Book forum

The Principle of Theory: Or, Theory in the Eyes of its Students

By contributing writer John Handel. This and Jonathon Catlin’s “Theory Revolt and Historical Commitment” respond to the May 2018 “Theses on Theory and History” by Ethan Kleinberg, Joan Wallach Scott, and Gary Wilder.

“It is impossible, now more than ever, to dissociate the work we do, within one discipline or several, from a reflection on the political and institutional conditions of that work. Such a reflection is unavoidable. It is no longer an external complement to teaching and research; it must make its way through the very objects we work with, shaping them as it goes, along with our norms, procedures, and aims. We cannot not speak of such things.”

-Jacques Derrida (1983)

In 1967 Jacques Derrida famously asserted that “there is no outside-text.” This was not a literary formalist screed against historical context, it was rather that context as such was an unstable category–that context itself was endlessly shifting and was never a stable given. Derrida’s injunction to us, as scholars, in whichever discipline we worked, was to question and deny these categories of certainty, to see things in their most capacious sense, to know that our own sight was always already constrained and limited. It was imperative to constantly question the adequacy of our vision. Theory Revolt is a welcome, deconstructive, reminder on this front, as it lays bear many of the central assumptions of the epistemology of the historical profession and what they problematically overlook. Yet, despite its protestations that “Critical historians are self-reflexive,” and “recognize that they are…implicated in their objects of study,” there is little impetus on the part of Theory Revolt to question this further, to turn its sights inwards to the institutional site of knowledge production: the university (III.6). Bringing the ethics of deconstructive criticism back to the university especially in the context of the colonialist, military-industrial, production of post-war American knowledge, was a critical move for Derrida, and likewise, is a necessary mode of critique that Theory Revolt must take up if it is to effect the radical change in the profession that is desires.

Without actively thinking through the institutional forms of power and politics that structure the production of historical knowledge they wish to critique, Theory Revolt’s project itself is implicated in perpetuating them. “Structures of…politics, or even identity that do not conform with convention are ruled out or never seen at all,” they write. Indeed. In focusing so intently on assaulting the “guild” mentality of the current historical profession and its epistemological assumptions and practices, Theory Revolt misses what constitutes their central problem, for it is impossible to explain why we stopped arguing about theory without attending to the political economic transformation of the university: the collapse in undergraduate humanities enrollments, the implosion of the academic job market, and the subsequent proliferation of the precarious labor which manages to keep the university afloat.

This is, in large part, a generational blindness. Theory Revolt argues that the historical profession sees “theory as one more turn (a wrong one) in the ever-turning kaleidoscope of historical investigation. The lure of theory is taken to be an aberrant stage in the intellectual history of the discipline, happily outgrown, replaced by a return to more solidly grounded observation.” (II.3) But, as James Cook has argued in an essay entitled “The Kids Are Alright: On the ‘Turning’ of Cultural History,” “turning” becomes synonymous with a generational rite of passage—most typically, from the new social history of the 1970s to the new cultural history of the 1980s.” Theory Revolt’s emplotment of its own intellectual history rests on the specters of a generational revolt, in particular on the radical critique of post-structuralism that lost the generational fight to a new empiricism. But it is hard to have a generational revolt when your generation has been systematically excluded from the academy. The kids are definitely not alright.

My own brief trajectory at Berkeley provides some anecdotal evidence for this shift. I arrived at Berkeley in the fall of 2015 for graduate school, excited to come to the place that was the birth place of cultural history. I expected to find a place that was the center of radicalism in the United States for so long, the place that founded the journal Representations, that prided itself on being “happily at the margins” of the mainstream historical profession. Instead, I found an institution that was rife with crises. From a culture of systemic sexual harassment to a structural budget deficit that seemed to spell the end of the public research university; from an endemic housing crisis to a campus that was overrun by right-wing trolls and heavily armored police. These were inauspicious years to be at Berkeley.

Somewhere amid the institutional decay that blighted the landscape of Berkeley (not to mention the rest of higher education), the Berkeley of the cultural turn had also seemed to disappear. Where I thought I would find intellectual iconoclasm, all I found was methodological malaise. For instance, at the institution whose connection to Foucault helped bring his work into the mainstream of U.S. academic culture, one of the professors teaching the department’s “Historical Methods & Theory” course notoriously refused to read Foucault with us. “You’re all more or less cultural historians at Berkeley,” the professor informed us, “you all need to read Foucault in chronological order, start to finish on your own, anyways.” What was the use of actually discussing it in a seminar?  The next year this course was replaced with one on professionalization—on using twitter in academic contexts, on building a CV, on networking at conferences, etc. Professionalization for an almost non-existent academic job market had replaced theoretical stakes.

And therein lies the unseen problem of Theory Revolt’s critique of the mainstream practice of history. In ignoring the neoliberal transformation of the university, they miss the reason we stopped arguing about theory in the first place. It is hard to engage in a collaborative rethinking of historical methodology when most of your generation will not end up in the academy. The disciplinary and professional pressures of the historical guild weigh especially heavy when you are fighting for one of the few jobs available in your field. In the midst of institutional crisis, how can we orient ourselves to address both that crisis and the epistemological malaise of the historical profession that Theory Revolt rightly critiques? Ben Mechen argues that as graduate students we can use our precarious position in the university to inform both a new politics of solidarity and critique of the power structures that produced such precarity. Can Theory Revolt’s critiques be joined to this purpose?

One way Theory Revolt’s mode of critical history might work itself in and through its objects of study is in relation to the New History of Capitalism. HoC was a field born in direct response to the new political realities after 2008, as well as a response to the new institutional directives within universities. But the History of Capitalism remains notoriously under theorized. In a programmatic state-of-the-field essay in 2014, Seth Rockman claimed that HoC “has minimal investment in a fixed or theoretical definition of capitalism,” and that “the empirical work of discovery takes precedence over the application of theoretical categories.” In the words of Theory Revolt, this type of empiricism only serves to “reinforce disciplinary history’s tendency to artificially separate data from theory, facts from concepts, research from thinking. This leads ‘theory’ to be reified as a set of ready-made frameworks that can be ‘applied’ to data.” (I.9) Theory is not a lens that can be applied to historical work, it is rather the political stances that every historian, whether implicitly or explicitly, brings to their attempts to understand the past. Despite our protestations to the contrary, we can never get outside theory.

