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Interview

Marx and the Birth of Modern Society: An Interview with Michael Heinrich

In 2019, Michael Heinrich published Karl Marx and the Birth of Modern Society: The Life of Marx and the Development of His Work, the first installment of a biography that is planned to stretch across three volumes. Kathrin Witter interviewed him about the book.

Kathrin Witter (KW): Until recently, you were best known for your theoretical introductions to Marx, including An Introduction to the Three Volumes of Karl Marx’s Capital. What inspired you to write Karl Marx and the Birth of Modern Society, a biography that covers the life and work of Marx from 1818 until 1841?


Michael Heinrich (MH): The theoretical foundation for this introductory work can be found in my book The Science of Value, of which an English translation will be published with Brill next year and  which deals with the evolution of Marx’s works following his dissertation in 1841 with an emphasis on his critique of political economy. For that book, I already had to dive into his biography to some extent, in order to shed light on the background of his writings.

In my diploma thesis in 1982 (which was published in a shortened version in Capital & Class in 1989), I traced the evolution of Marx’s understanding of capital from the Grundrisse to Capital, and I realized that one cannot simply isolate individual texts from Marx’s larger oeuvre. On the contrary, one has to consider every text in the context of Marx’s complete body of work. In a sense, I was thus already preparing for a book connecting Marx’s biography to the development of his thought—I just didn’t know it yet.

Realizing this fact required some biographical coincidences, or rather, contingent events. For example, in 2006 a good friend of mine asked me if I knew a good biography of Marx. I had a lot of complaints about the ones I knew, and when I looked at the ones I didn’t know, I couldn’t find one that I would wholeheartedly recommend. So, I started thinking about what a good biography of Marx would look like, at first without wanting to write one myself. What finally convinced me to tackle this project were two major insights.

First, the desolate state of research on Marx’s biography. Over the years, people have added a number of legends and half-truths to the more or less verified facts about his life. Biographers just copied other biographers, without revisiting the archival documents. New insights, published in the apparatus of the MEGA and some of essays about Marx’s life and work published in rather obscure places, were often neglected.

Second, I realized that his works had to be placed into their historical context with more emphasis than others had done before, but without reducing their existence to these contexts and thus without declaring them obsolete.

KW: What are the biggest problems with the numerous biographies of Marx, in particular with the English-language ones by David McLellan (1973), Francis Wheen (2008), Jonathan Sperber (2013), Gareth Stedman Jones (2016), and Sven-Eric Liedman (2018)?

MH: Wheen’s book focuses mainly on Marx’s private life and contains a lot of made-up stories. I don’t think it is a serious biography. Considering its time of publication, McLellan wrote a very good book, but he sees the late Marx through the eyes of the early Marx. The main problem with his biography is that it was published in 1973—before the second edition of MEGA, which contains several drafts, excerpts, letters to Marx, and biographical information that were previously unknown. McLellan simply couldn’t take these into account. Sperber is a well-known historian and like any other historian, he offers a great number of sources for his claims. But his claims are not always supported by the material he refers to. Sperber is an expert on the political history of the 19th century, but less so on philosophy and economic theories. His knowledge on Hegel seems to be mainly drawn from J.E. Toews Hegelianism—a solid book, but a rather shaky foundation for making such far-reaching claims on the relation between Marx’s theory and Hegelian Philosophy. Also, his understanding of Marx’s Capital remains superficial. It is  reasonable to ask how much knowledge and understanding of Capital one needs to write a biography. But in his introduction, Sperber makes it clear that he understands Marx as a figure of the 19th century, and that he therefore doesn’t think Marx’s theories can help us understand the 21st century. If that is his claim, though, he should have read these theories a bit more closely. To some extent, the work of Stedman Jones is similar. The somewhat programmatic subtitle of his book reads Greatness and Illusion. However, he ascribes more illusion than greatness to Marx. Steadman Jones is known for his contributions on intellectual history, but similar to Sperber, economic theory is not his strong suit. Like Sperber, he neglects recent debates on Marx’s Capital, yet claims that the latter’s program ultimately failed.

The best recent biographical work on Marx is certainly Liedman’s book. He deals with Marx’s work against the backdrop of debates over the last 30 years, but one could critique it insofar as it cuts short on some aspects of Marx’s life.

KW: One of the main problems of intellectual biographies is to define the relationship between the protagonist’s life and their intellectual work. How do you assess the link between the two aspects in the case of Marx? His life was partly dominated by political conflict, in which he was often directly involved. How important is it to have knowledge about Marx’s life in order to understand his work?


MH: I would say that there is a close relationship between his life and his writings. Of course, you cannot solve problems like how to prove the tendency of the rate of profit to fall by simply looking at Marx’s biography. But to understand the history of his work, and particularly why he started but didn’t finish so many new projects, it is necessary to look into his biography. Until today, critics and Marxists alike have often neglected the fact that all of his works were meant to be interventions into the political conflicts of his time. However, it’s not sufficient to deal with these conflicts and controversies on a general historical level. Marx delivered specific interventions that were quite different from those of other commentators. To speak appropriately about the development of his work, you have to take into account the ever-changing horizon of problems he dealt with, his changing enemies, and the specific source material he drew on. And in doing so, you already find yourself in the midst of his biography.

On the other hand, Marx’s biography is influenced by the development of his work: new insights led to new strategies and alliances, provoking in turn the dissolution of friendships and intense personal conflicts. The histories of his life and his work are reciprocally connected. To inquire into this relationship, it’s important to take into account his correspondences and his numerous excerpts. We now have the opportunity to do this kind of research because, in addition to the letters thatMarx received, his excerpts are part of the newly published MEGA. But looking into this is not an end in itself. In contrast to Sperber and Stedman Jones, who try to substantiate their claim that Marx’s works and ideas are mostly obsolete by historicizing him, I want to understand which parts of his works are stuck in the debates of his time and which transcend these debates, and which of the problems he dealt with are also problems of our time. In short: the ultimate goal of my ‘historicization’ of Marx is to update his thought for the contemporary world.

KW: In your book, you emphasize the fragility of Marx’s intellectual biography but also argue that Marx was able to quickly adapt to the drastic changes of his time. He was able to recalibrate his thinking while simultaneously posing the most penetrating questions. Could we read this determination, this preservation of a critical mind in adverse circumstances, perhaps as something like the essence of Marx?

MH: Marx was certainly keen on constantly gaining new insights. He also intended to think politically and revolutionary. Yet this is also true for some of his allies, and even for some of his foes, like Bakunin. Therefore, this is a somewhat vague statement about Marx. But it is important to understand and research how this determination developed over time—and with this, we are back to the fragile and contingent parts of his biography.

Michael Heinrich, Buenos Aires, November 2018, © Michael Heinrich

KW: In the annex to your book, “How Is Biographical Writing Possible Today?,” you write about the deconstruction of the subject, in a vein similar to the proclamation of the “death of the author” in literary studies by Barthes and Foucault or Bourdieu’s radical critique of biographical writing. Here, you emphasize breaking points and contingencies, and the importance of keeping them visible against the biographical fiction of teleology, and you speak in favor of Foucault’s method of discourse analysis. Yet formally speaking, you defend an emphatic notion of the individual throughout the book, and your project could thus also be understood as a counterpoint to the aforementioned poststructuralist methods. How would you describe your relationship to poststructuralism?

MH: Poststructuralism revealed a set of weaknesses in widely-held beliefs across a range of different fields of research. However, I am not always convinced by the proposed alternatives. The question of subjectivity is a good example. The concept of a subject which is the center of its actions, an entity in time, accessible to the biographer via the use of as many personal documents as possible—today, all of these assumptions appear naive. Still, most biographers, including those of Marx, work that way. But what consequences can be drawn from the poststructuralist critique of biographies? That all biographies are fiction? That we can’t speak of subjects, only of formations of discourse? These conceptions are just as misguided as the idea that history (both political and intellectual) is made only by great men.

On the other hand, I don’t support an emphatic theory of the individual, as you put it in your question. I realize that individual people are bound by structures and discourse, which have to be carefully assessed. Foucault’s Archeology and Genealogy can help a lot with this. But individuals can also transcend structures and discourses, and the possibilities for doing so arise from both subjective and objective conditions. The skills and accomplishments of the individual are not naturally given, they are mediated in manifold ways. And that’s not all. As a historian or biographer, you have no immediate access to a historical individual—for one because there are many blind spots in the knowledge that is accessible about any single person, but also because the biographer’s approach is influenced by its specific historical context. In other words: how a certain historical individual is able to transcend discourse and time depends not only on the actions and contributions of the given individual, but also on the perspective of the biographer. In sum, I maintain the existence of a coherent subject, but I also emphasize that a biography contains mediations, breaking points, and contingencies and dispute the idea of an unmediated access to the subject. Biography should not aim to reveal the “essence” of the person Marx; rather, it is about the permanent, contradictory, and often ruptured process that characterizes the constitution of a particular person under particular social conditions and conflicts.

KW: In the book, you write that you want to discuss whether Marx was “Eurocentric,” and whether he managed to emancipate himself from that view. Regarding his early works about India, would you say that he had Eurocentric views that he needed to overcome? Or was this historical-philosophical speculation an expression of a materialist universalism? I am specifically thinking about his assessment that India’s pre-industrial infrastructure never enabled the proletariat to organize and emancipate itself. Put provocatively, if this is indeed Eurocentric, would that be a purely negative thing? In other words, how important is the idea of a universal historical trajectory for social critique?

MH: Marx’s essays on India from the 1850s are Eurocentric in two ways. First, the developments in Europe are seen as the only path towards freedom and emancipation. Second, Marx assumes that the populations of Asia were too passive, too confined in their conditions to spark any change. Both of these premises changed over time, however. Especially the Indian uprising of 1857 convinced him to overthink his second assumption. And his ethnological and historical studies from the 1870s led him to realize that his first assumption was untenable as well.

A certain infrastructure, a certain level of technological development makes communication and organization easier, but we should be careful when it comes to technological determinism. A liberated society has to overcome existing power relations. This is not a question of technological development or industrial production. Today, we need industrial production to feed the soon to be 8 billion people on earth, and to provide a standard of living beyond mere survival. But emancipation can start in a rural community, which is one of the insights Marx gained in the 1870s. I would thus be careful regarding the idea of a “universal historical trajectory” you mention and would counter as follows: is the assumption of a “universal historical trajectory” perhaps a hasty generalization of very specific circumstances? In his letters from the late 1870s, Marx shows himself quite skeptical about broad assumptions like that.

KW: In the theoretical discussions of this first volume of your planned four-volume biography, you obviously focus on Marx’s early philosophical efforts, especially on his engagement with Hegel and his followers, and the religious-philosophical debates of his time. You claim that these early years are very important for Marx’s intellectual development later on. What are the most formative factors?

MH: Early on in his life, Marx encountered enlightened-liberal thought through his home and his school, especially through his father’s friend Ludwig von Westphalen. In his last school years he discovered Romantic literature, which was important for his attempts at poetry. His literary ambitions came to an end when he moved to Berlin and studied Hegel’s critique of Romanticism for the first time. It’s widely known that Marx became interested in Hegel’s philosophy; however, up until now, no one could explain convincingly why this happened. I think that he started to read Hegel closely because of the intellectual crisis he faced after reading the latter’s critique of Romanticism.

The timing of Marx’s turn to Hegel is important, too: Hegel was criticized by conservatives who increasingly viewed him as a subversive thinker. But he was also criticized by some of his more radical followers, who wanted to go further in critiquing religion and the state. The critique of religion in particular became more and more important. But not—as it’s often said— because people wanted to avoid the critique of politics. Prussia was deemed a “Christian state,” so the critique of religion was inherently also a political question.

Since 1837, Marx was friends with Bruno Bauer, a Hegelian theologist, who became more and more radicalized over the span of a few years. The Marxist tradition has often underestimated Bauer because it has only recognized the critique of him that Marx’s articulated in The Holy Family and The German Ideology. These passages, however, don’t explain why Marx and Bauer were so close between 1837 and 1842. And the critique of religion remained important in Marx’s works. If you read Capital carefully, you can find many explicit and some implicit theological references. Their purpose was not to loosen up a seemingly dry plot but rather to serve in an explanatory function in Capital.

KW: You criticize Engels’ understanding of “Left- and Right-Hegelians” as an opposition of “system” versus “dialectical method,” arguing against this binary of system and method and, more generally, questioning the widely accepted categories of Young and Old Hegelians. What does that mean for Marx’s work and the often somewhat naive emphasis on the development in his thought from idealism to materialism?


MH: The most common stories told about this period are filled with oversimplifications. Most of the time, Left and Right Hegelians are identified with Old and Young Hegelians. Left and Right Hegelians debated religious-philosophical questions in response to Strauss’ text The Life of Jesus. Old and Young Hegelians debated Hegel’s philosophy at large. The latter opposition in particular is way too simplified to understand the specific differences that mark the school of Hegelians in the moment of its dissolution. In the literature that addresses this question, there is no agreement on who is “Old” and “Young”.

