Book forum

Book Forum: Collective Memory, the Public Sphere, and the Remote Historical Past

by guest contributor Jeffrey A. Barash

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

It is gratifying to read the insightful responses to the analyses in my recent book Collective Memory and the Historical Past presented in the inaugural book forum of the JHI Blog. I would like to express my heartfelt gratitude to each of the five guest contributors, Asaf Angermann, Andrew Dunstall, Nitzan Lebovic, Sophie Marcotte Chénard, and Michael Meng for their thoughtful comments and, above all, to John Raimo, whose inspiration has played an admirable role in the forum. Each of the contributors introduces into the discussion critical insight that deepens understanding of the topics my book addresses and encourages further thought on the issues it raises. In the space of this short response, I will draw on the analyses presented by each of the reviewers and answer critical reflections they have expressed.

Kosovo Maiden - symbol of the Battle of Kosovo 1389.jpg

“Kosovo Maiden” by Uroš Predić (1919)

According to my interpretation, all memory in its original form pertains to the personal sphere. Original remembrance, in this sense, arises from experiences in the everyday life-world, from face-to-face encounters “in the flesh,” that may be shared by smaller and larger groups and communicated to those who have not directly witnessed them. According to the phenomenological vocabulary I employ, the originality of remembered experience “in the flesh” does not reside in a capacity to replicate or to furnish a “faithful” representation of reality. Since, indeed, remembrance of direct encounters is selected, organized, and retained or omitted in relation to the perspective of the viewer, its originality lies in the fact that it is necessarily presupposed as a source of indirect accounts that derive from it. As Angermann has perceptively noted, any “second-order representation precludes the aura of a singular presence encountered in the plenitude of a surrounding ‘lifeworld,'” and the singular presence of such direct encounters, as they are remembered and communicated, are indispensable (if not always reliable) sources of what we commonly take to be reality. At the same time, where remembered experience is shared by groups, such “collective memory” never exists independently of individual persons who remember, any more than, beyond them, it has an autonomous, substantial being.

In general, remembered experience in its original form, arising from personal and group encounters, rarely derives from what is held to be significant in the public sphere. In normal circumstances, only a handful of agents and witnesses have direct access to what is publicly meaningful and, consequently, experience and remembrance of events endowed with public significance are almost always based on indirect accounts diffused by the organs of mass information. This distance of the public sphere from the everyday life-world proves highly paradoxical: indeed, in view of the indirect quality of representations of the public sphere, we might wonder whether the concept itself of “collective remembrance” is appropriate when applied to public existence in mass societies. It might indeed be claimed that collective memory of publicly significant events, since it rarely corresponds to any direct and original form of remembrance, is essentially a figment of the social imagination.

In light of such a claim, however, we must clarify what we mean when we speak of “imagination.” According to an argument presented in my book, imagination is not only a faculty for producing fictions or fantasies, or for eliciting abstract mental activity, for it also enables the embodiment of meaning in concrete, communicable images and symbols. I take symbols in the broadest sense to refer to the meaning we confer on experience by lending it, as Dunstall notes, “communicable order at the primary level of its organization and articulation.” A many-layered network of symbols permits us to spontaneously lend spatio-temporal and conceptual pattern to experience and to orient ourselves in the everyday life-world.  Where the symbolic order is not actively engaged, it is passively retained in memory.  Before any act of reflection, it is this concrete symbolic order that permits us to discern in an urban setting the difference, for example, between a private yard, a semi-private shopping mall, and a public park, just as the music we hear in supermarkets or airports provides symbolic indicators of the social context in which we find ourselves. As retained by different groups in a mass social framework, the network of sedimented and stratified symbols by no means forms a monolithic or uniform block, since symbols are embodied in accord with the fragmented perspectives of groups that deploy them.

Beyond the purview of ordinary everyday life, it is the complex weave of symbolic structures embodied in memory that permits us to render intelligible a world of publicly meaningful events. When beheld in this broad perspective, collective memory, as Dunstall insightfully points out, is “neither a fiction nor a mere metaphor, but refers to a web of symbols formed through communicative interaction, reaching as far as that sphere of interaction does.” As Angermann perceptively notes, this interpretation of the life-world as symbolically mediated distinguishes my position from Husserl’s presupposition that the life-world is immediately intuited. It indicates a possible affinity between my interpretation and Adorno’s critical stance regarding Husserl’s conception of the life-world.  Nonetheless, my concept of symbolic mediation is most directly inspired by Cassirer’s interpretation of the symbolic configuration of spatio-temporal and conceptual order and by Goodman‘s theory of the symbol in Ways of Worldmaking.