One of the most prescient and enduring critiques of this type of empiricism, especially as it relates to the history of capitalism and the economy, is from none other than Joan Scott, one of the authors of Theory Revolt. In her canonical Gender and the Politics of History, Scott performed a brilliant reading of mid-19th century French statistical reports. Rather than viewing these reports as “irrefutable quantitative evidence,” Scott argues that in merely using these reports in a purely empirical sense, we “have accepted at face value and perpetuated the terms of the nineteenth century according to which numbers are somehow purer and less susceptible to subjective influences than other sources of information.” These statistical reports were neither neutral representations nor sheer ideological constructions, she argued, but were rather “ways of establishing the authority of certain visions of social order, of organizing perceptions of “experience.” Scott’s project constituted a major post-structural attack on the categories that undergirded the basic assumptions of the dominant strains of Marxist and social history at the time and problematized what could be taken and used as historical “facts.”

Years later, Adam Tooze would revisit the ways in which economic historians in particular might make use of numbers as historical facts. “The polemical energy involved in tearing up the empirical foundations of economic and social history, to reveal them as rooted in institutional, political, and indeed economic history, overshot its mark,” he argued. Rather than jettisoning numbers as usable historical facts, Tooze argued that we should adopt a “hermenutical quantification,” where we “move from a generalized history of statistics as a form of governmental knowledge to a history of the construction and use of particular facts.” In other words, we could be attentive to the contingent, cultural construction of numbers, while also acknowledging that those numbers were operationalized and did work in the world for those who used them.

Tooze’s move from questioning the category of statistics to thinking about the particular moments & conjunctures by which certain quantitative facts, once constructed, gain authority is consonant with the radical strains of cultural history influenced by STS & ANT. Revealingly, Tooze takes most of his theoretical cues in that article from Bruno Latour (see for instance notes 51 and 52). Latour’s radical constructivism finds sympathetic allies in Scott’s post-structural wing of the cultural turn, for instance, Patrick Joyce’s insistence on not conceiving “culture” as an essentialist superstructure, but culture as a process, “as for or around practice,” and “located in practice and in material forms.” This continual attendance to the process of knowledge production, rather than ever taking forms of knowledge either in the past or presence as givens, is what I take Theory Revolt to be stressing in their insistence on a “Critical history (that) recognizes all ‘facts’ as always already mediated, categories as social, and concepts as historical; theory is worldly and concepts do worldly work.” (III.4). This kind of critical history, when brought to the history of capitalism and the economy, seems well positioned to cut through the endless methodological stand-offs between economic historians and historians of capitalism.

A critical history thus positioned is also poised to make sense of the broader political moment within which we live. In his 1987 work, Science in Action Bruno Latour asked: “Given the tiny size of fact production, how the hell does the rest of humanity deal with ‘reality’?” In our moment of Trumpian politics that has witnessed the collapse of post-war America’s key sites of fact and knowledge production—from universities to the media—it becomes clear that the answer to this question is “not well.”  Plenty of pseudo-intellectuals have been quick to proclaim that post-structuralism bears at least some responsibility for the collapse of these institutions and the  rise of Donald Trump. It did not take long for critics to marshal these claims against Theory Revolt, and rehearse the “dismissal oftheory as dangerous relativism.”(II.6).

Yet it is precisely here that the type of radical constructivism—a post-structuralist critical history that is always methodologically self-conscious—can make a key intervention in our current political moment. There is no doubt, for instance, that Donald Trump has launched a dangerous assault on facts and facticity, but post-structuralism didn’t cause Trump’s rise, it can help explain him. As Nils Gilman has argued, in the current maelstrom of fake news, “dry fact-checking does not work in the face of a deliberate assault on facts as such.” A critical history that refuses to take any fact as a given, and insists on historicizing how facts are constructed and operationalized, is far more politically exigent than a dry empiricism that attempts in vain to fact check those who refuse the very premise of factuality.

In the age of Trump, knowledge is up for grabs in ways previously unimaginable. On one hand, this is profoundly terrifying, as those in the highest offices of political power seemingly refuse to share the same factual reality with the world around them. But instead of driving us to a knee-jerk and uncritical defense of our universities, it should push us to further critique. The knowledge production of the academy has thus far not been up to facing the challenges within or without. This should force us within the academia to rethink not only the epistemological practices of our discipline but the institutional structures that created them. As the structures of the post-war university crumble, we can, finally, begin to imagine new collectivities, institutions, and forms of professionalism that do not have to replicate the neoliberal logics that have hollowed out these institutions to begin with. Theory Revolt’s critique of historical epistemology is a welcome part of this project, but rather than being a radical move forward, it is too often a nostalgic look backward to the generational revolts of the 1980s and 90s, obfuscating the tectonic shifts in the structure of our institutions and professions that have occurred in the meantime. But it doesn’t have to be. The critical history it advocates can and should be positioned not just to bring its critique to bear on histories of capitalism and neoliberalism, nor just on the high politics, but on the academic institutions that not only have failed to stop these transformations but have, in ways, been complicit in them. For Theory Revolt’s critiques to take shape, and to work their way into our practices of history, they cannot limit themselves to a critique of their own self-proclaimed outside Other—empiricist epistemology—but they must also turn inside, and examine their own sites and sights of power within the university itself.

John Handel is a Ph.D Candidate at UC Berkeley.

Colonial Knowledge, South Asian Historiography, and the Thought of the Eurasian Minority

This is the fifth in a series of commentaries in our Graduate Forum on Pathways in Intellectual History, which is running this summer and fall. The first piece was by Andrew Klumpp, the second by Cynthia Houng, the third by Robert Greene II, and the fourth by Gloria Yu.

This last piece is by contributing writer Brent Howitt Otto, a PhD student in History at UC Berkeley.

It is hard to overstate the contemporary and enduring impact of British colonialism on the Indian Subcontinent. Bernard Cohn compellingly argued that the British conquest of India was a conquest of knowledge, as much as it was of land, peoples and markets. By combining the disciplinary tools of history and anthropology, Cohn helped birth a generation of historiography that has examined how the discursive categories of religion, caste and community (approximate to ‘ethnicity’ in South Asian usage) were deeply molded and in some instances created by the bureaucratic attempts to rationalize and systematize the exercise of colonial power over diverse peoples (Nicholas B. Dirks, Castes of Mind). These colonial knowledge systems not only helped colonial officials to think about India and Indians but has subsequently affected how Indians of all classes, castes and religions came to think about themselves in relation to one another and to the state. The anti-colonial nationalism of the late British Raj, far from freeing India of colonial categories and divisions, demonstrated their enduring and deepening power.