Marxists have largely adopted Engels’ distinction between a Hegelian “method” and a Hegelian “system” without examining if this separation is actually valid. The specific political intention behind Engels’ writing on Feuerbach is also neglected. Engels didn’t put forward an in-depth philosophical examination but rather an argument against Neo-Kantianism as it emerged in late 19th-century Germany. His assumptions in The End of Classic German Philosophy (rightly, he doesn’t use the term “German Idealism” here) are based more on his personal memories than on an actual analysis. His intention was to show that one could draw very different conclusions from this “ending” than the Neo-Kantians did. We should not too readily categorize Hegel’s philosophy as “idealism,” at least not based on the definition of “idealism” that emerged in the second half of the 19th century and that is often projected back to the beginning of the 19th century. For Hegel, “idealism” meant conceptual work rather than what today’s common understanding thinks it is: a counter-philosophy to materialism. In that sense, it would be a blatant simplification to frame the development of Marx’s criticism of Hegel as a transition from idealism to materialism.

Just as with Marx, we have to be very critical about a great deal of Hegel’s reception and dispel a variety of myths and misunderstandings. Especially Marxists should not reduce Hegel to his relation to Marx, but rather start with understanding Hegel as a philosopher of his time. Only then the meaning of Hegel’s philosophy can be understood in a way that advances beyond the usual tropes, such as that Marx placed Hegel or the dialectic on its feet. Digging deeper would not only require considering the different stages of Marx’s critique and affirmation of Hegel, but also questioning to what extent this affirmation was adequate.

Karl Marx in 1839

In the second volume of my biography on Marx, I will deal with the question of materialism as well as the question of communism, which is inherently connected to it. I want to show that when Marx speaks of materialism, his aim was to discuss communism, and not the ontological relation of mind to matter.

KW: Your book is titled Karl Marx and the Birth of Modern Society. You assume that there is a continuity that has characterized economic organization since the 19th century, namely capitalism. In what ways does late-modern postindustrial capitalism today differ from the capitalism that Marx witnessed, and how does that impact Marx’s critique?

MH: If you compare the capitalism of the mid-19th century with present-day capitalism, you can see a great number of differences, ranging from the technology used over the organizational forms and the degree of internationalization evident in the structure of the monetary and credit system to the nature of state economic policy. However, very many of these seemingly profound transformations can be analyzed without much difficulty by using Marx’s categories. Central aspects of the operational organization of the capitalist production process were summarized by Marx in the first volume of Capital under the rubric of “the production of relative surplus value“ (division of labor, use of machinery) and, in the third volume, in the chapter on the “economization in the application of constant capital.” The former increases the rate of surplus value (and, as a consequence, the rate of profit), while the latter increases the rate of profit without changing the rate of surplus value. What we see in the 20th and 21st centuries—Taylorization, Fordism, automation, Toyotism—can easily be grasped by using these categories.

Regarding the form of wages, Marx already recognized the fundamental importance of the difference between time wages and piece wages. In the former, the capitalist must employ supervisors and control mechanisms to ensure a fast production process and high product quality. With piece wages, the workers themselves are interested in speed and quality; the capitalist in turn saves considerably in control costs. When today parts of the workforce are released into (bogus) self-employment, where they receive the majority of their means of production as well as their orders from their previous company, then they are, in fact, still wage workers producing surplus-value—it’s only that the company avoids the costs for the usual social safeguards, at least in Western Europe (paid vacation, sick pay, social security contributions). The social condition that Marx analyzed as “piece wage,” where the workers independently optimize their own work process in terms of capital, is taken to the extreme here.

To analyze the financial markets, Marx developed the category of “fictitious capital”: claims to payments are given a price (without having any value) and thus become a commodity sui generis. As a consequence, according to Marx, real capital doubles: it executes the movement M-C-M’ in capitalist commodity production, but, at the same time, it circulates as a claim to interest or dividend payments in the form of shares and bonds with a price. Today’s important financial derivatives (options, index certificates, etc.) continue this process and expand it: in the case of stock options, for example, we are dealing with claims to other claims that are traded and receive a price: a share is the claim to a part of the profit of a company, whereas a stock option is the right to acquire a share under precisely defined conditions. If I sell a stock option, I am thus selling an entitlement to an entitlement. Even if I stop at this point, it should have become clear that while there are far-reaching changes in the concrete form of capitalism compared to the 19th century, the categories of Marx’s critique of political economy are very well suited to provide an exact analysis of these changes.

Cover of the first edition of Capital


However, Marx was not only concerned with the precise analysis of capitalist conditions. In his mind, this analysis should always also serve a critical function. It should show that increasing social inequality and the destruction of people and nature—tendencies that are more prevalent today than ever—are not industrial accidents, but necessary consequences of this mode of production. So today, just as in Marx’s time, the question is how long we will tolerate the unreasonable demands of this mode of production.

KW: This brings us to today’s repeated talk about a crisis of capital due to the pandemic. However, upon closer inspection, we can see that while there are major losses in certain social and economic areas, other areas emerge from the pandemic stronger than before. Do you think capital is in crisis, or are we just dealing with yet another transformation?

MH: In capitalism, “reform” and crisis are not opposites. Transformations always take place by way of crises. It is precisely the capitalist production of goods that is characterized by the fact that people produce atomistically (although such an atom can be a large corporation), so that there is no social authority that controls this production. The social production process is independent from the individual producers, it appears as a kind of “fate,” as Marx put it in the Grundrisse: “The individuals are subsumed under social production, which exists outside them as their fate; but social production is not subsumed under the individuals who manage it as their common wealth.” (MEW 28, 96). In the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, the economic dimension of this “fate” was discussed in particular: is capitalism heading towards crisis or collapse? Contrary to such expectations of economic collapse, capitalism has repeatedly succeeded in reforming itself. Although it did not satisfy the needs of the great majority of the population, capitalism did restore the profitability of its production. Now we are dealing with a different type of crisis, one that has begun long before the pandemic: the ecological crisis that threatens the natural foundations of life for all of humanity. A purely intra-capitalist solution to this crisis, a kind of “green” capitalism, is hardly conceivable. Without significant interference in capitalist property, we will not be able to counteract this threat. But this is not simply a matter of nationalizing large companies. A mere change of ownership won’t change anything about the way of production. Beyond the question of property, it must be a question of what and how much should be produced and consumed, and how it should be produced. These are social questions that society must consciously address instead of leaving everything to “the market.”

KW: Finally: when can we expect the next volume of your biography, and which parts of Marx’s life and work will it address?

MH: The second volume is intended to deal with the period up to the beginning of 1845, when Marx was expelled from Paris. It will deal with the Rheinische Zeitung in Cologne, Marx’s criticism of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, and his exile in Paris, where he had extensive contact with the workers’ movement for the first time and where his critical examination of political economy and his lifelong friendship with Friedrich Engels began. I hope to have the manuscript for this volume ready by the end of 2021, so that the volume (as well as its English translation) can be published in 2022. The third volume will go up to 1857, and the fourth volume should then extend to the death of Marx—and a little beyond that: a good biography should not end with the death of its main character.

Translated by Anselm Meyer and Jacob Blumenfeld


Michael Heinrich, mathematican and political scientist, contributed to the MEGA (Marx/Engels Collected Works) for more than ten years and was, until 2016, professor for economics at Hochschule für Technik und Wirtschaft, Berlin.

Kathrin Witter is writing her dissertation on the reception of the so-called Frankfurt School in the GDR at Princeton’s German department. Her interest focuses on the tradition of dialectical philosophy since Hegel.

Featured Image: Close-up from the cover of Michael Heinrich’s Karl Marx and the Birth of Modern Society.

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Interview

The Fate of German Intellectual History: A Conversation (Part II)

This is the second installment of a two-part interview about the film Rosenöl und Deutscher Geist: The Fortunes of German Intellectual History by Richard Bourke (Cambridge) and Dina Gusejnova (LSE). For the first installment, see here.

Jonas Knatz & Anne Schult: Deportations and forced emigration from the 1930s onward entailed a rapid decline of intellectual history and its methods within German academia; yet, parts of this intellectual tradition quickly found a new home abroad, specifically in the US. Some of Meinecke’s students, such as Felix Gilbert, but also others like Werner Jaeger, Erwin Panofsky, and George Mosse were crucial for the establishment of the American history of ideas. In this sense, the history of Geistesgeschichte is not a purely German but rather a transatlantic one. To what extent is US intellectual history, and its trajectory over the second half of the 20th century, indebted to a specifically German approach?

Richard Bourke: The US historical establishment is massively indebted to the impact of German ideas, both under the influence of Meinecke’s students and more generally as a result of the sheer power of German thought. You cite the examples of Gilbert, Panofsky and Mosse. One might also mention Lovejoy, Hughes, Schorske, Krieger, Gay, Iggers, Jay and Toews. The question is to what extent this tradition has been advanced (or derailed) by a succession of intellectual “turns”—respectively dubbed linguistic, postmodern, and postcolonial.

Hayden White, Lynn Hunt and Dominic La Capra practised the history of ideas under the influence of assorted currents of French intellectual life. Since the 1970s, the impact of Michel Foucault has been considerable, as, more generally, was la pensée soixante-huit. Heidegger (and, to a lesser extent, Marcuse and Adorno) had a substantial impact on the character of the latter. Despite the enduring authority of Alexandre Kojève and Jean Hippolyte, the younger generation in France turned violently against Hegel, associating alleged teleological elements in his thought with the totalitarian politics of the 1930s—and, more parochially, with strands of Marxism that culminated in the French Communist Party.

Altérité, différance, and micropolitique were pitted against the aspiration to “totality.” Following the identification of rationality with “violence”—usually meaning coercive forms of occidental universalism—the West along with its culture fell under suspicion. As this cocktail of ideas mixed with debates about gender and race in the US, identity politics rose to prominence on university campuses, convicting past canons of thought of various forms of complicity with oppression. While sweeping verdicts of the kind gained ascendancy, intellectual history was met with misgivings to the extent that it was associated with its roots in Geistesgeschichte. Even its self-proclaimed cosmopolitan ambitions fell under the hermeneutics of suspicion: this, it was claimed, was a mere ruse for the goal of hegemony.

In a historically immigrant society scarred by the legacies of slavery, criticism began to focus on “exclusion” from dominant norms, symbolized by the existence of a Western canon of texts. The rising currency enjoyed by “history from below” helped to brand the history of philosophy as a kind of elitism. There is some irony in the fact that these amorphous indictments were launched under the influence of an alternative (no less canonical) body of writings. Conspicuous besides Heidegger were arguments extracted from Nietzsche and Freud, with Marx retaining at least symbolic capital in the process of arraignment.

Altogether, tools originally deployed to challenge and expose the philosophical foundations of Lutheranism were inchoately turned against the dominance of Western ideals in US universities. In all this the traditions of German thought were conscripted by the prosecution—often convicting German ideas among their opponents. If intellectual history was substantially a German bequest, elements of the same body of thought have been subtly abetting what looks like its demise.

Dina Gusejnova and Richard Bourke in discussion

Dina Gusejnova: I wanted to follow up on two points here—the transatlantic theme, and the “German approach.” In a recent discussion of the film, Emily Levine perceptively pointed out that the transatlantic story was not monodirectional. In fact, there were also many cases of reverse influence which are not touched upon in the film. To continue this line of thought, if we wanted to study the history of intellectual history in Germany more comprehensively, we would have to go into more detail about the paths through which ideas and intellectual traditions crossed the Atlantic. We examine the nature of this influence through a look at intellectuals who are themselves also historians of thought. They produce key books which transmit an idea of a tradition to new and multi-disciplinary audiences. I am thinking here particularly of Martin Jay’s group portrait of the Frankfurt School, The Dialectical Imagination, but I should also refer to Raymond Geuss’ The Idea of a Critical Theory. For Geuss and his work in American contexts, in addition to Critical Theory which influenced him in 1960s Germany, the intellectual influence of a Viennese thinker and exile in Princeton, Paul Feyerabend, and his 1970s work, Against Method, is also significant.

When it comes to the reverse direction, perhaps the most forgotten German-American influence, in my view, is that of Max Weber’s influence on W.E.B. Du Bois. Their respective biographers are of course aware of it, but there is a much more significant strand of reception here which intellectual historians should probably make more of. Du Bois’s relevance is often confined to the role of a scholar of race.

Wolf Lepenies, Professor Emeritus, Free University Berlin

One further element of the reverse transatlantic influence which we do touch on in the film is the institutional legacy of German and Austrian intellectuals at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study and beyond. Wolf Lepenies was profoundly influenced by his intellectual encounters in Princeton. While his book Melancholie und Gesellschaft remains a German long-seller and is very widely known, it is less influential among historians. At the same time, his influence on historical work involved shaping institutional and personal connections which cut across traditional disciplinary and national boundaries through the Wissenschaftskolleg.

Relatedly, looking at the influence of German thought on US history—rather than more narrowly, German intellectual history—I would follow the suggestions by Robert Pippin, who rightly asserted in his recent discussion of the film that we would need to account for the presence of philosophers like Jürgen Habermas or Hans Blumenberg in German and to some extent international intellectual life. In this context, there are the strange timings in their reception in Anglophone contexts to account for, which are partly due to decade-long lags in their translation into English. One important step in the history of this influence is, of course, France. There is the French reception of Heidegger and Hegel, particularly in Pippin’s own work, which leads to an important strand of reception within Philosophy, which then indirectly influences History. I am not sure I would go as far as identifying a specifically “German” approach that remains essentially recognisable through time—the problem rather is that there is an intellectual breadth which used to be widely represented in the historical profession in Germany but is now much rarer there.

JK & AS: As pointed out by Eva Marlene Hausteiner in the film, after World War II Geistesgeschichte reappeared as a subfield in the newly founded political science departments in German universities, where it became intimately linked to processes of postwar democratization. At the same time, its approach maintained a foothold in conservative history departments, where it was taught and shaped by a handful of influential scholars, such as Reinhart Koselleck or Hans Blumenberg. How would you characterize the multifaceted forms of Geistesgeschichte after 1945?