In a suggestive remark, Meng has identified this interpretation of the sedimented, stratified, and fragmented weave of embodied symbols with an “anti-foundationalist” position associated with Arendt and later authors, who questioned the traditional role of absolute and indubitable foundations. My interpretation of the contingent basis of experience and remembrance in the everyday life-world, and of its tenuous relation to the socio-political realm, bears an affinity with this position, and I share with Arendt the further conviction that the coherence and consistency of the vast contextual web that undergirds interpretation is the primary source of our beliefs concerning the veracity of factual accounts of what transpires in the public realm (Hannah Arendt, “Truth and Politics,” Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought, Penguin, 1977, p. 227-264).

My efforts in the second part of Collective Memory and the Historical Past aim to understand this contextual web of embodied symbols in relation to the “temporal articulations” of collective memory. Here, beside the collective forms of remembrance punctuated by habitually enacted temporal patterns of everyday life—the rhythms of work days and holidays, market days, hours of work, recreation, and sleep—and by the recurring commemorative practices that reinforce collective cohesion, we encounter the deep levels of collective existence. These are the passively deposited and often barely palpable dispositions—the êthos or habitus—which, as Dunstall reminds us, articulate “long-term continuities in the symbolic reservoir upon which collective memory draws.” The profound resonance of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a Dream” speech derives its potency from the symbolic charge, however differently it may be perceived from a variety of group perspectives, rooted in the political pronouncements of Lincoln and of the Founding Fathers and in the theology of Isaiah and of Luke. Over the course of generations, King’s message, which was hotly contested in many southern states and sharply criticized by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, won approval among the citizens of the United States to such an extent that the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. became the day of national commemoration we now celebrate.

Bourdieu_Sur la télévision

(Raisons d’agir, 1996)

Long-term group attitudes, styles, and dispositions span all reaches of the public sphere and, for the most part, spread over the implicit layers of group life. If they often go unnoticed, they are not, however, invisible occult qualities, nor are they reducible to general laws governing unconscious psychic mechanisms. Specific to the particular mode of existence of a given group, these passive symbolic configurations come to expression in group behavior and social styles that, as sociologists and anthropologists have pointed out since the work of Mauss and Bourdieu, often correspond to corporeal dispositions and habits. The continuities interwoven by this deep level of passively inscribed dispositions, as they draw on the reservoirs of sedimented group experience that have been symbolically elaborated over the long term, are not to be confused with secondary elaborations, such as codified traditions or cultural legacies which, indeed, presuppose this fundamental experiential dimension.

Protesters in the Courtyard of Romanian National Television Romanian Revolution 1989

Protesters in the Courtyard of Romanian National Television (1989)

In our contemporary world, the emergence of mass societies in a context of global interaction marks an essential break with the past that distinguishes the current horizon of group interaction from previous forms of social existence. Corresponding to this development, the public sphere has undergone essential metamorphoses over the past century and a half that have been channeled by the technical evolution of the mass media. Their increasing predominance as organs of public information has tended to accentuate the disparity between the life-world of original personal and small-group experience and remembrance, and the vast public realm that the mass media configure. The development of the mass media since the introduction of mass-circulation illustrated newspapers and magazines that exercised a preponderant influence in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries began to transform the public sphere through their ways of configuring and transmitting information and thus of conferring public significance on reported actions and events. This transformation was further accentuated through mass-produced images favoring communication that, independently of the articulated language they accompany, spontaneously convey a visible message that can be immediately grasped beyond the confines of linguistic or cultural borders.  From the development of the still photo and the moving picture newsreel to that of television, animated digital imagery and the World Wide Web, the mass media, whatever their distance from the life-world, have been able to simulate, in an ever more technically precise manner, direct experience of personal and small-group encounters and to make this simulated experience resonate in public memory.

Televiziunea Romana Libera

Televisunea Romana libera; recorded image of declaration of free Romania (From Videograms of a Revolution; dir. Harun Farocki and Andrei Ujica, 1992)

The radical transformation that mass media communications have brought to the public world may be placed clearly in relief if we consider that its potency is not the result of a simple reproduction or replication of what transpires in the everyday life-world of face-to-face encounters  In an ever more technologically precise manner television, in CNN fashion, presenting ‘hypermediated’ combinations of written text and visual image and, subsequently, hypermediated World Wide Web and social media Internet displays, transfigure reported information in function of a spatio-temporal pattern and logical order specific to the mass media format. This format, which I explore in detail in my book, imposes decontextualized, anonymously configured, and continually shifting, “updated” schemata of media events that take precedence over the contextual logic of experience and remembrance serving as the principal mode of orientation in a shared common life-world. This format of mass communication has become the principle contemporary source of public visibility, indeed of an iconic status which, as publicly conveyed and remembered, is readily translated into novel contemporary forms of public influence and political power.

