Intellectual history

How to Spot a Revolution

By Disha Karnad Jani

This post was simultaneously published on the conceptual history blog Komposita, which was initiated on the occasion of Reinhart Koselleck’s centennial this year. It follows previous cross-published posts by Sébastien Tremblay and Jonathon Catlin.

“Congealed manifestations of the term revolution can preclude our effort to think the event as experience,” wrote Elleni Centime Zeleke and Arash Davari in 2022. “If revolution signals the disruption of existing categories,” they ask, “can we in turn disrupt congealed categories to rethink revolution?” (423). Reinhart Koselleck was concerned with how this congealing happens in the first place—how experiences and terms accumulate into a “collective singular” or concept. Below, I draw from recent historical and political work to suggest that we take Koselleck more seriously, even against Koselleck, when he writes: “The primary interest of Begriffsgeschichte is its capacity to analyze the full range, the discrepant usages of the central concepts specific to a given period or social stratum” (65). If we pursue “discrepancy”and specificityover the now-ridiculous aspiration to any “full range” of meanings, a more useful method emerges. In our re-examination of Koselleck’s work on his centennial, I ask what happens when we turn one of his characteristics for modern concepts—the “simultaneity of the non-simultaneous”—on its head. Why, I ask, did his work on the modern concept of revolution and the revolutions of the 1950s-70s appear to him as inassimilable? The non-simultaneity of simultaneous events (as distinct from Ernst Bloch’s concept)—Koselleck writing on revolution while revolutions were also taking place around the world—suggests a way to read this Wehrmacht soldier, Cold War historian, and now-fashionable icon against himself.

Bernard Harcourt has characterized Koselleck’s “relation to the internationalist revolution” as “pessimism or disheartedness,” but Koselleck, in his 1969 essay translated as “Historical Criteria of the Modern Concept of Revolution,” did not even think of events outside of Western Europe as belonging to a single concept: they could not be “regulated” or “ordered” by it (50). Rather, they stood outside revolution: “…since the time when the infinite geographical surface of our globe shrunk into a finite and interdependent space of action, all wars have been transformed into civil wars” (56). Koselleck’s method is not inherently incompatible with analyses of contemporary politics; the observers of eighteenth and nineteenth century revolutions from whom he drew his historical criteria were useful precisely because theirs were moving targets. Indeed, one of Koselleck’s criteria was concerned with such instability: “the degree to which the prospect of the future continually altered accordingly changed the view of the past” (51). In describing living in a revolutionary time, as several of these criteria do, this method of diagnosing the “occasional very concrete meaning” of the concept was in fact deeply experiential and therefore deeply reflexive. Revolution (as concept) provided a “regulative” and “ordering” mechanism for understanding politics—if one believed oneself to be living in a revolutionary time.

Later in life, Koselleck argued that experience hardened inside a person like lava, making concepts pertaining to that experience difficult to parse. In contrast, recent work on twentieth century concepts has asked how we might conceptualize in real time. Scholars have taken up Koselleck’s reflections on modernity and time to analyze events beyond his concern, or indeed, ability. For instance, Manu Goswami and David Scott have made use of concepts such as “futures past” and the “space of experience”/“horizon of expectations” to describe the temporality of twentieth-century anticolonialism and the afterlife of the Haitian Revolution respectively. Dan Edelstein, Stefanos Geroulanos, and Natasha Wheatley’s edited volume Power and Time puts forth “chronocenosis,” a model for understanding time that foregrounds conflict between “temporal regimes” over sedimentation. Anson Rabinbach’s ongoing project, Concepts That Came in From the Cold,asks after concepts that emerged in the post-1945 years such as genocide and totalitarianism—concepts that could only have emerged during the twentieth century. A corollary of Rabinbach’s question might be: why did some concepts that pre-date the twentieth century in Koselleck’s Begriffsgeschichte appear to Koselleck as falling short of describing the present?

Indeed, it was the proliferation of the category of revolution across distant places—apparently threatening its coherence—that seemed to stymie Koselleck, even as the historical criteria he presented in the definition of the modern concept of revolution emphasized movement, adaptation, and canny political footwork by its participants and observers. The constant state of “civil war” he observed in his own time, coupled with the threat of nuclear Armageddon, formed a bind not only for humanity but for the work of conceptualization. In describing the withering of the early modern notion of the “civil war,” Koselleck notes its distinction from the twentieth century mutation: “from Greece to Vietnam and Korea, from Hungary to Algeria to the Congo, from the Near East to Cuba and again to Vietnam” (56). He described how concepts changed when their diagnosticians received new information.

Before 1789, the Glorious Revolution of 1688 had suggested to Voltaire, among others, that “Revolution” could “open up a new vista” without bloody battles, whereas “civil war” became demoted to a “senseless circling” (49). Koselleck describes this as an “alien experience,” which transformed the concept of revolution and primed the emergence of its modern form. He throws up his hands in the final lines of this essay: “the clarification of [the reciprocal relation of the permanence of revolution and the fear of global catastrophe] can no longer be the business of a Begriffsgeschichte as presented here” (57). Eager to disabuse readers of the notion that he thought his definitions would apply forever, Koselleck ended with a reminder that Begriffsgeschichte is ultimately concerned with words, “even when it becomes involved with ideologies” (57). Setting aside the now-obvious observation that it was always also concerned with ideologies, we need not be as quick as he was to delimit the method. If “historical criteria” can be observed by taking seriously the words of revolutionaries, surely their adaptability could rub off on historians, too?

Elleni Centime Zeleke and Arash Davari ask this question in their provocation on the “third world historical” (also see work on “third world historical” on the site Borderlines). In the introduction to their 2022 co-edited volume on the same concept, Zeleke and Davari offer a “bridge across different sites of national history” and ask what changes when historians take the Ethiopian and Iranian revolutions as “world historical”. Through Biodun Jeyifo’s concept of “the whale” (2002) and Walter Benjamin’s “On the Concept of History” (1940), the framework of the “third world historical” emerges as an epistemology and a rejection of a false choice. Just as Benjamin “refuses the bargain of liberalism or fascism,” Zeleke and Davari reject the opposition postulated by social scientists between liberal democracy and authoritarianism (424). Instead, they invite us to consider what “impossible conditions” were swallowed up by postcolonial states, invoking Frantz Fanon’s contention that “the apotheosis of independence becomes the curse of independence” (426; from “On Violence,” 54). Even as Koselleck named states where “civil wars” were raging, it is the “diverse group of countries” that claimed “world revolution” that prevented the “occasionally concrete” meaning of revolution from co-existing with this multitude. Zeleke and Davari ask, “is the state the only way to hold political community in the third world?” (424). In their project, time and experience are central: essays include Taushif Kara on intezar (waiting), Amsale Alemu on Ethiopian students’ project of “demystification,” and Naghmeh Sohrabi on “writing revolution as if women mattered.”

