Intellectual history Interview

The Pronouns of History: An Interview with Enzo Traverso

By Sakiru Adebayo

Cornell University historian Enzo Traverso’s latest book, Singular Pasts: The “I” in Historiography (Columbia University Press, 2022), begins with the observation that today, “history is increasingly written in the first person” (2). While historians such as Ivan Jablonka, Sergio Luzzatto, and Mark Mazower have written in the first person to lay bare their emotional ties to their subjects and to give their writing a literary flavor, literary writers including W. G. Sebald, Patrick Modiano, Javier Cercas, and Daniel Mendelsohn have presented their novels as historical investigations based on archival sources. Traverso suggests that the rise of first-person history writing mirrors our neoliberal era of apolitical individualism, tending to “privatize the past” (145) and fall into the traps of presentism and subjectivism. However, his epilogue argues that the subjective historiography of Saidiya Hartman “transcends the author’s self and results in a collective view of the past,” proving “that it is possible to write in the first person avoiding solipsism and connecting one’s manifold ‘I’ with the ‘we’ that makes history” (159, 163). Sakiru Adebayo interviewed Traverso about his new book


Sakiru Adebayo: Let’s start with the title of your book, Singular Pasts. What does it mean for a past to be singular, and how does this connect to the rise of subjectivist historiography?

Enzo Traverso: This is an old and controversial topic that often reemerges in historiography. All events are undoubtedly singular, but they cannot be understood without inscribing them into a broader historical context, in which their singularities reveal analogies and reiterations. What appears as unique is often the exceptional entanglement of elements that exist in several countries and continents or have already occurred in previous ages. I think that “absolute” singularities – unexpected events that are neither comparable nor repeatable – exclusively belong to the realm of memory, not to the field of historical interpretation. Our lives can be deeply and permanently shaped by happiness, tragedies, or traumas that appear to us as unique and incomparable, but scholars should be aware that such singularities are relative. Comparing them can be a delicate, uncomfortable, and difficult task, but it remains an irreplaceable procedure of historical investigation. The new “subjectivist” history writing I critically analyze in my book tends precisely to blur this boundary between the singularity of personal perceptions, feelings, and emotions, and the intelligibility of history that inevitably transcends individuals by placing them into a larger landscape in which they are not alone but interact with other actors of the past. I certainly don’t recommend ignoring feelings and emotions, which need to be respected and understood, but this “subjectivist” historiography often neglects the polyphony of the past by retreating into the monologue of the one or the few. Its horizon is limited, shrunk to the subjectivity of the few, or even to that of the historian themselves.

SA: Why does the “pronoun of history” matter so much? By this I mean the voice in which history is written – whether in the first or third person, singular or plural, or even in the voice of masculine, feminine, or neutral pronouns. What implications does each of these pronouns have on the writing, circulation, reception, and consumption of historical knowledge?

ET: Describing and interpreting the polyphony of the past means overcoming the limited horizon of one’s own self. This intellectual operation requires certain precautions, one of which is the impersonal style of writing found in most works of historical scholarship. Indeed, since antiquity, history has been written in the third person. Of course, this simple rule is a very precarious guarantee of “objectivity”; it nonetheless affirms a “universalist” perspective which, at least till now, was a premise for producing historical knowledge.

The starting point of my book is the simple fact (observed by other scholars like Jeremy Popkin before me) that, in recent years, historians’ autobiographies have very significantly increased in number. This is the symptom of a new self-reflexive posture that implies the abandonment of old positivist illusions about the objectivity of historical knowledge. Historians are not “neutral” observers; they obviously have a subjectivity made up of a very complex network of national, gender, class, religious, ethnic, race, and political identities, inherited cultures, psychological patterns, and lived experiences that shape their ways of writing the past. They should be aware of this background, of the part of subjectivity that is necessarily involved in their work, but writing history requires the capacity to overcome their own self (even without denying it); it requires a critical distance toward both their objects of investigation and their subjectivity. Their task consists in listening and understanding the voices of the past – you call them the “pronouns of history” – but writing in the third person means precisely not exhibiting their own “pronoun.” Subjectivist historians who write in the first person think that writing history does not mean describing and interpreting the voices of the past, but rather establishing a kind of posthumous dialogue between their own subjectivity and that of certain actors of the past. This creates a “singular past”: much more than discovering and learning history, readers penetrate the subjective universe of author, who writes for themselves. When scholars write a history book, they usually try to answer some conventional questions: when, whom, how, and finally, why. Subjectivist historians seem to answer different questions: Who am I? Why am I interested in this event or actor of the past? Why does this event affect me so deeply? Which emotions do I feel in discovering the past? This way, the past becomes a subjective experience, something that belongs to an individual sphere, not to a shared historical consciousness.

SA: When I first saw your book, I assumed it was one of those books that lament the dearth of objectivity and question the quality of historiographical works that employ the first-person narrative voice. But I was pleasantly surprised to find that your book argues that even though subjectivist historiography has many faults, it is a force that traditional historians need to reckon with and which can no longer be dismissed as “unserious” or “disingenuous.” As you pointed out above, historiography is filtered through the subjectivity of the historian, even when the third person is employed. Therefore, if “scientist historiography’s” claim to neutrality or objectivity is illusory, and subjectivist historiography “is not necessarily the best alternative to the abuses and deadlocks of positivism” (80), what then would the ideal historical methodology be?

ET: You are right in emphasizing that my book was not written with the purpose of defending traditional historiography against the attacks of new innovative scholars. I am not a “guardian of the temple,” and I am not attached to any school. I don’t think there could even be an “ideal” method of history writing; I am rather deeply convinced that historical knowledge requires a multiplicity of approaches, and that this diversity is beneficial to any of them. It is precisely to avoid misunderstandings about the goal of my book that it includes a chapter devoted to dismantling the positivist illusion of an “impartial” (Wertfrei) account of the past. Postwar German historiography is one of the most eloquent examples of the hypocrisy very often carried out by such an illusion: it is in the name of “objectivity” that many former members of the Hitler Youth – namely those who created the Institute of Contemporary History in Munich – accused of “subjectivism” their Jewish colleagues and sketched a very apologetic interpretation of Nazi Germany behind a façade of a supposedly “scientific,” “objective,” and “neutral” reconstitution of the past. It is curious to observe that today many German historians direct similar reproaches to their postcolonial colleagues, whose “political agenda” would hinder and damage their capacity for historical judgment (think of the campaign against Dirk Moses, a reputed scholar of the Holocaust and colonial genocides, about which I have written). As I said, writing in the third person is not a guarantee against subjectivism. Frankly speaking, I much prefer an avowedly subjectivist approach to a highly subjectivist approach hypocritically hidden behind a supposedly “scientific” objectivity and neutrality.

There are many forms of subjectivism. I don’t write in the first person – at least in history books – but I don’t deny its legitimacy, insofar as “subjectivist” historians fulfill some elementary requirements of their discipline (basically, a careful use of their sources and a respect for factual evidence). I simply observe that this approach – as fascinating as it can be – inevitably shrinks the historical landscape. In my book, I stress the contract between this subjectivist methodology and the practice of “microhistory,” which starts from a detail and, by gradually zooming out, enlarges it by opening the window into a broader landscape. As Siegfried Kracauer pertinently emphasized, historical intelligence means a permanent “scale-game,” alternating long shots and close-ups. My impression is that writing history in the first person means looking at the past from a bad perspective, adopting the gaze of a shortsighted observer who is compelled to scrutinize facts, objects, and people exclusively by close-ups. This approach captures emotions and feelings, but unfortunately, it neglects their context.

SA: In the chapter “Discourse on Method,” you highlight the French historian Ivan Jablonka’s iteration of the typologies of “I” (positional “I,” methodological “I,” and emotional/sentimental “I”) that exist in the relatively new modality of ego-historiography. What are the differences between the “I” of positionality, methodology, and sentimentality in auto-historiography?

ET: It is Ivan Jablonka who, theorizing this subjectivist method as a kind of ideal way of writing history, establishes a typology that discomposes the historian “I” in three different categories: the “I” of “position” that locates the author in their context giving them a social, cultural, maybe even a political identity; the “I” of “method” that announces their procedure, their sources, and the process of investigating them; and the “I” of “emotion” which, instead of hiding them, displays the feelings aroused by their inquiry in the historian themself. Through these multiple articulations, the “I” becomes a kind of narrative device. Undoubtedly innovative, the results of this procedure are often remarkable. Subjectivist scholars invent a new relationship with the past that is creative, surprising, and certainly less boring than most linear accounts of conventional historiography. The problem, then, does not lie in the quality of their style but rather in the results of their research, which can be interesting but cannot overcome the limits of a shortsighted gaze. In many cases, their works are as narratively flamboyant as cognitively poor. They powerfully illuminate the mental and emotional universe of their authors, but such brilliance leaves the past that they are supposed to interpret in its shadow. Jablonka’s book on his Polish grandfathers, for example, is deeply moving. But, reading his book, we don’t learn anything new about the Holocaust. Instead, we are treated to a kind of radiographic view of the cultural, mental, and emotional world of a Jewish historian living in Paris at the beginning of the twenty-first century. In the past, scholars tried to hide their subjectivity; today they can display, even exhibit it. This is not only possible but even encouraged when their subjectivity deals with topics – like the Holocaust – that are bound by powerful consensus.

