Author: jhiblog

What We’re Reading: June 4th-10th

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


Stacy Schiff, “‘Elizabeth: The Forgotten Years,’ by John Guy” (NYT Book Review)

Sara Lipton, “The First Anti-Jewish Caricature?” (NYR Daily)

Sara Giorgini, “The Garrisoned Heart” (USIH Blog)

And a shout-out to the @PoliticsofPaper conference that took place this week!


Pierre Assouline, « L’énigme Chris Marker » (La république des livres)

Giles Bergel, “Printing Cliches” (The Printing Machine)

Carole Desbarats, « Faire face » (Esprit)

Claire Gallien, « Paris à l’heure indienne » (La vie des idées)

Peter E. Gordon, “The Odd Couple” (The Nation)

Jeremy Harding, “A Rage for Abstraction” (LRB)

Annie Jourdan, « Comment vint la Terreur » (La vie des idées)

Martin Mulsow, »Als der Professor einen “Purschen” hatte« (NZZ)

Peter Pomerantsev, “Diary” (LRB)

Bernd Schneid, »Die „New Freud Studies“ als notwendige Forschungsrichtung« (

And finally, Todd Meyers interviews Pamela Reynolds on her recent book War in Worcester: Youth and the Apartheid State (Fordham Univ. Press, 2012; Youtube)


I’ve read a lot about Brexit this week, but this is historicist enough to belong in this roundup: James Stafford, The Right-Wing Roots of Britain’s EU Referendum (Dissent)

Mo Moulton, Dorothy L. Sayers, Marjorie Barber, and the Story of a Wartime Lemon (The Toast)

Timothy Nunan, De-Segregating International Relations: A Conversation with Robert Vitalis on ‘White World Order, Black Power Politics’ (Toynbee Prize Global History Forum)

Michael Press, Why Do We Care About Palmyra So Much? (Hyperallergic)

L.D. Burnett on area studies and canon wars at Stanford: A Host of Complex Subjects (S-USIH Blog)

Bettany Hughes, Banishing Eve, Episode 2 (BBC Radio 4)

Daniel Mendelsohn, How Greek Drama Saved the City (NYRB)

Marc Parry, A Reckoning: Colonial atrocities and academic reputations on trial in a British courtroom (Chronicle)

In archival news:
Food Programme: An Archive For Food at the British Library (BBC Radio 4)
Jarrett Drake, A Hope and A Hypothesis: The Curious Case of the Sonia Sotomayor ’76 Interview, on the trials and tribulations of digital archives (Mudd Manuscript Library Blog)


Tom Carson, “True Fakes on Location” (The Baffler)

Andrew Copson, “The Ancient Roots of Humanism” (New Humanist Review)

Atul Gawande, “The Mistrust of Science” (New Yorker)

John Holbo, “Reason and Persuasion: Three Dialogues by Plato

Martin O’Neill, “What we Owe Each Other: T. M. Scanlon’s Egalitarian Philosophy” (Boston Review)


Rachel Hope Cleves, “The Forgotten History of Gay Liberation: An Interview With Jim Downs” (Notches)

Erik Gray, “Everybody Wants a Piece of Milton” (LARB)

Jeet Heer, “Muhammed Ali’s Greatest Victory Came When He Didn’t Fight” (New Republic)

Marco Roth, “Unloveable Neighbors” (The Towner)


‘I Am an Antichrist’: Demons, Vices, and Punks” (Medieval Manuscripts Blog)

History at Your Feet: The 20 Most Historically Important Floors in Britain” (The Society for Protecting Ancient Buildings Blog)

Lesley M.M. Blume, “Falling for Fitzgerald” (The Paris Review Daily)

Chloë Kennedy, “LSA Panel Summary: ‘Law As…’: Law, Method History” (Legal History Blog)

Jessica Lachenal, “Hollywood’s Looking to Whitewash [Rumi] for Historical Biopic” (The Mary Sue)


X-Rays Reveal 1,300-year-old writings inside later books” (The Guardian)

Meaghan J. Brown, “What’s in a genre?”(The Collation)

Dan Piepenberg, “George Plimpton on Muhammed Ali, the Poet” (Paris Review)

Emily Wells, “Transforming the Printers’ File into a Linked Data Open Resource” (Past is Present)

Heather Wolfe, “A Pictorial Table of Contents” (The Collation)


Tessa Hadley, “At Home in the Past” (The New Yorker)

Edward Mendelson, “In the Depths of the Digital Age” (NYRB)

Vann R. Newkirk II, “Precision Medicine’s Post-Racial Promise” (The Atlantic)

Nathaniel Popkin, “Two Old Jewish Socialists: Henry Roth Meets Bernie Sanders” (Tablet Magazine)


Masha Gessen, “Drawing the Iron Curtain” (NYR Daily)

Micah Mattix, “Minds Like Ducks” (The Weekly Standard)

Edward Mendelson, “In the Depths of the Digital Age” (NYRB)

Corin Throsby, “Byron Burning” (TLS)

Unveiling evil: ‘Hitler’s furies’ and the dark side of women’s history

By guest contributor Benedetta Carnaghi

Two years ago I went to Ravensbrück. I went to Ravensbrück because I was shocked not to have been aware of its existence before reading the memoir of an ex-deportee. I went to Ravensbrück because I was appalled that, for no reason other than that it was the only Nazi concentration camp built especially for women, it is not as well known as other camps.

I was investigating Virginia d’Albert-Lake. Born in 1910, in Dayton, Ohio, Virginia had married Philippe d’Albert-Lake, a Frenchman working for the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company. She then moved to France. At the outbreak of World War II, they both decided to become involved in the Comet escape line, which eventually led to Virginia’s arrest in June 1944 and deportation to Ravensbrück.


From left to right: Virginia d’Albert-Lake after her liberation; back in health; when she received the French Légion d’honneur (Private archives of the D’Albert-Lake family, Paris)

Virginia survived deportation and died in 1997. I was fortunate enough to interview survivors, and they explained to me that female deportation remains a taboo. Women were obviously present in concentration camps, but they seem to be nearly invisible in the historiography. Research and recognition has only recently improved. Sarah Helm published a group portrait of prisoners in Ravensbrück: Life and Death in Hitler’s Concentration Camp for Women (2015). On May 27, 2015, Ravensbrück survivors Geneviève de Gaulle-Anthonioz and Germaine Tillion were interred in the French Panthéon alongside resisters Pierre Brossolette and Jean Zay.