The experience of participating in a “historically recurrent convulsive experience” (Koselleck, “Historical Criteria,” 50) ordered by the echoes of Revolution but under entirely new conditions demands its own concepts, as Bassem Saad writes on how names and figures of the dead in today’s uprisings work to “export the revolution.” In memory of Mahsa [Jîna] Amini, Mohamed Bouazizi, and Sarah Hegazi, Saad writes that the “historian of the immediate” is charged with capturing those forms and figures which might evade conceptualization if the inside of the riot is not accounted for, “if we wait long enough for the books.” Querying the insides would hinge on the epistemology of revolution, with the time-space inside an uprising telling us more than an observer’s could. Koselleck’s concept of revolution is itself a historical artefact.

At best, it is an oversight—or “pessimism,” as Harcourt puts it. At worst, it is the symptom of an incomplete “denazification” that fit comfortably with a broader Cold War liberalism, in which the dividing line between civilized and savage also divided “revolutions” from mere squabbles. Either way, one does not need to look too closely to observe the tensions holding together a still-influential method of intellectual history. Both historians and revolutionaries agree: it is vital to understand how revolutions can be made, experienced, unmade, and if, at all, they might succeed. But why would a historian even want “historical criteria” to identify and categorize the concept? Most might say: “to understand revolutions.” The query is fundamentally different when the answer is instead: “to make revolution.”

Disha Karnad Jani is a Postdoctoral Researcher in the Research Training Group “World Politics” at Universität Bielefeld. She received a joint PhD in History and the Interdisciplinary Doctoral Program in the Humanities (IHUM) at Princeton University. Her current book project is an intellectual history of the League Against Imperialism (1927–1937). She co-hosts the podcast In Theory for the Journal of the History of Ideas Blog.

Edited by Jonathon Catlin

Featured Image: Tiled image of a 1973 stamp from Algeria in honour of the Vietnamese people.

In Theory: The JHI Podcast Intellectual history

Terms of Exchange: Disha Karnad Jani interviews Ian Merkel

In this latest episode of In Theory, Disha Karnad Jani interviews Ian Merkel, assistant professor of American Studies at the University of Groningen, and author of the recent book, Terms of Exchange: Brazilian Intellectuals and the French Social Sciences (University of Chicago Press, 2022).

Merkel’s work questions the idea of an insular French social science, by putting Brazilian intellectuals at the centre of a transatlantic exchange of ideas. Through professional and personal networks including Claude Lévi-Strauss, Fernand Braudel, Mário Andrade, Gilberto Freyre, and others, Merkel draws together critical elements of modern social science, such as the Annales school, theories of race, and structuralism, and shows how the interactions between these thinkers formed the basis of these ideas and were set against huge political upheavals such as the Second World War and Brazil’s 1964 coup.

Disha Karnad Jani is a Postdoctoral Researcher in the Research Training Group “World Politics” at Universität Bielefeld. Her current book project is an intellectual history of the League Against Imperialism, 1927-1937. She is the co-host of In Theory, the podcast of the JHI Blog. 

Featured Image: View of Sao Paulo, 1920s. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Intellectual history

People Think: The Radical Egalitarianism of Sylvain Lazarus

By Duncan Stuart

“Is history a succession of disconnected and incomprehensible happenings?” asks Daniel Singer in his book, Prelude to Revolution: France in May 1968. Singer’s question is rhetorical and provocative but is meant to capture the radical nature of both May 1968 and what came after. The term “May 1968” designates a month and a half in France between May and June 1968, when millions took to the streets and enacted a general strike. The protests, catalyzed by students, sparked intense debates about the spontaneity of revolt and revolution and the role of the proletariat in radical politics. In the wake of May 1968, many French philosophers and theorists developed an intense interest in ideas of breaks, ruptures, and the unforeseen.

In the pantheon of post-68 French thinkers, there is one in particular who took the disconnected and incomprehensible nature of these events to heart and fashioned a unique and mind-bending theory of politics. If the name Sylvain Lazarus sounds familiar, it is most likely because of his association with the more well-known Alain Badiou. Lazarus and Badiou were militant activists in various French Marxist and Post-Marxist organizations throughout the 70s and 80s: such as the Union of French Marxist-Leninist Communists (L’Union des communistes de France marxiste-léniniste; UCFML) and L’Organization Politique. Badiou would go on to become known for his dense philosophical system—articulated across the three volumes Being and Event, Logics of Worlds, and The Immanence of Truths—which utilized set theory to build a system that made room for the radical breaks instituted by politics (as well as love, art, and science). Lazarus went a different way, fashioning a specific approach to discontinuity and radical politics that he terms an “anthropology of the name.” Lazarus’ work has not been studied as intensively and widely as Badiou’s, but there remain nonetheless a small handful of scholars for whom his work plays a central role, including Asad Haider, Michael Neocosmos, Ernst Wamba dia Wamba, Antonio Calcagno, and Bryan Doniger.

First published in France in 1996, Lazarus’ Anthropology of The Name (Fr. Anthropologie du Nom) articulates a theory of politics where politics is comprehensible precisely because it is discontinuous. For Lazarus, all politics stems from the claim that people think. The way he understands and operationalizes this claim divides politics into two modes. The first, which Lazarus calls “politics in exteriority,” is a politics familiar to many. This is the politics of the State, of elections and the parliamentary floor, of unions and strikes, of competing interests and disputes. This politics requires that people think, but people’s thought always comes up against a constraint. That might be the economic situation, ideas of good or bad governance or a legal framework. This is the politics we are used to, of “it’s a nice idea, but…”

Lazarus’ work investigates how we can understand the statement “people think” outside of the state, or as he terms it, “at a distance from the state.” Just as there is politics in exteriority, there is politics in interiority, where people’s thought takes on its full dimensions. This means freeing it from constraints like those listed above, separating the objective and the subjective. As Michael Neocosmos writes: “[Lazarus] is interested in theorizing the subjective and the objective, not only as distinct, but as at a distance from each other. Not only is there no ‘correspondence’ between the two, but there is in many cases a distinct distance between them. In such cases the possibility exists that people’s subjectivities—thought—can assert something different from what is, an alternative to the existing” (13). Politics in interiority aligns with the subjective and the new, such as moments of rupture and political invention. Lazarus’ key examples are The French Revolution and The Russian Revolution.

