German as a Jewish Problem: An Interview with Marc Volovici

By Matthew Johnson

Marc Volovici’s German as a Jewish Problem: The Language Politics of Jewish Nationalism, was published by Stanford University Press in 2020. Volovici is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in the Department of History, Classics & Archaeology at Birkbeck, University of London, where he is also affiliated with the Birkbeck Institute for the Study of Antisemitism. His impressive first book, German as a Jewish Problem, offers a new perspective on the history of Jewish nationalism by delineating the varied and often contradictory meanings of the German language in the formation of modern Jewish identity and politics. As Volovici demonstrates, in a study that spans the eighteenth to twentieth centuries, “German has held a momentous and multifaceted place in the history of European Jews, serving as a catalyst of secularization, emancipation, and assimilation in various Jewish communities within and without German-speaking areas” (2). In his use of language as an analytic lens, Volovici opens up rich spaces of investigation and reflection at the intersection of politics, religion, science, and literature. In addition to scholars of modern Jewish history and nationalism, his book should be of interest to anyone concerned with the knotted relationship between language and identity. Matthew Johnson interviewed Marc Volovici about his new book.

Matthew Johnson: You write that your “book tells the Jewish history of the German language, focusing on German’s paradoxical place in Jewish nationalism” (3). Can you tell us about how you came to write about this topic? What does it mean to tell the history of a language and, more specifically, to tell its Jewish history? Why is German so important to the history of Jewish nationalism, even if, as you note, it “was not at the center of Jewish nationalism’s ideological debates” (3)?

Marc Volovici: My interest in the Jewish history of the German language emerged out of my fascination with its status in the postwar period—as a tainted language that carries the memories of the Nazi period and the Holocaust. This idea was integral to how the Holocaust was remembered and represented in Israel and the Jewish world in the immediate postwar period, and was frequently employed by numerous individuals and institutions who carried out a boycott of the German language. But whether German could be reduced to its role in the persecution of European Jewry was a matter of controversy and of political and intellectual debates. The more I delved into these debates, the more I reckoned how rooted they were in much longer and older trajectories of Jewish engagement with the German language, its allure and danger.

These trajectories go back to the late eighteenth century, when German served as a symbol and a catalyst of processes of social transformation in Jewish communities. The acquisition of High German was actively encouraged by state reforms in German principalities and the Habsburg Empire, and was also key to the early ideology of the Jewish Enlightenment. This tightened German’s association with enlightenment ideas, as well as with secular, progressive, and liberal currents in Central and Eastern Europe. German thus carried a symbolic value that exceeded its mere practical merit. Whether deemed a positive or a threatening presence in Jewish life, German was part and parcel of Jewish multilingualism. The history of German as an integral and contested part of the Jewish social landscape has been largely overshadowed by German’s “Nazification.”

In the book I argue that the emergence of Jewish nationalist ideas in the late nineteenth century brought the profound ambivalence toward German in Jewish life to the fore. At a time when national movements championed their language as a bedrock of national consciousness and self-determination, Jewish nationalists faced a more complex linguistic predicament. Hebrew was revered as the language of Jewish ritual, but was only beginning to be used for modern domains and as a vernacular, and was entirely inaccessible to most Jews in Western countries. Yiddish was the language spoken by the vast majority of eastern European Jews, but until the late nineteenth century it was not considered a respectable language, or even a language at all. More commonly it was described (even by Yiddish speakers) as a German dialect, or distorted German. It is against this backdrop that German’s role in early Jewish nationalism can be characterized as paradoxical. German was adopted by political activists due to its presumed ability to advance the Jewish national cause, but in so doing it also embodied the chronic condition of Jews as a nation lacking a common language.

This paradox was enhanced by the fact that, on the one hand, German played an indispensable role in the formulation and dissemination of Jewish national ideologies. On the other hand, it was associated with historical currents of assimilation that undermined the postulate of Jewish national unity.

Even though German was not a Jewish national language, I argue that it is impossible to understand the language politics of Jewish nationalism without considering its critical place in the movement. As Jewish nationalists navigated between the ideological significance and the functional merit of German, key questions of the modern Jewish diasporic condition came to the surface.

MJ: One of your book’s methodological innovations is to turn our attention to “German-reading Jews,” not just to “German-speaking Jews” (7). Can you say more about why this latter category is important and about how it allows us to ask new questions? Who exactly were these “German-reading Jews”? And to what degree is your book, in fact, a history of reading?

MV: When we think about Jews and the German language, the first group that comes to mind is Jews in German-speaking lands who saw German as an essential aspect of their self-understanding and culture. But German is not only the language of the Germans, and we miss a great deal of the historical picture when we focus exclusively on “German-speaking Jews.”

The category of “German-reading Jews” introduced itself to me soon after I began looking for traces of Jewish thought about German. German-reading Jews were a broad, transnational collective of Jews spanning from Palestine, Europe, and the Americas that exercised various degrees of fluency in German, read German literature and science, engaged with it critically, and recognized the value of German for the advancement of Jewish society. They learned German at school, with a tutor, at the university, or on their own. Their motivations to learn German were manifold. It was a global language of science, culture, and politics, serving for many as a pathway to universal knowledge. A common motif in memoirs of young Jews in nineteenth-century Russia is a moment of realization that they wish to break away from the confines of Jewish traditional life. Learning to read German was often the first step that followed this realization. And it was indeed this scattered collective of German-reading Jews in Eastern Europe that imbued the German language with many of its layers of significance in Jewish historical memory. The very fact then that German had a distinctive status in Jewish diasporic culture cannot be understood by looking exclusively at German native speakers. The history of how German acquired a captivating and often haunting image—from the enlightenment to the Holocaust—becomes more comprehensible only by following Jews’ ambivalent attachment to German, an ambivalence that was cultivated more often through written rather than spoken German.

Beyond the case of German, studying communities of readers can help us challenge the common assumption that language is the spiritual possession of those who speak it—and speak it fluently. This assumption excludes those masses who approach, use, and mobilize a language in various ways, often leaving a profound imprint on how that language evolves. Sharpening our intellectual sensitivity to communities of readers holds particular relevance for Jews, a diasporic minority living at the crossroads of different languages.

MJ: While you focus on the German language, your book is also concerned with questions of multilingualism and of competing language ideologies, e.g., Hebraism and Yiddishism. You argue that “[w]hile Yiddishism was Hebraists’ main political rival, it was German that encapsulated the virtues and dangers of Jewish multilingualism” (102). Can you say more about these “virtues and dangers” and about the larger claims you are making about the role of German in “Jewish multilingualism”? 

MV: Both Hebrew and Yiddish were, in their own ways, a staple of Jewish nationhood. Yet in the formative decades of Jewish nationalism both lacked certain aspects cardinal to the idea of a “national language” at the turn of the twentieth century, such as the proven ability to form the basis of a modern literary and scientific corpus and to mediate between different Jewish communities in the diaspora. Questions of linguistic prestige and practicality were interwoven, and it was in this sense that German was more ‘dangerous’ than Yiddish to proponents of Hebrew—precisely because it was already serving as an international language of Jewish social, cultural, and political affairs. That Zionism emerged under Theodor Herzl’s leadership as a Germanophone movement was not merely a reflection of the cultural proclivities of the Zionist leadership, but was grounded in a longer tradition that deemed German a respectable European language that is well suited to advance political and diplomatic action in the Jewish social sphere. German’s omnipresence in Jewish political life was its main virtue and danger.

The book therefore considers the role of German in Jewish nationalism as one chapter within a longer history of a fraught reliance on German in modern Jewish culture. German appears from this point of view as a language that is both an insider and an outsider to Jewish life—and for this reason it defied the nationalist monolingual imperative.

MJ: Building off the previous question, you note that your “book examines […] Jewish secularization—in the sense of the neutralization of religious sensitivities, terms, and categories—in its multilingual and not merely Hebrew contexts” (11). In this regard, you also discuss the “theological meanings attached to German in Jewish culture.” How does German allow us to rethink the history of Jewish secularization? And how is this linked to your larger focus on nationalism?

MV: First, the acquisition of German by Jews in German-speaking lands since the late eighteenth century eroded Hebrew’s status as the primary language of Jewish religious ritual. Beginning in the 1820s and 1830s a number of reformist communities introduced German sermons and even prayers into the synagogues. Abraham Geiger, the prominent German scholar and reformist rabbi, admitted in 1845 that, to him, a Jewish prayer in German “strikes a deeper chord than a Hebrew prayer.” But one did not have to be a staunch reformist in order to hold a close attachment to German in the religious domain. German orthodox Jews also read the Bible in German translation. No other language was so deeply associated with processes of departure from Hebrew as German—precisely because it coalesced the profane and the holy. Not for nothing did the Czech Jewish philosopher Hugo Bergmann call it a “half-holy language.”

Second, German had an active role in the creation of Jewish secular politics. German was relatively accessible to Eastern European Jews who turned to German when seeking to equip themselves with the contemporary scientific and political knowledge of the time—in particular around socialist and nationalist theories. In this sense, German had an auxiliary but important role in withdrawal from Jewish traditional political frameworks and in the formation of new ones.

And third, German facilitated the development of Jewish national thought. A key example of this is the 1882 text Autoemancipation!, which was written in German by Leon Pinsker, a Russian Jewish doctor who had not written political texts in German beforehand. He made extensive use of German political and scientific terms, attempting to align the Jewish national cause with the self-justification of national movements in Europe. In this sense, the “Germanness” of the text was a vital characteristic of it, and it is no coincidence that Autoemancipation! would later be considered a founding text of Jewish nationalism. The first translations of the text into Hebrew and Yiddish were characterized by their effort to “Judaize” the text, to set it within the religious, traditional conceptual apparatus of Jewish writing. For the translators, none of these languages and their readerships were equipped to handle Pinsker’s ideas in their German form. Speaking of a Jewish collectivity in secular terms was far more feasible in German than in Jewish languages.

MJ: In a memorable passage that seems to bring your work into conversation with the history of emotions and affect theory, you argue that “[t]he ideological excess of a language is transmitted not only in its representations and in discussions about it but also in the language itself. Words, sounds, accents, and concepts inform the image of languages. Though elusive in nature, it is often the sensory responses to language or to certain words within it that acquire added meaning as beautiful, lucid, irritating, or violent” (39). How did you access and analyze these “sensory responses to language,” which, as you note, are often “elusive in nature”? And how did such sensory responses become operative in the development of Jewish nationalism?

MV: It is difficult, if not impossible, for historians to capture the sensory responses to languages. What is possible, however, is to try and make sense of how individuals describe their relation to a certain language—the feeling of admiration, irritation, disgust or fear that a given language or certain words instill in them. And these emotions cannot be separated from the political context surrounding them, making certain views about the sound of a language meaningful and socially acceptable. That German was a “pure,” elegant language, was a household assumption worldwide. It is against this common perception of German that it made sense to designate Yiddish as an “ugly” language. German was a marker of high culture, refined poetical expression, rationality, and scientific precision. The self-understanding of many German Jews as equal and full Germans was predicated to a considerable degree on their rootedness in the German language. Gabriel Riesser, the foremost advocate of Jewish emancipation, wrote in 1830, “The thundering sounds of the German language, the songs of the German poets, are those that inflamed and fed us with the holy fire of freedom.” The sound of German was a liberating one. And yet at the same time German nationalists and antisemites rejected Jews’ relation to the German language as “inauthentic” and as dangerous to Germany.