In his highly suggestive and thought-provoking analysis of my interpretation, Lebovic finds that the chapter on the mass media “is the most relevant part of the book, but also its least convincing section.” Where he agrees with my critical appraisal of the mass media in its distance from the everyday life-world, Lebovic finds that in this instance the “modernist tools” of my theory of collective memory seem to falter. He concludes that in the “age of fake news perhaps not only the past is undermined, but the present and, as such, the future too.”

Without delving into the problematic presuppositions engaged by the label of “modernism,” which remains to be clarified, I can express my sympathy with Lebovic’s pessimism in view of the plight of the contemporary public sphere. As an apparent consequence of this antiquated status of modernism, however, does this pessimism invariably signal the demise of the ideal of informative and impartial reporting that however imperfectly flies in the face of complacent conformism in denouncing the distortion of factual events upon which “fake news” is based? As I interpret it, the exercise of contextual analysis still has an eminently critical task to fulfill where it sets its sights on long-term developments and explanations in which fragmented perspectives are confronted with one another and their claims to legitimacy set in critical relief

Gazimestan memorial commemoratin the Battle of Kosovo 1389.jpg

Gazimestan Monument commemorating the Battle of Kosovo, 1389

In her insightful contribution to the discussion, Marcotte Chénard highlights the distinction which I draw between collective memory, rooted in the deep strata of symbolically embodied, collective patterns of existence, and the historical past that reaches beyond the scope of all living memory. If, indeed, collective remembrance of the past is always fragmented in accord with a plurality of different group perspectives, public communication depends upon a web of spontaneously graspable symbols that defines the contours of group contemporaneity shared by overlapping, living generations, and distinguishes them from the historical past beyond all living recollection. The discontinuity marked by the demise of living generations does not simply result from the disappearance of single individuals and groups, for this disappearance also signals the evanescence of the concrete context in which their symbolic interaction transpired. Following the disappearance of this theater of group interaction, the legibility of the symbolic structures embedded in it begins to weaken. Even where the broad intelligibility of general linguistic and other symbolic categories is retained over centuries, the more specific nuances groups invest in them—constituting the living context and intrinsic sense of their coexistence—remain subject to remarkable if often barely palpable variability as collective memory recedes into the historical past. In a situation of radical discontinuity, the passage of each successive generation marks a drift in the symbolic framework of communication and interaction.  Such an abrupt change in context, calling forth mostly imperceptible displacements of its passive recesses, casts in its wake a deepening shroud over the essential significance of the symbolic patterns constituting the past’s singular texture.

Here, indeed, lies the hidden ground of what I conceive to be the finitude of group perspectives which is first and foremost set in relief by the passage of the collective memory of living generations into the historical past.  This passage is the primary source of human historicity.  The cohesion of group perspectives and the finitude of their scope ultimately depends not on the singular finitude of mortal beings, but on the mobility of the intermediary symbolic space underlying group existence.

As Marcotte Chénard insightfully portrays my argument, finitude in this sense by no means condemns present generations to ignorance of the “reality of the historical past,” but it incites us to great prudence in the interpretation of the past’s singular texture. The capacity to retrieve this singularity depends not only on correct factual analysis, but at the same time on the capacity to retrieve symbolic nuances that permit us to discern the shift in temporal horizons through which facts draw their implicit sense. As I have attempted to illustrate in my book by means of the works of Walter Scott, Victor Hugo, Alessandro Manzoni, Ivo Andrić, Marcel Proust, and W. G. Sebald, such shifts may be placed in relief not only by works of history, but by the “historical sense” that novels are able to evoke.

