028: Paul Friedland, 43

Basic Facts

Teaching Position: Associate Professor, History Department, Bowdoin College
Area of Research: The French Revolution, modern France, the 18th century and the birth of the “age of reason”-the concept of modernity and its critics, and crime and punishment in modern Europe.
Education: Ph.D. in History, May 1995, University of California at Berkeley
Paul Friedland JPG Major Publications: Friedland is the author of Political Actors: Representative Bodies and Theatricality in the Age of the French Revolution (Cornell University Press, 2002) which was awarded the 2003 David Pinkney Prize and “Parallel Stages: Theatrical and Political Representation in Early Modern and Revolutionary France” in The Age of Cultural Revolutions: Britain and France, 1750-1820 , edited by Dror Wahrman and Colin Jones (University of California Press, 2002). Friedland is currently completing a manuscript tentatively entitled “Seeing Justice Done: The Theory and Practice of Spectacular Punishment in Old Regime and Revolutionary France.”
Awards: Friedland is the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships including:
David Pinkney Prize, Society for French Historical Studies. For best book of 2002 by a North American scholar in any field of French history (April, 2003);
ACLS Fellowship (January – December 2006);
NEH Fellowship (August, 2005 – May, 2006);
NEH Fellow, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton NJ (1997-98);
Newberry Library\Loyola University Summer Research Grant (Summer, 1996);
Mellon Foundation Dissertation Write-Up Fellowship (1994-95);
Bicentennial Fellowship (French-American Foundation award for dissertation research in France, 1991-92);
Fulbright Grant, finalist (declined, 1991-92);
Ehrman Fellowship (U.C. Berkeley, 1989-90);
Council of European Studies Pre-dissertation Research Grant (Summer, 1989);
University Fellowship, University of Chicago (1987-88).
Additional Info:
Formerly Assistant Professor, History Department, Loyola University of Chicago. (1995-1997), and Instructor, History Department, University of California at Berkeley. (1993, 1994).
Member, School of Social Science, Institute for Advanced Study; Princeton, New Jersey. (1997-1998)

Personal Anecdote

My Heroic Participation in the Revolution of 1991

As someone who studies the French Revolution, I’ve often found myself wondering what I might have done if fate had put me on this planet two centuries earlier and in the general vicinity of Paris. I don’t think I would have been one of the more extreme revolutionaries who were constantly demanding blood and heads. No, I think someone a bit more genteel would have been my style- someone like Camille Desmoulins, who could harangue the masses as well as anyone, but who still received plenty of dinner invitations.

The truth is, though, that I got a pretty good inkling what kind of revolutionary I might have made about fifteen years ago. And I’m not sure Desmoulins would have been proud of me.

The year was 1991, and my soon-to-be-wife and I were on a pre-honeymoon trip to Russia. She happens to be a Russian historian, and I had spent a semester in Leningrad (now, as I result of the mini-revolution in which I was about to play a glorious role, St. Petersburg). So, Russia was a place we both had ties to, and seemed a natural enough place to have a pre-honeymoon.

We had taken an overnight train from Moscow to Leningrad, and arrived in the city, tired and a little dazed. Maybe that’s why neither of us noticed anything unusual as we made our way to the Astoria hotel. The Astoria, by the way, is a grand old hotel where Hitler, a little too optimistically, had planned to throw his victory party once he had conquered the city. My wife and I thought we’d use the excuse of a pre-honeymoon to weasel the extra cash out of our parents so that we could stay somewhere just a bit more swanky than our usual graduate-student lodgings.

In retrospect, I should have known that something was up when I went down to the front desk to complain about our dismal room with a view of the air shaft. I was all ready to go into a song and dance about our pre-honeymoon and all that, but the clerk just gave me a dazed look and forked over the key to a nicer room with a view of the square. No discussion. No argument. Now that sort of thing never happened in the old Soviet Union.

As soon as we’d deposited our luggage in the new, nicer room, I flipped on the TV. “Hey,” I said to my wife, “There’s something wrong with the TV. Swan Lake is on every channel.” She tried the remote, and sure enough, no matter what channel we tried, it was Swan Lake. We tried the radio: Triumphal, patriotic music was on every station. It was then that we noticed that people had begun to mass on the square below our hotel room (a square that just happened to house the offices of the city government). Suddenly, a voice came on the radio. My Russian wasn’t good enough to grasp every word, but the gist of it was: “Citizens, all is secure. Everything is under control. Have faith in the government which will restore order and security.” We looked at each other. Something was up. We flung open the windows and began reading the hastily-written signs that people were carrying: “No to totalitarianism,” “Freedom & Democracy.” “We won’t go back!” And then, as if on cue, a man on a white horse rode into the square waving an enormous tricolor flag – now, the flag of the Russian Federation, but then a strange anachronism. I had never seen it before, and with my expert knowledge of flags and history, I immediately informed my wife that the Dutch had invaded the Soviet Union. I think she just hushed me, not bothering to explain that the pre-Revolutionary Russian flag had been designed by Peter the Great on the model of the Dutch flag, but with the colors in a slightly different order.

