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What We're Reading

What We’re Reading: May 28th-June 3rd

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.

Madeline:

Janet Malcolm, “Socks” (NYRB)

Lee Costello, “History students hit back at Queen’s Vice Chancellor Johnston” (BBC) (See also the related Twitter account, @QUBsixthcentury)

Mervyn R. Leventhal, response by Stephen Greenblatt, “When Shakespeare Died” (NYRB)

John:

Sarah Al-Matary and Alexandre de Vitry, « Rafraîchir les idées » (La vie des idées)

Maike Albath, »Literarische Großstadtsinfonie« (Deutschlandrundfunk)

Karen Akoka, « Crisis des réfugiés, ou des politiques d’asile ? » (La vie des idées)

Allison Anders, “Alice in the City: A Girl’s Story” (Criterion Current)

Ivan Jablonka (trans. Arianne Dorval), “History and Comics” (Books and Ideas)

Peter Stachel, »Österreich, wie es ist« (Merkur)

Peter Stamm, »Die Literatur wird bleiben« (NZZ)

Emanuele Trevi, “James Salter, la solitudine del pilota-scrittore” (Minima & Moralia)

Je Wilson, “Francis van Helmont and the Alphabet of Nature” (Public Domain Review)

Frank Zöllner, »Aby Warburg erkennt den lieben Gott im Detail« (FAZ)

And finally, Timothy Nunan interviews Robert Vitalis on his new book, White World Order, Black Power Politics (Cornell, 2015) at the Toynbee Prize Foundation website

Emily:

Ben Alpers, For What It’s Worth, on the history of student activism (S-USIH Blog)

Reena Goldthree, Black Britons and the Politics of Belonging: An Interview with Kennetta Hammond Perry (AAIHS)

Colin Stokes, “Frog and Toad”: An Amphibious Celebration of Same-Sex Love (New Yorker)

Ian Jack, The Best Stuff: David Astor (LRB)

I’ve been getting re-interested in the Oscar Wilde story after seeing David Hare’s Judas Kiss a few weeks ago. Here’s a classic:
James Davidson, Too Young: Lord Alfred Douglas (LRB)

 

Daniel:

Lorraine Daston, “Can Liberal Education Save the Sciences?” (The Point Magazine),

Adam Gopnik, “How a Lost Marx Brothers Musical Found its Way Backstage” (New Yorker)

Alan Jacobs, “Attending to Technology: Theses for Disputation” (The New Atlantis)

Liesl Schillinger, “Edith Grossman on Translating Spanish and the Pitfalls of Literal ism” (LA Review of Books)

James Wheeler, On Nancy Fraser’s “Two Dimensional Conception of Politics” (Public Seminar)

Jake:

UK’s Oldest Hand-Written Document ‘at London Dig’” (BBC)

Heidi Marx-Wolf, “The Afterlife of Desire” (Marginalia)

Laura Saetveit Miles, “The Ethics of Inventing Modernity: Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve” (In the Medieval Middle)

Daniel Souleles, “We’ve Already Got the Robes: Of Monks and Us,” the final post in Savage Mind’s Strange Rumblings in the Meritocracy series (Savage Minds)

Charles West, “Sorry, Vice-Chancellor. We Need More Historians of the Sixth Century.” (History Today)

Yitzchak:

Adam Kirsch, “Adam Sachs’ Motherless Son, Fathered by Kafka and Louis C.K. and Haunted by Delmore Schwartz” (Tablet)

Allen Orr, “DNA: ‘The Power of the Beautiful Experiment’” (NYRB)

Christy Wampole, “Clinging to Our ‘Roots’” (The Stone, NYT)

James Wood, “Making the Cut” (The New Yorker)

Carolyn:

Martin Filler, “The Builder of Jungles” (NYR Daily)

Janet Malcolm, “Socks” (New York Review of Books)

Karl Marlants, “The Born Soldier” (NYR Daily)

Nikil Saval, “Julian Barnes and the Shostakovich Wars” (The New Yorker)

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What We're Reading

What We’re Reading: Week of Nov. 21st

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.