After Hitler’s rise to power, the association between the German language and antisemitic hatred became a steady feature in Jewish nationalists’ debates of language matters, especially in Palestine. Hebraist activists repeatedly agitated against German, “the language of Hitler,” or “the language of our enemy.” Some commentators bound together Yiddish and German, calling to “cure us from the big Hitler in Berlin, and the little Hitler in the mouths of my brethren in Tel Aviv,” as one writer put it in 1939. During the war years, this argument became ever more common and was used to question the moral legitimacy of having German heard or even read in public venues in Palestine. Such a view did not go uncontested, but it persisted well into the 1950s and onwards. It is against this political background that the sound of German came to be associated first and foremost with Hitler and the Nazi movement. Yet as I argue in the book, the emotional association between German and antisemitic brutality is not merely an emotive response to the shocking violence of Nazi antisemitism; rather, it builds on recent as well as old trajectories of signifying German as a dangerous language to Jewish life.

MJ: Your book assembles a fascinating cast of characters and focuses both on well-known figures, like Martin Buber, and lesser-known figures, such as Simon Bernfeld. You analyze and compare the work of writers, translators, academics, cultural activists, philosophers, and politicians. Can you talk about how you chose the particular sources and protagonists for your book? How is your corpus linked to what you describe as the “diffused presence” of German in Jewish societies and to your stated effort to “de-Germanize the place of German in modern Jewish society” (12)?

MV: There is a vast and brilliant body of literature by literary scholars who have investigated the approaches of prominent Jewish writers—Kafka, Benjamin, Scholem, Freud, and Heine come to mind—to the German language, emphasizing the different contexts that shaped their relation to German. Yet these figures were masters of German style who were highly self-reflexive of language matters. Their writings are ridden with references to what language in general and the German language in particular meant to them—as Jews, as intellectuals, as human beings. This is a crucial aspect of the Jewish history of the German language, but it is not the whole story. My aim was to broaden the scope of the historical study of Jews’ relation to the German language.

One way of doing this is by paying closer attention to figures who were not accomplished writers in the Germanophone literary sphere. I tried to trace the meanings of German in its more immediate, mundane presence—through the engagement of political activists, popular journalists, lay people, soldiers, and low-brow writers whose main concern was not with matters of representation and self-understanding, but with practical questions such as the usefulness of German as a language of political action and of knowledge. What mattered to them was not (only) how language can reach the depths of one’s soul, but rather whether it can get things done.

Another way of broadening the conversation is indeed by de-Germanizing the place of German in modern Jewish society,” that is, to consider German’s transnational quality in Jewish diasporic life. And it is through this angle that the book tries to study those figures who did not necessarily identify themselves as German writers, and to assess closely questions regarding the practical acquisition of German, its place in the multilingual fabric of empires and nation-states in Central-Eastern Europe, the role of German as a universal language of knowledge, and the affinity between Yiddish and German.

MJ: Near the end of the book, after an analysis of the transformed meaning of German in the wake of the Holocaust, you make (with reference to Hugo Bergmann) a powerful and provocative observation: “German, a language that until recently had been fundamental to Jewish life, had turned into a foreign language” (228). Can you say more about what you mean by “foreign” here? How is this linked to the ways in which your book puts pressure on categories like “internal” and “external” bilingualism and “Jewish” and “non-Jewish” languages?  

MV: One of the arguments I make in the book is that German did much to blur the very distinction between Jewish and non-Jewish languages. Precisely because it permeated the modern Jewish experience in crucial domains—as a language of Jewish enlightenment, of Jewish religious reform, of Jewish scholarly knowledge, and of Jewish nationalism—it came to occupy a profound place in Jewish political and cultural existence since the late eighteenth century.

Seen from this angle, Jewish nationalists, above all Zionists, gradually strove to emancipate Jews from the grip of the German language, namely from Jews’ practical and often emotional dependence on it. In other words, German had to be made a normal language—a language free of the historical baggage accumulated over centuries. The historical irony consisted in the fact that German was expelled from the Jewish public sphere not as a result of the efforts to build a Jewish national polity, but following an event unrelated to it—German’s turning into a Nazi language. While Jewish nationalists sought to confine German to the realm of ordinary, practical languages, German became tied even more powerfully with Jewish historical memory. But this was not due to its role in the social transformation of European Jewry, but because of German’s role in its near destruction.

Matthew Johnson is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Germanic Studies at the University of Chicago writing a dissertation on twentieth-century German-Yiddish literature.

Featured Image: Theodor Herzl and other delegates at the First Zionist Congress, held in Basel, Switzerland (1897). Wikipedia.


“The In-Between Where Politics Happens”: An Interview with Peter Wirzbicki (Part 2)

By Alec Israeli

This is the second part of an interview with Peter Wirzbicki about his book Fighting for the Higher Law: Black and White Transcendentalists Against Slavery (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2021). You can find the first part here.

Alec Israeli: I sensed in your book that Transcendentalists felt that the pure, impressionistic empiricism which they opposed—the submission to the world as it was— was not precisely an incorrect philosophical position, but rather an active threat that actually could become true. As you write, in the view of abolitionist preacher Theodore Parker, “Only through active moral commitment did mankind transcend their passive bodies (bodies that were dependent on Newtonian laws of physics) and cease to be mere automata and become men, aware of their moral and spiritual freedom […]” (171). Here, it was not that there was a noumenal and phenomenal world, and we needed both, but that there was a possibility that the latter world could win.

Peter Wirzbicki: Yeah, I think you’re right, they were worried about the possibility that if you believed in a materialist philosophy, it would come true! That the problem with teaching philosophy or theology from the perspective of Lockean or Scottish common sense empiricism was that it would create people who were used to just taking all their cues from material world, rather than being self-transcendent in any sort of way.  So I do think the Transcendentalists had a belief in the power of philosophy, the power of thought: that if you could keep alive a vision of the self that was capable of self-transcendence, then that would become true, people would self-transcend. By reminding people that they were capable of transcending their circumstances, they would act that way. But if you did the opposite: if you told them that they were entirely the products of their material circumstances, they would lose the habits of critical thought, of transcendence, and fall into political passivity and conformity. This is a long way of saying that their theory of selfhood was both descriptive and normative.

AI: And this ties in very well to your point that Transcendentalists weren’t just people stuck in their own minds, and that there was an important practical aspect to what they were doing.

PW: I think they were most scared of the threat of materialism: that utilitarianism, industrialism, and modernity was going to create a mechanical life. But they— especially Emerson— were also scared of someone who just became so obsessed with their own mind that they were not living in the world. So there is a kind of the equator between these two extremes. You don’t want to become a pedantic person who only lives in ideas, but you also don’t want to become an animalistic person who only lives by their senses. It’s in the in-between where politics happens, where you can use your ideas to critique life. And life informs your ideas, and back and forth. 

AI: While we’re on this interaction between the world of the ideal and the world of the material: There were a few times throughout the book which seemed to imply an aversion among some Transcendentalists to physical labor, or performing physical labor. 

PW: Ha! Yeah! This was a problem at Brook Farm and some of the communes!

AI: Right, but even beyond that, there was an abolitionist sense of people being degraded by performing physical labor. You quote the black political theorist Maria Stewart, writing in 1832, that “continual hard labor deadens the energies of the soul, and benumbs the faculties of the mind,” (86). There’s this critique of what physical labor can do to you; this translated very well into Emerson’s critique of people identifying first with their profession or their job before identifying with humanity. Now, the latter critique was on a sort of bourgeois level, but on a working-class level, Stewart’s critique translates well into a critique of being dominated by industry, or by labor itself; of working to live rather than living to work. 

PW: It is a kind of bourgeois-radical critique of the market. It’s not one that pops up organically from the labor movement, which maybe held more to the dignity and importance of labor. I think you’re probably right that there was more of an aversion to manual laborer than to mental labor— so there was more of a critique of being a farmer or a washer-woman and what that might do to you than being a minister. But they do make similar critiques about the possibility that there is a version of this over-identification with your work for a minister or an intellectual. In a way this is the argument of Emerson’s American Scholar, that it is obvious to see how if you’re a shoemaker it’s not great to take all your life’s cues by a shoemaker, but that the same is true of the scholar, even though in many ways it is harder for us to see for intellectual. You should not just be a person thinking, but a person who thinks, that you’re a human being before you’re an intellectual. A cynic (not me, ha!) might say that academia today sometimes resembles a bit what Emerson feared—there can be a certain dominance of the inherited intellectual forms of certain disciplines, in other words people are trained to think like a historian, or political scientist or whatever, and not to think like a human being who is doing history or politics.

AI: I was curious if you had any sense of how this critical understanding of labor ended up interacting with Transcendentalists’ later positive connections to the labor movement which you delineate. They also end up in the Republican party, which is the party of free labor, the dignity of labor, the sanctification of the labor of free working people as such, as opposed to the degraded labor of the slave. On top of this, as you write, during the continual sectional crisis of the 1850s the Transcendentalist abolitionists developed a pride in their New England identity, which was super tied up in ideas of free labor and productivity. So, was there any tension? Was there ideological tension if Emerson was speaking at, you know, some working men’s association meeting? Was the celebration of the dignity of labor a problem within Transcendentalist thought?

PW: It is a big question. Something that comes to mind is a speech in favor of an eight hour day by Wendell Phillips (who is a bit of a stretch to be called a Transcendentalist, but one of the greatest abolitionist theoreticians). His argument basically was, you need an eight hour day because workers need to have time to read Charles Sumner speeches. It’s very much the citizenship argument: you can’t be a democratic citizen if you’re working 12 hours a day, you don’t have time to participate in all the intellectual and political work that goes into self-rule. So on the one hand there is a cultural arrogance, no doubt, about New England being better than the South— i.e. “our workers are educated and they read Charles Sumner speeches in their free time. This isn’t a mudsill class.” But it’s also about democracy, about the need to have time to participate in democratic self-rule.

So yes, this is any argument about citizenship, about democratic participation, it is not one that centers the productivity of labor itself. You’re not wrong to say that there is, if not a tension, a dislike of the realm of existence that is about necessity, maybe an attempt to leapfrog right into the realm of freedom.

AI: So in a crude sense, could we can say that these Transcendentalists are at least partially responsible for the political philosophy of the Republican Party, if not its political economy.

PW: The problem with talking about the Republican Party is that there are so many different strands that will develop in different ways. On the one hand there is a New England idealist line. Charles Sumner, for instance, is certainly far more driven by a sense of moral ideals than by any materialist concern. But of course, there are Republicans from the Midwest or Pennsylvania who develop far more out of a producerist mentality. Agricultural policy played a big role. And I think scholars are only now appreciating how populistic and democratic some of the 1850s Republicans were. It is so easy, but I think mistaken, to look at the 1880s Republicans and read that backwards.