Francois Hollande (centre) stands on the Panthéon steps between the flag-draped coffins of Jean Zay, Geneviève de Gaulle-Anthonioz, Pierre Brossolette and Germaine Tillion. Source: The Guardian

Margaret Collins Weitz’s conclusions as to why it took so long for these women’s stories to enter scholarship remain valuable, although her book Sisters in the Resistance (1995) was published two decades ago. It took a long time for women to “recount or write up recollections of their wartime experiences” (17). The rediscovery of their stories started with the French feminist movement of the 1970s and found a major touchstone in the first colloquium on “Women in the Resistance” organized by the Union des Femmes Françaises (UFF, Union of French Women) in 1975 (Collins Weitz, ibid.). But women were generally less interested in receiving recognition for their actions—that is, in filling out the official papers to be decorated or commended by the state. For those who survived deportation, the issue with “telling their story” proved more complicated. Deportation deprived them of every aspect of their femininity, forced them to parade naked at a time when nudity was taboo, exposed them to the insinuation that they had prostituted themselves to survive. They came back to a society that did not understand what they had gone through, and trying to explain it would have meant reliving the horror. Collins Weitz focuses, in particular, on “the dilemma of those who were, or subsequently became, mothers” and “found it impossible to tell their children of the horrors they had seen—and sometimes experienced,” in part because they did not want them to be marked by their personal stories (18). It was only to fight revisionist claims that extermination camps had not existed that the women found the courage to speak.


On the left: “Plus rien de personnel, plus rien d’intime” by ex-deportee Eliane Jeannin-Garreau ; on the right: Aufseherinnen greet Himmler during his visit of the Ravensbrück concentration camp in January 1941 (SS propaganda album – Archives of the Ravensbrück Memorial – Mahn- und Gedenkstätte Ravensbrück)

Nazis destroyed the barracks where the Ravensbrück deportees lived, but the houses of the SS guards still stand as a memorial and host various exhibitions. One explores the female SS guards, Aufseherinnen and Blockführerinnen, deployed there. I remember staring at their faces: their stories upset me. They were detrimental to my purpose of highlighting women’s heroism. At Ravensbrück I ignored them and kept my focus on the deportees.

But there they were, hundreds of them: on the walls of that house, in the back of my mind. I knew that the time would come when I would be forced to exhume the concerns I had buried and come to terms with the fact that there were women perpetrators among the Nazis. And that time came, indeed, when I read Wendy Lower’s Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields (2013).

Lower examines the women who were born in Germany in the wake of World War I, grew up in the Nazi regime, and worked for the Third Reich in the Nazi-occupied East, sharing responsibility for the massacres that were carried out there. Her research began in the town of Zhytomyr, in Ukraine. Lower originally traveled there to find documentation of the Final Solution, a quite impossible task. The town is about a hundred miles west of Kiev, and under the Nazi occupation, it was Heinrich Himmler’s Ukrainian headquarters.

The Nazis arrived in Ukraine in 1941 and ravaged the territory. Lower stumbled upon certain documents that listed ordinary German women living and working in towns like Zhytomyr during the Nazi occupation. She was surprised that such women would be in these areas. When she went back to the Western archives, she looked at the postwar investigative records and found testimony from many German women detailing the killings. Prosecutors appeared more interested in the crimes of their male colleagues and husbands. So Lower started wondering why prosecutors did not question or follow up on these women’s testimonies.

The female camp guards who triggered my thoughts were the only ones about whom studies existed when Lower set out to write her book. Compared to other German women working under the Nazis, the Aufseherinnen were fairly well-known, but according to Lower they were presented as caricatures or pornographic distortions of the “evil woman.” While there was a lot of literature about the different male perpetrators in the Nazi system, there were no sophisticated studies of the female perpetrators. Hannah Arendt herself “neglected the role of female administrators” when she “fashioned her thesis on the banality of evil” (Lower, 265). Yet the Cold War temporarily buried the question of the Nazi perpetrators, since “the Red Army became the ultimate war criminal entrenched in German experience” (Elazar Barkan, The Guilt of Nations: Restitution and Negotiating Historical Injustices, 2000: 10) and the German focus was on the nation’s suffering and its own victims. As for women specifically, the figure of the Trümmerfrau—the designation given to those who helped reconstruct the German bombed cities—was so powerful that it effaced every other representation of German women. Historian Leonie Treber defined it as a “German legend” and set out to dismantle the myth in her dissertation, but the controversy her work raised denotes how established this heroic image of women in post-Nazi Germany still is in today’s Germany.

The number of women perpetrators is not negligible. An estimated 500,000 German women went to the Nazi East and formed an integral part of Hitler’s machinery of destruction. Lower tried to understand why they did so, by closely studying their biographies. Their lives showed her how human beings change and how these women ended up contributing to the violence of the Holocaust, from the idealists who were allied with the Nazi ideology and saw themselves as agents of a conservative revolution, to those who simply followed their husbands or lovers and sought material benefits.


Erna Petri, before and after her arrest. Wife of SS Second Lieutenant Horst Petri, she shot six half-naked Jewish boys who had managed to escape from a boxcar bound for a gas chamber and were hiding on the Petris’ private estate in Nazi-occupied Poland. She was barely 25 years old at the time. When pressed by the Stasi interrogator as to how she, a mother, could murder these children, she referred to her own desire to prove herself to the men (the SS). Erna Petri “embodied” the ideological indoctrination of the Nazi regime. Source: Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields (p.88 and 205)

Paradoxically, it took Lower’s book about gender to teach me that evil is not gendered. Genocide is a human problematic behavior that applies to both men and women. “Minimizing women’s culpability to a few thousand brainwashed and misguided camp guards does not accurately represent the reality of the Holocaust,” writes Lower (182). Women should be given back their agency, whether good or bad.

The idea of “evil” has significantly evolved from the way Hannah Arendt first conceptualized it. Corey Robin analyzed her position in “The Trials of Hannah Arendt” and in a recent lecture delivered at Cornell University titled “Eichmann in Jerusalem. Three Readings: Hobbesian, Kantian, Arendtian.” Arendt tried to distinguish “Eichmann’s murderous deeds from his state of mind.” Eichmann was not a “solitary actor,” but a “partner in a criminal joint enterprise.” Arendt “de-emphasized motive” to stress the “collaborative dimension of mass murder.” Robin cites one of her letters to Scholem, where she famously said that “evil is never ‘radical’” but “only extreme,” and “it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension.” Robin argues that this is specifically “what Arendt’s critics detect and dislike in her thesis of the banality of evil: a denial of evil as the summum malum, of its capacity to serve as the basis of a political morality.” In such a quasi-Hobbesian interpretation of good and evil, there is no objective moral structure to the universe.

If for Arendt ideology played a lesser role in Eichmann’s decisions, it seems to me that Lower’s book resonates more with the way Timothy Snyder conceptualized evil. Nazism—just as Snyder framed it in his Black Earth: The Holocaust As History and Warning (2015)— supplied its perpetrators with a Weltanschauung and a rationale for their crimes, namely a fictitious life-and-death global struggle against an ultimate enemy, the Jew. Overall, a minority of women directly carried out the killings of Jews in the East, but many women participated in the administration, working to keep the wheels of the Nazi system turning, the deportation trains going and the documents moving. Their agency is visible in the goal they wanted to attain: to gain social mobility and be part of the new, selected “racial aristocracy” of the Third Reich.

Addition photos for the above piece can be seen here (courtesy of Benedetta Carnaghi)

Special thanks to John Raimo for his excellent suggestions on a previous draft of this piece!