Madeline:

Drew Gilpin Faust, “John Hope Franklin: Race and the Meaning of America” (NYRB)

Bruce Holsinger, “Written on Beasts” (NYRB)

Mary Beard, “Smalle Latine and Lesse Greek” (A Don’s Life, TLS)

Cara Giaimo, on the history of birdsong notation (Atlas Obscura)

Gabriel Fisher, “The Difficult Legacy of Woodrow Wilson” (New Yorker)

John:

Carol Birch, “All for Nothing” (The Guardian)

Paolo Capelletti, “L’Italia di Cartier-Bresson e degli altri” (Doppiozero)

Paul Demont, « L’esclave-expert et le citoyen » (La vie des idées)

David Do Paço, « Le fantôme de la frontière hongroise » (La vie des idées)

Philipp Felsch, »Am Flipper war Professor Adorno nicht zu schlagen« (FAZ)

Massimo Gezzi, “L’infanzia negata dal Nobel. Su Herta Müller” (Le parole e le cose)

Florent Guénard, « Contre le terrorisme, la législation d’exception ? Entretien avec François Saint-Bonnet » (La vie des idées)

Bruce Holsinger, “Written on Beasts” (NYR Daily)

Sabrina Loriga, « Il n’y a pas de hors-texte » (Centre de Recherches sur les Arts et le Langage, YouTube)

Emmanuel Taïeb, “Should Images of Violence be Shown?” (Nathalie Ferron, trans.; Books and Ideas)

And finally, Sanjay Subrahmanyam’s lectures at the Collège de France on « Histoire connectée des sociétés du cour » (L’Éloge du savoir)

Emily:

Jenny Uglow, The Revolutionary Christian Girl (NYRB)—a review of Seth Koven’s The Matchgirl and the Heiress (Princeton 2015), which also won the NACBS’s Stansky Book Prize a couple weeks ago.

Peter Green, What We Know: Sappho (LRB)

Johanna Hanink, Staging Greek Trauma (Eidolon)

Ben Alpers, The Trouble With Un-American (S-USIH Blog)

John Seabrook, The Invisible Library (New Yorker)

Words and Music for St Cecilia’s Day (BBC Radio 3)

Hannah Rosefield, The Diary of the Most Boring Man in the World (New Republic)

Richard Holmes, The Greatness of William Blake (NYRB)

Bruce Holsinger, Written on Beasts (NYRB)

 

Daniel:

Bruce Bartlett, “Half Measures” (Democracy)

L.D. Burnett, “The Newspaper in U.S. Intellectual History: Towards a Bibliography” (S-USIH)

Christina Lupton, “London this Week: A vision of Europe’s future that bypasses the present” (N+1)

Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, “Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work” (Bookforum)

Thomas Chatterton Williams, “Loaded Dice” (TLS)

Brooke:

Layla Leiman, “Lizza Littleword and the Persistence of History” (10 and 5)

Sam Levine, “Why Thanksgiving is a ‘National Day of Mourning’ for Some Americans” (Huffington Post)

Stephen Smith “The £30m bookshelf: Pierre Bergé and the greatest stories ever sold” (The Guardian)

Hito Steyerl, “The Terror of Total Dasein” (Dis Magazine)

Erin:

Stanley-Gibbons Launches Rare Book Index

Paul Beaudoin, “Scribe: Toward a General Framework for Community Transcription” (NYPL)

Caroline Duroselle-Melish, “Extravagantly Large Paper” (The Collation)

Dustin Illingworth, “Atlas of Interest: On the Hidden Life of Marginalia” (The Millions)

Maev Kennedy, “Undelivered letters shed light on 17th-century society” (Guardian)

Carmen Nigro, “Remembering Manhattan’s Little Syria” (NYPL)

Jake:

In Defence of ‘Monks on the Make’: Glastonbry, Lies, and Legends” (A Clerk of Oxford)

Colin Dayan, “Throw Away Your Mind” (LARB)

Bruce Holsinger, “Written on Beasts” (NYRB)

Rachel Syme, “Selfie” (Matter)

Categories
Think Piece

Philology Among the Disciplines (II): Roles, Limits, Goals

by John Raimo

“Those who don’t know, do theory.” As per Nikolaus Wegmann, this slogan of modern philology touches upon something odd this “ancient form of knowledge” and its persistence into the present day. Philology fitfully attempts to absorb theory in his reading: it historicizes both the scholarly subject at hand and the attendant methodology at a stroke. Different sorts of distances open up between the two according to the field, the scholar’s present moment, the lengths of historical and cultural distance involved, the languages present, and finally the great accumulations of previous scholarship. The philologist stands on the shoulders of giants rather than astride a cemetery. Yet it would be a disservice to varied scholarly traditions and achievements to consider philology an impossibly-idealized historicization or plain recognition of temporal distance. Something more rests at stake. It requires the most ecumenical mind to start making sense of what may no longer be a discipline, but which nevertheless continues to inform all our work.

