Three uses of persona

Terms often have a longer and far more intricate history than is suggested by their current usage, framed by the extended present of scholarly debates.2 The recent proliferation of the term ‘persona’ in the history of science and scholarship, however, owes much to Lorraine Daston and Otto Sibum, who in 1998 launched a collective research project on ‘scientific personae’.3 And yet, by now at least three distinct notions of persona are in circulation. I shall sketch them briefly before focusing on the one I have found most useful in my work. I shall use the example of an early modern scholar groping for a viable persona to highlight the utility of this concept, and conclude by signalling some recurring problems and limitations of the concept of ‘persona’.

1) In current common usage, ‘persona’ is shorthand for a person’s individual image, typically an important person’s image, cultivated through more or less visible efforts. Madonna, for instance, has crafted – and skilfully refashions and maintains – such a persona; politicians, for their part, spend a great deal of money designing and disseminating personae.4 Cultivating such a persona, as a rule, is a social privilege, almost a form of self-branding. ‘Persona’ here stands for the unique image of a person, partly moulded through his or her own efforts. This use can be traced to literary studies (where one would distinguish between the author as a person and his or her persona constructed by the text) and has established itself in media and cultural studies where it draws attention to the configuring of a public figure and its performative dimension.

The prevalence of this sense of the term owes much to the growing awareness of the strategic importance of impression management – no longer merely a critical concept in Erving Goffman’s micro-sociology, but a distinct area of specialisation, a commercialised service.5 As the terms ‘image’ and ‘self-image’ gained currency in the early 1960s, sociologists traced their origin to market research and market psychology.6 It is largely equivalent to what is meant by ‘self’ in Stephen Greenblatt’s Renaissance Self-Fashioning.7 ‘Persona’ in this sense tends to fluctuate between projected image (‘impression management’, maintaining a recognisable personal public image), and personal makeup (for example, distinctive habits and embodied dispositions), or some privileged dimension identified with one’s very ‘essence’ (the ‘self’) – and sometimes conflates them. While self-image is of course part and parcel of one’s makeup, the analytical distinction remains essential if persons are not to be reduced to their self-myths.

Even such individually tailored personae, however, must incorporate pre-existing prototypes, or at least elements of traditional templates, in order to be recognisable and memorable. The two other concepts of persona with which I shall mostly be concerned below refer to such types rather than to the singular image of a particular person; they use ‘persona’ in the less common sense of a recognisable template for persons; such a template relates to persona in the sense of a singular self-image, much as a model relates to a particular text.

2) The second notion of the term persona concerns ‘what it takes to be’ a philosopher, a historian, a scholar and so forth. This is a set of regulative ideals made flesh (at least partly)8, an exemplification of a philosophical stance, of one’s commitment to basic values9, or of the epistemic virtues cherished and cultivated within a specific scholarly community.10 It finds its use especially in recent contributions to the history of thought and scholarship where, traditionally, images of disembodied knowledge and an exclusive focus on doctrine had marginalised interest in images of the knowing subject and philosophical prescriptions for leading one’s life.11 Here, persona is conceived as exemplifying doctrines (for example in the case of moral philosophy) or as a set of virtues deemed necessary for engaging in scholarly practice (precise observation, withdrawal of judgment, objectivity and so forth).

3) The third notion of persona is broader and more heteronomous than the second. I shall try to explicate this sense of the term, which is very much akin to Daston and Sibum’s suggestions, and seek to draw some practical lessons. Its use does not entail a commitment to any general theory or research programme. It is, at least in my usage, a relatively simple tool that can be deployed in combination with a variety of others. It offers no answers but helps us formulate questions.

As in the second sense, persona here denotes not an individual self-image, but a generic one. Thus, it is not the image of Leonardo da Vinci, but the templates – the inspired painter, the humanist – that he assumed and partly reshaped. Templates of this sort function as an essential cultural resource for forging personae. Such fashioning might be accomplished by others, and if need be, after the fact. Did Dante have a beard? If he was a philosopher, surely he must have had a beard.12 Persona in this third sense need not coincide with any ideal espoused within a given community, derived from the proper ‘office’ of, say, the philosopher or the scientist. It might partly reflect such ideals, but as a cultural model, it is shaped by larger and diverse forces. It can also be ascribed by others, imposed on its bearers and become the obligatory counter-gift offered to society by practitioners seeking social recognition. Hence the ‘hybrid character of the persona concept’.13