SA: I admire Jablonka’s works, but I also share your criticism of his works. Can history really be thought of as contemporary literature? Is the appeal of subjectivist historiography even that strong in the discipline? On the other hand, does the objection to subjectivist historiography symptomatize a kind of disciplinary fear of a breach in the “moral contract” of every historian?

ET: You are probably right in observing that many objections to subjectivist historiography arise from some kind of “disciplinary fear.” This fear is legitimate, even if I don’t think it would justify a simple stigmatization of first-person or “ego-historiography.” My skepticism does not come from a desire of rejection or condemnation. I don’t share the enthusiasm this new historiography has engendered in recent years, but my warning is not at all an excommunication. If they wish to explore new paths, they are welcome to. I simply observe that, after displaying their multiple “I’s,” Jablonka and similar figures like Artières become the true heroes of their books, thus overwhelming the voices of the past, which they pretend to unbury and to listen to.

SA: There seems to be a longstanding tension between the novelist and the historian. The historian claims to provide historical truths (verifiable facts), while the novelist claims to provide emotional/affective truths (which do not necessarily negate facts but, as some novelists will argue, are often more resilient if not authentic than facts). I wonder if the emergence of the novelistic historiographer does not blur this separation between history and historical fiction. Do the historical novelist and the novelistic historiographer now have similar missions?

ET: My book stresses this paradoxical crossing: whereas historians write in first-person, giving to the past an emotional dimension that was usually treated as the privileged province of literature, novelists have become more and more obsessed with history, renouncing the creation of fictional characters, digging through archives, and telling stories grounded on properly verifiable (and not merely plausible) facts. The boundaries between history and literature, between scholarship and fiction, are indeed now blurred, with the emergence of such unexpected figures as “novelistic historiographers” and “historical novelists.” In my view, this is quite an exciting novelty: blurring the frontiers is fruitful for both literature and historiography. This change, however, is not completely new; it simply makes explicit an old tendency. Mario Vargas Llosa, Jonathan Littell, and Javier Cercas, for example, all conducted large archival investigations before writing many of their novels, but they are not the first novelists to depict or recreate the flavor of a bygone age. Our image of the Napoleonic Wars is inseparable from the heroes of the novels of Tolstoy or Stendhal. Conversely, outstanding historians such as Jules Michelet, Isaac Deutscher or, closer to us, Saul Friedländer, did not need to write in the first person to give a literary dimension to their historical frescos.

This new symbiotic relationship between history and literature is fascinating. No one could reproach historians for improving their literary style and making their books as readable and attractive as fictional works; and equally, it would not make sense to lambaste novelists for grounding their stories on extended and careful archival inquiries, thus making more credible their characters and their plots. However, as close and overlapping as historians and novelists can be, their symbiotic relationship does not erase every distinction. History and fiction are not the same thing, nor are they interchangeable. They can overlap, but they possess their own rules and have their own purposes, neither of which are the same. Great literature does not need to be a critical discourse on the past, and history writing cannot be reduced to painting the human comedy. What we ask of history is to elucidate the social relations, economic interests, cultural patterns, political conflicts, moral and cultural habits, motivations, and mental worlds behind human agency. Literature – as well as film – can better transmit sentiments, which are another dimension of the past, and they can do that by inventing characters or dialogues in a manner forbidden to historians. I am certainly not fixing any hierarchy between literature and history. I simply state that, as close and intertwined as they can be, they are two different things.

SA: In the book, you also argue that “the linguistic turn transformed the relationship between history and literature and favored the emergence of memory – individual and collective – in the public sphere, a phenomenon that has deeply shaken historiography” (139). As a memory scholar, I am curious to hear your thoughts on how memory studies influenced the proliferation of subjectivist historiography.

ET: It is true that many works of subjectivist historians seem to confirm Hayden White’s thesis of a substantial identity between history and literature. There is a significant synchronicity between the emergence of memory studies and the linguistic turn in the early 1980s, with both becoming central in the humanities. The linguistic turn was born in the U.S., whereas memory studies irrupted first in continental Europe, notably in France, but both tendencies significantly changed the intellectual landscape on a global scale. From different perspectives, they gave subjectivity – either the plurality of historical subjects with their languages and identities, or the subjectivity of lived experiences – a new role in interpreting the past. This also corresponded to the awakening of minorities in the public sphere when some categories previously central – think of the category of class – seemed to decline. In the U.S., it was the time of “identity politics,” at the end of two decades shaped by the rise of feminism and Black struggles for civil rights, as well as by the Vietnam War that deeply shook a certain ideal of Americanness. In Europe, it was the Holocaust moment, with the striking emergence of the extermination of the Jews as a central theme of political and cultural debates, from the Historikerstreit in Germany (1986) to Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah in France (1985), and Primo Levi’s The Drowned and the Saved in Italy (1985). Previously ignored or forgotten by the social sciences, memory returned to center stage, theorized by such scholars as Pierre Nora and Yosef Haym Yerushalmi.

Memory and history are both representations of the past, but they are different. Whereas history supposes a distance, a gap between past and present, memory carries out an emotional link with the past, which tends to erase distance. Memory can be defined as a lived experience – the past deposited in someone’s recollections – or as a representation – a whole of ideas and images with which we visualize or think of the past – but it always supposes an emotional link with history. I don’t follow Pierre Nora, the scholar who forged the concept of “realms of memory,” when he theorizes a kind of ontological difference between memory and history, since they permanently interact, with history usually trying to answer questions and to fulfill a social demand for knowledge that arises from collective memory. Nonetheless, memory differs from history insofar as it means looking at the past through a subjective prism, and this seems to me a necessary premise for the birth of subjectivist historiography. Several decades later, writing history in the first person aims at overcoming the dichotomy between history and memory. Subjectivist scholars usually fulfill all the conventional rules for historical research – notably the use of archival sources. But they narrativize their inquiry through a parallel procedure that simultaneously describes what happened in the past and how they reconstituted these events, without hiding the feelings engendered by this intellectual operation. In this sense, both the linguistic turn and memory studies are crucial steps toward the advent of a new historiography written in the first person.

SA: In the book, you show how presentism favors the retreat of scholars into the sphere of the intimate. You also note that this phenomenon cannot be divorced from the advent of individualism as a major feature of the regime of neoliberalism. In other words, presentism and individualism, two features of neoliberalism, are partly responsible for the rise in subjectivist historiography. However, you caution that a neoliberal regime of historicity does not necessarily produce neoliberal historiography. If subjectivist historiography is, in part, a reflection of the neoliberal age, when or how does it not count as neoliberal historiography?

ET: Neoliberalism is a civilization or a form of life related to a particular stage of capitalism. It should not be confused with a political regime. Does it affect history writing? Yes, insofar as neoliberal policies mean a managerial governance of universities that cuts budgets in the humanities. But neoliberalism does not mean an official view of the past like those seen in Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, or the USSR. There is a neoliberal historiography that depicts finance as the hidden impulse of civilization and progress, but it remains very marginal in history departments. Now, most subjectivist historians do not share a neoliberal agenda. On the contrary, many of them belong to the left. I don’t characterize writing history in the first person as neoliberal historiography; I simply point out that it belongs to the age of neoliberalism. It is no great surprise that the age of market society, individualism, entrepreneurship, and competition as universal forms of life produces a historiography written in the first person. Without defending neoliberal values, subjectivist historians look at the past through an individual lens. They do not try to reconstruct collective actions and are quite impermeable to the polyphony of the past. They wish to redeem forgotten figures – often anonymous people or their family’s ancestors – and attune to them by exhibiting their own emotions. Their historiography is neither useless nor insignificant; it can be fascinating and touching, but it is a mirror of an age of individualism, of the anthropological paradigm introduced by neoliberalism in our culture.