Scholars at Notre Dame’s Rome Seminar’s “Philology Among the Disciplines” continued to move between philology’s definitions and applications, limits, roles, and problems. The primary fields of discussion included literary study, classics, philosophy, and theology. Each conversation unearthed issues regarding hermeneutics, exegesis, historical semantics, and finally practical techniques—both our own and those of past readers. At least one larger question nearly began to answer itself, namely what relationship pertains between Sach- and Wortphilologie. That is, clear historical developments and scholarly practice link text-driven philology with other disciplines and (crucially) vice-versa. The scholarly traffic ran and runs both ways. The larger question haunting the seminar, however, concerned neither philology’s influence nor history per se but rather its status as a body of techniques, a science, a proto- (or even a post-) discipline, and its potential roles today. Is it a “sublime form of craftsmanship” practiced by scholars rather than anything like a science, as Lorenzo Tomasin recently charged? Or do philology’s claims to authoritative interpretation extend more broadly and perhaps somehow more ‘particularly’ today?

Example of a 'stemma' tracing text transmissions in the model proposed by Karl Lachmann (Stemma for De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii by Martianus Capella proposed by Danuta Shanzer. "Felix Capella: Minus sensus qum nominis pecudalis," Classical Philology 81,1 (1986), p. 62-81).
Example of a ‘stemma’ tracing text transmissions in the model proposed by Karl Lachmann (Stemma for De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii by Martianus Capella proposed by Danuta Shanzer. “Felix Capella: Minus sensus qum nominis pecudalis,” Classical Philology 81,1 (1986), p. 62-81).

No single conversation definitively answers such questions, of course. Yet some brief notes drawn from the conference may at least underline these problems’ significance and the intellectual openness they provoke for scholars across fields and more particularly for intellectual historians.

Ralf Grüttemeier’s talks on literary trials and authorial intention opened the second week of seminars. The angle of legal history clearly binds the two. If a single, authoritative recovery of one coherent authorial intention remained a philological ideal for a great deal of time, it persists well into today’s categories of libel, blasphemy, and obscenity. Landmark literary trials such as those surrounding Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du malOscar Wilde, Joyce’s Ulysses, and D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover as well as the Obscene Publications Act of 1959, the Committee on Obscenity and Film Censorship (helmed by Bernard Williams), and the United Kingdom’s current libel laws together demonstrate drives to institutionalize philology within modern state judiciaries. That is, this does not concern literature-as-law or vice-versa but rather attempts to identify interpretation with social consensus and enforce disciplinary boundaries in the matter of professional expertise–whether literary, juridical, or otherwise.

Sketch of Closing Trial Scene: half page (Illus. Police News, 5/4/1895)
Sketch of Closing Trial Scene: half page (Illus. Police News, 5/4/1895)

For Grüttemeier then (borrowing from Bahktin), independent philology can otherwise act as a break on centrifugal flows of knowledge both into state control and within disciplines. Historicization and scholarly differentiation occur even in the act of positing authorial intention. The process itself affords a varied and still contentious history from Augustine and Hugh of St. Victor (with untroubled authorial intent available to recover), Schleiermacher’s imperative to “understand the text at first as well as and then even better than its author,” Wimsatt and Beardsley’s famous injunction against the “intentional fallacy,” and the great moment of the ‘death of the author’ in thinkers as diverse as Kristeva, Barthes, Foucault, and Derrida among others held against the so-calledCambridge School’ of intellectual history and indeed all historians of ideas. Whether the idea of intent remains a necessary or even possible working fiction in different fields remains as much a philosophical and political question as one for philologists.

The history of philology itself presents different challenges for classicists, not least when looking to perhaps the most fundamental object of philology—etymologies. Enrica Sciarrino and W. Martin Bloomer looked to Roman translations and transformations of Greek philology. Latin translators and poets from Livius Andronicus and Ennius to the playwright Terence worked in a dual capacity as philologists and writers. A recognizable literary space grew in the shadow of imperial conquest as Rome absorbed Greek culture. That is, demonstrable philological skill with Greek lent original literary authority until a gradual rift opened between creative writers and professional critics.

