What We’re Reading: Week of April 17

Here are a few interesting articles and pieces we found around the web this week. If you come across something that other intellectual historians might enjoy, please let us know in the comments section.

Emily

Steven Nadler, Who was the first modern philosopher? (TLS)

James Meek, Somerdale to Skarbimierz (LRB)

Owen Bowcott, Opening of UN files on Holocaust will ‘rewrite chapters of history’ (Guardian)

Timothy Burke, Home to Roost (Easily Distracted)

 

Spence

Martin Pugh, “Why former suffragettes flocked to British Fascism” (Slate)

Steve Rose “Lady Macbeth: how one film took on costume drama’s whites-only rule” (The Guardian)

Eric

Tim Barker, “The Bleak Left: On Endnotes” (N+1)

Brandon Byrd, “‘Haiti for the Haitians’: A Genealogy” (Black Perspectives)

Christopher Chitty, “Reassessing Foucault: Modern Sexuality and the Transition to Capitalism” (Viewpoint)

Miya Tokumitsu, “The United States of Work” (New Republic)

Derek

Mark Perry, “Why the World Banned Chemical Weapons” (Politico)

Siddhartha Mukherjee, “Love in the Time of Numbness; or, Doctor Chekov, writer” (New Yorker)

You’re not as smart as you think you are” (The Economist)

Meghan O’Gieblyn, “The Ghost in the Cloud” (n+1)

Erin

Michael Wood, “Fritz Lang and the Life of Crime” (LRB)

David Garnett, Beany-Eye (Chatto & Windus, 1935)

Dennis Mullen, “The Needham Calculator (1.0) and the Flavors of Fifteenth-Century Paper” (The Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies)

Jacey Fortin, “Dolly Parton College Course Combines Music, History, and Appalacia Pride” (NY Times)

Disha

Sarah Hagi, “All Your Favourite Cartoon Characters Are Black” (Vice)

Faisal Devji, “Age of Sincerity” (Aeon)

Ijeoma Oluo, “The Heart of Whiteness” (The Stranger)

Jonathon Catlin, “The Intellectual Under Trump: Between Solitude and Solidarity” (The Midway Review)

Abigail Bereola, “‘When You’re Writing, Everything is in Retrospect: An Interview With Durga Chew-Bose” (Hazlitt)

Sarah

Ervand Abrahamian and Eskandar Sadeghi-Boroujerdi, ‘Iran’s Past and Present,’ (Jacobin)

Keisha N. Blain, ‘On Transnational Black Feminism,’ (Black Perspectives)

Anne Margaret Castro, ‘The Archive, the Canon and C.L.R. James’ Race Dream,’ (Voices Across Borders, TORCH Blog)

Rhian Sasseen, ‘The Alt-Right’s Image Problem,’ (LARB Blog)

Daniel Trilling, ‘On Colonialism,’ (LRB)

Book Forum: Symbols, collective memory, and political principles 

by guest contributor Andrew Dunstall

The JHI Blog is pleased to announce a new occasional feature, a forum bringing together faculty across disciplines to discuss recent works in intellectual history over consecutive Fridays. The inaugural forum is devoted to Jeffrey Andrew Barash’s book Collective Memory and the Historical Past (University of Chicago, 2016).

Jeffrey Andrew Barash has written a very scholarly book that proves both a philosophical work and a history of ideas. The one offers a conceptual account of collective memory, and the other a narrative of changing conceptions and ideological uses of “memory.” In both cases, he argues that careful attention to the border between memory and history is politically significant for criticising appeals to mythical bases of political unity. I have some thoughts on that, but first it is worth summarising what I take to be key contributions of the book.

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Obama’s Inaugural Celebration at the Lincoln Memorial (Steve Jurvetson)

The main contention of the book is this: collective memory designates a restricted sphere of past references. These particular references operate in practical life within a community, a “web of experience” (p. 52). Crucially for Barash, such a web consists of symbols (defined on p. 47-50). Symbols “confer spontaneous sense on experience by lending it communicable order at the primary level of its organization and articulation” (p. 47). What Barash means here is not that we attach various symbols to our everyday experience in a secondary process; rather, our perception is originally patterned in symbolic ways according to our learning, habits, and interactions.

Barash gives an example of an illuminating contrast. The quiet, “sacred” space of a church, and the banal (but still perhaps quiet and still) space of a car garage. Each space is meaningful in perception, because we are acquainted with their style and the activities that take place in them. Even when we are not familiar with the setting, we pick up cues from others or elements of the scene.  Experience is hermeneutic, which Barash refers to as “symbolic embodiment”. Our ability to communicate with each other in, and about, our experiences rests on this spontaneous symbolising activity.

Also note that we are not locked into our original perceptions. Experience is neither a private language, nor fixed, nor voluntarist. We constantly layer and re-layer interpretations of our lives as a matter of course. We can, for instance, understand somebody who describes their car garage as a shrine or sacred space, transporting the qualities of the cathedral to the domestic site of mechanical pursuits. We are readily able to creatively adapt our references through conversation and imaginative reconstructions. We can understand each other—even when we have radically differing interpretations.

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Martin Luther King press conference 1964 (Marion S. Trikosko)

Thus our memories come to be shared with those whom we regularly interact; for Barash, collective memory is this web of interaction. He gives an excellent example by analysing Luther King’s famous “I have a dream” speech, which included his own memories of watching it on television (p. 55). This sets up well the key distinction between experience “in the flesh” as opposed to that mediated by communication technologies (analysed in detail in chapter five). An important clarification is made here. When we are talking about events that are supposed to be real—like King’s speech, then we expect that they will mesh well with the other references our fellows make, and which are materially present in our environment. When they do not cohere, we are justified to be suspicious about the claims being made. And that disjunction motivates a critical reappraisal. Symbols themselves do not differentiate between reality and fictional states, but their overall network does. Thus imagination is essential to the “public construction of reality”, but such a construction is neither arbitrary nor imaginary (p. 49).

Collective memory is therefore neither a fiction nor a mere metaphor, but refers to a web of symbols formed through communicative interaction, reaching as far as that sphere of interaction does—across several generations, and within the context of a shared language, set of public symbols, and common purposes. Barash, however, carefully emphasises a corresponding diffuseness, differentiation and inconsistencies of such memory—and he insists on its epistemological limits to a living generation. Knowledge of life passes beyond living ken when it fails to be maintained in any real sense by a coming generation. Too often, such discontinuities are not benign: displacement, war, and oppression can be its cause.

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Mémoire (Benhard Wenzl)

Collective memory needs to be distinguished from the reflective activity of historians, as Barash clearly argues in his choice of title for the book. The critical targets of the book are twofold. Recent scholarship, on the one, that has conflated the work of history with the idea of collective memory (see p. 173ff.). On the other hand, Barash is all-too-mindful of the way in which collective memory is invoked for political purposes.  There is a normative-critical point to the distinction between collective memory and historical work. The historian or scholar of collective memory is someone who holds our memory work to account, scrupulously attending to myth-making and historical over-reach in political discourse. The historian is in the business of re-contextualising, of rediscovering the coherence of a set of events in the real. And so Barash takes a position on the reality of the past, and we see the importance of establishing the level of the real in the analysis of symbols (p. 175ff).