SA: I found it quite pleasing that you end the book with an exploration of auto-historiography in Black intellectual traditions because we can learn a lot from Black scholars on how to productively position oneself as the subject of one’s inquiry. I particularly found your delicate analysis of Saidiya Hartman’s works quite satisfying, not only because I am currently re-reading and teaching them (Lose Your Mother and Wayward Lives), but also because you present them as models for doing subjectivist historiography (although one cannot say for a fact that Hartman views her own works that way). You argue that Hartman overcomes the limits ­– and avoids the trap – of most subjectivist history in the way that her writing is not simply a self-indulgent introspection but a way of reaching to the collective through the individual. I guess this is less of a question and more of an affirmation of your argument that subjectivist historiography, despite its pitfalls, is legitimate historiography and that scholars like Hartman have proved that this style of historiography has a place in the discipline of History (with a capital H). Do you agree?

ET: You have perfectly captured the spirit of the epilogue. The works of Hartman are worth so much to me precisely because they find an admirable synthesis between a vast historical landscape (slavery and the slave trade), the subjectivity of its actors (black suffering and black rebellion, respectively), and the author’s identity quest (the search for her ancestors and African roots). Presentism acts in Hartman’s works not as a closed temporality unable to escape from the “now,” but rather as the context in which a haunting legacy becomes attuned to and resonates with the struggles of the present. From this point of view, Hartman seems to me a fruitful alternative to the impasses of Jablonka. Differently from the French historian, whose voice overwhelms those of the heroes of his books, Hartman’s narrative is a lesson in modesty, the apprenticeship of a collective belonging, and the search for a singular place in a choral ensemble. Her voice is more authentic and beautiful the more it dissolves into that of a collective actor, an actor who is powerful precisely because she knows its history. Though she is not really a historian but rather an “anthropologist writer,” she is able to find a universal voice by writing in the first person. This is the opposite of withdrawing historiography into the author’s subjectivity.

Sakiru Adebayo is an assistant professor in the Department of English and Cultural Studies at the University of British Columbia, Okanagan. His new book, Continuous Pasts: Frictions of Memory in Postcolonial Africa,is forthcoming from the University of Michigan Press in 2023.

Edited by Jonathon Catlin

Featured Image: Umberto Boccioni, Self-Portrait, 1905, oil on canvas, New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Public Domain.

Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

Natural Law and Christian Ethics: An Interview with Sarah Mortimer

by Alexander Collin

Sarah Mortimer is Associate Professor of Early Modern History at Christ Church, Oxford. She is especially interested in the relationship between political thought and religious ideas. Her work focuses on a period when new ideas about salvation, about political life and about what it means to be human began to be expressed; after Martin Luther, Niccolò Machiavelli and Christopher Columbus the intellectual, political and religious landscape looked very different. Her research looks at how people sought to understand, explain, and shape their world in this fascinating and complex period.

Alexander Collin is a contributing editor of the JHI Blog. He interviewed Mortimer about her recent JHI article Warfare, Christianity, and the Law of Nature and her ongoing research into theology and political thought in early modern Europe.

Alexander Collin: Let’s start with something relatively straightforward. How did you come to write this piece in the JHI? Where does it fit in your body of work as a whole and how does it relate to other things you’re working on at the moment? 

Sarah Mortimer: The immediate impetus for this piece was a conference organized by Ian Campbell as part of his “War and the Supernatural” project; the project is explicitly cross-confessional and that spurred me to thinking about how questions of warfare and natural law were discussed on different sides of the Reformation fault lines. For a long time, though, in fact ever since my undergraduate days, I’ve wondered how and why Christians see natural law as obligatory, how they understand its relationship to divine law and to the teaching of Christ.

This theme has been important in my recent work, including my book on early modern political thought (Reformation, Resistance, and Reason of State), and I want to develop it further in the future. My next project is tentatively entitled “Virtue beyond Law: Transformations in Protestant ethics 1500–1700,” and that will be an opportunity to look in more detail at how early modern Protestants understand the duties of natural law and their relationship to Christian ethics. I’ve been very fortunate to find colleagues to discuss these questions with, including Ian and his team, and so it was great to be involved in the conference and then write up my paper for this cluster.

AC: Turning to the substance of the article: The distinction between what is licit and what is required is a major part of the debate over warfare that you discuss here. Is this a distinction which recurs in the philosophy and theology of this period? Are there other major arguments which turn on this structure? 

SM: I think this distinction is a helpful way for Thomist Catholics to make sense of the natural law, and to find a way to explain those acts which fall short of Christian perfection but which are not in themselves wrong. The basic structure of their argument is shaped in many ways by their theology of salvation, and by the Catholic idea that there are some acts which are supererogatory and meritorious, in other words acts that we do not have to do, that we are not obliged to, but which gain us merit if we do carry them out.

These are sometimes called Counsels of Perfection, and one good example that is often used is visiting the sick in time of plague. It’s not wrong to stay away from ill and contagious people, but going to visit them is an act of charity that goes beyond strict duty and which counts as a good work.

Of course, Luther will contest all of this—but that then raises important questions for Protestants about ethics, politics, and so on. I look at some of the consequences for political power in my recent book, and in an article on “Counsels of Perfection” but the ethical implications for both Protestants and Catholics remains to be fully explored.

AC: I got the sense that, in each of the philosophical positions on natural law, warfare, and Christianity that you discuss in this article, there is a mixture of a kind of academic, abstract discussion on the one hand, with a response to emerging political events on the other. For example, Cajetan is engaging with the church fathers, but he is also thinking about the principalities of the Holy Roman Empire; or Luther is considering this issue within his overall vision of Reform, but he is also responding to relations with the Ottomans.

To what extent should we read these writers as principally concerned with concrete political advice, versus to what extent is this more a moral and theological debate, in which practical applications are of secondary importance? Or would you reject that dichotomy altogether? 

SM: I’m glad to hear that you felt the debates were both academic and practical; for me, the most exciting aspect of the history of ideas is the way that it can help us understand how and why particular arguments were developed and deployed at particular times. And for me the story always includes the intellectual resources that were available, the agendas of the people involved, and the practical circumstances in which the debates were lived out.

One of the aims of my own work is to show how authors and thinkers were also people of flesh and blood, who lived in particular contexts that helped to shape their arguments. Cajetan is a good example of this. He is writing in the context of disputes in the Church, over the role of Council and Pope and over theologies of salvation, but he is also aware of the situation of Italian cities and the Papal States during this unsettled period of warfare in the Italian peninsular.

Meanwhile, if we turn to the Reformer Peter Martyr Vermigli, he is keen to win over godly magistrates (like Edward VI of England) and to encourage them to commit to enacting the Kingdom of Christ as far as possible. For him, it is really important to show that war and coercion are legitimate, indeed often necessary, for Christian magistrates and that this is the true message of Scripture. Biblical commentaries become an extremely effective way of making this case—and particularly commentaries on passages that talk about kings and magistrates, and the warfare in which they engage.

AC: You identify part of what makes the Protestant view distinctive as their “agenda of unifying natural law and Christian ethics.” Why don’t Catholics also regard that unity as necessary? Or if they do, why are they less troubled by it than the Protestants? Is Baius moving in this direction with his insistence that grace and natural law are inseparable? 

SM: Thanks for highlighting this—I think that the Catholic view of natural law and Christian ethics is really subtle and complicated, and modern scholarship is just catching up with this. Part of the answer goes back to what I was saying about the Catholic position on merit and supererogation, but it is also connected to developing ecclesiologies and views of the Church. Catholic views on merit allowed theologians to claim that the Church controlled a “treasury of merit” which it could dispense to believers, hence the creation of indulgences which facilitated the transfer of this merit.

Also, the Catholic view of the authority of clergy and the value of monasticism encouraged a sense of hierarchy between lay and spiritual offices—and of the action appropriate to each. Rulers who were entangled in earthly affairs would, on this reading, be inferior to clergy who focused on spiritual activities and acts of charity.

Then, in the early sixteenth century, the Conciliarist claim that Church was like a commonwealth prompted men like Cajetan to insist instead that it was grounded in divine rather than natural law. Protestants—especially Luther—saw all these claims as connected, on the grounds that all of them elevated the Church and the clergy, but I think for the Catholics there is a process of debate through the sixteenth century about just what, if any, the connection might be between them.

Going back to your question: the Catholic position is of course designed to elevate the status of Christianity above nature and above merely civil and natural duties, while still taking the earthly and political world seriously. So I think it’s not so much that the Catholics are untroubled by the question of unity, but rather that they are trying to find a way to distinguish between the two that enables them to achieve their aims and defend their Church.

One important catalyst for debate about this is the question of excommunication, because not only do Catholics believe that the Pope can excommunicate rulers, many of them also believe that excommunication makes the ruler illegitimate in a Christian commonwealth and so the people are absolved of their duty towards an excommunicate (ex)ruler. At the end of the sixteenth century the great Catholic theologians Robert Bellarmine and Francisco Suarez defend the power of the pope to depose rulers on the grounds that spiritual power is higher than civil authority, because the latter is based only in natural law (and human beings are called to higher, spiritual purposes and duties).