Lazarus’ work places intellectual equality and subjectivity at the heart of emancipatory politics. To do so, it develops a unique set of terms and ideas. In Anthropologie du Nom, Lazarus introduces the reader to the historical modes of politics, the categories of intellectuality and historicity, the two statements and two processes, and a bold attempt to wrest politics away from the positivistically-inclined social sciences.

The heart of Lazarus’ system lies in what he terms the two statements. They are: 1) Les Gens Pensent (“People Think”) and 2) La Pensée est rapport du réel (“Thought is a relation of the Real”) (54). The semantic differences between English and French help us understand Lazarus’ way of proceeding. Les Gens in French roughly translates to “people,” but it is not le peuple; a term that would translate the same but in French has a whole series of connotations. Les gens is more open-ended and does not suggest the people of a nation or a political body as le peuple does. Rather, les gens is closer to the English “folks” or “guys,” informal and indeterminate. The people of “people think” is ill-defined on purpose. This first statement suggests that we should discover, in each moment of politics, who these people are and what they think. This way of proceeding avoids the moment of constraint mentioned above.

In order for Lazarus to investigate a statement like “people think” in its full force, he needs an account of how the subjective and the objective relate. His second statement, “thought is a relation of the real,” sets out to do this. Here, Réel in French indicates not Lacan’s real but reality and actuality. The trick of that statement lies in the word “of.” A relation to the real is in the domain of the objective. In the domain of the subjective the relation is different, one that is not to but of the real.

What could all this possibly mean? It will help here to take a step back and focus on the historical impetus for Lazarus’ work. Looming large is what he calls “the Caesura of May 1968” (9). For Lazarus, May 1968 is important because of the way the French Communist Party (Fr. Parti Communiste Français, PCF) responded to what began as a student-led protest.

From the beginning of the protests, relations between student protestors and the PCF were hostile (234). In the early days of May ‘68, L’Humanité, the official newspaper organ of the PCF, published an invective against the students after several of them were arrested during a violent confrontation with the police. The newspaper proclaimed that “already now, the great mass of students, including, we are sure, many of those who were led astray, can measure the serious consequences to which political adventurism inevitably leads, even if it is concealed behind pseudo-revolutionary phrases” (Cited by Singer, 122-123).

That said, May ‘68 was not any other student-led protest. It was the closest the Western world had come to a general strike after World War II. At the height of May ‘68, roughly nine million workers in France were on strike, making it the perfect time for a communist party to cry revolution and join the fray (8). Despite this political climate, throughout the events of May ‘68, the PCF pushed for reconciliation and cooperation with the institutions of the French Parliament. For the PCF, better wages and earlier retirement age were more important outcomes than total social transformation.

One might naturally expect this behavior from a conventional political party. However, the PCF presented itself as the radical party of the workers, forged in the afterglow of the Russian Revolution. Instead of following its principles, the PCF backed then-President Charles De Gaulle’s calls for an election. The PCF went to the election, where they lost to De Gaulle’s party by a tremendous margin.

In theory, the French communist party aspired to be a vehicle for revolution. However, the promise of an electoral victory eventually turned out more important to it than the revolution. For this reason, Lazarus believed that May ‘68 proved not merely the possibility of rupture but the limits of party politics.

After May ‘68, Lazarus concluded that the PCF had made a fatal mistake by assuming it knew better than the people it was supposed to represent. As the party, they had a grasp on the reality and meaning of ‘68, which was that it was not a radical moment. Against a notion like “people think,” the party had asserted that “the party thinks.” As Lazarus puts it, “The PCF set itself up as a precondition to the co-thinkability of thought and practice” (15). They believed all thought must go through the party.

Therefore, the principal question for Lazarus became: what could an approach to politics and thinking politics look like that would avoid these pitfalls? It would first have to be open-ended, willing to embrace moments of rupture and change. Here, we can see why Lazarus opts for les gens over le peuple. Even the part of the statement “think” must remain ill-defined. Lazarus suggests that the first statement is regulated by the first process, “there is thought” (54). Importantly, this statement avoids content: it is purely identificatory.

Here, we enter another crucial aspect of Lazarus’ theory. To honor the occurrence of a new political moment and thought, we must maintain an understanding of it in subjectivity, or what Lazarus calls “interiority.” The anthropology of the name, from which Lazarus titles his book, is thus a method for investigating politics in interiority.

In moments of rupture, newness and possibility are dominate terms. For this relationship to be maintained, one cannot collapse into an objectivist discourse in which one knows, through inductive reasons and established methodological tools, what is to be done. One can understand the PCF’s action in this way: they had a theory of politics tested against the record of history. The party based its viewpoint on a science of political action; as such, it was ill-equipped to respond to a moment of rupture.

To avoid this collapse into objectivist discourse, or what Lazarus calls “scientism” (55), politics needs to be investigated in specific way. This approach starts with the vagueness of “people think.” Avoiding clear definitions, sticking with identification only – e.g., “there is thought” – allows to avoid treating both the “people” and their thought in a scientific manner. One should wait and see how this group identifies itself: what it has to say on its own behalf.

This way of proceeding leads us into the second statement: “thought is a relation of the real.” This statement designates, once again, a particular form of investigation. Lazarus contends that every investigation has its own “real,” that is, its own reality and referents. This is not quite the postmodern claim it appears to be. An investigation normally begins by proposing that an object exists and can be studied in a specific way. It then proceeds with the investigation of whose success is the proof of the initial assumption or proposition. We begin by defining a reality; a set of terms and referents, and a theory of interconnection.

The second statement, then, can be read as proposing such a reality, one which pertains to an anthropology of the name. Lazarus says that this real is non-definitional and non-total: “In the expression relation of the real, of the real refers to knowledge as non-total and non-totalizable, dynamic and singular” (Anthropology of the Name, 64). Perplexing. What he means is that this real is never fully knowable. The second statement sets out another process: the thought of the thought. If the first statement—“People Think”—and first process catalyze an identification, the second statement—“Thought is a relation of the Real”—and second process describe an inquiry. That said, if this inquiry captured the total knowledge of the thought identified in the first statement and first process, one would collapse back into scientific discourse, cease to investigate the subjectivity of politics, and return to a world in which the PCF was right; at least in theory.

If, however, the thought remains non-total, then the space of possibility opens. Because I can never fully grasp the thought that people think—which is not the same as not knowing anything about it—the statement can iterate itself in new situations and become an ongoing process of varying political subjectivations. We can say then that thought and politics are singular, and pursue new problematics, new possibilities in each of their iterations. Politics is thus discontinuous. Having deconstructed Lazarus’ two statements, we can now fully grasp the idea that people think and fully articulate the field of politics. For people’s thought to be a proper category, it must be free from external constraints: it must be understood one its own terms. It is this “understanding on its own terms” that Lazarus’ anthropology of the name achieves.

