by guest contributor Jonathon Catlin

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The German historian Reinhart Koselleck (1923–2006) is best known as the founder of Begriffsgeschichte, or conceptual history, a historical methodology that culminated in the Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe: Historisches Lexikon zur politisch-sozialen Sprache, a massive eight-volume encyclopedia of fundamental historical concepts that Koselleck co-edited with Otto Brunner and Werner Conze. Toward the end of his life Koselleck moved away from his earlier project of conceptual history and directed his intellectual energies to issues of memory and iconography, as seen in his late collection of essays Zeitschichten (2000). Several essays from this volume, as well as some written after its publication, have been recently collected and translated into English as Sediments of Time: On Possible Histories (Stanford, 2018) with an introduction by Koselleck’s former student Stefan-Ludwig Hoffman (available free online).

Koselleck and conceptual history are having a veritable resurgence. One of the most interesting fruits born of this wave of interest is the three-part exhibition “Reinhart Koselleck und das Bild” (Reinhart Koselleck and the Image), which was displayed in Bielefeld, Germany, in spring and summer 2018. It was curated by Dr. Bettina Brandt and Dr. Britta Hochkirchen, two scholars affiliated with Bielefeld University, the history faculty of which Koselleck helped establish in the 1960s and where he taught until his retirement in 1988. Besides Koselleck’s conceptual history—documented in his archive and library at the Deutsches Literaturarchiv (DLA) in Marbach—he also took over ten thousand photographs, which are now housed separately at the Bildarchiv Foto Marburg and viewable online. Most of his photographs were part of two thematic projects, Politischer Totenkult (the political cult of the dead, with a focus on war memorials) and Politische Ikonographie/Ikonologie (political iconography and iconology, with a focus on equestrian monuments). These began as hobbies but matured into intellectual projects in their own right, with the former culminating in Koselleck’s 1994 co-edited volume Der politische Totenkult: Kriegerdenkmäler in der Moderne.

Selections of Koselleck’s photographs were displayed in three different locations around Bielefeld, each of which highlighted a different dimension of his work on iconography. Curators Brandt and Hochkirchen argue convincingly that the late Koselleck—and to some degree his earlier project of conceptual history as well—was deeply attuned to visual as well as linguistic semantics. They thus position Koselleck at the forefront of the recent “iconic turn” to aesthetics, political iconography, and metaphorology. Their curatorial work reveals that conceptual history’s traditionally logocentric tools of etymology, philology, hermeneutics, and historical semantics only achieve their true interpretive power when combined with the study of closely related icons, symbols, and images.

koselleck 2

The exhibit thus links Koselleck to the Blumenbergian turn of recent works of conceptual and intellectual history such as the volume The Scaffolding of Sovereignty: Global and Aesthetic Perspectives on the History of a Concept (Columbia, 2017), co-edited by Zvi Ben-Dor Benite, Stefanos Geroulanos, and Nicole Jerr, which opens up a number of new approaches for conceptual history. This work illustrates through diverse case studies that sovereignty is at once a concept that can be “filled up” with different meanings in different times and places, an image inextricably linked in political modernity to the iconography of the Hobbesian sovereign, and a Blumenbergian absolute metaphor” of the visualization of the body politic in one sovereign. This turn toward linking conceptual history with aesthetics and political theology has helped put some final nails in the coffin of the fallacies of rationality and coherence that has long constrained the history of ideas to narrowly conceived “philosophical” subjects. The fact that Brandt and Hochkirchen—like Koselleck himself—have training in art history is evident in their attempt to open up conceptual history to new audiences, both within the academic world and for a public interested in the politics of memory and representation.

One political icon in particular preoccupied Koselleck for much of his life: the horse. The exhibit “Political Sensuality” (Politische Sinnlichkeit) displayed in Bielefeld’s Center for Interdisciplinary Research (ZiF) explored the way the modern political “space of experience” (Erfahrungsraum) engages all five senses and the body. It presents everything from his photographs of political symbols, such as statues of Karl Marx, to dozens of figures of horses from his personal collection—ranging from everyday products and advertisements emblazoned with horse iconography to collectable figurines Koselleck displayed on the bookshelves in his office, to the stuffed horse he took naps with in his old age.

Koselleck stuffed horse-1

The horse captivated Koselleck because it was employed by a wide range of modern political ideologies as a symbol of power and sovereignty. The equestrian statue was one of the fundamental symbols of political modernity and conveys the “space of experience” (Erfahrungsraum) of the Sattelzeit (1750-1850), the period of modern conceptual emergence at the center of Begriffsgeschichte. Koselleck characterized the horse as a privileged icon of the modern era and even wrote of an “equine age” (Pferdezeitalter).