We can see some clear implications for historical methods as a result of Barash’s careful analysis. Collective memory is a part of how archives and diverse sources come into existence. History work needs collective memory, and it needs to understand its various forms. However, rather than take up debates about the reality of the past, or the distinction between the forms of collective memory and historical understanding, I am interested in a rather different and less explicit theme, which my preceding commentators have already raised. Let us think a bit more about the normative and political emphasis that Barash lays on historical understanding.

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Fête de l’Être suprême (Pierre-Antoine Demachy, 1794)

While collective memory is limited to living generations, there are nevertheless long-term patterns to community life that reach beyond memory. Martin Luther King, for example, called attention to the political promises of the Declaration of Independence, and of Lincoln, in the shadow of whose memorial he stood with those who had gathered with him. King, Lincoln, and their contemporaries belonged to a larger unity, an ethos; a particular rendering of democratic freedom. Michael Meng argues that Barash is drawing on a democratic emphasis in his insistence on finitude. Êthos, as in Aristotle’s Politics, translates as “custom.” Barash’s symbolically oriented theory incorporates ethos as an “articulation of long-term continuities in the symbolic reservoir upon which collective memory draws” (p. 105). While Barash’s examples consistently point to progressive and radical democratic examples (he also discusses the French Revolution’s republican calendar), the concept of ethos launches an analysis of the ideological invocation of memory by radical right wing movements.

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Front National (Marie-Lan Nguyen, 2010)

Right wing groups sometimes evoke age-long memory in direct connection to social homogeneity. There is a French focus; Maurice Barrès, the late 19th and early 20th century conservative political figure and novelist, and Jean-Marie Le Pen and his party, the Front National, are Barash’s primary examples. Le Pen wrote in 1996: “When we denounce the terrible danger of the immigration invasion, we speak on behalf of our ancient memory” (cited at p. 109). The theoretical construction of symbolic collective memory has reached its sharp, critical point. For the finitude of collective memory, in its anchoring in a living generation, disallows the age-long memory and homogeneity of national identity that the right call upon. So while collective memory is not simply imaginary, as Barash has shown, the latter metaphorical use of it is mythical. Finitude must be, ought to be, reasserted.

Finitude is a common hymn amongst intellectuals today. And yet the normative argument for the critical function of historical work is not very strong here. I disagree with Meng’s interpretation then. Finitude does not supply a normative principle which would tell us how collective memory ought to be invoked. The alternative progressive examples show the point. Martin Luther King could equally draw on an ethos; so too should progressives today. And this is a practical, normative point, as Sophie Marcotte Chénard suggests. Repetition is not continuity, however. We must draw on the historical past and collective memory to defend progressive normative principles. Where else do they come from? Of course, a normative choice by the historian is that—a choice of what to inherit.

Barash bases his argument on a formal analysis of memory, symbols, and temporal intentionality. Finitude for him is a matter of logical form: living memory can only extend a certain length; the selection of what we remember is secondary for him. Finitude itself supplies no clear ethical principle, however. Which normative struggles, which injustices breathe life into “living memory”? Often such struggles far exceed that memory, as I have argued elsewhere. Barash, to my mind, implies these questions at various points, but does not make them explicit. Barash’s work is a provocative opening. When we come to reflect on our heritage, whether age-long or recent, the point is to choose what is worth preserving, and what needs changing.

Andrew Dunstall  is Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Wollongong, where he teaches political philosophy. His research interests are in phenomenology and critical theory. His recent work studies the way that normative principles draw upon historical precedents, especially those beyond the “modern” era. You can read more about his work here.

JHI 78:2 Available

The latest issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas, volume 78 number 2, is now available in print, and is already available online at Project Muse. The table of contents is as follows:
Jacomien Prins, Girolamo Cardano and Julius Caesar Scaliger in Debate about Nature’s Musical Secrets
Henrie Leitão, Anotonia Sànchez, Zilsel’s Thesis, Maritime Culture, and Iberian Science in Early Modern Europe
Wiep van Bunge, Spinoza’s Life: 1677–1802
Amos Bitzan, Leopold Zunz and the Meanings of Wissenschaft
Mark Bevir, John Rawls in Light of the Archive: Introduction to the Symposium on the Rawls Papers
David A. Reidy, Rawls on Philosophy and Democracy: Lessons from the Archived Papers
P. MacKenzie Bok, “The Latest Invasion from Britain”: Young Rawls and His Community of American Ethical Theorists
Daniele Botti, Rawls on Dewey before the Dewey Lectures
Andrius Gališanka, Just Society as a Fair Game: John Rawls and Game Theory in the 1950s
Journal authors are always encouraged to submit a blog post about their article to JHIBlog. And if you’re a reader of JHIBlog, why not consider subscribing to the Journal? Subscription information is available at the Penn Press website, including information about special rates for students.

Mandate Agent, Colonial Subject, and Jewish Citizen : Jamil Sasson

by guest contributor James Casey

On a chilly winter day in 1941 Jamil Sasson, a Syrian employee of the French Mandate bureaucracy, sent a letter to the Secrétaire général du Haut-Commissariat de la République Française en Syrie et au Liban to protest his termination and loss of pension. “Permit me,” Sasson wrote, to underscore the essential French “principle of equality for all.” (1/SL/20/150) This was not merely the protest of a disgruntled former employee: Jamil Sasson was a Syrian Jew who had lost his position in the civil administration of the French Mandate after the application of Vichy’s antisemitic laws to French overseas territories. Based on the records of his  professional duties, it seems he was also a spy.

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The cover tab on Jamil Sasson’s personnel file. From the Centre des Archives diplomatiques de Nantes.

The French Mandate for Syria and Lebanon (1920-1946) marked the zenith of the French empire in the Middle East but came with novel legal and political constraints. France held the former Ottoman territories that today comprise Lebanon and Syria under the auspices of a League of Nations Class A Mandate trust territory. France was obliged as the Mandatory power (in theory if not always in practice) to safeguard the rights, property, and religious affairs of the people of the trust territory and to answer for their conduct to a Permanent Mandates Commission that sat in Geneva (62-64).

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Grand Rabbi of Damascus Hakam Nessm Inudbu at the Synagogue of El Efrange with three companions. (United States National Archives/RG84 Syria Damascus Embassy General Records/1950-1955/510-570.3)

Jamil Sasson was not a French citizen, but the French state that ruled Syria purged him from his profession, rendered him destitute, and sent police to toss his residence in much the same frightening way that French Jews experienced the onset of Vichy. Sasson’s situation underscores how the bureaucratic state can quickly dehumanize and dispossess; what Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil.” It is also a reminder of the poor practical defense that the idea of equality could offer in the face of bigotry and bureaucratic inertia. Sasson, a Francophone Arab Jew from Damascus, was a trusted interlocutor between the Muslim and Christian religious hierarchies and the French officials in the Contrôle des Wakfs. Personally and professionally, he navigated multiple overlapping and sometimes contradictory worlds. His experience offers granular insights for historians of modern Syria and the French empire. It also should interest scholars concerned with citizenship and those interested in the relationship between individuals and state power. Few individuals in the French Mandate could or did cross the borders  – geographic, political, sectarian, linguistic – that Sasson did, let alone with ease or credibility.