In a 1985 essay called Can Politics be Thought In Interiority? (Fr. Peut-on penser la politique en intériorité?) Lazarus articulates the consequences of his vision of politics. He disavows the party and the state, and proposes a new political organization, L’Organisation Politique:

We reiterate, it necessitates a new approach to politics, and demands, from the very beginning, no longer centering or focusing politics on the State, and beyond that, on the statist form of power. A new politics will be at a distance from the State. The failure of socialism is not simply the failure of its program—the disappearance of classes and the wasting away of the State—it is the failure of a general centering of politics on the State. The objectival vision of politics is also, today and in France, that there is no politics except that of the State apparatus and from the interior of its logics such as they formulate themselves: i.e., to do politics is to enter into parliamentarianism…. A materialist rupture demands that we create, against parliamentarianism, a non-parliamentary politics. The name of this creation is: Organisation politique (“Can Politics be Thought in Interiority?”, 130).

Lazarus’ work is a robust attempt to defend and redefine radical egalitarianism and emancipatory politics after the political upheavals of the twentieth century. In his view, May 1968 had shown the weakness of the party form with respect to radical politics. Yet this failure was itself in tension with a politics concerned with the state. If we wished to understand politics in all its manifestations, we would need to move into the realm of politics in interiority, of the subjectivist politics defined by the statement “people think.” For this reason, categories such as indeterminacy, discontinuity, and singularity can be useful for a truly new and egalitarian politics to be comprehensible, to adhere to the statement “People Think.”

Duncan Stuart is an Australian writer. He writes about ecology, history, emancipation, French theory and literature. He holds an M.A. in philosophy from The New School. He reluctantly tweets at @DuncanAStuart.

Edited by Kelby Bibler and Artur Banaszewski

Featured Image: The night of riots in Place du Capitole in Paris, 11 or 12 June 1968. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Intellectual history Think Piece

On Walter Benjamin’s Concept of History

By Dibyokamal Mitra

Among the various cudgels raised against the notions of empiricist history, Enlightenment rationality, and civilizational progress in the last century, Walter Benjamin’s particular intervention stands apart for its methodology, scope of critique, and poetical character. While it is true that the prestige accorded to the influential Rankean notion of “wie es eigentlichgewesen” (“as it actually was”) has been seriously questioned from several intellectual quarters, the basic underlying philosophical assumptions of the Rankean doctrine usually make a reappearance in disguise in the arguments of even its strongest detractors. To illustrate this and better prepare the ground for appreciating Benjamin’s distance from other mainstream thinkers of history, it would be instructive to briefly consider the work of the influential Marxist historian E. H. Carr in his seminal work What is History?

Originating as a series of lectures delivered by Carr at the University of Cambridge in 1961, What is History? has become a modern classic and serves as a ready reference for most undergraduate students of history looking to cut their teeth on the philosophical questions of facticity and causality which face the professional historian. In the widely-read first chapter, “The Historian and His Facts,” Carr seems to mark his distance from the Rankean, “empiricist” notion that historical facts are simply “out there” and it is the task of the professional historian to gather these facts as carefully and exhaustively as possible. For Carr, such a disposition neglects the subjective element of history writing since the historian always chooses which fact is worthy enough to be elevated to the category of the historical; thus history writing is not simply an objective affair concerned with the correct ordering and subsequent narration of facts. This leads to the famous closing lines of the opening chapter where history is seen as “a continuous process of interaction between the historian and his facts, an unending dialogue between the present and the past.”

            On the face of it, this seems like a departure from the empirical notion of history writing. Carr follows this up with a similar pronouncement on causality. Just like the objective fact is not simply “out there”, neither is the objective cause and “the relation of the historian to his causes has the same dual and reciprocal character as the relation of the historian to his facts.”

To take our final reference to Carr, in his chapter on the notion of progress in history, he ties his flag firmly to the mast of progress, declaring his preference for a “constructive outlook over the past” without which history writing lapses into either myth or cynicism. Carr’s idea of progress is an infinite one, one that necessarily takes place in history. According to Carr, those who eschew this idea of progress must take an inevitable detour into either the extra-historical logic of eschatology where the “meaning” of history is decided in advance (myth) or the “senseless” position of literature where history writing can be conceived of as mere tales and legends with no actual bearing on the past, present or future (cynicism).

To sum up, Carr’s intervention into the debate regarding objectivity in history concerning facts and causes can be seen in his emphasis on the subjectivity of the process of history writing. One does not find “true” history in the facts and causes themselves, but to a certain extent one creates it in the act of writing. On the other hand, these facts and causes (however subjective they may be) must necessarily be framed through a narrative of infinite progress in order for it to be counted as history writing proper. Without this “proper” framing, we are left with either esoteric ramblings or writings which amount to amusing stories and not much else.

Benjamin’s critique of Rankean history (and even the history writing being produced under the name of Social Democracy) begins from this notion of progress, and the assumption behind this notion, viz., that one may narrate history only as a linear model of continuous improvement, however unreachable its final point may be. An oft-quoted line from his last major work, “On the Concept of History”: “The concept of the progress of the human race in history is not to be separated from the concept of its progression through a homogenous and empty time. The critique of the concept of this progress must ground the basis of its critique on the concept of progress itself.”

It is this question of time which most sharply distinguishes Benjamin from other thinkers and writers on history, and the point where he draws his distance from the idea of historicism as a whole. For a historicist time is empty; it does not have weight and it can be parcelled into periods and epochs. For Benjamin, the task of the historian cannot be to simply record and express (whether objectively or subjectively) facts and causes which explain how things come to be the way they are. To do this is to already legitimize the way that things stand as they do in the present moment, and amounts to a dereliction of duty on part of the historical materialist. To better flesh out the role of the historical materialist (to be distinguished from the mere historicist), Benjamin uses the term Jetztzeit (literally “Now-Time”, translated here as ‘here-and-now’) to describe his conception of historical time. To take an example from “On the Concept of History”, Benjamin writes: “History is the object of a construction whose place is formed not in homogenous and empty time, but in that which is fulfilled by the here-and-now [Jetztzeit]. For Robespierre, Roman antiquity was a past charged with the here-and-now, which he exploded out of the continuum of history. The French revolution thought of itself as a latter day Rome. […] It is the tiger’s leap into that which has gone before.”