RB: The film largely concentrated on developments within the historical profession. However, the interview with Hausteiner, among others, shows that a wider angle would certainly prove fruitful. This broader perspective would include an account of approaches to the history of thought that evolved among philosophers, lawyers, and political theorists. Hans Blumenberg, whom you mention, was a figure of singular originality. His nearest predecessors were probably Ernst Cassirer and Karl Löwith, philosophers similarly interested in the modern predicament, which they analysed through the lens of long-term philosophical developments—in Blumenberg’s case spanning the worlds of Nicolas of Cusa and Thomas Mann. In his own time, Blumenberg enjoyed some affinities with Odo Marquard, but it is hard to think of eligible successors to his style of thought.

Legal historians also present interesting lines of development. Carl Schmitt is, of course, very widely studied today. However, other traditions contributed powerfully to Rechtsgeschichte, above all to the effort to explore the foundations of postwar German democracy. Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde, Michael Stolleis, and Dieter Grimm have contributed importantly to the history of legal thought, while Böckenförde and Grimm additionally stand out as significant political thinkers.

It is also important to recognise the contribution of historical political philosophy in Germany. Joachim Ritter, and the Ritter Schule, exemplifies the combination of normative inquiry with the history of political thought. Influenced by Weber, Wilhelm Hennis similarly sought to advance political theory as a form of practical reflection rooted in historical experience. Variously responding to the legacy of Hegel, Manfred Riedel, Axel Honneth, and Jürgen Habermas have also drawn on the history of political thought as a means of pursuing political philosophy.

All these thinkers stand out as considerable figures in the intellectual history of modern Germany. However, our aim was not to give an overview of the history of ideas, but instead to explore the fate of the discipline of intellectual history. That discipline has indeed been sustained in interesting ways outside of history departments proper. Yet our subject was how it had fared among professional historians. In that context, practitioners have largely rejected the rich tradition of making philosophy itself a subject of historical inquiry.

DG: I would throw in a small correction regarding the terms of the question here. I think that Eva Hausteiner, when speaking about Dolf Sternberger and the institutional founding of democratic theory in Germany, was using intellectual history in the sense of Ideengeschichte rather than Geistesgeschichte. Speaking of intellectual influences, I think it is important to acknowledge that some very influential intellectuals in German public life were in fact influential not through their work as academic Mandarins, but rather because of their professed dissatisfaction with German academic life. Hans Blumenberg is the best example of this. Generally, what Dolf Sternberger, Blumenberg, and even Koselleck (despite his better anchoring at Bielefeld, he remained less institutionally influential there than Wehler)–what they have in common was an intense preoccupation with language and the way language, through metaphors, vocabulary, and situatedness within various structures of power and influence, shapes minds and social life as well. Interestingly, all three were uneasy with the institutional landscape of post-1945 Germany but still did not find a way to attach themselves to alternative intellectual communities.

If you asked me, I would say the strongest fields of continuity both in Ideengeschichte and Geistesgeschichte in Germany after 1945 have been in three areas: Firstly, intellectual biographies and particularly  the biographies of intellectual communities, whether we are looking at the George circle, the Weber circle, as in the work of Gangolf Hübinger, individual portraits of particular thinkers like Weber or Meinecke, but also approaches to understand the mentality of workers’ milieux. The transitions from the study of milieux towards biography over time are particularly visible in work by Gisela Bock, for instance.  Secondly, there is work at the juncture between legal, constitutional, and cultural histories of various practices, as in the research on legal and symbolic practice by Wilhelm Hennis, Dieter Grimm, and Barbara Stollberg-Rilinger. Thirdly, the field of Problemgeschichte which emerged from scholarship in medieval history, particularly the work of Otto Gerhard Oexle and the school of reflexive historical research which he influenced. My former colleague at the University of Sheffield, Martial Staub, who is also an editorial member of the Zeitschrift für Ideengeschichte, always reminds me of the significance of Oexle for a wide range of research areas and laments his relative invisibility outside German scholarship.

Dr. Edith Hanke, Researcher at the Bavarian Academy of Science and main editor of Max Weber’s Collected Works

I would also say that influential Germanisten such as Karl-Heinz Bohrer, Helmut Lethen, and others have worked on aspects of intellectual history, as have cultural historians such as the Egyptologists Jan and Aleida Assmann. What interests me in this context is the relative fragmentation of the preoccupations with intellectual history among the figures I just mentioned, the fact that they are at home in other kinds of institutional and disciplinary frameworks. Having said that, there are certainly efforts to consolidate the German achievements in intellectual history of the last decade, notably an edited volume by Friedrich Wilhelm Graf, Edith Hanke and Barbara Picht, Geschichte intellektuell (2015).

JK & AS: Barbara Stollberg-Rilinger, one of the interviewees in your film, currently serves as co-editor of the Zeitschrift für Ideengeschichte. Founded in 2007, this journal is in many ways a product of the very history you narrate in the film. Indeed, in the journal’s mission statement, the editors describe the project as “consciously genealogical,” drawing on the tradition of the Meinecke circle but also making explicit reference to the American Journal of the History of Ideas, where émigré historians like Ernst Cassirer, Paul Oskar Kristeller and others found an intellectual community. At the same time, the editors wish to reestablish Geistesgeschichte as a broad-scale methodology in German academia that reaches beyond disciplinary boundaries: “In the midst of the village of the humanities,” they write, “there are the green pastures of the history of ideas, akin to a common land shared by all.” What is the status of German intellectual history today, and how (or where) do you see its future?

DG: Regarding the last part of the question, I interpret this in the first instance as a question about intellectual history both on Germany and in Germany, but not necessarily institutionalized in History departments. I see a lot of current work in German intellectual history being done on the intellectual and cultural history of the Bundesrepublik, and this seems to be where a lot of the new interest in the field is. There is also a lot of research at the intersection between cultural and diplomatic history, particularly of the Cold War.

There is certainly now also a cosmopolitan and comparative strand in intellectual history as practiced in Germany, so you could say that after a Sonderweg period, German intellectual history has been aufgehoben in the Hegelian sense of the term, even though this would have hardly been to his likingIt is noteworthy that from eight classic essays included in the “Basistexte” edition by Barbara Stollberg-Rilinger on Ideengeschichte (2010), only two are by German authors (Koselleck and Luhmann). Eva Marlene Hausteiner examines British imperial mentalities and studies federalism in comparative perspective. The list goes on with work on the History of Science at various Max Planck Institutes and, more recently, collaborative work on the history of ideology associated with the FU.

The one area where there is a particular German peculiarity that persists, and I think this has only intensified in the post-1945 era, is the German tradition of critical editions. In the film, it is Edith Hanke who conveys something behind the spirit of this type of endeavour. She has dedicated a large part of her scholarly life to the coordination of a mammoth project, the critical edition of Max Weber’s Nachlass. This whole tradition of Historisch-Kritische Ausgaben sits alongside academic and public-private research institutes, and doesn’t really exist anywhere else in this form, to my knowledge, but in Germany. Editorial projects like hers, and other grand projects such as the Nietzsche edition or the Hegel edition, constitute comprehensive contextualist efforts towards understanding past thinkers, and endeavours like this are certainly inspired by the philological care exhibited by some of the earlier traditions which Suzanne Marchand discusses when she talks about the roots of intellectual history in theology.

Suzanne Marchand, Boyd Professor, Louisiana State University

In terms of the institutional settings for this kind of work, only a fraction is conducted within History departments or what is now called research-led teaching (the so-called Humboldt model). Key intellectuals work in a research capacity for private or research-only institutions such as the Einstein Forum, the Hamburg Institute for Social Research, and indeed journals like the ZIG. One of the founding editors of the journal, Warren Breckman, has used the magazine’s success to question the decline theme in our film, and described it as a “self-conscious effort to revive the tradition of intellectual history in Germany. It has been, by most criteria, a success, but both the editors, authors, and readers of the Zeitschrift are mainly not historians. The persistence and now reinvigoration of intellectual history in Germany is perhaps even more interdisciplinary than is the practice of intellectual history in the American tradition.” Its chief editor, Stephan Schlak, has recently published a biography of Wilhelm Hennis, whose intellectual presence in West Germany is underappreciated by English-speaking scholars of German thought. All this certainly suggests a vibrant interest in the subject, but one which thrives, contrary to what you indicate, on private lands to which all are theoretically invited, rather than on common land already shared by all—and certainly not on land owned by German History departments. Also noteworthy is the lack of focus on fields such as the intellectual history of the GDR, the reception of German thought in non-Western countries, etc. Our film sadly mirrors these gaps rather than filling them, but there is always more work to be done.


Richard Bourke is Professor of the History of Political Thought at the University of Cambridge. He has published widely in enlightenment and post-enlightenment intellectual history and political theory.

Dina Gusejnova is Assistant Professor in Modern European History at the LSE. She has published on German intellectual history and political thought in European and global contexts.

Jonas Knatz is a PhD Student in New York University’s History Department. He works on 20th century European intellectual history.

Anne Schult is a PhD Candidate in New York University’s History Department. Her current research focuses on the intersection of migration, law, and demography in 20th-century Europe.

Featured Image: Close-up of a German manuscript. Unless noted otherwise, all images are stills from the film.

Categories
Interview

The Fate of German Intellectual History: A Conversation (Part I)

In October, Richard Bourke (Cambridge) and Dina Gusejnova (LSE) released the film Rosenöl und Deutscher Geist: The Fortunes of German Intellectual History, an exploration of German intellectual history from the 19th century to the present. Contributing editor Jonas Knatz and editor Anne Schult spoke with Bourke and Gusejnova about documenting intellectual history in film, the “tragic plot” of 20th-century German intellectual history, and its legacies within and beyond contemporary German academia.

Jonas Knatz & Anne Schult: Your film presents a metahistory of the German history of ideas. Choosing to do this project as a documentary film rather than a book or special issue brings up interesting questions about the medium of intellectual history. Why did you decide to turn to a format that has both audio and visual components? And what does German intellectual history sound and look like?

Dina Gusejnova: Before this project, Richard had planned a workshop on the history of intellectual history, and some of the ideas behind the film had been originally intended as a contribution to this workshop in the form of a more conventional paper. I wanted to look at the history of a certain way of studying intellectual currents which emerged out of German academic traditions. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, in retrospect, the conference for which this paper had been intended did not take place. But by this point, we had started a protracted conversation on these topics, during which the idea materialised to conduct a series of interviews.

Since we knew we were going to have at least ten different speakers, it became clear that film was a more appropriate medium. Generally, the film format enables the viewer to follow one long conversation with multiple participants without losing the plot, and to provide a minimal sense of location for otherwise rather abstract conversations. Early in the process, I was successful in getting funding from the ZEIT-Stiftung. Looking for the appropriate format for the idea, we drew on a combination of experiences with radio, film, and education podcasting, such as BBC Radio 4 or new public science platforms such as Postnauka and Serious Science. At one point, it transpired that we had also both watched the Harry Kreisler series for UC Berkeley, “Conversations with History.” Most recently, Frederick Baker in cooperation with the Austrian Academy of Sciences and two historians, Johannes Feichtinger and Heidemarie Uhl, directed a film called “Exile and Excellence,” about the scholars expelled from Austria after 1938 and their influence in various fields, focusing on the Natural Sciences and Literature. All these examples were useful in thinking about the right format for this project.

The main building of the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin (WIKO)

Hayden White’s term “metahistory” has some validity here insofar as there is an element of “tragedy” in the emplotment of part of the story, and also an element of contextualism in the approach. We were trying to make use of the medium’s capacity for counterpoint. Images and music do not just reinforce the spoken word but can also be used to express doubts or contradictions, at least for those viewers who are willing to engage with it on this level. The particular images we used convey the “tragic” dimension of the plot line, while the music captures more of the question marks and the ambiguities. The look of the film was largely the work of our producer and director of photography, Olga Lagun. It was her idea to start exploring the surroundings of the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin (WIKO) in detail, and the result was this evocative set of nearly still images of various dying plants, together with some shots of the bürgerliche atmosphere of the WIKO’s dark-paneled interiors in which we arranged some literature relevant to the subject. If you know the history of the building and its surroundings, you have an additional story to go by in thinking about the peculiar setting of the conversations. The building is itself a witness of the history we are recovering.

The main villa in Wallotstraße in Berlin-Grunewald, where most of the filming took place, had passed from private wealth of the emergent upper-middle class elite of the late Wilhelmine empire to Hermann Göring’s community defence organisation against air raids, to the British occupation forces, which used it as an officer’s mess, before being taken over by the Berlin Senate and then finally used as a School of Advanced Study. Some filming takes place at the nearby “Gleis 17” memorial to the deportation of the Jews from Berlin, which in my view is still by far the most powerful Holocaust memorial.

Rails leading out of Berlin

Taken together, these visual materials can be used as a critical commentary to Meinecke’s characteristically idealist statement from 1924, in which he argued that “[t]he ideology of a major thinker, generated by the experiences of their time, is like the essence distilled from hundreds of roses.”[1] The images of dried rosebushes on a particularly dreary December day in Grunewald are not an illustration of the quote but perhaps more a hint at what happened to Friedrich Meinecke’s students, many of whom were Jewish and/or social democrats and were either forced into exile in the US and elsewhere, like Felix Gilbert, or died in Nazi-occupied Europe, like Hedwig Hintze, who most likely committed suicide in 1942. I think the film people call these types of secondary images “B-rolls”—they can be used to connect themes but also to contradict, to offer the viewer a space and location for their own thinking. In short, the idea here is that the visual background locates the conversation more or less in one space (though locations have also included Queen Mary University of London and LSE), rather than changing locations every time the story changes as well in a way that a conventional documentary might have done. Just as the camera switches between Gleis 17 and the Villa, the viewer can choose to focus on 1933-45 or “now” as the story’s main vanishing point, depending on their preference.

