THE 19TH CENTURY, violent and progressive and anxious and confident all at once, seems to be getting closer to us the further it recedes into the past. Many of the defining characteristics of the age, roughly bracketed in Europe and the United States by the French Revolution and World War I, are no longer so foreign. We, too, know what accelerated technological change feels like, how it can rearrange the experience of reality and unsettle the future of work. We have our own callous oligarchs and grotesque inequalities. We are readjusting to the geopolitical jockeying of rival powers, to the brittleness of our inherited structures for international peace. Like the men and women of the 19th century, we can sense that our world is both hyper-connected and coming apart at the seams. In 1895, Oscar Wilde skewered his own paradoxical century as “an age of surfaces” in which a veneer of rationalist optimism concealed subcutaneous truths: hypocrisy, suffering, cruelty, resentment.
Holly Case, an associate professor of history at Brown University, has wagered on the surfaces. Her ingenious and often demanding new book, The Age of Questions, is concerned less with the century’s lived experience and more with the language used by its leaders to understand and change it. The thorniest challenges, she shrewdly observes, were often framed as questions. The “social question” pondered the status of the working poor, how to soften their misery and either prevent — or provoke — a revolution. The “Jewish question” assessed the possibility of assimilation or integration. The “Eastern question” was frequently shorthand for the gradual disintegration of the Ottoman Empire. Debated by prime ministers and pamphleteers alike, questions were a widespread tool for structuring problems, from strategic puzzles and social upheaval to literary arguments (the Shakespeare question), professional regulations (the dentist question), and much else. “[A]ll the most important questions of Europe and humankind in our day are forever being raised simultaneously,” Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky commented in 1877. The conundrum, he continued, was to figure out precisely when and why all these questions had exploded onto the scene.
Taking up Dostoyevsky’s riddle, Case has produced a path-breaking account of the question form: its spectacular rise in the 1830s, its fall from grace after World War II, and (she hints) its possible resurrection in our own time. Roving and ambitious, with an unusual literary-philosophical sensibility, the book itself recalls the 19th century. And the full title is positively dizzying: The Age of Questions: Or, A First Attempt at an Aggregate History of the Eastern, Social, Woman, American, Jewish, Polish, Bullion, Tuberculosis, and Many Other Questions Over the Nineteenth Century, and Beyond. Joining erudition with a poetic if occasionally enigmatic style, this book shivers with the restless spirit of the age it describes.
The great queries of the 19th century resonate still. It was by framing issues as questions, after all, that men and women went about resolving the essential problem of modern politics: how to convert thought into action, bridging the gap between reality and ideals. But questions also whisper of a lost world. At the heart of this story lies the conviction — held by the leading lights of the period no less than Case herself — that political language matters, that the words we use to interpret the world are markers of possibility for finally changing it. That, in short, the frame of things defines our vision. Whether or not this remains true for a postmodern age of information overload, industrial-strength deceit, and atrophied political imagination is a question for us to answer.
In the beginning was the American question. In the 1770s, as the inhabitants of the 13 Colonies clamored to be heard in London, British politicians began thinking about the problem as a query. Edmund Burke called the tensions “American questions” in a 1774 address to Parliament. Before long, parliamentarians and journalists were widely invoking “the grand American question” and “the question of sovereignty over America.” That question was answered by revolution and independence. Next came the bullion and India questions, parliamentary discussions over currency depreciation and the expanding authority of the British East India Company. The question form, then, first arrived as a peculiar kind of legislative convention — a formulaic way for British politicians to confront opponents, organize debates, and make decisions.
By the 1830s, questions had broken away from their British origins to shape political issues across the European continent. Suddenly, men and women from Paris to Moscow were discussing questions Belgian and Jewish and Polish and maritime, Algerian and Eastern and labor and Greek. And they were doing so within the parameters of a new global public sphere that made such transnational arguments possible. After the final defeat of Napoleon’s armies in 1815, European statesmen sought to guarantee order through diplomacy and cooperation — a system known as the Concert of Europe. Together with the expansion of periodicals and the press, the slow strengthening of parliaments and voting rights, and a rapid-fire sequence of startling international incidents, most of all revolutions in France, Belgium, and Greece, an arena emerged for which the question form was particularly well suited.
