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Intellectual history Interview

Genealogies of Survival: An Interview with Adam Y. Stern

By Jonathon Catlin

Adam Y. Stern is an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison working in German and Jewish studies. His first book, Survival: A Theological-Political Genealogy (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2021), casts Jewish thought and politics in a new light by tracing their recurrent tropes of survival and redemption back to the representation of Jews and Judaism in a long tradition of Christian political theology. Tracking the discourse of survival in writers such as Walter Benjamin, Hannah Arendt, Franz Rosenzweig, Sigmund Freud, and Jacques Derrida, Stern argues that survival serves as a powerful index for the secularized traces of Christianity that define Western modernity. His book compellingly highlights the persistence of the trope of “the survivor as a universal figure for death-in-life” up to the present day (149). Contributing Editor Jonathon Catlin interviewed Stern about his book.

Jonathon Catlin: Your book begins with a striking epigraph from the Palestinian intellectual Edward Said, who famously once referred to himself as “the last Jewish intellectual”: “Who do these people think they are, that they can make light of or ignore what they have done to us and still wrap themselves in the mantel of ‘the survivors’?” The book ends with an epilogue reflecting on how “the survivor” has been associated with both victims of colonization (by Jean-Paul Sartre and Abdelkebir Khatibi) and with colonizers (by Emmanuel Levinas) in the context of Israel/Palestine. How did you first come to interrogate the category of “the survivor,” and how did you arrive at the perhaps unexpected organizing framework of the decolonial political questions of whose survival is valued and what violence can be done in the name of survival?

Adam Stern: I’m glad you’ve decided to begin at the beginning by citing Said’s powerful observation about the role of the “survivor” in the Nakba, i.e., the ongoing settler colonization of Palestine. I came across the quote itself only late in my research, but it encapsulates many of the initial questions I wanted to pose about a language and a discourse that both pervades public speech and often evades reflection. This observation was coupled with an interest in the philosophical uses of “survival,” as they appear, for example, across Derrida’s work, in a different way for Agamben, and then in Butler’s interventions into “precarious life” and “vulnerability.” The project finally came together for me following one further observation, which is the prominent discursive relationship between “survival” and “Jews.” For Said, of course, the “survivor is a “mantle,” precisely because the category authorizes the hiding and displacing of colonial violence against Palestinians onto the precarious life and vulnerability of a symbolic, sacralized Jewish Holocaust victim. As others have noted, Israel styles itself a “survivor state.”

This was enough to pose a working hypothesis; namely, that the discursive proximity between Jews, survival, and colonialism could serve as a point of orientation for a more general inquiry into the genealogy of the word(s): survival, survivor. Methodologically, this meant returning to an archive of well-known figures: Arendt, Benjamin, Rosenzweig, and Freud. These are thinkers whose work has framed both the specific discussion of “Jewish survival” as well as the more general theoretical debate about survival’s conceptuality. In a preliminary way, my re-readings try to fracture the link between “Jews” and “survival” by showing that these canonical, secular, Jewish writers actually open up a different genealogical horizon: a horizon in which the rhetorical formation of survival has less to do with Jews than with the Jewish question. In other words, I wanted to see whether the very notion of “Jewish survival” could serve as an index for the theological-political (not to mention racial and colonial) history of Christianity.

JC: I see your book as part of a recent wave of scholarship including Emma Kuby’s Political Survivors (2019), Carolyn J. Dean’s The Moral Witness (2019), and Dirk Moses’s The Problems of Genocide(2021) that have historicized received categories of victimhood and highlighted their political dimensions in postwar struggles for recognition, justice, and human rights. More polemically, Robert Meister argued in After Evil (2012), in your summary, that “​​the protocols governing the ‘survival of the Jews’ have made the Holocaust a virtual shibboleth for the acceptance of others into a universal discourse on human rights” (9). Your book traces the trope of Jewish survival back to older and primarily Christian works, from the Bible, to Pseudo-Dionysus, to Shakespeare. As you write in your chapter on Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism, “The Jews,” in a significant Christian tradition, “are nothing less than a corpus mysticum, a repudiated and intolerable church but one still indispensable to the work of redemption,” for, since Augustine, they have been said to serve as witnesses to Christian revelation and, in their survival, as a proxy for the resurrection of Lazarus and ultimately Christ (29). In a way, your book de-Judaizes and universalizes the category of the survivor: “At various times and in various ways, Christ’s body has played host to a survival slot, which has sifted through a series of occupants (Jews, Muslims, Africans, etc.) as well as filtered the deposits of multiple discursive domains” ranging from antisemitism to biopolitics (176–177). What new insights does this political-theological lens reveal?

AS: At the center of my critique of so-called “secular” histories is the fact that they are not really all that secular. On a simple level, this means recognizing the implicit equation of secular history with the notion of a “Judeo-Christian tradition.” I won’t rehearse the many problems with this framework, but simply emphasize that the continuity it implies between secularism, Judaism, and Christianity has implications for the way one approaches the history of concepts. As Kathleen Davis has shown, the historian is the sovereign who decides on the state of periodization. At stake, for me, is an alternative, genealogical form of writing that takes seriously Christianity as an object of thought and not merely as a disappearing passageway between antique origins and modern, secular transformations. To put it another way, and following Gil Anidjar, we need a concept of Christianity. We need a form of naming that reads secularization (and, indeed, the word religion) as a technology of self-erasure. By this, I mean the way that Christianity has made itself invisible even as so many of its structures, concepts, and modes of knowledge continue to underwrite that vague thing we call modernity. That’s why I would also say that my goal is not exactly to universalize “survival.” While I do generalize survival beyond a certain Judeocentric perspective, the decentering itself is an attempt to circumscribe survival’s universalization within a parochial Christian history.

I also want to say something about the Latin phrase corpus mysticum. The expression belongs to an old, complex debate about the body (and bodies) of Christ. I try to show the significance of these debates for the emergence of the “survivor” by tracing a line of thinking about Christ’s body that runs from Eucharistic theology, to the notion of the “king’s two bodies,” to Shakespeare’s Hamlet. But, as you suggest, some modern writers (e.g., Jacques Maritain) have also turned to the corpus mysticum as a gloss for the ambivalent position of “the Jews” in Western Christendom: the condemnation and preservation of the Jewish body for the work of salvation. This was also true for the influential Zionist historian Yitzhak Baer, (1880–1980), who, in addition to drawing on Romantic, organicist notions of the Jewish body, also sometimes referred to Jews as a “mystical body” (guf misti). So to come back to your first question: If Israel is indeed a “survivor state,” this is perhaps because it is also the contemporary dispensation of a specific theological-political lineage: one that is (I hesitate to say) decidedly “Judeo-Christian.”

JC: Invoking Peter Novick’s The Holocaust in American Life (1999), you situate your study amidst a postwar “shift from victim to survivor,” whereby “those formerly identified as the passive, silent, and weak objects of Nazi aggression gradually became figures endowed with agency, speech, and power, capable of moving ‘from the realms of exclusion and invisibility to public recognition and moral authority’” (4). Remarkably, “This revaluation would lead to the construction of the Holocaust as an occasion for feelings of pride” (5). Today we take the moral authority of survivors for granted, but you show that this required a turning of the tables, a Nietzschean revaluation of values. At the same time, scholars like Robert Jay Lifton tried to universalize “the survivor” as a transhistorical category spanning from medieval plagues to the bombing of Hiroshima, in the process transforming the concept of survival “from a sign of the extreme to an element of the everyday” (6). Through such semantic transformations, the term also underwent a “militarization” that “has increasingly combined perpetrators and victims of violence into a single generic category” (7). Where do you come down on the specificity of this category? Are all these interpretations legitimate, or do some distort the meaning of the term beyond recognition? To put your own question back to you, “What are survival’s limits?” (10).

AS: I’m not interested in defending legitimate or illegitimate uses of survival. My project is not to correct a distortion by purifying the term of its problematic resonances; it is instead to highlight the various, contradictory ways in which survival circulates and to take stock of survival’s efficacy as a prominent term in our contemporary political lexicon. But even without trying to determine a more proper meaning for survival, there are troubling things to underscore about its alliance with a certain militarization of thinking. I’ll just point here, by way of example, to a newspaper clipping Dagmar Herzog includes in her important book on postwar Freudian thought. It’s from an article published in the New York Post in 1972 that bears the title: “Auschwitz & Viet:—The Survivors.” The article surveys contemporaneous insights into the parallel psychological effects (e.g., guilt) experienced by Holocaust victims and American combatants in Vietnam. As Herzog and others have shown, it was largely US antiwar activism (and not a particular concern about the Holocaust) that brought questions like “survivor’s guilt” into public view. On a conceptual level, I simply want to understand the genealogy of the term—“survivor”—that seems to move seamlessly between civilian and combatant, genocidal victim and imperial soldier. What does one make of a history that emerges from a comparison between persecuted Jews and American G.I.s? How did debates about Vietnam recruit the image of the Holocaust survivor for military ends? My ultimate point here is not to rectify a problematic conceptual transfer, but to show that the genealogy of survival has always been about sovereignty. That’s why the real question may be how and why Holocaust victims became survivors at all. From another angle, what does it mean to take seriously Derrida’s remark that “we are all survivors”? If this is so—especially here and now—what does the notion of survival tell us about political formations of the “human” and the “subject”?

JC: Speaking of conceptual transfer, as a Curb Your Enthusiasm fan, I loved that you mention the iconic episode “The Survivor” (2004), in which Larry David stages a vicious contest of “oppression Olympics” between an elderly Holocaust survivor and a contestant from the reality television series Survivor. What makes that exchange so funny to us? What does it illustrate about the semantics of “the survivor” in the contemporary cultural imagination?

AS: Yes, I almost didn’t include that episode in the book, since it has been so widely commented upon elsewhere. I did finally decide to mention it, though, because David’s astute juxtaposition highlights something important about the proliferation of survival-talk across apparently incommensurable spheres (especially in popular media). The discomfiting humor no doubt lies in the obscene analogy it draws between the reality of genocide and the artifice of “reality TV.” But I wouldn’t necessarily read the exchange as a contest of suffering or as an “oppression Olympics.” If anything, lurking in the background here is the historical interface between post-Holocaust discourse and the culture of survivalism (prepping, bunker-building, etc.). What David implicitly asks us to note is that survival is about strength, about agency, and about power. Perhaps he knew that, already for Spencer and Darwin, survival was a contest of the “fittest.” Today, one might also consider Evan Osnos’ perceptive formulation regarding survivalism among the wealthiest of elites in the age of planetary catastrophe: “survival of the richest.”

JC: Your original reading of Hannah Arendt’s landmark The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) in chapter one shows how “the racial theology of chosenness” developed by European racial supremacism rearticulated “the mystery of Jewish survival” through the ages (40). “From Jewish survival and African survival to total survival and European survival,” you write, “Arendt projected the outline of a single redemptive image: a portrait of the glory and horror, spectrality and mysticism, of Christ’s death and resurrection” (119). Your fourth chapter then connects this empty signifier of Christlike survival with political theology, which posits the survival, not of individuals or a people but, in the spirit of Ernst Kantorowicz’s classic The King’s Two Bodies (1957), of power as such after the dissolution of monarchy. You see this being enacted in Shakespeare’s Hamlet (as read through Walter Benjamin, Carl Schmitt, and Jacques Derrida), which dramatizes “the ghost story called Christianity” by casting the threatening “survivor-ghost” of Hamlet as the rightful heir to his father’s throne (137). Do you agree with Benjamin, and later Michel Foucault, that these ghosts continue to “haunt the life of the state”? (146).

AS: Many political thinkers have attempted to trace the theological-political vectors of the modern state. I follow out some of these lines of inquiry in the figures you mention as well as in others such as Louis Marin. In my reading of Arendt’s Origins, for example, I emphasize her simultaneous reliance on and suppression of Carl Schmitt’s theological-political analysis of total domination. Especially significant, I think, was his suggestion that Hitlerism forged a racial identity between leader and people that reiterated the Eucharistic theology of Christ’s “real presence.” This is the idea that the sacramental consecration of the Host not only recalls the history and memory of Christ’s crucifixion, but also transforms the very substance of the bread and wine (i.e., transubstantiation) into the body and blood of Christ. If you think about the historical influence of this ritual (sacrificial death, resurrection, and incorporation) on medieval theories of kingship and Hobbes’s Leviathan, Schmitt’s suggestion might seem less strange. What codes of blood and body make possible the identification of sovereign and people? The crucial question here—which goes beyond the context of totalitarianism—is whether theological-political genealogies (or analogies) can help diagnose the specific forms of representation that permit the survival of racial and crusader states, white supremacy, Orientalism, and more. As I mentioned above, the political theology surrounding Zionism and the Israeli state is one (but by no means the only) confirmation of the fact that in significant ways “we have never been modern.”