Hayden White

Hayden White, (photo © University of Göttingen; Alchetron)

Marcotte Chénard suggests certain affinities between my conception of the historical past and what Hayden White, following Oakeshott, has characterized in a recent work as the “practical past.” The practical past is, as she notes, distinguished from the theoretical concern for the historical past, which as a theoretical construct, “possesses no definitive existence” and is only an “inference that the historian makes in order to understand and explain what happened.” In its distinction from this theoretical concern, the practical past presents us with modes of orientation “toward matters of practical conduct and representation of our social and political world.” It is essentially identified with its use in the present: indeed, in this sense, Oakeshott in his original understanding of the term equated it with the “useful” past, concerned less with traces and vestiges of what previously existed than with a storehouse of relics and “emblematic tropes” available for recycling in the present (Michael Oakeshott, On History and Other Essays, p. 41-42). This conception of the practical past, however, raises the essential question: what possibility does it afford of accomplishing what I take to be the principal task of the “historical sense,” which may bring us to discern timely assumptions that prevail in the present that blind us to past’s unique contextual contours and symbolic nuances? In a present in which these assumptions exercise an often tacit and unquestioned supremacy, painstaking and fastidious research into the remote past beyond all living memory, which cannot be assessed in terms of its pragmatic value, nonetheless allows us to cast the present in an original light. Here the work of Frank Ankersmit, above all the concept of “historical experience” he elaborates in his book Sublime Historical Experience (Stanford University Press, 2005), provides penetrating analyses of the possibilities of relating the present to the historical past.

In one sense, there is an affinity between Marcotte Chénard’s description of the concept of the practical past and what I take to be the historical past, notably where the practical past might lead us to “reactivate neglected past experiences or past concepts in order to challenge dominant views.” In an interesting manner, she associates this possibility with Lefort’s suggestive conception of the impensé (the “unthought”) elaborated in his analysis of Husserl and Merleau-Ponty (Claude Lefort, Sur une colonne absente. Écrits autour de Merleau-Ponty, p. 16-17). As Marcotte Chénard construes this conception in applying it to historical interpretation, the “unthought” is what remains to be thought in past “events, social symbols or shared experiences” that “carry vast reservoirs of meaning.” The unthought aspects of the past hold out the possibility, not only of making unexpected discoveries in the past but, through these discoveries, of rethinking what generally remains unquestioned in the present.

As I interpret it in conjunction with this suggestive idea, the historical past, in often surprising and unanticipated ways, holds up the prism through which the timely and contingent aspects of the present may be recognized as such. Current attitudes, according to this reasoning, find their source in a past that, even where neglected, forgotten or otherwise obscured, retains an essential pertinence for interpreting the concrete reality of the immediately given world and for projecting present action into an uncertain future.

Jeffrey Andrew Barash taught at the University of Chicago and Columbia University and he has served as Humboldt Fellow at the University of Bielefeld, Ernst Cassirer visiting professor at the University of Hamburg, as Hans-Georg Gadamer visiting professor at Boston College and Max-Planck Fellow at the University of Konstanz.  In 2015-16 he was a member of the School of Historical Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton.  He is emeritus Professor of philosophy at the University of Amiens, France. His books include Heidegger et son siècle. Temps de l’Être, temps de l’histoire (Presses universitaires de France, 1995), Martin Heidegger and the Problem of Historical Meaning (second edition Fordham University Press, 2003), Politiques de l’histoire. L’historicisme comme promesse et comme mythe (Presses universitaires de France, 2004), and Collective Memory and the Historical Past (University of Chicago Press, 2017).

Book Forum: Time to Remember—Is There a Future to Collective Memory?

by guest contributor Nitzan Lebovic

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

When I was beginning my undergraduate studies in the mid-1990s, “collective memory” was all the rage. Back then, and it does seem like ages ago, new books about cases of collective memory were published en masse—Henry Rousso’s The Vichy Syndrome (1991), Richard Terdiman’s Present Past (1993), Jay Winter’s Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning (1995), and of course Pierre Nora’s Les Lieux de mémoire (1990) all discussed in the book under discussion—as well as new journals such as History and Memory (est. 1989), were reframing the historical profession on the basis of memory studies. Much of this preoccupation with memory was a result of the Historikerstreit of the mid-late 1980s, which showed the need for a more nuanced understanding of the Holocaust and the ways in which its investigation depends on one’s perspective and sense of belonging. As the Friedlaender-Broszat debate demonstrated, the memory of perpetrators and memory of the victims were not the same, even if the testimonies related to the same events. The entanglement of narratives, forms of representation, memories and philosophies of history exposed historical methodology—and much of critical thinking with it—to a new set of questions. And for a while it seemed the philosophy of history had became fashionable again, not only among historians, but also among theorists of all kinds.