Koselleck horse figures 1-1

As the horse lost its economic and military functions with the advent of industrial power, the automobile, and the tank, it was consigned to more trivial functions as a means of leisure and recreation. This was the meaning horses held for Koselleck in his own time, given his childhood passion for horseback riding. His impressive collection of figures captures this semantic shift, from commanding military figures to the playful carousel pony and rocking horse.

Koselleck horse figures 2-1Koselleck as rocking horse-1

The curators argue that Koselleck was deeply attuned to the mediated quality of his images. He regularly took photographs of television programs, especially parades and ceremonies, that are marked by distortions, glare, and fuzziness, thus tangibly conveying their multi-mediated status.

Koselleck television photographs

Koselleck similarly kept poor quality photographs taken out of train windows that are often overcast by flash glare and others including reflections of his own face and hands. For the curators, these images seem to express a “double quality”: on the one hand, images seduce the eye and draw the viewer in, but on the other they create distance and distortion that keeps the viewer at a critical distance. This attention to visuality reflects Koselleck’s broader contention that history is always plural and contested: experiences, expectations, and interpretations pile up in layers and battle for significance and meaning. Koselleck’s photographs of statues of Karl Marx exemplify his attention to competing historical perspectives: a statue that from a distance looks imposing and commanding becomes an absurd caricature up close.

Koselleck Marx photographs

“Layers of Time” (Zeitschichten), which takes its name from Koselleck’s late collection of essays, is displayed in Bielefeld University’s History Faculty. It presents dozens of clusters of Koselleck’s photographs concerning historical objects, time, and experience, revealing his sharp eye for spotting layers of history, memory traces, anachronisms, uncanny juxtapositions of time, repetitions, and multiple modernities—what he, following Ernst Bloch, called “the simultaneity of the non-simultaneous” (die ‘Ungleichzeitigkeit’ des Gleichzeitigen). The visual aspect of the title layers or sediments of time recalls a quotation by Koselleck featured at the beginning of the exhibition: “Whomever speaks about time is dependent upon metaphors.”

Koselleck Via del Progresso-1

This exhibit also provides a bit of intellectual history behind Koselleck’s “image praxis.” He initially wanted to attend an art academy and become a caricaturist. He abandoned this plan in favor of history, but while studying in Heidelberg he continued to attend art history seminars. One of the few physical objects on display is Koselleck’s heavily underlined copy of Giotto – Arenafresken: Ikonographie, Ikonologie, Ikonik, a 1980 work of art criticism by his friend and colleague Max Imdahl (a fellow member of the group Poetics and Hermeneutics, which met around Germany from 1963–1994). Koselleck took particular interest in Imdahl’s notions of “Bildzeit” (image-time) and “Bildzeitlichkeit” (image-temporality), which theorize pictorial expressions of time—the layers of history sedimented within every image.

Max Imdahl, Giotto, 1979

Koselleck’s underlined copy of Max Imdahl, Giotto – Arenafresken: Ikonographie, Ikonologie, Ikonik. Munich, 1980. Held at the Deutschesliteraturarchiv Marbach.

The exhibit also includes a small selection of caricatures from Koselleck’s own hand, which depict political figures such as Konrad Adenauer, Theodor Heuss, and Harry Truman, as well as his former professors Karl Jaspers, Hans-Georg Gadamer, and Karl Löwith. In 1983, on the occasion of Koselleck’s sixtieth birthday, a volume of his drawings and caricatures was published as Vorbilder – Bilder, with a short introduction by Imdahl.

Koselleck caricatures-1

Koselleck’s caricatures, published in Vorbilder – Bilder, 1983. Top left: Konrad Adenauer in 1949 after his election as Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany; Top right: German Federal President Theodor Heuss on December 12, 1952, a few hours before his decision to rescind the judicial opinion of the Federal Constitutional Court against West German rearmament under pressure from CDU Chancellor Konrad Adenauer. The image is dedicated to Carl Schmitt, with whom Koselleck had a correspondence and whom he thanks in the preface to his first book, Critique and Crisis; Bottom right: “Oder? Oder?” comically depicts Polish leader Władysław Gomułka receiving Charles de Gaulle in 1967 to affirm the Oder-Neisse border between Germany and Poland.

Koselleck Eric Hobsbawm drawing-1

Koselleck’s sketch of the British Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm, who taught Koselleck at a reeducation center at Göhrde castle in 1947.

Koselleck’s photographs often evoke temporal acceleration and the paradoxes of technological progress. In a single frame he frequently contrasts signs of progress and regression, utopia and catastrophe, forgetting and haunting. The most frequent image he sought to capture was the juxtaposition of a blurred modern high-speed train rushing past the stationary statue of a rider on horseback, representing the displacement of the horse by the train as the dominant mode of transit in Europe—yet also the persistence of equestrian iconography.