This view, though, is very much a Thomist Catholic view, and as our cluster shows the Thomists weren’t the only Catholics to reflect on these questions. As you note, Michael Baius took a different approach, and was quite hostile to the claim that we can think about natural law as somehow abstracted from grace. For him, the problem seems to have been that it encouraged people just to follow natural law—and natural law separate from grace didn’t seem very moral. Indeed, it offered an excuse for people to make compromises, for example with the Protestants in the Netherlands, and thus it devalued true Christianity.

I’ve become quite interested in these debates as a historian, but it might be worth pointing out that they are still live issues among Catholic theologians. Debate kicked off in earnest with the publication of Henri de Lubac’s Surnaturel in 1946—he was a French theologian who felt that the distinction between nature and grace that many Catholics had inherited from the early modern period was problematic because it cut the Church and the state off from each other. In response, he wanted to show how men like Cajetan and Baius had in fact misunderstood the true meanings of Aquinas and Augustine. His concerns were very much those of a Catholic theologian, but historians can still learn from his writing.

AC: For the last question on individual authors, I’d like to turn to Grotius. You trace the development of his thinking on warfare, Christianity, and natural law. What is the best way for us to understand those changes? Do they come out of dialogue with other scholars? Do they come out of his personal experiences of the Netherlands wars in his lifetime? Some other source? 

SM: Grotius’s life was a very eventful one, but it seems to me that one of the key moments in it was his imprisonment in 1618 when Maurice of Nassau and the Calvinists took power in Holland. Prior to that, Grotius was willing to defend the power of the state over the Church, but after that he was much more keen to keep Christianity and civil authority separate. (He still thought that basic religious belief could be enforced, but not distinctively Christian principles.)

But Grotius also seems to have become increasingly interested in the ethical dimension to Christianity. Like many people around him, he thought that Christianity should make a difference to one’s actions and morals, and he also thought that it would be wrong to coerce people into acts of Christian charity. I think that he is probably picking up this way of seeing religion from other Dutch Christians, particularly the Remonstrants or Arminians, and certainly he is in touch with them.

These contacts also lead him to study the Bible more intensively, to write Annotations upon it—and he begins while he is in prison by studying and annotating the Gospels, the parts of the scripture where Jesus’s teaching is most clearly expressed. And Grotius starts to suggest that Jesus’s teaching offers a higher ethical standard than any natural law or philosophy. Then he wrestles with what this means for the legitimacy of warfare—as a good Dutch patriot he is positive about the Dutch Revolt, but sometimes unsure how to square this with Jesus’s ethics.

AC: Your early work dealt a lot with Socinian thought, but they don’t make an appearance in this article. Is there are distinctive Socinian perspective on these questions?

SM: Yes! The Socinians were famous in this period for their clear assertion of the difference between natural law and Christian ethics. They were pacifists, at least initially, on the grounds that Christ forbade warfare, but they also engaged quite extensively with some of the natural law arguments for the legitimacy of warfare, and that made them unusual. The Socinians wanted to show that while natural law arguments may be valid in their own terms, they will not get you to heaven; only if you follow Christ’s teaching will you be rewarded with eternal life.

Though their sometimes rather blunt claims didn’t win that many people over to them completely, they did stimulate a discussion about these issues which caught the attention of people across Europe. For example, we know that Grotius was reading at least some of their work, and vice versa. As a graduate student I came across these debates and realized that often what made Socinianism so interesting to its readers was this view of natural law and Christianity, and that I needed to study it in much more detail!

AC: Lastly, with any article, some amount of material gets left on the cutting room floor, is there anything you wanted to include here but couldn’t? A writer or book you didn’t discuss? A point of clarification or qualification that didn’t fit?

SM: In many ways this article is a kind of bridge between some of the work I’ve already done on natural law, politics, and Christianity, and the work I want to do next on virtue and law. It was also a chance to say a little more about authors like Cajetan and Baius who feature only very briefly in my recent book (though there is so much more to say about both. . .).

The article—and indeed the cluster—is also a reminder of how many important early modern writers are out there, on whom there has been so little work. I sometimes think it is a shame that scholars cluster around a small number of canonical thinkers, and I hope that by broadening the scope of our enquiry we will have a better sense of the ideas of this crucial period.

AC: What you are working on now/next, are there any forthcoming publications readers should look out for?

SM: My next project is about “Virtue beyond Law” in Protestant Europe. In it I explore changing ideas about the relationship between virtue and liberty in the early modern period, and what they might mean for political and religious authority. While we might assume that virtue requires the possibility of choice, of acting otherwise, early Protestants denied this, insisting that humans need not only God’s grace but also strong structures of law and punishment.

And yet, by the seventeenth century, a very different case was being made. Influential Protestant voices were now emphasizing individual liberty and virtue, insisting that human beings must choose to follow the superior and demanding ethics of Christ while denying that these ethics could or should be binding upon all.  I want to look at how and why these new ideas about community, Christianity, and ideas of virtue arose, and say something too about their significance for our ideas of liberty and morality. It’s still at an early stage, but I have enjoyed trying out some of the ideas in seminars.

More concretely, readers might look out for a new volume called Time, History, and Political Thought edited by John Robertson and due out from Cambridge UP later in 2023. I have an article in it on “Christian Time and the Commonwealth in Early Modern Political Thought,” which looks at the relationship between natural law arguments and Christianity as a story that takes place in time.

There is more in it about Grotius, and particularly the ways he uses Catholic natural law thinking but places it within a rather different theological and temporal framework, connected to his own distinctive sense of Christian history. As this might suggest, the more I think about natural law in the early modern period, the more I realize how complex and fascinating it is! 

Alexander Collin is a PhD candidate at the University of Amsterdam where he works on northern Europe from the 1490s to the 1700s. His doctoral thesis aims to test the historical applicability of theories of decision making from economics and organizational studies, considering to what extent we should historicize the idea of “The Decision” and to what extent it is a human universal.

Featured image: Luther in front of Cardinal Cajetan during the controversy of his 95 Theses, 1870 (oil on canvas) by Ferdinand Wilhelm Pauwels, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Intellectual history

Would Koselleck Agree with Vandalism?

By Sébastien Tremblay

This post originally appeared as the entry for “Bygone!” on the conceptual history blog Komposita, which was initiated at the University of Bielefeld in honor of Reinhart Koselleck’s centennial.


Following an unwanted pandemic-related long absence, I finally had the chance to travel back home to Montréal during the summer of 2022. Little did I know—and this says a lot about work-life balance—I was bringing Reinhart Koselleck with me in my luggage. After years of working on monuments, symbols, and analyzing his thoughts on memory, I saw him in every equestrian monument and could not help but notice temporal layers all around me. Yet it is in political debates regarding Canadian coloniality that I found myself discussing with Koselleck the most.

Recent uproar following the unveiling of Indigenous mass graves in Canada was a reconfirmation of the country’s colonial genocidal past. It was also quite peculiar to read coverage of reconciliation and amends when the state of Canada, the entity of Canada, is still a present-day colonial project. Obscuring coloniality in the present by discussing violence in the past is a kind of Canadian national sport. It starts in schoolbooks and permeates the dominant settler society. Yet some episodes of memory politics remind us that political pundits are not necessarily ready to deal with the lionization of white settler heroism, joining in as tenors to an increasing choir of political actors in the Euro-American world denouncing “wokeism” and “cancel culture.”

Critiques of colonialism, some say, seek to erase the past, vandalize history, and—the ultimate historical crime—anachronistically judge the past. Presented as a form of banishment (bygone!), direct actions against concrete colonial representation, against its casting into stone, are dismissed and denigrated as emotional and iconoclastic reactions, as uncivilized, moralistic, and irrational acts of violence. From the protest pushing the statue of Edward Colston into Bristol Harbour to the toppling of a statue of John A. Macdonald in Montréal, I agree with Melanie J. Newton that acts of vandalism, of destruction, are actually democratic speech acts. They are also connected to what Koselleck framed as politische Sinnlichkeit, the plurality of history, and the importance of the so-called “material turn” (see Lisa Regazzoni, “The Impossible Monument of Experience”). Koselleck might have been surprised to travel to Canada after his death, but as a way of celebrating his centennial, his understanding of the past, and the way recent literature has reinterpreted his writings, I want to suggest that it is possible to leave Bielefeld for Montréal via Bristol. Bygone (!), I argue, is the opposite of destruction, of banishment. It is a new beginning, questioning the casting into stone of one narrative while excavating fragments of memory from the sediments of historical experience.