JC: You describe your book as a “genealogy” and a “history of the present” (Foucault): “the book is less a history of survival than a genealogy of its contemporary force” (x). Invoking Talal Asad’s Formations of the Secular (2003), you argue that critical genealogies working back from our present “can help us think through the contingencies that have come together to give us our certainties” (16). What are the stakes for you in writing intellectual history in this way?

AS: You are hinting here at one of the organizational peculiarities of the book, which is that it more or less runs backward, beginning with Arendt’s postwar texts and concluding around 1900 with Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams. This is a minor displacement of common intellectual-historical procedures, but it highlights a more serious issue regarding the difference between history and genealogy. Talal Asad points out that genealogy is not merely a form of history-writing that gestures toward contemporary political topics. It is better understood as a framework for questioning the way history is written and for seeing “beginnings” as a problem for theoretical investigation. This was also a concern for Freud and Derrida, who, in different ways, elaborated the concept of Nachträglichkeit, or “belatedness.” On a practical level, the question of beginnings meant approaching the genealogy of survival neither as a search for origins nor as a linear account of survival’s uses across specific contexts, but as a set of discontinuous readings in twentieth-century texts that raise the question of where, when, and how to begin constructing survival’s documentary archive.

My book, then, is best read as a prolegomenon to the conceptual history of survival and not as an encyclopedic compendium on the topic. I pose preliminary questions that could establish a framework for future critical interventions. Like Dipesh Chakrabarty, I claim that translation is one key, provincializing tool for reading “survival” as a problem of language. Thus, the term that I borrow from Derrida—globalatinization—is as much about Christianity as it is about the materiality of the Latin idiom. The point is that the proliferation, breadth, and generalization of survival in the present calls for some methodological constraints, which can make room for tracing survival’s genealogical contours. While this might frustrate some, my aim was not to make it easier to talk about survival but to make it more difficult and, in doing so, gesture toward different vocabularies and grammars for the present.

JC: Since your book engages the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s Foucault-inspired theory of biopolitics, I’d like to ask you about the controversy surrounding his remarks on the Covid-19 pandemic. Early on in the pandemic, Agamben suggested that lockdowns and other measures designed to slow the spread of Covid-19 are forms of potentially totalitarian biopolitics, the state regulation of who shall die and who shall live (or, as it were, who shall merely “survive” in an animal state of “bare life” exemplified by the Nazi concentration camps). He even went so far as to liken those cooperating with such regulations to the Holocaust perpetrator Adolf Eichmann, who infamously claimed to be just following orders. Adam Kotsko, who translated some of these texts, as well as Eric Santner, have observed that Agamben’s commentary descended into a rigid “ideology,” or what Anastasia Berg called “bare theory.” Amidst a profusion of dubious Holocaust analogies, I wonder if you read Agamben differently today. More generally, has the pandemic taught us anything about the nature of survival?

AS: I have learned a lot from Agamben, and I rely on his methodological and theological-political insights throughout the book. But I was ultimately not that shocked by his comments on the pandemic. For one thing, even as I’ve found myself influenced by his way of turning modern political concerns into theological questions and philosophical concepts into linguistic problems, I’ve never been persuaded by his positive political project. Likewise, I’ve long been convinced by critics who have noted his marginalization of colonialism and transatlantic slavery to the genealogy of homo sacer.

At the time, it also seemed to me that Agamben’s response relied on a misreading of his own work and a stereotypical presentation of his thought’s potential contribution to pandemic politics. Not that he was necessarily wrong to be concerned about “states of exception” or governmental violence, but recourse to the Nazi model occluded the ways that the spread of the pandemic was already exposing the biopolitical fault-lines of both the liberal state (essential vs. non-essential workers, racial disparities, healthcare austerity, immigration policy, police violence, “wars on terror,” etc.) and the inequities of global capitalism (e.g., vaccine distribution, travel bans, etc.). It seems to me that the phrase “make survive” perfectly encapsulates the production of a difference between bios and zoē, humanization and de-humanization, that already defines the current, catastrophic order of things. How do class, racial, and geographical divides traverse and manufacture the difference between survivors and victims? And what mode of political intervention could bring about a “true state of exception”? The genealogy of survival is one attempt to reflect on these questions by charting the term itself as a trace of such historical asymmetries.


Jonathon Catlin is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of History and the Interdisciplinary Doctoral Program in the Humanities (IHUM) at Princeton University. His dissertation is a conceptual history of catastrophe in modern European thought. He tweets @planetdenken.

Featured Image: Anselm Kiefer, Merkaba (2002), from the cover of Survival.

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Interview

Reproduction: A Global Intellectual History—An Interview with Mytheli Sreenivas

By Shuvatri Dasgupta

Courtesy of University of Washington Press.

Mytheli Sreenivas is Associate Professor of History and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at The Ohio State University. Her research and teaching focus on South Asian history, the history of women and gender, transnational feminisms, and reproductive politics. Her book, Wives, Widows and Concubines: The Conjugal Family Ideal in Colonial India (2008) received the Joseph Elder Prize in the Indian Social Sciences from the American Institute of Indian Studies. She is also the author of multiple articles, including most recently, “Feminism, Family Planning, and National Planning,” in South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies (2021). Her research has been supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Institute of Indian Studies, and the Fulbright Hays Foundation.

Editor Shuvatri Dasgupta spoke to her about her monograph Reproductive Politics and the Making of Modern India, now available open access thanks to the TOME initiative and the generous support of The Ohio State University Libraries. The book is also available in South Asia with Women Unlimited Press.

Shuvatri Dasgupta: I could not resist the temptation of approaching your work as a decolonial reading of Malthus. You trace the anti-colonial engagement with Malthusian thought, especially the way thinkers like Ranade, Annie Besant, Radhakamal Mukherjee, T.S Gopal, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, and Rama Rau (amongst many others), flirt with Malthuse’s central claim that poverty results not from inequality of distribution, but from an inherent imbalance between resources and the population. Simply put, reproductive control (through sexual abstinence/through contraceptions) was thought to be the answer to India’s growing poverty. Population was framed as the cause of a problem, which was actually caused by the violence of colonial, racialised, and gendered exploitation, over the course of the twentieth century. With an extremely thought provoking critique of the developmentalist and extractivist agenda of the state sponsored Green Revolution, you illustrate the power of Malthusian ideas by showing that even though “production” had increased, it failed to have any significant impact on postcolonial India’s reproductive policies which continued to control and exploit lower class/caste bodies. In a way, you trace a continuity between the policies and ideas on reproduction under colonial capitalism, under the post colonial modern Indian developmentalist state capitalism, and eventually under neoliberal capitalism in the age of climate crisis, through the prism of this Malthusian argument on population. I am wondering, what are your thoughts on how we can decolonize intellectual history, and decanonize it, in order to shape a history for the present, and imagine a politics of the future?

Mytheli Sreenivas: You are absolutely right regarding the continuity of Malthusian thinking over time and the ongoing implications of this way of thinking for reproductive politics. At each of these moments (colonial, postcolonial, and our current neoliberal capitalist times) I am interested in how and why Malthusian ideas became so convincing—so believable—to people as an explanation for the world they saw around them.

Starting with colonial history, I think Malthusianism became a powerful idea in the nineteenth century precisely because of imperial relationships both in India, as well as in Ireland. As I discussed in my response to your first question, Malthusian claims of overpopulation helped to absolve the imperial government of responsibility for Indian famine. In fact, many Malthusian thinkers pointed to famine as—ironically—one unintended outcome of the successes of British rule. They believed that the supposed security and stability brought by the British Empire in India allowed the population to increase, with the unintended consequence of famine. Even sympathetic British observers, like Annie Besant, were convinced by these claims. Indian nationalists who were critical of colonial rule, like Ranade, nevertheless accepted the premise of overpopulation, and re-purposed these ideas into what I call a “national Malthusianism.”

After independence, Malthusian thinking, joined to eugenics, offered a compelling promise to the postcolonial state, which staked its legitimacy on the success of its development agenda. A focus on controlling population growth suggested that the state could alleviate poverty without addressing inequality. At a mid-20th century moment when states, not only in India but in many parts of the world, were claiming greater authority over the lives of their citizens, state planning of population became one variable to manipulate vis-à-vis other economic indicators. The Indian government’s first Five Year Plan set forth this agenda when it called for a “reduction of the birth rate to the extent necessary to stabilize population at a level consistent with the requirements of national economy.” Our current moment continues this way of thinking because, once again, controlling population growth offers the compelling promise of curbing climate change. As in the past, this Malthusian idea claims to address a real crisis without taking on its root causes.

So what can all this offer for a project of decolonizing intellectual history? Recognizing the colonial origins of the power of certain ideas, and pointing out that nationalist responses sometimes utilized the same paradigms, may be a starting point, but cannot be the end point for a decolonial project. Years ago, in her famous essay “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses,” Chandra Mohanty noted the distinction between two, equally necessary, projects: “deconstructing and dismantling” hegemonic discourses and “building and constructing” alternatives. I admit that my book falls more in the former camp. I aim to take apart and make visible the power of an idea, and show how it has become part of the common-sense of colonial, nationalist, and capitalist thinking. But to truly think differently—to envision human and non-human relationships outside of a devastating Malthusian and eugenic logic—is not so simple. We might start by looking at some ways people have contested this logic, which I try to do in the book. But I don’t think we’ll simply find an “elsewhere” or “otherwise” available for “our” expropriation, nor should we. I think it’s through the difficult work of unlearning, and of creating the conditions for living differently, that we might begin to imagine new worlds. After all, the power of Malthusian ideas came from imperial relationships. Who is to say that truly transforming those relationships will not help us to think, and believe, differently?

SD: By analyzing reproductive politics over the course of the twentieth century, you illustrate how the Malthusian state sponsored discourse on family planning gradually gave way to a neo-Malthusian discourse on reproductive rights. I am wondering, in the context of India (and elsewhere too), when and how does the question of reproduction get entangled with discourses on rights, agency, and choice of the individual, as a consumer, in the liberal free market?

MS: It’s true that the question of reproduction is deeply entangled in discourses of rights. However, the precise nature of this entanglement may seem surprising to us if we take contemporary debates about “reproductive rights” in the United States as a model. This perspective represents only one, among many, possible ways that “rights” have been configured in relation to reproductive practices, behaviors, and labors.

If we look at India in the decades surrounding independence, we find that discourses on reproduction consistently linked rights to duties. This was the position of the All India Women’s Conference (AIWC), for instance. On the eve of independence in 1946, AIWC president Hansa Mehta asserted that “Woman shall have a right to limit her family,” since it was women who bore the brunt of most reproductive labor. At the same time, she maintained that “woman should be conscious of this right which she must learn to exercise for her own good, for the good of the family and for the good of the country.” For Mehta, the “right” of reproductive control served a pedagogical function; women needed to learn their personal rights in order to exercise them for wider benefit. As Mehta, made clear later in this speech, this required women to understand the relationship between population growth, national resources, and economic development, and to curb their reproduction accordingly. Elsewhere, as in its “Indian Woman’s Charter of Rights and Duties,” the AIWC brought in the state as the guarantor of women’s reproductive rights, noting that while “Woman shall have a right to limit her family,” it would be the “duty of the state to provide the necessary knowledge” about birth control to women.

Within this framework, rights and duties became something that citizens, communities, and states owed to each other. A woman could exercise her rights to family limitation as part of her duties to these other entities. However, with the acceleration of the Indian government’s population control campaigns in the 1960s, this rights framework disappeared both discursively and in practice. Population policies did not represent poor and marginalized women as exercising rights or duties. They were seen only as dangerous bodies who propelled a population “explosion” that threatened national development. The implications of this way of thinking emerges most clearly in the Indian government’s disastrous IUD campaigns after 1965.

These varying conceptions of rights, and their negation in the context of population fears, is the context for understanding reproductive rights as consumer choice in a liberal free market. My book ends its historical narrative in the 1970s, and so does not analyze the decades of economic liberalization and neoliberal globalization that followed. However, as feminist scholars of new reproductive technologies make clear, contemporary reproductive markets (e.g. in surrogacy) offer only an illusion of “choice” or “rights” to women. Indeed, the very same women whose reproduction was stigmatized as a dangerous “population explosion” in the 1960s and 1970s are now told to make their wombs available to facilitate other people’s “rights” to reproduction via surrogacy. This new notion of neoliberal choice and rights is thus built upon a prior devaluing of reproductive autonomy, health, and citizenship that has its origins in the era of population control.

SD: In your third and fourth chapter you highlight the bourgeois nature of the postcolonial transnational “women’s movement”. By using an intersectional lens you produce a scathing critique of this, and show us how middle class upper caste women’s efforts at “family planning” progressed the postcolonial state’s violent “developmental” goals. But for you this is not a pessimistic story. Alongside your class critique, you record instances of resistance amongst your actors. Sometimes they remain anonymous in the archives, but even then you relentlessly trace their radical acts of resistance. In a field such as women’s history, where locating the subaltern in the archive can often be a matter of challenge- how does one look for hope against the pervasive hegemony of state and capital, in these histories? Where did you locate these instances of hope in the course of your historical excavation of reproductive politics?