When discontent with British rule began to ferment in various forms of nationalist organizing and mobilization in the late nineteenth century, a preoccupation among Indian minorities—Muslims, Untouchables, Sikhs, and even the relatively small community of Eurasians (later known as Anglo-Indians)—emerged, that swaraj (self-rule) or indeed Independence would ultimately create a tyranny of the majority. Would the British Raj simply be replaced by a Hindu Raj, in which minorities would lose their already tenuous position in politics and society?

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B. D. Ambedkar

Fear ran deepest among Muslims, who had been scapegoated by the British as the group responsible for the Sepoy Rebellion in 1857. Their fears were not irrational, for the Indian National Congress, as the largest expression of the nationalist movement, struggled to appear as anything but a party of English-educated elite Hindus. Despite Gandhi’s exhortation of personal moral conversion to a universal regard for all people, his message came packaged in the iconic form and practice of a deeply religious Hindu ascetic. Gandhi famously disagreed with the desire of B. D. Ambedkar, a leader of the Untouchables, to abolish the caste ‘system’. Muslims and other minorities called for ‘separate electorates,’ protected seats and separate voting mechanisms to ensure minorities were represented.

In part to pacify the anxieties of minorities and in part to further a ‘divide and rule’ agenda to prolong colonial rule, the British responded with a series of Round Table Conferences from 1930-32 in which India’s minorities represented their views. This resulted in the Communal Award of separate electorates for Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, Indian Christians, Anglo-Indians, Europeans and Depressed Classes (Scheduled Castes). Gandhi’s opposition rested on the principle that Separate Electorates would only impede unity and sow greater division, both in the movement to end British rule and the hope of a unified nation thereafter. Yet in the Poona Pact of September 1932 Gandhi acquiesced to Separate Electorates while coercing Ambedkar through a fast unto death to renounce them for Dalits.

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Mohammad Ali Jinnah

British colonial knowledge had constructed blunt categories of India’s minorities, which failed to acknowledge their internal diversity. Muslims included numerous sects, schools of jurisprudence, regions and languages. Eurasians were divided internally by region (north, south, Burma), occupation (railways, government services, private trade and industry), lineage (Portuguese, English, Dutch, French) and class. The same was true for other minorities, and yet the British insisted upon dealing with each group by recognizing an organization and its leader as the ‘sole spokesman’ for that ‘community’s’ interests. For Muslims it was Mohammad Ali Jinnah and the Muslim League (Ayesha Jalal, The Sole Spokesman). For Eurasians (Anglo-Indians) it was the president of the All India Anglo-Indian Association, under the leadership of Sir Henry Gidney (1919-42) and Frank Anthony (1942 onward), which by no means could claim membership sufficient to represent the interests of a majority of Anglo-Indians.

Who is allowed to speak for the group? Which voices are suppressed or silenced? These are crucial questions for historians who seek to make an accurate reconstruction of the textures and contours of a group’s thinking over time, of their unity and disunity, internal dynamics, the ways they see themselves and others. Otherwise the scholar will only be able to conjure up an historical narrative that coheres with the sympathies of power, but gets no closer to representing the group on its own terms. The archive is often limited in what it can say, for it too is a construction of power: the editorial discretion of a newspaper, the policy and practice of record keeping and classification in an organization or a government, and the status and education implicit in any literary production. This has been a foremost concern and debate of Subaltern historiography in South Asia (see the journal Subaltern Studies and Gayatri Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?“), and a motivating problem addressed by Anthro-History.

The scholarship on the mixed-race of colonial South Asia manifests some of these problems. Some histories have been written by important Anglo-Indian leaders and politicians, such as Herbert Alick Stark and Frank Anthony, constituting less an academic history than their own rhetorical attempt to shape Anglo-Indians’ view of themselves and of others’ views of Anglo-Indians. Indeed, these constitute primary sources that portray particular dominant, though not representative perspectives of the community. Even serious academic studies have erred by leaning too heavily on official sources to substantiate the community’s attitudes (e.g., Alison Blunt, Domicile and Diaspora) or by inordinate attachment to a social scientific theory such as “marginality” to explain the social position and self-consciousness of Anglo-Indians, at times entertaining untenable generalizations and ignorance of facts (See Noel P. Gist and Roy Dean Wright, Marginality and Identity, or Paul Fredrick Cressey, “The Anglo-Indians“). Other studies are too narrowly focused on Anglo-Indians of a particular place and time to include very much dialogue with the greater Anglo-Indian community or with other interlocutors such as the state (e.g., Kuntala Lahiri-Dutt, In Search of a Homeland, or Robyn Andrews, Christmas in Calcutta).

The new monograph by Uther Charlton-Stevens, Anglo-Indians and Minority Politics in South Asia: Race, Boundary Making and Communal Nationalism (London: Routledge, 2018) is a deeply textured historical study of the Eurasian community over its lengthy history. Uninterested in presenting a uniform narrative, Charlton-Stevens digs deeply into diverse sources to show the various interlocutors that Anglo-Indians and their leaders had, and the often discordant opinions they took with respect to their own history, concepts of race, Indian nationalism, the colonial state, and plans for their post-colonial future. Anglo-Indians were neither univocal, nor insular. Views among Anglo-Indians were diverse and power over them was contested. Skillfully Charlton-Stevens traces these various crisscrossing strands that shows Anglo-Indians were embedded in a web of local, colonial and international discourses, and were interacting with and speaking about concepts as diverse and far reaching as notions of nation and national self-determination, Zionism, and eugenics. Although the community had a sole spokesman as far as government was concerned, the voices of dissenting and contesting positions were louder and clearer than prior scholarship has ever made out.

Charlton-Stevens refreshingly situates the question of Anglo-Indian identity in the crucial context of race and eugenical theories current from the late 19th to mid-20th centuries. He explores in depth the writings of two Anglo-Indian figures who were not community leaders, yet had complex articulations of mixed race. Millicent Wilson of Bangalore wrote arguing that Anglo-Indians’ whiteness (and thus superiority) should be acknowledged on the supposed grounds of the dominance of white genes, and thus their predominance in mixed-race people. Wilson regarded Americans and Australians as exemplars of the success of whitening an admittedly hybrid race. In effect she argued against extreme theories of racial purity, while continuing to support a concept of a racial hierarchy that presumed the relative superiority of whiteness (Charlton-Stevens, 177–79, 194–96). Though seldom referenced in other studies on Anglo-Indians, Charlton-Stevens shows that Wilson’s work was read and responded to by Anglo-Indians, and that she engaged in disputes with Anglo-Indian leaders and critiqued those who promoted Anglo-Indians emigration from India. Though not conforming to the official positions of the Anglo-Indian Association, Wilson surely represents a strand of Anglo-Indian thinking on race.