Benedetta Carnaghi is a Ph.D. student in History at Cornell University. She studies modern European history with a particular focus on Italy, France, and Germany. Her current research focus is a comparison between the Fascist and Nazi secret police. Related interests include the history of Resistance, the Holocaust, gender studies, political violence, and terror.

Renovating the American Revolution: The Most Important Stories Aren’t on Broadway

by guest contributor Eric Herschthal

Timing is everything. Just when historians thought they were on the cusp of redefining the very meaning of the American Revolution—which is to say, now—along comes “Hamilton,” the musical. The general public, and not a few academics, have embraced the show, which reaffirms the old Whiggish narrative that the revolution set the foundation for liberal democracy. By casting Hamilton and the founders as mostly African Americans and Latinos, the show’s creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, has breathed new life into the Whiggish view, one that a rising generation of historians (myself included) insists has passed its sell-by date. The irony is that Miranda re-appropriates the feel-good story for a group of Americans that scholars now generally agree the founders did little to embrace: minorities. Maybe there’s something of value in the Whiggish narrative after all?


Perhaps nothing has done more to change perceptions about the American Revolution than bringing it into conversation with the Haitian Revolution. Image: 1802 engraving of Toussaint L’Ouverture. Courtesy of Wikicommons

Or maybe not. It may in fact be a good thing that scholarship doesn’t easily succumb to popular enthusiasms. Indeed, if we look beyond “Hamilton,” the recent renovations in the scholarship on the American Revolution, decades in the making, suggest that historians today very much have their finger on the pulse. Today’s world is more global, more black and brown, and the recent scholarship reflects that: it brings in their voices, yet not by continuing to heroize the founders and simply cast them as black and brown, but by taking seriously the negative consequences the revolution often had for marginalized groups.

Take just a small sample of books from the past year. In Bind Us Apart: How Enlightened Americans Invented Racial Segregation (Basic Books; 2016), Nicholas Guyatt argues that even the most liberal-minded founders laid the foundation for segregation. Kathleen DuVal’s Independence Lost: Lives on the Edge of the American Revolutions (Random House; 2015) focuses on the lives the War of Independence ruined when it breached the thirteen colonies and came to the Gulf Coast: Chickasaws and Creeks; African slaves; Cajuns; loyalists. Michael McDonnell, in Masters of Empire: Great Lake Indians and the Making of America (Hill and Wang, 2015), does something similar, showing how Native American groups in the Great Lakes region essentially called the shots. The revolution was perhaps sparked as much by European empires stumbling into internal Native American conflicts as it was by lofty ideas of liberty.

From some of these books, it might seem that ideas no longer matter, or at least not as much as they used to. Indeed, much of the recent scholarship serves at least as an implicit critique of the overweening emphasis on ideology that scholars like Gordon Wood and Bernard Bailyn once highlighted. Their work relied almost exclusively on the pamphlets and private letters that revolutionary leaders left behind, which necessarily privileged elite white men. But in taking cues from social historians, the new generation of scholars have run up against an old set of challenges. Among the most obvious is that the precise thoughts—the precise ideas—of the “voiceless” do not come through as clearly, if at all. Perhaps as a result, much of the recent scholarship focuses less on the ideals people who lived through the era fought for, and instead underscores the local circumstances and shifting political dynamics that defined their choices, an approach the historian Sarah Knott has recently called “situational” as opposed to “ideological.”

But for other scholars, ideas still matter. Many historians of the revolution have grown adept at piecing together plausible narratives about the general ideas that inspired the people the Whiggish narrative left behind.. A little more than a decade ago, T.H. Breen, in The Marketplace of Revolution: How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence (Oxford, 2004) provided a road-map, showing how consumer culture–objects like teacups, pins, boots and buckles—created a shared language for Americans of many different ethnicities, classes and genders. Not everyone may have read the same books, if they could read at all, but a vast number bought the same stuff. Boycotts worked—the revolution happened—because many people understood the language of consumption.

A thriving scholarship on print culture has opened up another new vein. Almost twenty years ago (!), David Waldstreicher lead the charge, showing how print sources, from newspapers to under-utilized sources like almanacs, could be read for what they revealed about popular political culture. Waldstreicher’s In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes (UNC, 1997) gave ample evidence of broad political participation expressed not through the means we typically associate it with—voting, jury duty, taxes—but parades, national holidays, and street protests. Yet if these political festivities helped create a national identity rooted in revolution, they also served as a kind of social control—one where political elites, almost always white men, tried to manage the revolution’s meaning.


Simon Bolivar, an early leader of the Latin American Revolutions, made ending slavery a critical part of his revolution’s mission after the black Haitian government sheltered him. Image: Portrait of Simon Bolivar (1895), by Arturo Michelena (1863-1898) – Galería de Arte Nacional. Courtesy of Wikicommons.

More recently, Janet Polansky has also used print culture to ground the American Revolution more firmly in a global context. In Revolution without Borders: The Call to Liberty in the Atlantic World (Yale, 2015) she follows revolutionary-era pamphlets, letters and novels as they made their way to and from Haiti, Sierra Leone, Poland, the U.S., Russia and France (to name a few). Peoples of many different cultures, classes and genders, she argues, embraced and often transformed the meaning of “revolution” to fit their individual circumstances. But all of them shared a sense that the “age of Revolutions,” as Thomas Paine famously dubbed it, would usher in a more egalitarian world. What emerges is in some ways a retooling of the ideological approach—but one that is more sharply attuned to the revolution’s failures. When the dust settled, a new age of nations, of empires, emerged in the revolutions’ collective wake, leaving only the promise of freedom, not its realization.

The shifts in scholarship on the American Revolution—the turn to the social and the global—have, unsurprisingly, shown up in the closely-allied field of Age of Revolution scholarship. In fact, Polansky’s work fits more neatly within this tradition than the work on the American Revolution. Yet if her book emphasizes transnational connections, others have highlighted the divergent paths each revolution took. When all the age’s revolutions are placed side-by-side what emerges is less a revolution fought in the name of liberal democracy than a revolution fought for a myriad of distinct causes. The term “Age of Revolution” still has value, but we might need to divorce for it from the particular Whiggish, “liberal democratic” inflection, a point recently made by the Cindy Ermus and Bryan Banks, co-editors of an excellent new blog Age of Revolutions. “Revolutions are no longer synonymous with a set of ideological concepts like, say, democracy,” they said recently, adding that the use of the term today is “multivalent.”


George Washington and his slave, Billy Lee. Image: George Washington and Billy Lee (1780), by John Trumbull. Courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Perhaps nothing has done more to change our assessment of the American Revolution’s shortcomings than bringing it into conversation with the linked revolutions in Haiti and Latin America. The recent surge in scholarship on the Haitian Revolution—undoubtedly the most significant revolution that R.R. Palmer left virtually unmentioned in his otherwise magisterial Age of Democratic Revolution (1959-64)—has forced U.S. scholars to appreciate anew how limited the founders’ vision of liberty was when it came to slavery. Haitian slaves and free blacks, along with their white Jacobin allies, imbued the revolutionary era with a strong antislavery program, something that Haitian historian Laurent Dubois said amounts to an “enslaved Enlightenment” (cf. Robin Blackburn as well as David P. Geggus and Norman Fiering). The United States’ compromises over slavery can only be seen as tame by comparison.