MS: The third and fourth chapters hinge on a central question. From the 1940s to the 1960s, why were some leaders of the Indian women’s movement so committed to state-directed family planning, even when these state programs typically disregarded, and frequently violated, women’s reproductive rights and autonomy? There are a few ways to answer this question. One is to suggest that women leaders were simply co-opted by the state. Buoyed by the promises of independence, they followed state policies on family planning and population control uncritically. However, this explanation ignores the active role that many leaders in the women’s movement played to push the state to make family planning part of its development agenda, especially in the First Five Year Plan in 1952. Women like Hansa Mehta, Durgabai Deshmukh, Dhanvanthi Rama Rau, and even to some extent Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, did not passively follow some pre-existing model of state-led population control. They actually helped to create and implement that model, and to make birth planning part of the state’s development planning. At the same time, there were moments when these same leaders questioned the state’s patriarchal policies, and sometimes they sought alternatives. Here too, they were not passive observers.

If we refuse to assume that the women’s movement was merely co-opted by the state, then we need to look seriously at how state-led family planning came to be represented as an important component of economic development for, and by, women. That is what my chapter aims to do, and in the process, I find numerous contingencies. I try to show how a commitment to providing women with birth control de-centered subaltern women’s agency and autonomy even while claiming to support their welfare, and ultimately, how women’s well-being was undermined in a quest to control population growth. The middle class leadership of organizations like the All India Women’s Conference and the Family Planning Association of India tended to see subaltern women, at best, as recipients of social welfare, and failed to imagine solidarities of struggle with the lower caste, poor, and rural women whom the state targeted for population control. At the same time, a powerful transnational scientific and demographic consensus advanced fears of a “population bomb” and promoted draconian programs in the name of achieving a “demographic transition” in India, as elsewhere in the formerly colonized world. The women’s movement was thus hardly alone in supporting state-led family planning.

This brings me, finally, to your question about hope. I admit that the grim narrative I outline in the book can feel somewhat hopeless at times. Yet I do find hope in the contingencies. If outcomes were not pre-determined in the past, I feel convinced that they will not be in the future either. The Indian campaign for IUDs in the 1960s is one good example. Although there was not a widespread or organized movement to resist the government’s plans, many thousands of women refused to get an IUD in substandard conditions and the state failed to meet its own targets. Eventually feminists, health activists, and others came to reject top-down, target-driven models of population control. Their organizing pushed the U.N. Conference on Population and Development to reject targets, and even the term “population control” at its conference in Cairo in 1994. Although the more progressive vision offered in Cairo has not been fulfilled, its commitment to sexual and reproductive health and rights has offered a vocabulary for reproductive justice organizing. All of this is incredibly hopeful to me. Without ignoring the power of systems and institutions—the state, capital—I think there is still space to recognize people’s ability to advance ideas that are opposed to dominant ideologies.

SD: In your last chapter, you paint a haunting trajectory of the discourses on population explosion, and the false consciousness it generated through the “small family, happy family” campaigns. You point out quite correctly how this discourse sidestepped the question of undervaluing the female child. How does the intersections of patriarchy and class (with caste/race/ethnicity/religion), shape the lifeworlds of women who have reproduced, and women who hope to reproduce in the future? How has this shaped inter-generational and intra-generational female kinship?

MS: The last chapter, on the discourse of the “small family, happy family,” looks at the intersections of two histories that are often understood separately: the history of sexuality, and the history of the economy as an idea or concept. I trace how heterosexuality, in particular, became a site to enforce a set of claims about the economy. Population controllers, especially from the 1960s onward, tried to mobilize heterosexuality to promote planning for the future—the future of the nation, and the future of the family itself. They claimed this kind of planning and future orientation would provide immediate emotional and financial benefits to small and happy families. Attention to the visual images that saturated print culture and public spaces helped me to trace this history.

The image of the small and happy family sidestepped many things, and among them, as you point out, was the question of son preference. Representations of this family in the 1960s invariably showed a boy and a girl child; if a third child were present, it would be a baby of indeterminate gender. I cannot claim to know how people reacted to this vision, or how it shaped lifeworlds. What I do know, based on the work of feminist scholars, is that we cannot assume gendered solidarities. There are many reasons for women to accede to and even support patriarchal ideas, and to become active participants in a family’s drive for sons, not daughters. Not least of these reasons is that patriarchal structures give some women, at some life stages, a measure of power.

From the oral histories in the book, I learned that an apparent acquiescence to dominant ideas does not mean that these ideas are completely accepted, or that they shape the whole of a person’s consciousness. For the women interviewed, planning for a small family was not based on the promise of future prosperity. The small family was a response to their precarity in the present. Some spoke of it as a loss, something they had to do because of an insecure family or financial situation. The inter- and intra-generational solidarities they forged with other women were necessitated by their needs, and motivated by their commitments to their children and grandchildren. But they were not, from what I could understand, rooted in a belief that small families were the path to happiness.

SD: On a concluding note, I find myself wondering about the act of writing histories of ideas, which uncover trajectories of oppression, and exploitation, but also bring to light instances of resistance against domination of state and capital. In your acknowledgements, you mention in a heartwarming manner that this history of reproduction which you present in your work, is after all a history of life itself. In resistance to neoliberal capitalism, Marxist-Feminists, environmental activisits, bring to light life-making work (all kinds of actions taken to maintain and reproduce life, which remain undervalued and unquantifiable-mostly performed by women) over the thing-making (abstract, alienating, quantifying, value-generating) urge of capitalism. Your history of reproduction in that sense then is also a history of life-making. Does the act of writing global histories of ideas, such as yours, then emerge as an unquantifiable labor, a radical act of caring, against the increasing quantifying violence which characterizes the age of the capitalocene?

MS: The book investigates what happens when “life-making” work gets understood, and measured, in the logic of “thing-making.” I hope, in the process, it may tell us something about life-making labor, or at least point to its importance in sustaining our worlds. I wrote the acknowledgements during the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic, at a time when it seemed many people were re-valuing the work of life-making, and this was at the forefront of my thinking.

I feel gratified by your suggestion that the book might be a radical act of caring, and thank you for that. Yet I’m wary of putting it into the category of an “unquantifiable labor” that may be life-making.  Given the structures of academia, scholarly books are necessarily implicated in thing-making of course. One has only to look at how research productivity is measured, and labor is valued/de-valued, and it becomes difficult to lay claim to a life-making space. From my perspective at least, there is something of love in this book, which is rooted in a commitment that these are histories that need to be told. But the true life-making work, I think, is happening elsewhere.

Perhaps such work may happen via dialogue. I thank you for these generous questions, and for creating a space for our conversation.


Shuvatri Dasgupta received a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree in History from Presidency University, Kolkata, India. She was also an exchange student and Charpak Fellow at Sciences Po Paris (Reims campus), studying for a certificate programme in European Affairs and B1 French. She is the editor of the Journal of History of Ideas blog, and a doctoral candidate in the Faculty of History, University of Cambridge, funded by the Cambridge Trust and Rajiv Gandhi Foundation Fellowship. Her doctoral dissertation is tentatively titled “A History of Conjugality: On Patriarchy, Caste, and Capital, in the British Empire c.1872-1947”. Her general research interests include global history, gender history, intellectual history and political thought, histories of empire, histories of capitalism, Marxist and Marxist-Feminist theory, and critical theory. For the academic year of 2021-22 she is the convenor of the research network ‘Grammars of Marriage and Desire’ (GoMAD) supported by CRASSH, Cambridge, and the Histories of Race Graduate Workshop, at the Faculty of History, University of Cambridge.

Featured Image: : Stamp of India, 1966, depicting ‘Small Family, Happy Family’ ideal. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Categories
Interview

Reproduction: A Global Intellectual History—An Interview with Mytheli Sreenivas

By Shuvatri Dasgupta

Courtesy of University of Washington Press.

Mytheli Sreenivas is Associate Professor of History and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at The Ohio State University. Her research and teaching focus on South Asian history, the history of women and gender, transnational feminisms, and reproductive politics. Her book, Wives, Widows and Concubines: The Conjugal Family Ideal in Colonial India (2008) received the Joseph Elder Prize in the Indian Social Sciences from the American Institute of Indian Studies. She is also the author of multiple articles, including most recently, “Feminism, Family Planning, and National Planning,” in South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies (2021). Her research has been supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Institute of Indian Studies, and the Fulbright Hays Foundation.

Editor Shuvatri Dasgupta spoke to her about her monograph Reproductive Politics and the Making of Modern India, now available open access thanks to the TOME initiative and the generous support of The Ohio State University Libraries. The book is also available in South Asia with Women Unlimited Press.

Shuvatri Dasgupta: I will start our conversation on your wonderfully moving monograph, “Reproductive Politics and the Making of Modern India”, with what I found to be the most striking aspect of your argument. Your work historically contextualizes the argument that our climate emergency can be addressed by limiting population growth through reproductive control, and hence, minimizing consumption and carbon footprint. By tracing the racist and imperialist roots of this discourse from the late nineteenth century, you illustrate the neo-Malthusian nature of this argument. You show us the ways in which, by controlling lower class-caste, brown and black women’s reproductive labor, this discourse seeks to legitimize the exploitative and extractivist politics of the Global North, in the Global South. It is only rarely that one encounters a historical narrative which speaks as empathetically and compassionately, as yours does to the problems of our present, such as climate change, structures of racial and gendered exclusions, not to mention a global pandemic, and what is now broadly known as a resultant “crisis of care”. In a way, your work is a history that seeks to imagine a politics for the present, and a future. My doctoral research is also largely shaped by a similar presentist concern. I read a history of marriage in colonial India, through the prism of a “care crisis”, under colonial capitalism. Our collaborative research network titled “Grammars of Marriage and Desire” is also inspired by the same set of questions. In what ways does your evocative research on reproductive politics help us imagine a “more just reproductive future” (in your words) and more generally a better and more caring world?

Mytheli Sreenivas: To imagine a more just reproductive future, we must grapple collectively with past injustices. This does not mean we need to dwell in the past. But commitment to a more caring future does require a clear-eyed understanding of how reproduction became, and remains, a site to perpetuate inequality and enact oppression.

            Looking across a century of history, my book traces how crises of subsistence were understood as crises of reproduction. This was the case, for example, during late-nineteenth century famines in India. Faced with widespread starvation, colonial administrators embraced a Malthusian worldview to argue that India was “overpopulated” because its population size was out of balance with the country’s resources. This argument turned attention away from the extractive policies of the imperial state, and from the failures of the government’s underfunded famine relief administration. Instead, it blamed famine on the reproductive practices of impoverished Indian peasants who were living at the edge of subsistence. Both British and Indian observers looked to marriage and kinship practices to argue that the poorest Indians were reproducing at unsustainable rates. Some Indian nationalists of the time, most notably Dadabhai Naoroji, pushed back against this Malthusian view, maintaining instead that an imperial “drain of wealth”—and not population size—explained India’s poverty. However, as you know, Malthusian ideas had a long life. By the mid-twentieth century, as Indian population began to grow, fears of overpopulation took hold both in the postcolonial state, and in global public discourse. As in the past, the size of India’s population became the pre-eminent explanation for Indian poverty, and reproductive practices were blamed for population growth.

            As you note in your question, these old ideas have gained new life in the context of the contemporary climate crisis. Top-down population control offers a seductive promise to global elites. It suggests that controlling the reproduction of others—rather than tackling the actual emitters of global greenhouse gases “at home”—will solve the problem of global heating. In India specifically, these ideas are gaining momentum with rising Hindu majoritarianism. Hindutva ideologies have long depended on the stigmatizing of Muslim reproduction as responsible for “overpopulation” and consequent failures of development. The recent Population (Control, Stabilization and Welfare) Bill in Uttar Pradesh, introduced in July 2021 by the BJP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, traffics in precisely these ideas. This way of thinking stigmatizes certain people’s reproduction as a problem. Typically, these are people who are already the most marginalized, due to class, gender, caste, religious identity, indigeneity, and the intersections of all these. The result is a system of stratified reproduction, to borrow Shellee Colen’s evocative term, which asserts that certain people’s reproduction is of social value, and that of others is not.

            What kind of imagined reproductive future can challenge these past, and ongoing, injustices? One starting point for me comes from the definition of reproductive justice first outlined by African American and other women of color activists. They define reproductive justice as the “right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities.” The right to have or not have children implies a whole host of other important rights, including a right to reproductive healthcare, access to contraception and abortion, and support for childcare. A drive for population control has diminished those rights, both through an active disregard for reproductive autonomy, and a persistent neglect of maternal and child health. Addressing these rights and needs is essential to address a broader care crisis.