Sasson’s personnel records show he was nominally employed as a secrétaire interprète in the Contrôle des Wakfs et de l’Immatriculation foncière; the department charged with overseeing the administration and management of pious endowment property, or waqf. My dissertation research strongly suggests that his duties consisted of espionage and administrative surveillance, rather than clerical work. His French superior Philippe Gennardi, Délégué du Haute-Commissariat auprès du Contrôle Générale des Wakfs, saw Sasson as a lynchpin of a surveillance and intelligence gathering apparatus. This apparatus, controlled by Gennardi, functioned separately from the formal security and intelligence services of the French Mandate. Evidence I assembled from the superficially mundane ephemera of bureaucracy – performance reviews in personal files, receipts submitted for reimbursement, back-and-forth correspondence between different Mandate departments over whose budget should pay Sasson’s salary – indicate that Sasson was an integral figure supporting a sophisticated, semi-autonomous surveillance and human intelligence operation run by Gennardi, focused on waqf (Islamic pious endowments) as a surveillance space. This is a story that is essentially absent from the records of the Service de renseignement, the Mandate’s formal security-intelligence service and from scholarship on the Mandate. Gennardi explicitly described that Sasson’s duties defied his prosaic job title to justify Sasson’s salary in budgetary disputes with his superiors: Sasson was in constant communication with all local administrations and managed the French Mandate’s day-to-day relations with the heads of all of the religious sects in the Mandate. This partnership between French official and Syrian Jewish civil servant was a critical, if understudied element of the formal and informal surveillance capacity of the Mandate state. That is, until the the Fall of France, the installation of Maréchal Pétain in Vichy, and Sasson’s sacking.        

On July 20th, 1943 Sasson wrote to his longtime superior Gennardi, with whom he appears to have been close. He had yet been unsuccessful in either returning to his position in the administration or receiving a pension, even after the defeat of the Vichy-aligned administration in the Mandate by Free French and British Commonwealth forces in the summer of 1941. Since first protesting his dismissal at the beginning of 1941, “I have had to abandon all hope of justice given the circumstances and my religion.” Thus Sasson was dispatched by the security machinery of the state, of which he had once surreptitiously been a part.

It is challenging to situate a figure like Sasson in much of the historiography of twentieth century Syria. Notwithstanding more recent scholarship, the Anglo-French historiography of modern Syrian history pivots from elite nationalism under French rule to a series of military coups after independence, and ultimately to the coming of the Baʾth Party. Jamil Sasson’s biography does not fit neatly into this standard narrative. He was born in Damascus in the Ottoman province of Syria, the French Mandate state recorded his nationality as Syrian, and he frequently moved back and forth across the borders of the Mandates for Syria and Lebanon and the British Mandate for Palestine where he had family. He spoke French, worked in the Mandate administration, and was Jewish in his religion. He stood out to senior French administrators in the Mandate and local Christian and Muslim religious chiefs as someone reliable. While his nationality was Syrian, he did not enjoy the protections of citizenship.

Sasson worked for the French Mandate state in a historical context in which Jews (as well as Christians and Muslims) had been intermediaries in commerce and diplomacy during the Ottoman Empire (178-79, see also Michelle Campos, Ottoman Brothers: Muslims, Christians, and Jews in Early Twentieth-century Palestine, 62-63). Many Jews in the Arab provinces, along with Christians and Muslims, embraced the Ottoman state’s fitful attempts to impose equal citizenship (147). Cast against his sectarian background, Sasson’s personal and professional profile was both complex and quotidian: he played a key role in building the Mandate state, but does not fit the profile of a nationalist hero or a collaborator. Sasson had a government job that was not glamorous on paper, but he performed specialized, sensitive work on issues of religious faith, custodianship and care of pious endowment property, and he carefully built and maintained relationships across sectarian lines, relationships that could be prickly in the best of times. Sasson’s appeal to legal and personal protection in the principle of equality for all speaks to the paradox that defined the interwar period: the vast expansion of rights and international peace-affirming institutions built on the Wilsonian idea of popular sovereignty could not be reconciled with prevailing systems of unequal citizenship, colonialism, and racism. Indeed, formal independence for Syria in 1946 did not resolve this tension, either for national sovereignty or equal citizenship: the postwar United Nations provided better but still unequal international forum and meaningful equal citizenship in independent Syria remained elusive under liberal parliamentary and military regimes alike.

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Front and back cover of an identification booklet issued to citizen members of the national guard of the Syrian Republic under French tutelage.

Ideas about “equality for all,” like the institution of responsible French trusteeship of the League of Nations Mandate for Syria seemed to support broad rights, representation, and protection. In practice, they overpromised and underdelivered. The “principle of equality for all” amounted to little practical protection for Sasson by the time he wrote his appeal, yet the idea of equality remained the basis for his case. Equality, as a legal framework, was not sufficiently institutionalized to provide tangible protections. However, equality as an idea persisted.

A number of contemporary tensions reflect the the interwar period that produced the French Mandate in Syria: inadequate yet expanding possibilities of legal personhood and protections for more people; an international system invested with such promise and possibility for peace, but seemingly defined by its inability to prevent conflict; chilling attempts to legally enshrine “extreme vetting” of purported traitors within and enemies without. The discourse of human rights, legal personhood, and citizenship that Sasson invoked in 1941 resonates now with even greater urgency. We would do well to take heed of the experience of a man who found that his world no longer had a place for him.

James Casey is a PhD candidate in the History Department at Princeton University. His dissertation examines the relationship of pious endowment properties to the development of state surveillance capacity in Syria between 1920-1960. He holds an MA in Middle Eastern Studies from The University of Texas at Austin and was a Fulbright Fellow in Syria from 2008-9.

What We’re Reading: Week of April 10

Here are a few interesting articles and pieces we found around the web this week. If you come across something that other intellectual historians might enjoy, please let us know in the comments section.

Emily:

Terri Kapsalis, Hysteria, Witches, and the Wandering Uterus: A Brief History, or, Why I Teach “The Yellow Wallpaper” (Lithub)

Amber Regis, The Memoirs of John Addington Symonds (London Library Magazine)

J J Cohen, How to Place “Humanities” Next to “Future” Without the Adjective “Dire” (or, Why Entry Level Courses Matter) (In the Middle)

Elizabeth Barnes, Ross Cameron, and Robbie Williams, Josh Parsons (1973-2017) (Daily Nous)

Rachel Moss, assembled, astonished and disturbed (meny snoweballes)

Meredith Warren, What Would Jesus Eat This Easter? A First Century Menu for the Last Supper (History Matters Sheffield)

Josh Allen, The Thompson-Davis Letters (Past & Present blog)

Spence

Fríða Ísberg, “Dracula in Iceland” (TLS)

Steven Nadler, “Who was the first modern philosopher?” (TLS)

Melanie Benson Taylor, “The Convenient Indian” (The Los Angeles Review of Books)

Garry Wills, “Where Evangelicals Came From” (New York Review of Books)

Derek

Daniel Drezner, Triumph of the Thought Leader(Chronicle of Higher Education)

Molly McCluskey, Public Universities get an Education in Private Industry(The Atlantic)

Christopher Caldwell, American Carnage (First Things)

D.T. Max, How Humans are Shaping our own Evolution(National Geographic)

Cynthia

Noah Chasin, “Raymond Pettibon” (4 Columns).