But I think the abolitionist-Transcendentalist idealism does play a big role in the thought of people like Sumner. It even influences Lincoln—who famously stole his definition of democracy in the Gettysburg Address from Theodore Parker. Now there is a way in which after Reconstruction, this idealist style becomes detached, self-righteous, arrogant… paving the way, perhaps, for things like the Liberal Republicans. But that’s getting ahead of ourselves.

AI: To talk more about republicanism, this time with a little-r:  You do touch on republican thought a little bit. I sensed a great degree of affinity between classical republicanism and these Transcendentalists: the latter had this Rousseauian critique of artifice and the corruption of modernity; in your chapter on “Heroism, Violence, and Race” in Transcendentalist activism, you note that their ideal to emulate were the ancient Greeks, Sparta in particular. And, on a political level, you discuss Transcendentalists’ embrace of the transatlantic liberal nationalism of the age of democratic revolution— when they were supporting the radicals of 1848, people like Lamartine or Mazzini, they were supporting staunch republicans. Likewise, when they embraced the Constitution and the US government during the Civil War (as you describe), it was a celebration of American republican identity.

More theoretically, the other prong of Transcendentalist republicanism I noted in your book was these thinkers’ concern for the domination of market society, property, social mores and so on over people and their actions. Emerson’s critique of people identifying with their professions rather than with their humanity, you write, was a critique of the division of labor: “The division of labor was a classic example of alienation, of the specifically modern irony of how the tools and logics of industrial civilization— which we created to better our lives— now dominated us, leaving our lives shrunken and spiritually diminished.” You further elaborate: “The old republican idea— that one’s public and economic life was a transparent reflection of your true self— was increasingly difficult to attain,” (161-163). The language of domination is a thoroughly republican language. 

So, with all this in mind, is there like a republican ancestry or legacy that we can read in these Transcendentalists?

PW: This is a really interesting question. Yes, in some ways there is. You hit on some of the important connections— the desire to create a public self that is an authentic expression, that is not dominated by the false imperatives of the marketplace.  I argue in my chapter on civil disobedience that this was actually key to the abolitionist resistance to the Fugitive Slave Law. That one could not let one’s small roles—as judges, policemen, soldiers, etc.—trump their absolute moral obligations as human. The idea is that the market encourages us to role-play, to confuse the mask that we wear in the market with our true self. And this artifice makes critical or moral judgement more difficult. And I think this interest in a public self that is an authentic expression of your real self does owe a lot to the republican tradition.

In addition, you are correct to say that this language of domination becomes so central to the anti-slavery impulse. Think about Lincoln, in his debates with Douglas, where he says that a man ruling himself—that is the core of democracy—but when in addition to himself, a man rules someone else—well, that’s tyranny. Obviously that logic is so powerful, it can spiral into a critique of so many institutions: marriage, capitalism, established churches, all authority.

That said, I’m not sure that the full victory of the abolitionist imagination is entirely a victory of republicanism. First of all, the aspect of the republican tradition that is about the “people” or the commonwealth, as some sort of cohesive entity is, of course, challenged by the reality of racial divisions.

And it’s so hard because broadly speaking the story of the 19th century is the slow transition from a republican to a more mass democratic view. You could point to some innovations where Transcendentalists are not purely coming out of the classical or renaissance republican tradition. They’re more egalitarian at least in theory (not always in practice) than republicanism. They’re also more individualistic—especially the proto-anarchist wing. There is a far greater emphasis on individual development, individual authenticity, aware of the dangers posed, not just by tyrants but also by social pressure, by civil society itself. Wendell Phillips— I’ll go back to him for political theory, because I think he’s a brilliant political theorist — was actually very modern in the sense of understanding politics as about political interests. In this sense, it was not republicanism. It was not about the common good. He would often say things like, the abolitionist movement has to figure out a way to speak to the self-interest of Northern farmers and artisans. He understood, in other words, that the “people” were divided up into distinct groups—German immigrants, Midwestern farmers, New England textile workers, etc.—and that you had to appeal to each’s interests. In addition, he was very conscious about a politics of public opinion, that what we have to do is create a mass democratic public opinion that can put pressure on elites. In a sense that’s more like modern democratic mass politics, where you’re quite conscious of a strategic need to mobilize and create pressure groups, almost like a lobby. 

So if I had to answer your question, I think I’d say that that there’s a bigger transition occurring from classical republicanism to a vision of mass politics, and Transcendentalists and abolitionists are kind awkwardly in between the two. 

AI: As a fulcrum of this transition, we could look toward your chapter on Transcendentalists and the Civil War, and their political reconfiguration in defense of the federal government. You discuss these thinkers as rearticulating the philosophical foundation of American democracy. Again, as you detail, they embraced the liberal nationalism of the time: the idea of shaping the nation as an inclusive universality over the particular of localism; locating sovereignty in the people themselves rather than in the contracted states as discrete political units; basing nationhood upon a higher law of equality and liberty as opposed to the immediate conditionalism of contract theory.

I remember you mentioning at one point that your current work is on political theory and Reconstruction in the US. Is this chapter on the Civil War pre-figuring what you are going to be doing?

PW: Yeah! So part of what happens is a particular American story where you the Whigs and the Federalists had generally been the parties of a stronger national government over the states. But they had often wanted to empower the national government as a way to restrain democracy— if you think of someone like Joseph Story or Daniel Webster, they’re not wild populist democrats. They’re politically opposed to the Jacksonian project (not because of Jackson’s racism, which they don’t really care about, but because of the democracy), and they see the creation of, for instance, a powerful national judiciary as a way to restrain the democracy of the states. I think one of the innovations of the Civil War period (among many, of course) is that flips: all of a sudden, there is the developing idea that the national government is the most democratic, and the place that’s most able to protect individual rights as opposed to states. The states instead become seen— at least among some of the Republicans— as the place where particularity and injustice lies, and where you can’t trust elites to protect the rights of individuals. Again, here I think there is slightly more legalism and formality to their conception of individual rights than was common in the classical republican tradition.

AI: And there’s a lineage of this view of the federal government through the Civil Rights movement of the mid-20th century, and into today, too.

PW: Absolutely. The federal government certainly hasn’t been perfect, but it has generally been more likely to protect black civil rights than a lot of the states have. And the Transcendentalist cultural project is to try to come up with a conception of the American nation that is in ideal ways not defined racially or ethnically, but defined by some sort of transcendent values. Lincoln is probably the most prominent spokesman for this ideal. He has this speech where he says, there are German immigrants and Irish immigrants whose grandfathers were not here during the American Revolution, but are just as American as anyone because they see themselves as loyal to the values of the Declaration of Independence. He’s trying to understand the notion of American identity, that’s not ethnic or racial, while simultaneously enshrining the Declaration’s promise of equality as the core of the American national project. And I think that this cultural project of defining the American nation by these transcendent values of equality or liberty or democracy or something like that is tied into this more on-the-ground political project of understanding the nation as the more powerful and more democratic entity as opposed to the states, basically the Reconstruction-era Republican Party’s agenda.

AI: And that’s something you’re trying to tease out as developing during Reconstruction?

PW: Yeah, my next project is to think through the various, complicated ways that plays out. It’s such a fascinating moment because in so many ways, we take for granted a 20th-century vision where nationalism is a reactionary force, and it’s so hard to see the ways in which so many of those abolitionists were nationalists. It might seem an awkward reality that Charles Sumner was the most progressive senator of the time and was also the most rabid nationalist of the time, and that there was no contradiction for him in that. 

AI: To close: Reading this book roughly a year after a continuing upsurge in protest over great racial inequity and the continuing domination of the market felt appropriate. It is not always a compliment to call a history book “topical”; nor should history writing strive for topical-ness. But I must ask: Do you see a connection between the subject matter of this book, and the left politics of our time? Is there something in the Transcendentalist conception of the political— that anxiety of the phenomenal, that commitment to a higher law— that is still salient, or might our postmodern soup of malaise be beyond the reach of this 19th-century hope?

PW: There is so much to say. I started writing this book during a very different moment: the Obama-era fetishization of compromise and what was then called “pragmatism” (which I’m not sure had much to do with the tradition of James, Dewey, etc…)  At the time I wanted to rediscover this other approach to American democracy: one that was more utopian, one that spoke in the language of critical rationality rather than reasonableness (to use some Rawlsian terms), one that rejected the cult of expediency. Honestly, I’m not sure we’re still in those times anymore, for better or for worse. I’m pleasantly surprised at the slow return of some “big thinking” about economic and cultural life. This may seem odd to say as a historian, but part of that process, I think, has to be to put history in its proper place, to learn to be a bit less backwards looking, to remember that we are not determined in some absolute way by the past, but that, like all generations, have the freedom to chart our own path, that liberation movements may look very different in 2021 than it did in 1921 or 1821.

If you’ll indulge me, I do worry, in the era of social media leftism, of the return of a certain style of political conformity. One made possible by the hollowing out of a lot of the traditional sources of selfhood. If in the 1830s, Emerson was worried about how the new power of civil society—the mass press, political parties, etc.—made it harder for individuals to protect their self from the external pressures of society, today, thanks to social media, to twitter, to the internet-fueled destruction of privacy, we are exposed to a social pressure that is 1000 times more powerful. In a way, it is very very easy to let your inner self be determined from without. The external forces seem less mechanical—it is not the industrial revolution anymore where we worry about turning into a machine—but more postmodern: kaleidoscopic swirl of cultural ideas, discourses, and therapeutic moral norms will determine our inner life. I guess this is what David Reisman was talking about 75 years ago when he wrote about the “other-directed personality,” but made far far worse by the internet. And I sometimes see friends on the left accept, even celebrate, this loss of selfhood, I think under the cover of fighting individualism. But we need to distinguish between individuality—which is good and needs to be protected—from economic individualism, which is bad and will ultimately undermine individuality and the flourishing of the self. In addition, there is a sort of hang-over from the Foucauldian moment, where, even if none of us are Foucauldians anymore, we still have a sort of anti-humanist skepticism of any language of the autonomous self. If our inner life is already conceived of as, not a place of possible autonomy, but instead the site of various forms of political and cultural power, than we have no hesitation about a counter-mobilization of power to control or manipulate the self. And this is dangerous, I think. There is a wonderful essay by Richard Rorty that you may know called “Trotsky and the Wild Orchids.” (Two great intellectual historians have a podcast named after it). He has this sort of autobiographical account of going to a red-diaper summer camp where Rorty would be taught Trotskyism, but all he really remembered was the beautiful flowers, not the stern science of the dialectic. Neither the left nor the modern academy have been great at this, at appreciating the value of these private intimate moments, moments of beauty, or meaning, or love, that cannot be reduced to public political discourse. At one point, in honor of that essay, I debated calling my book “John Brown and the Winter Animals” to capture how, at their best, the Transcendentalists and Abolitionists combined these two elements, sought to create a radical politics that was supportive of, and not hostile to the project of self-transcendence. Thoreau could fund an anti-slavery revolutionary and also commune with the hedgehogs that visited him at Walden.  You need that: bread but also roses! Art for art’s sake, not as simply moral didacticism, for instance.  I worry that without this sensibility, the tendency of modern life towards human-resource-department style management—the bureaucratic manipulation and control of the self—will only continue to grow and become more powerful.