Such personae are not invented by individuals out of whole cloth. Rather, they predate any single actor, though one may refashion them in the wearing. Established fields of practice are often already populated by existing characters that one has to take into account in fashioning oneself in their image. Thus, Lisa Jardine’s masterful Erasmus, Man of Letters considers the eponymous figure’s efforts to craft and circulate his image (the persona in our first sense) on the basis of ‘readily available models’ (personae in our third sense) such as the Church Father, primarily Jerome, as well as ‘the civic hero’ of Greece and Rome. By showing how Erasmus’s image itself became a model – ‘a type and figure of the humanistic man of letters, the model for the detached and disinterested pursuit of learning’ – Jardine has provided us with an exemplary case study of the emergence of a model, a persona, embodied in a singular person.14

While at times a persona might be closely associated with a professional role or an institutional setting, the concept is broader than any single office or task.15 The medieval persona of the knight, for instance, is not exhausted by the relevant rights and obligations to which it pertains. In like manner, it would be difficult to pin down the persona of the entrepreneur, yet its valence in contemporary culture can hardly be denied. Thus a persona in this sense can be considered a cultural institution: while anchored to a specific field of practice or an institutional setting, it is usually not formed by actors in this field alone. Instead, its contours are cast by several others; it circulates across milieux and might be recognised by laypersons.16

Cultural models matter. They frame orientations and expectations, and define courses of action (without necessarily making them available for differently positioned agents). The persona of the experimentalist, for instance, was only established over time in academic institutions and particular disciplines; its consolidation opened for some experimentalists new venues and increased their chances of gaining recognition and authority.17 At the same time, it would not make sense to expect personae to bear the entire explanatory burden of accounting for social processes. Personae do not bring about formal institutions; their emergence ought not to be confused with the social processes that make it possible for people to appropriate them effectively.

The notion of persona is intuitive to anyone who considers that any account of practice must make at least some reference to culture. If we understand culture as primarily a toolbox, comprised of sign-systems and meanings, but also models for action (the ‘how-to-do-what concept of culture’)18, it seems only natural to think about models of and for persons in addition to models of practices and relationships (obligatory gestures, pre-fabricated scripts). This is not some sort of a culturalist magical formula for bypassing the intricacies of social history. Situated practices with all their complexity and contradictions can no more be derived from scripts than can persons be reduced to personae. Yet crafting viable accounts of social action requires taking into account pre-existing models, options and scripts – structured repertoires.19 Such repertoires – in our case, the range of existing personae – are partly shaped by prevailing social relations: some groupings do not have a recognised persona; some actors cannot easily shake off the burden of an ascribed persona (‘a stereotype’) and cope with its ambivalence (think of ‘rustics’20, or the Renaissance ‘Learned Lady’21). At the same time, personae are not epiphenomenal reflections of social conditions; as cultural models, for example, they can outlive the social groups that once inhabited them.22 Whether individuals take up a persona on their own, assisted by others or against their will; what personae are available and which are actually accessible to women and men and which conditions enable them to assume them; what leeway they have to adapt a persona and to adapt themselves to it – all these issues are grist to the mill of social analysis, for reconstructing social relationships, particular trajectories and relations of power. Cultural repertoires do not dispense with such questions; on the contrary, they set them into sharper relief.

In a seminal article published in 1923, Boris Tomashevsky anticipated in significant respects the study of personae as cultural templates. Tomashevsky discussed the futility of trying to debunk venerable authors’ embellished biographies by recovering their actual lives, demonstrating that such biographies were often themselves literary constructs, inseparable from writing, and eventually even function as templates for how to lead a writer’s life. A codified, partly ascribed biography, a culturally specific template for being a poet (including elements such as unrequited love or long incubation), was itself a meaningful fact of the history of literature. Tomashevsky considered irrelevant the debates on whether or not authors’ biographies were germane to the history of literature in general. For him, under specific historical circumstances, an author’s life – stylised, ascribed, invented – became part of his or her literary work. The relationship between authors’ biographies and literary production varied historically: for the Romantics for instance, biography validated literature; authors of the Pushkin era, he claims, had ‘group created biographies’, sustained by a network of correspondence while making each other the subject of their poems. Some of the Futurists, for their part, held their lives themselves to be literary constructs, hardly distinguishable from their works.23

To be sure, lives and works are configured differently in the worlds of literature and scholarship, but Tomashevsky’s point remains valuable: not only do personae change historically, say, as an image of scholarly withdrawal and ostentatious rejection of social conventions is challenged by a stress on politeness and social competence, but the whole architecture – the relation between lives and works, between persons and personae – is likewise subject to change.24 It is entirely possible, for instance, that the strategic importance of cultivating a proper scholarly persona would recede with the growing weight of formal institutions and scholarly expertise – a form of delimited authority, particular to specifiable domains. In this vein, it seems for instance reasonable to assume (though this need not be the case) that with growing professionalisation – and as William Clark has argued, with the concomitant separation of home and work encouraged by the institutionalisation of research universities – more limited aspects of the person would be considered relevant to claims for scholarly authority. In other words, instead of expecting the whole person to embody a collective ethos, a professional ethics would be concerned with more circumscribed areas of behaviour.25 If a growing autonomy of scientific communities is the flipside of professionalisation, one could expect a narrower, more bounded and at the same time more binding persona – a circumscribed template for appropriate behaviour on the part of practitioners of science, perhaps not even amounting to fully-fledged persona, rather than the persona typical of pre-modern scholars, bearing on such things as attire and dietary habits, family life, sociability and confessional allegiance.26