From Terence, Comoedia: mit Kommentar von Aelius Donatus und Johannes Calphurnius (for 'Heauton Timorumenos'; printed Venice: Reynaldus de Nimwegen, 1482).
From Terence, Comoedia: mit Kommentar von Aelius Donatus und Johannes Calphurnius (for ‘Heauton Timorumenos’; printed Venice: Reynaldus de Nimwegen, 1482).

Yet etymologies and semantics (especially as a matter of innovation) remained huge decisions, as Bloomer made clear when discussing Varro’s etymologies in his De lingua latina libri. A rough sort of early antiquarianism combined with social, political, and moral imperatives to record the past. That is, Varro saw morphological changes, the preservation of texts, and political consensus as intimately related in a project of historical transparency. Hence a ‘politics’ of philology was present from the beginning as actual methodologies—appeals to a complex sense of natura (something apart from social usage), analogy, grammarians, custom, authorities, and citation—crossed from Greek refugees to the Roman elite. Etymology as such possesses its own particular rhetoric of fundamental nature and politics which has enchanted thinkers from Isidore de Seville to Martin Heidegger and beyond.

In the wake of modern classical studies, however, the question remains: has philology become a self-justifying, “normal science” or does it remain a sensibility, orientation, or even a simple goal? Dieter Teichert approached the impasse via a reexamination of Hans-Georg Gadamer’s work on hermeneutics. In extraordinarily brief terms, one can well ask whether Gadamer’s notions of understanding prior to scientific explanation, hermeneutic circles, ‘historically-effected consciousness’ (wirkungsgeschichtliches Bewußtsein), and ‘less-subjective’ exegesis together pose the gravest challenge to historicization. Is philology still possible? Naturally—even Gadamer’s own readings of Celan suggest as much as opposing philosophical claims from Husserl, Dilthey, Ricœur and others such as Gregory Currie and Joseph Margolis. What may be more broadly deduced, however, would be that philology itself cannot level purely hermeneutic claims against competing interpretations.

Justin Martyr presenting an open book to a Roman emperor (Jacques Callot, c. 1632-1635)
Justin Martyr presenting an open book to a Roman emperor (Jacques Callot, c. 1632-1635)

Lewis Ayres‘s talk on the development of early Christian thinking demonstrated another important register of philology, namely its ideological presuppositions. This characterization is not quite right, however, in the light of early Christian reading practices drawing apart from Hellenistic traditions. Ancient philosophy (its links to rhetoric and grammar), dogma, and polemics were tightly interwoven into considerations of what constituted scriptural texts—let alone how to actually read them. IrenaeusAgainst Heresies invented something like textual commentary in the act of contesting Valentinians via close readings of soon-to-be-canonical texts, while Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho demonstrated shifts between literal and figurative readings as permitted (or demanded) by theological dogma. A distinctly Christian hermeneutics arose in the circle again between text and practice; yet as Ayres demonstrated, the philological assumptions were embedded from the beginning.

The Rome seminar’s concluding symposium brought all these terms together in a final framework: disciplinarity. Carsten Dutt offered a forceful characterization of philology as an epistemic means and an end unto itself, then as a Hilfswissenschaft (or ancillary discipline) in historical and comparative linguistics as well. This is not exclusively tied to textual studies, however. More importantly, philology serves to historicize the objects of scholarly study as a means towards “a disciplinary framework whose constitutive aim is to acquire historical knowledge about language and texts.” This methodologically-disciplined historicization may be well-termed normative and problematic at the most detailed levels, yet neither scholarship nor scholarly communities can function in its absence.

Brad Gregory seconded this claim while emphasizing philology’s role as a common denominator or even basic ideology with and between disciplines. That is, philology’s ideals at the least serve as the basis for any interdisciplinary endeavor in the humanities. Similarly, its pervasive presence admits the possibility of wider scholarship within the proper fields themselves: one can think here of classicists making recourse to pottery fragments in reconstructing texts, or legal historians turning to literature. Philology is not always visible, but its ideals guide almost every scholarly humanistic practice, as James Turner, Rens Bod, and Sheldon Pollack among many others have persuasively argued.