By the time I reached graduate school, at the end of the 1990s, collective memory was already suffering the corrosive effects of a wild neoliberal privatization of the public sphere. (If you can’t buy it, it’s not there.) 9/11 and its aftermath changed the discourse once again, and the earlier pluralism of voices and narratives were replaced with a demand for moral clarity and narrative unity. Plurality was fine, but only so long as it did not undermine an extra-juridical sense of sovereignty and a booming market. Unlike trauma studies—which continued to flourish in conjunction with psychoanalytical theory— historians gradually retreated from the critical engagement with representation and memory in favor of facts, social and economic data.

In the twenty-first century, global theorizing, the anthropocene, and the biopolitical—in response to both good and ill—have left theorizing of individual and collective memory largely to the side.

Jeffrey Andrew Barash’s new book is the first major philosophical attempt in two decades to adopt the concept of collective memory as its methodological focus. Barash brings the post-Holocaust discussions of collective memory into conversation with more recent theories of temporality to create a new theory of collective memory that can serve a more global sphere. It calls for theoreticians, interested in the philosophy of history, and historians to reexamine the notion of “living memory,” or “living generation,” for the sake of “experiential continuity that quickly fades when no living memory remains to recount past events” (Barash, p. 55), as the sociologist Maurice Halbwachs (1875-1945) argued. Broadly, Barash’s argument is that if known concepts of history, such as facts, truth, and testimony are necessary for a well-grounded examination of the past, then they must be weight against their immediate impact on collectives, institutions, and individual experience.

In Collective Memory and the Historical Past, Barash divides the notion of “collective memory” into three spheres: “the rhythms of habitual practices of everyday life, the periodic, socially organized… commemorative event, and the ongoing subsistence of group dispositions…that span generations” (91). In other words, memory weaves together the exceptional and the habitual, the individual and the group, the immediate and the longue durée.  If the philosophical origins of collective memory are embedded in the neo-Kantian intersubjective, Cassirer’s symbolic forms (“all the forms assumed by man’s understanding of the world,” Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, vol. 3, 13), Husserlian phenomenology, Dilthey’s living experience, Bergson’s durée, and Ricoeur’s hermeneutic, then the historical and literary roadmap of the book proves a strictly modernist tour that parallels Baudelaire and Proust’s themes of voluntary and involuntary memory (mémoire involontaire).  It concludes with a clear Sebaldian melancholic tone, as Barash realizes that “attempts to obliterate the past… are no more feasible on the collective level than they are in regard to the personal past” (p. 209). From this angle, any attempt to disconnect the epistemic from the ontic and ontological is merely delusional.


Paul Klee, ‘On the Edge’ (1930/1936)

Barash’s modernist discourse expresses an irrevocably humanist commitment. He takes the ineradicability of collective memory as an alternative to the skepticism of the linguistic turn, or “the decades following World War II” during which different philosophers—Hayden White is a case in point—interpreted “the facts of the past” as nothing more “than a linguistic existence’ and as such ultimately figments of the historian’s imagination” (p. 210). Instead, Barash asks his readers to use insights from theories of collective memory from Halbwachs’s broad identification of collective memory with the historical past to what Barash (following Koselleck) calls the “horizon of contemporaneity,” which concerns “not only an abstract capacity to recall given past events,” i.e. “not only data, facts, or circumstances…but primarily the temporal horizon itself” (p. 172). In other words, Barash strives to reunite the earlier social understanding of collective memory with the universal value of human finality.

This, to my mind, is Barash’s most innovative contribution to a philosophy of history in this populist and post-humanist moment: A contemporary reconsideration of history and memory, fact and imagination that moves with the human and its humanness to the point of no-return, yet where finality—the evident fact of our expected death—does not contradict chronology, continuity, or reality itself. One recalls here Barash’s earlier work on Heidegger and the stress on finality or “temporal intentionality” which enables “a unity of temporal continuity between a certain collective past and present” (p. 98). As Barash implies, without saying so explicitly, it is his (and our) project, to find a proper response to Heidegger’s understanding of existence (Dasein) as inherently final, on the one hand, and to his nationalist sense of belongness, on the other, without falling into a relativist or skeptical mode of thinking. In more explicitly political terms, it is to find an answer to Jean-Marie Le Pen’s provocative invocation to take hold “of the sacred rights of the collectivity in regard to its continuity” (quoted in p. 108). According to Barash, an open discussion of “collective memory” in philosophy, literature, and, finally, the mass media should help us in this task.

roots.jpgBarash’s argument ultimately leads to a short examination of mass media—mostly conceived as a set of televised news reports—at the book’s end. The stress here falls on the commercialized delivery of information as adapted to a mass audience. This is the most relevant part of the book but also its least convincing section: the commercialized nature of mass media—the “field of currency” in Barash’s terms— implies an “anonymous, decontextualized, haphazard, and continually updated mode of presentation [that] lends information a spatiotemporal pattern and logic that formats it for mass dissemination” (119). Barash seems to here imagine a CNN screen that hops from one disaster to another without examining the history or possible repercussions of any specific situation. Worse, it never accounts for its own method of telling. Rather, the screen is divided in such a way it stimulates our visual appetite, while the editing simplifies and digests images in order to spit them back out for an imagined appeal to the rating.

