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Brian Blanchfield || Onto an Idea: The History of The History of Ideas, 1973-2012


In a bookstore in Providence, Rhode Island, in the summer of 2006 I think, I found for remarkably cheap all four volumes of a reference work published in 1973, The Dictionary of the History of Ideas. I brought the twenty pounds of learnedness back down to Brooklyn, where I was living. The spine of Volume II reads “Despotism to Law, Common.” The set has lined the heaviest boxes I have since moved with me to Los Angeles and Missoula and Boston and Tucson. Apparently, these particular books were de-acquisitioned from the technology library at Bell Telephone Laboratories in Whippany, New Jersey, the people who brought you the laser, the transistor, and C++ in the 20th century.


The 2,400-page encyclopedia, edited by a philosopher named Philip Wiener in consultation with, among others, George Boas, Meyer Schapiro, Angus Fletcher, and Isaiah Berlin, means to chronicle—one idea at a time—the history of how people have constructed thought and organized their world by it. There are hundreds of entries, on Allegory, Chance, Entropy, Irony, Pietism, Totalitarianism, Vox Populi, et cetera, and each idea’s history is traced inevitably from the pre-Socratics to the New Left, (when it was still new). Part of my developing attraction to the work was what it seemed to say about 1973 itself: this sort of structuralist fantasy of a cultural epistemology, meant to create a wide new foundation for interdisciplinarity, came to strike me as enormously ambitious, touchingly obsolete, analog, optimistic. It seemed to me an impossible venture to undertake in the 21st century, except by crowd sourcing. It came to represent a last push of humanism or something.


What was 1973 America? Sesame Street and Christian tolerance, soft sciences, right relation, discover yourself, Carol Burnett, and what color is your parachute. Woodward and Bernstein, Roe v. Wade, Billie Jean King d. Bobby Riggs, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, the end of the draft, and homosexuality removed from the DSMII. What has it meant to be born in the year that seems, if you’re going to plot one, an apex of popular trust in the common good and individual agency? What has happened since, maybe particularly for the life of the mind?


Almost right away, I trusted somehow that new poems might be got from immersion in the language of this old endeavor. After several months of experimenting, I decided to be prescriptive about it: reread a particular entry, internalize it as best I could, and choose a key formulation of fact to write at the top left of a large sheet of paper—dishwrap from Ikea, actually (a surviving outgrowth of New Left utilitarianism)—and at the bottom right I would find an aphorism from the present intellectual climate, often a specious or bothersome platitude, that related to the topic of the entry. I got good at listening for these: Thomas Friedman, Malcolm Gladwell, Jill Bolte Taylor, Adam Kirsch, Temple Grandin. Yes (is that awful?), Temple Grandin, Antonin Scalia. What came between, the poem, would have to materialize between the two parameters, the epigraph and the post-graph. These I understood as the poem’s givens, and taking shape between them, a midst, a milieu.


Milieu, literally “middle place,” (I think of the middle distance of a landscape painting), of course, more commonly means a select part of a population, an us or a them. In the hunch to compose on these cheap broadsheets with so much open white (gray) space, I think I knew early on that I wanted to take this resumed, “updated” history of an idea, since 1973, and spatialize the span of it, derive a notion of landscape, a scene, a theatre for a milieu gathering loosely there. In their setup, the poems, like idylls, came to have an aspect of locus amoenus, a fictive impulse. And the series developed other compositional guidelines, or perforce invitations: e.g., in each poem there may be a we, deeply underway; also a ceremony of sorts. Clapping out dust from the proving trays; gathering downhill to dance on the jetty on Island Day; guarding in shifts a sink in the earth, one that vocalizes; something about swabbing the birthday boy with falcon down.


When there were enough, in various small ways I returned the poems back to their reference origins (and their fantasy structuralism); arranged them alphabetically; and added an endnote in which I could credit the idea usage panel and play dolls a bit with the deliberative body (Justice Pastor Rick Warren and Justice Kenny Goldsmith trading opinions of the court with Justice Scalia)—here at the near shore of my lifespan thus far, far from the tricky outset of “Education”: What Heidi’s grandfather learned from the eagle, he taught himself.


Thank you, people of Whippany, for the idea. Thank you, Providence, way out in the middle between Abstraction and Zeitgeist.

Tucson, 2013

Brian Blanchfield is the author of two books of poetry, Not Even Then (University of California Press) and A Several World (Nightboat Books, 2014) and a chapbook, The History of Ideas: 1973-2012 (Spork Press). He lives in Tucson, where he is at work on a book of nonfiction prose sundries, essays on subjects from Br’er Rabbit to Man Roulette.
You can buy The History of Ideas: 1973-2012 from us here.