The tragic plot line conveyed in the B-rolls is therefore a question mark as much as an answer. In fact, I would argue that it is not clear in the light of the conversations whether the tragic story line really prevails at all. At the very least, the more tragic opening provokes the viewer to assess the present, which is why Eva Marlene Hausteiner’s discussion of democracy today prompts the camera to return to these railway images, but this time, focusing on the present-day tourists visiting the site rather than the history of the deportations etc.

Dr. Eva Marlene Hausteiner, Researcher at the Institute for Political Science and Sociology, University of Bonn

To evoke a greater sense of doubt concerning the direction of the story was mostly the job of the music. I wanted to find music by a composer coming from the same milieux as our various thinkers, but the question was how to find something which is suitable to the longer-term story.  I was torn between a particular piece by Mendelssohn and something by Bach, and in the end settled for the most and the least characteristic of Bach’s works. The most canonical piece—in both senses, forgive the pun—is the “Thema Regium,” the King’s Theme from the Musical Offering, which was Bach’s interpretation of a theme composed by Frederick II of Prussia himself [BWV 1079]. Dan Tidhar, a harpsichordist based in Cambridge, who was preparing a set of concerts and talks on Bach around the time we were making the film, was kind enough to record it for us in a way that sounds more improvised, so that we could extract elements of both pieces to be used in distinct parts of the film. The royal theme offers a hint of connection from the early story of Prussia as conveyed by Chris Clark to the world of Princeton where, in our story, Quentin Skinner met Kurt Goedel, the logician whose intellectual preoccupations have been so closely linked to Bach’s, at least in Douglas Hofstadter’s classic book.

Chris Clark, Regius Professor of History, University of Cambridge

The other piece that you hear is one of Bach’s Goldberg Variations (BWV 988), number 25. It is famous precisely because it sounds so uncharacteristic of its period, or, indeed of most of the 30 variation cycle. It could easily be identified as Romantic, with its heavy use of chromatic and almost discordant sound. This anachronistic character comes out even more strongly if performed at a much slower pace and on its original instrument, like Dan Tidhar does. Again, a side story if you know it is the name this variation subsequently acquired, the “Black Pearl,” coined by the great Polish Jewish harpsichordist Wanda Landowska, a star in her day who taught in Berlin around the time of the First World War and later emigrated to France and the United States, and whose performances of Bach have been sadly superseded by the global marketing of Glenn Gould. In my view, there is a certain relentlessness to the progression of musical ideas in all Bach variations which underlines a different line of our story as well—that Meinecke’s proverbial essences, or musical ideas such as Bach’s, can be developed in new places and even in the absence of those intellectual communities who had originally generated them.

All in all, using the medium of film enabled us, I hope, to tell a multi-perspectival history, a conversational setting in which viewers can find a space for their own thoughts which may well disagree with what they see or hear. At the same time, I should add that no medium is in itself a solution to an intellectual problem, so if you are not convinced by the story the film ends up telling, don’t blame it on the medium.

JK & AS: Throughout the 19th and early 20th century, German scholarship proved extraordinarily influential across a range of sciences beyond the country’s borders. In conversations with a group of contemporary scholars from the US, the UK, and Germany, your film argues that, by contrast, its influence declined significantly from the 1920s onward. In 1924, Friedrich Meinecke memorably still likened major intellectual works to “the essence distilled from hundreds of roses” in his Die Idee der Staatsräson in der neueren Geschichte—but what happened to the titular “fortunes” of German intellectual history after?

Richard Bourke: German intellectual life in the broadest sense exercised a tremendous influence across Europe and throughout the Anglophone world from the era of Kant down to the 20th century and beyond. Our concern was with a specific domain of the historical sciences. We were interested in the historicist sensibility that has pervaded the humanities and social sciences in Germany since Herder, and the way in which this sensibility gave rise to a preoccupation with the history of ideas. This preoccupation is variously apparent in Hegel, Dilthey, and Nietzsche considered as thinkers generally, but it constituted a professional focus for Friedrich Meinecke as an academic historian. Our film was not primarily concerned with the history of ideas in Germany as such, but with the fate of intellectual history within the historical profession. Meinecke was never the pivot of German intellectual life, but he was a central figure in the career of German historiography. As such, he represents a high-point for the discipline of intellectual history as the leading international practitioner in the first third of the 20th century.

We asked interviewees where they thought the sources of German intellectual history before Meinecke lay, and in their answers they took us back through the worlds of Ideengeschichte, Geistesgeschichte, and Sozialwissenschaft to the German historical school of law and its great rival Hegel, and finally to the history of biblical scholarship, whose practitioners developed a keen sense of the historical relativity of the Christian and Jewish faiths as expressed in their official documents of revelation. The suggestion is not that all this “culminates” in Meinecke, but that Meinecke studied and channeled many of these influences and put them at the disposal of the historical profession in the form of intellectual history.

Meinecke did not deliver the answer to all our questions as historians—far from it—but he did represent a formidable example of an academic historian who drew on Germany’s vast philosophical traditions in building the discipline of intellectual history. Other highly distinctive figures across the same period likewise were consciously steeped in these traditions—Heidegger, Simmel, Schmitt, Cassirer, Arendt, and Adorno are just some examples. Yet clearly none of these thinkers were professional historians.

The question naturally emerges: who succeeded Meinecke in the project of intellectual history after WWII in Germany? A great many of his students were victims of the rise of National Socialism, and accordingly emigrated. So who assumed his mantle in the land of his birth? It is hard to find a comparable figure after the 1950s. Which German historian since can boast an equivalent command of the German philosophical tradition? Reinhart Koselleck, although he lacked any connection to Meinecke, stands alone among postwar German historians as one steeped in the full range of philosophical and historiographical traditions spawned by German idealism. Who else might even notice or care that the aspiration to such a facility disappeared inside the historical profession? Karl Mannheim proved influential for a time in trying to develop a historical sociology of knowledge, yet by the 1970s his approach had largely been collapsed into the study of classes (or professions) and their attendant intellectual “interests.”

Quentin Skinner, Barber Beaumont Professor of the Humanities, Queen Mary University of London

The story of relative decline is not exclusive to Germany. Paul Veyne, Gerald Stourzh, J.G.A. Pocock, Quentin Skinner, Anthony Grafton, Natalie Zemon Davis, Richard Tuck, and Lorraine Daston present examples of historians immersed in wider learning, and naturally there are major intellectual figures among younger historians. However, in general, professionalization has come at the cost of a certain narrowing of the craft. It followed the reduction in competence across disciplines in the era of putative inter-disciplinarity. The point is: there are perhaps fewer exceptions to this trend in Germany than one might hope. Individual outstanding figures like Wolfgang Mommsen and Ernst Nolte kept the diverse traditions of German Geistesgeschichte alive, but in general its achievements came to be shunned. First the history of ideas was variously associated with nationalism, historicism, and teleology; later it was identified with epiphenomenalism, obscurantism, and elitism. Karl Popper was an influence in the early stages of disavowal, with the forces of 1968 becoming decisive subsequently. More recently, German academics have tended to follow American trends. Where once they set the terms of US intellectual debate, today they are often consumers of the results reflected back at them having been refashioned and repackaged across the Atlantic.

DG: The topic of our film encapsulates a narrative challenge because the subject of the story changes with every period being covered. Then again, you might object that this is probably a problem that any study of a longer intellectual tradition will face. The focus of the canvas story is on the waning of the Meinecke galaxy within the discipline of History in Germany and its re-emergence in Anglophone contexts, but this has to be put in relation to the wider intellectual world in the long 20th century. In this wider world, it is difficult to delineate the boundaries of History in relation to fields such as Philosophy, Politics, orCritical Theory. If one broadens the perspective to include these fields and departments, there are a range of German stars and planets that continue to emit influence, some of which are rediscovered after 1945.

Martin Jay, Ehrman Professor of European History Emeritus, University of California, Berkeley

In his critical comments after seeing the film, Martin Jay asked: “Where were the Dadaists, Brecht, Mann, etc. in the story? The ignoring of Critical Theory, which developed alongside rather than at the heart of the mandarin tradition, speaks to this lack.” We could not agree more with the validity of this statement—and yet, when it comes to the discipline of History as practiced in Germany after 1945, all we can do is throw the ball back. Indeed, where is the influence of these figures on German historical thought—note, not historical writing on Germany—since the 1960s? It is clear—and this is of course why we invited Martin Jay himself to speak—that in and through scholarship such as his own and that of many of his students, Critical Theory continues to have a lasting influence on the discipline of History and the work of intellectual historians currently working in this field in US academia. I will only mention Sam Moyn here, who, in fact, kindly agreed to moderate the recent film discussion organised by the Council for European Studies, or the work of various intellectual historians represented in volumes edited by Peter Gordon and John McCormick under the title Weimar Thought (2017), or by Warren Breckman, Sam Moyn, Peter Gordon, Dirk Moses and Elliot Neaman, The Modernist Imagination (2009), which explicitly draws out the influence of Martin Jay on innovative work in the humanities more broadly that is inspired by Critical Theory. Separately from this trajectory, Raymond Geuss’s work has also pushed against the anti-historical strand of political thinking on both sides of the Atlantic, particularly in political theory.

But in Germany, of all places, institutions such as the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research have always focused more on Social and Political Theory and normative questions than on History. Yes, Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, and, nearly twenty years later, Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man, were cult reading in Germany, too. There are influential German historians of the Frankfurt School, such as Rolf Wiggershaus. There are also historians and social theorists who have engaged closely with the legacies of Critical Theory, such as Gisela Bock and Rahel Jaeggi. There is the reception among Germanisten, many of whom work at the juncture between academia and establishment media. But this is very different from saying that Critical Theory has influenced German historians in their craft, or pushed social or political theorists to be more historical in their thinking.

In Britain, things look different again. To continue the galaxy metaphor, the figure of Meinecke himself may be fading from view, but some of his students gain much more visibility in places like Princeton and pass on their ideas to others. If you take Quentin Skinner’s reflections on his engagement with Felix Gilbert’s work and the presence of the German and Austrian exiles in Princeton further, you could even see previously hidden connections between the way the Meinecke galaxy had worked at the interstices of philosophy and history before 1945, and the way Skinner himself subsequently developed the intellectual field that      he shaped in so many ways from the early 1970s—even though his own account of the major influences on his ideas stresses the predominance of figures such as Collingwood. So you might argue that one of the fortunes of German intellectual history was that it became intellectual history as such—very much in the spirit of most of Meinecke’s own students, in fact, many of whom were not working on Germany at all. 

Martin Ruehl, University Senior Lecturer in German History and Thought, University of Cambridge

Finally, our questions pushed the interviewees to discuss Ideengeschichte in Meinecke’s sense as a core subject of the story, which transpires from the way we addressed our questions, and which is well known from works such as Fritz Ringer’s The Decline of the German Mandarins (1969). But it is fair to say that many of our interviewees in fact either disagreed with different elements of this premise or engaged with it critically. Martin Ruehl makes it especially clear that the periodisation is problematic—the idea of a decline around 1933 is self-serving to a liberal imagination of the field which is, in fact, more politically diverse. Even after 1945, there are some limits to the story of decline. He mentions people like Hermann Lübbe, Lothar Gall, Ernst Schulin, and even Wolfgang Mommsen as key historians who continue the traditions of both Geistesgeschichte and Ideengeschichte in Germany. Similarly, Eva Marlene Hausteiner suggests that preoccupations with intellectual history do continue after 1945, even though they are institutionalised in different departments, particularly in Political Science, rather than in History. Martin Jay finds that the Prussian Mandarin is too much at the centre of our story, and that the latter should in fact be broader. If one does expand and include the Austrian intellectuals, for instance, the framing would have to change—particularly when it comes to the influence of Austrian intellectuals on economic thought. But this again transcends the boundaries of History and its immediate subfields.

Wilfried Nippel, Professor Emeritus in History, Humboldt University Berlin

Wilfried Nippel argues that the Meinecke galaxy with its preoccupation with historicism had already been an isolated phenomenon in German and Austrian intellectual life before the rise of the Nazis. He argued that most sciences had already “dehistoricised” themselves as early as the 1920s, with Schmoller being supplanted by the more theoretically oriented Vienna School etc. We use the term “fortune,” but fortune telling is a business of reading minds more than hands. In other words: even when read backwards, the fortunes of German intellectual histories appear different to different people.

JK & AS: While the story of your film covers the entire length of the 20th century, the rise to power of National Socialism naturally marks a big incision in the narrative. As you put it in the film, Dina, “the entire range of sciences had become compromised by the Nazi project” [3:47] by 1945. Yet, as some of your interviewees point out, German intellectual history was not simply rejected by the Nazi regime. In what ways did National Socialism co-opt methods and approaches from Geistesgeschichte?