Petrified Colonialism

John A. Macdonald was Canada’s first prime minister from 1878 and 1891, popularly remembered by the dominant settler society as one of the Confederation’s heroes. In recent years, following decades of Indigenous activism, an anticolonial appraisal of his legacy also highlights his role as an architect of Canada’s genocidal atrocities, namely his role in the creation of Canada’s residential school system and the so-called “Indian Act,” a piece of legislation at the core of Canada’s colonialism. Amidst antiracial protests in 2020, activists and scholars also pointed out to his role in anti-immigration policies.

During a demonstration demanding for the Montréal’s police to be defunded, and echoing demands across the continent following the murder of George Floyd, protesters unbolted the statue of Macdonald by sculptor George Edward Wade from a monument on the Place du Canada, a public square at the center of the metropolis. Falling from its socle, the head of the statue fell as demonstrators cheered, a scene reminiscent of events in Bristol in 2020, when activists threw a statue of slaveholder Edward Colston into the river. The events in Montréal were highly mediatized, with Quebec premier François Legault stating, “Whatever one may think of John A. Macdonald, destroying a monument like this is unacceptable. Racism must be fought but destroying parts of our history is not the answer.” Other former Quebec politicians underlined that even if they were indépendantistes and criticized Macdonald for his views on French Canadians, it was not up to “a group of protesters” to decide whether a statue should be destroyed.

Urban Interaction and politische Sinnlichkeit

Koselleck once wrote that “monuments, set to last, testify to impermanence more than anything else” (255–276, here 257). Motionless, they become agents of oblivion. Parts of the urban landscape, extravagant pedestals for pigeons, they are static. Indeed, Koselleck continues, “numerous monuments of the past century are not only covered by patina […] they have fallen into oblivion, and if they are cared for and visited, it is rarely only to redeem the original political meaning.” So not only do they petrify and canonize one experienced aspect of memory, they also relegate other fragments or events to the vaults of the archive. However, this would imply that every passerby is included in the dominant part of society that erected the monument.

Here we need to push Koselleck’s thoughts a little bit further. Like cultural memory, the Macdonald monument on Place du Canada is collective and sensual (25–34). On their way to work (the Place du Canada is situated in the Downtown area), snapping a photo for their own private collection, or just walking by, people enter into relation with the statue, with Macdonald, with his legacy, with what is known of him. For some, glimpsing the monument, a standardized part of their commute, would translate into indifference. The statue can be received and interpreted as part of the country’s past. Routinely passing by, this indifference would divide the past from the present, situating the prime minister in a bygone era of “early” Canadian history. Bygone the past! For those who do not have the luxury or privilege of pushing Canadian colonial violence to the oubliettes of history, the presence of the monument was a constant reminder. However, canonizing one of Canada’s architects of genocide was not the only act of violence. For anti-settler-colonial activists, this could mean being annoyed, offended, or angry; an act of memory translated into emotional outbursts of solidarity with Indigenous critiques. For Indigenous inhabitants or passersby, the monument was a token of the petrification of their oppression in the present, a refusal to relegate coloniality to the past.

Politische Sinnlichkeit and memory are connected through a conception of time (past and present). Koselleck refers to these multiple temporalities and new layers of meaning in his analysis of monuments. Beyond their original considerations, Koselleck underlines how static monuments diachronically intervene in the present. He writes, “monuments that long outlive their first purpose can be preserved in a community of historical tradition, but even then their expressive power changes gradually” (275). Therefore, by intervening, contesting, and eventually destroying the monument, activists (settler or Indigenous) re-periodized the monument. Bygone the murky multilayered relation between past and present! The broken statue and the empty socle remind of the present and imagined an anticolonial future. The intervention is not only an act of speech, but an act of memory. The fact that populist politicians either vowed to repair the monument or put it elsewhere demonstrates settlers’ desire for temporal and colonial immobility. It also underscores their claim to monopolize memory, ignoring the plurality of history and framing the past exclusively through their social hegemony. This approach completely misses the multisensory aspects of history channeled through monuments as they passively intervene in the urban landscape.

Memory in the Plural

Koselleck also emphasized that history is written in the plural. One of his concerns regarding monuments was indeed the impossibility of total representation. Taking for example an episode during his incarceration in a prisoner-of-war camp at the end of the Second World War, he wrote that some memories, “lava memories,” are impossible to cast into stone because they are impossible to transfer; they are congealed and beyond meaning. Lava memories, like traumatic experience, are simply there as petrified magma, and defy interpretation. Monuments, Koselleck tells us, will never succeed as total representations of the past, because they cannot be shaped from the igneous rocks of all possible experiences. Following Koselleck, the generational trauma of Canadian genocidal and colonial violence defies a transfer of meaning; it cannot be cast into stone in the same monument as the denial of colonialism of white settlers. Ironically, most of Eastern Canada, the “Canadian Shield”, is made of igneous rock, a fact we spent more time analyzing in school than Macdonald’s colonial legacy. Bygone, said those who break down the immutable rock of memory! This political act of destruction is an intervention. It is not “erasing history”; it intervenes. The act of destroying stone breaks the singularity of one experience and forever links it to another narrative, the specter of the plurality of history. Rebuilt or not, the monument, the statue, and the socle remain bonded with another perspective, another experience, another history. Bygone is not a destructive impulse to erase the past, it is a creative yearning for change. It connects the singularity of the immutable with the plurality of haunting alternatives.

It is still unclear whether the statue will return. Montreal’s mayor, herself a museologist, has clashed with Quebec’s premier regarding the future of the monument, imagining other possibilities for creating a space of dialogue on the Place du Canada. By its absence, by its destruction, or by talking about the intervention, the object leaves another mark in political consciousness, surviving through time. Other statues of the former prime minister became entwined in similar discourses across the country, inspired by the toppled statue in Montréal, just like other toppled statues had haunted the mind of journalists covering the act on the Place du Canada. Even if restored, a statue of Macdonald would no longer be a simple statue, it could not remain a singular representation of settler history. By breaking stability, and as a provocation, bygone (!) is a forced transition, an act of commemoration. Even if restored, the statue would now remain a reminder of injustice, the rebuilt version of a mnemonic intervention.

Neither the first nor the last symbolic action, impulses to destroy mark a new beginning for cultural memory in Canada. As I found out this summer, Koselleck’s writings on monuments, politischer Totenkult, and politische Sinnlichkeit can help us understand the potential of memory conflicts and offer productive interpretations of iconoclasm without falling prey to the reactionary sirens of “cancel culture.”

Dr. Sébastien Tremblay is a postdoctoral research associate and lecturer at the Europa-Universität Flensburg. Born in Montreal/Tiohtià:ke, he obtained his doctorate from the Graduate School of Global Intellectual History in Berlin in 2020. Together with Margrit Pernau, he is the author of “Dealing with an Ocean of Meaninglessness: Reinhart Koselleck’s Lava Memories and Conceptual History,” which was published in Contributions to the History of Concepts in 2020. His first monograph, A Badge of Injury: The Pink Triangle as Global Symbol of Memory is due to be published later in 2023 with De Gruyter.

Edited by Jonathon Catlin

Featured Image: The John A. Macdonald monument in Montréal, Canada with its statue removed during the summer of 2022. Photo taken by the author.

Call for Papers

CfP: The JHI 2023 Graduate Symposium

The Intellectual History of Labor

The Journal of the History of Ideas and the JHI Blog invite graduate students from all institutions, disciplines, and stages of their degree to propose papers for our fifth-annual Graduate Student Symposium to be held via video conference on Saturday, September 9, 2023. The event aims to convene a diverse group of graduate students from different disciplines working on a variety of topics, periods, genres, and regions.

The 2023 symposium will explore and historicize the complex, multivalent, and ever-evolving concepts of labor and work. The JHI Blog welcomes paper proposals that rethink labor as a central, creative concept explaining critical problems of the past, with potential to improve our future.

Papers might engage with such questions as:

·   What would an intellectual history of labor look like? How have different intellectual traditions conceptualized and interpreted labor?

·   How can we historicize the divisions between different forms of labor? How should we write histories including various forms of labor: domestic, women’s, enslaved, and others?

·   How is the commodification of labor related to the emergence of global capitalism and empire? How has anticapitalist thought criticized waged work, domination, and exploitation?

·   How has labor been related to political and social divisions, hierarchies, and conflicts? What has been the role of labor movements in the development of political ideas? How can creative and ecological labor bring forth a socially just world and resist the Capitalocene?

Proposals should be no more than 500 words long and make clear how the paper responds to this call, the argument it intends to make, and the source base. Please also acknowledge the project’s context (e.g., is it a seminar paper, a dissertation chapter, article to be submitted to a journal, a fledgling idea, etc.).

Please send your paper proposal along with a CV in a Word doc file to The deadline for submission is 24 April 2023. We will notify selected participants by 15 May 2023.