This is not a very usual way of thinking about history. Why, for instance does one need to take a “tiger’s leap into the past”, and what does it even mean? The first point to be noted here is that the past for Benjamin is never simply the past; and for the revolutionary, artist or historical materialist, the present or the now (“Jetz”) must be read into the past. This process seems quite at odds with the usual methodology of the historicist whose task is rather to trace as accurately and objectively as possible how the past has morphed into the present due to various political, economic or social reasons. Benjamin’s historical materialist will not be satisfied with such a procedure, and instead will select an event from history which only receives its proper place once it has been exploded out of the continuum of history with the aid of the present.

Another way to conceptualize this notion of time is to consider Benjamin the historian of breaks; not of continuity. E. H. Carr posits that only an insane mind would believe that the infinite line of progress is without breaks and deviations, and that for a sane mind even the sharpest deviations and regressions would not necessarily disrupt the eventual progression of history. For Benjamin, radical change (or revolution) can only occur when the forward-moving train of progress is derailed with the help of the past. The notion of derailment, stopping, and ceasing is not a mere ornamental part of Benjamin’s edifice, it refers to the subjective position of the historical materialist and also describes the methodology employed by them.

For the historical materialist, history is written from the present, but not the flowing present. Benjamin’s notion of historical time originates from the present, and Benjamin uses the word Stillstellung (literally, “quiet-position” and figuratively more commonly used to refer to an interruption in a machinic process) to refer to the subjective position from which the historical materialist operates. In the words of Benjamin: “The historical materialist cannot do without the concept of a present which is not a transition, in which time originates and has come to a standstill. For this concept defines precisely the present in which he writes history for his person. Historicism depicts the ‘eternal’ picture of the past; the historical materialist, an experience with it, which stands alone.”

            Two observations must be made here: Firstly, that history-writing for the historical materialist is not an affair which has any pretentions of “universal history” or objectivity. Secondly, this non-objective history where the subjectivity of the historian is at stake can only be written if the present and a particular epoch in the past are “short-circuited” without care towards the supposed “progress” that has been made in the intervening period. This notion of the present can only be made operational if its additive, empirical and historicist character can be brought to a halt. To quote Benjamin:

Historicism justifiably culminates in universal history. Nowhere does the materialist writing of history distance itself from it more clearly than in terms of method. The former has no theoretical armature. Its method is additive: it offers a mass of facts, in order to fill up a homogenous and empty time. The materialist writing of history for its part is based on a constructive principle. Thinking involves not only the movement of thoughts but also their zero-hour [Stillstellung]. Where thinking suddenly halts in a constellation overflowing with tensions, there it yields a shock to the same, through which it crystallizes as a monad. The historical materialist approaches a historical object solely and alone where he encounters it as a monad.

Thus, to stop the incessant, “homogenous” flow of time necessary to sustain the narrative of empiricist or historicist modes of writing is a productive endeavour for Benjamin. Once the present is not conceptualised as an inevitable outcome of the past, it is free to interact with a particular epoch from the past, whose pressure weighs down on the present as part of its Jetztzeit. The Benjaminian wager here is that the revolutionary hope or chance already is hanging over the present. While Carr sees any non-linear, non-cynical and non-progressive view of history as necessarily belonging to the mythical and eschatological, Benjamin charges this very notion of history as continually changing, progressing and moving forward in a straight line to be highly ideological, and serving the interests of the ruling classes.

            It must be clarified that the subjectivity of the historical materialist does not consist in freely choosing which epoch from the past they shall short-circuit the present with. The Benjaminian present is always shot through with splinters of what Benjamin calls “messianic time”. The subjectivity of the historical materialist consists of being able to stop the flow of homogenous and empty time so that every moment becomes one where a revolutionary situation might emerge. Benjamin would go on to say that for Jews looking into the future was forbidden, and the Torah and prayers would instead instruct them in the ways of remembrance and that which returned. What this did was that it prevented the future from becoming an empty one waiting to be filled with infinite, additive phenomena. Instead, it could be experienced as one where the Messiah might enter at any moment.

            To conclude, where does Benjamin stand with respect to most mainstream theorisations of history, and why is it worth studying him today? Benjamin’s characterisation of inevitable and infinite historical progress as ideologically subservient to ruling-class ideology, rejection of historicism and empiricism as valid pathways towards generating historical knowledge, and acceptance of a “messianic time” over the empty, homogenous time of mainstream history put him at odds with almost all liberal, conservative or socialist historians working in the field today.

            As to the question of why it is worth engaging with his ideas on history today, it is worth mentioning that the current upsurge in far-Right ideology globally is at its greatest peak since the Second World War. Few theorists have studied Fascism with greater sophistication and from closer proximity than Walter Benjamin. To end with his words:

The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the “emergency situation” in which we live is the rule. We must arrive at a concept of history which corresponds to this. Then it will become clear that the task before us is the introduction of a real state of emergency; and our position in the struggle against Fascism will thereby improve. Not the least reason that the latter has a chance is that its opponents, in the name of progress, greet it as a historical norm. – The astonishment that the things we are experiencing in the 20th century are “still” possible is by no means philosophical. It is not the beginning of knowledge, unless it would be the knowledge that the conception of history on which it rests is untenable.

Dibyokamal Mitra is a PhD scholar at the Department of English, Jadavpur University, with interests in psychoanalysis, modernism and the history of ideas. He is also a practising musician and a psychoanalyst-in-formation in the Lacanian orientation.

Edited by Rajosmita Roy.

Featured Image: Sculpture by D’Argenta, based on Salvador Dali’s The Persistence of Memory.

Intellectual history

The Poetics of Existential Crossroads: Navigating Modernity through Kiarostami’s Cinema

By Adnan Mahmud

From 1850 onwards, the dawn of modernity cast many Muslims in non-European regions into an existential quandary. This historical phase ushered in rapid technological, economic, and social transformations worldwide. For many Muslims, modernity became synonymous with Westernization, a shift towards Western cultural values and lifestyles. This evoked mixed reactions: while some retreated into nostalgic visions of a supposed bygone era to escape the surging tides of change, others eagerly adopted Western paradigms of individualism, consumerism, and cultural norms, occasionally at the expense of their indigenous cultural identities. This upheaval was particularly palpable in traditional Muslim societies that had, for centuries, been anchored in Islamic law and Islamicate traditions. The 19th century intensified this challenge as Western military and political ascendancy introduced Muslims to novel, secularized systems of governance, education, and societal organization. This restructuring valued technical rationality, often side lining some of the essence and authority of Islamic religious scholarship.

Renowned for his work, “Restating Orientalism,” Hallaq highlights how the emergent nation-state paradigm marginalized the once-pervasive sharia law that governed both public and private aspects of Muslim life. The conventional madrasa education, which produced jurists well-versed in Fiqh, Quranic exegesis, and hadith, saw its prominence wane, replaced by secular academia. Such shifts, as Hallaq emphasizes, led to a profound epistemic rupture. The communal spirit, ethics, and daily routines that once revolved around mosques and sharia courts began to erode, giving way to the centralized state and modern bureaucracies. Even as modern technologies found acceptance, the deeper ethos of modernity remained somewhat alien.