DG: This is another aspect where the “tragic” emplotment only works if you believe that intellectuals persecuted by the Nazis and the intellectual traditions they represent are mutually constitutive. The truth is more disturbing if your expectation is that history will establish some sort of justice. In our film, Martin Ruehl tells this element of the story, and it is another moment which could sound quite shocking to someone who wanted to follow the “decline” canvas narrative uncritically. Perhaps some of us would like to hear that both Ideengeschichte and  Geistesgeschichte simply die out when Jewish or dissident intellectuals are murdered or expelled. But what happened is more complicated.

What disappears from Germany is, of course, any cosmopolitan sense of Geist in the way that more liberal readers of Burckhardt, such as Ernst Cassirer, interpreted it before they were forced out of Germany. But, as Martin Ruehl indicates, some of the leading Nazi ideologues were actually engrossed in their own ways of doing intellectual history. His particular example is Volk im Werden [People in the Making], the journal edited by Ernst Krieck and Alfred Baeumler, which as the intellectual face of “Blut und Boden” was preoccupied with recovering various Germanic aspects in broader European cultural and intellectual histories.

Barbara Stollberg-Rilinger, Rector of the Wissenschaftskolleg and Professor of History, University of Münster

Barbara Stollberg-Rilinger also touches on the elements of continuity linking intellectuals who worked for Koselleck’s Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe, such as Otto Brunner, and the approaches to what might be called “intellectual area studies” under National Socialism. There is also Carl Schmitt’s influence on Koselleck to reckon with, as an element of continuity. Schmitt’s thinking about space as a category of intellectual history, among others, is undoubtedly an aspect of an intellectual tradition of Geistesgeschichte which flourished under the Nazi regime, as did the impulse of Nazi ideologues to transcend traditional academic institutions by founding new “interdisciplinary” ventures designed to promote particular Nazi policies through dedicated research agendas, among which there was also room for a certain kind of intellectual history. Raymond Geuss likes to remind people, perhaps in a quip to narratives such as Peter Gordon’s Continental Divide, how many Neo-Kantians became ardent Nazis. We would all like to have a genealogy that establishes a morally uncompromised lineage for particular intellectual traditions, but I tend to agree that there is no such pure strand, and that there may be no turning point at which supposedly promising strands of inquiry fell from grace. In this sense, I am personally quite partial to tragic plots, because the whole tradition of tragedy guards against a certain kind of essentialism of believing in the redeeming purity of character, even if that character happens to be the protagonist of your particular story.

***

This is the first installment of a two-part interview with Richard Bourke and Dina Gusejnova. For the second installment, see here.


[1] “By converting experience into thought, human beings free themselves from the weight of that experience, and release new capacities that can refashion life.” [Friedrich Meinecke, Reason of State in Modern History (1924)] // “Die Ideologie eines bedeutenden Denkers, erwachsen aus den Erlebnissen seiner Zeit, ist wie der Tropfen Rosenöl, der aus Hunderten von Rosen gewonnen wird. Durch Verwandlung des Erlebten in Ideen erlöst sich der Mensch vom Drucke des Erlebten und schafft die neuen Kräfte, die das Leben gestalten.” [Friedrich Meinecke, Die Idee der Staatsräson in der Neueren Geschichte (1924)]


Richard Bourke is Professor of the History of Political Thought at the University of Cambridge. He has published widely in enlightenment and post-enlightenment intellectual history and political theory.

Dina Gusejnova is Assistant Professor in Modern European History at the LSE. She has published on German intellectual history and political thought in European and global contexts.

Jonas Knatz is a PhD Student in New York University’s History Department. He works on 20th-century European intellectual history.

Anne Schult is a PhD Candidate in New York University’s History Department. Her current research focuses on the intersection of migration, law, and demography in 20th-century Europe.

Featured Image: Close-up of the Gleis 17 memorial in Berlin-Grunewald. Unless noted otherwise, all images are stills from the documentary.

Categories
Interview

Philosophy in the Time of the Newspaper: An Interview with Tom Vandeputte

By Jonathon Catlin

Tom Vandeputte is head of Critical Studies at the Sandberg Institute in Amsterdam, a fellow at the Institute for Cultural Inquiry in Berlin, and author of the recent book Critique of Journalistic Reason: Philosophy and the Time of the Newspaper (Fordham University Press, 2020). Departing from the ambivalent place of the newspaper in the philosophy of history of Kant and Hegel, the book traces the explosion of motifs of reporters, messengers, readers, and the talk of the day in the writings of Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Walter Benjamin, arguing that modern philosophy defined itself through and against a sustained confrontation with journalism. In place of the rational progress hypothesized by teleological philosophies of history, one finds in the newspaper contingent events, confusion, unreliable accounts, disputed facts, and the announcement of the new quickly lapsing into a repetition of what has already been. Ultimately, the book demonstrates, the newspaper—in the rendering of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Benjamin—“becomes a stage where history fails to take place at all” (15). The antagonism between the philosopher and the journalist even came to reprise the ancient polemic between the philosopher and the sophist; as Nietzsche quipped, “Hegel and the newspapers—like opponents” (72). Yet the conception of philosophy that emerges from Vandeputte’s generative readings is not a negation of journalism but its radicalization: post-Hegelian philosophy, the book contends, learned to ask the “questions of the day” with particular rigor, linguistic precision, and resistance to the temptation of presentism. An excerpt from the book’s introduction is available from the ICI Berlin.

Contributing editor Jonathon Catlin interviewed Vandeputte about his new book.

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Jonathon Catlin: How did you become interested in the relationship between philosophy and journalism?

Tom Vandeputte: An important point of reference for this book is a hypothesis that Michel Foucault introduces in his lectures at the Collège de France in the early 1980s, towards the end of his life. Foucault draws attention to a problem that recurs throughout the post-Kantian tradition and is, in his understanding, constitutive of modern philosophical thought. Modern philosophy, he argues, is characterized by its preoccupation with a new question, emerging in the late eighteenth century, that he describes as the “question of the present” or simply as the “question of the ‘today’” (la question de l’aujourd’hui): “What is happening today? What is happening to us right now? What is this “now” in which we all live and which is the site, the point from which I am writing?” (74). From the moment it asks this question, philosophy is no longer concerned with a domain outside of time and history but instead turns towards its own time—and begins its inquiries by calling this time into question, by attempting to apprehend the very moment from which it is thinking and writing. As Foucault noted, philosophy’s turn to the “today” means that it enters into a relation with another mode of thought and writing: one that may be called “journalistic” in that it takes the jour as its principal concern. In a brief newspaper article from 1973, he analyzes this relationship. “We must fundamentally pose the question of the today,” he writes. “This is why, for me, philosophy is a sort of radical journalism” (220). Foucault points here to the affinity and tension between philosophy and journalism that are the main focus of my book. As I try to show, philosophy’s concern with the “today” is closely connected to its ongoing attempt at interpreting journalism itself, which now appears as a phenomenon emblematic of the “present age” that philosophy sets out to apprehend. Foucault may have had this relationship in mind when he wrote, in a footnote to his famous essay on critique: “There is much work to be done on the relationship between philosophy and journalism from the end of the 18th century on, a study…Unless it has already been done, but I am not sure of that…” (189).

Tom Vandeputte, Critique of Journalistic Reason (Fordham University Press, 2020)

JC: Your book begins with a striking passage from Hegel’s Jena Aphorisms, written before his major works: “The newspaper reading of the early morning is a kind of realistic morning prayer. One orients one’s attitude towards the world either through God or through that which the world is. The former gives as much security as the latter, in that one knows where one stands” (1). What conception of journalism did Hegel have in mind here, and how could it have been read in a quasi-religious manner?

TV: My reading of the aphorism focuses on the two poles of Hegel’s comparison—the morning prayer and the scene of newspaper reading—as well as the image of philosophy emerging between them. A Zeitunglesen, or newspaper reading, that may be compared to the Morgensegen, the Lutheran morning prayer, would not be satisfied with the simple intake of facts: it would have to be a newspaper reading that grasps the daily news as an encounter with the absolute of a peculiar kind—one unfolding in world history. The comparison, in this reading, anticipates one of the key insights elaborated in the Phenomenology of Spirit, which was published the year after Hegel wrote this aphorism, just as the scene of newspaper reading prefigures his famous later proposition that philosophy is “its time, apprehended in thoughts”—a formula summarizing Hegel’s interpretation of the “question of the present.” Philosophy is here conceived in the image of journalism, but also moves beyond it. In its conceptual labour, the philosophical reading of historical life presented by Hegel does not leave the sequence of facts encountered on the pages of the newspaper intact; in order for it to be comparable to the Morgensegen, this reading also involves a negation and reconfiguration of the apparent unity and completeness of this factual material. As editor of the Bamberger Zeitung for a brief period, Hegel seems to have limited himself—in line with the conventions of his time—to the preparatory task of gathering this material and abstained from its philosophical interpretation. In his correspondence from that period, Hegel writes the newspaper trade “would interest me, since I […] follow the world events with curiosity [Neugierde],” noting that the challenge would be to approximate the quality of French newspapers without abandoning what is expected by the German reader, namely “a kind of pedantry and impartiality with regards to the news” (186).

JC: The newspaper also figures in Kant’s famous essay—originally intended to be published in a newspaper—“A Renewed Question: Is Humankind Constantly Progressing?” (1798) in which he attempts to secure the possibility of rational hope in historical progress as a ground for moral action, lest it be in vain. He uses the French Revolution as his case in point. It is important in your reading that he does not focus on the participants of the Revolution itself but on German “spectators” who read about it in newspapers from across the Rhine; in Kant’s interpretation, the events did not directly affect their personal interests yet they followed developments “with a wishful participation that borders closely on enthusiasm” (6). The fact that expressing such support entailed some danger in monarchic German lands, writes Kant, indicates that “this participation, therefore, can have no other cause than a moral disposition in humankind.” It thus indicates not only humanity’s moral constitution, but also the capacity to realize it. Can you expand on the scene of “impatient, warm desire for newspapers” Kant depicts here?

TV: What interests me about the essay is the pivotal role that Kant, like Hegel, attributes to the figure of the newspaper reader in his philosophy of history. In his essay on the French Revolution, Kant asks how the possibility of progress may be reconciled with—and even grounded in—the concrete experience of this “event of our time,” a historical event suffused with violence and lapsing into terror. He does so by shifting his attention from the empirical course of history to the “spectator” on the other side of the Rhine—a subject still explicitly rendered in the first, unpublished drafts of the essay as a newspaper reader rather than a spectator (8). In these drafts, the “wishful participation” that Kant interprets as a sign of humankind’s moral disposition is thought to find its expression in the “warm desire for newspapers” characteristic of the period. Kant identifies this desire for “the most interesting” conversations with concern for humankind’s “supreme interest,” namely the realization of the highest good. Kant thus attempts to rescue the revolution as an event tainted by violence and failed hopes while also salvaging another contemporary phenomenon: what a character in Goethe pejoratively describes as Zeitungsfieber, the “newspaper fever” prompted by the events in France (188). In the first versions of the essay, this feverish desire for the new is read as an expression of a historico-philosophical impulse—a gesture later echoed in Benjamin, who interprets the “impatience” of the newspaper reader as a sign of a budding revolutionary disposition (Gesammelte Schriften, 2:628–29).

JC:  Both Hegel and Kant ultimately dropped the figure of the newspaper reader from their systematic, published works. You suggest they might have sensed that the ephemeral nature of the newspaper and the sometimes ironical or absurd character of the “talk of the day” might undermine the rational and moral teleologies they sought to provide evidence for—thus threatening the lapse of the lofty spiritual analogy at the opening your book into jest or playful proto-deconstruction, using language against itself: “What happens to the unfolding of spirit in time when it turns out to be nothing but the unfolding of the newspaper?” (13). What makes the linguistic dimension of the news particularly threatening to grand teleologies?

TV: In these passages from Kant and Hegel, the newspaper reader appears as a historico-philosophical emblem of sorts, a figure that is assigned a key role in their respective conceptions of historical progress, whether it treated as an incremental approximation of a distant ideal or as an immanent development of logos. But there is already an ambiguity, a tension in their interpretation of this scene of reading, which manifests itself in the disappearance of the figure from their published writings. This tension becomes a central theme in the three main chapters of the book, which discuss the philosophical interpretation of journalism and the news in Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Benjamin. One of the hypotheses I try to substantiate is that these interpretations play a key role in their respective confrontations with German Idealism, in particular its philosophies of history. The newspaper, as the medium in which “the present age” relates to itself, no longer appears as the stage for purposeful progression but is recast as a site of different modalities of repetition, recurrence, or what Benjamin calls the “eternal return of the new” (GS, 1:677). This recasting is especially clear in Kierkegaard, whose early newspaper articles portray his time as a farcical play populated by journalists and editors endlessly repeating concepts and phrases of the great philosophies of history ad absurdum. In Kierkegaard’s polemic against the idea that reason, logos, drives history forward, language takes on a privileged role as the carrier of thought; in the false announcements, misunderstandings, and rumors making up the talk of the day, he recognized a dynamic in language that leads words astray, corrodes meaning, and exposes every conversation to the risk of lapsing into “chatter.” Here is an analysis of the public sphere which is profoundly at odds with the modern image of the informed, enlightened newspaper reader and anticipates some of the characteristic experiences of our own time. Here the newspaper reader and journalist do not appear as representatives of rational progression; instead he sees the “present age” as embodied in the image of the first automatic printing press—a “talking machine” spitting out endless piles of paper while rotating on the spot.

