February 4, 2010
Keeping on the Sunny Side: Southern Traditionalism's Bid for Academic Respectability and Tolerance
— John Howell
According to a December 6, 2009, article for the Chronicle of Higher Education, entitled “Scholars Nostalgic for the Old South Study the Virtues of Secession, Quietly,” genteel southern traditionalism is having a coming out party. In the article, writer Ben Terris calls the attention of the Chronicle’s readership to the upcoming annual conference of the Abbeville Institute – “an association of scholars in higher education devoted to a critical study of what is true and valuable in the Southern tradition” – which will convene in early February 2010 and focus on the issues of secession and nullification. Importantly, Terris notes, the Institute is for the first time choosing to advertise its annual meeting, heretofore a closeted affair, publicly.
Any southern traditionalist organization resides somewhere on a continuum with proponents of a white supremacy-tinted political secessionism at one end; and, at the other, expositors of an Old South ideal that they see as cleft from the inessential legacies of race hatred, chattel slavery, and direct political action. The Abbeville Institute places itself at the latter end of this continuum: They claim a work that is “philosophic in nature, namely to explore the metaphysical image of things human and divine to which the Southern tradition bears witness.” While most southern traditionalist organizations are legatees of the Lost Cause – a civil religious discourse extant during the post-Civil War epoch in American history (roughly 1865-1920) that figures the American South as an embattled redeemer nation – the Abbeville Institute chooses to retrieve from the Lost Cause only the notion that the Old South ideal furnishes a spiritual principle, and an aesthetic sensibility, that ought be missionary in American society writ large. It claims to leave behind both the hope of a future political secession, and southern traditionalism’s historical association with white supremacy.
But despite Abbeville’s insistent language concerning its relationship to the Old South ideal, Terris’s article suggests that there is no small amount of anxiety concerning its debut in a broader academic public. Terris reports that Donald Livingston, the institute’s founding father and professor of philosophy at Emory University in Atlanta, declined to publish a complete group roster out of a concern for the potential professional implications of being on such a list, and Livingston himself was chary of sitting for the interview. One can read this anxiety on Livingston’s own face: Billy Howard’s photograph of Livingston, which appears atop the article, has Livingston breaching the window-framed boundary between the public, sunlit foreground of a weather-beaten barn wall and the dark background of the building’s interior (where the majority of his body, unseen, resides). He’s unsure of his hands. He appears discomfited, threatened, by the auditor’s gaze.
Interestingly, there is tension between the language Livingston uses, in the article, to describe the institute’s position relative to the wider academic world and the language used on the institute’s website to describe its mission. The website spurns the “ideologies of multiculturalism and political correctness,” which are quick to suspect any attempt to retrieve a southern tradition as an apologetic for slavery or racism, but in Terris’s article, Livingston leverages the very logic of multiculturalism in his bid for legitimacy and respectability. What the institute wants, it seems, is a seat at the table of cultural pluralism. It wants the heritors of a southern tradition to be permitted to speak in their own voices, to control their own narrative. Livingston figures southern traditionalism as the constitutive outside of a multicultural universal that fails on its own terms because it judges the perspective of southern traditionalists as unfit (unsafe?) for self-representation: “The Southern tradition as taught in the academy today, if taught at all, is studied mainly as a function of the ideological needs of others…It is not examined in terms of its own inner light. It is as if you had programs of Jewish studies explored from the point of view of Catholics, or worse, of Nazis.” When Livingston speaks of the southern tradition’s “inner light,” however, he evokes a notion of culture that harkens back to Matthew Arnold’s in Culture and Anarchy—wherein culture is a generic descriptor and Culture signifies a better-than-yours master culture, graced as it is with “sweetness and light”—thereby threatening the institute’s capacity to participate in, or to leverage, a logic that refuses the gradated arrangement of cultures.
It will be interesting to see the fruits of the Abbeville Institute’s newfound publicity – whether the fears of professional retribution will prove to have been warranted, or whether the advance publication of those fears will shame what the Institute sees as multiculturalism’s hypocrisy. And it will be interesting to see whether the Institute will regret forsaking the insular comfort of relatively private conferences with a camp meeting atmosphere for the chance at wider purchase.
Ben Terris, “Scholars Nostalgic for the Old South Study the Virtues of Secession, Quietly,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, December 9, 2009, http://chronicle.com/article/Secretive-Scholars-of-the-Old/49337/?sid=wb&utm_source=wb&utm_medium=en
Abbeville Institute webpage: http://www.abbevilleinstitute.org/about.php
Charles Reagan Wilson, Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause, 1868 – 1920 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1980).
Matthew Arnold, Culture and Anarchy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994).
John Howell is a Ph.D. student at the University of Chicago Divinity School writing a dissertation on the proper signification of the generic epithet, ‘Civil War literature’.