“In Conversation: Thelma Golden in Conversation with Joachim Pissarro and David Carrier” (The Brooklyn Rail)

Hoberman, “At the Grey Art Gallery” (London Review of Books)

Kathryn Murphy, “More to Cheese than meets the eye? Dutch Still Life Paintings” (Apollo)

Eric

Rachel Cooke, “Eric Gill: Can We Separate the Artist from the Abuser?” (Guardian)

Yasmin Nair, “The Dangerous Academic is an Extinct Species” (Current Affairs)

Peter Pihos, “The Possibility of a Public” (Forum for Scholars and Publics)

Robert Priest, “Brexit, 1905?” (SSFH)

 

Book Forum: A Practical Past Beyond the Historical Past?

by guest contributor Sophie Marcotte-Chenard

The JHI Blog is pleased to announce a new occasional feature, a forum bringing together faculty across disciplines to discuss recent works in intellectual history over consecutive Fridays. The inaugural forum is devoted to Jeffrey Andrew Barash’s book Collective Memory and the Historical Past (University of Chicago, 2016).

In a book impressive by the vast array of themes, authors and traditions from which it draws, Jeffrey A. Barash proposes a dense reflection on the theoretical and practical aspects of collective memory, its symbolic institution in the public sphere, and its scope in contrast with what he calls the “historical past.” Barash’s inquiry plays on these two levels: the specificity of the distant past on the one hand, and the conditions of the lived experience given through collective remembrance on the other. The advantage of latter is that it escapes the problem of the remote past, which only exists through the operation of the historian. The specific object of history—the past—is by definition a reality that ceased to be. Therefore, we have a better chance to grasp memories created out of the experience of living generations (the shared experience of Martin Luther King’s speech, for instance, or the memory of the survivors of the Holocaust). Barash argues that collective memory, as an object of investigation, only comes at the forefront after a radical shift from a metaphysical and atemporal conception of human nature to a reflection based on an anthropological turn. An epochal change took place in the inter-war period in Europe: the tragic events of the 20th century paved the way to a vision of history and temporality based on discontinuity rather than continuity. The interplay, or tension—or even to a certain extent dichotomy—Barash draws between memory of lived experience and the “historical” past lies at the core of his demonstration and will be the focus of my intervention.

?The Ghosts of Vimy Ridge? from Au stralian artist William Longstaff (1929) depicting Canadian soldiers' ghosts marching up Vimy Ridge.jpg

The Vimy Ridge Memorial in Nothern France (Captain William Longstaff;
© Beaverbrook Collection of War Art,  CWM 19890275-051)

In chapter six entitled “The contextualized Past: Collective Memory and Historical Understanding,”Barash sets himself to “radicalize” the insights into historicity brought this distinction (p. 169). Briefly stated, collective memory has a specific limit, that of the temporal finitude of groups who share these experiences of remembrance. Collective remembrance will inevitably fade in the past and in the process become more opaque to us. For Barash, experience is the condition of collective memory. In that sense, his approach has definite phenomenological undertones. Temporal change and discontinuity make collective memory slip into the “historical past,” of which we can only have “passive recesses” and not a direct and full experience. The conclusion Barash draws follows accordingly: “In view of the historicity, contingency, and discontinuity of human groups, of the radical shifts between successive horizons of contemporaneity, the ongoing continuity of the êthos, deposited in the passive recesses of shared symbolic forms, is more often a source of ideological claims and political mythologies than of empirically ascertainable comprehension” (p. 170).

From that affirmation, one might think that Barash completely rejects the “historical past.” There are two main reasons for that. The first is quite clear: he insists on the fact that any supposed historical continuity—and its corollary, the idea of a stable identity of groups—could be instrumental in justifying ideological claims. The second reason has to do with the way we approach the past. Echoing Merleau-Ponty’s notion the “flesh of the world” (la chair du monde), Barash claims that collective memory is based on the experience of the social and the political “in the flesh.” Given that, the remote past cannot but become a second-order “reality,” a “secondary form of recollection” (p. 35). There is, in the theoretical reflection on history broadly construed, an irremediable gap between Erfahrung and Wissenschaft, between experience and knowledge. In Barash’s view, there seems to be an unbridgeable distance between written historical accounts of the past and collective remembrance that spans generations, but still remains available in a more immediate manner.

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Unveiling of the Vimy Ridge Memorial on 26 July 1936 (© George Metcalf Archival Collection, CWM 19910181-036)

As it turns out, Barash’s enterprise is more nuanced: the distinction between the two spheres serves the purpose of preserving the specificity of the latter as much as of the former. He does not develop extensively on that point, but it seems as though the “historical past,” narrated through specific forms and “mises en scène” (such as in historical novels) performs a function of its own. Barash writes: “However biased and incomplete even the most impartial attempt to recover vestiges of a past beyond living memory may be, its significance, far from limited to the status of a fictive invention of the present, reveals itself not only where it is capable of illuminating what has preceded current times, but where it enables us to place the fluctuating horizons of our own present in perspective” (emphasis mine; p. 196). The question is thus: does he propose something like a “practical past” beyond, or drawing from, the “historical past”? What is the specific ethical or normative function of the historical past that could make it “practical”? And can it intervene in the shaping of collective memory?

My suggestion is that his distinction involves a third sphere, that of a “practical” past. In his most recent book, Hayden White revives Oakeshott’s distinction between a “historical past” and a “practical past” (Oakeshott, On History, p. 19, 42). The historical past possesses no definitive existence: it is only an inference the historian makes in order to understand and explain what happened. In contrast, the practical past concerns everyday life. The former is primarily theoretical, while the latter is oriented toward matters of practical conduct and representation of our social and political world. As White points out, the practical past includes ordinary people carrying “archive of experiences” (White, The Practical Past, p. 99).

A substantial interpretation of the “practical past” would be tantamount to seeing history as providing lessons. This, in turn, would imply that there are unchanging features of human nature or at least transhistorical elements that would authorize the transposition of past actions and judgments to present circumstances. The stronger normative version of the practical past as historia magistra vitae faces serious objections: one would have to embrace a strong metaphysical claim such as the existence of natural law.

Jean-Pierre Houel - Prise de la Bastille (1789) - Carnavalet Museum

Jean-Pierre Houël, « Prise de la Bastille » (1789; source gallica.bnf.fr)

Doubts about a “practical past” in the sense of history providing normative guidance are not new. Hegel already expressed skepticism at the idea that we could learn anything about what one ought to do from studying the past. However, the purpose, in White or in Koselleck’s case, is not to recover some lost conception of history as a teacher of life. There seem to be another possible interpretation, one that is also found in Barash’s book: seeing the historical past as foreign leads to a more acute awareness of the contingency of the present.