It’s the last principle—to parent children in safe and sustainable communities—that makes reproductive justice a potentially radical premise for thinking and action. Creating a safe and sustainable community for all our children, those we birth, those we care for and raise, and all those near and far whom we love, requires a fundamental and wide-ranging social transformation. It takes on inequality and oppression in multiple forms. It refuses to turn ongoing crises of subsistence into crises of reproduction. And it makes clear that any solution to climate crisis must recognize that the greatest burdens of global heating are borne by the most marginalized among us. For me, that is a starting point to imagine more just reproductive futures.

SD: Your path-breaking monograph begins from the premise that it traces the history of three broad concepts—population, reproduction, and economy—over the course of the twentieth century. Although the title explicitly positions your study in “Modern India” (a subject we will return to later in this conversation), the spatial expanse of your study ranges from India to the United States of America, from Sub-Saharan Africa to Puerto Rico, from  New Zealand to Canada. Within this broad expanse, your actors, and their ideas, remain fluid and mobile. However, you always remain careful not to collapse categories of nationhood, womanhood, and racial and ethnic identities into one another. You illustrate wonderfully how a global intellectual history can generate languages of solidarity between groups and environments, which have been oppressed and exploited by intersectional, and interconnected structures of exclusion (such as race, caste, class, imperialism). Can you tell us a little bit more, with examples from the book, on why we need a global intellectual history of reproductive politics?

MS: I hope it will not seem overly simplistic if I say we need a global intellectual history of reproductive politics because (1) ideas about reproduction matter in the world; and (2) these ideas traveled across national boundaries and were transformed by this travel. My book aims to understand this history, and in the process to uncover a story of reproductive politics that was rooted in and routed through India, but was never about India alone.

As you note, I’m interested in the history of population and economy as abstractions—as a set of ideas and discourses that shaped the terrain of reproductive politics in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In other words, I’m curious how claims about the impact of the “population,” or the importance of the “economy,” came to frame reproductive questions about the age of marriage, about appropriate forms of (hetero)sexuality, about the relationship between parents and children, or about the place of love and desire in conjugal relationships. The entanglement of population and economy in these questions was connected not only to Indian, but also to transnational and global contexts.

One example of this process comes from the book’s second chapter, which centers on the interwar decades. During this period, activists and thinkers put forward two different ways to grapple with what they understood as India’s overpopulation. One option was migration. Thinkers like Radhakamal Mukherjee, for example, argued that India’s “surplus” population might make admirable colonizers of supposedly emptier lands in the Americas or in the African continent. This call for migration offered a geopolitical solution to the question of population, suggesting that national borders be opened to Indian migrants. The second option was to regulate reproduction within the space of the nation. This offered a biopolitical solution to the population question, and was adopted by birth control activists, demographers, and others. Over time, however, the option of migration began to fall out of the discourse, and biopolitical interventions became the dominant mode of thinking about population. Even Mukherjee himself, who first wrote a book called Migrant Asia that envisioned a complete overhaul of migration globally, turned inwards to a biopolitical regulation of the body and the nation’s citizenry to address subsistence crises in his next book, Food Planning for Four Hundred Millions.

            To explain this shift from promoting migration to controlling population, we must investigate the creation of a “global color line” across the Anglosphere during the early twentieth century that excluded Indian migrants from the United States, Australia, and Canada. This transnational context is immensely important if we are to properly understand why reproductive control became so central to Indian thinking on population by the 1930s. The push to control birth gained ground when it seemed increasingly difficult to control land, that is, when a geopolitical solution to Indian population growth appeared impossible. At that moment, a biopolitical solution suggested that the nation-state could control its “own” population via closer control over its reproductive practices. By the 1950s and 1960s, Indian biopolitical thinking about population would become a foundation of global population control. I hope that a global intellectual history of reproductive politics makes these dynamics visible, and shows us how ideas about “Indian population” were never confined to India alone.

SD: I am particularly struck by your innovative methodology in the book, especially with regards to two aspects—the way you braid ethnographic accounts from anthropological studies (what historians call oral history) with historical archives; and the way you creatively broaden the frontiers of the archive itself by including deeply haunting visual, and oral sources, alongside textual ones. Through these methodological reinventions you ask: how have we historically thought of reproduction, and how did power relations (of state, of capital) shape global reproductive politics in the twentieth century?. Can you tell us a little bit more about how interdisciplinarity can inform the methodologies for writing global histories of concepts and ideas? How can we rethink intellectual history (and its inherent Eurocentric , elitist, and gendered biases) by rethinking the archive, and by incorporating insights from other disciplines such as anthropology?

MS: On one level, the book traces the genealogies of a dominant idea that understood reproductive norms and practices through the lens of population. This idea had Malthusian and eugenic roots, and over time, it became the basis of state policies.  Yet it was never the only idea in circulation. This becomes clear if we look carefully at the production of the dominant idea itself. For example, reports of family planning workers are replete with instances of interruption and questioning. It seems that each time these middle class women went to rural areas, or to working class neighborhoods, to persuade women to use birth control or curb their childbearing, they faced questioning and occasional hostility. Some of these questions make their way back into the family planners’ written accounts. For instance, one family planner reports back that a woman in an industrial neighborhood in Madurai believes that family planning need not apply to her, since both she and her family members earned good wages and could have as many children as they liked. I find this interjection significant because it is clearly aware of dominant Neo-Malthusian ideas, and apparently agrees that reproduction ought to be balanced with economic capacities. At the same time, the woman in Madurai—whose name is never given—situated herself differently within this idea. She seemed to see herself not as a “poor” woman whose reproduction ought to be curtailed, but as a “working” woman who earned her right to children.

I dwell on this example because it suggests how dominant ideas were at once adopted, reworked, and challenged. Any good intellectual history must recognize this process. However, although reading against the grain of archival texts can make some of this historical messiness visible, I was frustrated by the limits of these sources. Archives can serve to reinforce the dominance of dominant narratives; this is perhaps why so many contestations appear in my archival accounts as “rumor” or “gossip.” This is when I turned to ethnography. As Emma Tarlo argues in her brilliant ethnography of the Emergency in Delhi, the archives offer “paper truths” but ethnographic research and historical memory can tell us how those “truths” claimed their veracity. Deepa Dhanraj’s powerful documentary film, Something Like a War, shows us how women reject dominant narratives that stigmatize and demonize their reproduction. Even while confronting the power of state policy and ideology, they offer alternative understandings of their own desires and labors.

This kind of work inspired my own turn to oral history in the book’s epilogue. I wanted to learn from women who, by virtue of their caste and class positions, became the primary target of the Indian government’s population control policies. I’ll admit here that I approached these oral histories in hopes of finding resistance to the dominant Malthusian and eugenic narratives. But with help from my ethnographer colleagues, I eventually recognized that this was a limiting approach. Given the real material power of dominant ideas, why should we put the burden on the most marginalized women to articulate alternatives? Rather than seeking something a priori defined as resistance, I tried to understand how women had negotiated and engaged with reproductive healthcare systems that typically de-valued their reproductive work. And I found in their narratives a consistent re-valuing of their own reproductive labor, even when their conclusions sometimes aligned with the dominant assumptions of population control.


Shuvatri Dasgupta received a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree in History from Presidency University, Kolkata, India. She was also an exchange student and Charpak Fellow at Sciences Po Paris (Reims campus), studying for a certificate programme in European Affairs and B1 French. She is the editor of the Journal of History of Ideas blog, and a doctoral candidate in the Faculty of History, University of Cambridge, funded by the Cambridge Trust and Rajiv Gandhi Foundation Fellowship. Her doctoral dissertation is tentatively titled “A History of Conjugality: On Patriarchy, Caste, and Capital, in the British Empire c.1872-1947”. Her general research interests include global history, gender history, intellectual history and political thought, histories of empire, histories of capitalism, Marxist and Marxist-Feminist theory, and critical theory. For the academic year of 2021-22 she is the convenor of the research network ‘Grammars of Marriage and Desire’ (GoMAD) supported by CRASSH, Cambridge, and the Histories of Race Graduate Workshop, at the Faculty of History, University of Cambridge.

Featured Image: Cover of Brochure The Population Bomb, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Categories
Interview

History as Practical Aesthesis: An Interview with D. Graham Burnett

By Jonathon Catlin


Three leading scholars of the historical imagination, D. Graham Burnett (History of Science, Princeton University), Catherine L. Hansen (Comparative Literature, The University of Tokyo), and Justin E. H. Smith (Philosophy, University of Paris 7), recently published an unusual co-edited volume, In Search of The Third Bird: Exemplary Essays from The Proceedings of ESTAR(SER), 2001–2021 (Strange Attractor Press, 2021). This “very strange book” (Hal Foster) is at once history and fiction, scholarship and a poetic archive of performance art centered on cultivating practices of attention. Contributing editor Jonathon Catlin interviewed Burnett about this weighty (at nearly 800 pages) experiment in historical thinking and writing, and what lessons it might offer for a discipline in an identity crisis in the age of “post-truth” —and a world seemingly plagued by a deficit of attention in the age of social media.


Jonathon Catlin: In Search of the Third Bird purports to be a contribution to the history of the so-called “Order of the Third Bird” conducted by an association known as ESTAR(SER), “The Esthetical Society for Transcendental and Applied Realization,” aka “The Society for Esthetic Realizers.” In his (exhilaratingly negative!) reader’s report on the volume, the intellectual historian Darrin M. McMahon writes that ESTAR(SER) “would seem to associate itself with the history of aesthetics, in a general sense, and with problems of ‘practical aesthesis’ more specifically—which is to say, with the cognitive and embodied work of experiencing what can be experienced.” Despite the acronym “ESTAR” playing on the Spanish for “to exist,” it is difficult to say in what sense the association (ESTAR[SER]) and its ostensible “object” (the “Birds”) really do “exist.” McMahon notes numerous “peculiarities, anomalies, and antinomies” in this “deranged” volume, which appears to reprint a set of essays from an obscure journal, the Proceedings of ESTAR(SER). Indeed, McMahon expresses “serious doubts about the ‘historicity’ of this journal” itself, not to mention the substance of the essays. In another negative report, Benjamin Breen calls the book “a frappé of falsehoods,” which he goes on to enumerate in considerable detail. How and why, in your account, did this volume emerge?

D. Graham Burnett: In Search of the Third Bird emerged out of more than a decade of really intense and special collaboration among several dozen artists, historians, and creative makers of different sorts. I think everyone involved in the project would offer their own accounts of how they came to the project, and what that work has been “about” for them. Including Darrin and Ben, and Jimena Canales, whose brilliant “negative peer-reviews” are meant to function as a kind of slap-down vade mecum for the book—in high academic style. They are meant to “orient” the reader to some of what is going on in those dense pages. For me, the joy and intimacy of intellectual/imaginative collaboration has been a major feature of making the book, and of the field of thought it represents. Friendship in the spaces of inquiry feels like a rare gift, and I think this book is both about that, and, I hope, reflects it.

JC: I think I have a sense of what you are getting at, although, for readers who have not picked up the book, we have to make sure they understand that it is a heavily-footnoted scholarly tome, one that presents some sixteen or seventeen very academic-looking essays. There are nearly five hundred works listed in the bibliography, in eight or nine languages. Friendship?

DGB: Fair enough! What strange things we do, with and for our friends!

JC: And maybe that is what the book is about?

DGB: It is certainly true that the subject of the book, the “Birds,” can be understood as a kind of trans-historical community of friends. ESTAR(SER) is a research collective that exists to study the Avis Tertia, or “The Order of the Third Bird.” Who or what is that? Well, those “Birdish persons,” as we reconstruct the story, are a sort of invisible presence across time, an eccentric cohort of passionate devotees of “joint attention” who have gathered in various times and places to attend, together, to the stuff of the world: paintings, sculptures, rocks, bridges, bodies of water—even, sometimes, empty space. They make themselves present to the world in focused occasions of experiential duration. They seem to enjoy it. And they seem to take it seriously. But in their histrionic ways, they also seem to be playing at the same time. It would appear that they think their work of giving attention, together, amounts to a kind of collaborative world-making. Or a poetics of being? If Fourier had been right about the “armies of love,” their lead squads might have looked something like the Birds.

JC: Studying attention has gained tremendous popular traction in recent years, from Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow to Johann Hari’s Stolen Focus. And attention is obviously a keyword for all of you. I see that you also just co-edited a book entitled Twelve Theses on Attention (Princeton, 2022). ESTAR(SER) studies the “Birds,” but what the Birds do, it appears, is basically just “pay attention” to stuff—if in slightly peculiar or intense ways. In that sense, ESTAR(SER) sometimes claims to be engaged in “the specific historicity of attention” or to be doing research into “how attention has been ‘paid’ in different times and places, for different purposes, and with different effects.” McMahon even goes so far as to propose “Attendere Aude—Dare to Attend!” as the book’s battle cry. Could you say more about how the project engages with the so obviously weakened “attention economy” of the distracted present?