Similarly, the wave of emancipation decrees that came along with the Latin American revolutions in the 1820s and ‘30s—themselves directly inspired by Haiti’s example—only drives the point home. Caitlin Fitz’s forthcoming Our Sister Republics: The United States in an Age of American Revolutions (W.W. Norton, 2017) makes the point clear. Though America’s founders largely embraced the Latin American revolutions at their start, as antislavery became an increasingly prominent part of their revolutions, Americans began to renege their support.

Academic interest in the American Revolution and its broader age shows no signs of waning. But might what we now know about these revolutions make them less inspiring with the broader public? The historian David Bell recently took on that question in his new book, Shadows of the Revolution: Reflections on France, Past and Present (Oxford, 2016), coming at it from the perspective of the French Revolution. In one essay, he argues that the French Revolution no longer provides an inspiring model for change in our times because, as scholars, we have become too aware of the high cost in human life. The French Revolution today evokes as much the guillotine as it does the Girondists. Even if it was indeed fought for worthy ideals—liberté, égalité, fraternité—we cannot forget that many heads rolled, and many wrongs turns were taken, along the way.

In that sense, the new scholarship on the revolutionary era may not provide so much inspiration as caution. If the latest histories expose how much blood was spilled, how many promises were left unrealized, then the Arab Spring’s violent aftermath might strike us as less surprising, our hunger for a political revolution—whether called for by Bernie or Trump—a little less pronounced. Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s the kind message that makes for a hit Broadway musical.


Eric Herschthal studies history at Columbia University, where he is writing his dissertation on the role science played in the early antislavery movement. His interests include early American history, the Atlantic World, science and slavery. Eric’s writing has also appeared in general interest publications, including The New York Times, Slate, The Atlantic and The New Republic. Follow Eric on Twitter @EricHerschthal.

What We’re Reading: May 21st-27th

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


Richard Brody, “Albert Murray and the Limits of Critics with Theory” (New Yorker)

T.J. Clark, “Picasso and the Fall of Europe” (London Review of Books)

Massimo Gezi, “Sulle tracce di un poeta pazzo: Giovanni Antonelli” (Le parole e le cose)

Thomas Grillot and Pauline Peretz, « L’historien éclaire-t-il le présent ? Entretien avec Thomas J. Sugrue » (La vie des idées)

Jan-Werner Müller, “Europe’s Sullen Child” (London Review of Books)

Rebecca Onion, “Some Things are Worth Forgetting” (Slate)

Frances Richard, “The Afterlife of Polaroid” (The Nation)

Sébastien Rozeaux, “The Importance of Global History” (Books and Ideas)

Marie Schiele and Hélène Vuillermet, « Aux sources vives de la Renaissance » (La vie des idées)

Andrew Tobolowsky, “History, Myth, and the Shrinking of Genre Borders” (Eidolon)

And finally, the Centre Pompidou in Paris is mounting a retrospective of the films of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet’s films (which may garner a blog post soon; May 27th – July 3rd)


Robert Greene II, This Weekend in Conferences and US Intellectual History (S-USIH Blog)

Jacqui Shine, How to Wake the Dead: A Commencement Address (The Toast)

Charles Nicholl, Unsluggardised: ‘The Shakespearean Circle’ (LRB)

Molly Jean Bennett, Vintage Photos of Tree Worship at Western College for Women (Atlas Obscura)

Rachel Hope Cleves, Lesbian Histories and Futures: A Dispatch From “Gay American History @ 40” (Notches)

Owen Bowcott, Mau Mau lawsuit due to begin at high court (Guardian)

Ania Ostrowska, Would you mind if Neil Bartlett asked you a few personal questions about sex? (Notches)


Michael C. Behrent, “On France’s theologico-political crisis” (Immanent Frame)

Michael Caines, “Return to Utopia” (TLS Blog)

Christopher Benfey, “Wittgenstein’s Handles” (NYRB)


Patrick Iber and Mike Konczal, “Karl Polanyi for President” (Dissent Magazine)

Daniel Little, “Three Conceptions of Biography” (Understanding Society)

James Genone, “The Conceptual Mind: New Directions in the Study of Concepts” (Notre-Dame Philosophical Reviews)


Natalie Childs, “Visual Cultures of Indigenous Futurisms” (Guts Magazines)

Irina Dumitrescu, “ ‘Frivolous’ Humanities Helped Prisoners Survive in Communist Romania” (Zocalo)

Cara Giaimo, “Preserving Ireland’s Ancient, Mysterious Tree-Based Alphabet” (Atlas Obscura)

Ferris Jabr, “The Lost Gardens of Emily Dickinson” (New York Times)


Jonathan Hsy, “3,000 Kalamazoos: Play, Change, Community” (In the Medieval Middle)

Simon Reichley, “World’s Most Comprehensive Latin Dictionary Is Only 25 Years from Completion; Not Yet Available for Pre-Order” (Melville House)

Jacqui Shine, “How to Wake the Dead: A Commencement Address” (The Toast)


Christopher Benfey,“Wittgenstein’s Handles” (NYRB)

Alex Cocotas, “Eli Singalovski Shoots the Concrete Face of Israel: One photographer asks, can architecture create a better society?” (Tablet Mag)

William Egginton, “Letter From Austria: Is Europe’s ‘Tolerant Society’ Backfiring?” (The Stone, New York Times)

Jay L. Garfield and Bryan W. Van Norde, “If Philosophy Won’t Diversify, Let’s Call It What It Really Is” (The Stone, New York Times)

Linda Greenhouse, “The Bittersweet Victories of Women” (NYRB)

Sarah Weinman, “O.J.: Made in America: How Do You Like Him Now?” (New Republic)


Lucia Berlin, A Manual for Cleaning Women (Farrar, Strauss, & Giraux, 2015)

Mitch Fraas, “Alexander Hamilton’s Working Papers” (Unique at Penn)

Matthew Kirchenbaum, “This Faithful Machine” (Paris Review)

Lara Putnam, “The Transnational and the Text-Searchable: Digitized Sources and the Shadows they Cast (American Historical Review)

Mai-mai Sze’s “East-West” columns for the NY Post and more (the Chinamerican Blog)


Svetlana Alexievich, “On a Loneliness That Resembles Happiness. An Excerpt from Svetlana Alexievich’s book Secondhand Time” (The New Republic)

David Blackbourn, “Princes, Counts and Racists” (LRB)

Edward Docx, “Esperanto: the language that never was,” (Prospect Magazine)

Naomi Klein, “ Let Them Drown” (LRB)

What We’re Reading: May 15th-20th

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


Mary Beard, “Life in Ruins” (TLS)

Lucy Ives, “How Archival Fiction Upends our View of History” (New Yorker)

John Banville, “Surrounded by Jew-Haters” (NYRB)

Robert Greene II, “Reading and the Career of a Historian” (USIH Blog)