Breakingnews2Barash is right in his critique of the media, of course, but what is to be done when this very “field of currency” is identified by so many with the sacred values of historic capitalism? What to be done, from a present angle, when this form of materialism becomes the last defense of democracy, fighting “fake news” and “post truths”? How might a collective symbolic order arise that cannot be manipulated by the pompous vacuities of politicians or that can compete with the narcissistic subjectivity of a facebook feed? The modernist tools out of which Barash constructs his theory of collective memory seem to falter here. The madeleine of the present does not stand for Proust’s nostalgic recollection anymore, but is reproduced as a pre-packaged, universally consumable image of ‘the good life.’ In this unprecedented contemporary social, political, and above all medial landscape, memory does not suffice—if it even obtains. One would need to analyze the mechanism that enables mass reproduction and bring this analysis into the social and political terrain. In the age of fake news perhaps not only the past is undermined, but the present and, as such, the future too. In fact, it is the very epistemological assumption that there is past, a reliable testimony for example, that could shape our collective memory. Three decades after the Historikerstreit the very ontology of the witness—perpetrator and victim alike—is undermined, and with it the conditions of possibility of a critical and historical collective memory.

Nitzan Lebovic is an associate professor of history and the Apter Chair of Holocaust studies and Ethical Values at Lehigh University. He is the author of The Philosophy of Life and Death: Ludwig Klages and the Rise of a Nazi Biopolitics (2013), which focused on the circle around the life-philosopher and anti-Semitic thinker Ludwig Klages. He is also the author of Zionism and Melancholia: The Short Life of Israel Zarchi (in Hebrew) and the co-editor of The Politics of Nihilism (2014), of Catastrophe: A History and Theory of an Operative Concept (2014), and of special issues of Rethinking History (Nihilism), Zmanim (Religion and Power), and The New German Critique (Political Theology).

Book Forum: Working Through Collective Memory

by guest contributor Asaf Angermann

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

In efforts to conceive of the relation between the historical past in its “authentic” experiential immediacy and the consistency of its representation in our living memory, two questions arise which seem to contradict one another: can we ever gain access to an adequate, reliable concept of the past, the way it was “originally” experienced? And on the other hand, can we ever not seek, or even claim to have, such access—either cognitively or psychologically—to an “original,” “authentic,” even “primordial” lost history? What is the relation between the “authentic” immediacy of the past as it was experienced in “real time” and its conceptual, cultural, symbolic representation in contemporary consciousness? In Collective Memory and the Historical Past, Jeffrey Andrew Barash eloquently and convincingly argues for the inevitability of drawing a distinction between the two. “In designating the singularity of the remote past and its irreducible alterity in view of the present,” Barash aims “to deflate mythical claims concerning the scope of collective memory and to distinguish it from the historical past lying beyond it” (p. 216). Such distinction is necessary, for the historian and the philosopher as much as for contemporary society as a whole, in order to allow for critical reflection on the past and its meaning for the present as well as on the mechanisms that produce and reproduce such meanings. The illusion or myth that collective memory stands in some form of direct relation to the historical past, that it consists of adequate representations of the past “the way it was”—which allows for an “authentic” concept of past experiences—jeopardize the capability of critical disentanglement of life and myth, experience and representation. Put another way (to use the phenomenological terminology that is fundamental to Barash’s investigation), they disguise the disparity between the immediate “lifeworld” of original experience and its transfigurations in the symbolic order created in the public sphere by new forms of mass media.


University of Chicago Press (2017)

In order to gain a sustainable critical concept of collective memory, Barash maintains, one must depart from the idea of an adequate correspondence between collective memory and the historical past. As Sophie Marcotte Chénard noted in her forum contribution, “one might think that Barash completely rejects the [concept of] ‘historical past’”, only to realize that his nuanced critical approach actually aims to “preserve the specificity” of both.