If philology generally forbids one from making generalizations—even ones primarily intended for intellectual historians–I will nevertheless hazard a few. The same gap between Sach- and Wortphilologie calls for an awareness of other disciplines’ methodologies and research agendas (past and present). Moreover, some sense of the history of one’s own respective discipline remains necessary at the methodological level. Interdisciplinary studies need not be forced in light of common languages and complementary bodies of expertise. The act of scholarly interpretation always functions in light of previous scholarship: even ‘the death of the author’ was not a reset-button. As such, philology can also act as a break on flows of knowledge, whether institutional or otherwise: the insistence on history also situates each individual work against the larger field of humanistic inquiry.

Finally, the imperative remains to learn languages to a deeper extent as a matter of professionalism. One doesn’t need to talk about graduate training here so much as perhaps to critique the notion of ‘reading knowledge,’ or at least criticize ignorance of scholarship in other languages. This entails something more than renewed self-reflection or a more conservative turn against theory. Take the rise of global history. ‘The state’ in the abstract has become the premier unit of analysis. Yet moving beyond questions of classical origins to flatly equate ‘the state’ with ‘stato,’ ‘état,’ ‘Staat,’ ‘estado’ and so forth rings a false note. Every one of those words has multiple histories and hence presupposes different techniques, competencies, bodies of knowledge, and finally methodologies to study in full depth.

Where then does philology ultimately land us? It’d be nice to say on the page itself, but the better answer would be to say continually looking up from the text and then back again.

ca. 1940, London, England, UK --- Holland House Library is left roofless following an air raid, ca. 1940, London. --- Image by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS
Holland House Library is left roofless following an air raid, ca. 1940, London. (© Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS)

The author thanks W. Martin Bloomer, Carsten Dutt, and Brad Gregory among all the seminar presenters and participants for their work and thoughts—many of which unfortunately had to go unaddressed above. Anthony Grafton, Suzanne Marchand, Madeleine McMahon, and Gregory Mellen also deserve thanks for key references and exchanges.

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Think Piece

Philology Among the Disciplines (I): The problem of definitions

by John Raimo

What is philology? The question may be almost perfectly academic, yet more people have begun to ask it. Scholars such as James Turner and Rens Bod argue that philology as a loosely-associated body of practices proved the seedbed of the modern humanities. Jerome McGann and others advocate for a return to “philology in a new key” for literary studies, and the comparative scope of latter day philologists continue to grow. All this activity marks something new in a very old history dating back to the classical world, to say nothing of classical studies: what was once a pejorative roughly on par (and perhaps rightly so) with pedantry now readily finds a larger hearing—and not just in an Anglophone context. Yet what philology meant, means, and holds for all the disciplines remains very much in question.

James Turner's
James Turner’s “Philology” (Princeton University Press, 2014)

For this reason a number of senior scholars and graduate students have gathered at the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study in Rome for two weeks under the banner “Philology Among the Disciplines.” The seminar organizers deliberately choose the widest ambit for discussion: lectures and seminars have revolved around epistemology, philosophy, exegesis, hermeneutics, traditions, practices, and above all disciplinary histories. In the first week, those entailed archaeology, art history, classics, history, and philosophy. Perhaps it’s to the credit of the discussion that any clear answers may be receding, however. What follows consists then more of my own thoughts and observations as we head into the second week (and a follow-up post later on).

If one thing is clear, it would be that philology can be extended past the textual practices of emendation, collation, and historical semantics often associated with the term. The breaking point is less clear. As per the archaeologist Alain Schnapp, philology becomes almost an ahistorical means of historical reflection. Material remains of one sort or another evoke memories in two directions: a present long past which planned for the future via monuments, coins, and so forth, and the possibility (or at least rhetoric) of a direct connection to the past from our current present. The problem of reconstruction versus memory rears its head, however, to say nothing of dropping what we might call philological rigor in imagining that we can skip over the intervening historical distance. The sheer materiality of stone or of syntax affords this illusion of direct access.

Put another way, there’s no such thing as an isolated ruin, vestige, or trace of the past. Here one might well consider numismatics or the study of currency like ancient coins. Yet this hardly remains a signature delusion of archaeologists. The same goes for texts no matter how thoroughly or obsessively contextualized and reconstructed, the self-aware knowledge of accumulated scholarship (often centuries’ worth) in the best cases non-withstanding.

According to Elisabeth Décultot, the case of Johann Joachim Winckelmann sheds some light on this dynamic. How could philology buttress interpretations of art? Or might it serve to construct universal histories, especially those adjudicating between civilizations and ages? In the case of Winckelmann as well as of the Comte de Caylus and Herder, historians of scholarship can find philology in its capacity as a Hilfswissenschaft or subsidiary discipline of sorts. This might entail claims of societal progress and artistic achievement held on par with a respective language—especially when broaching rather mistier sorts of Ur-origins. Hence for Winckelmann, philology ran parallel to and partly tempered aesthetic experience.