The symposium asks more of participants than typical conferences do, and hopes to provide more as well. Before the event, each participant will pre-circulate an article-length paper (7,000–9,000 words). The event will consist of several sessions conceived as “workshops.” Participants are expected to read and annotate one another’s papers before the event, to inform and promote lively, substantive discussion and provide suggestions for revision and continued research.

All questions can be directed to the JHI Blog editors at

Intellectual history

The Politics of Food Trends: On Gentrification, Tastes, and Neighborhoods

By Charlie Kleinfeld

One of my favorite Twitter accounts to mindlessly browse is @RegionalUSFood: an expansive archive of idiosyncratic US American dishes that locals are often a bit too proud of. An interesting post from that account depicts a dish that is supposedly a Midwestern delicacy—cinnamon rolls and chili together on the same plate. While most of the replies contained either abject horror or horrified intrigue, the one reply that stuck with me the most described the dish simply as “gentrified chicken and waffles.”

Although this tweet is absurd on its face (I see few similarities between the two dishes beyond the combination of a sweet pastry with a savory meal), it points to a particular trend in American gastronomical discourse of linking the foods that we eat with broader processes of gentrification. This linking often leads to confusion over what it is we mean when we refer to things as being “gentrified.” Presumably, the replier in question saw this dish as an attempt to adapt a dish commonly associated with Black southern Americans to the tastes of white northerners (a process referred to as ”whitewashing”), and believed this to be a result of gentrification: a view that appears to be common in public discourses on food and gentrification.

However, while whitewashing is a very real phenomenon, it is not synonymous with gentrification. In this essay, I want to reconceptualize gentrification as a meaning-making process: one that constructs new ways of understanding the spaces in which we live and the products we consume, in addition to changing the literal spaces and products themselves.

At the most basic level, gentrification can be defined in solely financial terms—as a neighborhood moving from low-income to high-income, and the resulting displacement being predominately due to economic factors (such as rents becoming unaffordable). While there is some use in this definition, we can also look at the cultural economy of gentrification, defining it as a process that fundamentally changes the geography of a space, how its inhabitants understand it, and how it is consumed.

The conflicts of gentrification reach far beyond simple material realities of urban displacement. They originate through a deep ideological network of spatial racialization—that is, competing definitions of space (what a space should be for) rooted in pre-existing racial categorizations. While at one point, wealthy residents may have considered the value of a neighborhood through its appearance of luxury, they now appear to desire a form of authenticity that is often defined solely on their terms. Even in the rare cases when local neighborhoods are protected from the worst effects of physical supplantation, their community use and image, alongside the uses and value of the goods traded within them, are often radically altered by the incoming residents.

White suburbanites—those at the forefront of gentrification—tend to desire a neighborhood with an authentic character where these new tastes can be “authentically consumed.” Consequently, they construct for themselves something they might call an authentic identity. The very idea of authenticity, however, is a highly contested concept. It is socially constructed by multiple, often competing, camps. A social preservationist campaign to keep a neighborhood authentic is not an apolitical desire for maintenance but rather a specific platform based on one’s own construction.

Using the work of George Lipsitz, whose writings have become essential when discussing gentrification, the contestation between a white and Black spatial imaginary in the United States is perhaps one of the core ideological aspects of gentrification. For Lipsitz, the white spatial imaginary is defined by an approach to space that centers around so-called exchange value, that which “establishes contract law (…) as supreme authority.” Spaces are good insofar as they can generate value for the owner, and land ownership is final. This spatial imaginary is highly individualized: occupants of a space are treated either as owners or subjects and must pay for only that which they personally use. In contrast, the Black spatial imaginary is defined by the maximization of use value, where the value of a space isn’t defined by how much it can return on the market, but rather by how a community can utilize it. This spatial imaginary considers the needs of the community and defines ownership less strictly. A space is seen to belong to all who occupy and use it rather than by a single individual defined in a contract. In this lens, gentrification can be conceptualized as a violent imposition of the white spatial imaginary onto a space.

Lipsitz’s work on spatial imaginary allows us to look at contemporary food trends in American cities in two distinct ways. The first approach understands food trends as a result of gentrification and sees them as by-products of changing market forces that come about when an influx of new residents brings their supposedly fixed and predetermined tastes into a neighborhood. But we can also view these emerging trends as components of the cultural processes of gentrification itself—a process that shapes the tastes of those at its frontier; tastes which are, crucially, malleable, and socially manufactured. While the former view assumes that those moving into gentrifying neighborhoods whitewash the cuisines of the cultures they encounter, the latter approach suggests we can build an understanding of how the ideological backbone of gentrification as a process leads gentrifiers to crave authenticity in food. In the latter case, the concept of gentrification is antithetical to the whitewashing hypothesis.

This is not to say that gentrifiers warmly embrace multiculturalism through their gastronomical choices and should be celebrated for their tastes. Rather, their desire for authenticity is an important yet often neglected feature of gentrification. The authenticity they seek is a false authenticity that works to exacerbate the conditions which lead to displacement and racial injustice in contemporary American cities. Depicting the tastes of gentrifiers as mere whitewashings helps to obfuscate these conflicts. By analyzing how processes of gentrification have shaped American tastes over the twenty-first century, I want to clarify the terms of this conflict and reconceptualize our understanding of foods being “gentrified.”

In the twentieth century, research on changing consumption habits amongst gentrifiers appeared to portray an image of luxury and decadence. One 1982 paper described the evolution in the Park Slope neighborhood in Brooklyn as “bagels to brioche” (462). This portrayal seems to fit in with Bourdieu’s framework of distinction: the idea that cultural tastes manifest themselves as a strict binary of highbrow and lowbrow. The haute bourgeoisie—and the upwardly mobile upper-middle-class emulating them—had one taste, the working class had another: brioche for one, bagels for the other. Significantly, these tastes mirrored white, European (specifically, in this case, French) consumption habits. Highbrow tastes were not only for the wealthy but also for white people. Conversely, lowbrow tastes were for those excluded from whiteness as a construct, such as those making up new waves of immigration from East Asia or Eastern Europe. Hence the significance of the imagery of bagels: a food brought over by Eastern European Jewish immigrants fleeing from persecution in the Russian Empire.

By the 1990s, an apparent transformation occurred. Richard Peterson and Roger Kern, two sociologists from Vanderbilt University, recognized an increasing trend of what they dub “omnivorousness:” a tendency for those occupying spaces high up on the socioeconomic hierarchy to diversify their tastes, representing a “qualitative shift in the basis for marking elite status—from snobbish exclusion to omnivorous appropriation” (900). This study focused largely on musical tastes, finding that wealthy white people were increasingly likely to listen to genres traditionally associated with the working classes and people of color, such as “bluegrass, gospel, rock, and blues” (901). Later, Warde et al. found that this omnivorousness extended not only to cultural consumption but also to culinary consumption. Wealthier groups began exploring a greater variety of different cuisines, including those traditionally seen as “low-brow” (113).

By deconstructing omnivorousness, we can see how this development can be damaging to minority communities. This growing diversity of tastes is entirely on the terms of the gentrifiers and not the gentrified. Omnivorousness does not represent a wide-ranging equal acceptance of many different cuisines, but rather only those that can use their cuisines to participate in the preferred aesthetic of the gentrifier.

Bethany Bryson asserts that there is social and cultural capital gained through exposure to many different types of genres, particularly those traditionally deemed lowbrow, claiming that “tolerance itself may separate high-status culture from other group cultures” (897). Highbrow culture has shifted to become more cosmopolitan, but this shift is only to distinguish itself from “non-high-status (group-based) culture.” Ironically, this broadening of taste is itself an instrument of exclusion, a way for someone to prove themselves more tolerant than—to distinguish themselves from—the groups whose very taste they are embracing. Instead of a departure from Bourdieu’s theory of distinction, omnivorousness is merely its latest development.

The very consumption of authenticity is marked by the construction of an identity of distinction, which is further evidenced by the transitory nature of authenticity itself. Utilizing Walter Benjamin’s concept of aura, we can argue that this form of contemporary capitalist reproduction emerging from gentrification has complicated our relationship to authenticity. Furthermore, we can also posit that the supremacy of exchange value that the white spatial imaginary advances complicates this relationship further. Sharon Zukin notes how spaces often “fabricate an aura of authenticity” (736) to appeal to white gentrifiers. The participation in the augmentation of exchange-value, and the need to get a return on investment on property, incentivizes business owners to appeal to incoming gentrifiers, representing a deep entrenchment of the white spatial imaginary.