Enter Abbas Kiarostami. An often-overlooked Islamicate figure, his cinematic creations from twentieth-century Iran promise to shed light on lesser-trodden paths. In the heart of Kiarostami’s cinematic creations lies a poetic perspective that invites Muslims to not only comprehend but also navigate the intricate landscape of modernity — a landscape marked by challenges, ambiguities, and potential reconciliations between past and present.

Born in 1940 in Tehran, Abbas Kiarostami emerged during a transformative period in Iran’s history, witnessing a series of sociopolitical upheavals, from the last years of the Pahlavi dynasty to the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the subsequent Iran-Iraq War. This tumultuous backdrop deeply influenced Iranian art and cinema. Kiarostami, as a seminal figure in the Iranian New Wave movement, was no exception. His avant-garde approach to filmmaking, characterized by a profound blend of fiction and non-fiction, minimalist narratives, use of non-professional actors, and intricate long takes, marked a distinct departure from conventional storytelling. Amidst a nation grappling with identity, tradition, and modernity, Kiarostami’s films became introspective reflections on these very challenges. Over his prolific career, he cultivated a style that was both introspective and observational, often blurring the lines between reality and cinematic construct.


Taste Of Cherry (طعم گیلاس, 1997)

In Taste Of Cherry, the protagonist, Mr. Badii, traverses the undulating outskirts of Tehran. Throughout this journey, Badii’s car metamorphoses into a space of intimate revelations as he converses sequentially with three diverse individuals: a Kurdish soldier, an Afghan seminarian, and an Azerbaijani taxidermist. Each of these encounters provides a layered contemplation on life, death, and the profound complexities of the human condition.

Firstly, Badii’s interaction with the young Kurdish soldier offers a pragmatic and relatively detached viewpoint. Uncomfortable with Badii’s intentions and unfamiliar with the gravity of such matters, the soldier’s perspective acts as an initial, somewhat naïve exploration of the film’s central themes. This is followed by Badii’s conversation with the Afghan seminarian, who reacts with alarm and distress upon understanding Badii’s plans. Steeped in his Islamic beliefs, the seminarian tries fervently to guide Badii away from his path, drawing from the religious and moral tenets of Islam, emphasizing the value of life and the sinfulness of suicide. Lastly, Badii’s engagement with the Azerbaijani taxidermist introduces an intimate, life-affirming perspective. Having once grappled with the spectre of suicide himself, the taxidermist recounts personal anecdotes of rediscovering joy, particularly highlighting the beauty of simple experiences like tasting wild cherries.

Abbas Kiarostami beautifully orchestrates these series of conversations, reflecting a myriad of beliefs, values, and emotional states. As the film unfolds, it becomes evident that the true catalyst for change often isn’t just miraculous signs, but the profound touch of human compassion. While the young seminarian adheres to strict, literal interpretations of Islamic tenets, arguing against despair and suicide, it’s the taxidermist’s compassionate, personal approach that leaves the most lasting impact on Badii. The seminarian’s literal approach, though grounded in scripture, does not resonate as deeply as the genuine empathy of the taxidermist. Through his shared experiences and sincere compassion, the taxidermist reaches into Badii’s soul. This juxtaposition between literalism and compassion speaks to the challenges many Muslims face in navigating the complexities of modernity. As societies evolve and adapt, interpretations of faith must also be re-examined and contextualized. The movie suggests that while tradition provides guiding principles, it’s the ability to connect on a human level that offers a bridge to understanding in contemporary settings.

Moreover, the backdrop against which these profound dialogues unravel is itself a character in the narrative. The terrains surrounding Tehran are vast and arid, with rolling hills extending into the horizon, embodying Badii’s internal void. The serpentine roads, weaving their way amidst these hills, reflect Badii’s tumultuous internal journey. This sprawling isolation, juxtaposed with the bustling urbanity of Tehran, provides commentary on the solitude one might feel amidst rapid modernization. These seemingly barren landscapes, bathed in the melancholic glow of twilight, offer silent observations on the evolving tides of time, underscoring the tension between a disappearing past and an encroaching future dictated by relentless modernity. By placing Badii’s introspective journey against this striking backdrop, Kiarostami poignantly delves into the multifaceted nuances of human existence within the modern world, especially resonating with the profound existential search that many, particularly Muslims, undergo in reconciling with the changing tides of modernity.

Where Is The Friend’s House? (خانه دوست کجاست, 1987)

Continuing this introspective trend, Kiarostami’s films frequently unearth beauty in everyday mundane moments. In Where Is The Friend’s House?, he celebrates the world as seen through a child’s eyes. The film follows a boy searching for his friend’s home to return a notebook, capturing the nuances of daily life in an Iranian village, like the simple act of a man picking mulberries. Kiarostami’s use of prolonged shots of rural landscapes in his films serves a deeper purpose beyond aesthetics. These lingering shots are deliberate directorial decisions intended to immerse the viewer completely in the environment.

By extending these scenes, Kiarostami compels the audience to observe, reflect, and engage with the intricate details of the landscape — the subtle interplay of nature’s sounds, the gentle movements of flora, and the changing hues of the sky. This approach contrasts starkly with the rapid-paced stimuli of modern cinema and, by extension, modern life. In a world where modernity often feels overwhelming, fractured, and accelerated, Kiarostami’s decision to slow down, to focus, becomes a poignant reminder of the need for mindfulness and presence. For many Muslims grappling with the contradictions of modernity — the tension between tradition and the encroachments of a rapidly changing world — Kiarostami’s meditative style offers a means of grounding. It suggests a way to find balance, to anchor oneself in the timeless and universal, even amidst the relentless flux of contemporary life.

Close-Up (نمای نزدیک, 1990)

Yet, Kiarostami doesn’t shy away from deconstructing cinematic reality; in fact, he challenges our perceptions of cinematic reality, blending documentary and fiction rather than simply romanticizing rural life. This mastery is most evident in Close-Up, where the tale of Hossain Sabzian unfolds. An unemployed film aficionado, Sabzian impersonates the famed filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf to earn the trust of Tehran’s Ahankhah family, driven by a deep-seated admiration for cinema and a yearning for societal validation. As his deception unravels, Kiarostami brilliantly blurs conventional storytelling, interweaving Sabzian’s real trial footage with reenactments. This metatextual narrative embodies the concept of Caméra-Stylo—coined by French film theorist Alexandre Astruc—which postulates cinema’s potential for introspection and personal expression, akin to literature. Through Close-Up, Kiarostami critiques not just the authenticity of cinema but also ponders over its fabricated realities and their influence on our convictions.