But philology could also simply mean employing philological prowess as a sort of polemical sidearm. Errors of reading could disqualify an opponent; those with little Latin and less Greek still know about this. Philology otherwise evidently proved crucial as means of professional distinction. Winckelmann was not simply a connoisseur practicing on an exponentially broader canvas but rather positioning himself as something like a modern art historian.

The Ara Pacis in Rome
The Ara Pacis in Rome

A trip to the Ara Pacis in Rome bodied out some underlying issues here. Perhaps especially in looking to classical remains, philology can find itself in the double-traffic between image and text. That is, it serves as a check (rather like the ‘semantic check’ theorized in Begriffsgeschichte) on the range of possible interpretations afforded by historical objects, texts or otherwise. Here philology can run counter to the sort of contextualization amounting to the process of association—often carried to the extent of an object taken to represent the whole of a civilization—and embedding historical traces into external narratives of a certain sort.

Put another way, according to Martin Bloomer, philology presupposes limits as it carries its own. It almost unconsciously entertains hermeneutic presuppositions: that a whole exists to be reconstructed from a fragment, that correct emendations and interpretations exist, that historical unities of style can be discovered, that synecdoche might recover a worldview, that the one best reader (e.g. the most talented linguist) gets to write the commentary and paratext, that monumentality and preservation best serve interpretation. At its best, however, philology can also prove “self-policing” in such a way as to ideally form a toolbox of sorts, namely one comprising practices (emendation, error-detection, &c.) within ‘negative’ or falsifiable and hence professional constraints.

Dedication page for the Historiae by the Greek historian Herodotus, translated into Latin by Lorenzo Valla (1494)
Historiae by the Greek historian Herodotus, translated into Latin by Lorenzo Valla (1494)

For Suzanne Marchand, the later receptions of Herodotus among historians demonstrated how hard this proves in practice. His unusually complicated text poses more problems (and possibilities) than I can address here. In brief though, what a broader history of the champions and detractors of the same “father of history” and the fantastical “father of lies” demonstrates is that regimes of philological truth exist: that is, Herodotus has been variously held to be accurate or false in different ways at different times, and all of them broadly convincing for period readers.

Where does that leave us? For philosopher Christiane Schildknecht and classicist Glenn W. Most, philology amounts to a renewed focus upon epistemology. For the former, this renews the distinction of propositional from non-propositional knowledge in the act of interpretation. Hermeneutics, aesthetics, and historical scholarship hold equal weight and distinguish different values of truth. For the latter, philology implies a return to the history of science. A ‘top-down’ account of material practices of philology might stand in for the best history. Here one might look to Carl Friedrich Gauss and Karl Lachmann alike: how they came to distinguish between random and systematic errors is one story, but how both came to see that even random errors could be consistent proves another. Such implicit epistemological challenges have never left scientists or scholars in the humanities.

IMG_4112
The Coliseum at Rome (courtesy of the author)

In both Schildknecht and Most’s telling then, philology becomes more a matter of methodological orientation or even self-consciousness. Beyond a body of certain textual practices, philology serves as a willingness to revise theory in light of pragmatic and experimental difficulties rather than vice-versa. Here philology’s polemical value today also comes to light in the age of ‘distant reading,’ the long ascendancy of theoretical schools in various humanistic disciplines, and pedagogical trends and desires. To return to philology’s position today, however, this requires more historical scrutiny than ever. Back-formations of what philology never in truth was easily enough serve for a counter-politics of sorts. Nothing would be further from the historical truth of philology across and between the ages.

Categories
Think Piece

Prague ’68 and the End of Time

by John Raimo

Prague’s famous Wenceslas Square fell silent on August 22nd and 23rd, 1968. Warsaw Pact troops invaded what was then Czechoslovakia the day prior in order to repress what had come to known as the Prague Spring. Under Alexander Dubček’s leadership, the country’s communist party had earlier initiated reforms aiming towards ‘socialism with a human face.’ The crisis this provoked and its violent repression only gradually subsided into ‘normalization’ and an uneasy status quo held until the Velvet Revolution of 1989. Increasing tension saw curfews and peaceful confrontations lead to outright military force exercised upon Czechoslovakian citizens and blanket censorship of news. Images lived on, however.

