In Dread of Derrida

By guest contributor Jonathon Catlin

According to Ethan Kleinberg, historians are still living in fear of the specter of deconstruction; their attempted exorcisms have failed. In Haunting History: For a Deconstructive Approach to the Past (2017), Kleinberg fruitfully “conjures” this spirit so that historians might finally confront it and incorporate its strategies for representing elusive pasts. A panel of historians recently discussed the book at New York University, including Kleinberg (Wesleyan), Joan Wallach Scott (Institute for Advanced Study), Carol Gluck (Columbia), and Stefanos Geroulanos (NYU), moderated by Zvi Ben-Dor Benite (NYU). A recording of the lively two-hour exchange is available at the bottom of this post.

Processed with VSCO with f2 preset

Left to Right: Profs Geroulanos, Gluck, Kleinberg, and Scott

History’s ghost story goes back some decades. Hayden White’s Metahistory roiled the profession in 1974 by effectively translating the “linguistic turn” of the French deconstruction into historical terms: historical narratives are no less “emplotted” in genres like romance and comedy, and hence no less unstable, than literary ones. White sparked fierce debate, notably about the limits of representing the Holocaust, which took place alongside probes into the ethics of those of deconstruction’s heroes with ties to Nazism, including Martin Heidegger and Paul de Man. The intensity of these battles was arguably a product of hatred for one theorist in particular: Jacques Derrida, whose work forms the backbone of Kleinberg’s book. Yet despite decades of scholarship undermining the nineteenth-century, Rankean foundations of the historical discipline, the regime of what Kleinberg calls “ontological realism” apparently still reigns. His book is not simply the latest in a long line of criticism of such work, but rather a manifesto for a positive theory of historical writing that employs deconstruction’s linguistic and epistemological insights.

This timely intervention took place, as Scott remarked, “in a moment when the death of theory has been triumphantly proclaimed, and indeed celebrated, and when many historians have turned with relief to accumulating big data, or simply telling evidence-based stories about an unproblematic past.” She lamented that

the self-reflexive moment and the epistemological challenge associated with names like Foucault, Irigaray, Derrida, and Lacan—all those dangerous French theorists who integrated the very ground on which we stood—reality, truth, experience, language, the body—that moment is said to be past, a wrong turn taken; thankfully we’re now on the right course.

Scott praised Kleinberg’s book for haunting precisely this sense of “triumphalism.”

Kleinberg began his remarks with a disappointed but unsurprised reflection that most historians still operate under the spell of what he calls “ontological realism.” This methodology is defined by the attempt to recover historical events, which, insofar as they are observable, become “fixed and immutable.” This elides the difference between the “real” past and history (writing about the past), unwittingly taking “the map of the past,” or historical representation, as the past itself. It implicitly operates as if the past is a singular and discrete object available for objective retrieval. While such historians may admit their own uncertainty about events, they nevertheless insist that the events really happened in a certain way; the task is only to excavate them ever more exactly.

This dogmatism reigns despite decades of deconstructive criticism from the likes of White, Frank Ankersmit, and Dominick LaCapra in the pages of journals like History and Theory (of which Kleinberg is executive editor), which has immeasurably sharpened the self-consciousness of historical writing. In his 1984 History and Criticism, LaCapra railed against the “archival fetishism” then evident in social history, whereby the archive became “more than the repository of traces of the past which may be used in its inferential reconstruction” and took on the quality of “a stand-in for the past that brings the mystified experience of the thing itself” (p. 92, n. 17). If historians had read their Derrida, however, they would know that the past inscribed in writing “is ‘always already’ lost for the historian.” Scott similarly wrote in a 1991 Critical Inquiry essay: “Experience is at once always already an interpretation and is in need of interpretation.” As she cited from Kleinberg’s book, meaning is produced by reading a text, not released from it or simply reflected. Every text, no matter how documentary, is a “site of contestation and struggle” (15).

Kleinberg’s intervention is to remind us that this erosion of objectivity is not just a tragic story of decline into relativism, for a deconstructive approach also frees historians from the shackles of objectivism, opening up new sources and methodologies. White famously concluded in Metahistory that there were at the end of the day no “objective” or “scientific” reasons to prefer one way of telling a story to another, but only “moral or aesthetic ones” (434). With the acceptance of what White called the “Ironic” mode, which refused to privilege certain accounts of the past as definitive, also came a new freedom and self-consciousness. Kleinberg similarly revamps White’s Crocean conclusion that “all history is contemporary history,” reminding us that our present social and political preoccupations determine which voices we seek out and allow to speak in our work. We can never tell the authoritative history of a subject, but only construct a possible history of it.

Kleinberg relays the upside of deconstructive history more convincingly than White ever did: Opening up history beyond ontological realism makes room for “alternative pasts” to enter through the “present absences” in historiography. Contrary to historians’ best intentions, the hold of ontological positivism perversely closes out and renders illegible voices that do not fit with the dominant paradigm, who are marginalized to obscurity by the authority of each self-enclosed narrative. Hence making some voices legible too often makes others illegible, for example E. P. Thompson foregrounding the working class only to sideline women. The alternative is a porous account that allows itself to be penetrated by alterity and unsettled by the ghosts it has excluded. The latent ontology of holding onto some “real,” to the exclusion of others, would thus give way to a hauntology (Derrida’s play on the ambiguous sound of the French ontologie) whereby the text acknowledges and allows in present absences. Whereas for Kleinberg Foucault has been “tamed” by the historical discipline, this Derridean metaphor remains unsettling. Reinhart Koselleck’s notion of “non-simultaneity” (Ungleichzeitgkeit) further informs Kleinberg’s view of “hauntology as a theory of multiple temporalities and multiple pasts that all converge, or at least could converge, on the present,” that is, on the historian in the act of writing about the past (133).