I’ll make a long, story short: Within minutes we were out in the square, and were told by gathering protesters that Gorbachev had been kidnapped by hard-liners who were attempting to restore the old order and end his experiment with glasnost. “We will not go back,” a young man explained to us. “We will fight. We will revolt.” He had said the magic word. The wheels in my brain started turning. “It’s a revolution!” I screamed to my wife. And then I added “Follow me!” She had no intention of following me, of course, because there we were on the main square of Leningrad at the very center of political activity, and there was nowhere I could possibly go where she might want to follow. I looked around the square trying to figure out how I might effectively harangue the masses (this was going to be difficult, as I had a bad habit of confusing the Russian words for “freedom” and “Saturday.” But I thought I could pull it off). It was then that I noticed that a portion of the crowd was busy constructing barricades. They had overturned cars and buses, and were busy planning to protect the square from army troops that were rumored to be on their way. This really was my chance! It was July 1789 all over again: Army troops on the outskirts, ready to invade the city. A populace desperate for freedom from tyranny, massed on the public square just waiting for a leader to show them the way. This was my cue. I just needed to find a high spot and start talking. I gathered my thoughts: No to authority! Yes to Saturday! etc. etc. My wife was making her way to the barricades, talking to people, reveling in the moment. And I, I…. I had begun to wonder: If the troops came in, then all the stores would probably close. And I was almost out of saline solution for my contact lenses. Now, you might think this is a trivial detail, but I had forgotten to bring a pair of glasses. And I’m fairly near-sighted. So really, it was pretty important. Okay, maybe not of urgent, revolutionary importance, but not exactly irrelevant. So, that is the background of how it came to pass that I found myself shouting up to my wife, as she clambered on top of the barricades in the middle of a revolution, “Wait, I need to go find saline solution before the stores close.” Her look of complete, withering disdain brought home to me the fact that I was probably not destined to be a latter-day Camille Desmoulins. (She married me anyway, and we now have four kids, so I’m guessing the disdain wasn’t as complete and withering at it seemed on that August day).

I did learn a few things that day. I learned that when you’re in an enormous crowd being harangued by speakers (speakers who apparently do not wear contacts, and so have the luxury of being able to drone on and on without a care in the world), that you can’t actually hear anything. All those people seemingly cheering and shouting in approval? It’s just a lot of people asking simultaneously “What did they say?” And I learned that, for the most part, in the middle of a revolution, you don’t really have any clue what’s going on. We managed to find someone with a satellite connection, and marveled at CNN’s ability, thousands of miles away in Atlanta, to give seeming coherence to the chaos and confusion that surrounded us. The truth is that if nobody really knows what’s going on, you can spin events as you like, and no one can actually contradict you.

And, sad to say, I guess I learned that I’m probably a better student of revolutions than a maker of them. I do console myself, though, with the thought that it didn’t turn out to be a real revolution in the end. I think the Russians now commemorate the events of August 21 as “flag day.” But who’s to say that if I’d had plenty of saline solution on hand or had remembered to pack my glasses in the first place, that I wouldn’t have found my audience. If things had played themselves out just a little differently, Russia today might be the only place in the world with a week full of Saturdays.

Quotes

By Paul Friedland

  • “Even while the revolutionaries sang the praises of `democracy,’ they constructed, brick by brick, a political edifice predicated on the exclusion from active political power of the very people in whose name their government claimed to rule. And it is a curious fact that the rhetoric of democracy reached a crescendo precisely when political practice was at its most despotic: The politicians of the Terror proclaimed the will of the people to be triumphant, and claimed to be acting in an almost transparent relationship with that will, even while the various avenues through which that will had previously made itself manifest were being shut down. ‘Democracy,’ as it was defined during the Terror, seemed to call for the people’s complete acquiescence, rather than their direct participation. And here, far from being an aberration, the essential logic of the Terror is fully consistent with the other régimes of the Revolutionary period. Although many of the important political figures of the Terror may very well  JPGhave criticized representative democracy and extolled the virtues of direct democracy, if one looks at its political practice rather than its rhetoric, the Terror was, like the regimes that came before and after it, a government in which political actors acted, and political audiences watched, preferably in silence.