Koselleck train and rider-1

The final exhibit, “Memory Sluices” (Erinnerungsschleusen) was displayed at the Bielefelder Kunstverein and curated by its director, Thomas Thiel. It presents Koselleck’s foray into the politics of memory and the “cult of the dead”, which he argued was “one of the signatures” of political modernity in his 1983 essay “Sluices of Memory and Sediments of Experience.” As the European nation-state emerged as the center of modern life during the Sattelzeit, the Christian monopoly on the meaning of death through salvation and the afterlife gave way to the perpetuation of life through the political futurity of the nation. Koselleck’s work showed that this shift was evident in changing memorials for the dead. The French revolutionaries first sought to memorialize each individual fallen soldier regardless of rank, symbolizing the democratic principle of equality in sacrifice to the nation. Nations created a cult of those who died for them and erected magnificent monuments for their worship.

Monument to the Battle of the Nations

Monument to the Battle of the Nations, Leipzig, 1913 – Wikipedia.

World War One served as the high point of this practice of naming the dead regardless of their rank. In the battlefields of Flanders, the Somme, or Verdun, “no name could go missing” because “the equality of death becomes the symbol of the political unit of action” (Sediments of Time, pp. 218, 217). Koselleck connected such forms of memory back to structures of possible historical experience: “Wartime experiences could only be made and raised to the level of consciousness because they fitted into a grid of historically pregiven possibilities of experience…formed through language, ideology, political organization, generation, gender and family, class, and social stratum” (p. 213).

Koselleck First and Second World War-1

After World War One, however, and especially after World War Two, memorials ceased to name the individual dead because “sacrificial importance” could no longer be attributed to mass civilian death and genocide. In West German memorials for fallen soldiers and concentration camp victims, Koselleck wrote, “it becomes especially clear that death is no longer understood as an answer and instead only as a question, death no longer generates meaning, instead it calls out for meaning” (p. 218). In his 2002 essay “Forms and Traditions of Negative Memory,” Koselleck called this “negative finding” the “abysmalness” (Abgründigkeit) of remembering the National Socialist period: “Senselessness [Sinnlosigkeit] became an event. There is no attribution of meaning [Sinnstiftung] that could retroactively encompass or redeem all the crimes of the National Socialist Germans” (p. 240). Successful post-World War Two memorials such as those of Jochen Gerz—what James E. Young calls “counter-monuments”—thus attempt “to show that the question of meaning has itself become meaningless” (p. 248).

Esther Shalev-Gerz and Jochen Gerz, "The Monument Against Fascism," 1986

Esther Shalev-Gerz and Jochen Gerz, “The Monument Against Fascism,” 1986.

Koselleck contributed essays to debates about memorializing the Holocaust in Germany that culminated in Peter Eisenman’s 2008 Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. His positions center on the ambivalent relationship between perpetrator and victim, for he notes that during the National Socialist period itself, “victim” (Opfer) referred to soldiers who sacrificed themselves for glory of the Reich, whereas after the war it came to symbolize senseless and passive death. Memorials to the First World War that had been repurposed in the service of Nazi propaganda were once again altered by the Allied occupiers: “References to fame and honor were removed, heroes were transformed into victims or the dead” (p. 223). To the extent that such memorials honored both war and terror in conjunction, they represent “a kind of despairing meaningless…more a loss than a founding of identity.” New “rituals” like painting over soldiers’ memorials with words such as “never again war” signal piling up layers of meaning but also breakthroughs into new forms of historical consciousness.

Koselleck Nooit Meer Auschwitz-1

Koselleck was adamant about three points in Germany’s debates about remembering the National Socialist past. First, he wrote that the experiences of terror and useless suffering of the victims could not be transmitted: “They fill the memory of those affected by them, they form their memories, flow into their bodies like a mass of lava, immovable and inscribed….As a primary experience, the experience of absurd meaningless burned into the body cannot be carried over to the memory of others, nor can it be transmitted to the recollection of others who were not affected” (p. 241). He thus concluded that there was no German “collective memory” to speak of. One is confronted here with the senselessness of Koselleck’s own wartime experience: he served as a young Wehrmacht soldier on the Eastern Front and likely would have followed the fate of his brothers to the grave had he not been spared from battle by an injury. After the war he was taken prisoner by the Soviets, who held him on a work duty at Auschwitz and then in a prisoner of war camp in what is now Kazakhstan.

Second, Koselleck wrote, Germany had what his teacher Karl Jaspers called a unique political responsibility to remember not only victims of National Socialism, but also the perpetrators who carried it out its crimes (p. 245). It is no accident that Koselleck’s personal copy of Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, held at the DLA in Marbach, is almost entirely underlined and littered with annotations: political responsibility after the war entailed coming to terms with Germany’s genocidal past and pursuing justice for the victims where possible. Koselleck thus objected to the inscription on Käthe Kollwitz’s Neue Wache memorial for victims of National Socialism in Berlin, “To the Victims of War and Tyranny,” because it “disguises what happened and ignores the brutal and absurd truth of our history.” Instead he proposed: “To the Dead: Fallen, Murdered, Gassed, Died, Missing.”