A main question that arises—as I will argue along with a certain reservation—concerns such “preservation of specificity.” The immediacy of an original experiential lifeworld in the historical past, that collective memory, precisely in its intention to symbolically and communicatively represent, actually mystifies and mythologizes, a process which only the careful distinction suggested by Barash could counteract, namely to rescue the one from the other’s grip. The phenomenological terminology and methodology that Barash employs and extensively introduces in the historical-philosophical introduction and in the theoretical analyses of the book’s first part entails precisely this.

Commencing with Plato’s theory of reminiscence (“learning is reminiscence”), Barash provides a meticulous overview of theories of recollection, spanning the positions of Locke, Bergson, Hegel, Nietzsche, Freud, Heidegger, and Benjamin. While the introduction primarily concerns itself with the relation between memory, recollection, and reminiscence on the one hand and personal identity and the historical dimension of human existence on the other hand, the book’s first part elaborates a specific phenomenological argument. The immediacy of original experience—Husserl’s phenomenological idea of a leibhafte Erfahrung, a first-order experience “in the flesh”—has a certain “primordial capacity” (p. 40), which can be remembered but defies mediation. Any second-order representation precludes “precisely the aura of a singular presence encountered in the plenitude of a surrounding ‘lifeworld’ (or Lebenswelt)” (41). It is remarkable that Barash here essentially interrelates Husserl’s late theory of “lifeworld” from his 1936 unfinished and posthumously published book The Crisis of the European Sciences and the Transcendental Phenomenology with Walter Benjamin’s central concept of aura from “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Mechanical Reproduction” (written 1933-1934, published 1935). The immediacy of an experience “in the flesh” of either an historical or a personal event loses its unique aura while efforts are simultaneously made to preserve and recreate, commemorate and represent precisely this lost “lifewordly aura.” Collective memory in Barash’s account is based on a “network of embodied symbols” that aims to represent “a past that lies beyond all contemporary memory—the remote memory borrowed from the testimony of others and attested by their traces” (p. 50). It is a form of compensation for the lost immediacy, creating a surrogate aura for the lost “primordial,” “original” experience.


Edmund Husserl

In an impressively comprehensive and carefully detailed analysis, merging arguments from philosophy, historiography, literature, visual arts, and mass media, Barash proceeds to illuminate concrete articulations of such dialectics between the irrecoverable immediacy of the historical past and the attempts to reestablish it through symbolic—and often mythical, not least in the political sense—representations. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech of August 1963, a decisive moment in the formation of contemporary American identity, provides a crucial example in Barash’s account for discerning between its historical impregnation as “symbolic embodiment” (p. 57) in collective memory and its “horizon of contemporaneity” (p. 55), the immediate experience of its original “lifeworldly aura.” No symbolic representation, however coherent and accurate, can ever truly represent the lifeworldly immediate experience “in the flesh”: “the attentive silence of the forces of order, the casual apparel of many of the demonstrators, their enthusiasm and generally upbeat mood” during the historical speech (p. 53). All of these experiential contingencies are necessarily removed and reified in collective memory. Barash provides numerous thought-provoking examples for such discrepancy, in particular representations in painting, photography, and televised events. The inspiring treatment of these various forms of direct and indirect representations draws upon and simultaneously advances the phenomenological method of Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, and Ricœur along with a critical theory of mass media following Benjamin. (Here I suspect that adding the sociological perspective developed by Alfred Schütz and Thomas Luckmann would introduce an interesting dimension to the discussion.)


Theodor W. Adorno

The distinction between the immediacy of experience in the historical past as well as the symbolic embodiments and transfigurations it undergoes in collective memory presupposes, however, that such original immediacy of “leibhafte Erfahrung” in the historical past was itself indeed free—“purified” in Husserl’s language—of any such “external,” “impure” representations. In the 1930s, Theodor W. Adorno worked on what he considered to be an “immanent critique” of Husserl’s phenomenology. His book on Husserl, On the Metacritique of Epistemology: Studies in Husserl and the Phenomenological Antinomies (Zur Metakritik der Erkenntnistheorie: Studien über Husserl und die phänomenologischen Antinomien; curiously translated into English as Against Epistemology with the original only published in 1956) unfolds the intrinsic antinomies, the paradoxes Adorno sees entailed in Husserl’s work. They predominantly concern the very idea of such a distinction as seems to me to be central to Barash’s argument on the lost immediacy of original experience. Adorno questioned the validity of such “primacy” or “originality” and contended that precisely what seems to be the most “primordial” and “pure” merely conceals its historical and social character: “[t]he search for the utterly first, the absolute cause, results in infinite regress,” since what we experience and cognize as “immediacy” is historically and socially mediated while seeking to conceal this mediation (Adorno, Against Epistemology; p. 29). “This illusion,” Adorno writes, “is a function of reality and historical tendencies. […] Reified thought is the copy of the reified world. By trusting its primordial experiences, it lapses into delusion. There are no primordial experiences” (p. 109). In other words, Adorno expresses radical skepticism concerning the very immediacy of experience that the phenomenological approach sees as given in the historical past, and which, according to Barash, can never be sustained as such in collective memory. The worry that we can draw from Adorno’s perspective concerns the concealed entanglement of historical past and collective memory, which may overshadow the inevitability of a distinction between them. If the historical past does not necessarily imply a “primordiality” or “authenticity” of lifeworldly experience, but rather mediated representations and transfigurations as the later collective memory, the distinction might blur rather than sharpen its critical function.