Quite different from Wilson’s belief in a racial hierarchy into which she wanted to insinuate Anglo-Indians as ‘white,’ stand the writings of Anglo-Indian social scientist Cedric Dover. Contesting the alleged superiority of racial purity, Dover argued instead hybridization promoted genetic vigor. He predicted that mixed races would therefore define the future and spell the ultimate end of racial difference. He was a vocal opponent of the Nazi eugenics of racial purity, while himself promoting the eugenics of genetic mixing. As for his own community of Anglo-Indians, Dover believed they should identify as ‘Eurasians,’ a more expansive category than ‘Anglo-Indian,’ and forge a pan-Eurasian solidarity with other Eurasians outside of British India. This view was largely at odds with the stated aims and positions of official leaders of the Community. While Dover’s book, which was most explicitly directed at Anglo-Indians, is noted in the historiography, Charlton-Stevens goes further to demonstrate the effects and resonances of Dover’s ideas and other works on Anglo-Indian discourse about themselves and their future. At the same time, by drawing on the work of Nico Slate’s Colored Cosmopolitanism: The Shared Struggle for Freedom in the United States and India (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012) he shows how Dover saw through his academic work in the United States and the examples of W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington, a model of mixed-race success which supported his claims and which he recommended to Anglo-Indians (Charlton-Stevens, 191–96).

Then Charlton-Stevens carefully explores the numerous projects Anglo-Indians undertook as they prepared for a post-colonial future. Several schemes proposed for domestic colonial settlements—Abbott Mount (1920s), Whitefield (1882), McCluskigunge (1933) (Charlton-Stevens, 179–91). Others suggested overseas colonization—of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands (in 1922–3 and 1946), or the creation of an “Eurasia” in the former German New Guinea with League of Nations support, an idea which surfaced in the 1930s and then again in the 1950s (196–206). The Anglo-Indian promoters of these projects envisioned a degree of self-sufficiency, “emancipation” from dependency and colonial oppression, a “national homeland”.  Through a close reading of correspondence, committee reports, organization records, and letters to the editor in Anglo-Indian and English-language church sponsored newspapers in India, Charlton-Stevens shows that these aims do not only have incidental resonance but direct connection with the larger international discourses on race, the post-World War I “balkanization” that came with ethnic or racial conceptions of nationality and national self-determination, and drew on foreign models such as the Zionist success in the Palestine Mandate. Finally, numerous other associations and individuals promoted emigration, contrary to the stated position of the All India Anglo-Indian Association to remain in India—especially in the two years between the end of World War II and Independence. This even included as unlikely a destination as Brazil: ideologically branded as “Mestizism,” its promoters believed that as a mixed-race Christian people they would be accepted in a largely mixed-race Christian country. Others mainly sought to settle elsewhere within the British Commonwealth.

These are but a few of the most significant contributions of Charlton-Stevens’ book, which I have selected because they break new ground by foregrounding that Anglo-Indians were diverse in their thought, despite being forced to accept a sole spokesman who at times was the target of considerable resistance. Moreover they engaged with broader Indian and international discourses. Charlton-Stevens achieved this textured treatment of the ideas of Anglo-Indians on their own terms by a close, broad and critical reading of the archive as well as (in parts not mentioned above) ethnographic work and oral history that highlights the value of non-textual sources to a thoroughgoing historic account that interrogates power, expects diversity, and eschews easy generalizations.

Brent Howitt Otto is a graduate student in UC Berkeley’s Department of History.

Graduate Forum: Excesses of the Eye and Histories of Pedagogy

This is the fourth in a series of commentaries in our Graduate Forum on Pathways in Intellectual History, which is running this summer. The first piece was by Andrew Klumpp, the second by Cynthia Houng, and the third by Robert Greene II.

This fourth piece is by guest contributor Gloria Yu.

Whether a man is wise can be gathered from his eyes. So thought the Anglican bishop Joseph Hall in his 1608 two-volume collection of character sketches, Characters of Vertues and Vices. The wise man, Hall advised, “is eager to learn or to recognize everything but especially to know his strengths and weaknesses…His eyes never stay together, instead one stays at home and gazes upon himself and the other is directed towards the world…and whatever new things there are to see in it” (quoted in Whitmer, The Halle Orphanage, 77). The wise man’s eyes are the entry points of both self-knowledge and worldly knowledge, and their divergent gaze betrays his catholic curiosity (fig. 1).

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Figure 1. Joseph Hall might find the eyes, more than the books, to be the prominent ‘accessory’ in Bronzino’s Portrait of a Young Man with a Book (1530s). While the left eye is directed outward, ‘towards the world’, the gaze of the right eye (our left) seems unfocused on what is directly before it. It is not a look that invites sustained eye contact with the viewer; rather, an apparent disinterestedness suggests that the man’s attention is elsewhere. The aimless stare is a marker of a gaze turned inward. Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

The eye plays a central role in two recent snapshots from the history of Western pedagogy that find it productive to ground the historical construction of norms for knowing in educational contexts. Kelly Joan Whitmer’s The Halle Orphanage as Scientific Community: Observation, Eclecticism, and Pietism in the Early Enlightenment (Chicago, 2015) examines the scientific ethos that permeated and vitalized the premier experimental Pietist educational enterprise of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Orit Halpern’s Beautiful Data: A History of Vision and Reason since 1945 (Duke, 2015) offers a genealogy of contemporary obsessions with “data visualization,” their ontological and epistemological consequences, and the pedagogies that spurred them. Both works centralize the eye as the object of training and discipline. Both accounts trace the pedagogical principles behind the ways in which seeing must be learned, extending the functions of the visual apparatus beyond the role of passive reception into an active mode of evaluating and constructing. Seeing, in these histories, is imbued with cognitive powers so as to be near congruent with knowing itself. Considering these two works together prepares us to use the recurring motif of the trained eye as an opportunity for gauging future directions for histories of pedagogy.