Finally, Koselleck argued that memorializing victims by same the “racial-zoological” criteria of the SS according to which they were sorted and killed only served to reproduce Nazi identity politics (p. 241). Instead he advocated a single memorial that would honor all victims of National Socialism, not just Europe’s Jews: “We as perpetrators are obliged to treat the other groups in the same way, because we killed all the victims in the same manner…. A perpetrators’ monument [Tätermal] should memorialize all the murdered” (p. 244). Koselleck worried that for Germany to focus on remembering Jewish victims like any other nation served as a “kind of unburdening” from memory of their own past as Germans (p. 246). He presciently noted that after the memorial to European Jewry was completed, Germany would be uniquely obliged as a perpetrator nation to erect separate memorials for Sinti and Roma, homosexuals, and victims of the euthanasia program, who, indeed, have since been remembered by smaller monuments nearby. Notably absent from this list, Koselleck noted, are the 3.5 million Soviet prisoners of war who died in German camps. “Mourning,” he contended, “is not divisible” (p. 245).

Koselleck Euthanasia Sachsenhausen-1

Euthanasia memorial and memorial at Sachsenhausen concentration camp

This need to simultaneously remember German, Jewish, and other historical subjects in the Second World War produced an aporia of memory that Koselleck argued could only be symbolized through monuments, not resolved by them. Hence the most successful memorials to both the Holocaust and German war losses, he wrote, were “negative monuments” or “process monuments,” which symbolized the senselessness of National Socialist terror and an ongoing need for working upon the past. Rather than healing wounds, such monuments serve to expose them and keep them open to public memory, debate, and historical consciousness.

Koselleck Treblinka-1

Memorial at Treblinka death camp in Poland

“Koselleck und das Bild” is a striking testament to Koselleck’s visual legacy. His decades-long engagement with visual culture reminds us that images and icons are indispensable points of crystallization for historical experience and memory. Only with the tools of a historical aesthetics can we begin to heed Koselleck’s call to work through the aporias of historical memory that continue to confront us today: “we must think the unthinkable,… learn to speak the unspeakable, and… attempt to imagine the unimaginable” (p. 246).

Photographs by Reinhart Koselleck are courtesy of the Koselleck family and © Deutsches Dokumentationszentrum für Kunstgeschichte – Bildarchiv Foto Marburg. Photographs of the Bielefeld exhibition “Koselleck and das Bild” are courtesy of Philipp Ottendörfer.

Jonathon Catlin is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of History at Princeton University. His dissertation in progress provides a conceptual history of “catastrophe” in modern European thought, focusing on German-Jewish intellectuals including the Frankfurt School of critical theory.


Conference Report: Mastery, Ownership, Divinity: Self And Power in Transregional and Transtemporal Perspectives

by contributing writer Philipp Sperner

While the need to study notions of power, sovereignty and rule from a global perspective has been widely acknowledged, the research is all too often limited by its strong dependence on the disciplinary framework of area studies and Eurocentrism. One of the aims of the conference, titled “Mastery, Ownership, Divinity: Self and Power in Transregional and Transtemporal perspective”, organized by Milinda Banerjee and held at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität (LMU) in Munich on 18th and 19th September 2018 was to work towards developing alternative frameworks. Another aim of the conference was to emphasise the intersections of political theology and political economy and, in empirical terms, to relate focused case studies to longue durée histories and transregional developments.

One critique, shared by several of the speakers, concerned current hegemonic theories of the emergence and development of the state. The issue was approached by Robert Yelle (LMU) through an analysis of the connections between patriarchy, property, and religion. By critically revisiting the 19th-century discourse on the alleged shift from matrilineality or matriarchy to patrilineality and patriarchy as the basis for statehood, the talk emphasized the importance of religious mythology and sacrifice for the constant (re)production of patriarchal rule. Yelle further argued that the hierarchy established through these forms of “patriarchal biolopolitics” is expressed and perpetuated through the family as the central institution of absolute patriarchal sovereignty, which extends not only over women and children, but crucially also over slaves and all forms of property.

The notion of (patriarchal) sovereignty as being not merely a political but a quintessential politico-economic relationship was further developed in the talk by Devin Singh (Dartmouth College). He argued that debt slavery and patterns of debt management were intricately connected to the formation of (state) sovereignty. Since enslaved citizens could no longer be subjected to the paying of taxes, the state had a significant interest in limiting forms of private debt servitude. On the other hand, however, Singh maintained that early states also significantly depended on forms of debt slavery in order to assert direct control over labour. He then showed how debt slavery was legitimized through a political theology that portrayed god as the ultimate creditor to whom everyone is indebted and who alone has the power to forgive one’s debts.