Alec Israeli is an incoming student at Trinity College, University of Cambridge, where he will be studying for an MPhil in Political Thought and Intellectual History as a recipient of a Dunlevie King’s Hall Studentship. His research interests span the overlaps of labor history and intellectual history in the 19th-century Atlantic, with particular focus on theorizations of free versus unfree labor. His work has also appeared in the Vanderbilt Historical Review, the Columbia Journal of History, the Princeton Progressive Magazine, and the Mudd Library Blog. He can be reached at

Peter Wirzbicki, and intellectual historian of the 19th-century United States, is an assistant professor of history at Princeton University.

Featured Image: Broadside publicizing the arrest of fugitive slave Anthony Burns, in May 1854. A few days after his arrest, abolitionists (including, and in part led by, prominent Transcendentalists) stormed the court house where he was held, in an attempt to free him. Source: Wikimedia Commons, courtesy of Boston Public Library.


Time is a Tense Ecosystem: An Interview on Power and Time (Part II)

By Jonathon Catlin

The first part of the interview can be read here.

JC: Theorists of history such as Koselleck have explored the multiplicity of historical times captured by Ernst Bloch’s notion of the “synchronicity of the non-synchronous” (Gleichzeitigkeit des Ungleichzeitigen). Koselleck pursued this through the metaphor of temporal layers or “sediments of time.” You quote Sebastian Conrad to this effect on “layers of time that pile up and interact…scales [that] coexist, and complement each other” (26). Your notion of chronocenosis seems to go further, emphasizing the competitive relation of temporal regimes: Time matters because temporal clashes and antagonisms play an essential role for the legitimacy or downfall of regimes. While conceptions of modernity rooted in the Atlantic Revolutions emphasize rupture symbolized by the adoption of new, secular calendars, Koselleck’s conception of modernity centers on the formation of nation-states and emphasized the acceleration of time, the formation of new “collective singulars” in forward-looking concepts like progress and history itself. Modern time as rupture, then, versus as progressive continuity. But you try to scramble this dichotomy: “revolutions are far from the main occasion on which time and power collide, wrap into each other, disentangle and redesign everyday life. Indeed, often-conflictual regimes of temporality suffuse even the most stable of political states,” for “every established political regime, every sovereign, pursues continuity—often even eternity—and to do so negotiates its relationships with other established forms of time” (7). Could you elaborate on these less obvious temporal clashes?

DE: First, I’d just point out how spatial representations of time—sediments, layers, etc.—naturally translate into a sequential model of temporality. In some respects, that is a conception of historicity as periodization, and many of the categories we used to periodize history embed within them a particular historical regime (perhaps none so clearly as “the Middle Ages” as Kathleen Davis has discussed).

Revolutions can certainly contribute to this impression of history as a sequence of distinct periods. At least from the French Revolution onward, it is part and parcel of revolutionary political culture to assert a new beginning, a new regime, even a new calendar. But what the French Revolution really inaugurates is a redistribution of historical regimes. Conservative thinkers and politicians, from Burke and Maistre to Metternich and Thiers, would orient their political and historical thought around the French Revolution just as much as progressive writers. Even among those sympathetic to la grande Révolution, there are rival accounts: Lamartine defends a Girondinist history, where Buchez and Roux (editors of the Histoire parlementaire) recount a history much more favorable to the Jacobins. Already during the French Revolution, political rivalries were often expressed through feuding historical narratives. Camille Desmoulins mounted his attack on Robespierre’s policies in a short-lived journal called Le Vieux Cordelier, a celebration of the “old” Cordeliers club’s politics. Robespierre responded by tying Desmoulins’s ally Danton to a long list of revolutionary traitors, starting with Lafayette. Revolutions weaponize history; revolutionary feuds are often over clashing accounts of what happened, and of how the present moment connects to different pasts and points to different futures.

But to get to your question, it certainly isn’t only during revolutionary times that we witness this profusion of warring historical regimes. In her chapter on Supreme Court jurisprudence, Kristen Loveland shows how the justices use—and choose—precedents to conjure up a sense of authoritative neutrality. And yet, as she shows, justices routinely dissent from each other’s reading of historical precedents, and string together past cases to reach different conclusions. These conflicting versions of legal history reflect very different accounts of past decisions, inform present ones, and shape different projections of the future.

SG: Indeed we try to scramble that dichotomy of “modernity as progressive continuity” versus “modernity as rupture or as series of ruptures.” I like the “synchronicity of the non-synchronous” motif as much as anyone (and even more so Blumenberg’s playful addition, the “non-synchronicity of the synchronous”) but as you indicate, since Koselleck it’s a certain geological metaphor that has gradually taken hold. Temporal clashes, like Dan just discussed around revolutions, don’t work well at all in either of those models. This is where our approach to chronocenosis comes in: temporal regimes have competing, cooperative, collateral, conflicting relationships with one another. We describe them as a tense ecosystem.

An example of a temporal clash: think back a year ago, when Covid first hit, and it was impressed upon all of us that we perhaps already had it, had caught it a few days earlier, but it wouldn’t show at first, and then a few days in (3? 5? 10? who knew? who could test?) a patient would become symptomatic and then there would be multiple stages, the inhuman course of disease taking over the body, but meanwhile the patient could or would have infected others, perhaps before symptoms appeared, who would follow entirely different temporal courses of disease. All the while, different governmental actors enforced divergent regimes, tweets punctuated time, graphs showed a linear upward curve, and so on. If someone’s family lived in a different place, you might hear them say, “they’re two weeks behind us right now,” while e.g. Italy was two weeks ahead. Different communities would be hit differently, often depending on how home and work was organized. To read the numbers of hospitalized patients, or of the dead, was to look back a couple of weeks, to a moment of infection, and to imagine probabilities and courses of infection in “the now.” New York was living in a complete chaos of temporalities, as everyone tried to figure out whether and how to retain or replace existing ones, all in the middle of a “rapid” lockdown and those awful, near-“constant” sirens. Every new message inflicted scary information, true or false. When was all this happening? What time did one inhabit? Was it the same time as that of one’s intimates? Did kids inhabit the same time as adults? Did the aged? Did pupils after the school closures experience, thanks to Zoom, a fundamentally different sort of time pressure? Who did not find the shock of the moment to be concomitant with religious language (and zombie movies)? Even climate change (the apocalypse of our time?) had not succeeded in convincing political leaders that our time was falling apart, and Covid did. So, to what extent had Covid inflicted an irregular collapse of particular established temporalities, such that the law would be affected one way, medicine in several others, work time clashed with “essential worker” status and with medical rhythms, and so many borders—national, political, corporeal—were themselves in each case differently affected? This is what I meant before by repeating the “fragile consensus” term in describing the present: now it was broken. Every email, their tempo ever more punctuated, began by bemoaning “these extraordinary times,” or its author would scramble (at least I did) for a better term than “crisis,” given that at least since 2008, the language of crisis had itself become ubiquitous.

I hope the Covid example doesn’t come off as glib; it is intended to evoke the vivid kinds of temporalities that different people, institutions, were forced to confront—temporalities and rhythms clashing from the intimacy of the body to the grinding-to-a-near-halt of global capitalism. Our point is that such temporalities existed and competed already. The body’s time is distended by overwork; the body’s time is itself not simply one; intimate spaces and moments exist in the absence or presence of disease and certainly the omnipresence of digital organization; the temporalities of law and labor, the theologies of the time that remains. There are correlations between these temporalities and power dynamics. These correlations need to be studied further, and historians are well placed to do so.

And just to take us back to the book: several essays in the book, besides those mentioned already, handle other chronocenotic situations. Jamie Martin writes of the shifts from economic theories focused on the business cycle to economics of crisis and back to cycles in the decades around 1900; these were theories designed to deal with policy, uncertainty of current events, prediction, and so on. Andrea Westermann’s essay confronts the temporality of plastic on its way to becoming a geological factor. In a philological coup, Zvi Ben-Dor Benite discusses the invention (and backdating) of the expression “Long Divided Must Unite / Long United Must Divide” in China as a seventeenth-century mechanism for handling an ongoing dynastic collapse and replacement that contributed to the “cyclical view” of Chinese history. Our introduction glances at the competing and often conflicting temporalities of 1789, while Dan’s essay considers the different kinds of economies—political and emotional—that can be discerned in Revolution, with the attendant temporalities.

NW: Yes, it’s a great prompt, Jon, and let me chime in with a different sort of example: Australia in the 1990s. As counterintuitive as that may sound, it is a good illustration of one of those unexpected temporal clashes inside relatively stable states. If my chapter in the book explores how indigenous land rights movements produced temporal chaos for settler law in this moment, the legal story is in fact only one dimension of a larger recalibration of geopolitical, colonial, environmental, and spiritual temporalities. Their volatile interaction quite fundamentally rezoned the settler state in time and space. As mining and development projects on the “resource frontier” made questions of land ownership acute, a groundswell of indigenous activism and landmark court cases challenged and ultimately transformed the “origin story” of the state, drawing attention to the fundamental criminality (land grabbing, dispossession, and genocidal violence) of its founding. But it wasn’t only that the settler state now required a new historical narrative and ethical calculus, captured so forcefully in Prime Minister Paul Keating’s landmark 1992 “Redfern Speech.” Recognition that indigenous peoples had legally owned the land prior to colonization spurred the consciousness that they had done so for at least 50,000 years. Suddenly, an epic “new” history extended back into the quasi-infinite past, a history that revolved around the intimate and spiritual relationship of indigenous peoples to the land. As Miranda Johnson and others have argued, these new images and stories landed forcefully in a white Australia existentially adrift: as late vestiges of cultural and economic proximity to Britain dissolved, the country sought new ways of understanding itself in the world, in the region, and on the land. Vampire-like, perhaps, many non-Indigenous Australians hungrily appropriated this sacred, ancient past, which seemed to hold out the promise of redemption and meaning at a moment of disillusionment with postindustrial modernity. A mythic, spiritual timescale filtered down into the prosaic everyday; like so many of my generation, for example, I grew up with storybooks of the Aboriginal dreamtime. New selves and national identities emerged (the point, according to Keating, was “to bring the dispossessed out of the shadows, to recognise that they are part of us”). Many resisted and contested these changes, of course, railing against a “black armband” view of history, inciting a vociferous cycle of history wars and blunting native title’s radical potential. The moment of reckoning with indigenous rights, then, triggered an ornate chronocenosis involving the whole spectrum of social and political life: from the legal foundations of the state, origin stories, school curricula, and popular culture, to identities, subjectivities, and spiritual experience. The co-constitution of time and power was restructured, although no formal revolution took place. These time-knots and spectacular timescales continue to feature in public debate. In advocating for constitutional recognition, First Nations’ landmark 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart, for example, explains that indigenous sovereignty is a “spiritual notion”: unextinguished, it exists alongside crown sovereignty. “How could it be otherwise? That peoples possessed a land for sixty millennia and this sacred link disappears from world history in merely the last two hundred years?”