Patrick Bahners, »Ein Alliierter der Vernunft: zum Tod von Fritz Stern« (FAZ)

John Banville, “Surrounded by Jew-Haters” (New York Review of Books)

Nick Hopwood, “Copying Pictures, Evidencing Evolution” (Public Domain Review)

Felix Philipp Ingold, »Schwierige Freundschaft: Paul Celan im Briefwechsel mit René Char« (Neue Zürcher Zeitung)

Jeton Neziraj, “Balkans and Beyond: Books that burn on piles of Wood” (Café Babel)

Giulia Puma, « Des hommes et des images » (La vie des idées)

Nicolò Scaffai, “Critica della transparenza” (Le parole e le cose)

Dana Schmalz, “ ‘Who gets to be global?’ An interview with Atossa Araxia Abrahamian” (Völkerrechtsblog)

Jason Schulman interviews Robert Holub on the publication of his new book Nietzsche’s Jewish Problem: Between Anti-Semitism and Anti-Judaism (New Books in History)

John Wilkins, “Roberto Calasso and the Irresistible Art of the Publisher” (Public Books)

And finally, Patrick Boucheron’s Collège de France lectures, « Souvenirs, fictions, croyances. Le Moyen Âge d’Ambroise de Milan », are being streamed on L’Éloge du savoir (France Culture)


Jeff Nunokawa, The Hardship of Henry James (The New Rambler)

Mary Beard, Ultimate Rome: Empire Without Limit, Episode 4 (BBC2)

Peter Ghosh, Britain is no longer an island: a historian’s take on the Brexit debate (The Conversation)

Byrd Pinkerton, The Ultimate Latin Dictionary: After 122 Years, Still At Work On The Letter ‘N’ (NPR)

Julia Brookins, The Decline in History Majors: What Is to Be Done? (Perspectives)

Matthew Clair, Black Intellectuals and White Audiences (Public Books)

Paul Gilroy and Rosemary Belcher, Paul Gilroy in search of a not necessarily safe starting point… (Open Democracy)

David Cole, Race & Renaming: A Talk with Peter Salovey, President of Yale (NYRB)

Tim Lacy, Arendt Ascendant? (S-USIH Blog)



Melvin Rodgers, “What Good is History for African Americans” (Boston Review)

Emily J. Levine, “From Bauhaus to Black Mountain: German Émigrés and the Birth of American Modernism” (LA Review of Books)

Matt Donavan, “Climbing the Eye of God” (New York Review of Books)

Elaine Blaire, “Note to Self: The Lyric Essay’s Convenient Fictions” (Harpers)

Laura Beth Nielson, “Space, Speech, and Subordination on the College Campus” (The Smart Set)


Molly Jean Bennett, “Vintage Photos of Tree Worship at Western College for Women” (Atlas Obscura)

Jessica Crispin, “Bookslut was born in an era of internet freedom. Today’s web has killed it” (The Guardian)

Demetria Lucas D’Oyley, “Artist Turns Racist Flirtations on Tinder into Compelling Look at Race and Sex” (The Root)

Jeppe Ugelvig, “Ways of Living | Arcadia Missa” (Dis Magazine)


Sarah Bond, “It’s on the Sillybos: The Birth of the Book Title

Ainoa Castro, “ViGOTHIC Update: Making a Medieval Codex” (and Part II) (Littera Visigothica)

Judith Weingarten, “Writing Tablets from Palmyra: ‘The Forgotten Island’” (Zenobia: Empress of the East)

Maggie Williams, “#Kzoo 2016” (Material Collective)

Virginia Woolf, “Vogue 100: Indiscretions by Virginia Woolf” (Vogue)


Michael J. Agovino, “City (Not) on Fire” (LARB)

Mary Beard, “Life in Ruins” (TLS)

Melissa Dinsman with Bethany Nowviskie, “The Digital in the Humanities” (LARB)

Ellen Feldman, “Terrible Virtue (On the Life of Margaret Sanger)” (New York Society Library via YouTube)

Nicholas Köhler, “The Mysterious Letter Writer who Beguiled Flannery O’Connor and Iris Murdoch” (New Yorker)


Patrick Bahners, »Zum Tod von Fritz Stern: Ein Allierter der Vernunft« (FAZ)

Maanvi Singh, “Care Packages: How the U.S. Won Hearts Through Stomachs After WWII” ([NPR)

Julie Belcove, “Shelf Life: Kader Attia built a model of an Algerian Fortress out of couscous in the Guggenheim” (The New Yorker)

What We’re Reading: May 14

Please welcome Yitzchak Schwartz, a new contributing editor who is joining us this month! You can read more about him on the Masthead page.


L.D. Burnett, On Lamentations for a Lost Canon (Chronicle)

Charlotte Higgins, Tudormania: why can’t we get over it? (Guardian)

Eamon Duffy, A Great, Ignored Transformation?, review of Joel Kaye’s new A History of Balance (NYRB)

The Early Music Show: Hampton Court and Edward VI (BBC Radio 3)

Diane Johnson, The Quest for Gay Pleasure (NYRB)
Alastair Gee, The Moving Revelations of Gay Home Movies (New Yorker)


Andrew Butterfield, “Botticelli: Love, Wisdom, Terror” (NYRB)

Michael Bulley, “There once was a writer called Lear…” (TLS Blog)

Tim Parks, “How Italy Improved my English” (NYRB)

Sheng Yun, “Little Emperors” (LRB)

Linda Greenhouse, “The Bittersweet Victories of Women” (NYRB)

This weekend I’ve been enjoying “Europe without Borders,” a conference to celebrate forty years of European cultural studies at Princeton.


Cara Giaimo, The Hidden Messages of Colonial Handwriting (Atlas Obscura)

Brian Droitcour, Coming Up Roses: Alex Da Corte at MASS MoCA (Art in America)

Charlotte Higgins, Tudormania: why can’t we get over it? (Guardian)


Garret Keizer, Solidarity and Survival (Lapham’s Quarterly)

Paul Dolan, The Social Construction of Stories: How Narratives Can Get in the Way of Being Happier (Edge)

Juliana Spahr, Richard So, Andrew Piper, Beyond Resistance: Towards a Future History of Digital Humanities (LARB)

Daniel Little, Hofstadter on the Progressive Historians (Understanding Society)

Josh Mitteldorf and Dorion Sagan, Why Aging Isn’t Inevitable (Nautilus)


Craid Fehrman, The qwerty history of the word processor (Boston Globe)

Michael Dirda, ‘Letters of a Dead Man’: a travel guide like no other (WaPo)

Sara Guaglione, ‘Forbes’ features print ad with video player (Publisher’s Weekly)

David Weinberger, Rethinking Knowledge in the Internet Age (LARB)

Max Weber and Carl Schmitt: Crossroads of Crisis

by guest contributor Pedro T. Magalhães

Ideas have unintended consequences. Max Weber, the founding father of German sociology, must have been keenly aware of this. In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904/05), he put forward the bold thesis that Protestant asceticism had unintentionally provided the spiritual conditions for the rise of modern capitalism. Ironically, one of Weber’s own political ideas—the notion of a plebiscitary leadership democracy, which he developed in the aftermath of World War I—would also end up being interpreted as having inadvertently paved the way to the rise of totalitarian dictatorship in Germany.