The manifold connections between the (re)production of sovereignty and state formation were further explored in talks by Michael Kinadater (LMU), Tanuja Kothiyal (Ambedkar University Delhi) and Aditi Saraf (LMU). While Kinadeter traced connections between the politico-cultural developments in China, Korea and India and the emergence of centralized power and its ideology in Japan,  Kothiyal and Saraf examined conditions of statehood and state making in borderland regions in South Asia. On the basis of her research into the history of authority and control in the Thar desert from 1400 to 1800, Kothiyal contended that rather than understanding statehood as being predicated on a single sovereign power, it should instead be seen as constantly being re-negotiated and re-inscribed into a complex network of various forms of political, religious and economic authority. That such practices of negotiation also rely on the successful adoption of an adequate terminology became apparent in the talk by Aditi Saraf, who showed how the use of the Urdu term “hifazat”, denoting “care”, “trust”, “guardianship” and “safekeeping”, allowed the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir to tie the two different discourses on protection and rule together. The state thus adopted a legal discourse on property rights that was far stricter than it would have otherwise been possible within the sphere of British imperial rule.

mastery conference image 1

Image 1:
Simon Cubelic (who chaired panel 2), Tanuja Kothiyal, Milinda Banerjee 
and Aditi Saraf.

Another topic that was taken up by several talks at the conference was the changing notion of who could become (a) sovereign. In his talk on “Divine Subalterns and Sovereign Labour“, Milinda Banerjee (LMU) argued that the idea of divinity as something pertaining to every (human) being has not only been hugely influential for popular quasi-democratic mass movements in the past but serves as an important argument for the emancipation of subaltern agents up to this day. By analysing a range of moments in 19th– and 20th-century India – from peasant revolts, labour struggles, and the movement for women’s rights to more recent movements for land rights – Banerjee demonstrated how various actors critically engaged with the nexus of divinity and state sovereignty, and succeeded in claiming their own sovereignty via the declaration of a universal divinity of many, or even all, humans.


mastery conference image 2

Image 2:
Tanuja Kothiyal (who chaired panel 4), Ananya Vajpeyi, Anastasia 
Piliavsky and Bhrigupati Singh.

A different but closely connected approach to claiming one’s right to authority and sovereignty was analysed by Ananya Vajpeyi (Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi) in her talk on the history of the term “Śūdra”. The term is used to designate the lowest category of the four-tier social hierarchy most often referred to as the “caste system”. By revisiting the history of the first Maratha king Shivaji (1630-80 CE), Vajpeyi explored how someone who had nominally belonged to the lowest strata of society managed to change and transgress the order of the social hierarchy by claiming royal ancestry. While Shivaji’s successful effort to recast himself as (divinely sanctioned) king and sovereign was portrayed as a self-emancipatory act by the 19th-century social reformer Jyotiba Phule, the Dalit leader, activist and “father of the Indian constitution”, B.R. Ambedkar, was more ambivalent in his analysis of Shivaji’s rulership.

The conference also included engaging discussions on practices that helped establish and sustain hierarchies of authority and control. Rather than simply criticising the existence of such hierarchies, Anastasia Piliavsky (University of Cambridge), instead made a compelling case for trying to understand how and why hierarchy is indeed often seen as a social and political good. Piliavsky gave a vivid account of her ethnographic observations of the daily meetings of a politician with his constituents in the Indian state of Rajasthan. She argued that the hierarchies that structured these interactions did not translate into a straightforward rule or mastery of one person over the other, but instead corresponded to an intimate and comprehensive responsibility that the politician had towards his constituents. Understanding how such hierarchies are embedded into democratic systems might enable us, Piliavsky claimed, to better understand the growing demand for strong political leaders today.

A different take on practices establishing and reinforcing social hierarchies was presented by Jules Gleeson (University of Vienna and FOVOG, TU Dresden). Her talk focused on normative shaming practices at the Great Lavra monastery established by Athanasios of Athos. Gleeson argued that through deliberate stigmatization and shaming of disobedient monks Athanasios sought to establish a community based on a Christ-like humility and wilful self-humiliation conducive to a rigid hierarchy. In contrast to practices of shaming and denigration, the talk by Ceyda Karamursel (SOAS University of London) demonstrated how the deliberate use of seemingly “softer” vocabulary served to legitimize and uphold the hierarchy between slaves and masters in the late Ottoman Empire. Rather than framing the hierarchy in terms of the human/property distinction commonly drawn on before, Karamursel argued that slavery was legitimized and naturalised by being portrayed as resulting from natural weakness and thus sanctioned by god. Magnus Fiskesjö (Cornell University) argued that the pervasive surveillance and constant assessment of citizens in contemporary China is indeed a sign of a qualitatively different form of rule that might be connected to exhibitionist and quasi-confessional practices on social media.

mastery conference image 3

Image 3:
Annabel Brett (who chaired panel 5), Jules Gleeson, Simon Yarrow and 
Lorenzo Bondioli.