Whitmer informs us that descriptions like the one above of the ‘character of the wise man’ were regularly incorporated into the curriculum at the Halle Orphanage’s schools for the purpose of training a particular way of seeing. The Orphanage’s founder, August Hermann Francke, believed these character sketches could “awaken” in children a love of virtue so that they might emulate the figures depicted. The end goal was the cultivation of an “inner eye,” or “the eye in people,” which Francke equated with prudent knowledge [Klugheit] and pious desires. Indeed, a pedagogy of seeing permeated Francke’s administration of the Orphanage. The training of the inner eye was based on the honing of an array of observational practices that engaged senses beyond just the visual. On one level, visual aids such as scientific instruments (e.g. the camera obscura, air pumps), wooden models, and color-coded maps cultivated tactile, spatial, and relational knowledge. In Francke’s correspondence with the mathematician Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus, the microscope figures as a particularly apt tool for lessons in seeing since it enhanced understanding of the configuration of parts and wholes while also providing the opportunity to reflect on the faculty of seeing itself. Through observing how minute changes in light transformed one’s image of an object, one could discern the possibilities and limits of human perception. On another level, visual aids, like the models of the geocentric and heliocentric heavenly spheres specially commissioned for the Orphanage, enhanced cognition and yielded spiritual benefits by teaching students how to behold incompatible representations of the world and to reconcile them. The Orphanage taught a manner of “seeing all at once,” wherein the eye was considered a “conciliatory medium” that could aid in transcending interconfessional disagreements.

For Whitmer, seeing and the eye operate as metaphors for perception, understanding, and cognition writ large, at times even as the privileged site for accessing divine truths. Notable is her use of the singular. If it is through seeing in a broad sense (materially, affectively, cognitively) that we encounter the world and acquire knowledge of it, it is the eye that mediates this encounter. From the ancient origins of the evil eye, to Avicenna’s comparison of the eye to a mirror, to the early modern possibility that a wrong stare could compel an accusation of witchcraft, the eye—and not only in the Western tradition—has perhaps always been overdetermined. Its activity always transcends the physiological processes behind mere visual perception. It was after all in tempting Eve to take from the tree of knowledge that the serpent said, “For God knows that in the day you eat of it, your eyes will be opened” (Genesis 3:5).

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Orit Halpern, Beautiful Data: A History of Vision and Reason Since 1945 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015).

“Vision,” as Halpern notes, “is thus a term that multiples—visualization, visuality, visibilities” (24). Dexterity in handling the conceptual differences of this plurality allows Halpern to explain how, since the end of World War II, we have come to bestow such a capacious range of talents to our ocular organs. In the context of increasing computational and data scientific approaches in information management, architecture and design, and the cognitive sciences, Halpern argues, vision has taken on a highly technicized form, meditated by screens, data sets, and algorithms that fundamentally expand the epistemological prowess of perception. In particular, postwar cybernetics and design and urban planning curricula had a hand in transforming the ontology of vision. Cybernetics’s preoccupation with prediction, control, and crisis management foregrounded information storage and retrieval and, thus, transformed the eye into a filter and translator of sorts, selecting relevant information for storage within a constant flow based on algorithms for pattern recognition. Whereas the eye at the Halle Orphanage dwelled on contradictory images, the eye of twentieth-century cybernetics constantly made choices.

The works of these authors suggest the advantages of approaching questions central to intellectual history—concerning the transmission, unity, and cultural impact of ideas—from the perspective of histories of pedagogies. Analyzing pedagogy allows Halpern to trace how philosophical ideas were transformed into teachable principles and how a certain paradigm of vision was promulgated through the materiality of our media environments. In her narrative, industrial designers, drawing from cybernetics, developed an “education of vision” grounded in “algorithmic seeing” (93). Here, vision mimicked the activity of a pattern generator: rather than representing the world, this ‘new’ vision captured the multitude of ways something could possibly be seen. Vision was about scale and quantity, about producing as many representations and recombinations of the visual field as possible. No longer could any pedestrian see the world; one had to learn through credentialed training to be considered an “expert” in vision (94). The screen-filled “smart” city of Songdo, South Korea is an embodiment of this paradigm, where older ways of seeing lose out to a vision continually registering and ordering human and environmental metrics toward the goal of “perfect management and logistical organization of populations, services, and resources” (2, see fig. 2).

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Figure 2. The “smart” city Songdo, South Korea in the Incheon Free Economic Zone features “computers and sensors placed in every building and along roads to evaluate and adjust energy consumption.” Photo and description courtesy of Condé Nast Traveler.

Furthermore, histories of pedagogy, whether central to a project (as in Whitmer’s case) or part of a larger investigation measuring the scale of cultural transformation (as in Halpern’s), can answer questions that animate the intersection of history of knowledge, history of science, and historical epistemology. These fields have offered a robust vocabulary for interrogating the historical contingency of observation and objectivity; the historical, social, and cultural criteria for knowledge; and the methodological goals and tactics involved in fortifying scientific persona. Beside the fact that pedagogy is a science and set of practices specifically concerned with communicating knowledge, Whitmer and Halpern show that, in addition to articulating what it means to learn in certain moments and institutional contexts, pedagogical theories can contain latent or overt temporalities, subjectivities, and modes of vision that deepen our understanding of what in the past has made knowledge count as knowledge.

Yet, histories of pedagogies have even more fruits to bear. If earlier histories focused on matriculation rates, student body demographics, and the longevity of institutions, these two works prove future research capable of taking on the relationship between science and religion, the convergence and divergence of intellectual traditions, the crests and troughs in the history of humanism, and episodes in the centuries long contemplation of what it means to be human. Future research would follow precedent histories of pedagogy, not least the scholarship of our discussant, in treating sensitively the gaps between ideals of education and their execution, the slips between the social and political aims of education and their imperfect applications (Anthony Grafton and Lisa Jardine, From Humanism to the Humanities: Education and the Liberal Arts in Fifteenth- and Sixteenth-Century Europe). That pedagogy is a tradition embedded in text, reliant on practices, and crucial to the scaffolding of intellectual traditions places the excavation of its pasts well within the purview of intellectual historians.

One last note on the eye. Mention of training the eye calls to mind the familiar narrative that forms of discipline often get inscribed on bodies. While this may be true, that there are multiple histories of pedagogy suggests the probability that we are trained in numerous contexts, at different times in our lives, and in potentially incompatible ways in how to see and how to know. It is possible, then, to become at once wise and childish, to become discerning in one way and docile in another. As to whether we are overwhelmingly determined by systems of power and whether there are multiple systems at play, I answer with an optimistic agnosticism that leaves open the question of the place of freedom. I rely on the vagueness of the term freedom here to underscore that the day-to-day exercises in learning may fail to yield desired results or, even when they do, may be useful in ways other than intended. For the researcher willing to question the Foucaultian schema that binds discipline with docility, the histories of pedagogy—of pedagogies with a range of reaches, in quiet pockets of Europe or in grander governmental programs—can be treated as an approach capable of accommodating histories of discipline that remains sensitive to the rough trajectories of learning. If the Panopticon’s surveilling gaze, both omnipresent and invisible, inspires the self-policing of behavior, how does the prisoner see when he looks back?