White proposes to conceive of the practical past as a “space of experience.” (White, The Practical Past, p. 14) The recuperation or re-enactment of the past, it is true, could reinforce or justify “political mythologies,” but it could also serve to reactivate neglected past experiences or past concepts in order to challenge dominant views. One could think here of Quentin Skinner’s renewal of the Machiavellian republican conception of liberty. Koselleck’s notion of the party of the “vanquished” (Besiegten)—those writers of the past whose vision or doctrines have not triumphed – performs a similar function (Koselleck, Zeitschichten, p. 77). Both are illustrations of an indirect, yet practical usefulness of the past seen as foreign in essence. This, in turn, presupposes discontinuity: the renewal of the past is only possible in light of its alterity.

This idea of a practical past is perhaps best expressed by Claude Lefort’s notion of the “unthought” (impensé). Some events, social symbols or shared experiences carry vast reservoirs of meaning, which appear to be inexhaustible. In contrast with the “historical past,” the practical past could be constituted of such elements that provide continuity amid the discontinuity in temporality. As such, these events—revolutions, moments of foundation—connect past and present. It relates to what we could call a “politics of temporality” insofar as it concerns political and social events that “do not pass in the past” to use Claude Lefort’s expression (ce qui ne passé pas dans le passé (Lefort, Le travail de l’oeuvre Machiavel, p. 64-65). Some experiences and their remembrance endure in time and provoke a constant necessity of re-enactment. In other words, these events carry an “unthought”: something that has not yet been thought or has to be thought through again. Could it be the case that such a renewal of the past participates in shaping collective remembrance, not only in an instrumental way, but also in a meaningful one? In that regard, the role of imagination described by Barash makes it possible to envision such as relation to the past.

The idea of a “practical” past certainly supposes more temporal continuity than what Barash is ready to concede. Yet there is a sense of temporal continuity that goes beyond collective memory. Barash’s view presupposes what I would call a “minimal continuity thesis.” As in Koselleck’s thought, there are in Barash’s philosophy of time “structures of repetition” (Wiederholungsstrukturen) observable in the shared symbolic representations. Furthermore, minimal temporal continuity is a necessary condition of measuring and diagnosing temporal change. Far from being an obstacle to overcome, the opposition between continuity and change is a dynamic and productive tension in interpreting collective memory and the historical past.

Barash’s version of what I presented as a “practical” past is not, however, mainly about reactivating past concepts or ideas. Rather, it concerns a more fundamental insight: that of contingency in history and the illusion of an absolute standpoint. In the end, there is no vantage point: one can never achieve a totalizing perspective on history or look at collective memory from above. His interpretation of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu exemplifies this point (p. 201).

The past was once an uncertain future. As such, it is as contingent as the present and cannot teach what to do in specific circumstances. That being said, looking at the remote past, even through imperfect historical sources, could highlight the contingency of our situation and in turn demonstrate the need for a plural reading of the present. Seeing the past as practical—and not simply historical—means recognizing the plurality of possible outcomes and the multiplicity of narratives that can emerge out of it and shape our collective representation of the past and the present. The past puts the present in perspective, even when, as Barash reminds us, historical accounts cannot deliver an objective and unbiased view of historical “reality.”

Sophie Marcotte Chenard is a Postdoctoral Fellow in Political Philosophy at the University of Toronto and a Postdoctoral Associate at the Centre for Ethics. She received her Ph.D. in Philosophy and Social Sciences from the École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS) in Paris. Her research focuses on theory and philosophy of history, 19th and 20th-century German and French thought, contemporary political philosophy and interpretive methods in the history of political thought. She has published on Claude Lefort’s phenomenological approach and Quentin Skinner’s contextualism and has a forthcoming article on R.G. Collingwood’s historicism in The Journal of Philosophy of History. She is currently working on her forthcoming book entitled Encountering History in the Making: Political Philosophy and the Challenge of Historicism, which focuses on the relationship between political philosophy and history in the early writings of Leo Strauss and Raymond Aron.

Revolutions Are Never On Time

by contributing editor Disha Karnad Jani

9780231179423In Enzo Traverso’s Left-Wing Melancholia: Marxism, History, and Memory, timing is everything. The author moves seamlessly between such subjects as Goodbye Lenin, Gustave Courbet’s The Trout, Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire, and the apparently missed connection between Theodor Adorno and C.L.R. James to guide the reader through the topography of the Left in the twentieth century. The book is an investigation of left-wing culture through some of its most prominent (and dissonant) participants, alongside the images and metaphors that constituted the left of the twentieth century as a “combination of theories and experiences, ideas and feelings, passions and utopias” (xiii). By defining the left not in terms of those political parties to be found on the left of the spectrum, and rather gathering his subjects in ontological terms, Traverso prepares the laboratory prior to his investigation, but not through a process of sterilization. Rather, the narrative of the “melancholic dimension” of the last century’s left-wing seems assembled almost by intuition, as we follow along with affinities and synchronicities across the decades. In its simultaneously historical, theoretical, and programmatic ambitions, Left-Wing Melancholia sits in the overlapping space between the boundaries of intellectual history and critical theory.

In a series of essays, Traverso explores the left’s expressive modes and missed opportunities: the first half of the book is an exploration of Marxism and memory studies (one dissolved as the other emerged), the melancholic in art and film, and the revolutionary image of Bohemia. The second half of the book is a series of intellectual and personal meetings, which Traverso adjudicates for their usefulness to the left: Theodor Adorno and C.L.R. James’ abortive friendship, Adorno and Walter Benjamin’s correspondence, and Daniel Bensaïd’s work on Benjamin. The “left-wing culture” these affinities is meant to trace is defined as the space carved out by “movements that struggled to change the world by putting the principle of equality at the center of their agenda” (xiii). Since that landscape is rather vast, Traverso relies on resonant juxtaposition and very real exchanges in order to erect monuments to the melancholia he reads throughout their shared projects.

The nineteenth and twentieth centuries burst forth onto the stage of history buoyed by the French and Russian Revolutions, surging confidently forwards into a future tinged with utopia. In devastating contrast, the twenty-first century met a future foreclosed to the possibility of imagining a world outside of triumphant capitalism and post-totalitarian, neoliberal humanitarianism. While successive defeats served to consolidate the ideas of socialism in the past, the defeat suffered by the left in 1989 withheld from memory (and therefore from history) any redemptive lesson. In Left-Wing Melancholia, the reader is thus led gently through the rubble of the emancipatory project of the last two hundred years, and invited to ruminate on what could come of “a world burdened with its past, without a visible future” (18).

As critical theory, Left-Wing Melancholia uses the history of socialism and Marxism over the last two hundred years and its defeat in 1989 in order to name the problem of the left today. As intellectual history, it may be found wanting, at least if one seeks in its tracing of left-wing culture some semblance of linearity. If, however, a reader is willing to follow, instead of context à la Skinner, or concept à la Koselleck, a feeling – then Left-Wing Melancholia will soothe, disturb, and offer an alternative: Traverso assures us that “the utopias of the twenty-first century still have to be invented” (119). Indeed, Traverso argues that Bensaïd “rediscovered a Marx for whom ‘revolutions never run on time’ and the hidden tradition of a historical materialism à contretemps, that is, as a theory of nonsynchronous times or non-contemporaneity” (217). Traverso’s own project could be read as part of this now-unearthed tradition.