In her talk, Annabel Brett (University of Cambridge) focused on the notion of “use”, and especially the use of animals, in the Western natural law tradition. Beginning with Thomas Aquinas, the concept of “use” played an important role for the distinction between God and the physical world on one side and between humans and animals on the other, Brett argued. While “use” was seen as relying on a physically-embodied being and thus could not be something God “does”, it was also regarded as tied to the notion of a rational action directed at a specific goal or aim. Animals, therefore were not capable of “use”. Seen from this perspective, the very notion of what it means to have ownership of something and mastery over something is inextricably tied to the human-animal relationship.

This focus on animals as constitutive of regimes of human mastery was reinforced by Kresimir Vukovic (British School at Rome) in his analysis of different enunciations of control over, and taboos against, cattle, wolves, and dogs among Indo-European (especially Roman and Indian) cultures. Vukovic suggested that the structural similarities, such as the distinction between warriors and priests based on different forms of mastery over animals, might be seen as indicative of a shared political theology and a common framework of power relations.

The relationship between political economy and political theology was strongly foregrounded in the talks by Simon Yarrow (University of Birmingham) and Lorenzo Bondioli (Princeton University). While Yarrow explored the role of money and saints’ relics in twelfth-century Latin Christendom, Bondioli focused on the period of Fatimid state-making in tenth-century North Africa and mapped out the integral relation between taxation regimes, property rights and forms of political discourse.

A different kind of spiritual economy was analysed by Bhrigupati Singh (Brown University) in his interrogation of procedures undertaken by patients suffering from mental illness, especially in Sufi shrines in Northern India. Singh underlined the various forms of symbolic exchange and transfer of persons, goods and ‘afflictions’ between healers, treatment seekers and family members. This opened up new ways of understanding mental illness, radically different from an individualistic approach that foregrounds the role of the individual patient.

While the conference covered a broad range of time periods, regions and themes, it succeeded in bringing the speakers from various fields into an engaged conversations with each other. This became especially apparent in the responses to a question raised in the general discussion at the end of the conference, regarding the function of “sovereignty” in linking mastery, ownership and divinity. While Anastasia Pilliavsky, Annabel Brett and Ananya Vajpeyi emphatically emphasised the need to diversify the conceptual toolkit, others argued in favour of the use of “sovereignty” as a kind of placeholder that needs to be defined and described anew within every specific context. Apart from providing a stimulating atmosphere for several more fruitful discussions – such as on the competing or probably even irreconcilable relationship between transregional and transtemporal perspectives or on the productive use of a dialectic approach to visualize the complexities of political and economic theology – the conference has probably succeeded most effectively in providing a platform for truly intersectional conversations based on rigorous inquiries into situated case studies and sharp theorization.

Philipp Sperner is a PhD student at the Research Group “Globalization and Literature”, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität Munich. He can be contacted at philipp.sperner@posteo.net 

The featured image at the top of this page comes from the Conference’s poster, available at: https://www.japan.uni-muenchen.de/personal/gastwissenschaftler/banerjee/mastery_ownership_divinity/mod_-_poster.pdf 

Disappearing Spaces: Mapping Egypt’s Deserts across the Colonial Divide

by guest contributor Chloe Bordewich

In October 2016, government and opposition lawyers met in one of Egypt’s highest courts to battle over the fate of two tiny Red Sea islands, Tiran and Sanafir. When President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi suddenly announced the sale of the islands to Saudi Arabia earlier that year, pent-up rage toward the military regime that took power in 2013 poured out through a rare valve of permissible opposition: a legal case against the deal was allowed to proceed.

In this fight, both sides’ weapon of choice was the map. Reports circulated that state institutions had received orders to destroy maps that indicated that the islands in question were historically Egyptian. In response, the government paraded old atlases before the court proving, it argued, that the sale of the islands would only formalize the islands’ longstanding de facto Saudi ownership. Enclosed in one atlas, published by the Egyptian Geographical Society in 1928, were several maps on which the islands in question were shaded the color of Saudi Arabia. Khaled Ali, the lead opposition lawyer, pointed out that Saudi Arabia did not exist in 1928. The duel of maps continued over several sessions anyway, with Ali’s team accusing the state of intentional obstruction, obfuscation, and blatant fabrication, and the state denouncing some of Ali’s maps as inherently suspect because he had obtained them abroad.

This case drew public attention to the fraught modern history of the nation’s cartography. The Map Room of the Egyptian Survey Authority (Maslahat al-Misaha), where Ali and his associates had first gone looking for evidence, has made and sold maps of Egypt since 1898. Today it abuts the Giza Security Directorate, a mid-century fortress shielded by blocks of concrete barricades and checkpoints. Though the two may be accidental neighbors, their proximity conveys a dictum of the contemporary Egyptian state: maps are full of dangerous secrets.