The first commentator to suggest that Weber’s vision of democracy had aroused the inclination of moderate, bürgerlich German minds to accept radical, authoritarian solutions to the predicaments of parliamentary democracy was the historian Wolfgang J. Mommsen. Mommsen argued, in the conclusion to his book, that Carl Schmitt’s theory of the plebiscitary legitimacy of the President of the Reich, astutely exploited in the early 1930s against the supposedly shallow legality of Weimar’s parliamentarianism, constituted a valid and coherent extension to Max Weber’s post-WWI demands. Carl Schmitt was a conservative Catholic legal scholar: drawn early to the political philosophies of the European counterrevolution, and flirting with Italian fascism throughout the 1920s before joining the Nazi ranks shortly after Hitler’s rise to power. It was therefore quite controversial when Jürgen Habermas suggested, in his final remarks at a Weber centenary conference (Heidelberg, 1964), that Schmitt was a “legitimate pupil”—perhaps even a “natural son”—of Max Weber’s.

There is, I believe, something more shocking in the assertion that the ideas of a mainstream liberal thinker—even if of a gloomy, late-modern variety—were “logically,” “legitimately,” or “naturally” taken to unanticipated extremes by a radical colleague than in the numerous instances of des extrêmes qui se touchent in the history of political thought (e. g. the “dangerous liaisons” between Carl Schmitt and the neo-Marxist Walter Benjamin). Extremes frequently meet because they oppose the same status quo—even if for utterly different reasons, or because they share methods, ways of thinking, or a fascination with limit cases. The circular movement of opposites that meet is less disquieting than the drift from the center to the fringes, from moderation to radicalism, because the latter entails a reconfiguration of the political space as a whole, a redefinition of the frontiers of what is politically tenable.

As regards the affinity between the political ideas of Weber and Schmitt, some commentators have tried to relativize the whole controversy. Leading Weber scholars (Lawrence A. Scaff, Joachim Radkau) have claimed that Weber’s politics is a particularly unsuitable key for considering the author’s main intellectual concerns. Others still have sought to defend him from the charge of being a forerunner of Weimar political radicalism, arguing that the supposed similarities between Weber’s ideas and those of notorious radicals—particularly the reactionary Schmitt, but also the Marxist György Lukács, who was a protégé of Weber’s in Heidelberg before joining the cause of Leninist revolution—are outweighed by much more significant dissimilarities (Dana Villa). Indeed, one must agree that the notion of a “natural” intellectual paternity is much too rigid. If one looks at the multiple sources of political ideas in each author’s fundamental theoretical positions and personal motivations, crucial differences surely prevail over the more disturbing points of continuity. But these cannot be explained away that easily. They are interesting and revealing in their own right.

Weber was one of the first observers to recognize that the structural change of modern mass politics threatened the basic tenets of nineteenth-century liberal parliamentarianism. Old liberal principles and beliefs seemed helpless to deal with the new political challenges of mass parties and interest groups in an increasingly rationalized world. To this crisis of liberalism he formulated risky answers, which were later developed in a radical, resolutely anti-liberal direction by Carl Schmitt. Retrospectively, this story became tied, as a paradigmatic instance, to the broader narrative of the collapse of mainstream German liberalism, of its ultimately tragic dislocation to the radical right.

Contexts of crisis are marked by a shifting political center—the space of acceptable political solutions and practices—whose standard answers to the challenges of the day have been exhausted. Carl Schmitt’s escalation of Max Weber’s idea of leadership democracy is a fateful example of the fluidity of such critical contexts. After years of relative stability in Western Europe, the ground of the political center has started to shake again, at least since the dawn of the great recession in 2008. In France, a populist right-wing party conquers relevant shares of the vote election after election. In Greece, a coalition of radical leftists and nationalists tries, with little success, to contest the austerity measures imposed upon the country by foreign creditors. More recently, large-scale migration to the continent from Africa and the Middle East seems to have reawakened dormant culturalist fears, as high walls and barbed-wire fences rise again in some European borders. Every answer to the present political quandaries in Europe is inherently risky, since it can help shift the shaky political center in unforeseeable, and possibly undesired, directions. The story of Weber and Schmitt recommends precaution, but it cannot justify immobility. Ideas have unintended consequences, because the future is uncertain.

Pedro T. Magalhães is a graduate student at NOVA University of Lisbon. His article “A Contingent Affinity: Max Weber, Carl Schmitt, and the Challenge of Modern Politics” appears in the April 2016 issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas.

What We’re Reading: May 7

Missed yesterday’s Lovejoy Lecture? Check out our Storify summary of the proceedings.


Mary Beard, BBC Latin (A Don’s Life)

David Tennant et al., Look Back in Anger; Tennant Looks Back at Osborne (BBC Radio 4)

Eleanor Parker, May Miscellany (A Clerk of Oxford)

Adam S. Cohen, Harvard’s Eugenics Era (Harvard Magazine)

Rahul Rao, On Statues (The Disorder of Things)

Jacqueline Rose, Who do you think you are? Trans Narratives (LRB)

Jacqueline Woodson, Why James Baldwin Still Matters (Vanity Fair)

Kevin M. Kruse, The Religious Right and the Politics of Sexuality: An Interview with Neil J. Young (Notches)

Christopher Benfey, A Wonderfully Ephemeral College (NYRB)

Mallory Ortberg, Texts from Samuel Coleridge (The Toast)


Ingrid D. Rowland, “Wonders in the Met’s New Box” (NYRB)

L. D. Burnett, “Digital Humanities and the Neoliberal Takeover of the University: A Response” (USIH Blog)

Karl Steel, “Animals, Gesture, and Communication Despite it All” (In the Middle)

Anka Muhlstein, “Degas Invents a New World” (NYRB)


Jean-Baptiste Amadieu, « Dialogue avec des censeurs » (La vie des idées)

Luisa Bertollni, “Che colori vedevano i greci?” (Doppiozerio)

Michal Choptiany, “On card catalogues” (Chronologia Universalis)

Vanessa Cook, “Eighty Years Since Bread and Wine: Ignazio Silone’s Christian Socialism” (Dissent)

Anthony Gottlieb, “Who Was David Hume?” (New York Review of Books)

Thomas Grillot, “The Ancestor Seeker: An Interview with Michel Brunet” (Books and Ideas)

Ina Hartwig, »Kult um das Jetzt« (Die Zeit)

Ilko-Sascha Kowalczuk, »Die Aufarbeitung ist gescheitert« (TAZ)

Grégoire Leménager, « On a lu le tout premier roman de Georges Perec » (Nouvel observateur)

Marnin Young, “Photography and the Philosophy of Time: Gustave Le Gray’s Great Wave, Sète” (

And finally, a new French edition of Reinhart Koselleck’s Le futur passé (EHESS, 2016) with a preface by Sabina Loriga