Persona, Role, Mask

Daston and Sibum have usefully suggested that a persona is more enduring than a social role, assumed and shed from one social situation to the next.27 Nonetheless, like the concept of a social role, it leaves open the question how deeply such ‘character masks’ transform their bearers. A persona can become the cherished core of identity, but at times might indeed function as a mere mask, or again, as an intermediate object between individuals and their social surroundings. It might also become noles volens and inadvertently part of one’s second nature. Scholarly forgetfulness, to take an example perhaps close to home, could be an unremarkable side-effect of utter dedication to one’s work, so that a Samuel Johnson could critically remark that ‘he that devotes himself to retired study naturally sinks from omission to forgetfulness of social duties’.28 Yet, a codified persona of the scholar in which forgetfulness enjoyed pride of place could also turn out to be useful in the daily management of social relations. It might secure a certain license from social obligations, and hence be expressly invoked and even deliberately cultivated. At the same time, it might function as a mere external mask, so that a sharp observer of late eighteenth-century mores could note that some people affected distraction ‘because they believe that it looks distinguished or scholarly’.29 A codified persona does not need to be all of a piece: the composite makeup of viable personae, constructed from given cultural materials and mediating different sorts of contexts, also implies that shifting modes and degrees of attachment to a persona by its bearers can be envisaged. Thus a natural scientist may adopt certain elements of the established persona of the bookish scholar, the monk or the gentleman, while tacitly rejecting other elements, all the while seeking to gain acceptance and negotiate distance by adhering in public to a received persona.30 Persona is handled here as a heuristic device rather than as a substantial hypothesis. Rather than deciding in advance whether a persona ‘is’ a disguise or a second nature, a ‘thinner’ concept of persona leaves this open so that a whole range of possibilities from ‘ego-involvement’ to ‘ego-detachment’ can be envisaged.31

Persona, Persona and Self

‘Persona’ is not one of the possible designations for persons (actors, agents, actants, selves, subjects, et cetera). Rather, persona is used here to draw attention to one aspect of the making of such persons – the recognised, codified templates through which they may be perceived, by means of which they can be shaped and which they are likely to negotiate. Persona is hence neither an alternative to, nor fashionable shorthand for, the concept of the self. We know too little about the historical processes shaping selves and still struggle with the challenge of constructing non-teleological or anachronistic accounts of historical selves in all their variety. Premature generalisations about ‘the self’ have tended to compress complex historical trajectories into the inevitable ‘discovery of The Self’, often inadvertently imposing some class-specific and gender-biased models of selfhood on far more variegated realities. We have also learned, for instance from students of Latin literature such as Karl Enenkel, and historians working on ego-documents such as Rudolf Dekker, to mistrust tempting shortcuts such as identifying a complex, layered and dynamic self with the literary image projected by a narrated first-person.32 This caveat is not intended, however, to invoke some unfathomable and distant ‘deep’ self, lying far beyond a ‘shallow’ persona: personae are among the materials that persons are made of – including those aspects identified with selfhood.33 Maintaining conceptual distinctions between personae, persons and that aspect of persons identified as their self, should enable us to better explore the modalities of active appropriation of existing personae in the making of actual persons. The following example might serve to illustrate this.

Kepler in search of a persona

In 1612 the newly widowed imperial astronomer Johannes Kepler wrote a remarkable letter to an unnamed lady. The text must have been penned in the context of negotiations preceding Kepler’s second marriage. Kepler’s late wife, Barbara Müller, had died the year before and Kepler was seeking a suitable bride. This proved a difficult task. He was now a renowned court astronomer but still a social upstart, the native son of a town in Württemberg, a man who rose from obscurity to the imperial court. Persistent rumours about the widower’s behaviour toward his deceased wife impaired his reputation and undermined his remarriage plans. The document at hand attempted to refute these allegations. Kepler defended himself as a scholar, a husband, as well as a Protestant whose unorthodox religious views had aroused some suspicion.34

While our text does indeed look like a letter, its extraordinarily candid nature calls this representation into question. It is perhaps best described as a private memorandum, a series of arguments and counter-arguments, occasionally apologetic and often dangerously revealing. It belongs to a small group of texts in Kepler’s literary output in which he used the process of writing to think through issues. In such texts, like his searching self-portrait of 1597, or his Deliberatio of 160035, Kepler was by all evidence thinking through writing – asking difficult questions and not merely rhetorical ones, formulating answers only to discard them and examine new ones. He may have prepared the piece in anticipation of issues likely to be raised by his addressee.