JC: Kant also wrote a newspaper essay responding to the devastating 1755 Lisbon earthquake, which dashed the naive views of progress Voltaire satirized in Candide. Here, too, Kant saw a promising moral disposition in the concern of faraway peoples. In your reading of Benjamin’s writings on Karl Kraus, you similarly write that his vision of creaturely history as “continuous catastrophe” was informed by not only “the exceptional violence of the Great War but also by the monstrous banalities of which the newspaper provides evidence on a daily basis” (139). You see this informing his later view of history as comprised of “typical catastrophes” and what you call “catastrophic sameness” (145). As he famously wrote, “The concept of progress is to be founded in the idea of catastrophe. That ‘things go on like this’ is the catastrophe” (144). What are the consequences of the news presenting catastrophic events as exceptions versus as the status quo?

TV: The image of history as a catastrophic progression plays an important role in the chapter on Benjamin, which focuses on his 1931 essay on Kraus, the Austrian writer depicted at the outset of the text as an ancient messenger whose reports of unfolding catastrophe bear an affinity with the Neue Zeitungen of early modernity. But this image of history already appears in his earlier writings, where it is also linked to the scene of newspaper reading. The 1923 manuscript where Benjamin first articulates a concept of catastrophe founded in continuity is organized around a critique of the experience of history contained in the phrase, uttered in the face of unfolding catastrophe, that “things surely cannot ‘go on like this’” (144). For Benjamin, this experience of history, which treats catastrophe as exception and assumes that a presumably uncatastrophic “normal” condition “automatically restores itself,” is characterized by a “stupefying amazement about that which repeats itself on a daily basis” (GS, 4:929). His argument is that this Staunen—“amazement” or “astonishment”—cannot lead to insight into the urgencies of the historical moment, but only undermines its possibilities. This is, in my view, one of the key problems motivating Benjamin’s sustained interest in the work of Kraus: how the horrors and atrocities of their time, despite being disseminated and discussed on a daily basis, could persist uninterrupted. In Kraus’s expansive oeuvre, Benjamin discovers not only the elements for a critique of journalism and the “eternal return of the new” presented in the newspaper, but also the image of a different journalism, an “eternally new, incessant lament” over the persistence of the world in its catastrophic sameness. In a kind of inversion of Kant’s scene of the spectator’s “wishful participation” in unfolding world-historical events, Benjamin posits a different image, where the scene of newspaper reading is invested with a different affective charge: “It is as if one is caught in a theatre and forced to watch the bad play on the stage unfold, willingly or not, as if one must again and again make it into the subject of one’s thought and speech, willingly or not.” For Benjamin, the historical task is to find one’s way out of this theatre.

JC: “To seize the essence of history,” Benjamin wrote in his unfinished Arcades Project, “it suffices to compare Herodotus and the morning newspaper” (121). Whereas Herodotus here represents the “first” history, the newspaper represents the other limit, the newest history of the present. Benjamin thus proposed a “philology of the newspapers” to study the reified experience and “historical feeling of vertigo” he observed in his own era (121). You focus on three notions that go beyond the homogenous, empty, linear time ascribed to modern philosophies of history: Kierkegaard’s notion of the “instant,” Nietzsche’s “untimeliness,” and Benjamin’s “actuality.” What alternate conceptions of time and experience do these counter-figures generate?

TV: Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Benjamin’s critiques of journalism, in spite of their polemical thrust, also tried to rescue something from the phenomena under scrutiny. As I try to bring out in the book, philosophy and journalism, as distinct modes of thought and writing, are never simply opposed here; the two have a more complicated relationship. This is already suggested by the writing practice of each of these thinkers. Kierkegaard’s earliest writings almost all have a “journalistic” character, not only in the sense that they are written for newspapers and journals, or intervene in the “talk of the day,” but also in the sense that they are concerned with grasping and characterizing the moment in which they are written. His last writings also take the form of a Blad, the self-published “paper” he called The Instant. Nietzsche’s Untimely Meditations were conceived as a periodical of sorts, of which he planned to publish thirteen biannual “issues.” Benjamin, of course, wrote extensively for journalistic media—not just due to external exigencies—and had a practical and philosophical interest in the form of the Zeitschrift, the journal, from his earliest writings onward. But the positive moment in their interpretation of journalism, their attempts to wrest something from it, is also evident in their reflections on time and temporality. The three concepts central to these reflections—the “instant”, the “untimely” and the “actual”—each draw on the analysis of journalism in that they attribute a central place to the “now” of thought and writing. For each of the three thinkers discussed here, time is not given as an empty form, but is produced in the moment of thinking, reading, or writing. Although each thinker conceives of this temporality in different ways, there is a common rejection of the representation of time as a homogeneous continuum made up of now-points. Instead, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Benjamin each attempt to articulate the “now” as a site where the present is irreducibly exposed to a futurity that cannot be conceived as a mere extension of what has been. Although it is marked by a radical discontinuity, each conceives of this future as pulsating within the present. As I show, these conceptions of time are elaborated not only through a polemical confrontation with Kant, Hegel, and historicism, but also through their respective critiques of journalism. Journalistic writing, the form of the newspaper and the journal, contain a promise of this other temporality, this “now” understood as the harbinger of an unforeseeable future, but tend to betray it by reducing time to a homogeneous succession of dates and history to an endless series of positively determinable facts.

JC: One of the main criticisms of journalism shared by the thinkers you focus on is that it takes empirical events to be immediately given and unproblematic; each was critical of the reified view of the world as an “unlimited series of facts” (128). In the Anglo-American context, journalism has undergone renewed scrutiny in the era of Trump and Brexit amidst debates about the corrosion of language and truth, yet fact-checking often seems pedantic and futile against the proliferation of lies. Amidst the essays celebrating Jürgen Habermas’s ninetieth birthday last year, Raymond Geuss criticized his theory of communicative rationality, using Brexit as a counterexample: instead of generating rational consensus, prompting public discussion actually generated an outpouring of false information and polarization on an issue on which most Britons were initially quite ambivalent. Even if we admit, with the rejoinders that followed, that Habermas’s theory is only an ideal speech theory, the state of public discourse is not encouraging. However, it seems from your book that we’ve been here many times before. What broader insights might your study provide about language, media, and truth today?

TV: The critique of communicative rationality plays an especially important role in Kierkegaard’s polemical portraits of the “present age.” His early newspaper articles never cease to draw attention to the impulses in language threatening the smooth functioning of communication—even in its ideal form. The polemic against the positivism of facts is central to the chapters on Nietzsche and Benjamin, whose writings respond to a different stage in the history of journalism and the form of the newspaper, which evolved dramatically over the nineteenth century. Already in his early writings, Nietzsche attacks what he calls an “idolatry of facts,” exemplified in different ways by historicism and journalism. Not only the lofty philosophies of progress but also the purportedly sober insistence on positively determinable historical facts are, for him, an attempt at erecting new gods, of seeking a stable ground where there is none. The truth is, as he puts it, that the event never simply precedes the report—it only comes into being in the “echo of the newspapers” (98). Nietzsche’s main reproach of this idolatry of facts is that it harbors a fatalism, a denial of the irreducible incompleteness of what has been and a foreclosure of as yet unrealized interpretations. Both the conspiracy theories of our own time and the fixation on history as a sequence of facts are, from this perspective, convulsions of what he called the “last human being.” For Nietzsche, the challenge is to move beyond this false opposition and invent new forms of writing and reading the present. Benjamin, in his own philosophical and political project, takes up this question as well. His critique of the “unlimited series of facts” of the newspaper is combined with a search for a different kind of factuality. Whereas the former represents an experience of history that fails to provide an impulse to intervene in the course of events, Benjamin finds in Kraus the image of another journalism—one whose reports of a world permeated by “war and pestilence, fire and floods” prepares the ground for an interruption of the catastrophic history unfolding in the present.


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: G. W. F. Hegel, by Friedrich Julius Ludwig Sebbers. Courtesy of picture-alliance/Design Pics/Ken Welsh via Deutschlandfunk Kultur

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Interview

Nationals Abroad: Christopher Casey on Law, Migration, and Capitalism

By Anne Schult

Christopher Casey received his BA, MA, JD, and PhD at the University of California, Berkeley. He currently works at the Congressional Research Service and teaches at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Policy’s Washington D.C. program. His book Nationals Abroad: Globalization, Individual Rights, and the Making of Modern International Law was published this summer by Cambridge University Press.


Anne Schult: Your book is based on a fundamental conceptual tension found in international law: that “between people, who move, and territory, which doesn’t.” (2) By focusing on the shifting status of nationals abroad in the transatlantic world from the late 19th century to the late 20th century, you point toward an increasing incongruence between people and territory. This incongruence, in turn, fueled a gradual expansion of international law to regulate not only inter-state affairs but also the relationship between states and individuals. What does focusing on the legal realm of extraterritoriality, and the conceptual shifts within it over the last 100 years, reveal about the nature of “subjecthood” in 20th-century international law? 

Christopher Casey: In some ways, I think, it reveals the weaknesses and the ultimate social and political costs of decoupling a certain kind of international protection from the state. In the 19th century, what has the misfortune of being called “diplomatic protection” was quite common. Now, diplomatic protection is not the protection of diplomats, but is, perhaps, better thought of as protection by diplomats. That is, it was common for states to make formal claims against other states for injuries sustained by their nationals abroad. It was based on what has been called the “Vattelian fiction,” the idea that an injury to a national is an injury to the state and that the state has the right to seek compensation for that injury. These claims were often resolved through recourse to either ad hoc arbitral tribunals that would hear a single case or through the establishment of claims commissions that would hear lots of cases. Such actions were common enough that they led Philip C. Jessup, a leading international legal scholar, to note in 1946 that “the international law governing the responsibility of states for injuries to aliens [was] one of the most highly developed branches of law.”

This kind of protection was conceived in very capacious terms. A person who, while abroad, was arrested and detained arbitrarily or was subjected to inhumane jail conditions could turn to their state to intervene on their behalf and seek compensation from the offending state. Similarly, a person whose property or investments were seized without process could turn to their state. The same kinds of processes, the same kinds of actors, the same kinds of institutions were used to seek compensation for both abused labor activists and investors who had their assets seized.

In the 20th century, growing migration rates and the expansion of global investment rendered this system increasingly unworkable. States were increasingly reluctant to get entangled in all of the disputes their many nationals abroad were getting into (and whom states considered to be their nationals was also changing). In its place, you get the modern patchwork of international institutions that deal with individuals, each covering a relatively small segment of social life. You get, for example, one set of institutions that hear complaints about human rights abuses, and a whole different set of institutions to hear complaints about investment disputes. And I don’t think it’s all that shocking to find out which of these institutions is more effective.

By focusing on the protection of nationals abroad, my book reveals how we have gone from relying on the protection of states at the international level to having portions of international life being the subject of different internal rights regimes. One regime might protect the body, another the retirement account. Rather than a story about the legalization of the international order, or the expansion of international law, the book instead tells a story about how the international legal order fractured.

And the consequences are being felt everywhere. There’s a great literature that explores the way in which the limited competency of many international regimes of the latter half of the 20th century has required that these institutions apply rules about one area of international life without being interested in, or able to consider, their impact on other areas. So, states have both limited their policy space and delegated certain authority to manage international disputes involving individuals to institutions with rather myopic concerns. I wanted to speak, at least in the conclusion of the book, to some of those issues.

AS: Your book predominantly asks about how far and under what conditions diplomatic protection has historically “followed” nationals beyond the state’s territorial boundaries, which—as you point out above—is often connected to questions of property. On the flip side of this history, however, lies the fate of those explicitly excluded from such diplomatic protection. Chief among those “classically oppressed” (7), as you term them, is the (stateless) refugee. Is it useful to think of these different categories as two sides of the same coin, as products of the same historico-legal process?

CC: Yes, I think they’re linked. But rather, I would say that the decline in the use of diplomatic protection and the gradual exclusion of people from belonging to the state are a part of the same historico-legal processes that made democracy and nationalism central to the legitimacy of the modern state. One issue at the center of the book is that just who belonged to what state was increasingly contested. Such debates could play out in interesting ways. In the decades around the turn of the 20th century, Britain, the United States, and France all grew increasingly concerned with just how many of their nationals were abroad, and just how many had two, three, or more nationalities. And all three countries became fundamentally concerned with redefining whether such persons (both flesh-and-blood human beings and corporations) were really British, American, or French enough (in all the many ways that could be interpreted) to entangle the state in foreign conflict. Should, for example, the United States intervene on behalf of an Italian national who had naturalized and then moved to Argentina only to have their property destroyed during a period of civil unrest? Should Britain and the United States seek compensation for the revocation by Portugal of a railway concession held by a Portuguese company, whose shares were owned by a British company, whose shares were then owned by American shareholders? Should Britain hale Germany before an international arbitral tribunal over injuries done to Indians working in German East Africa?

In part, the issue of forced expatriation—that is, the involuntary loss of nationality—and the political movement against dual nationals emerged partly in response to the perception that nationality was being instrumentalized to gain advantage abroad. And so, you start to see the proliferation of laws that forcibly expatriate people who live abroad for a certain period of time or women who marry foreigners, which leads to an expansion in formal statelessness even before the Russian refugee crisis.

And, perhaps most infamously, German policy played both sides of this issue in the interwar period. They both claimed a right to protect ethnic Germans abroad while simultaneously denationalizing their Jewish population.

Page from a Weimar Republic diplomatic passport. Courtesy of Neil Kaplan.