It is clear that Traverso is aware of the reconfiguration of enshrined histories of socialism and Marxism implicit here, that he has skewed any orthodox narrative by reading through disparate political projects the feeling of melancholia. Ascribing a single ontology to the left over the course of the twentieth century and representing its culture in such a frenetic fashion makes this book vulnerable to the criticism of the empiricist. For instance, he speculates on the lost opportunity of Adorno’s and James’s friendship with “counterfactual intellectual history”: “what could have produced a fruitful, rather than missed encounter between Adorno and James…between the first generation of critical theory and Black Marxism? It probably would have changed the culture of the New Left and that of Third Worldism” (176). In such statements, it is startling to see at work the faith Traverso has in the dialogue between intellectuals, and in intellectuals’ power to change the course of history.

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Hammering through the Berlin Wall. Photograph by Alexandra Avakian, from Smithsonian Mag.

He also eschews the Freudian use of the term “melancholia,” representing it instead as a feeling of loss and impossibility, expressed through writing, monuments, art, film, and his repeated articulations of how “we” felt after 1989. Presumably, this “we” is those of us who existed in a world that contained the Berlin Wall, and then witnessed it come down and had to take stock afterwards. This “we” is transgenerational, as it is also the subject that “discovered that revolutions had generated totalitarian monsters” (6). This same collective subject is a left-wing culture that had its memory severed by 1989, but also remembers in an internalist melancholic mode: “we do not know how to start to rebuild, or if it is even worth doing” (23). (I ask myself how the “we” that was born after 1989 fits in here, if the transgenerational memory of the left was severed in that year. Leftist post-memory, perhaps?) This book is addressed to fellow travelers alone. The reader is brought into the fold to mourn a loss assumed to be shared: “…we cannot escape our defeat, or describe or analyze it from the outside. Left-wing melancholy is what remains after the shipwreck…” (25). Thus, Traverso demonstrates the possibility of fusing intellectual history and critical theory, where one serves the other and vice versa; in his discussion of Benjamin, he remarks: “To remember means to salvage, but rescuing the past does not mean trying to reappropriate or repeat what has occurred or vanished; rather it means to change the present” (222). Left-Wing Melancholia has the explicit purpose of rehabilitating the generation paralyzed by the triumph of neoliberal capitalism. It is a long history of left-wing melancholy that puts struggles for emancipation in our own moment in perspective. And for all its morose recollection, Left-Wing Melancholia contains moments of hope: “we can always take comfort in the fact that revolutions are never ‘on time,’ that they come when nobody expects them” (20).

Towards an Intellectual History of Modern Poverty

by guest contributor Tejas Parasher

 

Picture 1In Chapter 3 of The History Manifesto, David Armitage and Jo Guldi support historians’ increasing willingness to engage with topics generally left to economists. Whereas the almost total dominance of game-theoretic modelling in economics has led to abstract explanations of events in terms of market principles, history, with its greater attention to ruptures and continuities of context and its “apprehension of multiple causality,” can push against overly reductionist stories of socio-economic problems (The History Manifesto, 87). Citing Thomas Piketty’s Capital as a possible example, Armitage and Guldi propose a longue-durée approach to the past that, by empirically documenting the evolution of a phenomenon (say, income inequality or land reform) over time, can disclose context-specific factors and patterns that economic models generally elide.

In this blog post, I ask what intellectual history in particular might have to gain (and contribute) by following Armitage and Guldi’s provocation and taking on a topic that Western academia has almost totally ceded to economics since the 1970s: the study of global poverty. Extreme or mass poverty in the Global South is a well-worn term in the literature on cosmopolitan justice, development economics, global governance, and foreign policy. Across economists like Jeffrey Sachs, Paul Collier, Abhijit Banerjee, and Esther Duflo, poverty is usually invoked as a sign of institutional failure—domestic or international—and a problem to be solved through aid or the reform of market governance. I want to suggest here that the contemporary dominance of economic analysis has foreclosed other approaches to mass poverty in the twentieth century. These are discourses that global intellectual history is uniquely able to excavate.

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Delegates at the London Round Table Conferences (1930-1932) on constitutional reform, representation, and voting in British India. Hulton Archive, Getty Images. Sept. 14 1931.

To illustrate my point, I want to turn to a common trope I have found while researching political thought in colonial India. Between approximately 1929-30 and 1950, the Indian National Congress and other organizations fighting for self-determination began to demand the introduction of universal adult franchise in British South Asia. The colony had seen very limited elections at the provincial level since 1892. Through a successive series of acts in 1909, 1919, and 1935, the British Government gradually widened the powers of legislatures with native representation, while keeping the electorate limited according to property ownership and income. In its report to Parliament in 1919, the Indian Franchise Committee under Lord Southborough emphasized that the ‘intelligence’ and ‘political education’ required for modern elections necessitated a strict property qualification (especially in a mostly rural country like India).

Against this background, extending rights to vote and hold office to laborers and the landless poor was anti-imperial both in the immediate sense of challenging British constitutional provisions and, more generally, in inverting the philosophy of the colonial state. Dipesh Chakrabarty has accurately and evocatively described the nationalist demand for universal suffrage as a gesture of “abolishing the imaginary waiting room of history” to which Indians had been consigned by modern European thought (Provincalizing Europe, 9). Indian demands for the adult franchise were almost always articulated with reference to the country’s economic condition. The poor, it was said, needed to directly participate in politics so that the state which governed them could adequately represent their interests.

M.K. Gandhi (1869-1948) began making such arguments in support of adult franchise soon after he gained leadership of the Indian independence movement around 1919. His ideal of a decentralized village-based democracy (panchayati raj) sought to address the deep socio-economic inequality of colonial society by bringing the rural poor into decision-making processes. Under the Gandhian program, fully participatory local village councils would combine legislative, judicial, and executive functions. As Karuna Mantena has noted in her recent study of Gandhi’s theory of the state, panchayati raj based on universal suffrage was seen to empower the poor by giving them an institutional mechanism to guard against the agendas of urban elites and landed rural classes.

Through the 1930s and 1940s, most demands for extending suffrage to the poor shared Gandhi’s premise. Even when leaders fundamentally disagreed with Gandhi’s idealization of village self-rule, they similarly considered the power to vote and hold office as a crucial safeguard against further economic vulnerability. In the Constitution of Free India he proposed in 1944, Manabendra Nath Roy (1887-1954), the ex-Communist leader of the Radical Democratic Party, argued for full enfranchisement and participatory local government on essentially defensive grounds, to protect “workers, employees, and peasants” from privileged interests (Constitution of Free India, 12).