A full analysis of this fascinating document is beyond the scope of this article. Here I shall simply tackle the passages in which Kepler struggles with scholarly personae – first rejecting one that is ascribed to him, then trying, and failing to redefine it, and finally opting for another, more traditional one.36

At the age of twenty-three Barbara Müller, the daughter of the wealthy owner of a mill near Graz, married Johannes Kepler, a young professor of mathematics and astronomy. Three years later, Kepler received an unexpected invitation to work under Tycho Brahe at the imperial court in Prague. After the latter’s death in 1601 Kepler assumed the post of imperial astronomer. Barbara, however, did not fare so well. Far from kith and kin in Prague and isolated at the imperial court, she became melancholic, and, stricken by the death of Friedrich, their six-year-old child, died in 1611. Rumour had it that Barbara had been tormented with the epithet Sternseherin – the female form of the term Sternseher (‘stargazer’), analogous to calling a doctor’s wife ‘Frau Doctorin’. Reputation was hence the issue – and, more precisely, the relationship between Kepler’s own persona and that of his wife. The term Sternseher lumped into a single category astronomers and astrologers, and was aimed to describe especially those who produced calendars and prognostications. Sternseher was a derogatory term, suggesting deception and trickery.37 Any woman considering a marriage alliance with Kepler the stargazer was likely, it was thought, to suffer a similar fate.

In our text Kepler makes no attempt to deny the derision heaped upon stargazers or his deceased wife’s distress. Instead, he begins by invoking his own misery. When he opted for astronomy as a young student, he recalls, people laughed at him. Kepler, who had ‘such a delicate temperament that no woman could ever possess’, was called ‘stargazer’ by fellow students. The mockery was painful, he continues, but upon reflection he found it baseless. Making virtue out of necessity, Kepler decided that from then on he would style himself a stargazer, that is, he would appropriate the term and make it his own. Since then, Kepler writes, I have not been offended by being called a stargazer, but his wife suffered when referred to as Die Sternseherin. Giving an idiosyncratic meaning to a common derogatory label, adopting the persona of a stargazer while transforming it, was not an option open to her.

Kepler hence leaves behind the realm of definitions and considers the map of social status at court. He does this by offering a series of rough assessments of positions and the social distance separating them: a stargazer ranks much higher than an artisan or merchant, is more respectable than a schoolteacher, and, as a husband, a better match than a preacher. Kepler now turns to comparisons with learned professions: a stargazer is equal to physicians in honour, but is somewhat better positioned since he lives a quieter sort of life; unlike the former, he does not need to leave the house to care for his patients. Not all elements of a persona are of equal weight: tranquillity and scholarly otium possess a special symbolic value as the hallmarks of a truly scholarly way of life. Note that Kepler attempts to offset the opprobrium with invocations of honour, marriageability, and lifestyle: nowhere does he bring actual learning into the equation, or refer to his academic title.

It seems that in court circles, derision of his wife as a Sternseherin came particularly from ‘scribes’, that is, court officials and their wives (‘scribe’ could refer to anyone from petty clerks to a high officials). Scribes deride star-gazers, Kepler admits, but soldiers and officers show scorn for scribes. A doctor’s daughter thinks herself too good to marry a scribe; a student who fails to make progress in his studies becomes a scribe and this brings scorn upon universities.

Having mapped the direction of disrespect at court and the patterns of marriage alliances in order to claim respect for astronomers, Kepler, in a remarkable scholarly gesture, turns to explain why the contrary opinion of astronomers prevails in court circles. He offers a simplistic sociological explanation: the multitude usually despises the few; scholars had been derided in the past because there were so few of them. Nowadays stargazers are denigrated because there are so few of them compared with the number of physicians, lawyers, or preachers. At court, with its many chanceries, it is scribes who know no better who shape public opinion.

By undermining the basis of scorn sustained by astronomers, Kepler managed to relativise prevailing prejudice against them, perhaps even to explain it – but he could not do away with their burden. Sociological explanations do not modify social relations. To escape the contradictory valuations that elite groups have of each other’s relative standing, in a final move Kepler resorts to an absolute measure of status – proximity to the ruler. As befitting a true Copernican, he asks his reader to turn her gaze toward the centre of the court system – the emperor. Emperors and princes are the ultimate source of honour, he contends, and they actually like to have learned stargazers in their midst. Measured in this way, a learned stargazer can beat any rich scribe, that is, any court official. Kepler seems to have made his point, but his social realism and candour compel him to step back and admit: even if emperors do prefer the company of learned astronomers – such as himself – rulers cannot do without the services of scribes. Astronomers, he implies, are nice to have around, but are basically dispensable.