Elisa Gabbert, The Point of Tangency (Smart Set)

Marco Grassi, Van Dyck Portraits at the Frick (New Criterion)

Todd Landon Barnes, Shakespeare in 2016 (Public Books)

Matthew Clair, Black Intellectuals and White Audiences (Public Books)

Daniel Little, Large structures and social change (Understanding Society)


Nathalie Goedert, Les Univers Juridiques de Star Trek (IMAJ)

Charles West, Will the Real Roman Emperor Please Stand Up? (Turbulent Priests)

Kera Bolonik, Down the Research Rabbit Hole: A Conversation with Alexander Chee (JSTOR Daily)

Ruins of Ancient Air Conditioning Found in Kuwait (The History Blog)

Shame, Memory, and the Politics of the Archive

by guest contributor Nicole Longpré

During a research trip to the University of Leeds in the spring of 2014, I requested access to a selection of files from the papers of former Labour MP Merlyn Rees which are held by the university library’s special collections facility. Staff at the facility were unsure what to do: it was possible that these files were included in the part of the collection that was closed to the public. They would have to check. I asked again the next day, and again the next: the staff were still uncertain, so I would not be able to view the files. At the Conservative Party Archive in Oxford, things were clearer: the Conservative Party staffer responsible for granting special access said it would not be possible to view the selection of files I had requested. They were not open to any member of the public.

Historians of the twentieth century in particular are frequently confronted with the barrier of the closed file: information that archivists, politicians, or others have deemed too sensitive to be read by the general public. But what do we mean by “sensitive”? “Sensitive” for whom? The files that I was requesting to view in these cases all dealt in some way with immigration to the United Kingdom in the second half of the twentieth century. More specifically, they dealt with anti-immigrationism: opposition to immigrants who arrived in the UK from the Caribbean and South Asia in substantial numbers from 1948 through the 1970s. The material in these files almost certainly would not have included references to individual immigrants, so the files were not closed out of concern for those people’s wellbeing. Rather, they were closed because they might reveal that some individual, prominent or otherwise, who was involved with politics during the second half of the twentieth century opposed immigration, and may have done so in a way that was shameful.

Tony Kushner argues that “There persists a strong tendency to deny racism and exclusion—past and present—and therefore a need still to study its impact and importance in British society and culture, especially on the minorities concerned” (13). But it is not enough, I don’t think, just to study the impact of exclusion. Exclusion is not some miasma floating about in the air: it requires agency, and unless we acknowledge the role of human action in creating and maintaining exclusionary practices, we have only half the story. Kushner further argues that “Official proclamations from politicians of all hues from the late twentieth century onwards emphasise that ‘The UK has a long standing tradition of giving shelter to those fleeing persecution in other parts of the world’. A contrary tradition of animosity has been less easily accepted in self-mythology.” (12) And since animosity is challenging to incorporate into the national narrative, evidence of its existence is suppressed, or ignored—certainly not encouraged.

Shame does not only manifest in the closure of existing archival files; it also results in the non-existence of archives themselves. There is, at present, no archive of anti-immigrationism. No repository includes among its collection the complete papers of any single-issue anti-immigrationist group, or any individual whose primary or exclusive contribution to politics and society was their anti-immigrationist activism. All of the collections which hold anti-immigrationist materials are those of mainstream political parties, MPs, or even left-leaning groups who surveyed anti-immigrationists for the purposes of information-gathering. That is, all the documentary evidence that exists on the topic of anti-immigrationism was deposited, and collected, by someone else, or because the person who possessed or created those documents did other things which were more important—or at least more acceptable. This trend reveals certain tantalizing details that might otherwise have been lost: for instance, that the Labour Party and National Front ran a series of infiltrations of each other’s organizations in which young working-class men posed as members for the purposes of obtaining information about their opponents’ tactics. But it conceals other, equally important information. For instance, what was the nature of internal organizational debates about how, and why, to oppose immigration legislation, or discussions about which tactics were best suited to challenging the political status quo? How did anti-immigrationists think about themselves, and how did they speak to each other? It is not clear whether members of anti-immigrationist groups ever offered to deposit their papers with any repository; if they had, it is similarly uncertain whether any repository would have accepted them. In both cases, shame operates to suppress the collection of data and information that might otherwise be used to construct a compelling, and complete, vision of the past. If we think it is important to preserve the papers of the National Council of Civil Liberties, presently held at the Hull History Centre, why not those of the Birmingham Immigration Control Association?

Typically when a group of individuals have not been responsible for depositing their own papers, we assume that this is because they have been in some way disempowered or disenfranchised—that they were among the oppressed and thus not granted their own voice. Anti-immigrationists in the twentieth century, by contrast, were typically citizens of the United Kingdom who were more or less uniformly entitled to a full package of civil, political, and social rights. However, the effect, and perhaps the intent, of an official disinterest in the anti-immigrationist past is to send a clear message not only to the anti-immigrationists and their successors, but also to any members of the public who may be paying attention: as anti-immigrationists you were always marginal, never mainstream, and the record will reflect this.

Assessing the complicated legacy of white supremacy in America, Ta-Nehisi Coates has written that “’Hope’ struck me as an overrated force in human history. ‘Fear’ did not.” Coates argues that white supremacy is likely an indelible feature of American society, and that the best remedy that can be achieved is a diminution of its impact. He means this stance not to be unnecessarily alarmist or pessimistic, but rather to militate “against justice and righteousness as twin inevitable victors in history.” Evidence of this (problematic) commitment to a positive spin on the trajectory of British history abounds in present-day commentary on the anti-immigrationist rhetoric of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) in particular. UKIP leader Nigel Farage is routinely mocked, chastised, and condemned by members of the political establishment; yet he persists in his public statements, and it would be difficult for anyone in the UK to ignore the role he is presently playing in politics at the highest level. It would similarly have been impossible for anyone to ignore the role that anti-immigrationism played in politics in the 1960s and 1970s—and so to frame anti-immigrationism as strictly “marginal” is an inaccurate representation of the lived experience of this period.

Unearthing the unpleasant history of an anti-immigrationist past is not an easy task, or a straightforward one. But it is not a task that should be avoided for all that. The cumulative effect of a failure to deposit shameful documents, or of denying access to potentially shameful materials, is to render oneself complicit in the process of suppression. By pretending that these things did not happen, and by preventing others from telling the story of a shameful past, we are ourselves culpable. So what principles should guide our collection and preservation of historical evidence moving forward? Do we keep only that which we can be proud of? Or do we accept that there are certain things about humanity that should change, but which can only be changed if we confront them in all their gory detail, if we pay them as much attention as those events and individuals who we most admire? Indeed, should we continue to accept the social phenomena of pride and shame as the grounds upon which we do, or do not, remember the past?

Nicole Longpré recently completed her Ph.D. in history at Columbia University, and will take up a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Victoria in Fall 2016. She researches anti-immigrationism and twentieth-century British political history.