JC: Building on this, in your introduction you note “moral remainders” of historical injustices whose legacies endure such that they cannot be said to belong entirely to “the past.” At the same time, climate change and other catastrophic threats have entered us into a moral contract with future generations. Campaigns for justice, recognition, reparation, and restitution all delve into the time-power nexus and push legal thinking toward “transtemporal or intergenerational justice that might graft centuries into the same legal present and tie dispersed generations into a common moral transaction” (20–21). Could you speak to some of the ways the volume addresses shifting legal temporalities and perhaps some of their contemporary deployments?

NW: Law surfaces in many guises in Power and Time. Lauren Benton and Lisa Ford explore how the attenuated geographies of empire meant that justice came refracted through attributes of pace and duration—true for “slow justice” (as paper trails and protagonists inched around the globe and court cases stretched out over decades or even lifetimes) as well as “fast justice” (with swift, summary justice in the colonies triggering anxiety about petty despotism and the “constitutional dangers of empire”). Sunil Purushotham, meanwhile, reveals Jawaharlal Nehru’s evolving framing of postcolonial Indian sovereignty as a rich time knot, involving not only the mediation of problems of tradition, modernity, technology, and progress in an atomic age, but also Nehru’s dual practice as historian and historical actor.

But, Jon, you’re right that the urgent political and ethical questions of our own day make the relationship between law, time, and morality especially explosive, as we write in the introduction. The problem of intergenerational justice—facing both forward and backward in time—makes the combustible present one epic, sprawling struggle over the relationship between power and time, from reparations and the Rhodes Must Fall movement to the existential imperatives of climate justice and planetary survival. One can ask: how should we understand the responsibility of present generations for historical injustices like slavery and empire? But that formulation leaves the past at a neat distance, when in fact the heart of the matter is the dense way these processes sedimented into structures that are very much alive and ongoing today, dissolving any easy means of cleaving past from present. Similarly, in considering our moral obligations to future people for the state of this planet, many climate activists respond: “the future is now.” If we have important recent work on global spatializations of justice—I think of Adom Getachew on a “welfare world” and Samuel Moyn on “global subsistence rights”—it is not only the geography but also the chronology of justice that is (or needs to be) expanding. The elongated temporalities of decolonization and climate change render many simple forms of historicism and futurity limp and ineffectual. In their stead, the ethical present balloons out in all temporal directions—a kind of dark sublime—inciting us to live with and in “the past” and “the future” in far thicker ways, and to devise forms of politics adequate to the challenges of that expansive present.

JC: I know Stefanos is particularly fond of neologisms, and the “index of temporal terms” at the end of the book directs us to a number of striking concepts: “antichronism” (abolition of time), “temporal crisis,” “time of disease,” “historicity” versus “presentism,” and, of course, “chronocenosis,” your term for competing and conflictual temporal regimes. How might some of the concept-work in this volume speak to our present moment of intersecting crises?

SG: Don’t blame me! The terms in the index are in circulation already, and most of them aren’t neologisms really. Most are attempts in particular fields to develop a useful approach to temporality that sometimes defends the field and its particularity, sometimes announces a specific way of handling a temporal question. As we invite our readers to work on questions of time once more, these terms declare emphatically that a common-sense or empirical approach to time just won’t suffice. So we don’t shy away from bringing these terms together—because we do think that these terms have to be engaged together, they do their work most effectively together, and they have to be related to one another and often in competition with one another. The languages of time are not snakeskins to be shed as the real thing wiggles out of them; they are the fabric of ideas and social practices.

DE: Hopefully the volume will also serve as a reminder that, to paraphrase a famous French sign about trains, one historical regime can hide another. There’s a certain laziness to popular historical thinking, which can even seep into more academic work. We tend to subsume the present under an omnipotent symbol: the jet age, the age of information, the age of climate change. Each of these symbols encapsulates a tidy little history. The jet age: from the wheel to the ship to the car to the airplane—next up, flights to Mars! Climate change: industrialization, over-industrialization, apocalypse. But these shorthand historical regimes are deployed in mutually exclusive ways. Why worry about nuclear proliferation if we’re going to drown in rising sea levels? Do we still care about traveling to Mars if we’re busy mining cryptocurrencies? I think that one of the most interesting things about our current moment is that the many competing historical visions in circulation don’t share many common reference points. If you go back to the nineteenth century, or even the Cold War, the main rivals for the domination of history were engaged in direct combat, and argued over the meaning of the same events. Today, we have fleeting historical regimes du jour (anyone remember the Population Bomb?), but seem incapable of thinking about multiple historicities that are not parallel and do not always intersect. That seems like an important challenge for future historians to take up—at least according to this account of history.

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: Book jacket courtesy of Jorinde Voigt.


“‘The Present’ is Merely a Fragile Consensus”: An Interview on Power and Time (Part I)

By Jonathon Catlin

The edited volume Power and Time: Temporalities in Conflict and the Making of History (2020) appeared last year from the University of Chicago Press. The work is co-edited by Dan Edelstein (William H. Bonsall Professor of French and Professor of History at Stanford University), Stefanos Geroulanos (Professor of History at New York University), and Natasha Wheatley (Assistant Professor of History at Princeton University). Power and Time’s seventeen chapters span disciplinary approaches ranging from history, to law, to anthropology, to the history of art, and each illustrates how political authority is constituted through the shaping of temporal regimes in historically-specific ways: The expansionist futurity of the Nazi “New Man” meets the apocalyptic presentism of the Manson Family “cult,” meets the “deep time” of our Age of Plastic. In their introduction, the editors propose a new theoretical model of historical temporality, chronocenosis (inspired by the biological notion of biocenosis), a term which reflects not only “the multiplicity but also the conflict of temporal regimes operating in any given moment” (4). The volume goes on to explore competing orders of time not only as they are reflected in iconic moments of rupture, such as the French Revolution, but also in “silenced clashes” stabilized by often unnoticed but decisive temporal frameworks: “An aesthetics of power and time offers a way for organizing the complexity of power, for locating [its] multiple and conflicting temporal regimes, and for understanding how these get harmonized into a seemingly sinuous, often undifferentiated temporal experience that largely eschews conflict” (37). Contributing editor Jonathon Catlin interviewed the editors about their new volume.

Jonathon Catlin: This remarkable volume spans a breadth of geographies, periods, and historical methods so vast that I fear we will only be able to get a taste of them here. Yet all the essays hang together around the common framework of investigating “the co-constitution of temporal and political orders” (3). I wanted to start simply by asking about the origins of the volume and the 2015 conference on which it was based. Why did this set of historical-theoretical concerns strike you when they did as warranting new interventions?

Dan Edelstein: If memory serves, Stefanos and I discovered on a walk around Washington Square that we were both working in this vein. Stefanos mentioned at the time that he’d recently had a very similar conversation with Natasha Wheatley. So in a sense, we all stumbled on the topic independently, which led us to believe that it might be an interesting subject for a conference. And clearly others were also thinking along these lines: Christopher Clark was at the conference and presented his last Lawrence Stone Lecture, an early version of what became the closing chapter of his book Time and Power: Visions of History in German Politics, from the Thirty Years’ War to the Third Reich (Princeton, 2019).

So it is interesting to ask: why was time in the Zeitgeist, so to speak? Obviously there were a number of important works that had paved the way, though some of the most canonical had been out for quite a while: I’m thinking particularly of Reinhart Koselleck’s Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time (1979, translated 2004) and François Hartog’s Regimes of Historicity: Presentism and Experiences of Time (2003, translated 2015).

I’m not sure there’s an overarching explanation for why, in 2015, many intellectual historians were thinking about political theory in relation to time, but perhaps a partial reason has to do with the fact that it’s been a while since there’s been a “methodological moment” in intellectual history. The major methodological pieces of the Cambridge School were written in the heyday of pragmatics (e.g., Skinner and speech act theory) and structural linguistics (e.g., Pocock and Saussure). Foucauldian genealogies and Begriffsgeschichte have also been around the block a few times. I’m not suggesting that it’s time to throw out the old and bring in the new! But it does seem that there’s a certain periodicity to these kinds of debates and reflections. Notably, we’re not the only ones proposing new perspectives on methodology: Benjamin Straumann recently published a fascinating article on The Energy of Concepts” (2019) that questions whether we should replace our basic Wittgensteinian understanding of concepts with one inspired by Frege.

Whatever the reason, it does seem that the prevailing methods in intellectual history do not accord much room or importance to what we might call the “x-axis” of political thought. Obviously, intellectual historians think about conceptual change over time. But what often gets missed is the role of time within political theories. There are of course exceptions to this generalization—J. G. A. Pocock’s Machiavellian Moment (1975) being no doubt the largest. This particular aspect of Pocock’s masterpiece, oddly enough, did not spark much emulation. In general, intellectual histories, especially of political thought, trace the evolution of concepts between t1and tn, but pay less attention to the embedded narratives or histories that might underpin a concept, organize a theory, or chart a range of potential interpretations.

Stefanos Geroulanos: That’s my memory too (of how we came to the subject). For my part, I was bothered by a certain static quality characteristic of histories of concepts, a kind of inertia that shadows the privileging of “big concepts,” that stabilizes them into the same well-known periodizations. I had started thinking about the figure of the “New Man” and the role it has played in revolutionary circumstances, aesthetic politics, and also scientific policy. What did it mean that people proposed to build a “new humanity,” to change human nature? —when would that humanity be? how did it relate to the revolutionary situation or, perhaps more interestingly, to periods when it was pursued as a scientific goal—which followed an entirely different temporality than the political/revolutionary invocations? What kind of futures were these images of humanity depicted, imagined, promised, painted, sculpted (into stone or metaphorically) and in what relations did they stand toward the present, and to what present(s) for that matter? While Dan was working on revolutions, I was discussing this with Natasha, who was already working on the time of law and on historical right.

I remember returning to Koselleck with a deep sense of dissatisfaction about his famous 1970s essays. His way of working was compelling, yet it simply sapped the energy out of any temporal questioning in subjects and moments that I was interested in—it even foreordained the questioning. Multiple temporalities, acceleration, a certain German-centered vision of the nineteenth century—ok, thanks for the metanarrative, but this is a fully armored theory of modernity, whereas there are so many other spaces to mess around with time. So, where to go? We all seemed to have this desire to chisel at a new chessboard. By the conference in May 2015, this sense that Koselleck et al. insisted specifically on a particular regimen of multiple temporal regimes while most people working on temporality were striking out in different directions felt more intense for me. Caroline Arni had published a spectacular essay on the French Saint-Simonian Claire Démar who committed suicide just after publishing her manifesto; Nikolai Ssorin-Chaikov has a different, no less fascinating piece on the culture of birthday gifts to Stalin. Henning Schmidgen had written books—in the plural!—on conceptions of the temporality of the brain—and I love his piece on belatedness and forced synchronicity that we have in the book; Claudia Verhoeven’s essays on Russian terrorist temporality and its “wormholes” had led her to thinking about Charles Manson’s weird theories of time. These divergent approaches suggested a more competitive, conflict-ridden approach to time.