DGB: Attention is, in many ways, central to the book, and also to the larger project of which the book is a part. Because the ESTAR(SER) collective, however Borgesian, very much exists! We were part of the 2018 São Paulo Biennial (an important contemporary art event in Brazil), and over the years we have done performance pieces and installations at lots of different institutions: at Manifesta (in Zurich in 2016), the Palais de Tokyo (in Paris in 2014), MoMA PS1 (here in NYC, also in 2014). We have a large exhibition coming up at the Frye Museum in Seattle later this year, and a current show at the Monira Foundation in Jersey City. In our text-based practices (like In Search of the Third Bird) and in our participatory and performance-based work, we are always trying to “draw attention to attention”—to invite people to explore the ways that practices of attention are substantially constitutive of individual and collective life. All of us very definitely think of that work as “political,” in the broadest sense: the hyper-intensified commodification of attention represents, in my view, a principle threat to human flourishing in our time. The intricate work of ESTAR(SER), however, is hardly “on the barricades” on this issue in any obvious way. For all its earnest concern with attention, ESTAR(SER) is also preoccupied with some highly specialized problems of historical knowledge, and In Search of the Third Bird is a contribution to the relatively obscure literary genre of “historiographic metafiction.” Working at the intersection of artistic and research practices, ESTAR(SER) cares about the future of the universitarian “humanities,” and about artists like Jim Shaw and Walid Raad and Alison S. M. Kobayashi. None of this is going to directly protect anyone from the almighty vampire squid of surveillance capitalism—repeatedly “jamming its blood-siphon into the face of humanity” as we speak. That said, many of the folks involved with ESTAR(SER) do work on that problem in more direct ways, for instance through the work of the Friends of Attention, a more “activist” group that authored the “Twelve Theses on Attention.”

The Milcom Memorial Reading Room and Attention Library (installation view)
(Photo courtesy of Zachary Hoos)

JC: Let’s stay with those specialized problems of historical knowledge for a bit. In Search of the Third Bird presents, to a casual eye-scan, as a learned work of history. Though in some basic and important ways, it definitely isn’t. For starters, some of the things it treats “historically” are not “real.” They didn’t happen. Similarly, some of the works it cites don’t exist. The archival sources on which much of it is based have highly suspect provenances. You have yourself called the book a work of “historiographic metafiction” (a term coined by the literary theorist Linda Hutcheon back in the 1980s). What is going on? In his “peer review” McMahon suggests that your work implicitly offers a kind of “constructivist” theory of history: “The evidence, presumably, is out there waiting to be discovered (if it already exists), or created (if it does not), and so ‘brought into being’ in the act of retrieval.” The “scholars of ESTAR(SER),” he writes, “recognize, and at times would appear willfully to embrace, the more imaginative side of historical inquiry and recovery.” In what sense does the past “exist,” according to the more expansive and playful conception of history the volume seems to pursue?

DGB: The past very definitely “exists.” Or “existed,” anyway. And much about it can be known and recovered. This is the work of history. I trained as a historian, and I “do” history. In fact, I’m most of the way through writing a pretty conventional “history” of the scientific study of attention from 1880 to 1980, and I very much “believe” in the traditional work of archival historical research. I teach the field and care about it deeply. That said, it is absolutely true that In Search of the Third Bird is not a conventional history. But it’s not a straight-forward “fiction” either. Nor is it, in my view, any sort of post-modern “fake news” about the past, or insouciant jouissance des clercs, historiographically-speaking. There are several things to say, I think, about what the book “does.” But ultimately it will be up to its readers to decide what it achieves—and what it fails to achieve. I can try to say a few things; others who contributed to it would, I am sure, say other things—and they might be more correct.

JC: The book certainly defies easy categorization, but it clearly engages (while to some extent blurring) history and fiction, science and art. We once read together the writings of W. G. Sebald, whose own self-proclaimed method of “documentary fiction” combined thorough archival research with totally invented sources (often reproduced in photographs in his books)—a way of at once emphasizing the pastness of the past (through loss), and also the ways it haunts the present. ESTAR(SER) works, it seems, from a similarly unstable dream-archive that is in constant flux (and may not even exist). All this leads McMahon to provocatively term your process “gnostic historiography.” Does fiction fill the gaps in history, or simply help us experience it? In what sense do history and art reach for the same kind of “eternal” or “beyond”?

A Latin inscription of the “Tale of the Third Bird” from a copy of the works of Ausonius held in the collections of ESTAR(SER)
(reproduced from In Search of the Third Bird)

DGB: That is a beautiful question. Exactly the kind of question In Search of the Third Bird wants to raise, I think. Embedded in what you are asking, and I know you know this, is really all of it: Kant, Hegel, Dilthey, Heidegger, Gadamer, the “Crisis of Historicism”—the effort to establish the critical basis and/or epistemic foundation of historical knowledge; and the complex way that history as such has proven a solvent of metaphysics, even as the temporality posited by historicism keeps returning as a new kind of (illegitimate?) metaphysical ground. This really is the heartland of this book as an effort to “think history.” These are the problems it “circles”—or, to adopt a “Birdish” posture, before which it stands, attentively. What did Hayden White say at the end of Metahistory? The task, as he saw it, was to ensure that “historical consciousness” can “stand open to the re-establishment of its links with the great poetic, scientific, and philosophical concerns which inspired the classic practitioners and theorists of its golden age in the nineteenth century.” He said the same thing at the start of the book too. He meant it! His aim, as he repeats several times, was to write an “ironic” history of the way the discipline of history slumped into a pervasively ironic mode: believing neither in its status as art, nor its status as a science; but adventitiously (if not cynically) invoking whichever claim permitted one to get by as a courtier in whatever court happened to provide opportunities for advancement. He hoped that by ironizing the ironic condition—by using irony against itself—he might…what? Emancipate academic history from its dogmatic slumbers? Something like that. Though I don’t think he thought everyone was asleep in the same way. And he was too subtle a thinker to believe that the truth was going to make anyone “free” in any get-out-of-jail-free sense.

JC: So, is In Search of the Third Bird “ironic”? The volume is certainly quite funny. While reading it, I kept wondering to myself why exactly that was. Is “Birds ‘Birding’” a parody of the nineteenth-century Rankean and scientistic historical guild? Does “Bird-history” poke fun at the present state of the historical discipline? How do these essays balance the utter sincerity of care and attention with irreverence and play?

DGB: Ah, I do hope readers can see and feel this sense of play. Yes, it is supposed to be funny—or parts of it, anyway. There is a whole essay in the book that looks directly at the nonce-Kantian idea that “gelastics” (the study of the joke) might actually merit treatment as a kind of “first philosophy.” And the book is certainly constructed as a kind of “game.” But is it ironic? Everything would depend on how that is meant. Is Metahistory “ironic”? White says it is. Does this mean, using his definition of irony, that it “says the opposite of what it means”? Maybe. But it “means” many things, so it would take a good deal of work to sort out what is going on. Reasonable people could disagree. And that is the point! Because, in the process, interpretive understanding would happen. And that, I would suggest, is how Metahistory succeeds in opening a way “out” of the predicament of disciplinary history as White saw it: the kind of truth he points toward in the book cannot be accessed in a scientistic way; it will not yield to “method”; it will only happen, in time, as a result of dialogue, which requires time and care and attention (but which certainly needn’t be dour).

JC: Is this what you want for In Search of the Third Bird? Your invocation of the “truth” that won’t happen via “method” puts me in the mind of the twentieth-century German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer. The formulation is, in a basic way, his. Truth and Method has been, I think, important to you—perhaps passed down through your training with Cornel West, who knew Gadamer in some capacity. In an epigraph to In Search of the Third Bird, Gadamer claims that “the basic movement of spirit” is “to recognize one’s own in the alien, to become at home in it.” Is this what the book is “about”?

DGB: For me, yes. Although it is important to get the other half of the sentence in there: Gadamer finishes by contending that the “being” of spirit “consists only in returning to itself from what is other.” This is a concise statement of “Birdish” practice. Birds use attention to leave themselves, and to return to themselves. They use language to return to each other. This book documents that form of life. At stake is the concept of “experience,” the absent presence in historicism, and the hobgoblin of “critical” historiography (e.g., Joan Scott’s “The Evidence of Experience” [1991]). Can “experience” be treated historically? Martin Jay’s Songs of Experience (2005) goes at the problem one way. ESTAR(SER)’s way could not be more different. But it might be more “true” to experience as a genuinely historical problem. The book asks its readers to confront this provocation, even as the volume points away from confrontation itself. We sometimes like to joke that the book wants to be the finger in the adage about the sage pointing at the moon: does the fool look at the finger? Well, what’s to see there? Hmm. Let’s look!

JC: You have taught seminars with Jeff Dolven on the concept of “experience” as well as on “The Poetics of History.” Both seem relevant to this book, to which Dolven also contributed. And you and Justin E. H. Smith, one of your co-editors, ran the Princeton History of Science Workshop last year on “Attention” as a historical, philosophical, and scientific problem—another topic on which you teach. In Search of the Third Bird seems to have arisen from this nexus of archival poetics, the problem of experience, and the historicization of attention. Is there a special relationship between history and attention? Between the archive and experience?

The “Velocispector,” conceivably of use for experiments in sustained attention at high speeds.
(Reproduced courtesy of ESTAR(SER)’s Communiqués)

DGB: At the beginning of his classic That Noble Dream (1988), Peter Novick drops a memorable footnote to a paper delivered at the American Historical Association in 1971 by a young historian named James B. Parsons, apparently entitled “The Psychedelic Approach”—meaning, the psychedelic approach to history. The project never went anywhere, it would seem, and though I made some small efforts, I have never been able to track it down. But the kicker of it is that Novick rather puckishly contends that Parsons may have been closer to Ranke’s real concept of historical inquiry than any of the plodding empiricists who later claimed him. I don’t especially have a horse in that race. Nor do I have strong feelings about a Collingwood-style account of history as the “re-enactment of past experience.” Justin E. H. Smith and I have together (with others) written our own kind of “Psychedelic Approach” to history, the “Corona of Care,” and it links attention and the past very closely—in a way that can be, in a performative setting, very affecting. This work is very much ESTAR(SER) work: the “presencing” of absent presences. Is it fair to say that this is “impossible” work? Yes. It is, in some sense, impossible. And yet it also happens. We know that it can happen. History is this. A mystery? A mystification? Both. Yes. Tenderly we sift the former from the latter.

JC: Is there anything else you’d like people to know about In Search of the Third Bird?

DGB: Well, I do think that the book is gesturing at something. And that is part of its game-like architecture. I am reminded of John T. Irwin’s great, mad masterwork, The Mystery to a Solution (1994). Irwin’s writings on Poe and Borges were participatory. Irwin was a critic, but he was also a poet, and his readings both unravel and “weave.” They are contaminated by their subject, and this both constitutes their authority, and, in a fascinating way, vitiates it. That instability is the instability of a reel, of a dance. It is the exquisite superposition of knowledge and understanding—which cannot “settle.” Our book is “tainted” in this way, it wants the play of illnx, dizziness, not just games of mimicry or chess-like machinations. It is the case that In Search of the Third Bird is a book designed to be read by a process of filtration, or restabilization. The book is intended as a “superposition” of literature and history. How it is “read” is a result of how it is read: for instance, if one Googles around (to sort out what is real and what is not) one learns a bunch of history; what is left is the novel.

JC: So, is the work, in the end, a roman à clef?

DGB: What does Wallace Stevens say? “I was of three minds, / Like a tree / In which there are three blackbirds.”

JC: I see these bumper stickers now that say “Birds aren’t real.” Any clue there?

DGB: None whatsoever!


Jonathon Catlin is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of History and the Interdisciplinary Doctoral Program in the Humanities (IHUM) at Princeton University. His dissertation is a conceptual history of catastrophe in modern European thought, focusing on German-Jewish intellectuals including the Frankfurt School of critical theory. He tweets @planetdenken.

Featured Image: In Search of the Third Bird.

Categories
Interview

Lukács and the Early Frankfurt Institute: An Interview with Alexander Dmitriev

By Véronique Mickisch

Alexander Dmitriev is a historian and visiting researcher at the Center for East European Studies at the University of Bremen. He is currently finishing a new book on Marxism in the Soviet Union. In 2004, he published Marxism without the Proletariat, a study of Georg Lukács and the early Frankfurt Institute for Social Research that draws on German, Russian, and Hungarian primary sources. While it has remained little-known outside of Russia, the book is still perhaps the most comprehensive study of the joint political history of the Frankfurt School and Georg Lukács in the 1920s and 1930s. 

Véronique Mickisch spoke with Dmitriev about Lukács and his ambiguous relation to the early Frankfurt Institute. Exploring the figure of the “left intellectual” in the 1920s from a historical perspective, Dmitriev argues that to understand Lukács we have to take into account the Soviet context. Unveiling Lukács’s close contacts to both the Frankfurt School and Soviet theorists such as Mikhail Lifshits, Dmitriev’s book closes the gap between Slavic Studies and global intellectual history.