How does a secret become a secret? In the case of Egypt’s maps, the answer is tangled up in the country’s protracted decolonization. An (almost) blank page tells some of that story. The map in question is of a stretch of land near Siwa Oasis on the edge of the Western Desert, far from the rocky islands of Tiran and Sanafir. Printed in 1930, it features only minor topographical contours in the lower left-hand corner. The rest is white. “Ghayr mamsūḥ,” the small Arabic print reads. “Unsurveyed.”

Siwa Map

This blank space is an artifact of the Desert Survey, a special division of the Survey Authority tasked between 1920 and 1937 with mapping Egypt’s sandy, sparsely populated expanses. (The Western Desert alone comprises more than half of Egypt’s land area beyond the Nile, but is home to a population only one-thirtieth that of greater Cairo.) The Desert Survey’s lifespan coincided almost exactly with the gradual retreat of British officials from the everyday administration of Egypt: it was born just after the 1919 revolution against British rule and dissolved a year after the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty that ostensibly formalized an end to occupation. Here decolonization is thus meant not in the comprehensive sense that Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Achille Mbembe have written about, as a cultural and intellectual challenge to Western thought’s insidiously deep claims to universality, but something much more literal: the withdrawal of colonial officials from the knowledge-producing institutions they ran in the colony.

The British cartographers who led the Desert Survey were keenly aware of their impending departure. As they prepared for it, they erected a final obstacle that would leave behind a legacy of paralysis and cartographic secrecy. Repeatedly accusing Egyptians of apathy toward the desert, colonial officials parlayed nescience into ignorance. In doing so, they sowed the seeds of an enduring anxiety among Egyptians over crucial spaces that remained unmapped.

The strident whiteness of the 1930 Siwa map looked different to the receding colonial state than it did to the emergent postcolonial one. To John Ball and George Murray, the successive British directors of the Desert Survey, blank space marked an incomplete but wholly completable project. For the post-colonial Egyptian state, the same blankness was the relic of a project it could not or would not complete, the bitter hangover of projected ignorance.

The Desert Survey’s vision was already more than two decades in the making when Ball was granted his own division of the more than 4000-member Survey Department in 1920. In 1898, colonial officials had commenced the ambitious cadastral survey that would eventually produce the Great Land Map of Egypt—the subject of Timothy Mitchell’s noted essay—and Ball departed for the oases of the Western Desert with his partner, Hugh Beadnell, to search for lucrative mineral deposits. From that point forward, the Survey Department viewed each unit’s work as a step toward total knowledge of every square meter of Egypt in every form and on every scale. It was only a matter of time, officials firmly believed, until the grid they had created at the Survey’s birth was filled in.

During the first decade of the twentieth century, the Survey Authority’s ambitions were directed inward: its cartographers wanted to know what was inside Egypt’s borders, even as sections of those borders remained fuzzy. But the First World War crystallized a broader imperial vision that linked Egypt’s Western and Eastern deserts to Jordan, Syria, and Iraq and saw the management of smugglers, nomads, geology, and development as related challenges directly correlated to the resilience of British rule (Fletcher, British Imperialism and “the Tribal Question”: Desert Administration and Nomadic Societies in the Middle East, 1919-1936; Ellis, Desert Borderland: The Making of Modern Egypt and Libya).

From the moment of the Desert Survey’s founding in 1920, and at an accelerating pitch over the 17 years that followed, British colonial officials justified their continued control of the Desert Survey even as most other institutions changed hands. One way they did this was by depicting survey work as a vocation and not merely a job. As Desert Survey chief John Ball wrote in 1930:

I shall try to keep our little show going and my little band of British surveyors at work in the deserts, but am not sure of success, as it has been said that Egyptians could do it equally well and we are therefore superfluous… but I have used Egyptian effendis in the deserts and I know them. Here and there you can find one really interested in his work, but 999 out of 1000 think only of promotion and pay, and you can’t manage… intrigue when you are hundreds of miles out in the wilderness.

(Royal Geographical Society CB9/Ball, John, letter to A.R. Hinks, February 28, 1930)

Not only did the Egyptian surveyors not know how to do the work the British experts were doing, Ball implied, but they did not want to know. If they did, it was for reasons that were crassly utilitarian by British standards.

Not having the proper expertise was an issue that could be resolved by more training. But by casting the fundamental issue as one of indifference—of not wanting to know, or wanting to know only for wrong, illogical reasons—officials like Ball were implying that even providing more training would not close the gap. Consequently, officials concluded, they would have to remain until they had shaded in the last empty expanses on the desert grid.

