. Here shines the reading of affect in a period that had supposedly banished appeals to emotion. 

The Commune and its images perform methodological magic on the previous chapters, as Brown isolates another thread that he traces throughout the book: mass media as a tool for the modernizing of the self. While nothing changes substantively in this final chapter—people are still experiencing the suffering of anonymous others—the ubiquity and diversity of print and visual culture in 1871 makes this a more satisfying study for any reader interested in mass culture. Notably, Mass Violence contributes to the historiography of visual culture during the Commune by analyzing official photographs taken to identify fédérés killed by Versaillais troops. Produced using the same technology used to make bourgeois cartes de visite, these images functioned as portable morgue galleries, and as reminders that collective trauma emerges when sympathy overcomes anonymity. 

While Brown remains sensitive to the genre and media of representations of violence, the examples presented in Mass Violence and the Self are used primarily to make historical arguments rather than literary ones. Reading against the grain, however, a reader interested in the history of literature or of visual and popular culture will find that each chapter also analyzes how social networks are produced by the myriad texts and images that fill these pages. Tucked within the considerable contributions that Mass Violence makes to historical studies can therefore be found a history of texts about violence and their networks of dissemination; original directions for future work. The major breakthrough of Brown’s work is to offer a methodological template that can extend to other violent moments and their representations. The reproducibility of his study makes this an ideal book for undergraduate coursework; its methodological complexity would offer gratifying challenges in graduate seminars.