Moreover, this film can be interpreted as a metaphorical exploration of the challenges Muslims face in a globalized world marked by dominant Western values. Sabzian’s decision to adopt the persona of a celebrated filmmaker reflects the dilemmas some Muslims grapple with—whether to adopt Western norms for societal acceptance. However, Sabzian’s eventual revelation is emblematic of the precarious nature of such identity compromises. The blend of reality and fiction in Kiarostami’s narrative accentuates the tension between genuine selfhood and constructed facades, resonating with the Muslim endeavor to balance age-old traditions with modern influences. Consequently, Close-Up emerges as a profound contemplation for Muslims, emphasizing the significance of genuine self-expression, the perils of yielding to external pressures, and the pivotal need to harmonize intrinsic Islamic values with the encroaching tides of modernity.


His characters seem to wander aimlessly but are actually on existential quests. They are not searching for material goals but rather meaning, connection, and virtue amid isolation and uncertainty. In Taste Of Cherry, the protagonist searches for reasons to embrace life; in Close-Up, for human understanding and validation, while in Where Is The Friend’s House?, for a simple yet profound quest to return a friend’s notebook, illustrating a journey of responsibility and moral duty. But can these filmic journeys provide any real-world lessons for Muslims who may feel overwhelmed by the famous question of modernity? While some Muslims view modernity as an unmitigated threat to their traditional lifeways, Kiarostami responds by energetically accepting modern Iran’s sociocultural contradictions. Kiarostami thus provides a model for engaging with what we may call the “modern Muslim condition.”

When overwhelmed by societies increasingly ruptured from their past traditions, one must choose neither regression to a putatively pristine past nor unreflective assimilation to the imperatives of the present. Instead, like the winding roads in Kiarostami’s films, many Muslims must embark courageously on open-ended journeys, seeking provisional meanings in the here and now, even as they trust in the transcendental unity that underpins the multiplicity of these circuitous meanings. His films suggest that while modernity has indeed disrupted certain traditions, there remain new opportunities for Muslims to find spiritual meaning even in the modest experiences of quotidian settings. However, this path of finding or cultivating virtue within the modern is complex, with no definitive solutions. Kiarostami embraces modern Iran’s ambiguities rather than retreating to an imagined purified past. The unity that the Prophet preached must encompass all human spaces, including those secularised arenas seemingly devoid of the touch of the spiritual.

Kiarostami’s art provides no categorical prescriptions or straightforward templates. Instead, as postulated, his films serve as poetic compasses, guiding Muslims through the intricacies of modern life, reminding them of the potential for reconciliation and rediscovery within the dynamic interplay of tradition and change. His cinematographic aesthetic teaches Muslims to boldly embrace paradox, dialectic, and even brokenness, and find virtue in the modern while remaining rooted in tradition. Only by poetically accepting the very present along with its contradictions can Muslims avoid both regressive nostalgia and rootless assimilation.

Adnan Mahmud read Engineering at the University of Cambridge and has a keen interest in the Indo-Persian-Islamic aesthetic. He deeply admires Hindustani poetry and passionately delves into the works of esteemed poets such as Allama Iqbal, Rabindranath Tagore, and Kazi Nazrul. Moreover, he translates sub-continental languages, primarily Bengali and Urdu, as a dedicated hobbyist. This article is dedicated to my Mother, dearest. May your prayers and sacrifices keep on being the north star of my life.

Edited by Thomas Furse

Featured Image: Roads and Trees by Abbas Kiarostami [WikiArt]

Intellectual history Think Piece

The Vulgar Expression of Being: Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, and other Abled Bodies

By Susannah Leigh

The unity of the world, before being posited by knowledge in a specific act of identification is “lived”. 

Merleau-Ponty 2002, xix.

It is no secret that our ideas betray something of their legacies. Revolutionaries wade through the intellectual tradition like thick and muddy water, whereas classical philosophers and scientists often stand on the shoulders of giants. The works of Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty marked some of the most prominent contributions to the existential tradition. The theorists may even be constitutive of our notion of French twentieth-century existentialism. On the other hand, Merleau-Ponty and Sartre marked a revolutionary deviance from the well-wrought urn of the classical philosophical way of thinking; their ideas embarked on the premise that science is derived from (or at least secondary to) structures of human existence (Thomas 2006, 56). Instead of abiding by the so-called split between subject and object, Sartre and Merleau-Ponty sought to establish their theories of inner perception.

To transcend what Buck-Morss called ‘the constant plague of classical philosophy’ (Buck-Morss 1992, 13), (that so-called split between subject and object) is, however, an ugly task. In Existentialism and Humanism, Jean-Paul Sartre once wrote, ‘I have lately been told of a lady who, whenever she lets slip in a vulgar expression in a moment of nervousness, excuses herself by exclaiming, “I believe I am becoming an existentialist.”’ (Sartre and Philip 2007, 24). 

Sartre establishes a theory of inner perception known as the look, and Merleau-Ponty a phenomenology of perception. Whilst these theories purport to reveal something universal about our existences, they rely on the classically ocularcentric language of the Western philosophical tradition to establish their theories. By ocularcentric I mean the privileging of sight or visual faculties within the sensorium. If Sartre and Merleau-Ponty’s theories rely on or dispense ideas about existence mediated through ocularcentric assumptions, their theories will fail to account for the experience of blindness. Dickel (2022) and Kleege’s (2005) phenomenological accounts of disabled experience point out the tiredness of the philosopher’s reliance on analogies appealing to classical philosophy’s able-bodied tradition; since they must therefore rely on the false idea that blindness is linked to limitations in one’s knowledge, as opposed to a sensory adjustment to one’s being in-the-world. Ultimately, the metaphysical dilemma of human existence was indeed outlined by Sartre and Merleau-Ponty, if, to their benefit, bound to its contemporary nomenclature surrounding knowledge.

Loss of sight, or blindness, involves a period of bodily and existential instability (Irving 2017) wherein the primary locus within the sensorium must shift away from sight and towards a greater reliance upon material corporeality. Neither Sartre (2007) nor Merleau-Ponty (2002) directly consider the case of blindness, albeit Merleau-Ponty talks about blindness in relation to bodily experience.