Panopticon

Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon

Gloria Yu is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, Berkeley. Her research focuses on the history of psychology and the concept of the will in nineteenth-century Europe. She thanks David Delano, Elena Kempf, and Thomas White for their incisive comments on earlier drafts.

Graduate Forum: The Radical African American Twentieth Century

This is the third in a series of commentaries in our Graduate Forum on Pathways in Intellectual History, which is running this summer. The first piece was by Andrew Klumpp, the second by Cynthia Houng.

This third piece is by guest contributor Robert Greene II.

“Remember the ladies.” This is a line from Abigail Adams’ famous letter to her husband, John Adams, defending the idea of rights and equality for women. “Remember the ladies,” however, could easily also serve as the defining idea of modern African American intellectual history. Many historians of the African American intellectual tradition have taken great pains to emphasize the importance—indeed, the centrality—of African American women to that intellectual milieu. At the same time, other fundamental questions have been raised of not just who to privilege in this new turn in African American intellectual history, but what sources are appropriate for intellectual history. Finally, the ways in which the public remembers the past animates newer trends in African American intellectual history. In short, African American intellectual history’s recent historiographic turns offer much food for thought for all intellectual historians.

 

The field of African American intellectual history has come a long way since the heyday of historians August Meier and Earlie E. Thorpe, both prominent in the then-nascent field of African American intellectual history in the 1960s. Meier’s Negro Thought in America, 1880-1915 and Thorpe’s The Mind of the Negro: An Intellectual History of Afro-Americans were both written in the 1960s and set the standard for African American intellectual history for decades to come. Both books were focused heavily on male intellectuals, however. As such they both set the standard for the field and, along with so much of African American history up until the late 1980s, left out the important voices of many African American women.

The rise of historians like Evelyn Higginbotham in the early 1990s ushered in new ways of understanding the intersection of race and gender through American history. Her book Righteous Discontent (1992) and essay “African American Women’s History and the Metalanguage of Race” (1992) both provided templates for how to easily meld women’s history and African American history into texts that became essential works of understanding the past through viewpoints and sources normally ignored by most male historians.

Today, the field of African American intellectual history has been influenced by the evolution of several related fields: African American women’s history and Black Power studies. Both fields have attempted to both overturn older assumptions about African American history and do so by focusing on previously marginalized sources and historical figures. Much of the recent historiographic trends in African American history—namely, a deeper understanding of Black Nationalism and its relationship to broader ideological trends in both Black America and the African Diaspora—would not have been possible without both a deeper understanding of the importance of gender to African American history, and a willingness to expand the definition of who are “important” intellectuals “worthy” of study.

In just the last year alone, numerous books about the intersection of Black Nationalism and gender have challenged earlier assumptions about the histories of both fields in relationship to African American history. Both Keisha Blain’s Set the World On Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018) and Ashley D. Farmer’s Remaking Black Power: How Black Women Transformed an Era (UNC Press, 2017) stretch the time period in which historians should understand the origins of Black Power—getting further away from just understanding the 1960s-era context and situating Black Power and larger Black Nationalist trends in a long era of resistance and struggle led and strategized by African American women.

Set the World on Fire follows up on other works about the Black Nationalism of the 1920s, arguing that it did not end with Marcus Garvey’s deportation from the United States in 1927. Instead, argues Blain, it was women such as his spouse Amy Jacques Garvey who kept Black Nationalist fervor alive across the United States. Meanwhile, Farmer’s book shows how the ideas of women associated with the Black Power movement of the 1960s owe a great deal to the longer arc of radical black women’s history in the twentieth century—from the agitation of black women within the Communist left of the 1930s and stretching well into the 1970s and 1980s. For Farmer, the history of a radical black nationalism does not end with the collapse of the Black Panther Party in the late 1970s.

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Amy Jacques Garber, with her husband, Marcus Garvey.

 

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Derrick White’s The Challenge of Blackness: The Institute of the Black World and Political Activism in the 1970s (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2011)

Meanwhile, other trends within African American intellectual history point to the utilization of previously ignored or forgotten sources to provide a deeper understanding of the past. Derrick White’s The Challenge of Blackness: The Institute of the Black World and Political Activism in the 1970s (University Press of Florida, 2011) argues for diving deeper into relatively recent African American intellectual history to provide a fuller picture of the post-Civil Rights Movement era. For White, the African American think tank was an important ideological clearing house for not just African Americans, but the broader Left in the 1970s.

 

A third movement within the field is the study of African American history itself. Pero Dagbovie has led the way in this, writing several key works detailing the rise of African American history over a broad timespan. Works such as African American History Reconsidered (University of Illinois Press, 2010) and The Early Black History Movement (University of Illinois Press, 2007) detail not only historiographic trends in the field, but the ways in which the institutions necessary for the growth of African American history were born and nurtured against the backdrop of Jim Crow segregation.

Finally, the importance of understanding memory to African American intellectual history has changed the way African American intellectual historians think about the intersection of ideas with public discourse. In reality, much of the understanding of “memory” by African American intellectual historians concerns forgetting by the vast public. Books such as Jeanne Theoharis’s A More Beautiful and Terrible History (Beacon Press, 2018) emphasizes how much of the American mainstream media—along with most politicians—have been complicit in hiding the deeper, more complicated histories of the Black freedom struggle in the United States.

African American intellectual history offers plenty of new opportunity for scholars interested in linking intellectual history to other sub-fields. African American activists and intellectuals never existed in a vacuum, whether geographic or ideological. They made alliances with a variety of groups and forces, all for the sake of freedom across the African diaspora. The new turns in African American intellectual history reflect this aspect of black history.

Robert Greene II is a Visiting Assistant Professor of History at Claflin University. He studies American intellectual and political history since 1945 and is the book review editor for the Society of US Intellectual Historians.

Graduate Forum: Writing Art in the Present Tense

This is the second in a series of commentaries in our Graduate Forum on Pathways in Intellectual History, which will be running this summer. You can read the first piece, by Andrew Klumpp, here.

This second piece is by Contributing Editor Cynthia Houng.

Truism: All histories are subjective.

Truism: All historical narratives are the products of a series of choices and decisions–of evidence and argument, of style, emplotment, tone.

Truism: All narratives are representations.

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Douglas Crimp, Before Pictures (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016).

Douglas Crimp’s Before Pictures (University of Chicago Press, 2016) is obviously a work of memoir. It is–less obviously–also a work of history. Less obvious, because Before Pictures is so clearly grounded in the experience–in the mind and body–of a single person, Douglas Crimp, and so the work’s claims to truth and to knowledge remain, at least in our more conventional (or academic) ways of thinking about history, too narrow, too personal, too subjective. How do we leap from this single data point to broader deductions about a society and an age? Here we have one experience, one voice, one point of data — but can it be serialized, integrated into ever broader series of documents, or data points, until finally we come to a bird’s-eye view of the situation?

