What is the self? Do we all have one? Is it best treated with Botox or with books? Is it grounded in genetic concrete or manufactured by cultural circumstances? How can you tell the ersatz from the genuine article–and who’s the best judge? Is having a self the same as having an identity, or are the two sequential, a successful excavation of one’s “inner essence” leading to association, political and otherwise, with a group of like-minded essences?
The questions may sound as if they’re lifted from a ditzy and dated issue of Psychology Today, but they are in fact subjects of heated debate in cutting-edge intellectual circles. Few historians (other than some queer ones) participate in such debates; most would claim that they’re above such trendy foolishness, though the real reason may be that historians are a stodgy bunch–they’re conservators, after all, and of The Past no less, that currently scorned, “irrelevant” territory.
But now along comes a young historian named Daniel Hurewitz. With his first full-length book, Bohemian Los Angeles (a guidebook preceded), he jumps feet first into the recondite realm of essences and identities, and does so with the aplomb of a philosopher manqué. Hurewitz’s impressive debut marks–to the extent one can ever predict such things–the arrival of a future scholar of the front rank. The imaginative boldness of Bohemian Los Angeles will inevitably draw counterfire. As I participate in that rebuttal, I hope the reader will keep in mind that I do so from an overall vantage point of admiration.
But let’s get down to it. Working with the sophistication of a seasoned comparative historian, though more lucid than most, Hurewitz traces and evaluates the intersecting histories of three epicenters–artists, Communists and homosexuals–that co-existed in the LA subdivision of Edendale over a forty-year span (roughly the 1920s through the ’60s). Hurewitz’s research on these communities has been deep and comprehensive enough to allow him to raise a set of interlocking questions about how these seemingly disparate communities shaped themselves and influenced one another.
Along the way he tramples rather audaciously on some pretty hallowed ground. He challenges the widely accepted notion, for example, that lesbian bar culture of some fifty years ago was a significant proto-political site for subsequent gay organizing. Hurewitz also takes issue with the widely held view that the emergence of a gay identity in the early twentieth century was closely linked to the rise of capitalism, which, so the argument has gone, allowed individuals to escape the close scrutiny of the family farm for the anonymity of cities–where endemic oppression further politicized them. He thinks the origins of identity politics lay deeper, “in a broad array of social arenas where fundamental questions about the self and politics” were being asked; in “thirdspace” geographical locations like Edendale, at the margins of society (often called “bohemia”), where the values of a dominant bourgeois cultural structure were being undermined and where “the inner life…had to become conceptualized as a foundation of self-hood.”
When dealing with the Communist enclave in Edendale, Hurewitz similarly argues (again, contrary to most historians) that the party created fertile soil in which individuals could examine and nurture their inner lives–in a manner comparable to the surrounding community of artists. Party members did not, in other words, surrender their individuality to the overarching need for a disciplined collective struggle against social injustice. “Edendale Communists,” Hurewitz argues, “cultivated a dynamic relationship between individuals and society that further transformed and politicized the quest for essence.” The search for an “authentic self,” in short, purportedly characterized all three Edendale communities and gave them a shared vision and purpose.