It seems to me that Adorno’s argument does not necessarily contradict, but rather complement Barash’s important critical objective, however. In his historical-political intervention, “The Meaning of Working Through the Past” (1959), Adorno addresses a different kind of gap between collective memory in post-war Germany and the historical past, and he warns against drawing a sharp distinction between them, raising another dimension of a “working through.” (Aufarbeitung: reprocessing, working up, cognitively dealing with). Beyond questions of responsibility and guilt, Adorno is troubled by its latent aspects: the infiltration of the unworked-through historical past, itself containing ideological and symbolic mediations which perceive themselves as “original” and “primordial” into collective memory, into the process of “working through”. “National Socialism lives on,” Adorno states in 1959, “and even today we still do not know whether it is merely the ghost of what was so monstrous that it lingers on after its demise, or whether it has not yet died at all” (Adorno, “The Meaning of Working Through the Past,” in: Critical Models; p. 89-90) According to Adorno, the mythical residues of a different form of “authentic,” “primordial” experience in the past, that of xenophobic sentiments and ethnic supremacy, carry on latently in the form of representations and symbolic embodiments into the collective memory of the present. “Working through” for Adorno is not measured by the authenticity of a lifeworldly experience; it is, rather, a conscious “turn toward the subject” (Critical Models, p. 102 ), critical questioning of the “authentic” sources of the self, whose undercurrent claim of “primordiality” undermines such conscious “working through.”

Can the culture of remembrance ever be free of ideological, political, material interests that claim to rely on authenticity, primordial experience, on being there “in the flesh”? In other words, what seems to be most subjective, immediate lifeworld experience, and ostensibly cannot be imported as such into collective memory, might indeed intrude it from underneath, subterraneaneously, creating the deceptive myth of a “primordial,” “in the flesh” experience to gain authority over the “true,” “authentic” mode of representation. Adorno’s political critique of phenomenology may therefore complement Barash’s impressively vital project. Alongside the importance of differentiating between historical past and collective memory, it may be as necessary for critical historical reflection to detect the undercurrents of entanglements and infiltrations between them: the modes in which the historical past still invades collective cultural memory in a reified, mythical, ghostly manner, potentially giving rise to a re-invention of “Holocaust centers.”

Asaf Angermann teaches in the Department of Philosophy and the Judaic Studies Program at Yale University. He is the author of Damaged Irony: Kierkegaard, Adorno, and the Negative Dialectics of Critical Subjectivity (De Gruyter, 2013, in German), editor of Theodor W. Adorno and Gershom Scholem, Correspondence 1939-1969 (Suhrkamp, 2015, in German; English translation in preparation for Polity Press), and translator of Theodor W. Adorno, Education to Responsibility (HaKibbutz HaMeuchad, forthcoming 2017, in Hebrew). He is currently working on a book about the philosophical interrelations between Adorno’s social critique and Scholem’s religious anarchism.]

Book Forum: Symbols, collective memory, and political principles 

by guest contributor Andrew Dunstall

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


Mémoire (Benhard Wenzl)

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

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


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

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


Front National (Marie-Lan Nguyen, 2010)

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

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

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

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

Book Forum: A Practical Past Beyond the Historical Past?

by guest contributor Sophie Marcotte Chénard

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Jean-Pierre Houël, « Prise de la Bastille » (1789; source

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Forum: History as Critique

by guest contributor Michael Meng

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


University of Chicago Press (2016)

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

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


Plato (Silanion Musei Capitolini MC1377)

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

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


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

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

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


Herbert Marcuse

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

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

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

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

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

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