What made the canon all the worse, I think, was the limited range of alternatives: I thought Johannes Fabian’s 1983 Time and the Other (which is contemporary with Koselleck’s early essays)was useful in parsing relations of temporality and power in the anthropological encounter, but then it idealized coevalness rather than leaning on non-coevalness as the basis of all temporal interactions, including in matters of class, race, gender, work, age, and so on. Hartog’s approach to regimes of historicity, which is derivative of Koselleck, intentionally empties out the contemporary moment. So I felt that grasping at a new approach meant thinking with a number of criticisms of these figures. And I kept having that dreary experience where you engage a colleague who looks at you like an alien and a fool because you aren’t starting out with E. P. Thompson’s classic article, or with memory studies, or slams the hammer that you must begin with Heidegger or Benjamin or in fact with Koselleck and Fabian. But you’re no longer sure where to start out, there’s so much to work with, you’re not sure how to frame particular problems of interest, and the more you read the more the ground keeps giving. It is urgent to get time and its connections to power right. That was the coalescence of impulses for me.

Natasha Wheatley: One way of gathering together some of these themes, to riff on what Dan and Stefanos have already said, is that we had each stumbled into problems in which time seemed central, but not at all in its usual methodological guise of context, or anachronism, or change over time, or modern acceleration, and so on. Time wasn’t the property surrounding the object in question, but rather a constitutive feature of its internal architecture. Simplistically put: we were pursuing not so much a regime in time, but time in a regime. We were all hungering after ways of conceptualizing and approaching problems of that sort. And we wanted to do so dialogically, to think and exchange broadly with others in different fields and disciplines, and to hopefully generate new methodological oxygen and energy. I see the project as an opening, an invitation to think with us and the other contributors about the things power does with time. A volume with all the doors and windows left open.

In my own case, I’d come to such questions through an interest in law and time. A whole array of temporal operations are integral to law’s functioning and its authority, from its reliance on continuity to its formal use of analogy (which, legally speaking, collapses differences between times and places). Especially dramatic in this regard are understandings of sovereignty, which often comprise doctrines of perpetuity or immortality—something like a philosophy of history contained in sovereignty’s conceptual structure. I wanted to analyse what legal regimes presumed about and required of time—how they stretched it and collapsed it, arranged it and consumed it—in ways that were constitutive of their power and authority. I’ve found the history of science more methodologically generative and inspiring than a lot of intellectual history for problems of this sort, with its focus on what we might call the preconditions of truthiness—its attention to the internal truth structure of disciplines and fields and knowledges. I’m playing around with ways of drawing that sensibility into legal and intellectual history. Indeed, you see the influence and imprint of the history of science—and of anthropology—throughout this volume. Not least in the pieces on regimes of inquiry, whether Jamie Martin on the temporal imaginary of economic knowledge, or Joanna Radin and Emma Kowal on the time of the freezer and the “cryopolitics” of indigenous blood samples suspended between life and death, or Maria Stavrinaki on prehistory and/as posthistory and “apes and caves and bombs.” We’re all experimenting with different ways of cracking open the problem of time, reaching for a methodological expansiveness and subtlety capable of capturing the sorts of conjunctures we encountered in our research.

JC: I appreciate the way you collectively explore temporal regimes and their conflicts from the bottom-up, asking, “How is the fantasmatic unity that permeates most temporal experience made possible, and which frictions and chasms does it paper over?” (4). This question goes back to Kant, who answered in his First Critique, if not quite satisfactorily,that “time is the form of internal sense,” the synthetic apprehension upon which unified, conscious experience is based. Though time is the currency of historical analysis, historians have not always interrogated their (modern, Eurocentric, etc.) assumptions about time; hence your stated goal for the volume is “to relocate questions of temporality from the esoteric margins to the center of modern historiography” (4). “Temporal” and “global” turns in history were already proclaimed a decade ago, but you regret that “history writing on time has not really harassed the central categories of the discipline. ‘The past’ that historians supposedly study remains largely unchallenged in its meaning, ‘the present’ always too clear” (5). Instead, you write, “what we usually call ‘the present’ is merely a fragile consensus, a silenced clash,” and the same goes for naively accepted past presents (27). If this is the case, you write, the “presentism” diagnosed by François Hartog and others “is an illusion” (34). Do historians need a stable conception of “the past” they are analyzing? Is identifying one possible, or even desirable, in light of your volume?

SG: When we begin working on a particular subject, or within a certain framework, different agents and institutions fill these temporal categories of past and present with meaning in very different ways; they think in different scales, experience different kinds of temporal continuities, are perhaps differently traumatized, and so on. So: no, historians need the exact opposite of a stable conception of “the past” and the same goes for other temporal categories, “the present” included. Ethan Kleinberg has written more beautifully and effectively on this than I can. It would be unfortunate (intellectually, politically) for the discipline to pretend that the past is a single past. Or that the same moment even, examined at different scales, in different documents, or across different actors, is in fact the same moment. Why would anything different go for that awkward nexus we call “the present,” this moment we ourselves begin from? Just as you suggest, with reference to Kant, we all have some sense of the present, of time passing now; debates in the philosophy of time going back to Aristotle and Augustine have tried to deal with this problem. But as we detail in the introduction, this is indeed something of an illusion—not necessarily a bad one, just one that ignores all sorts of ways in which our temporal experience is synthesized out of very different temporal regimes. The way I would abbreviate our argument in our introduction is that the present, any present, involves the silent clash or fragile consensus you mention.

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: Book jacket courtesy of Jorinde Voigt.


Adorno and the Ban on Images: An Interview with Sebastian Truskolaski

By Jonathon Catlin

Dr. Sebastian Truskolaski is Lecturer in German and Comparative Literature at King’s College London and the author of Adorno and the Ban on Images (Bloomsbury, 2021), which traces the trope of the biblical ban on images of God (Bilderverbot) in the work of Theodor W. Adorno (1903–1969) and a number of his interlocutors. Its three chapters investigate Adorno’s “imageless materialism,” “inverse theology,” and “aesthetic negativity,” which together “reorganize Adorno’s uneasily systematic ‘anti-system’ around the notion of imagelessness” (8). While Adorno adhered to the maxim that “one may not cast a picture of Utopia in a positive manner” (140), his late work suggests that “successful” works of art “negatively intimate an ‘imageless image of Utopia’” (146).

Sebastian Truskolaski, Adorno and the Ban on Images (Bloomsbury 2021).

Grounded in nuanced close readings, the book also illuminates the status of theological figures in critical theory after they have “migrat[ed] into the realm of the secular, the profane” (81). In Adorno’s thought, Truskolaski ultimately finds “a restless and incessant dismantling of established philosophical dogmas that throws into relief a mode of thinking, and—by extension—living, that escapes the violence and coercion of the present” (13). Adorno’s “labour of critique,” the book suggests, holds open a “caesura” in “which a life free from domination might become conceivable” (151).

Contributing editor Jonathon Catlin interviewed Truskolaski about his new book

Jonathon Catlin: Your book sets out from the biblical story of Moses breaking the tablets containing the laws he received from God on Mount Sinai. Moses then destroys the idol of the golden calf the Israelites made to worship in his absence. It has been argued by the neo-Kantian philosopher Hermann Cohen (1842–1919), among others, that the ensuing ban on material images makes Judaism a “philosophical religion” and its god an “intellectualized” one (3). In their 1944/47 Dialectic of Enlightenment, Adorno and Max Horkheimer (1895–1973) invoke this conception of Judaism as an antidote to the mythic, dominating, and instrumental rationality they identify with fascism: “‘The disenchanted world of Judaism’, we are told, ‘propitiates magic by negating it in the idea of God’” (4). Could you give us a brief history of this figure, and speculate a bit about why two secular, materialist philosophers might have turned to it in that dark hour?

Sebastian Truskolaski: The origins of this figure, as you rightly point out, lie in the Old Testament—specifically at the point in Exodus when Moses (upon receiving the tables with the Ten Commandments) reproaches his brother, Aaron, for encouraging the Israelites to worship an idol. On one level, the point is simply that intermediaries, such as the golden calf, are insufficient for capturing God’s transcendence. This is a foundational precept of biblical monotheism: there is one God, whose laws—including practical directives for proper worship— are absolute. God resists representation by earthly means.

There is another point here, though, which has a wider philosophical resonance. Such a view of a transcendent Absolute runs contrary to what one might call an “animated” view of the world. To put it bluntly, if the one true God demands exclusive worship and resists capture in the form of an intermediary, then: (a) This rules out the possibility of “magic,” as apparently practiced in various nature religions—at least according to Freud, whom Adorno cites on this point; and (b) It casts doubt on the truthfulness of “images” more generally. Images come to appear as partial, even deceitful attempts to enter into a relation to what might loosely be dubbed “truth.” In a sense, this recalls Plato’s famous cave parable: submitting to the “charismatic power of the idol” is akin to accepting the veracity of the shadows cast on the wall of the cave. From this viewpoint, what is philosophically at issue in the biblical commandment against idol worship is negotiating what a more emphatic concept of truth might entail. On the one hand, the banning of images asserts the power of reason by disenchanting the images’ claim to capturing the Absolute. On the other hand, it comes up against the difficulty of how to adequately construe a relation to what these images apparently miss. Versions of this problem have been taken up by a wide range of thinkers over the centuries, including—significantly for Adorno—leading figures from the German tradition. Kant, Hegel, and Cohen, for instance, all cite the image ban in connection with Judaism at prominent junctures in their writings (for instance in Kant’s “Analytic of the Sublime”).

I think it’s fair to say that, for all their differences, these thinkers invoke the Bilderverbot to explore a shared question: What are the possibilities afforded by reason for entering into a relation to truth, be it in epistemological, ethical, or aesthetic terms? Adorno takes this question very seriously. However, he reads it in light of what he and Horkheimer call a dialectic of enlightenment (or of reason, if you will). For Adorno, the outlawing of images appears as an early instance of a rationalized approach to the world; but such an approach—or so the argument goes—always already contains its opposite. Reason reverts to unreason. To the extent that Adorno’s philosophical project turns on trying to immanently short-circuit this dynamic so as to arrive, prospectively, at a lived form of rationality beyond what he calls “identity thinking,” the Bilderverbot serves as a kind of case in point. Can this figure, which is implicated in the very dynamic it’s trying to overcome, serve as an occasion for the immanent critique of reason as such? On this point Adorno is close to Marx, to cite another thinker who was fond of citing the image ban: if pre-empting the shape of a world beyond suffering and domination limits the possibility of meaningful change, then the path to societal transformation must lie in the “ruthless criticism of all that exists.” It’s about weighing what reason promises against its inbuilt limitations. In my view, that remains a timely task.

Gustave Doré, Moses Breaks the Tables of the Law, 1866. Courtesy of Wikimedia.

JC: You write that “Adorno openly heeds the verdicts of his intellectual forerunners Nietzsche, Freud and Marx, arguing that ‘positive religion has lost its (. . .) validity’; that ‘[t]raditional theology is not restorable’” (6). Indeed, Adorno sees the waning of religious authority as an opportunity for critical thought. Yet he also derives an important insight from religion: “a refusal of the sense that that ‘which merely is’, is, in fact, everything” (6). Given Adorno’s skepticism of positive religion, what status do theological tropes or images in his thought hold? Can we call them merely metaphorical if they seem to play an indispensable role in his project?