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Véronique Mickisch: First off, could you tell us what made you interested in the early history of Lukács and the Frankfurt Institute of Social Research? 

Alexander Dmitriev: Already during perestroika, in the late 1980s, I became interested in the figure of the Communist intellectual, people like the philosopher Evald Ilyenkov, and the left project in general. At that time, important figures in the Soviet government like Anatoly Chernyaev, Gorbachev’s aide for foreign policy, were connected to what may be called a Soviet version of Eurocommunism. I recently found a note in Chernayev’s diaries from the mid-1970s on the Russian translation of Lukács’s pamphlet on Lenin. Chernyaev was then responsible for relations with the Communist parties, and he noted in his diary how interesting Lukács’s pamphlet was, how different from everything that he himself was doing within the Brezhnev system. 

There was a similar type of intellectual in the GDR: people like Christa Wolf, and maybe Jürgen Kuczynski or Werner Mittenzwei. Around 1987-1988, these were considered interesting intellectuals; but within months, they disappeared from the scene. As soon as the processes of 1989 really set into motion, any left-wing alternative appeared politically unviable. 

As a historian, it was interesting to me to return to the 1920s to understand the fate of the “left intellectual,” to go into the archives, and review the history of the “left intellectual” from an academic and not a political standpoint.  

Fortunately, up until 1989, Soviet libraries bought a lot of literature from the West. Thus, almost everything that appeared on the centenary of Lukács’s birthday was available in the Soviet Union, if sometimes only in a “poison cabinet” (spetskhrana). The most interesting books to me were The Young Lukács by Andrew Arato and Paul Breines, and Jörg Kammler’s study of Lukács’s political theory. Perhaps Kammler was even more interesting because, unlike Arato, he paid close attention to the changing political context. This was important to me because I wanted to approach Lukács as a historian, not as a philosopher. 90 percent of those who study Lukács—or, rather, the young Lukács—in both the West and the Soviet Union were, after all, philosophers or literary theorists.  

On the other hand, nothing like Kammler’s book existed on the Frankfurt School. Neither the book by Helmut Dubiel nor the very good studies by Martin Jay or Rolf Wiggershaus provided the kind of political context that I wanted. In a way, I was looking for a bridge between the books by Kammler and Wiggershaus. 

Alexander Dmitriev, courtesy of Alexander Dmitriev

VM: Recent scholarship on the early Frankfurt Institute stresses the impact of the German Revolution of 1918-1919 on figures like Friedrich Pollock, Felix Weil, and Max Horkheimer. In your book, you complement this picture by discussing the triangular relationship between the members of the early Frankfurt Institute for Social Research and Lukács, and the Communist parties. How do you view the latter?

AD: Lukács and the people in Frankfurt differed in their respective relationships to the Communist movement. But there were also stark differences within the Frankfurt circle. On the one hand, there was the group around Felix Weil, Friedrich Pollock, and Max Horkheimer. I think they all knew each other by 1919, but only Felix Weil was very involved in the Communist International—above all in Latin America, particularly Argentina. (I’m mostly relying on the work of my colleagues Lazar and Victór Jeifetz here.)

And then there is also the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research before Max Horkheimer became its director in 1930. Carl Grünberg, the predecessor of Horkheimer and founding director of the Institute for Social Research, had a close relationship with David Riazanov [the head of the Marx-Engels-Institute in Moscow], whose Institute, in my view, represented some kind of academic Marxism.

The biography of Lukács is yet another story. There was a generational gap between him and the scholars who would become known as the Frankfurt School—a crucial 10 years. To them, political affiliation was important, but it did not make them—including Weil, who was perhaps more closely affiliated with the Communist movement than anyone else—a Genosse [comrade] to the degree that Lukács or also Karl Korsch was until 1926 [when Korsch was expelled from the Communist International].  

VM: In 1922 and 1923, Lukács wrote History and Class Consciousness, a seminal work in the development of so called “Western Marxism.” The book was widely discussed in the Soviet Union but the response was overwhelmingly negative. The preeminent Soviet philosopher Abram Deborin wrote a scathing review of History and Class Consciousness, and Lukács was almost universally seen as non-Marxist. In 1931, he was among those who were removed from the Marx-Engels-Institute, after the arrests of Riazanov and the political economist Isaak Rubin. How did Lukács respond to these developments? 

AD: An important factor for him was that Deborin was drawn into the Riazanov case. Even though he retained his position at the Communist Academy, he was denounced everywhere, and Lukács noted this development with satisfaction. He considered this a revenge of history. Both to him and to Mikhail Lifshits [a Soviet literary theoretician to whom Lukács was very close], this campaign against Deborin was proof that their understanding of Hegel was correct. 

David Riazanov in 1923. A revolutionary since 1887, he was the head of the Marx-Engels-Institute from 1921 until his arrest in March 1931. Throughout the 1920s, he maintained close ties with Carl Grünberg and the early Frankfurt Institute for Social Research. Lukács began working under him in Moscow in 1930.

Lukács, and especially the circle around Lifshits, felt that they were the true Communists. Riazanov, to them, was an old man who was too closely allied with Menshevism and social democracy. Though they may have had some reservations, they were generally pleased with the Stalin overhaul of 1931.

For them, Stalin was a Robespierre-like figure with Cromwellian and Napoleonic features, who would “clean up” from time to time, maybe not only those who were guilty; but, they figured, you cannot make an omelet without breaking some eggs. Lukács had never had any particular sympathies for Trotsky and saw in Stalin the personification of a kind of “managed Thermidor.”

VM: Don’t you think that careerism also played a role here, especially in the 1930s? 

AD: Not necessarily. It seems to me that Lukács and Lifshits had this understanding of themselves as romantic revolutionaries. It is certainly true that Lifshits was more widely read after the campaign against Deborin. I would say it was careerism in the sense that they felt that “history is on our side,” and they retained this sense for quite some time, probably until the Thaw [under Nikita Khrushchev in 1956-1962]. Katerina Clarke has produced interesting scholarship on this. In order to understand Lukács after 1931, including Lukács in Germany in 1932, you have to take into account this Soviet context. Unfortunately, there is a certain isolation of Slavic Studies and Slavic intellectual history in this regard.

VM: For Lukács, in stark contrast to Rubin, this purge in 1931 did not signify the end of his career. To the contrary: Your book provides a detailed account of Lukács’s activities in the 1930s, which are often little known. For example, you write about his work for the Comintern in Germany in 1931-32, where he lectured, on behalf of the KPD, before National Bolshevik circles around Ernst Niekisch and Hans Zehrer.  We now also know that Lukács participated in the infamous “party session” of German intellectuals that took place just a few days after the First Moscow Trial, where he denounced Karl Schmückle, the German communist and former employee of the Marx-Engel-Institute in Moscow, as a “counter-revolutionary” who had to be “eliminated.” Schmückle, who had played a central role in the publication of Marx’s early writings, was later arrested and executed in January 1938 as part of the NKVD’s “German operation.” Don’t you think that, in light of all of this, it would be appropriate to speak of Lukács as a Stalinist intellectual, rather than just designating him as “left-wing”? 

AD: I think the real crossroads in his life must have occurred in the second half of the 1920s in Vienna, when he could still become a different Lukács than the one we know today. This is still the perhaps most mysterious chapter in his life to me but it is then that he became, as you correctly note, a Stalinist intellectual, not just a left-wing one.

VM: Considering Lukács’s political activities especially from the early 1930s onward, it seems that he must have been somehow in contact with the NKVD. 

AD: Yes, I agree, such connections must have existed. But they must have also existed in the case of other Communist intellectual at that time; you could not be such a central figure in the ideological structures of Comintern or KPD, and have so many connections without speaking to and meeting with people from this agency. Lukács definitely knew, for instance, Osip Pyatnitsky, a very important figure in the Comintern who was responsible for cadre questions [a position which required maintaining relations with the GPU/NKVD, VM]; Pyatnitsky was arrested in 1937. He was also in touch, I believe, with Mikhail Trilisser [who worked for the NKVD in the Comintern leadership from 1935 on]. But this was not a big deal for either Lukács or, to be honest, for Lifshits.

If you say today that Lukács had ties with the KGB, you will get the response: ‘Outrageous! Impossible!’ But then there is the question of what it means to “have connections.” In Lukács’s world, there was nothing terrifying or compromising about this. Although it is true that he would later refuse to discuss anything related either to the Great Terror among the German émigré community or to Karl Schmückle, whom he must have known since the 1920s. These were two big wounds in his life. 

VM: The Great Terror changed a lot. “Having connections” to the NKVD meant something different after the terror than it did before, including to those who considered themselves communists.  

AD: Yes, probably, and Lukács still had such connections after the Great Terror. Tamás Scheibner in Budapest has written a book about Lukács in Hungary in 1945-47 where he also played, I would say, a rather unpleasant role. Before Mátyás Rákosi came to power, Lukács was the left-hand man of Joszéf Révai [co-founder of the Hungarian Communist Party and member of its political committee after the war]; they were a united front. And I think then he was also in contact with the secret service in Budapest. I still would think that he had contempt for these people and their dirty work. If he had been called on to testify against, say, Wittfogel, he would probably have responded by saying what he thought about Wittfogel. And this would be buried in secret files located now in Budapest or Moscow. 

This is a point on which I disagree with scholars of Lukács like Celso Frederico in Brazil or Konstantinos Kavoulakos. To them, Lukács is nothing but a great philosopher, a brilliant mind (I think so too!), and teacher, someone who did everything right, and they don’t really want to know what he did in 1936 or 1937. Speaking about this is to them merely an attempt to discredit Lukács. 

György Lukács, 1952, (c) Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-15304-0097 / CC-BY-SA

VM: Despite the differences with Lukács that you raised, there were quite a few Communists at the Frankfurt Institute before World War II: Henryk Grossman, who was a member of the Polish CP, or Hans Jäger, who headed the Marx-Engels-Verlag and was considered one of the main ideologists of the KPD. There were also Karl-August Wittfogel, the China expert of the KPD, and Schmückle—to name but a few. Pollock, who was never a party member but was quite sympathetic to the communist cause, visited the Soviet Union for the 10-year anniversary of the October Revolution in the fall of 1927 and met many of the leading economists at the time. How did the Frankfurt circle view the rise of Stalinism in the Soviet Union?

AD: One really needs to emphasize the differences between Lukács and the Frankfurt School here. There is only one published letter from Horkheimer to Lukács, from 1931, on the Hegel Congress, and it’s clear that, by then, they belonged to different camps: Lukács is an active Communist, and Horkheimer writes to him like a bourgeois professor, a fellow traveller. In 1927, it was probably not yet like that; I’m not entirely sure about Horkheimer, but for Pollock, it was definitely not like that. For Pollock, the move from taking an interest in communism to keeping his distance from it probably came in 1930 or 1931. 

VM: I would say even later, maybe in 1932. During his trip to Moscow in the fall of 1927, Pollock had become acquainted with many leading Soviet economists, and he still maintained these ties into the early 1930s. In 1932, he published his essay “Socialism and the Agrarian Question,” which indicates that he retained at least some sympathies for the Soviet Union.  

AD: You might be right. By 1932, in order to survive, some of these Soviet economists like Lev Leontiev or Elizaveta Khmelnitskaya had to abandon their previous positions. It was not yet like the campaign again Schmückle, it wasn’t 1936 and people weren’t shot yet, but there was a purge at the Marx-Engels Institute. I think for someone like Pollock, the rise of figures like Hugo Huppert, who now began to dictate the “correct”  Stalinist course and the simultaneous shift in the orientation of Leontiev and Khmelnitskaya, who turned against Rubin and began to engage in “self-criticism,” was very instructive. This was not what they had expected, and it was a prelude to the Moscow Trials of 1936 and 1937, when hundreds of thousands of Communists, including the leaders of the October revolution, were arrested as “counter-revolutionary Trotskyists” and subsequently executed. 

By the time Hitler came to power in January 1933, the circle around the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research already felt that something was wrong in the Soviet Union. Theoretically, they had the choice between emigrating to Switzerland and then further on to the US, on the one hand, and emigrating to the USSR, on the other. But not even Grossman or Wittfogel emigrated to the USSR. (Grossman only later returned to the Soviet-occupied zone of Germany and then stayed in the GDR.) And only a handful who had emigrated earlier stayed in the USSR—Schmückle, for instance.

The Great Terror and the murder of figures like Vsevolod Meyerhold—there is a text by Adorno from the late 1940s on Meyerhold—also had a big impact on them. The victory of Stalin in general was not a great joy to them.

VM: Despite your emphasis on the interconnections between Lukács, the Frankfurt School, and the Communist movement, you called your book “Marxism without the proletariat.” Why? 