By far one of the most sophisticated analyses of the problem of poverty for Indian politics during these decades came from B.R. Ambedkar (1891-1956), a jurist, anti-caste leader, and the main drafter of the Constitution of independent India in 1950. Ambedkar had been a vocal advocate for removing property, income, and literacy qualifications for voting and holding office since 1919, when he testified before Lord Southborough’s committee. As independence became increasingly likely from the 1930s, Ambedkar’s fundamental concern was to ensure that the poorest, landless castes of India had constitutional protections to vote and to represent themselves as separate groups in the legislature. Writing to the Simon Commission for constitutional reform in 1928, Ambedkar saw direct participation of the poor as the only way to forestall the rise of a postcolonial oligarchy: “the poorer the individual the greater the necessity of enfranchising him…. If the welfare of the worker is to be guaranteed from being menaced by the owners, the terms of their associated life must be constantly resettled. But this can hardly be done unless the franchise is dissociated from property and extended to all propertyless adults” (“Franchise,” 66).

During the height of the Indian independence movement in the 1930s and 1940s, there was thus an acute awareness of mass poverty as a key problem confronted by modern politics outside the West. Participatory democracy was in many ways the answer to an economic issue: colonialism’s creation of a large population without security of income or property, placed at the very bottom of networks of production and exchange that favored either Western Europe or a native elite. This was the population that Gandhi repeatedly described as holding onto its existence in a precarious condition of lifeless “slavery,” completely lacking any economic power. Only fundamental changes in the nature of the modern state, to make it accessible to those who had been constructed as objects of expert rule and as backward outliers to productivity and prosperity, could return dignity to the poor.

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File photo from the 1952 general election, the first conducted with universal adult suffrage. Photo No. 21791a (Jan. 1952). Photo Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Govt. of India.

My intention in briefly reconstructing Indian debates around giving suffrage, self-representation, and engaged citizenship to some of the most vulnerable and powerless people in the world is straightforward: attempts to address the effects of inequality in the Global South through the vote and local democracy rather than exclusively through international governance and economic reconstruction need to have a central place in any story we tell about twentieth-century poverty. Before they were taken up in the literature on efficient economic institutions and the rhetoric of international aid and development in the early 1950s (a shift usefully analyzed by anthropologists like Akhil Gupta and Arturo Escobar), colonial narratives about Africa, Latin America, and Asia as regions of intractable, large-scale poverty, famine, and market failure informed the political thought of anti-imperial democracy. The idea that existing economic conditions in India were problematic and deeply unjust was the basis of giving greater political power to the poor. A global conceptual history of ‘mass poverty’ in the twentieth century can therefore situate popular Third World movements that sought to increase the agency of the poor alongside more familiar, and more hegemonic, projects of Western humanitarianism.

This brings me back to my earlier point about what we might gain by re-thinking, with The History Manifesto, the relationship between intellectual history and economics. Once we start to trace how the categories and variables deployed in economic analysis emerged and changed over time, and how they were interpreted and practiced in a wide range of historical contexts, we can access dimensions of these concepts that may be completely absent from economic modeling. On the specific question of global poverty, an intellectual history that documents how the concept travelled between Third World thought, social movements, and global governance might give us theories of poverty alleviation that entail much more than simply distributive justice and resource allocation. This would be a form of intellectual history committed, as Armitage and Guldi put it, to “speaking back” to the “mythologies” of economics by expanding the timeframes and theoretical traditions which inform the discipline’s methods (The History Manifesto, 81-85).

Tejas Parasher is a PhD candidate in political theory at the University of Chicago. His research interests are in the history of political thought, comparative political theory, and global intellectual history, especially on questions of state-building, decolonization, and market governance in the mid-twentieth century, with a regional focus on South Asia. His dissertation examines the rise of redistribution as a discourse of government and economic policy in India through the 1940s. He also writes more broadly on issues of socio-economic inequality in democratic and constitutional theory, human rights, and the history of political thought.

What We’re Reading: Week of April 3

Here are a few interesting articles and pieces we found around the web this week. If you come across something that other intellectual historians might enjoy, please let us know in the comments section.

Erin:

Jennifer Schuessler, “A Trove of the Women’s Suffrage Struggle, Found in an Old Box” (NYTimes)

Richard Hell, “Confessions of a Book Collector” (Village Voice)

Helen Vendler, “The Two Robert Lowells” (NYRB)

Derek Dunne, “Sign Here Please: ____________ Blank Forms from the Folger Collection” (The Collation)

Emily:

Adrian Searle, Queer British Art 1861-1967 — strange, sexy, heartwrenching (Guardian)

Nico Muhly, Why Choral Music is Slow Food for the Soul (NY Times)

Ariel Levy, Catherine Opie, All-American Subversive (New Yorker)

Tom Crewe, Oh, you clever people! The Unrelenting Bensons (LRB)

Christopher Browning, Lessons from Hitler’s Rise (NYRB)

Andrew O’Hagan, On Robert Silvers (LRB)

Tony Sewell and Mike Grenier with Philip Dodds, Education Slow and Fast (Free Thinking, BBC Radio 3)

Derek:

Kenneth K. Wong, Redefining the federal role in public education(Brookings)

Matthew M. Chingos and Kristin BlaggWho could benefit from school choice?(Brookings)

(Film) Paterson, written and directed by Jim Jarmusch

Walter Russell Meade, The Jacksonian Revolt(Foreign Affairs)

Ross Andersen, Welcome to Pleistocene Park(The Atlantic)

Kimberly Harrington, The Resistance will be brought to you by Pepsi(McSweeneys)

Eric:

Greg Afinogenov, “Desperation Time” (N+1).

Ayana Mathis, “On Impractical Urges” (Guernica).

Charles Mills interviewed by Neil Roberts, “The Critique of Racial Liberalism” (Black Perspectives)

Spence:

Dennis Duncan, “Index, A celebration of the” (TLS)

Paul B. Sturtevant, “Recovering a ‘Lost’ Medieval Africa: Interview with Chapurukha Kusimba, part I” (The Public Medievalist)

Colin Dickey, “Forging Nature” (The Los Angeles Review of Books)

John Rieder, “An Image of Africa from the Sky” (The Los Angeles Review of Books)

Book Forum: History as Critique

by guest contributor Michael Meng

The JHI Blog is pleased to announce a new occasional feature, a forum bringing together faculty across disciplines to discuss recent works in intellectual history over consecutive Fridays. The inaugural forum is devoted to Jeffrey Andrew Barash’s book Collective Memory and the Historical Past (University of Chicago, 2016).

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University of Chicago Press (2016)

Jeffrey Andrew Barash has written a highly insightful and erudite book on the complex relationship of the past to the present. Moving capaciously from the ancient period to the present, he addresses a wide range of issues regarding what it means to remember. Chapters include discussions on some of the central theorists of memory from Sigmund Freud to Maurice Halbwachs to Gerald Edelman; on the centrality of the image in twentieth-century mass media; on the reputed ‘skepticism’ of Roland Barthes and Hayden White in regard to the capacity of history to distinguish itself from fiction; and on the origins of “collective memory” as a theoretical concept to interpret the enduring “quest for stability and permanence” in the wake of twentieth-century challenges to metaphysics by Martin Heidegger and many others broadly influenced by him in post-1945 France (128).