We Have Never Been Presentist: On Regimes of Historicity

by guest contributor Zoltán Boldizsár Simon

It is great news that François Hartog’s Regimes of Historicity: Presentism and Experiences of Time has finally come out in English. The original French edition dates back to 2003, and my encounter with the book took place a few years later in the form of its Hungarian edition. What I wish to indicate by mentioning this small fact is that Anglo-American academia is catching up with ideas that already made their career. But to be more precise, it is perhaps better to talk about a single idea, because at the core of Hartog’s book there is one strong thesis, namely, that since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union we live in a presentist “regime of historicity.”

The thesis makes sense only within a long-term historical trajectory, in relation to previous “regimes of historicity” other than the presentist one. Furthermore, it makes sense only if one comes to grips beforehand with Hartog’s analytical categories, which is not the easiest task. As Peter Seixas notes in a review, despite Hartog’s effort to articulate what he means by a “regime of historicity,” the term remains elusive. For the sake of simplicity, let’s say that it denotes an organizational structure which Western culture imposes on experiences of time, and that changes in “regimes of historicity” entail changes in the way Western culture configures the relationship between past, present, and future.

As to the historical trajectory that Hartog sketches, it goes as follows: around the French Revolution, a future-oriented modern regime of historicity superseded a pre-modern one in which the past served as a point of orientation, illuminating the present and the future. So far this accords with Reinhart Koselleck’s investigations concerning the birth of our modern notion of history. Conceptualizing the course of events as history between 1750 and 1850—the period Koselleck called Sattelzeit—opened up the possibility and the expectation of change in the shape of a historical process supposedly leading to a better future. Where Hartog departs from Koselleck is the claim that even this modern regime that came about with the birth of our modern notion of history has now been replaced by one that establishes its sole point of orientation in the present.

I believe that Hartog’s main thesis about our current presentist “regime of historicity” can be fundamentally challenged. I am with Hartog, Koselleck, and many others (such as Aleida Assmann) in exploring the characteristics of the “modern regime of historicity.” What I doubt is not even Hartog’s further claim that Western culture left behind this modern regime, but that it happened sometime in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and that the modern regime is followed by a presentist one in which we live. In other words, what I doubt is the feasibility of the story that Hartog tells about how we became presentist.

Let me tell you another story—the story of how we have never been presentist. It does not begin with the fall of the Berlin Wall and it does not begin when the Cold War ends. Instead, it begins in the early stage of the postwar period, when Western culture finally killed off the three major (and heavily interrelated) future-oriented endeavors it launched since the late Enlightenment: classical philosophy of history, ideology, and political utopianism.

By the 1960s, skepticism towards the idea of a historical process supposed to lead to a “better” future already discredited philosophies of history. The complementary endeavors of ideology and political utopianism shared this fate, given that the achievement of their purpose depended on the discredited idea of a historical process within which it was supposed to take place. In other words, dropping the idea of a historical process necessarily entailed putting a ban on all future-oriented endeavors that were rendered possible by postulating such a process. These are, I believe, fairly well known phenomena. Since Horkheimer’s and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947 [1944]), or at least since Karl Popper’s The Poverty of Historicism (1957), Judith Shklar’s After Utopia (1957) or Daniel Bell’s The End of Ideology (1960), the bankruptcy of the three major future-oriented endeavors of Western culture have become a fairly recurrent theme in intellectual discussion.

This is not to say that traces of these endeavors did not remain present as implicit assumptions in cultural practices, however. It took a post-1960s “theory boom” and decades of postcolonial and gender critique even to attempt to deconstruct the prevailing assumptions of Western universalism and essentialism. But the point I would like to make is not whether this did or did not prove a successful intellectual operation; rather, I would like to emphasize that regardless of the question of overall success, Western culture self-imposed some sort of a presentism already in the 1960s by putting a ban on its own future-oriented endeavors.

Yet this self-imposed presentism remains only one side of the coin as concerns the ideological-utopian project. The other side is the proliferation of technological imagination and the future visions simultaneously launched when Western ideological-political imagination had been declared bankrupt. You can think of the space programs of the same period or of the sci-fi enthusiasm of the 1950s and 1960s, both in cinema and literature, which was inspired by actual technological visions reflected in the foundation of artificial intelligence research as a scientific field, splitting out of cybernetics in 1956. Today, this technological vision is more omnipresent than ever before. You cannot escape it as soon as you go to the movies or online. Just like every second blockbuster or like DeLillo’s latest novel, magazine stories and public debates now habitually address issues of transhumanism, bioengineering, nanotechnology, cryonics, human enhancement, artificial intelligence, technological singularity, plans to colonize Mars, and so on.

Hartog shows himself to be well aware of this technological vision, just as he remains aware of how the notion of history brought about by classical philosophies of history was abandoned in the postwar years, entailing the collapse of ideology and political utopianism. I can think of only one reason why he still fails to consider this as the abandonment of the modern regime of historicity. It seems to me that Hartog mistakes matters of political history like the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989) and the collapse of the Soviet Union (1991) for matters of intellectual history like the skepticism toward grand ideological-political designs of the common future that had already taken root in the 1950s-1960s. This must be the fundamental ground upon which Hartog places “the collapse of the communist ideal” alongside the fall of the Wall, as if the intellectual “ideal” could simply collapse together with the material collapse of the Wall or the political collapse of the communist bloc. This elision prevents Hartog and other critics from seeing that, first, the loss of Western ideological-utopian future-orientation was self-imposed and, second, that it did not result in overall presentism but in exchanging an ideological future-orientation for a technological-scientific one that emerged simultaneously with the abandonment of the former.

Of course the emerging technological-scientific vision (again, vision, and not necessarily the actual technological advancement, which one can debate) can be considered ideological as well, but that is beside the point. More importantly, the obvious omnipresence of the technological-scientific vision hardly enables us to talk about “a world so enslaved to the present that no other viewpoint is considered admissible” as Hartog does. Not to mention that the temporal structure of the technological vision may be completely other than the developmental structure that underlay late Enlightenment and nineteenth-century future-oriented endeavors. If these past endeavors were deliberately dropped for good reasons, whatever future endeavor Western culture ventures into, it simply cannot be a return to an abandoned temporality. If the future itself has changed, it necessarily entails a change in the mode by which we configure the relation of this future to the present and the past.

I think—and Hartog might agree if he reconsidered future-orientation—that the principal task of historians and philosophers of history today remains coming to terms with our current future vision. It is the principal task because insofar as we have a future vision, we imply a historical process; and if the technological-scientific vision is characteristically other than the abandoned ideological-utopian one, then the historical process it implies must be different too. What this means is that – using Hartog’s vocabulary – we may already have a new regime of historicity which we have yet to explore and understand.

Yet even if we do not fully grasp what regime of historicity we live in, one thing is certain: it is anything but presentist. In fact, we have never been presentist.

Zoltán Boldizsár Simon is a doctoral research associate at Bielefeld University. Lately he devotes articles to the question of how our future prospects and visions inform our notion of history, not only as related to the technological vision, but also with respect to our ecological concerns and within the framework of a quasi-substantive philosophy of history. You can also find Zoltán on Twitter and