AD: From 1923 or 1924 onwards, there was a strong strand of anti-intellectualism in the German Communist Party. The term “professor” became a swearword. Stalin’s anti-professorial 1931 letter to the editorial board of Proletarskaya revoliutsiia was immediately printed in Germany. In the polemic against Lukács in the Soviet press in the 1920s, his relations with Max Weber were also seen as problematic, as a sign that he was not “one of them.” For the Frankfurt circle, this anti-intellectualism within the Communist party was obvious. The Social Democrats had it too. 

This was one of the reasons why I ended up calling the book “Marxism without the proletariat”: the title refers to the conviction of members of the Frankfurt Institute that the workers themselves do not know what they want and that real socialism is different from what your average worker from the dock in Hamburg thinks it is. It is something more powerful, and important, something connected to ideals and the future. They were in favor of socialism, of course, but this did not mean to them that they had to listen to the simple worker from a communist cell, or that the decision of the majority of votes of the Frankfurt cell of the KPD was important. And for Lukács, it was different. Lukács thought that the party—the Party!—knows what needs to be done.

In the early 1930s, Erich Fromm and others members of the Institute for Social Research studied the mood of the German working class and came to the conclusion that the Communists were even more authoritarian than the social democrats. This was a scientific finding, and it was terrifying to them. This idea that the emancipatory project of the left and working-class communism were not the same thing, that they were two different vectors, this is something that they probably started to feel in the early 1930s. Such a study would not have been conducted under Grünberg in 1925, but in the 1930s, under Horkheimer’s directorship, it became possible. To some extent, the study helped lay the foundation for the general shift away from sympathizing with communism—not just the communist party but simply communism, including the legacy of figures like Rosa Luxemburg.  

VM: While there was definitely this pessimism in the working class and a growing disengagement with the socialist and communist movement by the early 1930s, the rejection of the Enlightenment and scientific inquiry in Dialectics of Enlightenment was new, it had not played a role before the war. If you read writings by Schmückle or Pollock from the 1920s or even early 1930s, it is clear that they respected Marx’s and Engels’s positive attitude toward the sciences and regarded Marxism itself as a science. The war and the Holocaust seem to have brought about yet another fairly sharp change in the intellectual climate.

AD: Yes, and there was the conception that Roosevelt’s New Deal had saved capitalism. If you take all the nine volumes of the Institute’s books that were published in 1929-1938, including the ones by Borkenau, Wittfogel, and Pollock, these were all written under the banner of orthodoxy, perhaps understood in the broadest sense of the term, but they clearly wanted to be Marxists. This wish to be Marxists disappeared in the US, and there’s of course none of it in the Dialectics of Enlightenment.

In Horkheimer’s Gesammelte Schriften, there are minutes of meetings at the Institute, in 1935 or 1937, in which they were discussing the problem of the crisis of capitalism. These discussions involved Pollock, Julian Gumperz, and several other figures who are completely forgotten today. It seems to me that these were the last attempts at the Institute to have discussions in a Marxist or semi-Marxist language. Even in the mid to late 1930s, they—including people like Otto Kirchheimer and Franz Neumann—had the conception that Hitler and capitalism were closely related, and there was Horkheimer’s famous thesis that “if you don’t want to speak of capitalism, you must remain silent about national socialism.” 

There was clearly a moment in their development in the second half of the 1930s or early 1940s which can be understood as “social-democratic.” This does not mean that they had actual ties with social democracy, but that they were interested in these kinds of left-wing ideas and reformism.

Theories of totalitarianism or the equation of Hitler and Stalin were not common reference points yet, but the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939 may have opened the doors for the Dialectics of Enlightenment: it may have suggested to them that even Marxism, and the idea of emancipation, can degenerate into oppression.

Moreover, at universities and in intellectual circles in the United States, they were confronted with an entirely new intellectual climate. Pragmatism was dominant, and even when polemicizing against it, as Horkheimer did, the Frankfurt School would do so by appropriating its language. For the radio research project, and even more so for the studies on anti-Semitism, they had to become semi-positivists. The culmination of their shift to the right then probably occurred in the 1950s.


Véronique Mickisch (@Veroniquehist) is a PhD candidate in modern European history at New York University. Her research focuses on the history of the October Revolution, Soviet economics, and the socialist intelligentsia in Russia and Eastern Europe. Her work has recently appeared in Jewish Social Studies.

Featured Image: Group photograph of the participants of the First Marxist Work Week in 1923, virtually all of them were members of or close to the Communist movement. Sitting from left to right: Karl August Wittfogel, Rose Wittfogel, unknown, Christiane Sorge, Karl Korsch, Hedda Korsch, Käthe Weil, Margarete Lissauer, Béla Fogarasi, Gertrud Alexander. Standing from left to right: Hede Massing, Friedrich Pollock, Eduard Ludwig Alexander, Konstantin Zetkin, Georg Lukács, Julian Gumperz, Richard Sorge, Karl Alexander (Kind), Felix Weil, unknown.

Categories
Interview

A New German Historians’ Debate? A Conversation with Sultan Doughan, A. Dirk Moses, and Michael Rothberg (Part II)

By Jonathon Catlin

This is the second installment of Jonathon Catlin’s two-part conversation with Sultan Doughan, A. Dirk Moses, and Michael Rothberg about recent debates in Germany concerning the history and memory of the Holocaust and colonialism. Part one explored the central issues at stake in the latest debates and their relation to the German Historians’ Debate of the 1980s. Part two engages the relationship of minorities to official Holocaust memory in a diversifying Germany, the role of scholarly positionality, and the relationship between scholarship and activism.

Jonathon Catlin: Michael, you have been working with Yasemin Yildiz on book called “memory citizenship” about German-Turkish and other migrant encounters with Holocaust memory in Germany. You describe a “double-bind”: minorities in Germany are told they must remember the Holocaust in order to become Germans, but also that they cannot remember the Holocaust because it is not their history. The formation of German identity as a nation of guilty perpetrators thereby inherently tends to exclude minorities from becoming “real” Germans.

Scholars working on this issue from an ethnographic perspective, such as you, Sultan, as well as Esra Özyürek and Irit Dekel, have shown how aspects of German Holocaust memory culture, such as discourse and memorials centered on a special German-Jewish or Judeo-Christian bond, often exclude and marginalize people of color in Germany. Some argue that guilt and the accusation of “ontological” antisemitism is “subcontracted” (Özyürek) or “outsourced” (El-Hassan) to those with migrant backgrounds. While some with migrant backgrounds have been charged with being insufficiently empathetic to Holocaust victims, Sultan’s fieldwork suggests that they can relate quite strongly to the history of the Holocaust, but often as victims of contemporary racism and discrimination. I was struck by a line in a forthcoming article of yours, based on field work visiting Auschwitz with a school group, in which you show how Holocaust memory is “universalized” while at the same time those with migrant backgrounds can be excluded from identifying with it. One of the Muslim guides, you write, “internalized an external gaze onto Muslims, as if inadvertently confirming that Muslim difference is incommensurable with the notion of ‘humanity’ proposed for the trip.” At the same time, “The idea of identification with Jews as humans and erasing Jewish difference enabled some ethnic German students to imagine themselves under attack” from racialized notions of Islamist terrorism.

Michael and Dirk have also participated in the online video series “This is Germany,” which pokes fun at the German phrase “Menschen mit Migrationshintergrund” (people with a migration background) by turning it on its head with the phrase “Menschen mit Nazihintergrund” (people with a Nazi background). Dirk, as you recently put the issue pointedly at the Einstein Forum symposium, the Holocaust memory regime that “had once discursively empowered multiculturalism is now directed against migrants and refugees, especially from the Middle East.” You have also written of the “affective colonization” of Middle Eastern, and specifically Germans of Palestinian origin, whose perspectives seem to be inassimilable. As Sultan has written, “instead of civil courage,” the value ostensibly taught by the civil education programs examined in your fieldwork, many educators of minority backgrounds leading those trainings “learned to self-silence or to talk in whispers and cry behind closed doors, not knowing how to address the generationally transmitted experience of displacement they were feeling.”

Many have noted the lack of diversity in the memory debates with which we began, and in German media and academia generally. Against this tendency, Zoé Samudzi has powerfully stressed historical links between the Nazi period and racial science and colonialism in Africa. Mirjam Brusius has argued that the debate is not about historical comparison as such but rather “about finding more nuance, complicating what we believe we know, and looking for the ways in which other groups of people have used these histories to give force to their own struggles.” It has become clear that Germany has poor vocabulary for discussing “race,” a notion tainted by its role in Nazi thinking. At the same time, I was struck by how Sultan emphasizes the role of religion and the othering of Muslims as evidence of not so much an “incomplete secularization,” but rather the way “religious reason, memory politics, and citizenship are enmeshed in the secular state with far reaching consequences as to who belongs.” To what extent do you see the doubling down on what Michael calls “competitive memory” in recent years as activating older histories of prejudice, versus as a new chapter in addressing the “minority question” in Europe?

Sultan Doughan: Allow me to clarify the dynamics in my fieldwork. I worked with civic education projects primarily funded to combat Islamic extremism. They mobilized Holocaust education and memory to teach tolerance, but they were not based at memorial sites. In fact, they regarded Holocaust memorials as old-fashioned forms of engaging history: frozen, moralizing, and too ritualized. Yet the schools they catered to thought memorial sites, especially former concentration camps, had a certain authenticity. Thus my research took me to Auschwitz and other sites of mass extermination. Most of the educators, social workers, and community organizers I encountered were of Middle Eastern descent, and based on my findings, I can say that individual guilt was not forced onto them. Most of the hard discourse about memory and migration in public is much softer in these domains because you must reach immigrant communities. You cannot punish them if you want them to change. My fieldwork taught me a lot about the delicate nature of this work, and about my own assumptions and prejudices.

Educational practices were rather playful, game-like, and based on role play. The organizations usually emphasized responsibility and agency, while guilt was seen as obstructing a renewed bond with the past. These are civic education projects invested in forging liberal subjects for a demographically changing Germany; hence they emphasized to the students that they were defenders of liberal democracy and that they should regard this as a gift. The students, in contrast, complained that they were discriminated against and that they were victims: “what about us?” or “why always Jews?” were common reactions, which was interpreted as victim-competition, and as potentially antisemitic. On an institutional level, I think there is an extreme anxiety that these new immigrants (actually German-born citizens) could in fact bring back discussions about race and racism, equal rights despite religious and ethnic difference, and a rethinking of secularism, which are basically unfinished debates German-Jews began some two hundred years ago, before their collective claims were disrupted by the Holocaust.

What you quoted from my forthcoming article, “Desiring Memorials: Jews, Muslims and the Human of Citizenship,” deals exactly with that anxiety, which was shared across ethnic and religious backgrounds. For many middle-class people who have undergone German education and socialization, talking about race, racial relations and ethno-religious differences is extremely uncomfortable. I include myself in this. I had to wrap my head around how race was so easily invoked in the U.S. context. In Germany, you downplay differences and try to look for commonalities, or you just practice mimicry and assimilate. At the same time, many things that would be considered racist in the U.S. pass in Germany as an “objective” description of how Muslims, and sometimes Jews, are. And this is a problem, because on the one hand, you cannot describe differences other than through a racializing language and on the other, you have internalized that racism and racialization are strictly Nazi procedures and do not exist.

I have another forthcoming article in which I discuss “postracial pedagogies” in Germany after the Holocaust and how this ultimately turns into a play of seeking out depoliticized sentiments and prejudices such as hate based on the wrong ideology. This becomes particularly complex in educational praxis that centers the figure of the Jew as the historical and categorical victim of racism. The premise here is that Jews are not different at all, but were made different by the Nazis through pseudo-science. As an anthropologist, I would rather ask how Jews were governed with regards to their traditional and religious particularities, because this is where the issue of race emerges. Why should Jews or Muslims resemble Christians or Christian-secularized Germans? Can there be any space for self-determination for minorities in Germany? But this is not the conversation we are having, and I think if this conversation happens at all it should not be about Jews, but about the Christian-secularized gaze and the universality it assumes.

The notion of humanity (Menschheit), as my interlocutors mobilized it for their Auschwitz trip, appealed to a shared commonality of being human, before and outside of betraying ethno-religious differences. But this notion became difficult to maintain, for each new ethno-religious difference that was revealed became provocative, and sometimes purposefully so. The notion of the human centers the figure of the victimized Jew, but it does so by disregarding any potential difference besides the reference “Jewish.” What made the person recognizably Jewish was the experience of the Holocaust and the loss of Jewish communal life. Students encountered a Jewish person as a Holocaust survivor and took from that encounter that she was a normal person, just like anyone else. Certainly, the experience of the Holocaust belongs to survivors and their descendants, but is this the only feature of being Jewish in Germany? So the notion of humanity, and specifically the secular human of German citizenship, mobilizes the figure of the Jew, but in a way that it resembles a Christian-secularized German. This has a lot to do with how Holocaust memory is organized in the Western European public sphere. Although displayed and visible, it conceals the crux of the matter, namely that we are dealing with longer-standing structural issues of religious difference, minoritization, and the crisis of citizenship.

