Art and Literature

From aristocratic families to corporate tycoons: Modernity’s fantasies of perpetuity

“All happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Leo Tolstoy’s clever opening of Anna Karenina implies a shared understanding of what a family is, as if this concept were set in stone and immutable across time, space and cultures. 

The new book The Dynastic Imagination (2021) by Adrian Daub, professor of comparative literature and German studies and director of the Clayman Institute, offers a gateway for considering families and their representations in 19thcentury European discourses. Or to put it in Daub’s words, as he recently presented the work as part of the Celebrating Clayman Institute Authors series, the book is “an intellectual history of the family that is ultimately about how thinking about the family in the 19th century ended up being not very much about the family at all.”

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This topic may well sound removed from us, inhabitants of the 21st century, and from our daily experience. And yet, as Lauren Stone, assistant professor of German studies at the University of Colorado Boulder, pointed out in her response to the presentation, this book is very much relevant in a time in which gender and family studies are at the center of societal conversations and more specifically in college education. As anthropology has shown since it origins as a discipline, kinship is not only the basis of culture itself, but it plays a dual role as well: while it shapes society’s very structure, it also provides a space for transformation and renegotiation of society’s values. 

Even more to the point, in the last decades, both cognitive and literary studies have revealed how much our own thought processes are influenced and predetermined by given principles in close connection with family and kinship metaphors. Think of the ways in which children apprehend and organize the world surrounding them by associating elements and subjects in accordance with familial structures. This extends as well to adults, who also tend to think metaphorically of situations and objects in terms of kinship relations. [See for instance studies such as “Family Metaphors and Moral Intuitions”, or “The Metaphor of Family about Dying and Death”.]

Today, as the term “family” has become a fluid one, extended to welcome monoparental, same-sex, recomposed, childless families and so on, inquiring and identifying ways to think about shifts in family structures and in discourses pertaining to them has never been more relevant. 

Did the 20th century in general bring an end to the dynastic imagination? Daub writes that “What makes us moderns is that we lack the sort of dynastic imagination […] to imagine an endless series of successors going down through the millennia.” 

Daub’s book identifies a pivotal moment in early 19th century German discourses, when the nuclear family is opposed to the dynastic family, a divergence which pushed thinkers and writers to negotiate their ideas and values in the backdrop of dynastic fantasies. Daub takes up Hegel’s distinction, offered in his Elements of the Philosophy of Right (1820), between the nuclear family, based on feeling and emotion, and the dynasty, based on abstract loyalties and consanguinity. The spreading of the nuclear family as a concept (more than as a reality) fomented all sorts of anxieties in individuals, who would ask themselves, in Ruth Perry’s words, “To whom did one belong - to one’s family of origin or one’s conjugal or contractual family? To whom did one owe allegiance? Who had claims on one’s love and obedience? With whom should one share one’s resources?”  (Novel Relations ).

Works of the time reflected these anxieties in subtle ways, and Daub shows how a whole range of thinkers, including reactionary thinkers, but also more surprisingly revolutionary, feminist and gay writers, co-opted and sided with the dynastic fantasy. In point of fact, this “queer” structure, already a living ghost in the 19th century, offered alternative and perhaps better ways of thinking about familial structures for authors not conforming with heteronormative values. Its “ghostly” presence, moreover, which was felt and represented at once as devoid of and comprising all power, allowed to think against the grain of modernity as being only about progressIt is therefore hardly surprising that Daub opens his study of German 19th century families with a reference to Tomasi di Lampedusa’s novel The Leopard (1958). In this work, the Italian author highlights how Italian dynasties deprived of resources and ways to modernize themselves held tightly onto their power against the rise of modernity. In this sense, The Dynastic Imagination helps us understand not only family structures, but also how they “inform our broader sense of history.”

Furthermore, the questions asked by his respondents, Lauren Stone, Catriona MacLeod and Dustin Friedman, demonstrate how Daub’s approach proves useful not only for the socio-historical information it provides, but also for stimulating new ways of thinking about family in different contexts, times and cultures. 

MacLeod, Frank Curtis Springer and Gertrude Melcher Springer Professor in the College and the Department of Germanic Studies at the University of Chicago, offered another more “figurative” way of approaching Daub’s work, with an analysis of its book cover. The cover shows a Mirror (ca.1685-1700) by Johannes Hannart, which originally was supposed to hold a wedding portrait and later was repurposed as a mirror. Thus, here, MacLeod said: “We have the possibility of two things: first of all, the dynastic continuation, but also the thwarting of the dynastic continuation and also the projecting of the self into this empty mirror.” The thwarting of the dynasty as a generalized 19th century fashion raises questions of productivity, which Stone addressed in her response: How can the productivity or reproductivity of dynasties as a “queer” form be reconciled with the idea of failure? The question echoes Jack Haberstam’s hypothesis in The Queer Art of Failure: “All losers are the heirs of those who lost before them. Failure loves company.”

Dustin Friedman, associate professor of literature at American University, co-opted Daub’s approach and inquired whether there were a “Victorian British dynastic imagination?” He considered that the idea of “dynasty” was deployed in the form of colonial discourses, which, however, were usually conceived in bourgeois terms presenting England “as the stern but loving parent and the colony as the beloved but wayward children.” In the end, according to Friedman, British works in the Victorian era and in the early 20th century were more focused on individualistic drives and on the family romance.

Did the 20th century in general bring an end to the dynastic imagination? Daub writes that “What makes us moderns is that we lack the sort of dynastic imagination […] to imagine an endless series of successors going down through the millennia.” 

Perhaps it could be ventured that we don’t necessarily lack the dynastic imagination as a “fantasy of perpetuity,” but rather we have shifted it and have successfully applied it to corporations. It is indeed not surprising that part of the conversation after the conference revolved around Succession, HBO’s recent drama about corporate empire. There, to use Daub’s words, the strong dynastic desire of the paterfamilias is preventing capitalism from working, thus showing that the dynastic imagination still justifies its existence by contrast, albeit to a new opponent. If we consider our own fantasies of perpetuity, we soon realize that thinking about a world before or after Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Apple and others, to name only a few, is certainly possible and yet it may feel unimaginable. Still, these companies have not always been there, and they probably will, like aristocratic dynasties before them, disappear and fade into nothingness. Unless, given Facebook’s recent congressional hearings, they heed di Lampedusa’s lesson that “for everything to stay the same, everything must change.”