CZECHOSLOVAKIA. Prague. August 1968. Warsaw Pact troops invade Prague.
Josef Koudelka, “CZECHOSLOVAKIA. Prague. August 1968. Warsaw Pact troops invade Prague.” © Magnum Photos

Many western thinkers took the Prague Spring for the end of time. That is, the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia was understood to mark the end of communism as a viable historical possibility. In the pages of Le Figaro, Raymond Aron systematically reduced the Prague Spring to an “impossible conversion” rendering the future itself moot. Hannah Arendt anticipated a simple, grim waiting game. “The head-on clash between Russian tanks and the entirely nonviolent resistance of the Czechoslovak people is a textbook case of a confrontation between violence and power,” she wrote in 1970. “To substitute violence for power can bring victory, but the price is very high; for it is not only paid by the vanquished, it is also paid by the victor in terms of his own power.” From the left, Costa-Gavras’s L’Aveu (co-written by the former Czech deputy minister of foreign affairs Artur London and Jorge Semprún; 1970) ended with a “new era” dawning on communist Czechoslovakia. A montage of still photography and movie footage of the invasion concluded the film, much of it was taken on the scene by Chris Marker. He revisited the episode in On vous parle de Prague : Le deuxième procès d’Artur London (1971) and Le fond de l’air est rouge (1977) in structuring a larger argument that social revolution had passed from Soviet-sponsored communism to radical, Third World socialist movements.

The military invasion and occupation of Prague yielded many iconic pictures, not least the recurrent image of civilians facing tanks in a recognizably European cityscape. Nevertheless, the most celebrated representation of the Prague Spring may be the one above taken by Josef Koudelka, a young photographer who took over five thousand photos of Prague in the week beginning on August 21st. Something ambiguous occurred here. As the Večerni Praha (Prague Evening News) reported, “Yesterday’s appeal to clear Wenceslas Square, where a huge demonstration against the occupiers was supposed to take place and could have become a welcome pretext to declare marshal law, was an example of the outstanding qualities of the people of Prague in these eventful days.” After the square’s clearance, “[a]lmost no civilians remained there. Absolute silence spread over the square, which only a few minutes earlier had been full of noise” and the daily bustle. Heavy shooting nearby had been reported on the 21st. Yet the photo’s stark formal composition and resonant symbolism makes a non-event of sorts into an event. Time appeared to literally stop at roughly half-past noon on August 23, 1968.

Josef Koudelka, "CZECHOSLOVAKIA. Prague. August 1968. Invasion by Warsaw Pact troops in front of the Radio headquarters."
Josef Koudelka, “CZECHOSLOVAKIA. Prague. August 1968. Invasion by Warsaw Pact troops in front of the Radio headquarters.” © Magnum Photos

The Western notion of what occurred in Prague came at a greater distance, with Marker proving a notable exception. First-hand accounts and photography in particular only slowly breached the Iron Curtain. This opened up in turn a curious story of chronology and reception. For many, Koudelka’s photography of crowds, tanks, graffiti, and buildings pockmarked by bullets determined what had happened. Not many other images traveled outside of the country; indeed, only ten of Koudelka’s photos were smuggled out to the Magnum Photo agency and seen before the exhibit Invasion 68: Prague some forty years later. Excepting a handful of photos taken by fellow Magnum photographer Ian Berry, Koudelka’s award-winning photography became the first visual record of the Prague Spring’s repression. They immediately proved without a doubt the lie of “fraternal help” distributed by Soviet propagandists. Moreover, Koudelka’s work also became the canonical historical record in the west’s imagination. The images wrote a certain history.

Josef Koudelka, "CZECHOSLOVAKIA. Prague. August 1968. Warsaw Pact tanks invade Prague."
Josef Koudelka, “CZECHOSLOVAKIA. Prague. August 1968. Warsaw Pact tanks invade Prague.” © Magnum Photos

Koudelka’s photos lent themselves to greater historiographical and intellectual divides. Westerners were not wrong to read a universal, Cold War history into those same ten images. As the photographer later conceded, their juxtaposition of violence and a historical record carried a “universal value” and “significance beyond Czechoslovakia.” An inherent abstraction emerged. “In [the photos] it is not so important who is Russian and who is Czech,” Koudelka claimed in 2008. “It is more important that one man has a gun and one man has not.” The initial ten photographs accord with the Prague Spring’s evident historical finality: peaceful, middle-class protestors encounter only armed soldiers, and revolutionary gestures recycled from romantic thought and Communist iconography go on to meet gunfire.