Behind these different explorations lies, however, an ambitious attempt on Barash’s part to identify an “impartial” or “critical” space for historical reflection in the sociopolitical sphere of public life in which historical thinking unfolds. Barash defines the critical function of history in the public sphere mostly by what it does not do: history is most clearly different from mythic, ideological recollections of the past but also, if more subtly, from the emergence of the ostensibly human quest to imbue the past with a common meaning through the nourishing of what Barash calls collective memory. In what follows, I consider his attempt to identify a space for history independent from collective memory and myth. Beforehand I will briefly establish as Barash himself does the central dilemma at stake.

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Plato (Silanion Musei Capitolini MC1377)

Barash astutely begins his book with Plato’s concept of anamnesis. In the Meno, Phaedo, and Phaedrus, Socrates suggests that anamnesis recalls in the present what was always already known by the immortal soul prior to embodiment. Recollection brings one back to the hyperouranian vision of eternal truth that the soul had before falling into this world of flux and death. The political consequence of Plato’s doctrine of anamnesis is significant as Hannah Arendt understood in her important essay on authority (Arendt, Between Past and Present, 91-141). Arendt discusses Plato’s attempt to establish a system of authority that would transcend the conflictual and violent life of the polis. According to her, Plato sought to establish the hegemony of reason in the person of the philosopher king as the possessor of the truth gained through anamnesis. The philosopher contemplates the ideas that “exist” in a realm beyond this world of uncertainty and change. The philosopher contemplates the truth, and the truth is unassailable precisely because it transcends the uncertainties, imperfections, and perspectivalism of finite human existence.

The collapse of this Platonic notion of truth since the late nineteenth century has opened up for Arendt and others the possibility of embracing time or contingency as the basis for a democratic politics of equality. The argument being this: if timeless truth cannot exist for mortals, then no one single person or group can claim the right to rule over another (Arendt, The Promise of Politics, 19; The Human Condition, 32). The lack of absolutes or indubitable foundations precludes any one view from becoming dominant—a community comes together in shared recognition of the fragility of any view. This anti-foundationalist notion of democracy has been embraced by a range of post-1945 thinkers from Theodor W. Adorno to Jan Patočka to Jacques Rancière. In what can be viewed as an important addition to this post-1945 conception of democracy, Barash suggests that history—including the one he writes—brings to public awareness the “group finitude” that subjects any given collective memory to “modification” (215-216). History also underscores the impossibility of ever bringing to full clarity the “opacity” of the past (105-106, 113, 170). Hence, history reveals the fragility and limits of memory as the collective product of mortals who cannot transcend the gap between past and present, since a holistic view of time eludes the “finite anthropological vision” (113).

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Hannah Arendt (© Fred Stein Archive/Archive Photos/Getty Images, 1949)

A historical awareness of the finitude of collective memory proves especially important because it can undermine the ideological mobilization of collective memory for an exclusionary politics. One of the hallmarks of the radical right’s assertion of authority in modern European history has been the creation of myths about the alleged eternal homogeneity of the community whose interests it claims to represent. The radical right perpetuates a nationalistic memory that claims to be absolutely correct. By insisting on the fragility and limits of any collective memory, history challenges the ideological assumption that the past can be known with absolute certainty.

History also challenges ideological interpretations of the past in another way, as Barash shows in his gentle critique of Barthes and White’s portrayals of history as a form of fiction. In Barthes’ words: “Historical discourse is essentially an ideological elaboration or, to be more precise, one which is imaginary” (quoted in Barash, 179). While Barash appreciates Barthes’s and White’s challenge to naïve empiricism, their view is nevertheless “too extreme” for him (176). Many historians will probably agree, but I think it might be worth considering alongside Barash the deeper issue at stake here regarding the status of critical thought. Barthes’s deployment of the word ideology brings us back to the relevant nineteenth-century debate between British empiricists and German idealists over the question of whether reason is independent of history. Is reason universal and necessary? For Marx, a student of Hegel and Kant on this question, if reason is not universal and necessary, then it has to be conventional or ideological. And, if reason is ideological, then how can philosophy possibly fulfill its critical task? Herbert Marcuse lucidly summarized the issue in Reason and Revolution, writing that empiricism “confined men within the limits of ‘the given’” (Marcuse, Reason and Revolution, 20).

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Herbert Marcuse

Barash’s project aims to rescue “critical” thinking from the conventions of the present as well but he does not do so through Hegel (177 and 216). How does he proceed? He locates a critical space for history by distinguishing it from myth, the central difference being that history relies on “the critical methods of reconstruction on a factual basis” (216). The historian builds a narrative partly from the facts of what happened. This view may sound like conventional empiricism at first glance, but it turns out not to be. To understand the nuance of Barash’s argument, we must ask a basic question: What is a fact? The strict empiricist claims that the facts are the unassailable truth that renders the authority of the historical narrative indisputable. The empiricist is an inverted Platonist who forgets the history of the fact. The word fact comes from the Latin factum, which means human actions and deeds. The facts are wrought by humans and that which is wrought by humans –– in the western metaphysical tradition at least –– has long been viewed as contingent beginning with Plato who views history as the study of the shadows of the cave.

Barash is not an empiricist in the traditional sense as just described. He strikes me as advancing what I might call a “contingent empiricism” –– an empiricism that strives to remain open to modification and change in full awareness of the temporality of one’s own exploration of the past. There is no Platonic escape from time in Barash’s account other than the “illusory” escape of myth (113). If there is no escape from history, if our perspective of what happened changes as we change and we change as we explore what happened, then the past cannot be grasped in a final or certain manner. The “opacity” of the past always withdraws from one’s temporal grasp. The only way to claim a final account of the past consists in turning the past into a constantly present thing that never changes.

If all is equally temporal, one might express worry that such a view leads to a vitiating relativism whereby every claim and behavior is equally justified. But this worry overlooks a central presupposition of critique. Any critical project, if it is to engage in an egalitarian exchange of reasons and is not to be mere apodictic Declaration (a “Machtspruch”), implicitly holds some value constant as the basis of the critique it offers. Returning to Barash’s book might illuminate the point. In the end, I see Barash as orienting history towards an affirmation of temporality or transience. The critical edge of such a view of history is not only that it challenges the mythic assertion of homogeneity but also that it undermines the ideological impulse to declare a secure and certain interpretation of our world. History disrupts certainty by affirming the complex condition of change that humans have struggled to make sense of since the ancient period. Ironically, history holds time constant as the basis of its critique of ideology and myth.

To conclude, let me return to my initial praise of Barash’s book. It raises a host of important questions about memory and history, while placing an important emphasis on history as an affirmation of the transience of human life. In this respect, I look forward to the exchange on his stimulating book.

The editors wish to thank Michael Meng for his graciousness in volunteering to write the inaugural post.

Michael Meng is Associate Professor of History at Clemson University. He is the author of Shattered Spaces: Encountering Jewish Ruins in Postwar Germany and Poland (Harvard, 2011) and co-editor of Jewish Space in Contemporary Poland (Indiana, 2015). He has published articles in Central European History, Comparative Studies in Society and History, Constellations: An International Journal of Critical and Democratic Theory, The Journal of Modern History, and New German Critique. He is currently writing a book on death, history, and salvation in European thought as well as a book on authoritarianism.