ST: On my reading Adorno is a resolutely secular thinker, which makes the conspicuous recurrence of theological figures in his work surprising (at least at first glance). Religion and theology are, for Adorno, superseded forms of rationality—stages in the dialectic of enlightenment. However, insofar as these stages are conceived of dialectically, each of them contains a seed of truth. The yearning for transcendence is potentially emancipatory, but it too runs the danger of reverting into its opposite. The image ban might thus be read as an expression of the sense that something more may be possible, even if the particular shape of a truly liberated condition cannot be fixed in extant terms. As soon as one imagines something like a utopian land of plenty, this possibility is inscribed into the very structures it’s trying to overcome. Jürgen Habermas calls this a performative contradiction (Adorno’s thinking appears to him as suffering from a normative deficit). The point about the place of religion in Adorno’s account is to do with the broadly Weberian view that capitalism usurped the traditional place of religion in modernity, albeit with a certain modification. On this point, I follow an argument developed by Sami Khatib in his book Teleologie ohne Endzweck (2013). Khatib cites Benjamin’s fragment, “Capitalism as Religion,” arguing that Weber’s argument works in two ways. Through the usurpation of religion under capitalism, the positions of the old world-religions also shift. Accordingly, capitalism advances both the sacralization of ostensibly non-religious terrain and the profanation of a realm that was hitherto called sacred. Religion is entstellt, dislocated. This means that, in a peculiar historical twist, profaned religious terms gain a kind of afterlife in the critique of what, following Benjamin, one might call the “capitalist cult religion.” The image ban retains its propensity for gesturing towards something beyond the status quo; but it’s a beyond that must emerge from the immanent critique of the present, rather than as a divine incursion from “out there.”

JC: Following Georg Lukacs’s (1885–1971) quip that the Frankfurt School took up residence in the “grand hotel abyss,” Adorno has been derided for his supposed apolitical quietism and pessimism by critics ranging from Jürgen Habermas, to Hans-Jürgen Krahl, to Jacob Taubes, to Giorgio Agamben. Your book defends Adorno against their various charges, presenting his thought as a rigorous “effort to safeguard the minimal space within which something like a radical societal transformation might yet be thought”—namely by resisting capitulation to or apologia for the “administered world” of the society in which he wrote (6). How does re-centering Adorno’s work around the Bilderverbot bring out a less “resigned” Adorno?

ST: As you note, there’s long been a tendency to deride Adorno for his supposed quietism. For all their differences, the critics you cite share the view that it is impossible to conceive of something like societal transformation in Adorno’s terms. However, it seems to me that this misses something quite fundamental, namely that Adorno wants to completely overhaul the very terms in which we conceive of something like politics. Adorno is attempting to recast—from the inside out (ohne Leitbild)—structures of thought that he sees as co-extensive with the subjugation of difference. On the one hand, Adorno sees these structures as emerging from the material history of humankind, the speculative pre-history of subjectivity outlined in Dialectic of Enlightenment. On the other hand, it is precisely these structures of thought (what he calls “identity thinking”) that enable and sustain not only epistemic forms of violence, e.g., the subsumption of particulars under universals, but also the very real erasure of difference in, say, the Nazi death camps. Politics is what would follow from the very far-reaching effort “to think thinking differently,” as Derrida puts it with reference to Adorno; it means the prospect of difference without domination. But since the particular shape of a thinking that would undergird such structures cannot be pre-empted without being complicit in the problem it is trying to remedy, it follows that this “utopia of cognition” cannot be pictured. So how else does one arrive at such a position? For one, instances of what Adorno means flare up, albeit negatively, in modern works of art. In their own paradoxical way, works art stages what Adorno means by politics but cannot allow himself to spell out. It brings Adorno into an improbable connection with Heidegger, I think: short of a fully-fledged rethinking of thought itself (in its connection with lived reality), any talk of “politics” is bound to reproduce the injustices of the present.

JC: You’ve also co-translated, with Paula Schwebel, the forthcoming English edition of Adorno’s letters with Gershom Scholem that Asaf Angermann edited in German. These letters show Adorno reframing his negative dialectics for an eminent scholar of mysticism. You quote Adorno claiming, in a 1967 letter to Scholem, that his dialectical materialism, based on “the preponderance of the object,” defies any dogma or fixed worldview yet “warrants an affinity with metaphysics (I would almost have said theology)” (7). As Adorno similarly writes in a passage of Negative Dialectics (1966) that is central to your study, “At its most materialistic, materialism comes to agree with theology” (10). Scholem had already described Adorno’s 1951 Minima Moralia as a work of “negative theology”—a view Adorno found objectionable, but which has nevertheless spurred a stimulating discussion of resonances between these traditions. How has this exchange shaped your understanding of Adorno’s use of theological tropes?

ST: To me, the most interesting thing about the Adorno-Scholem correspondence is the way they approach each other’s projects from their particular disciplinary standpoints. It is characteristic of Adorno that since he cannot allow himself to positively articulate certain concerns, he has to circumscribe them; and, for this purpose, he often expresses similar points in a variety of different registers—philosophy, sociology, musicology, art/literary criticism, etc. He talks around the issue, casts it into relief. In the letter to Scholem that you note, he is, in effect, reframing the basic tenets of his negative dialectic in broadly theological terms. For instance, “theology” and “metaphysics,” as Adorno presents them, come to coincide because, ultimately, they are both chapters from the aforementioned dialectic of reason. They contain partial articulations of a “truth” that Adorno wants to present in terms of what he calls materialism, which is a version of the non-coercive thinking I mentioned earlier. The point about negative theology is interesting: on the one hand, it appears that Adorno’s resistance to picturing the Absolute is akin to saying, via negativa, that God is only what is not not. However, I think Adorno’s objection to this classification is understandable to the extent that negative theology, properly speaking, is still a full-blooded theology, whereas Adorno is not making a case for the existence of God—negatively or otherwise. In a 1934 letter to Benjamin, he insists, instead, that his position is better characterized as an “‘inverse’ theology,” which goes back to the point we discussed earlier concerning the dislocation of religion in the present. This is a “theology” only in a very qualified sense. I prefer to think of it as a terminological peculiarity that follows from a diagnosis of the historical currency of theology in capitalist modernity. Adorno assigns a peculiar afterlife to theological terms. The central points of reference are Kafka and Benjamin, rather than any established theological tradition. The flipside of this is that negative theology comes to play a prominent role in Jürgen Habermas’s criticism of Adorno. “God,” on this reading, is forever out of reach; and, to the extent that “God” might be substituted here with a less loaded term (say, politics), this is precisely the disqualification of Adorno that I try to argue against.

JC: Let’s dive into that critique of Adorno. Habermas figures in your book because, in a 1981 profile, he pejoratively described his mentor’s thought as a “negative theology”: His negative dialectics being without normative foundation, “Adorno is […] left with nothing but a vague longing’ for an amorphous ‘wholly other’” (73). One accomplishment of your book is, to put it polemically, to reclaim Adorno from followers of Habermas. You are not alone in worrying that “the reception of Adorno’s work has long been dominated by a slightly singular interest in questions of normative legitimacy,” an approach with a “broadly liberal” rather than revolutionary political orientation, which also sometimes diminishes Adorno’s work by seeing it as merely “a prelude to the achievements of the Frankfurt School’s so-called second generation” (8). Your attention to aesthetic dimensions of Adorno’s distinctive language and style (and not only his objects of inquiry), as well as your willingness to take theological motifs seriously, rub against the grain of prevailing “analytic” interpretations. Could you situate your work in Adorno studies and speak to some promising directions the field might take in the future?

ST: It’s true that I’ve tried to steer clear of the focus on normativity that—in my view—has (somewhat unduly) come to dominate Adorno’s reception today, and that seems to me to be a particular preoccupation of figures from the orbit of the Frankfurt School’s so-called second generation. In the first instance, I’ve attempted a sympathetic reconstruction of Adorno’s position on its own terms—and that includes engaging with the eccentricities of his “style.”

I believe that Adorno’s difficulty is essential to his project, rather than being a mere obstacle to understanding something he might’ve said more clearly in his lectures, or an occasional piece for a newspaper, or in a radio lecture. The point, for me, is that his main concerns are not independent of their articulation. It’s all a matter of presentation, Darstellung. The issues play out at the level of the text—that’s why they require close readings, or even a broadly deconstructive approach. I’m not convinced, for instance, that there’s much to be gained by trying to translate Adorno into terms that would be recognizable to many mainstream anglophone philosophers today. It’s partly a political point in the sense alluded to earlier: as I see it, Adorno was not principally interested in, say, legitimating democratic institutions through recourse to the power of the better argument. (That may have been true of Adorno the citizen, but it doesn’t seem to me to follow from his published works, whether that reflects his intentions or not.) As I mentioned earlier, the kind of politics that I see as following from Adorno’s writing turns on a very far-reaching effort to “think thinking differently”—and this is to do, in practice, with destabilizing established intellectual conventions, rather than assimilating Adorno to them (be they liberal, revolutionary, or whatever). One way this seems to be playing out in practice is by trying to imagine what “identity” of an altogether different stripe might look like, thinking with and beyond Adorno. That was something I took away from the workshop series on Adorno and Identity you co-organized this year: it’s important to imagine how thinking “differentiation without domination” plays out, politically, in terms of race, gender, or sexuality.

JC: I know you’ve also spent a good deal of time in the art world, along with doing your degrees in fine arts and visual culture at Goldsmiths. Your third chapter focuses on the importance of art in Adorno’s thought, showing that “for Adorno the significance of art lies precisely in the fact that it eludes theorization while, at the same time, demanding it” (134). You go on to explain how it is that “artworks speak,” seeking to express “what has become opaque to humans in the language of nature” (142). For Adorno, works of art express a “truth content” and have a “cognitive character” (135). It’s interesting to recall here that Adorno first studied to become a composer in the tradition of the modernist Second Viennese School. I was struck by the fact that Adorno still refers, in a 1963 essay, to Arnold Schoenberg’s unfinished opera Moses and Aaron (1932) as “sacred music” (55). What is at stake for you in this category after, as Adorno writes, “a secular world can scarcely tolerate […] sacred art” (53)? Can art still provide, like Kafka’s Odradek, a “photograph of earthly life taken from the perspective of the redeemed” (56)?

ST: Adorno’s wager seems to be that “advanced” works of art are paradigmatic—if paradoxical—products of capitalist modernity, self-conscious instantiations of the commodity form. As such, he suggests, they enact—at the level of form (e.g., through the interplay of their compositional elements)—a relation that anticipates what, elsewhere, he describes as a state of “differentiation without domination.” In his more pointedly philosophical writings, this is coded in terms of the subject-object relation; in his philosophy of history, it’s thought of as the dialectic of nature and culture; but in his aesthetics, it’s to do with a particular attention that works of art require so as to discern from them something that points beyond the present condition. Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron is an interesting example for Adorno, not least because the image ban is at the heart of the libretto. In a secular world, the opera cannot function as a work of sacred art, properly speaking; but the very fact that it poses questions as to the possibility of such art in the twentieth century is a testament to art’s enduring striving for something “more.”

