Where does ‘charisma’ really come from? In the century since Max Weber’s adoption of the word, it has become an indispensable crutch for scholarly and popular thinking about authority. Yet despite the growing interdisciplinary literature on the concept, its history remains poorly understood and its debts to global intellectual traditions overlooked. This essay offers one route into this line of thinking by exploring a context that lurks unacknowledged in the background of the theory itself: that of Native American philosophy. Focusing on the Iroqouis concept of orenda, the paper shows how the stories this word tells can both re-think both nineteenth century transatlantic intellectual history and offer new ways of thinking about authority and power for our own era.
Respondent: Stephen W. Sawyer.
Tom Wright (www.tomfwright.academia.edu) is Reader in Rhetoric (English and American Studies) in the School of Media, Arts and Humanities, at the University of Sussex. He is a cultural historian of nineteenth century Britain and America, specialising in the role of rhetoric and speaking in politics, education and the history of ideas.
An elected fellow of the Royal Historical Society, Tom is the author of three books : ‘Transatlantic Rhetoric’ (Edinburgh UP, 2020) is a critical anthology of pivotal speeches from the American Revolution to the Suffragettes, complete with a series of extensive contextual essays. ‘‘Lecturing the Atlantic’ (Oxford UP, 2017) is a monograph offering a new reading of the phenomenon of Victorian popular lecturing. ‘The Cosmopolitan Lyceum’ (UMass, 2013) is a collection of essays bringing together scholars from multiple disciplines to think about the American lecture hall as a global cultural space.
He is currently working on two projects. For the first, he is Principal Investigator on ‘Speaking Citizens: The Politics of Speech Education 1850-Present’, a three year project (2020-23) funded by a grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council. He is leading a team of five interdisciplinary researchers from Oxford, Leeds, Edinburgh and Sussex to work with educators and partners such as the English Speaking Union and the All Party Parliamentary Group on Oracy to shape debates on citizenship and curricular reform. To find out more visit www.speakingcitizens.org.
His second project is a book entitled ‘Charisma Before Charisma: the Pre-History of Our Most Magnetic Idea’. The book offers a re-evaluation of Max Weber’s famous and misunderstood concept. Focusing on the century before the term’s modern currency, it offers a “rhetorical” pre-history of ideas about non-rational authority in nineteenth century British, American and French sociological, literary, ethnographic and scientific writing. Focusing on five pre-charismatic key words, the book offers a new vocabulary through which we can grapple with twenty-first century populism and democratic crisis.
Stephen W. Sawyer (https://www.aup.edu/profile/ssawyer) is the Ballantine-Leavitt Professor of History and Director of the Center for Critical Democracy Studies at AUP. He is a specialist in political history and theory, The core of his project articulates a history and theory of democracy as a mode of popular magistrature, administration and public regulation. He is the author of Demos Assembled :Democracy and the International Origins of the Modern State, 1840-1880 (University of Chicago Press, 2018). Demos Rising, the second volume, is under review.