Kleinberg fixates on the metaphor of the ghost because it represents the liminal in-between of absent presences and present absences. Ghosts are unsettling because they obey no chronology, flitting between past and present, history and dream. Yet deconstructive hauntology stands to enrich narratives because destabilized stories become porous to previously excluded voices. In his response, Geroulanos pressed Kleinberg to consider several alternative monster metaphors: ghosts who tell lies, not bringing back the past “as it really was” but making up alternative claims; and the in-between figure of the zombie, the undead past that has not passed.

Even in the theory-friendly halls of NYU, Kleinberg was met with some of the same suspicion and opposition White was decades ago. While all respondents conceded the theoretical import of Kleinberg’s argument, the question remained how to write such a history in practice. Preempting this question, Kleinberg’s conclusion includes a preview of a parallel book he has been writing on the Talmudic lectures Emmanuel Levinas presented in postwar Paris. He hopes to enact what Derrida called a “double session.” The first half of the book provides a secular intellectual history of how Levinas, prompted by the Holocaust, shifted from Heidegger to Talmud; but the second half tells this history from the perspective of revelation, inspired by “Levinas’s own counterhistorical claim that divine and ethical meaning transcends time,” telling a religious counter-narrative to the standard secular one. Scott praised the way Kleinberg’s two narratives provide two positive accounts that nonetheless unsettle one another. Kleinberg writes: “The two sessions pull at each other, creating cracks in any one homogenous history, through which portions of the heterogeneous and polysemic past that haunts history can rise and be activated.” This “dislodging” and “irruptive” method “marks an irreducible and generative multiplicity” of alternate histories (149). Active haunting prevents Kleinberg’s method from devolving into mere perspectivism; each narrative actively throws the other into question, unsettling its authority.

A further decentering methodology Kleinberg proposed was breaking through the “analog ceiling” of print scholarship into the digital realm. Gluck emphasized how digital or cyber-history has the freedom to be more associative than chronological, interrupting texts with links, alternative accounts, and media. Thus far, however, digital history, shackled by big data and “neoempiricism,” has largely remained in the grip of ontological realism, producing linear narratives. Still, there was some consensus that these technologies might enable new deconstructive approaches. In this sense, Kleinberg writes, “Metahistory came too soon, arriving before the platforms and media that would allow us to explore the alternative narrative possibilities that were at our ready disposal” (117).

Listening to Kleinberg, I thought of a recent experimental book by Yair Mintzker, The Many Deaths of Jew Süss: The Notorious Trial and Execution of an Eighteenth-Century Court Jew (2017). It tells the story of the death of Joseph Oppenheimer, the villain of the infamous Nazi propaganda film Jud Süss (1940) produced at the behest of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. Mintzker was inspired by the narrative model of the film Rashomon (1950), which Geroulanos elaborated in some depth. Director Akira Kurosawa famously presents four different and conflicting accounts of how a samurai traveling through a wooded grove ends up murdered, from the perspectives of his wife, the bandit they encounter, a bystander, and the samurai himself speaking through a medium. Mintzker’s narrative choice is not postmodern fancy, but in this case a historiographical necessity. Because Oppenheimer, as a Jew, was not entitled to give testimony in his own trial, the only extant accounts available come from four similarly self-interested and conflictual sources: a judge, a convert, a Jew, and a writer. Mintzker’s work would seem to demonstrate the viability of Kleinbergian hauntology well outside twentieth-century intellectual history.

Kleinberg mused in closing: “If there’s one thing I want to do…it’s to take this book and maybe scare historians a little bit, and other people who think about the past. To make them uncomfortable, in the end, I hope, in a productive way.” Whether historians will welcome this unsettling remains to be seen, for as with White the cards remain stacked against theory. Yet our present anxiety about living in a “post-truth era” might just provide the necessary pressure for historians to recognize the ghosts that haunt the interminable task of engaging the past.


Jonathon Catlin is a PhD student in History at Princeton University. He works on intellectual responses to catastrophe in German and Jewish thought and the Frankfurt School of critical theory.




  1. An interesting historical question is how, and, of course, also why, where, and when, the phrase ‘linguistic turn’ became associated with the work of certain French theorists when it was originally used, so far as I’m aware, by the Austrian expatriate and philosopher Gustav Bergmann in a review of Peter Strawson’s ‘Individuals’ in 1960 (I owe this reference to Peter Hacker).

    As to the relevance of Derrida to the writing of history, I don’t know. I’m also not sure that it’s right to say of E. P. Thompson that by writing about the working class he sidelined women. Female textile workers, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Joanna Southcott, for example, are all discussed in ‘The Making of the English Working Class’. What I would say of Thompson, however, is that he was incredibly, and indelibly, English.

    Anyway, this is all very intriguing.


    1. Apologies for the additional comment.

      Re. the question in the first paragraph of the above see Judith Surkis’s ‘When Was the Linguistic Turn? A Genealogy’. I wouldn’t say that it’s a complete treatment of the question however.

      Relatedly, if anyone wants to read an interesting critical account of Derrida, esp. in relation to matters of ‘interpretation’, etc., see Martin Stone’s chapter in Crary and Read’s ‘The New Wittgenstein’.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s