AS: Although explicitly not conceptualized as a treatise on the history of human rights, your book offers a critical intervention into the canonical literature of the field, including for example works by Samuel Moyn, Lynn Hunt, and Stefan-Ludwig Hoffmann, by paralleling the rise of individualized humanitarian protection with the safeguarding of personal property and investments. Once we follow the Lockean trinity of life, liberty, and property and include the latter into the analysis, you suggest, a much more complicated picture emerges with regard to the establishment of universal individual rights in international law. How would you characterize the relationship between human rights and property rights in the 20th century? Or, to put it pointedly, how can we productively think of the refugee and the investor in tandem?

CC: Considering the refugee (or any traditional human rights claimant in the international arena) and the investor together does two things. First, looking at the rights of investors, as protected by a network of treaties and international trade agreements and placing them alongside other international rights regimes belies traditional criticisms of international legal regimes as being utopian or meaningless in an international system populated with sovereign states. We do have a system of international rights protections that enables individuals who have been injured (in the wallet, not the body or soul) by a state, to hale that state before an arbitral body, receive an award, and seek execution of that award. It happens all the time. A lot of contemporary literature on international political economy has recognized that such rights regimes have successfully limited the “policy space” of sovereign states.

Second, it gives a glimpse into legal disintegration. That is the isolation of one aspect of life from others within law and policy, and the creation of a regime that is only empowered to protect property and not empowered to safeguard life. One characteristic of the state is that, in being sovereign, it can make a claim to legislate the social, political, economic, cultural, and even the spiritual lives of those within its jurisdiction. As such, domestic legal systems and domestic policy making is often integrated. That is, the state has the potential to be concerned with protecting life and liberty and property, or to put it another way, a state can be interested in balancing property rights against other interests like access to healthcare or environmental degradation. In contrast, the refugee regime, the human rights regime, and the international investment regime do not concern themselves with those things that fall outside of their rather limited competencies. The investment regime is concerned with protecting property, the refugee regime with life and liberty. The result is that there are limited ways in which those who inhabit these respective regimes can make decisions about how to balance competing interests.

AS: As you just hinted at, the emergence of internationally recognized individual rights vis-à-vis the state also brought about new institutions to administer them—most prominently international courts and tribunals. Perhaps not surprisingly, though, these seem to function much more effectively in the realm of property and commerce, as many states not only gradually but also willingly gave up parts of their sovereignty in order to have contractual disputes between themselves and investors settled by a “neutral,” international organization. As a result, you note in your book, “traders’ and investors’ utopian visions of global justice and international rights are much closer to reality than the visions of those seeking justice for the tortured, arrested, or censored.” (8-9) What has been the prime incentive for states’ self-orchestrated loss of decision power in investment disputes?

CC: The incentive was likely to encourage investment. Former colonies were quick to sign and ratify many of the treaties underlying modern commercial arbitration and investor-state dispute settlement mechanisms and to enter into bilateral investment treaties with such provisions. 

AS: Conversely, you write that the international courts that adjudicate disputes over human rights, such as the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), have not only been less effective in establishing and defending individual rights in the humanitarian realm but have further functioned as “a means of securing property.” (193) What notable example would you say fittingly shows how these international institutions have served capital interests?

CC: I think the ECHR is a really interesting example of some of the important dynamics at play. The ECHR is probably universally regarded as the most successful of the international human rights courts. It is open to individuals to bring complaints against governments from Lisbon to Moscow and from Stockholm to Ankara. Every year, it hears nearly a thousand cases and protects those who have had their speech constrained, their religious freedoms curtailed, and their bodily autonomy threatened. In July of 2014, the ECHR issued its largest and most sweeping award for a mass human rights violation: 1.9 billion euros. Who were the poor victims that were granted this extraordinarily large award from a human rights court? They were the shareholders of the Russian Oil Company Yukos.

View of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France. Photograph by Patrick Seeger, 2013.

And I really think it’s important to think about the success of the ECHR and its role in protecting property. Does that role create the elite buy-in that makes that institution effective? I don’t know the answer. But I think that it’s worth thinking about. And Marco Duranti has done a phenomenal job in highlighting the conservative origins of the European Convention on Human Rights.

AS: Your book moves from the period of national self-determination after World War I across the rise human rights and refugee protection in the aftermath of World War II all the way to the creation of modern investor-state dispute settlements (ISDS) in the 1970s. Though covering an impressively broad set of actors and events, it is largely a history of the nation-state and nationals only. How do colonial subjects and colonial territories figure into the history of extraterritorial jurisdiction?

CC: There are many interesting ways in which this dynamic played with respect to colonial subjects and colonial territories. I’ll talk about two.

First, the issue of nationality, narrowly defined, was central to the colonial project. Now, when I talk about nationality here, I’m using it in the language of international law, which merely marks the relationship between an individual “national” and a state or sovereign. In late 19th-century international law, national and state were more or less synonymous with subject and sovereign. Among international lawyers, nationality was usually (although not always) used free from the ethnic, historic, or linguistic content that was associated with the term as it was employed during much of this period in sociology, anthropology, and domestic politics. In the classic arrangement, nationals pledge allegiance in exchange for the sovereign’s protection and vice versa. As European and American states made claims to territory, they would often quickly make it clear that the subjects in that territory were indeed their nationals.

A classic case would be the Americans in the Philippines. It’s a well-known story that Filipinos were denied American citizenship and, like Puerto Ricans, were considered “foreign in a domestic sense.” While the United States took six years or so to clear up the question of the status of Filipinos domestically, the same cannot be said of their status internationally. Within months of annexation, the United States communicated to all its consulates that Filipinos were entitled to the protection of the United States abroad. And there are instances where the United States made diplomatic claims on behalf of Filipinos mistreated abroad.

This shouldn’t be surprising. If the failure to meet international obligations was a valid pretext for the intervention by an imperial power (such as the United States against Spain), and if the legitimacy of a claim to territory rested on the reciprocal link between allegiance and protection, then any imperial power that wanted to maintain its grasp on a far flung colony had to at least appear to meet this most basic obligation, lest another imperial power challenge their claim.

And that principal continued into the interwar period as well. Nationality and protection were central to debates over what the international status of the inhabitants of mandates would be. The League didn’t want mandatory powers to confer their nationality upon the inhabitants of the mandates. Such an action would look too much like formal annexation. But, at the same time, the League understood that the inhabitants of the mandates needed formal protection abroad. A satisfactory solution was never reached, and instead you got anomalous titles like “British protected persons.”

Second, the international legal instruments undergirding investor-state dispute settlement and international commercial arbitration developed in two phases. First in the 1920s and 1930s, and then again in the 1950s and 1960s. And these decades are significant. The collapse of the European land empires and the decolonization of Eastern Europe, like in the Americas, had led to a proliferation of states. Whereas before investors were lending to Germany, Russia, or Austria, now they would have to lend to Lithuania, Poland, or Yugoslavia. Businessmen might have trusted the courts of Germany to hear their contract disputes, but they were certainly less sure about the courts of Poland. Moreover, the Mexican and Russian revolutions had brought about two massive expropriations of foreign-owned private property. So, business organizations like the International Chamber of Commerce worked with states and the League of Nations to put together treaties that would enable disputes over business transactions and investments to shift to private arbitral tribunals. Similarly, in the 1950s and 1960s, European decolonization in Africa and Asia led to the proliferation of states and a renewed set of efforts to ensure that British investors, for example, would not be subject to postcolonial courts and postcolonial law.

AS: At the very beginning of the book, you point out that nationality and citizenship are fundamentally non-synonymous terms: while the former indicates a general sense of belonging to a particular nation(-state), it does not necessarily imply any of the political rights and protections that come with the latter. Nevertheless, the two have been traditionally thought of together, and their increasing disentanglement over the course of the 20th century has brought about a host of critical commentary on the meaning and status of citizenship in times when nation-state sovereignty is seemingly on the decline and giving way to both subnational and supranational allegiances. This scholarship ranges from the critique of the increasing commodification of citizenship in Atossa Araxia Abrahamian’s Cosmopolites, to evocations of “post-national citizenship” in Seyla Benhabib’s work, to the hope for a global “rule of law” that would obviate the need for formal, legal citizenship along with its other, the “illegal” migrant, in Catherine Dauvergne’s Making People Illegal. But where does this rethinking of citizenship leave nationality as a structuring principle of legal relations between individuals and the state? In other words, how are “nationals abroad” navigating the international legal order of the 21st century?

CC: Again, here I think that the retreat of the state from that area has created a fractured system. Whereas businessmen and investors once sought out the “watchful eye and the strong arm” of states to protect their interests abroad, they now increasingly don’t. People aren’t naturalizing in Saint Kitts and Nevis for the assurance that the island will launch a formal diplomatic complaint on their behalf, or send in a gunboat to secure their property. Their money and investments are protected by a web of effective international agreements.

In contrast, the most vulnerable—particularly those without a functional state to protect them—are still, to quote Hannah Arendt, “out of legality altogether.”


Anne Schult is a PhD Candidate in New York University’s History Department. Her current research focuses on the intersection of migration, law, and demography in 20th-century Europe.

Featured Image: Alfred Stieglitz, “The Steerage,” 1907. © Estate of Alfred Stieglitz / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

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Interview

Interwar Instantaneism and the Second Sattelzeit: An Interview with Humberto Beck

By Jonathon Catlin

Humberto Beck is Professor at the Center for International Studies at El Colegio de México in Mexico City and author of The Moment of Rupture: Historical Consciousness in Interwar German Thought (2019), which was published in the series Intellectual History of the Modern Age by the University of Pennsylvania Press. Focusing on the writings of three German thinkers—Ernst Jünger, Ernst Bloch, and Walter Benjamin—Beck argues that “between 1914 and 1940, in response to the experiences of abrupt discontinuity and social and political rupture, a new form of historical time consciousness was born in Germany, which articulated itself around the notion of instantaneity.” These thinkers, he writes, drew upon personal and collective experiences of war, crisis, catastrophe, and revolution to produce “a constellation of concepts and figures of sudden temporality that contributed to the formation of a distinct instantaneist ‘regime of historicity’—a mode of experiencing time based on the notion of a discontinuous present.” The book’s introduction is freely available online from the publisher. Contributing editor Jonathon Catlin interviewed Beck about the book.

Jonathon Catlin: The Moment of Rupture defines the instant as “the shortest span in which time can be divided and experienced.” It is, then, “a moment without time…in which there is no interval or duration, no before or after, but only an atemporal present.” We find some notion of the instant already in Plato, but Aristotle’s contrary view of the continuity of time was long predominant. Chapter 1 describes “the essential discontinuity of time,” as Gaston Bachelard wrote in The Intuition of the Instant (1932), as a modern insight that you trace back to Goethe. Your book argues that instantaneity functioned as a concept from Plato to Nietzsche; as a “systematic discourse of temporal consciousness” from Goethe to the French Revolution; and finally as a full-fledged “regime of historicity” in interwar Germany that superseded the historicist temporal regime the German conceptual historian Reinhart Koselleck identified as the hallmark of modernity in the Sattelzeit (1750–1850). You thus deem the era of the instant, from 1914–1940, a “second Sattelzeit,” with the first, historicist “time of transition” giving way to a counter-temporality that was ahistorical and antihistorical. Can you elaborate on this idea?

Humberto Beck: Koselleck gave the name of Sattelzeit to what he considered the “axial time” of modernity, when most of the fundamental modern temporal concepts were coined. According to Koselleck, what all these concepts had in common was their historical nature: they all entail a linear, cumulative, usually progressive vision of history, with some kind of abstract ideal or utopia as a destination point or goal. However, when one reads the Weimar and Nazi era writings of authors such as Jünger, Bloch, and Benjamin—and others such as Carl Schmitt, Karl Jaspers, or Martin Heidegger—one realizes that many assumptions behind the Sattelzeit understanding of modern time did not really apply to the experience of modernity these thinkers described. This is especially the case with the notion of crisis. For Koselleck—as for Marx—the idea of crisis certainly implies a convulsion, a moment of profound change, but always within the larger frame of a historical vision of growth, continuity, evolution, or transformation. Paraphrasing Georg Lukács, one could even say that, within this historicist perspective, crises are moments when the coherence of a larger temporal entity or “whole”—History with capital “H”—is ultimately revealed. The classical Marxist interpretation of revolution is the example par excellence of this vision. But for a number of significant Weimar authors, crisis denotes not a convulsion within the flow of historical development, but a moment, as it were, “outside of history,” in which the connections to the past of tradition or the projections of the future are suspended. This description of the “absolute present” of rupture (or the “instant”) as a historical category represents what I believe is most original in the work of Jünger, Benjamin, and Bloch, because it constitutes an extrapolation of the concept of the instantaneous present to the realm of historical and political experience. The depth of their intellectual elaboration, as well as the coherence between their works despite their otherwise entirely antagonistic ideological positions, persuaded me that, taken collectively, the work of these authors could be considered as the foundation of a new, second Sattelzeit or “axial era” for the coinage of new concepts of temporality. These concepts responded to the historical conditions of a new phase of modernity and helped to formulate a distinct experience of historical time, which I call instantaneism.

JC: You characterize your protagonists as responding to a common challenge of their era: “how to name the novel experiences of rupture in historical consciousness and individual perception.” They developed the instant as a category that was simultaneously philosophical, aesthetic, and political. To what extent do you consider your book a “conceptual history” (Begriffsgeschichte)? How do you distinguish when this notion functions as a concept, a metaphor, a figure, a trope, a motif, an image, a discourse, a mode of experience, or more than one of these at the same time?