Disdain for astronomers has other sources as well. Why is it, asks Kepler, that stargazers are considered laughable figures? It is because some imagine themselves as a sort of Wundertier (a fabulous creature, a legendary animal). This strange creature does not walk like other people normally do, forward looking, but rather trains his gaze toward the sky. A person who behaves in this way should properly be called a fool, he writes.

Kepler here seems to be alluding to the famous story about the ancient Greek philosopher Thales. In Aesop’s version Thales is an astronomer, who while walking, gazing upwards and watching the stars, fell into a well (or a ditch), and was laughed at by a servant-girl who said that he was eager to know the things in the sky, but the things that were lying at his feet escaped his notice.38 Kepler’s allusion makes clear that this ancient, ambivalent parable of concentration and oddity ascribed to the philosopher was no longer confined to the folklore of the learned and had become known in wider circles.39 It was not only circulating as a source for scorn for astronomers, but has been actively adopted by some practitioners as a visible marker of their special calling. Some people who wish to be considered astronomers behave like Wundertiere, consciously imitating philosophers whose gaze is fixed on the stars.

This disposition had become such a codified element of the persona of scholars in general and astronomers in particular that it was applied to Kepler. At this point one would have concluded that Kepler rejected this element of the scholarly persona, were it not for the fact that a close friend applied it to him, and not unkindly. Kepler, he writes, is one of those studiosi of philosophy and mathematics who, as everyone knows, are not well-versed in household affairs because they do not see the things that lie at their very feet, their gaze fixed on higher things – placed either up in the air or in their thoughts.40 Here, the given persona did not function as a burdensome mask but as a useful device legitimating a scholar’s presumed habits. To make things more complicated, however, Kepler – although thoroughly familiar with this image of the otherworldly scholar – described himself in an intimate self-portrait as an inquisitive person, intensely (and quite unbearably) interested in household affairs.41 The persona was hence real enough as a ridiculous, ascribed mask, as a conventional element of learned folklore, and as a useful intermediary object between a studiosus and his social milieu – without ever coinciding completely with its bearer’s actual dispositions.

Thales of Miletus as an inspired philosopher.

Hartmann Schedel, Weltchronik (Nuremberg 1493) 59.

Wikimedia Commons.

Reaching this point in his memorandum, Kepler seems to realise that he cannot change received cultural images by force of personal decision. He is unable to shape an acceptable, livable astronomer-persona for himself; a persona is a collective representation. All he can do is to argue that whatever one believes about astronomers in general, this need not apply to him: he does not behave like a fool. One should not rely on hearsay, but observe actual behaviour, he pleads, seeking to carve out for himself an exceptional place. Kepler’s frustration is palpable: this opinion ‘must be the devil’s work’, he writes, ‘that you can’t study astronomy, unless you are a bit crazy’.42

In the following sections of the memorandum Kepler makes further unsuccessful attempts to rehabilitate the figure of the stargazer, either by repositioning it socially in terms of an economy of honour, or by remodelling it in terms of the intellectual content of astronomy and its typical practices. What persona remains open for him to occupy? Ultimately, he finds refuge in a well-established persona, that of the bookish scholar, the humanist:

I am a Mathematicus, Philosophus and Historicus. Not one scribe in a thousand has the faintest idea what these words mean and how they apply. I was thus appointed by the Estates of Austria and made their servant with these designations. What they mean is a scholar that has read many things and retains them in his memory and can use (this knowledge, G.A.) for the best in the service of those who nominated him.43

This is a noteworthy piece of self-description. Conspicuously missing is any reference to observations or difficult calculations. Instead, Kepler resorts to an old formula entrenched in the tradition of bookish knowledge: acquiring knowledge through reading, retaining and processing it through ‘memory’, and applying it in the service of patrons. After all his attempts to refashion the persona of a stargazer, or to distinguish his type of astronomy from other types of astrology, Kepler finally claims these three traditional titles for himself. He does so even though he perceives himself as a person driven by cupiditas nova tractandi, ‘a desire to discover new things’, whose mind was attuned to ‘revealing nature’s secrets’.44

From Kepler’s perspective, there is no acceptable persona that he could assume – at least not one which would gain him respect and recognition at court. The image of the astronomer is far too ambivalent, entwined with that of a stargazer, entangled in making horoscopes and catering to patrons’ wishes; it connotes foolishness, quirkiness, is ascribed externally and occasionally even confirmed by would-be practitioners’ behaviour. At the same time, Kepler’s attachment to the traditional persona of the bookish scholar – mathematicus, philosophus, historicus – is not a matter of mere adjustment to external circumstances. It reveals his active identification with the world of humanist scholarship, his image of himself as a true humanist and author of polished Latin prose.45