    …. [But] this is not … the story of how wily politicians hoodwinked the French people into believing that they were being freed, even as they laid the foundation for oppression. In fact, I am certain that no one was more convinced of the Revolution’s rhetoric of liberty, justice, and natural rights than the very people who spoke the words. And as for those who found themselves excluded from a political process performed in their name, they seemed only dimly aware of the fact that they had been removed from the political stage. The problem, then, is decidedly more complex than one that can be explained according to the simple dynamic of oppressors and oppressed. This utter conviction on the part of the political actors that they were the servants of the people, and were acting in their best interest; this willingness on the part of the political audience to sit back and partake vicariously in action from which they had been excluded; and the impenetrable yet invisible wall that divided these actors and these spectators — all of this seems to have very little to do with outright political subjugation. This is not oppression; this is theater.” — Paul Friedland in “Political Actors: Representative Bodies and Theatricality in the Age of the French Revolution”About Paul Friedland

  • “Paul Friedland has developed a strong and provocative argument about how changes in abstract notions of representation – how one thing stands for another – shaped the emergence of new forms of political thought. He has uncovered remarkable and surprising parallels between changing ideas of representation in politics and in the world of theater, and also between the ideas of counterRevolutionary royalists on the one hand and the most radical Jacobins on the other. He uses these parallels to show why liberal ideas of representative democracy had such difficulty gaining acceptance in Revolutionary France..” — The New Republic reviewing “Political Actors: Representative Bodies and Theatricality in the Age of the French Revolution”
  • “This is a book about a major conceptual development in political theory. And in terms of both argument and method, it is strikingly original and thoughtful. By focusing on an issue that was central to eighteenth-century epistemology and cultural life as well as democratic thought, Friedland succeeds in making concrete what would seem otherwise to be simply a metaphor: that revolutionary politics was a modern drama. And that makes this ambitious book itself an impressive performance.” — Sophia Rosenfeld, American Historical review, Oct 2003 reviewing “Political Actors: Representative Bodies and Theatricality in the Age of the French Revolution”
  • “Theoretical changes in theatrical and political representation also took place during the final decades of the Old Regime…but the shift in political representation was institutionalized in a single year….Friedland achieves an impressive effect by anchoring this epistemological shift to the outbreak of the Revolution and by constructing a narrative of theatrical representation that also centers on the same year. The notorious political innstability of the Revolution, and the turbulence in the French public theaters of the 1790s, were manifestations of this epochal shift in French strategies of representation. Thre argument, elegant and powerful, is made even more compelling by the clarity of Friedland’s prose and the depth of this research.” — Jeffrey Ravel, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. H-France Book Review, June 2003 reviewing “Political Actors: Representative Bodies and Theatricality in the Age of the French Revolution”
  • “This innovative contribution to French cultural and intellectual history elegantly juxtaposes the theory and practice of eighteenth-century drama with the rules governing political life before and during the Revolution. Bringing together these two domains, Paul Friedland documents the exclusion of ‘the public’ –as both spectators and citizens– from the newly separate stage and political assembly. This unusual coupling of drama and politics allows Friedland to bring fresh and provocative insights to our understanding of how public life was transformed during the most momentous years in French history. The book also implicitly invites us to reflect on the many overlaps between politics and entertainment in our own era.” — Sarah Maza, Northwestern University reviewing “Political Actors: Representative Bodies and Theatricality in the Age of the French Revolution”
  • “Political Actors is one of the most important books written about the French Revolution in the past ten years. Paul Friedland advances a genuinely new and provocative interpretation of the Revolution as a whole.” — David A. Bell, Johns Hopkins University “Political Actors: Representative Bodies and Theatricality in the Age of the French Revolution”
  • “Political Actors offers new insights on the important question of political representation before and during the French Revolution. It also provides innovative material on pamphlet literature and theatrical history.” — Marie Helene Huet, Princeton University “Political Actors: Representative Bodies and Theatricality in the Age of the French Revolution”
  • “This is a bold, ambitious, and cogently argued book. It should become required reading for anyone interested in the idea of representation or in the political culture of the Old Regime and the French Revolution.” — Keith Michael Baker, Stanford University “Political Actors: Representative Bodies and Theatricality in the Age of the French Revolution”
  • “Interesting course. Friedland’s approach is straightforward, but his lectures are informative and entertaining. He is simultaneously relaxed and serious. I recommend taking a course from him. French Revolution was great.”… “Great lectures, especially the days he brings in the box o’ joe from Dunkin’ Donuts”… “Great lectures. Nice guy.”… “Top five at Bowdoin.”… “A reason to be a history major.”… “kept students engaged, felt like I knew the material extremely well because his lectures were so interesting, tells hilarious stories at the beginning of class.” — Anonymous Students
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