HB: Methodologically, the book combines aspects of “conceptual history” in a more orthodox sense (situating a concept or idea within larger frames of social meaning) with elements of a more traditional, “internalist” history of ideas approach. This eclectic course of research was called for by the particular conceptual and historical nature of my object of study. Instantaneity—the “time without time,” the moment of sudden rupture—is both an age-old (in a certain way, “timeless”) notion for philosophy and religion, as well as a keyword of modernity. How to make sense of this diversity of meanings and historical significations? My approach was to differentiate between three dimensions of instantaneity in intellectual history: instantaneity as a concept, as a discourse, and as a regime of historicity. A notion such as “the instant” can be pervasive in poetic or literary texts, or in philosophical or theological reflection of diverse historical epochs without necessarily permeating into the perception of a larger public or shaping general intellectual orientation. Taking this into account, my distinction between these three dimensions of the unfolding of instantaneity responds to a series of “leaps” in the social ramifications of the concept and its usages. I argue that recourse to “instantaneity” in literature and poetry (motifs of the “fleetingness of life” or the transient nature of experience) or in philosophy and theology (the brevity of intellectual insight or of mystical experience) has usually reduced the instant to a concept. Generally, this usage has not given way to larger cultural discourses, which I believe began to happen only in modern times, for example, in the French Revolution and German Romanticism. But this deployment of the “instant” as an intellectual discourse is still different from its role as a fundamental reference in the shared historical and political vocabularies of an era, a keyword suited to make sense of collective experience. The instant as a discourse and as a regime of historicity are, I argue, exclusive to modernity, and instantaneity as a chronotope is exclusive to the twentieth, and perhaps twenty-first, centuries.

JC: The German term Augenblick has obvious metaphorical qualities: It literally means the “blink of an eye,” or, more poetically in Goethe, “moments of vision.” Interestingly, you charge both Koselleck and Hans Blumenberg—among other postwar German thinkers—with the “antiradical tendency” to neglect the instant in their respective studies of concepts and of metaphors. You suggest that considering the instant as only either a concept or as a metaphor risks sacrificing its radical potential. Alternatively, you identify radical possibilities in your authors’ attempts a generation earlier “to present crisis, catastrophe, and danger as new bases of perception” that challenge historicist progress narratives. Key cases include Benjamin’s praise for the introduction of the Republican calendar during the French Revolution as a “revolutionary interruption” or “standstill” that could “make the continuum of history explode” and Vladimir Lenin’s “seizing of the moment” in the 1917 Russian Revolution. Why is it chiefly the political left that has gained from claiming “authentic instants” and the “actuality of the now”?

A revolutionary calendar. Henderson, Ernest F. (Ernest Flagg). Symbol and satire in the French Revolution. Plate 164.

HB: I believe this prominence of the left in the claiming for “authentic instants” of rupture can be explained by the centrality of the idea of revolution for this political tradition. Although in its usual interpretation the idea of revolution tends to be subsumed into a historicist vision (as I believe it happened in the case of Lenin), because of its emphasis on radical rupture revolution is also, as it were, a “step closer” to an affirmation of pure instantaneity. This is especially true if a Marxist ethos is combined with “exogenous” lineages of thought, such as Jewish or Christian messianism, or anarcho-syndicalist beliefs in a mythical suspension of time. Given conservatism’s emphasis on stability or tradition, this ideological perspective tends to find trouble in celebrating the political potential of the “actuality of the now.” However, as the cases of Jünger and Schmitt show, there is indeed an instantaneism of the right, less concerned with emancipatory or egalitarian projects, and rather more interested in the authoritarian consequences that the vitalist experiences of “decision” and “the exception” may entail.

JC: Because of its timelessness, the instant has long been associated with the religious experience of the eternal in the ephemeral. You write that the experience of the instant “creates the space for a certain ‘revelation’” and hence that instantaneity belongs to the broader “reenchantment of modern temporality,” as seen in Kierkegaard’s conception of the instant as a site of the radical freedom of faith, in Bloch’s writings on utopia and hope, in Benjamin’s famous notions of “messianic time” and “profane illumination,” and even in Jünger’s recovery of primeval pagan fate. To what extent is the modern instant a secularized religious notion?

HB: The modern instant is a secularized religious notion to the extent that the rhetorical figure it entails—the paradoxical manifestation of the eternal in the temporal—supposes a certain “theological” way of reasoning, even if only at the level of a structural analogy. In a way, this is not new: as Karl Löwith and others have argued, modern historicist visions of progress could already be interpreted as secularized versions of religious redemption and messianic hope. I believe the secularized religious element is even more prominent in instantaneism. It is difficult not to perceive that for authors from Jünger and Schmitt to Benjamin and Bloch, religious experience in the broadest sense (as mystical union, theophany, miracle, or revelation) was a major, if not the predominant model for conceptualizing human experience as such.

JC: You also argue that each of your three authors sought to fashion a new conception of experience that corresponds to avant-garde aesthetics: Jünger’s experience of “danger” relates to the image of “terror”; Bloch’s “darkness of the lived moment” corresponds to a sense of “noncontemporaneity”; and Benjamin’s interest in “shock” corresponds to his notions of “now-time” (Jetztzeit) and the “dialectical image.” Chapter 2 shows how the avant-garde genres of collage and montage—which juxtapose incoherent or disconnected fragments—contributed not only to new forms of sensory perception, but also to a new form of historical consciousness. How does your book set the history of ideas in conversation with cultural history?

HB: The instantaneist regime of historicity is deeply imbricated with the phenomenon of avant-garde aesthetics. This is, as it were, the “hinge” that connects more historical and collective experiences of instantaneity with their counterparts in the sphere of the individual, subjective psyche. This is why I attempt to trace the powerful influences of Dadaist and, above all, Surrealist aesthetics in the authors’ understandings of temporality. In the avant-garde aesthetics of surprise and shock, Jünger, Bloch, and Benjamin found a conceptual frame of reference with which to make sense of analogous experiences they were encountering in politics and social life. The conversation between the intellectual history of the Augenblick and the cultural history of the avant-garde productively illustrates the existence of the instantaneist chronotope: that in interwar Europe there was a common temporal sensibility centered around suddenness as a category for making sense of contemporary experience. The extrapolation of the avant-garde principles of surprise and shock from the realm of aesthetics to the sphere of politics (not a “one-way street” at all) constitutes a core tenet of instantaneism. Hence the importance of a figure such as Hannah Höch (1889–1978), a German Dadaist collage artist who pioneered the aesthetics of juxtaposition, and whose work can be found on the book’s cover. Höch, in fact, was particularly influential in the development of Benjamin’s interpretations of modern perception and historical temporality. But montage was equally important to Bloch, as he saw in this avant-garde technique something akin to an expression of the deep historical meaning of the era.

Hannah Höch, Der Strauß (The Bouquet) (1929/1965), Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nürnberg; VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2016.

JC: You write that the violent historical ruptures that shook Europe in the years after 1914—war, revolution, economic crisis, mass strikes—“generated an intense sensation of discontinuity, both historical and perceptual.” Jünger called himself a “seismograph” of this turbulent era, and Benjamin, in turn, called it a “state of continuous emergency.” You argue that crisis was most intense in the crucible of interwar Germany; hence it was there that instantaneism came to constitute “a crucial element of the ‘common intellectual horizon’ of an entire era.” Your book thus poses a classic question of intellectual history: “the relationship between ideas and events.” You describe “a certain correspondence” or an “‘elective affinity’ between the experiences of crisis and rupture and the instant as a conceptual device,” in which historical circumstances allowed the instant “as a notion, to posit certain questions that would remain obscure under a conventional understanding of temporality as continuous duration.” What did the experience of crisis reveal about temporality generally? Was instantaneity unthinkable outside of crisis?

HB: Your questions point to one of the great paradoxes or, rather, aporias, of instantaneous temporality. By definition, the instantaneous is sudden, unpredictable, and exceptional. But the more closely one studies the structure of instantaneity, the more one realizes its deep connection to the structure of temporality in general. One realizes that time as such, in its generality, is in fact composed of the chaining together of these exceptional moments. One could interpret the history of the philosophy of time as a pendular movement between the two poles of this aporia. Incontestably, the work of Jünger, Bloch, and Benjamin is situated on the more “exceptionalist” pole of this movement. This can be explained by their shared experience of crisis, which had a powerful effect on the collective psyche of the era, not only because of its intensity, but also owing to its contrast with what had come before: the perception of a “golden age of security” (Stefan Zweig) marked by stability and the indefinite continuation of progress. For these authors, the experience of crisis in war, violence, and revolution amounted to a revelation: that of the utter failure of all visions of continuity (either Enlightened progress or Bergsonian durée) to make sense of modern temporal experience. The key moment of this realization was the two-way process of extrapolation between the personal and the historical (aesthetic and political) dimensions of instantaneity. As a poetic or mystical experience, instantaneity had, of course, been previously thinkable outside of crisis. But it was not until the modern period, and especially the 1914–1940 era of repeated crises in Europe, that instantaneity became intelligible in terms that transcended the merely individual and subjective.

JC: You call the Fronterlebnis of the First World War “a catastrophe so exceptional and profound that it shattered all points of reference and all criteria for the meaningful organization of historical experience or the anticipations of the future.” You explore this through Jünger, a German war hero and popular war chronicler who celebrated technology, nationalism, and violence but also rejected Nazism. Jünger saw that “total mobilization” led not to security but instead to “a world of permanent crisis.” The war also gave rise to the psychoanalytic notion of trauma, as Freud and others treated disturbed soldiers. Benjamin wrote that they returned with new subjectivities, “not richer but poorer in communicable experience.” He likened the war’s effect to “the frame of mankind” being “shaken by a feeling that resembled the bliss of the epileptic.” In what ways is trauma, as interruption and repetition, the Augenblick’s dark double?

HB: There is indeed a very intricate (and perhaps disturbing) connection between Augenblick and trauma. They both point to an impenetrable and not fully intelligible kernel of experience. But these different facets have given way to different lines of interpretation. One the one hand, thinkers like Jünger have insisted on instantaneity (even its traumatic aspects) as a both terrible and irresistible irruption of “the primordial” within modern life, an irruption which, if properly channeled—to use his vitalist language—can bring about something akin to a “renewal” of authentic life. On the other hand, thinkers like Freud portray this kernel as the cause of neurosis and other disturbances in individual personality. One fascinating alternative that incorporates elements of both the Augenblick and trauma is Bloch’s interpretation of the “darkness” of the immediate present as both a disorienting experience and the place where hope manifests itself.

JC: Leading critics have characterized our current temporal regime after the “end of history” as “presentism” (François Hartog) or “the broad present” (Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht), emphasizing unchanging slowness, stagnation, paralysis, and continuity. This diagnosis precisely contradicts the instantaneist chronotope, “the irruption of an ‘event breaking into history.’” Whereas presentism is the “abolition of historical time,” you see instantaneity as “the very possibility of history,” conceived as “the irruption of ahistorical ‘now-times.’” However, in your conclusion, you suggest that the “return of the event” in the work of contemporary thinkers such as Alain Badiou, Giorgio Agamben, and Slavoj Žižek might offer a valid notion of instantaneity for our time. Their complaint is that history has stalled—that we don’t have enough events anymore—and they yearn for the “unexpected disruption of the flow of time that seems to emerge out of nowhere—an episode of singularity that opens up the horizon of thinking and action by introducing a previously inconceivable possibility.” What is the status of the instant today?

HB: I believe the work of Badiou, Agamben, and Žižek exemplifies a certain “nostalgia for the historical,” in the eventist sense of the irruption of the unexpected that opens up emancipatory possibilities. In a way, this is a foreseeable counter-movement both to the post-1989 decades of liberal-Hegelian triumphalism and the bleaker alternatives of Huntington-esque civilizationalist conflicts. In a certain way, the “event” has already happened, but with very different outcomes. The financial crisis of 2008, for example, was such an event, but it did not bring about revolutionary changes. Perhaps the contemporary instantaneist philosophy of the event can find its best historical analogue in the Sorelian myth of the general strike. As a genuine “myth,” it doesn’t matter much whether it actually takes place or not: It operates on another, more imaginary and symbolic level, which nevertheless aspires to affect political mobilization and transform state institutions. My general argument in this respect is that, notwithstanding the remarkable heuristic power of presentism as a theory of temporality, there are many aspects of the current experience of time that are not captured by the historicist/presentist dichotomy.

JC: You currently teach in Mexico and regularly speak on contemporary social and political issues there. Do you see any connections between those engagements and this book?

HB: Mexico is currently experiencing one of the most critical moments in its modern history. The levels of social inequality and criminal violence are staggering and, so far, do not show any signs of subsiding. The arrival two years ago of Andrés Manuel López Obrador (the first democratically elected left-wing Mexican president) to power was interpreted by many as the hoped-for “event” that would mark a before and after in Mexican politics and society. But it hasn’t, at least not yet. It is too soon to tell, because the actions of his presidency have been deeply ambivalent in many respects. It is perhaps in the sphere of social movements that recent Mexican history has experienced the most genuine moments of an instantaneist historical consciousness, such as the Zapatista uprising of 1994 or the intense social mobilization after the disappearance of 43 students from the rural school of Ayotzinapa, in Guerrero, in 2014. As a country that was born out of the great event of the Mexican Revolution more than a century ago, and which has ossified its subversive potential through corruption, bureaucracy, and ritual, Mexico is once again a nation in search of an event.


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 cover (detail). Hannah Höch,