From this somewhat safer, fortified position Kepler can even permit himself to conjure a counter-factual trajectory – playing his actual vocation against an alternative way of life he could have chosen. What would have happened if he had become a scribe, that is a high-ranking court official? I could have exchanged my current position, he writes, for that of one of the court officials engaged in reading and writing, counting and raising money – although in fact, he adds, I am better at reading than writing. The possible advantages are obvious: perhaps I would have been awarded a counsellor’s title, he muses, but in that case I would have lost the peace and quiet I need for studying. It is this that makes the exchange a bad deal in scholarly terms:

I would have done it to please a wife, but I have no need for this, nor does it seem advisable. What would I be trying to prove to myself? This would have been an expression of pure ambition on my part and would not have benefitted me more than my present state. I would have to swear an oath of allegiance and be bonded firmly, (whereas in my present position, G.A.) I am much freer, with less danger and less responsibility.46

Each element in this statement calls for consideration. Kepler failed to redefine the persona of the stargazer and reverted to the established one of a humanist bookish scholar. For this pre-existing scholarly persona, peace and quiet for studies are supreme. Note, however, that this is not a mere mask he was wearing: at several key points in his career, Kepler did actually articulate his need to control his time, to be his own master, not to be subject to external control over the way he spends his time, to have fewer public responsibilities and even less income – in order to gain precious time and freedom to engage in scholarship. The transmitted cultural image of the humanist scholar with his cherished otium is not effective eo ipso, but when actively appropriated, when it merges with Kepler’s needs.47 And his need for freely disposing of his time without being burdened by official duties was intimately related to his specific way of discovering new things.

‘I would have done it to please a wife, but I have no need for this, nor does it seem advisable. What would I be trying to prove to myself? This would have been an expression of pure ambition on my part’: Note how ambition and status considerations are disavowed and attributed to an imagined wife – or to lowly motives. Yet Kepler admits elsewhere how keen he is to accumulate honour and reputation. Attributing one’s own baser motives – the yearning for honour – to ‘a wife’, as if taking up a high position is something one does only ‘to please a woman’, is a well-known gesture in the received scholarly tradition. Science is a gendered calling even where no women are present. It is as if scholars split themselves to maintain their persona, attributing their material and baser motives to ‘women’ in order to uphold a purified self-image of dedication to higher knowledge. In this case, the maintenance of the scholar’s persona not only requires practical, active collusion by less visible others to maintain it; it also requires symbolic splitting and the projection of parts of the actual person onto others to uphold a purified image of single-mindedness. Here too, Kepler’s text, with its peculiar inflections and contradictions, is more than a simple instantiation of a received discourse. He makes use of this tradition of scholarly self-depiction, wavering between different positions, but eventually candidly admitting that the yearning for honour was actually his.

Wundertier and Exemplum

Several points emerge from this brief case study. First, the utility of maintaining the distinction between persona, self and person in order to explore the range of possible tensions between Kepler’s sense of himself, his embodied dispositions and habits, and the range of available self-images, becomes clear. Second, we see how fixing our gaze on all-too-visible scholarly personae may obscure the extent to which personae are jointly produced, constantly negotiated and marked by persisting inequalities. The maintenance of the highly visible persona of the scholar is accompanied by the correlate production of other, less conspicuous images, projected onto others (‘a scholar’s wife’) or made to disappear (from ‘invisible technicians’ to research assistants). A history of scholarship in terms of the succession of exemplary personae might overlook them.48

Thales, studying the stars and looking upwards, falling into a pit.

Joachim Camerarius, Fabulae c. Aesopicae à Gabriele Faerno Cremonensi versibus & Iconibus explicatae [] (Leipzig 1590) 168.

Boston Public Library,

Third, Kepler’s case demonstrates the usefulness of considering personae not only diachronically but also as concurrent options within structured repertoires: Kepler considered several personae (a stargazer/astronomer, a humanist scholar, and alternatives – a physician, a court official) – hierarchized, each with its distinct implications. In his correspondence, Kepler sometimes presented himself as an expert coping with difficult technical challenges, intent on providing services to patrons. At other times, however, he portrayed himself as a student of nature with a ‘passion for engaging with new things’ (cupiditas nova tractandi) – in both cases, he was offering partial, though not unfounded, versions of himself. Kepler was wavering between available personae, perhaps seeking to combine them.