Cities use their apparent authenticity—marked by the presence of so-called “ethnic” retail spaces—as a marketing tool to attract new investors and potential residents, fueling further gentrification. While the aesthetics may have changed, the basic tenets of the white spatial imaginary, like the prioritization of exchange value and the establishment of “contract law and deed restrictions as supreme authorities,” (13) remain ever-present. The existing community is only valuable to the gentrifiers insofar as they portray an aesthetic of authenticity. Furthermore, Boston University Professor Japonica Brown-Saracino, whose work focuses on the sociology of urban culture, warns of the dangers of constructing a new authenticity on the terms of the gentrifiers, highlighting the fact that what is preserved in the path to an authentic experience is often selected based on a variety of factors and biases, writing how:

They [the gentrifiers] are also largely unconscious of the fact that old-timer [Brown-Saracino’s term for the previous residents of a gentrifying neighbourhood] is not a fixed category and that they engage in the constriction of old-timers by emphasising specific groups and certain of their traits (147).

Brown-Saracino’s observation is closely related to the socially constructed nature of authenticity explored earlier. Preservationist gentrifiers wish to create “a form of community that none has experienced because it never existed” (153). This process is readily visible in gastronomy. Cuisines aren’t static categories; they are constantly evolving alongside the rest of society as various sociohistorical processes play out and as cultures interact with each other. Vietnamese cuisine, as we understand it today, is heavily influenced by French cuisine due to their historical colonial entanglements; likewise, many Korean dishes were created out of necessity following a prolonged period of poverty and strife following the war. The idea of a singular, authentic cuisine from a region implies a type of stasis that simply does not exist in the real world, making this desire a futile one to begin with.

As authenticity can only be consumed from the outside, by a white gentrifier, the desire for it takes on a revanchist edge; we can draw from this idea of “taking back” inner cities, allowing certain minority groups to stay, but only for the purpose of white consumption. Those within ethnic communities are unlikely to call an international supermarket authentic; this notion acts merely as a “space of representation” for white gentrifiers to act out their desires, as opposed to an honest space of community building and solidarity. Suburban whites in the United States, having abandoned the cities in the mid-twentieth century, left these apparent resources for the accumulation of cultural capital unconsumed. Therefore, gentrification can represent a re-opening of the frontier, the exact type of imagery conjured by the revanchist city.

While there is nothing inherently wrong in omnivorousness, it is, like many other contemporary cultural practices, clouded and invariably shaped by broader societal structures: capitalism, white supremacy, and the lasting impacts of colonialism to name a few. These structures must be kept in mind when discussing gentrification in contemporary American cities. Gentrification is multifaceted and complicated, and it is certainly not cinnamon rolls and chili.

Charlie Kleinfeld is a graduate student finishing his master’s degree in American Studies at Leipzig University. He is currently writing his thesis on the uses of food in post-Cold War U.S. foreign policy. His primary research interests include American labour, urban, and political history; political philosophy (with a particular focus on nationalism and ecology); as well as broader intellectual and cultural histories and critical theory. He can be contacted via email.

Edited by Maria Wiegel

Featured Image: Chinatown, Manhattan, looking towards the World Trade Center, October 1995. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Intellectual history

“Critical Theory’s paradigm is quintessentially Jewish:” An Interview with Yael Kupferberg

By Till Wagner

Yael Kupferberg is a researcher at the Research Institute Social Cohesion, where she directs the project on “The Image in the Digital Public Sphere. The Loss of Experience and Relationships in Speechless Socialization.” In 2022, she published her second monograph, “On the Ban of Images. Studies on Judaism in the Late Work of Max Horkheimer.” The book examines Max Horkheimer’s late work and shows, primarily through the concept of the Bilderverbot, that Max Horkheimer’s Critical Theory is to be understood as Jewish Thought. In 2011, she published a study on Heinrich Heine’s wit.

Till Wagner: First, I would like to talk about the process of writing “On the Ban of Images. Studies on Judaism in Horkheimer’s Late Work.” What was your motivation to write about Horkheimer’s works that he wrote after his retirement in 1959?

Yael Kupferberg: I confess that this question puts me in an awkward situation because it concerns my “positionality,” to use Helmut Plessner’s term. My reading of Horkheimer is a form of personal-intellectual self-assurance. As a third-generation Jew in Germany, I am interested in manifesting Jewish experiences and knowledge. This is my personal motivation, which is also related to the fact that Critical Theory, especially in Germany, tends to be perceived solely as a universalist philosophical offer. In my view, Critical Theory’s Jewish particularity, its roots in Jewish experience and thought, have been and are—consciously, unconsciously, unknowingly—neglected. I argue that Horkheimer’s thought, and even more Erich Fromm’s and Leo Löwenthal’s, was a translation of Jewish paradigms – that it implied and enlightened Jewish thought and experience. At the same time, I wanted to address a topic that is hardly touched upon in philosophy and research on antisemitism: namely, the dual potential of the Bilderverbot (Ger. “the ban on images”) as both a foundation for critique and as a Jewish paradigm.

TW: Before I move on to the more substantive issues, I want to ask about your methodology. Horkheimer’s oeuvre is extensive, and, as you point out, his late work is particularly fragmentary in its form. Nevertheless, you concisely identify the central concepts that structure this corpus: the ban on images and idolatry, the Sehnsucht nach dem ganz Anderen (Ger. “the longing for the completely other”), religion, and theology. How did you approach the material that you took from Horkheimer’s intérieur (p. 43), from the Späne (“shavings”) – that is, Horkheimer’s personal, fragmentary notes that were not meant for publication?

YK: Horkheimer’s late thought is expressed in a variety of smaller literary forms. It consists of jotted-down thoughts, documented conversations, half-articulated ideas, and notes. This form of expression appealed to me because it allows for spontaneity, punch lines, and often seemed less censored.

As these documents were not composed with an audience in mind, they give the reader an insight into Horkheimer’s private thoughts. What particularly interested me was that Horkheimer, in these documents, was very vocal about his Jewish experience. I consider these late manuscripts a collection that converges and accompanies his more complex writings and lectures and presents them in a way that has been largely ignored in the German reception. Moreover, it seemed appropriate to take a closer look at the most prominent concepts and postulates that recur in Horkheimer’s work, to contextualize them, and to illuminate their relationship to his Judaism and biography.

TW: Let us discuss the central concept of your book. As implied by the title, you trace the role of the Jewish Bilderverbot, both in Horkheimer’s thought and in Critical Theory in general. You argue that the “ban on images” was a key concept in Horkheimer’s late works. What is the significance of the Bilderverbot as a “critical posture in and toward the world” (p. 105) for Horkheimer’s philosophy?

YK: In short: the Bilderverbot is everything. The ban of images—in its philosophical content—establishes a way of approaching the world, it is the foundation for critical thought. It prohibits the identity and the identification of subject and object and insists on their difference. Moreover, it postulates an absolute transcendence that resists articulation. God, as an idea, “is” absolute – that is, beyond representation, beyond “Dasein.” In this respect, nothing and no one can take God’s place. For Horkheimer, the Bilderverbot represents the limit that every self-conscious thinking—and that is very Kantian—needs to accept. On the one hand, it demands a form of self-restraint, of reflection; on the other, it is a mimetic goal. “Being” and “Dasein,” in Hermann Cohen’s words, are not congruent. Only with reference to the “completely other,” to the “absolute”—also as an authority—a critique of the world is possible. In Horkheimer’s reading, the Bilderverbot is the precondition for enlightened thought: it is the basis of ethics, and of reflexive reason; as an idea, or as Immanuel Kant says, as “Leitung” (“guidance”). The ban on images objects against an affirmative and defeatist appropriation of the world.

TW: How does the Bilderverbot relate to the philosophical foundations of Horkheimer’s thought: such as Kant, Hegel, and Marx’s materialism?

YK: Kant, Hegel, and Marx were central for Horkheimer – especially with regard to the Bilderverbot. Hegel’s dialectic, the subject-object relation in all its varieties was, of course, fundamental. Horkheimer, however, had to refuse the positive abolition, the synthesis – because of the ban of images. He considered negation to be more progressive: it philosophically accommodated the infinite as an open movement. Incidentally, Marx’s concept of fetish can also be linked to the concept of the Bilderverbot, where the fetish can be identified with idolatrous thinking. This topic would be worth another study.

Horkheimer’s reception of Kant seems of particular importance to me. Kant—it can be argued with reference to Horkheimer—provided a philosophical translation of the ban on images when he postulated a “boundary” between “faith” and “knowledge.” Jürgen Habermas has written about this. It was precisely Kant’s normativity and his postulates of reason that were significant not only for Horkheimer but for modern Jewish philosophy in general. Horkheimer’s relationship to Kant was especially emphasized by his Jewish readers.