Crimp’s answer: maybe we do not. Maybe that leap is impossible–and undesirable. Maybe we acknowledge the limits of our ability to know.

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T. J. Clark, The Sight of Death: An Experiment in Art Writing (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008).

Since 1999’s Farewell to an Idea, T.J.Clark has grown increasingly increasingly skeptical of conventional art history, which Clark finds, on the one hand, hopelessly positivistic, shackled to dreams of objectivity and universalism, and on the other, excessively logocentric, more interested in text and context than in the artwork itself. The Sight of Death (Yale University Press, 2008), Clark’s diaristic account of his encounter with two Poussin paintings at the Getty, marked a decisive turn toward a different mode of writing, one that emphasizes the experiential, subjective nature of all writing on art.

The practice of art history proceeds along two axes–the critical and the historical. The critical component occurs in the present tense–it is bound up with the historian’s experience of the work, and it harkens back to art history’s roots in connoisseurship, which emphasized that beholder’s critical judgment of a work’s quality. This turn (or return) to the subject and to experience is only partially a consequence of postmodernism. It carries with it a degree of faith in the integrity of both subject and experience, an insistence that by grounding narrative and argument in the personal, the private, the contingent–we can come up against something both material and real. Doubt must end somewhere. It ends with the touch of flesh and blood.

In that sense, in their recourse to the personal, the subjective, to the first-person experience, neither Clark nor Crimp are decisively breaking with the art historical tradition. Neither the insistence on the primacy of the object nor the turn towards a transparently subjective mode of writing are new. What, then, is new? The answer lies in the logic behind this emphasis on the subject’s relationship to the object, and the insistence that we–both writer and audience–remember that this relationship occurs in the present tense. Ontologically speaking, it is the only tense possible, as one material being confronts another — object to object, one might say, existing in the same temporal plane.

These two books, though very different in their interests and investments, share a certain common ethical and political grounding: they refuse transcendence. They take immanence as a basic condition of experience. There can be — there will be — no God’s eye dream of meta-vision, no fantasy of transcending the boundaries of space/time or of this material world. This commitment–to remaining immanent in this time, this world, fully contained and bounded by its material constraints–is both political and ethical. It grounds the writer in the present, and so the writer must remain both agent and participant in the now. Transcendence can also be a mode of escape, a turning away from the exigencies of the moment, a refusal of responsibilities, even of agency.

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Opening Reception, Pictures, Artists Space, September 23, 1977. Photo courtesy of Artist’s Space.

This refusal of transcendence has different resonances for Clark and Crimp. For Crimp, it represents a kind of freedom, or liberation, from the burden of history–but of a specific kind of history. Before Pictures is ostensibly a memoir of Crimp’s life before “Pictures,” the 1977 Artists Space exhibition that launched Crimp’s career and also gave name to the “Pictures Generation.” In that sense, it is a personal bildungsroman (and closely follows the conventions of that genre). Before Pictures is also an intellectual history, an account of how Crimp moved away from the practice of conventional academic art history towards something more personal. And here, “Pictures” is not the inflection point. The “change of direction” is precipitated by his 1989 essay, “Mourning and Militancy.” This essay, “the final essay I published in October during my thirteen-year stint as an editor there,” was also “the first in which a personal experience formed the germ of the argument.” In an interview with Jarrett Earnest, Crimp described the two dialectical poles in Before Pictures as “autobiographical and critical.” This is the moment when the autobiographical and the critical come together. And it is also, in a way that would become important to the subsequent shape of Crimp’s career, the moment when Crimp’s two worlds–the gay world and the art world–are no longer separated. One self need not be alienated from the other self. It is also a re-imagining of the subject position of the writer, as both critic and historian. That subject is no longer imagined as one that conforms to the ideal subject of the liberal/capitalist regime, that of a heteronormative, white, bourgeois male.

“One thing I can say for certain,” Crimp wrote, in the final paragraph (echoing the denouement of Joan Didion’s Play it as it Lays), “When I wrote the Pictures catalogue essay, and even more when I rewrote it for October, I was convinced that with sufficient insight a critic could–even should–determine what was historically significant at a given moment and explain why. That conviction was a result of my intellectual formation as an art historian and aspiring art critic. Moreover, it was possible to believe such a thing then: the art scene as I experienced it from 1967 to 1977 was small enough to seem fully comprehensible. That, of course, no longer holds true. And because it is so clearly not true now, it seems unlikely that it could really have been true then. In the meantime, coming to the understanding that my knowledge of art can never be anything but partial has been liberating. It has allowed me to write about what attracts  me, challenges me, or simply gives me pleasure without having to make a grand historical claim for it. No doubt that is why I respond to the reception of Pictures with ambivalence. It historicizes me.”

Note the final word here, the choice of the verb form, to historicize, over the noun. Note the resonance with historicism. Note Crimp’s ambivalence about submitting to this process, with all of its overtones of pastness, of being finished, of belonging to the past–and therefore being shut out of both present and future).

To be historicized is to become historical — and it comes with its own sense of triumph, as well as sadness. (For Crimp, who would become very involved in AIDS activism in the 1980s, this is a melancholic victory, won by virtue of having survived.) It also means submitting to historical representation, finding one’s self shorn of its particularities and slotted into a narrative–submitting, in other words, to being shaped, edited, and represented by another.

And this carries the danger of being re-inserted into tradition, being made to carry the burden of that grand history, when the point was to work oneself loose from it.

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Giotto di Bondone, Scenes from the Life of Joachim: 5. Joachim’s Dream, 1303–1305, Scrovegni (Arena) Chapel, Padua, Italy.

“I am with Walter Benjamin in thinking the pretense of the historian to enter the lost mental world of a long-ago maker a hopeless fantasy,” Clark declared in a 2017 lecture on “Joachim’s Dream,” one of the episodes in Giotto’s fresco cycle for the Scrovegni (Arena) Chapel in Padua. “In front of Joachim’s Dream, I don’t believe it can ever be me who time travels to the Trecento, on the contrary, it’s this stubborn fragment of an utterly unknowable past that brings, or refuses to bring, its now with it, into my present, putting my picture of pastness and continuity in doubt. I either own up to my naive claim on the work, the way the work answers or resists that claim, the way it suspends my usual pragmatic sense of history, or I settle for that far flight of historicist fancy called looking with a period eye.”