Fourth, Kepler’s memorandum makes clear that a scholarly persona (at least in the early modern period) was often enough not a straightforward expression of the ethos of the respublica litteraria or the virtues cherished by any single scholarly community. Rather, it tended to be a hybrid image, a compound of different regulative ideals propounded by different groups of practitioners, and in addition the views and prejudices of various groups of laypersons – patrons, administrators, preachers and moralists, competitors and allies of comparable social status, wives, fathers-in-law, neighbours and so forth. It was an ambivalent, contradictory persona, a shaky historical compromise, sometimes an exemplum, sometimes a Wundertier – and often both. It offered scholars a series of precious privileges – a limited and yet singular license to break with generally accepted social norms, to ignore some social obligations with impunity, to subvert communal rhythms, to engage in invisible work, to be occasionally occupied by deep thoughts while apparently doing nothing. This license was bought at the price of ridicule and standardised eccentricity, of accentuating presumed otherworldliness, pretending not to grasp household duties and expenses, adopting learned incompetence and proverbial indifference to worldly affairs. This compound image was encoded in the folklore of the world of scholarship, in manuals for adopting the habits of a true scholar, in physicians’ advice and literary depictions, laudatory and satirical. The scholar’s persona was also at stake in conflicts between different groups of learned practitioners. Thus courtier-scholars and politiques could play out the ambivalences of the received persona of the scholar against their rivals, presenting them as weltfremd, ‘pedants’, situated at the opposite pole of a differentiated field. ‘True scholars’, for their part, defending autonomous, self-centred scholarship against heteronomous uses and prominent boundary-crossers, could retort by asking how seriously one ought to take a scholar who failed to exemplify utter dedication to the pursuit of knowledge and who was far from indifferent to worldly interests.

Both basic positions and the tensions to which they obliquely refer are still with us. Personae often emerge at the intersection of heterogeneous social forces and expectations. William Clark devoted some of the finest pages in his Academic Charisma to showing how even the modern researcher’s persona was partly imposed by German ministries through academic visitations and disciplinary measures. Ancient ideals of scholarly self-sufficiency and autonomy that are compounded by modern invocations of ‘scientific communities’ and strengthened by the contraction of pre-modern personae to more circumscribed realms of behaviour relevant to a professional ethics, may obscure the extent to which personae were the product of highly divergent forces.


We may have to make do with three related but distinct notions of persona (and perhaps adopt additional designations to distinguish them more clearly). The first, the singular, performed image, is well entrenched in current preoccupations and practices. The second – persona in the sense of sets of virtues personified in the image of exemplary practitioners – might be useful for exploring the regulative ideals espoused within a community of peers. The third notion – persona as an interdiscursive construct, an intermediary between different social contexts – is tailored more for the needs of socio-cultural analysis. The double life of persona in the last two senses – as embodying what it takes to be a virtuous practitioner and in the more robust and messy sense of a cultural type – might reflect the structural duality, in Pierre Bourdieu’s terms, between an autonomous ‘field of restricted production’, in which only recognition by one’s peers counts and makes one count as ‘a true scholar’, and a broader, heterogeneous field of cultural production. By way of analogy, the term ‘author’ may refer in a broad sense to any person authoring literary texts, or more narrowly to a ‘true author’, one whom fellow practitioners recognise as epitomising the regulative ideals of the restricted field.49

We need terms for all three: A notion of a performative, individual persona unconstrained by pre-existing models and abstracted from the cultural repertories enabling it, would yield a one-sided and abstract account of ‘self-fashioning’; conversely, it would be futile to imagine pre-existing types – persona in the second and third sense – substantiating themselves in living persons and disregard agency and performance. A social historian’s robust notion of personae as cultural constructs might not be fine-grained enough to account for the ideals and quarrels within scholarly communities, especially those enjoying a high degree of autonomy. At the same time, contenting ourselves solely with a notion of persona as a normative edifice, embodying the regulative ideals of ‘true scholars’, without invoking at the same time the messier notion of persona as a blend of different social perspectives, might reproduce the self-image and discourse of privileged actors and miss the rest. Modern studies of (scholarly) virtues need to be complemented by attention to social relations and practices in order not to play into the hands of neo-liberal restructuration measures and the cult of efficient and self-sufficient individuals.

We like to try out new tools; give me a new conceptual hammer and everything starts to look like a nail. Thus good-enough tools may be peremptorily discarded for failing to fulfil exaggerated expectations. Perhaps all they really need is more time. In this spirit, I conclude with some limitations of the use of persona as a template for persons.

1) Personae are codified images. They are used by actors to project acceptable and recognisable self-images. Personae are patently not reflections of actual practices or lived relationships, nor are they an exhaustive blueprint for shaping these. Adopting a persona still leaves open all sorts of practical issues concerning how to go about organising one’s life and work. This is not to say that such practices are shapeless, since models for structuring everyday practices are also part of cultural repertoires, but simply that personae have a limited explanatory value. Institutional arrangements, for instance, are not derived from personae and at times might be in tension with them. One may easily either identify practices with codified images or set them in absolute opposition to each other – raw practices versus stylised representations. But scholarly otherworldliness, for instance, did not necessarily entail actual economic incompetence, just as philosophical seclusion did not necessarily mean rejecting sociability. These are not mere tensions between norms and realities: managing contradictions and representations is part of good practice. It took and still takes much more to be a scholar than to exemplify or embody a consistent set of virtues.