TW: Max Horkheimer is mostly known for Dialectic of Enlightenment, co-authored with Theodor W. Adorno, and for his concept of “instrumental reason,” which he developed in Eclipse of Reason. The latter denotes a form of reason that acts purely utilitarian and thereby reinforces existing structures of domination rather than working towards their abolition. To what extent did Horkheimer’s critique of “instrumental reason” in his early work prefigure his later critique of idolatry as an affirmation of the existing?

YK: Critical Theory is based on the ethos of analyzing society and the ideology it generates. In Horkheimer’s case, this is already evident in his early writings. Also, in “Dawn,” a collection of notes that Horkheimer wrote between 1926 and 1931, it becomes clear that he was thinking about metaphysics. In “Dialectic of Enlightenment,” the Bilderverbot is already present as well. A more determinate and openly articulated turn to Judaism occurs during his emigration and in response to “Auschwitz,” I think. Judaism becomes particularly important in Horkheimer’s late work, both as a philosophical-analytical moment and as a paradigm to be saved after the catastrophe and in the “administered world.” Admittedly, even the philosophical Marxism, to which Horkheimer is inclined and which is inherent in his thought, contains critique as its essential moment. From his early writings on, Horkheimer turns against the given, that is, against “instrumental reason.” Horkheimer’s ethos was always that of critique. However, in his late thought, this critique is increasingly and more openly based on the idea of the “absolute.”

TW: To what extent do religious and specifically Jewish references in Horkheimer’s late work provide an alternative to instrumental reason? What is the critical relevance of the Sehnsucht nach dem ganz Anderen; a motif that is strongly connected to the Bilderverbot?

YK: In its idealistic variety, Judaism refuses to represent God: any exaltation of the worldly is negated. This separation, this “boundary,” is, according to Horkheimer, the condition of possibility for critique. When this boundary collapses, when God and man become identical, the basis for critique becomes suspended. If there is no unconditional moral authority—that is, no idea of the absolute—then, according to Horkheimer, there is also no justification for moral-ethical action. Thus, “instrumental reason” is also the consequence of a missing corrective. “Instrumental reason” is planned, calculating, and has no metaphysical concept of man – the man himself becomes a “means.” In Judaism, according to Horkheimer, the dialectic is suspended – it preserves the idea of the “completely other,” of the absolute, of the “limit.” In this respect, Horkheimer’s Judaism refuses the affirmation of the existing and preserves the moment of critique, the moment of difference, of the “non-identical.” It resists and therefore preserves a non-articulable utopia. As a Kantian Leitung (“guidance”), the Bilderverbot represents a corrective to instrumental reason. Judaism thus preserves Kant’s Categorical Imperative: “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.” Or, more briefly and biblically, in Horkheimer’s formulation: …denn er ist wie du (“…for he is like you”).

TW: In the second chapter of your book, you elaborate on the biographical context of Horkheimer’s insistence on the ban on images, his adherence to the postulate of the “absolute,” and his critique of idolatrous thought. You describe how the rise of National Socialism, as well as Horkheimer’s experience of the Holocaust as a survivor in exile, shaped his later work. This observation is in clear contrast to the accusation that Horkheimer detached himself from political and social problems in his late work. To what extent can the heightened emphasis on the Bilderverbot and his critique of idolatry be understood as a reaction to the civilizational rupture of the the Holocaust and the history of the 20th century?

YK: Horkheimer himself pointed out—perhaps as an observation, perhaps self-ironically—that people become conservative with age. I do not want to evaluate this statement. However, I think that Horkheimer, after being philosophically and academically interested in universality in his early career, at an older age began paying more attention to preserving the Jewish existence in the world, at least philosophically. His insistence on criticizing idolatry cannot be explained with reference to “Auschwitz” alone. Even before “Auschwitz,” he insisted on the non-representability of Utopia from a Marxist perspective. However, after “Auschwitz,” he recognized that this motif was rooted in the Jewish paradigm of the Bilderverbot. And—as I understand it—he considered this paradigm an unconditional civilizational and habitual progress that had to be preserved.

The second dimension of the Bilderverbot is its analytical and habitual content. The ban on images prevents the mimetic appropriation of the projected. Softening the ban implies an idolatrous habitus: it motivates affirmative assimilation to the object, identification, irrationality, affectation, antisemitism, ideologization, fanaticism, and harshness. To exaggerate: lifting the ban was, for Horkheimer, the habitus of the antisemite. This was a very determined, analytical reaction to National Socialism, to antisemitism, to “Auschwitz.” In this respect, the Bilderverbot was immanently political.

TW: Because of its more overt references to religion and the author’s alleged move from social and worldly concerns to metaphysical questions, Horkheimer’s late work is often contrasted with his earlier work. Contemporary and current readers of Horkheimer often speak of a conservative turn, mostly with negative undertones. You, in contrast, argue against this reading in your book. How do you see the relationship between Horkheimer’s earlier and later work?

YK: I must confess that I was specifically interested in what was particular about Horkheimer. In his particularity, I see a normative and Jewish posture that few have recognized and appreciated, and that is more evident in his late work. I would nevertheless maintain that the Jewish theme, the question of Jewish “positionality,” had significance for his early work, too: such as his attempts as a playwright. The particular and universal existence are always related: they cannot be separated.

Horkheimer was still interested in universality in his late work. At the same time, he began emphasizing his Jewish existence, his relation to the Jewish experience, also in an epistemological way. Horkheimer’s historical-Jewish experience, the annihilation of the European Jews, did not eradicate but reinforced his devotion to the fact that a comprehensive improvement of the world concerns and should concern all people. This is a consistent theme of his work.

TW: You argue that Horkheimer’s thought—and in a sense Critical Theory as such, insofar as it upholds the Bilderverbot and contains the concept of ganz anderes (“completely other”)—is to be understood as a “translation of Judaism and Jewish paradigms into German philosophy” (p. 100). Can the negative reception of Horkheimer’s late work, in which the Jewish substance of Critical Theory becomes more evident than in the early works of the first generation of Critical Theory, be understood as a resentment against his Jewishness?

YK: Yes, I see it that way. Horkheimer’s readers wanted to perceive, uphold, and canonize his universalism – which is also unquestionably part of Critical Theory. At the same time, out of ignorance, insecurity, discomfort, and bias, the Jewish heritage was ignored, flattened, or devalued. This is still the case today. The Jewish moment of Critical Theory, its posture, and content continue to be suppressed. The justified universalist reception and appropriation of Critical Theory quite ruthlessly ignore its intellectual origins. I would like to object to this: Critical Theory is also Jewish philosophy, written in a particular historical situation, grounded in a particular socialization and a particular experience. Its paradigm is quintessentially Jewish. This origin should be acknowledged so that we can comprehend the depth of Horkheimer’s philosophy. For me, this is the famous Flaschenpost (“message in a bottle”).

TW: Lastly, I want to ask about the present and future relevance of Horkheimer’s late work. Your book emphasizes that Horkheimer’s late work has been largely neglected and belittled. What would you like to see in future reception and research on Horkheimer’s work and his contribution to critical theory?

YK: I recognize that every generation has its own reading experiences and poses its own questions to his work. I wish—and I must not demand this because it must be done out of free will—that this specific Jewish heritage in Horkheimer’s Critical Theory receives recognition and is not entirely absorbed into the general and indifferent: that its history and intellectual content is not suspended. For me, Critical Theory as philosophical posture and habitus is deeply influenced by the Jewish experience and the Jewish paradigm. If this origin is neglected and excluded, Critical Theory’s epistemological potential can hardly be intellectually grasped. Thus, my book is a restitution.

TW: In your book, you correct the image of Horkheimer’s late work as conservative or theoretically weak. Thus, you make clear the extent to which Bilderverbot and the Sehnsucht nach dem ganz Anderen represent critical modes of thought that resist affirmation and ideology. What relevance do you attach to this specific critical thinking in a moment that is increasingly dominated by visual representation?

YK: The Bilderverbot and the Sehnsucht (“longing”) have the highest analytical relevance as a philosophical posture. It is precisely the increasingly visual present that needs a critique of appearance, a reflection on the specific contemporary aesthetic experience and appropriation of the world. I consider the analytical potential here as not yet exhausted, and I strongly argue for an update – and remembrance (Eingedenken) in the way Critical Theory understood it. The aesthetic experience, understood comprehensively, that people make and can make, is by no means a negligible quantity (quantité négligeable).

Till Wagner holds a bachelor’s degree in history and political science and recently completed his master’s studies at the Berlin Center for Research on Antisemitism with a thesis on the thought of Hannah Arendt and Jean Améry. He currently works in public history.

Edited by Jonas Knatz and Artur Banaszewski

Featured Image: Max Horkheimer with his wife Rose Riehker at the First Congress of Cultural Critics in Munich in 1958. Courtesy of the Archive of the Munich Stadtmuseum.