Josef Koudelka, "CZECHOSLOVAKIA. Prague. August 1968. Invasion by Warsaw Pact troops. Near the Radio headquarters."
Josef Koudelka, “CZECHOSLOVAKIA. Prague. August 1968. Invasion by Warsaw Pact troops. Near the Radio headquarters.” © Magnum Photos

At the same time, the full range of Koudelka’s photography documented a much more open historical narrative. Five thousand photographs capture a range of personal experiences. Families, bored onlookers, young soldiers, and daily life held their weight beside the tanks. An elderly worker with a suitcase heaves a brick at the occupiers before continuing on to work. The photographs captured a fast-moving “complexity” immediately effaced by both the Soviets and, paradoxically, Westerners in the Prague Spring’s aftermath. As Koudelka later made clear, the Prague Spring had been experienced serially and individually by Czechs and Slovaks: experience itself and the imperative to remember undercut any larger eastern or western narrative.

Josef Koudelka, "CZECHOSLOVAKIA. Prague. August 1968."
Josef Koudelka, “CZECHOSLOVAKIA. Prague. August 1968.” © Magnum Photos

All the same, the sheer aesthetic power and immediacy of Koudelka’s photography cannot be denied on its own terms. Historians encounter here a subtle tangle of methodological issues. There is a question of orientation: recovered contexts might limit formal or aesthetic interpretation, and vice-versa. Josef Koudelka’s photography obviously calls for both movements. It’s not quite the difference between history and art history because the chosen starting point and means of crossing over will change the reading. What we find nevertheless is that firsthand experience and later receptions (moments or decades later) do not easily share the same focus. That gap or disjunction may then prove the final subject for historians of all stripes—intellectual or otherwise—looking to Koudelka’s great record of one end to several times in 1968.

Josef Koudelka, "CZECHOSLOVAKIA. Prague. 21 August 1968. Warsaw Pact tanks invade Prague."
Josef Koudelka, “CZECHOSLOVAKIA. Prague. 21 August 1968. Warsaw Pact tanks invade Prague.” © Magnum Photos

The pleasures and challenges of studying twentieth century history include working with living memory. It would be wonderful to hear from readers who experienced the Prague Spring at first-hand or from a distance; I’m particularly keen to hear what images first made their way to the west and later made their way back to then-Czechoslovakia. The author also thanks S.G. and R.J. for key references.

Categories
Dispatches from the Archives

Days of Letters in the Republic

It’s our pleasure to announce a new feature here at the JHI website. If you look above and to the side, you’ll find a new calendar collecting various happenings in the Republic of Letters. Our hope here matches what we feel about intellectual history: the calendar looks all over the world (or for the time being, at least the places the editors know fairly well) and highlights events we feel will prove of general interest to intellectual historians and others. This includes conferences, public lectures, and workshops as much as museum exhibitions, gallery showings, film festivals and more. This is a work-in-progress, but we look forward to tinkering with it and adding content from here on out.

So please take a peek and also keep an eye out: you can likely find one or the other of the editors and our contributors in attendance. Say hello if you should bump into us! We also welcome suggestions and reviews for events at blogjhi@gmail.com or @jhideas on Twitter: please keep us posted on interesting happenings for intellectual historians all over the world. (This also certainly includes events in other languages!) The calendar will be updated monthly, so the more advance notice given the better.

In other news, the JHI editors attended the annual Arthur O. Lovejoy lecture in Philadelphia this last weekend. You can see a record of our live-tweeting Professor Marcia Colish’s fascinating talk “The Boys on the Beach: Children’s Games and Baptismal Grace in Medieval Thought” here (Storify courtesy of L.D. Burnett, another of our heroes). We very much look forward to seeing the lecture in print soon; hopefully Tweets will serve to whet our readers’ interest. And in lieu of a proper post today, please take a peek at editor Madeleine McMahon moonlighting at the New York Society Library’s blog where she discusses Jane Austen’s Emma in early America.

Normal posting resumes again on Wednesday. The editors are also excited to roll out another feature or two shortly, so keep an eye on the website and let us know what you think in the comments section. We look forward to hearing from and now meeting our readers!