Consider in this context Robert Merton’s classic exploration of scientists’ ambivalence regarding claims for priority in scientific discovery – acknowledging others’ contributions and contesting them at the very same time; a reluctance to openly assert priority while regularly asserting it in an indirect way, and rehearsing that challenging competing claims is below one’s dignity while doing precisely that. Perhaps the most striking aspect of Merton’s analysis deals with systematic forgetfulness of prior discoveries. Forgetting about having read a text containing an insight one claims for oneself, or failing to properly acknowledge former partners’ contribution to the making of a scientific discovery, is not a matter of personal aberration. It is symptomatic of basic contradictions in the very structure of science as a collective endeavour and rooted in the commitment to both cooperation and institutionalised competition.50 Conceiving scholarly practice as derived from scientific personae – in the narrow sense (as exemplifications of doctrine or bundles of epistemic virtues) or in the broader, less normative sense of codified images of those engaged in scholarship – yields no clue as to such constitutive contradictions and ambivalences. Selves are more than projects for designing selves. Viable accounts of actors (persons/subjects/agents) need not conflate personae with persons, valued virtues with actual dispositions, and ought to leave enough room for exploring varied dispositions – some of them certainly cultivated in response to codified self-images and cherished virtues, while others are not.

2) An exclusive focus on the persona does not tell us who can assume a given persona, that is, which members of different social groupings have access to it. It is remarkable, for instance, how easy it was in the first third of the fifteenth century to portray Christine de Pizan (1364-c. 1430) as a scholar in her study, as if gender did not matter: no thorough modification of the iconographic conventions was needed. On the other hand, Christine described herself as both endowed with the valued dispositions of a scholar, and as a woman who underwent a truly radical conversion as she became a scholar, having mutated from a dependent wife to an independent man – and yet remained fully a woman, a worthy successor to a lineage of learned women and a staunch defender of women in general against their detractors. A close reading of her work shows her coming to terms – symbolically and practically – with the contradictions involved in assuming the persona of a scholar.51 Appropriating a persona is hence not only a matter of accessing a given social position: social relations and trajectories are not external to actors, but inscribed in them. Performing effectively a pre-existing persona requires sets of dispositions. To account for the way people shape the positions they occupy, to explore the possible tensions between embodied dispositions and assumed personae, we need to reach beyond personae and build fuller accounts of the making of persons.

3) It is essential, then, to embed personae in accounts of the interplay between social relationships and differentially accessible positions, of class- and gender-specific dispositions and habits. In this context, however, it does not strike me as helpful to stretch ‘persona’ to cover all aspects of the making of persons, to pack cultural templates, dispositions, modes of cultivating habits and sense of selfhood into any single concept – not least into ‘persona’. This would turn the concept from an analytical tool into an umbrella term and undermine its usefulness. Persona in the limited sense of an established cultural template leaves space for exploring how personae are adopted, transformed, ascribed or rejected (as in the case of the cobbler and naturalist Thomas Edward analysed by Anne Secord52); for discussing people whose dispositions and trajectories make it impossible for them to effectively assume a pre-existing persona; and eventually, for considering scholars for which no fitting persona exists (as Kepler suggests about himself), those for whom no persona at all is available, or practitioners effectively made invisible by codified personae.

It is even less useful to conflate personae with whole ways of life. At issue is not only the empirical discrepancy, for instance, between the venerable persona of the solitary scholar and actual habits and practices.53 Ways of life are a concept of a different order; broader, messier and more robust, they do not come and go on the winds of doctrine; they pertain to varied domains of everyday life and hence are only partly shaped in relation to a specific set of scholarly practices. More fundamentally, they involve whole figurations of persons, not individual scholars alone. Practices of astronomical observation, for example, required more than self-discipline: they were embedded in and moulded by social relations – by specific milieux such as family households or large-scale observatories with their constraints and expectations.54 Extrapolating scholars’ whole way of being from their persona is tempting, especially from an internalist point of view, but far less satisfying from the perspective of socio-cultural history. Social relationships, kinship ties, structures of income and household routines do not arise out of the regulative ideals of any specific vocation, nor are they simple emanations of spiritual exercises or forms of self-cultivation.

Personae need not stand for an entire problématique. I, for one, would content myself with their use as an analytical concept, a welcome addition to our toolkit. Templates do not have a history of their own – a historical succession of prototypes engendering prototypes, as in some older versions of cultural history. It is precisely their appropriation by social actors that makes them real and reshapes them, making them truly historical.