So let me be clear: I do not think that “Muslims are the new Jews.” We are in a very different historical and political time, and yet, the exceptionalism and triumphalism of Holocaust debates in Germany occlude unreflected issues surrounding religious difference and citizenship. The minority question is certainly connected to these debates, because the last two decades have delayed equal collective rights, as they are constitutionally outlined, with the security argument that Muslims are not fit for German secularism and liberalism. The Muslim has emerged as a problem and is being managed. What is new this time around is that neoliberal work on the self, or “Muslim improvement,” as I would call it, has replaced older forms of labor and is funded by youth projects, surveilled by administrative institutions, and amplified through social media. The major difference between now and older racial relations is that German Jews could become liberal subjects, and perhaps that’s why they were so threatening to Christians in Germany. Today’s range of immigrants, I believe, will remain immobile Muslim laboring subjects, not improved enough yet, or with one slight mistake can be disposed of again. So, yes, in my scholarship I address the minority question as one that cannot be asked in Germany.

JC: Another question that often remains unaskable is the role of identities in scholarly debates. Michael, I was struck by the frankness with which you write about your own positionality as a scholar in your 2019 book, The Implicated Subject: Beyond Victims and Perpetrators. Your family, with a European Jewish background, emigrated to the U.S. around the turn of the last century, such that you are not directly complicit in formal slavery in the U.S., nor were your ancestors directly victimized by the Holocaust. Yet you remain implicated, in separate, though sometimes overlapping ways, by lines of historical domination and victimization, advantage and disadvantage, that continue to bear on the present. Reflecting on your own experience led you to develop a moral theory of “implication” that goes beyond the reductive binary of victim and perpetrator. Dirk, you come from a settler colony, Australia, which in my understanding exhibits more public consciousness of that history of violence than the U.S. You have said that in the German context something about your Australian approach “triggered” what you call “anxieties in Holocaust and genocide studies” about repressed histories of colonialism. Sultan, you have also addressed these issues in both German and American academic contexts for many years. How much room do you allow for positionality in your roles as public intellectuals, especially when speaking to a German audience with evidently little appreciation for histories of colonial violence and of the diversity of non-Zionist Jewish orientations?

Dirk Moses: You are right to note that my hailing from the settler colony of Australia is a key formation for me. Indigenous colleagues and friends played an important role in broadening my horizons. You are also right to point to the limited imaginative capacity of German journalists and even some academics to understand positionality, in part, I think, because they continue to inhabit a revolutionary temporality. Because the Historikerstreit began a moral refoundation of the German republic in a twenty-year period from the mid-1980s, subsequent memory debates are framed in its terms. Thus I am often denounced as a leftwing Nolte despite the absurdity of the moniker. Its memorable battles are restaged although circumstances have changed. Yet the trope is clearly irresistible, as even such a careful and distinguished historian as Sebastian Conrad was denounced as a latter-day Nolte by his colleague Martin Schulze-Wessel for daring to contextualize Holocaust memory in global perspective rather than adhere to it as an article of faith.

SD: Like Michael and Dirk, I am of course implicated in different histories of violence and domination. My father came to Germany in 1961 as a guest worker from Turkey, but he was actually not Turkish-Sunni, but Syrian-Alawi. Although indigenous to the region, my father’s family culturally perished between what is now Turkey and Syria and assimilated into Turkishness. My mother’s family is of central Asian descent and migrated to the Black Sea region, but because they were Sunni and acquired land, they rose successfully into the Turkish middle-class. In Germany, where I was born and grew up, I was just a Turk, of course, and that was both a self-identification and an official insult in my childhood.

During my fieldwork some people refused to work with me or do interviews because they saw me as either too pro- or anti- their work, or either too committed or not committed enough to their worldview. These were perceptions of me, of course, because I never claimed such positions. In hindsight, I can see that I must have made many people uncomfortable with my mere presence in places where they discussed Muslim youth and their antisemitism and extremism—especially because I did not just nod and agree, but asked questions. The most common response was: “Why do you ask that question?” For me this indicated that I should not question the way the world is, that I should not participate, but just observe. In a way this is indicative of the minority position in Germany: you are on the receiving end and disagreement or deviation cannot be accepted as a different position that can coexist, but is often seen as hostile and destructive. German academic spaces were not any different. I think I have no place in German academia. Regardless of my achievements, I have been told I am still not the right kind of German. Shouldn’t this make us all consider where we are with regards to incorporating differences and diverse viewpoints in German institutions? I speak from the position of the scholar in exile, as do many other German women and scholars of color who work on Germany critically but from abroad, where our work is respected and valued. At Clark, I certainly allow my students to develop their scholarly positionality, but I also encourage them to question and rethink set positions. Thinking for yourself can be the most dangerous activism in our times.

Michael Rothberg: I just want to affirm what Sultan has said. I know so many German scholars of color who have left Germany because they can’t bear the everyday racism and because they know that they have little chance of success in the German academy. The U.S. and U.K. have been more welcoming, despite all the serious problems here. I also know scholars of color in Germany and who, with good reason, are afraid to speak about the issues we’re discussing because they worry about the fallout of being perceived as deviating from the “catechism.”

As far as my own self-positioning: I always thought of The Implicated Subject as a kind of “autobiographical” project, but it was only after a colleague urged me to speak about my own position that I decided to include that passage in the introduction. I’m glad I did, and whenever I speak about the book I start from my own implication as a beneficiary of histories of racial violence and colonialism in the Americas.

When we were preparing the interview that opens the German translation of Multidirectional Memory I deliberately decided to speak autobiographically. I naively believed that presenting my Jewish-American “credentials” might ward off some of the accusations of “antisemitism” and “Holocaust relativization” that I knew were a possibility—though I never imaged things would get as bad as they did. I was wrong, as I started to realize when the Spiegel published a picture of me with the caption “Scholar Rothberg: Holocaust memory functions like a zero-sum game”—a complete inversion of my argument. Or when another critic intoned, “Rothberg will not take away German responsibility” (Claudius Seidl)—as if that had anything at all to do with my argument. Although there were many people who welcomed the book—and the Bundeszentrale für Politische Bildung (The Federal Agency for Civic Education) even issued a paperback version of it—there was a surprising inability to grasp the basic arguments. But I think that reception also tells us something important about the current state of discourse on antisemitism and the Holocaust in Germany: not only do “Muslims,” Palestinians, and other people of color continue to be targeted for the kind of disciplining that Sultan describes, but there is no (longer?) hesitancy in targeting Jews and Jewish organizations as “antisemitic” when they challenge aspects of the hegemonic discourse, especially on Israel. So, in the U.S., I think of self-positioning as a way of taking responsibility for my status as an implicated subject, while in the German context I think of it as testing the limits of what is sayable.

JC: As you have all alluded to, academic freedom and freedom of expression in the public sphere in both Germany and the U.S. have become a matter of concern. Dirk writes of a “new illiberalism.” Aleida Assmann proclaimed in the wake of the Mbembe affair that the specter of the accusation of antisemitism is “haunting Germany,” and figures ranging from Peter Schäfer of the Jewish Museum Berlin to German-Palestinian doctor and journalist Nemi El-Hassan have lost their positions in pressure campaigns Micha Brumlik has likened to a McCarthyist witch hunt. As a result, scholars contributing to this debate have felt pressured to remain silent or publish anonymously. Even in the U.S., Princeton University withdrew support for an event on the topic of our exchange here.

You have all taken stances on contentious issues that came with risks to your careers and reputations. When you were at the University of Illinois, Michael, you were an outspoken advocate of Steven Salaita, an Indigenous Studies scholar with a Palestinian background who was fired from a position at that university for political speech critical of Israel and ultimately paid out a remarkable settlement. At that time, you defended the right of scholars “to engage the uneven field of interpretive power” in the public sphere and “to offer counter-narratives,” even unpopular ones, against hegemonic accounts. How do you balance the scholarly and political aspects of that task? To put the question more pointedly to Dirk: your polemical approach in “The German Catechism” has met significant criticism, even among generally sympathetic thinkers. In light of the backlash that ensued, would you still defend the approach you took?

MR: I don’t consider myself a political activist (or at least not a very good one!), but I do think that ideas are political and intellectuals have political responsibilities. What I’ve noticed about myself is that I respond very strongly when I recognize an injustice that is being performed in my name. In the case of Steven Salaita, or again with Achille Mbembe, I felt that prominent actors were speaking in the name of or in defense of Jews—or at least of perceived Jewish interests—in ways that I found disturbing: ways that essentially collapsed the State of Israel with Jewishness as such. That makes me angry, and it makes me want to speak out. Of course, there are lots of things done in my name that I object to—and that’s why, like many people, I’ll go to antiwar demonstrations, or what have you. But in cases like those of Salaita or Mbembe the additional factor is that they also speak to my expertise as a scholar in Jewish studies and Holocaust studies. Not only am I angry, but I feel I have something to say because I know some things about the relevant topics! It was clear to me in the Mbembe case, for instance, that his statements were, among other things, part of the tradition of multidirectional memory I trace in my book and that they had nothing to do with antisemitism or Holocaust relativization. In such moments, the scholarly and the political can overlap, though of course that’s not always the case.

DM: I don’t think my intervention was that polemical; certainly not compared to attacks endured by Mbembe, Michael, and others. If anything, it was written with an “Arendt-inspired tone,” as Dan Stone observed. Amazingly, the mainstream view is that all was well in Germany until I made waves by casting a pebble into its placid pond. That is of course a self-serving and fanciful notion in view of the cases you mentioned. I did not start anything; rather, I simply called out this sort of bullying and proffered an explanation for it: namely, that a fairly small group of opinion-formers in the media, politics, and academia seek to control public narratives about Holocaust commemoration and the country’s security commitment to Israel that they enforce as the country’s Staatsraison. I then showed how each of the catechism’s five articles of faith can be rethought by applying the findings of academic research. None of this made any impact other than provoking indignation. Of course, why would one expect these authorities to admit the abuse of power they wield? Quite predictably, they dug in their heels, blissfully unaware of their blind spots. For instance, in a radio debate with Jürgen Zimmerer in January 2021, the historians Norbert Frei and Sybille Steinbacher in one breath denied the existence of the catechism and in the next asserted that Germans must abide by the Staatsraison, all while equating postcolonial studies and far-right politics. Who can be surprised, then, that the “debate” was marked by serial misquoting to the point of inventing quotations, confirming my observation about the degeneration of public discussion: “the high priests want to conduct it like an inquisition, denouncing heresy and ritually incanting the catechism as a substitute for argumentation.” Yet they have failed profoundly: a huge percentage of Germans are racist against Jews, Muslims, Blacks, and others, while about a third wrongly think their grandparents resisted the Nazis. Neither did their Holocaust education prevent the rise of the AfD. Instead of accepting responsibility for the inability of their pedagogical model to reach Germans, they lash out at critics.

That said, I think the historian Wolfgang Reinhard’s intervention, which seemed to imply that Holocaust memory from the U.S. has been imposed in Germany, is neither accurate nor helpful. His tone and terms are reminiscent of the resistance to Holocaust memorialization in the 1980s and 1990s. He also underplays the important West German activism on the subject analyzed by Jenny Wüstenberg in Civil Society and Memory in Postwar Germany (2018). As I have written in a number of places, this activism was very important in liberalizing Germany in the 1980s and 1990s. The problem is the perversion of this admirable enegy into coercive state policy over the last fifteen years. That is where the illiberalism lies. It is remarkable that certain colleagues seem to miss this distinction.

I noticed that the political-theological language I used triggered many of those invested in this culture. They may not realize that political theology is a venerable German intellectual tradition, as is the collective psychological approach of Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich. Together, they supply the analytical tools to account for the intense emotions I explored in my first book. Iris Hefets’s psychoanalytical approach accounts for the failure of reality-checking, and thus of learning processes, in the German public sphere. The psychic defense mechanisms are so entrenched that my little essay was hardly likely to destabilize them. What is remarkable is that it touched a nerve. This sensitivity warrants reflection. Unfortunately, the febrile political culture is deteriorating further as we see in the cases of Nemi El-Hassan and the Dokumenta 15: more heresy trials. Some German colleagues I know are reasonably sanguine about the situation, but they live in villa districts and don’t mix with people like Nemi El-Hassan. Other colleagues, who are Germans of “migration-background,” assured me that the catechism essay expressed what they long said in private company but dare not utter in public for fear of retribution. There you have the enlightened Germany that has mastered its past.


Jonathon Catlin is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of History and the Interdisciplinary Doctoral Program in the Humanities (IHUM) at Princeton University. His dissertation is a conceptual history of catastrophe in modern European thought, focusing on German-Jewish intellectuals including the Frankfurt School of critical theory. He tweets @planetdenken.

Featured Image: Cracking stelae of the Berlin Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, which was completed in 2004 (courtesy of Pexels, creative commons).