It’s a productive kind of failure. The point about Odradek—the central figure from Kafka’s “Cares of the Family Man” (1919)—is related insofar as it serves as another occasion for Adorno to outline his “‘inverse’ theology.” The formulation you cite (“standpoint of the redeemed”) occurs several times in Adorno’s writings. It suggests a contradictory topography: how can Adorno presume to speak of a divine perspective given his self-professed abidance by the image ban? The point, I think, is to do with what we said earlier: for Adorno (via Kafka and Benjamin), theology is dislocated, entstellt. The polarity of sacred and profane is short-circuited so that the “messianic light” that he occasionally invokes does not shine from some transcendent beyond, but rather from within the cracks and deformations of the present, e.g., in certain works of art (including, significantly, those by Kafka). To put it differently, Adorno collapses the distinction between town and castle in Kafka’s Das Schloss  (1926). There is only life as it is lived in the village at the foot of the castle, if you will.

19 December, 1919 printing of Franz Kafka’s short story, “Die Sorge des Hausvaters,” featuring the mysterious figure “Odradek,” in the Prague-based newspaper Selbstwehr: Unabhängige jüdische Wochenschrift. Wikipedia.

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: Theodor W. Adorno, courtesy of DPA, pixelated by the author.


Depicting Extraterritoriality: An Interview with Matthew Hart

To many viewers of the must-see blockbuster film of 2020, Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, the seemingly dreary Oslo Freeport upstaged every exotic locale. The Freeport is a type of warehouse, usually adjacent to an airport, where oligarchs and antique dealers can store their art beyond the scrutiny of the tax inspector and expert appraiser. But beholden to no state authority, and armed with its own private military, its neon lit rooms also constitute a jurisdictional black hole that Nolan employs to great allegorical effect (in Tenet, the villain is storing a futuristic machine that can usurp the very rules of time). Innocuous yet secretive, sensible but violent, the Freeport is a gripping backdrop because it represents a type of space that we feel intimately familiar with, yet rarely tend to think much about. This is changing.

Freeports and Special Economic Zones, Embassies and Consulates, International Airport Terminals and Liquified Natural Gas Transshipment Centers, Refugee Camps and foreign Military Bases—extraterritorial spaces have taken on a new urgency for understanding our world today. With this resurgent topicality, a growing community of scholars are searching for extraterritoriality in new places and attempting to pin down an extremely slippery concept in the process.

Art critics Hito Steyerl and Stefan Heidenreich declare a new artistic epoch of “Freeportism”; journalist Atossa Araxia Abrahamian identifies a ‘mutant sovereignty’ lurking between the privatization of the sea and outer space; and numerous historians have sought to unearth forgotten genealogies and individual responses buried in police reports and diplomatic cables. Microhistories have proven particularly good at showing the imbrication of law, diplomacy and finance, like Alison Frank Johnson’s brilliant exposé of the “enabling fiction” behind human trafficking aboard a flagged steamship of the genteel fin de siècle Habsburg Empire.

Credit: Wynono & Co.

Matthew Hart, a scholar of contemporary British literature at Columbia, makes a compelling case for how literature constitutes an important place to look. In doing so, Hart also pushes us to think harder about how fiction can contribute to new histories of the state.

The extraterritorial, whether materialized in a social practice or spun into metaphor by artists and writers, gives the lie to zero-sum accounts of how humans, and the things they make, move across, under, through or above borders…The extraterritorial is more than a heuristic…It’s a speculative resource, which in its oscillation between the one and the many, the coerced and the free, has enabled some of the most brilliant artists of our young century to reimagine where we have come from, where we are, and where, in world weird and familiar, we might yet go.

First intrigued by stumbling across several uses of the word ‘extraterritorial’ in W. G. Sebald’s oeuvre, Hart found a persistent theme in the writing of J. G. Ballard, China Miéville, Margaret Atwood, Amitav Ghosh, Hilary Mantel and Kazuo Ishiguro. From speculative and post-apocalyptical fiction to historical novels, these diverse writers pushed against the Westphalian gospel of state sovereignty and seemed to weave alternative political geographies into their work. Extraterritorial: A Political Geography of Contemporary Fiction has a big and bold argument: that academics, artists, and critics have gotten extraterritoriality extremely wrong in understanding it as an exception or deviation from this Westphalian norm of modern power. In fact, “extraterritorial fracturing is one of globalization’s conditions of possibility.”. Alex Langstaff spoke with Hart about his exciting new book.


Alex Langstaff: You start the book by sketching out your own “historical theory” of extraterritoriality, a kind of critical crash course in the literature. How did you go about preparing this?

Matthew Hart: I wish I had an exciting answer! It was the result of several years reading and talking, systematic and desultory. I’d do the usual database searches and keyword dives— and I’d raid other peoples’ bibliographies, so that a week that began with me reading about Hugo Grotius might end up with research into the Ottoman capitulations. I also took some graduate coursework in the Department of History and the Department of East Asian Languages and Culture at Columbia, filling in gaps in my knowledge about political history and international relations. Finally, as colleagues and students got to hear about the project, they would recommend new things for me to read. That’s one of the things I miss now, having been working from home for months: the intellectual sociability that’s an irreplaceable part of hanging around a university.

AL: Italian thinker Giorgio Agamben has become synonymous in recent years with the study of extraterritorial spaces. Refreshingly, you’re skeptical about this. Why?

MH: Agamben’s work is extremely useful if you want to understand the abstract topology of extraterritorial spaces, which often follow what he calls the logic of the “inclusive exclusion.” Despite that, I’m unconvinced by the formalist aspects of decisionist political theories that identify sovereignty with, as Carl Schmitt puts it, “he who decides upon the exception.”

What such theories gain in theoretical clarity they lose in descriptive power. They don’t require us to say anything about the substantive content of laws and executive orders. What’s more, that formalism goes along with a thin historical understanding of how both states and extraterritorial geographies work. As I show in the book, extraterritorial spaces aren’t just sites in which states exert violent authority; they’re also spaces in which they relinquish, pool, or disaggregate sovereign power.

Finally, and this is where I know some of my friends on the left part company with me, I’m committed to a version of social democratic politics in which the state retains a legitimate redistributive and egalitarian function. Agamben’s political philosophy is basically hostile to all kinds of constituted power. That’s something I find politically disabling, as well as empirically and theoretically unconvincing.

AL: By idolizing the Westphalian ‘sovereignty-territorial ideal’, you say, we have misunderstood globalization as a crisis for the nation state: transnational practices are actually much more of a continuity, often initiated by the state. Why do you suppose novelists have often been better at registering this misunderstanding than many cultural critics and scholars?

MH: Well, I should first say that lots of scholars have also avoided that problem. There’s a long list of scholars—most notably, Keller Easterling, Eyal Weizman, and Giovanni Arrighi—whose work I depended on in developing Extraterritorial’s analysis of state and globalization.

But I do think novels can provide surprising insights into political geography. Sometimes, that’s because they’re working in speculative genres that begin by imagining a whole new secondary world, which gives an innovative writer a chance to reimagine the whole set of relations between political power and its spatial expression. Sometimes it’s because, as with Hilary Mantel’s historical fictions, they take us back to a world before the modern state system took shape. And sometimes it’s because the novel allows us to think about political power in ways that, as in Amitav Ghosh’s oceanic Ibis trilogy, exceed any single state or empire. Novelists aren’t obliged to respect the norms of international relations theory.

AL: Discussing the speculative fiction of China Miéville, and then the post-apocalypticism of Emily St. John Mandel and Margaret Atwood, you notice that “extraterritorial settings” can function as “a literary technology for making the world differently while acting like that difference is ordinary”. This banalization of radical change, of course, is also what makes extraterritorial zones so attractive to the powerful. Do you think the writers you consider are conscious of this parallel in technics between their craft, and statecraft? Does it irk them?

MH: I think some of them are conscious of that parallel: Miéville, for instance, and Atwood, both of whom have their own analyses of the ideological functions of art and culture. But my deeper instinct is to say that these are different kinds of banalization.

Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood, 2003

Speculative fiction often asks us to submit to what Miéville calls “the weird of genre”—to enter into worlds that are both strange and systematic, which differ from ours, but which nevertheless follow their own norms. Extraterritorial spaces such as the “pleeblands” in Atwood’s Oryx & Crake are great at manifesting that literary effect and playing with the tension between the routine and the extraordinary. But that’s different, morally and technically, from how states obfuscate the operations of power within an extraterritorial zone such as the immigration control area of an airport.

AL: The work of artists like Mark Wallinger, or Ruti Sela and Mayaan Amir, are threaded through the book. What do artworks allow you to say about extraterritoriality that other sources don’t?

MH: I think they help me do two things. They suggest that the patterns I’ve observed in contemporary fiction also have implications for other media. In that sense, they represent a small wager on the generality of my book’s conclusions about how aesthetic objects mediate geographic experience.

More narrowly, some of those very directly illustrate problems in political geography—which is to say, they illustrate it without recourse to allegory or metaphor. An installation like Wallinger’s State Britain, which he staged right on the edge of the protest exclusion zone that extends 1km outwards from Parliament Square, really helps clarify the spatial disaggregation of criminal law within states such as the United Kingdom.

Mark Wallinger, State Britain, 2010, The Tate

AL: I was struck by how many of the writers you examine have experienced extraterritoriality, and want to communicate this: Ballard in the Shanghai International Settlement, Sebald in postwar exile, or Mantel and Ghosh in their feverishly researched archives. Did you want to get at this ambient, ‘lived’ quality behind formalist readings of their prose?

MH: One of the central premises of the book is that extraterritoriality isn’t just a geographic phenomenon; it’s just as much a property of persons. It was important, for that reason, for me to spend time with novels that bring out that personal aspect, showing how an author or character’s experience of, say, time or national identity might be changed by living in an extraterritorial space or bearing the privilege of extraterritorial immunity from local laws. That’s why, for me, if the book has a tutelary spirit, then it’s Ballard, who lived the first few years of his life in the semi-colonial playhouse of the International Settlement, then endured the dark side of that history in a Japanese detention camp, and finally experienced his adult life in England as a species of exile from his own supposed homeland.

The Tudor-style Ballard family home in Shanghai in 2007, now a luxury restaurant. Credit: Andy Best.

AL: What is your next project? Does it continue any of this?

MH: I’ve just finished an essay that develops some of Extraterritorial’s arguments about the proliferation of enclave zones within 21st-century cities, this time taking on the racist myth of the Muslim “no-go zone” in Britain and France. And I’ll eventually finish a long-delayed article on Trevor Paglen, an artist and experimental geographer whose various projects raise really provocative questions about the relationship between extraterritoriality, state secrecy, and liberal democracy. But my next book is probably going to be totally different. It’s a work of family history, as much as cultural criticism or theory, about the Kellino family of performers and film-makers, to whom I’m related through my mother and whose careers bridge the transition from vaudeville to cinema. I can’t get going with it, though, until this pandemic ends and I can bury myself in various archives in London and Los Angeles.

Matthew Hart is Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. His other publications include Nations of Nothing But Poetry (Oxford U. P., 2010/2013). He is Founding Co-Editor of the Columbia University Press book series, Literature Now and the past President of the Modernist Studies Association.

Alex Langstaff is a PhD candidate in modern history at NYU.

Featured Image: The Oslo Freeport in Tenet, Warner Brothers Pictures 2020.