I shall briefly set out an interpretation of Sartre’s notion of the Look in Being and Nothingness (Sartre and Philip 2007), which I interpret as purporting to explain the notion of selfhood or identity as conferred through a dialectic of looking and being looked at in our experiences of other people. In his notion of the Look, Sartre talks about the visual faculties in a literal way; the confusion surrounding our haphazard footing over the deeply metaphysically established notion that we ourselves exist, and possibly others too, can be captured through an exchanged glance with another. One spots another person’s gaze capturing oneself visually, but within this exchange, one is simultaneously made aware of their situatedness within that alien perceptual field of the other and, unwilfully extracted from the field of self, is made aware of one’s own existence within the context of the other, within their own complex life and their existential reality. One gains a sense of the self as captured by the other.

On the other hand, one does the same since all exchange is mutual, be it seeing and being seen, feeling and being felt; there is always a return, a symmetry of force when one engages with something outside oneself. In doing so, one incorporates the person to whom they are a subject into their presupposed situatedness within the world. In this sense, our ability to see the other captures something from them about themselves they seemingly cannot access. Vice versa, we see ourselves, that is, one’s own essence, stripped of one’s own control and captured by the other. This exchange serves as visceral proof of supra-somatic existence, and thus is the point at which we are introduced to the world in all its possibilities. In a great Homeric salvo, the point at which we find clarity on this otherwise foggy notion is also the moment it is captured from us, hence Sartre depicts this denouement: ‘my freedom eats  into my possibles’ (Sartre 2001, 260).

Consider the metamorphosis required of Sartre’s account if applied within the context of blindness. The dialectic of looking and being looked at would cease to be an ocular phenomenon; in a re-stabilization of selfhood in-the-world, one’s orientation within the sensorium is reordered whereby identity and selfhood must be conferred to a greater degree through material corporeality. This term captures the notion of a body of lived experiences rather than focusing on any particular mode of perception. This notion echoes what Kant described when he argued that ‘inner perception is impossible without outer perception, that the world, as a collection of connected phenomena, is anticipated in the consciousness of my unity, and is the means whereby I come into being as a consciousness’ (quoted in Merleau-Ponty 2002, xix). Anticipation was also a key concept for Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception, where he says ‘the unity of the world, before being posited by knowledge in a specific act of identification is ‘lived’ (ibid.). On this basis, we ought to defend that Sartre’s account still holds weight upon capturing lived experience world-over, despite the fact it is valued in quite clearly a linguistically ocular currency. In other words, Sartre may talk about sight and truth, vision and knowledge the world over, however the subject of the dialectic he proposes is that entirely human phenomenon of existential and perceptual [in]stability.

Sartre’s notion of the Look described the dilemma we face when confronted by the reciprocal nature of our being. The language used to talk about knowledge surrounding identity and existence certainly invokes the visual faculties, not unlike the terms we often use today (An illuminating read; she shone light on the topic; look at things from my point of view; ahh- I see!). However, there is certainly also hope to locate the Look within the disabled embodied experience (see Kleege 2005 and Dickel 2022 for progress already made on this). Returning to the initial dilemma of selfhood, Sartre’s account explains why we must begin all understanding by acknowledging the metaphysics of self as a practical, intellectual and existential beginning point. The dialectic of looking and being looked at must, therefore be reconceptualized as using sight as an analogy for perception and being in the world. 

We may take issue with the fact Sartre’s account demands some metaphysical excavation in order for it to apply to the disabled embodied experience. Dickel (2022) and Kleege (2005) offer an account of the phenomenology of disabled experience, and point out the tiredness of the philosopher’s reliance on analogies appealing to classical philosophy’s able-bodied tradition. Dickel (2022) remarks that using analogies that associate sight and knowledge are inseparable from the tired use of blindness by analogy to demonstrate a lack of knowledge, thought and understanding in the ocularcentric western philosophical tradition, and as Kleege puts it, ‘that image is older than Oedipus’ (2005, 228). I have omitted Dickel and Kleege’s support for other aspects of Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of perception, though they are right to propose that the language ‘could use a lick of paint’ (ibid.). 

In Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology, blindness is not portrayed as a debilitating disability, though imbued with a sense of mysticism possessed in a deeply different way to how sighted people live; the physiological difference of blindness from a normal person confers a social category onto the imagined blind person. In his account of perceptual habit, Merleau-Ponty talks about  a blind person who incorporates the white cane into their body schema and then perceives their world through the cane (Dickel, 2022). When a blind person moves through the world with a cane, what they can anticipate in proximity through that cane is indeed affected by having low sight in a way that embodies a seemingly non-human object. In this sense, Merleau-Ponty provides a far-from traditionally ocularcentric position regarding embodied experience: since the blind person’s cane is analogous to the sighted person’s feather in their cap, Merleau-Ponty seeks to identify a universal human experience. For example, the flexibility of the physical boundaries of where one’s identity ends shows a diversified account of inner perception. ‘The blind man’s cane has ceased to be an object for him, it is no longer perceived for itself; rather, the cane’s furthest point is transformed into a sensitive zone, it increases the scope and the radius of the act of touching and has become analogous to a gaze’ (Merleau-Ponty 2002, 144).

The cane analogizes the ‘gaze’: a concept which is essential to this dialectic, and which, in the first part of this essay, I tried to justify as being fluid through the sensorium. In other words, it can be used even when sight becomes unavailable. I considered the legacy and tradition of an ocularcentric understanding of how identity is conferred through a dialectic of looking and being looked at. I argue that two core theorists, Sartre and Merelau-Ponty, can be perceived as belonging to that tradition whilst also being useful for its dismantling. Sartre and Merleau-Ponty are not core proponents of the notion of visual faculties having privileged access to truth.  The view is, however, implicit in both their accounts, only redeemed by their extraordinary departure from a classical subject-object or empirical approach.

Both accounts are products of their ocularcentric philosophical predecessors, however they provide a revolutionary practical application of a great metaphysical dilemma: our comprehension of our own existence, and the existence of others is at once impossible to prove (and therefore to be epistemologically sure of), but is also somehow metaphysically instantaneously grasped, in that we tend to live in a way which ensures that there are indeed other sentient humans. Since metaphysics concerns truth, and epistemology knowledge, it is generally regarded as impossible to talk about one if the other is a mystery; if one talks about or discerns something as being true, one implies themself in having knowledge of it being so. That Sartre and Merleau-Ponty’s accounts reconciled this astral notion with human’s most pedestrian habit marks a revolutionary feat. 

Susannah Leigh is a recent undergraduate of the Social Sciences in Social Anthropology and Philosophy at the University of Manchester. Her research interests includes metaphysics, phenomenology, and existential anthropology, and lots of more amusing things.  

Edited by Thomas Furse

Featured Image: Ray, Man: Eye and tears. 1930s. Courtesy of NGV Collection Online and the Bowness Family Foundation.