Crimp shares, with Clark, a radically constrained sense of the possibilities of making knowledge via conventional academic historical approaches. What any individual can really, truly know–what one can deduce from historical evidence–is narrow, straitened, far from the promise of universal history. While neither Clark nor Crimp is quite as radically skeptical as, say, Hayden White–who came to hold an unfavorable view of the relationship between professional historians/historiography and state ideologies and apparatuses–they share a sense of discontentment with the status quo of institutional historical practice. They share a discomfort with the profession’s conventions and structures, and Clark, at least, is also uncertain of its value (even while continuing to practice as an academic art historian, a disjunction between theory and practice highlighted by James A. van Dyke in his review of The Sight of Death).

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Clark closed The Sight of Death with a gloss on a Hugh MacDiarmid verse: “The present may be theirs,/but a’ the past and future’s oors.” MacDiarmid’s “bluster,” Clark argues, “at least has the virtue of pointing to what an antithesis to modern life will now have to be made from.”

And this is where Clark diverges from Crimp. For Clark sees, in the past, the tools for making the future–and poignantly, perhaps, for making the future revolution. Let me finish, then, with Clark’s own words. The antithesis to modern life “will have to live in the past–retrieving the second term in MacDiarmid’s last line will mean (will depend on) retrieving the first. It is never the present that dreams the future, for the present has no past life with which to to make the non-existent real.”

Summer Reading: Part I

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Book of Hours, 1480-1490, Victoria & Albert Museum. Photo Courtesy of Britain Loves Wikipedia.

Here is the first installment of some of the books that the Blog’s editors have lined up for summer. From art history to critical theory, from fiction to poetry, we’ve got you covered if you’re looking for something to pick up during the academic off season. Look out next weekend for the second installment!

Brendan

I got hit by a car this year. After surgery, after a month of Netflix and couch, after I had weaned myself off the pain pills, I slowly began to piece myself together again. I picked up an old favorite, Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, a book I’ve returned to again and again throughout my life. The book follows a fin de siècle everyman, Hans Castorp, as he spends seven years of his early adulthood in a TB sanatorium. The book is filled with characters who are allegories standing for this-or-that Big Thing: militarism, liberalism, extremism, nihilism, sex, death, bodily pleasure. The book ends with Castorp disappearing into the mass of young men in the trenches of the First World War. Castorp may or may not have been sick; but Europe certainly was.

I’ve come to appreciate different things about The Magic Mountain with every reading. My first I treated the book like a puzzle, proud of myself for each allegory I managed to identify. Later, I came to appreciate the book as a narration of the First World War. This latest reading, my body still bruised, my bone still knitting back together, still bound to the Barcalounger in my living room, I came to appreciate the Magic Mountain as a novel about sickness. Virginia Woolf wondered in On Being Ill why “illness has not taken its place with love, battle, and jealousy among the prime themes of literature.” Illness is uncomfortable. It is boring. Not much happens when you’re ill. So sickness is dealt with in fiction usually invisibly: the bones heal in the spaces between chapters. We get better, slowly. Yet in The Magic Mountain, sickness was ruminated on, lingered over, discussed, understood as its own form of experience. This comforted me. How differently time passed on that Barcalounger! Months which would have otherwise been filled with activity, instead passed by like minutes. And here I read Hans Castorp feeling the same way. Laying on his chair during the rest cure, letting his mind wander, thinking about the peculiar way time passed while he was ill, wondering whether the stuff inside him was healthy or invisibly diseased, wondering about what it all meant to be sick.

 

Spencer

Besides research-related adventures and a foolhardy scheme to read the entirety of John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments, my reading list this summer is drawn from the books that have lain in my house unread for far too long. Here are three of those hitherto-neglected titles:

 

Penelope Fitzgerald, The Blue Flower (1995). Described by its author as “a novel of sorts,” The Blue Flower retells the early life of the poet and philosopher Novalis, his puzzling engagement to twelve-year-old Sophie von Kühn, and the beginnings of what would become German Romanticism. This was the last work of Penelope Fitzgerald, whose subtle wit and profound insight into the peculiarities of human relationships remain criminally under-appreciated.

 

Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (2004). My blurb was going to say, “Dueling magicians in the Napoleonic Wars—need I say more?” But then I discovered a fact that will prove an even greater enticement to readers of JHIBlog: footnotes! Clarke has constructed a baroque edifice of fictitious scholarship upon which her story rests—and, truly, what self-respecting library could be without John Segundus’s A Complete Description of Dr. Pale’s fairy-servants, their Names, Histories, Characters and the Services they performed for Him (Thomas Burnham: Northampton, 1799)?

 

Sir Walter Scott, Ivanhoe (1819). Sir Walter Scott’s iconic historical romance, to which we owe the familiar tale of the doughty Richard the Lionheart, the dastardly King John, and the honest thief, Robin Hood. On a personal note, the “Dedicatory Epistle” to Ivanhoe is addressed to a (spiritual) ancestor of mine, the Reverend Dr. Jonas Dryasdust, FAS.

 

Cynthia

 

Rachel Kushner, The Mars Room — this is the book to tuck into your carry-on bag. You’ll speed through it so you can get to the ending, but once you get there, you’ll want to read the whole book all over again. You won’t even notice that your flight is delayed, or your luggage still hasn’t arrived on the carousel. I’m not going to tell you what the book is about (you can cheat and read the reviews if you want). When you get to the end, and find yourself meditating on questions of fate and agency, not sure if you’re looking into darkness or light, remember to thank me for this recommendation.

 

Lucie Brock-Broido, A Hunter, The Master Letters, Trouble in Mind, Stay IllusionI am re-reading Brock-Broido’s oeuvre this summer. Brock-Broido passed away this past March. She was only 61. Her language followed the diction and syntax of another time–but what was that time? Was it the deep past, or some future yet to come? Brock-Broido’s poetry was always beautiful, in a way that flirted with the decorative. Her best work veered away from mere beauty, aching towards something like the sublime.

 

Kelly Jones, South of Pico: African American Artists in Los Angeles in the 1960s and 1970s — Jones tells a “hidden history of blackness” of 20th-century California. African Americans, as well as members of the Latinx and Asian Pacific Islander communities, have traditionally been excluded from the story of modernism in California. Jones tells the history of the African American art community “south of Pico” in Los Angeles, embedding well-known artists such as Bettye Saar and Noah Purifoy within the complicated historical contexts of both Los Angeles and California in the second half of the 20th century. This book changed how I think of modern and contemporary American art. It will change how you think, too.

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.

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“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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.