After all, the great questions of the 19th century were not genuine inquiries. They were not open-ended explorations seeking knowledge and truth. They were weapons. To reframe a complex issue as a question was a powerful way to define the terms of debate, foreclose alternatives, and advance a preferred course of action. As Marx succinctly put it, “the formulation of a question is its solution.” Regarding the Eastern question, pulpy German novelist Karl May noted in 1882 that “whoever can first define it gets to solve it.” Much like the -gate suffix does today, questions instantly organized the public’s understanding of a problem. Rather than implying scandals or cover-ups, however, questions told confident stories about how even the most overwhelming dilemmas might be analyzed, understood, and resolved. Questions were tools of progress. Those who posed them, Case says, “were prophets with one foot in the present and another in some imagined future.”
As the century drew to a close, questions gradually lost their force and urgency. But they returned with a vengeance after World War I and the Versailles peace settlement, when the undoing of empires and redrawing of borders made dramatic change seem once again possible, even desirable. Nobody was better at putting them to work than Adolf Hitler, the cruel yet natural heir to the long age of questions. That the Third Reich sought a Final Solution to the Jewish question is well known. But the Nazis also provoked a cluster of new territorial and ethnic problems as they consolidated power, each one framed (as Case astutely notes) as a question to be solved: the Saar question, the Austrian question, the Danzig question, the Sudeten-German question. Hitler argued that German greatness hinged on their simultaneous resolution. “Each of us will pass,” he said in 1933, “but Germany must live, and in order for her to live all questions of the day must be overridden and certain pre-conditions established.”
Throughout their lifespan, questions were effective devices for those determined to bring about revolutionary change. They helpfully translated the complexities of human life into simple problems to be clinically and rationally resolved. It is perhaps not all that surprising that they came to serve the megalomaniacs of the 20th century — or that the question form was so definitively forgotten after the Holocaust. “[T]he path to war and mass violence was paved with questions,” Case concludes. “The Final Solution was no perverse coda to the age of questions but rather its fullest realization.”
From the 1770s to the 1970s, questions lived mostly in pamphlets and treaty negotiations and speeches and debates. That’s where Case has gone to find them, exhaustively digging through the archives of 11 countries and sources in 16 different languages. This is research of staggering breadth, certainly of a piece with the sprawling, interconnected 19th century. But this enormous scope seems necessary for the question form, too, a species of political language distinguished by especially great hubris and ambition during what was already, as Eric Hobsbawm wrote, “an age of superlatives.” And the longer certain questions lingered, the more universal and grandiose the solutions became. Intractable issues like European cooperation or the status of ethnic minorities appeared to demand not minor adjustments but rather the violent creation of a completely new world.
Reconstructing the vast question economy is a breathtaking scholarly feat, though it sharpens the contours of the 19th century more than it redraws them entirely. The question form ascended because it was brisk and snappy and able to generate headlines in a world choked with information. But it also appears to have tapped into deeper currents. Questions channeled not a particular political ideology so much as the spirit of the times — a rationalist, scientific, often masculine sensibility that ruled the century with confidence and a belief in progress. “With a little patience and attention,” noted one representative figure in 1865, writing on the Hungarian question, “everything that can be known […] can be simplified and solved.” Driven by quiet arrogance, questions wondered what was to be done about a given problem; it was assumed both that a solution existed and that those posing the query were, naturally, the ones to bring it about. This bourgeois sensibility, the engine of the century’s breakneck technological and industrial development, must be part of what made questions so authoritative. They are what it sounds like when power speaks.
Has the question form returned? Case suggests that maybe it has, detecting among recent geopolitical events a growing tendency to frame complex problems as queries. She finds Vladimir Putin discussing “the Ukrainian question” as well as journalists and critics analyzing the English, Irish, Scottish, Catalonian, and migrant questions. We might add the Russian question to this list. “Could it be that we are now on the cusp of another age of questions?” Case wonders. “Is it indeed part of the past, or are we still living in it?”
If the magic of questions lies in the form itself, this may be so. But it is difficult to read Case’s brilliant account and not sense that it is really about a certain kind of political imagination — one that we have mostly lost, for better and for worse. As citizens at least, we have generally turned away from the world-making assurance that shaped the age of questions. We know more than ever how our problems are inextricably tangled and interrelated, how our decisions affect the planet and each other. And our political cultures have been scarred by the violent totalitarian projects of the 20th century no less than by the constricting force of neoliberalism. We have generally come to favor tweaks and fixes over transformative, paradigm-breaking political change.
There are notable exceptions to this humbling of our imaginations, from the brash, disruptive faith of Silicon Valley to the burn-it-down bravado of the American right. For the most part, however, we have come to meet our political challenges with less certainty than our 19th-century forebears. Tracing the history of questions, then, is more than an exercise in form. It is an opportunity for us to hold our own political sensibilities up to the light and think anew about what it means to have the confidence to change the world.