Survey authorities, in tandem with their associates in the colonial Frontier Districts Administration, thus articulated a position that held certain kinds of not-knowing to be acceptable, even desirable, and others to signal ignorance. In late 1924, Survey Director John Ball updated the members of the Cairo Scientific Society on the Survey’s progress in mapping the unknown regions of the desert. He reveled at the “gasps” his statistics elicited from an audience shocked at how much remained unknown (RGS CB9/Ball, John, letter to A.R. Hinks, December 19, 1924). Though he smugly reassured them that the unknown would soon vanish, a report published on the eve of independence in 1952 revealed that 43 percent of Egypt had by then been professionally surveyed, 24 percent was roughly known from reconnaissance, and 33 percent was still unknown. All that remained lay in the far Western Desert (George Murray, “The Work in the Desert of the Survey of Egypt,” Extrait du Bulletin de l’Institut Fouad Ier du Desert 2(2): July 1952, 133).

The desert did not disappear after 1952, of course; it came to occupy a central place in development dreams of the Nasser era, dreams that subsequent leaders have revived repeatedly. But the various incarnations of the project, aimed at facilitating the administration of economic development zones, had little in common with the colonial quantification—fetishization, even—of the unknown.

Maps articulate uncertainty more viscerally than the many other paper documents that similarly elude researchers and the public. The result is that vast spaces of the nation still reside primarily in foreign archives – the UK National Archives, the Royal Geographical Society in London, the Institut Français de l’Archéologie Orientale—where even the parties to the Tiran and Sanafir case turned for evidence. The obfuscation that drives us to these archives is not a product only of contemporary authoritarian politics, however; it, too, has a history. The projection of ignorance left a scar, an anxiety which can only be read through its shadows in colonial archives and its conspicuous absence in postcolonial archives.

Chloe Bordewich is a PhD Student in History and Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University. She currently works on histories of information, secrecy, and scientific knowledge in the late and post-Ottoman Arab world, especially Egypt. She blogs at chloebordewich.wordpress.com.

From our editors: What we’re reading this month (1/2)

Andrew Hines:

How to Read: Wittgenstein (2005) by Ray Monk

As someone with a background in post-Kantian European philosophy, whose interests had leaned quite heavily toward phenomenology, philosophical hermeneutics and deconstruction, I had unfairly dismissed Wittgenstein as “one of those analytic philosophers”. Recently, I’ve found my philosophical palette broadening as I’ve become increasingly concerned with understanding the broader context within which key, culture shaping ideas emerge as well as understanding why a particular thinker took the intellectual route he or she did. Ray Monk’s How to Read: Wittgenstein addresses both these interests on top of providing a lucid and authoritative introduction to Wittgenstein.

What comes through is Wittgenstein’s intellectual journey, the way that he continually reframes the problems he’s concerned with. Its evident that two of Wittgenstein’s abiding concerns are the limit and function of language. By focusing on Wittgenstein’s own biography alongside the ‘biography’ of his ideas, Monk not only provides an introduction to Wittgenstein’s main ideas, but an entire history of the development of one of Western philosophy’s key themes in the twentieth century. Not only did Wittgenstein revolt against his teacher Russell and assert that the activity of philosophy did not consist in providing a scientific like precision but in clarifying the true nature of the logic of language. He also built on Goethe and looked at the ‘morphology of expression’ and how philosophy provides the opportunity for a new perspective on a problem. Because of this, poets and musicians, Wittgenstein thought, can give us as much instruction as science.

The sheer breadth of this intellectual journey is far too often written off by students of ‘continental philosophy’ and I am perhaps the worst offender. Because of this, I would generally recommend ‘How to Read: Wittgenstein’ by Ray Monk to anyone looking to fill in the gaps of the intellectual-historical context of the early twentieth century. Particularly, however, I would recommend it for those, like myself, who had unfairly ignored Wittgenstein.



In one of my very favorite plays, Alan Bennett’s The History Boys (2004), one of the titular students proudly describes his attempt to impress the new teacher by referring a book he’s been reading, by one “Frederick Kneeshaw.” This beautiful malapropism, achingly relatable and touchingly human, has haunted the name “Nietzsche” for me ever since I first saw The History Boys some ten years ago. Just as in the Hebrew Bible, there is the word as pronounced, the qere (“what is read”), that may differ from the word as written, the ketiv (“what is written”)—most famously in the name of God—so I have spent a decade hearing “Kneeshaw” in my head whenever I have read (or more rarely written) the name of that great philosopher.

Yet, until this week, my knowledge of Kneeshaw’s oeuvre went no further than the handful of aphorisms that have become common currency: “God is dead.” “There are no facts, only interpretations.” “He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster.”

Prompted by Carlo Ginzburg’s masterful History, Rhetoric, and Proof (1999), in which Nietzsche is a key interlocutor on rhetoric, I plunged a few days ago into On the Genealogy of Morals (1887). The going has been slow, more as a result of too many claims upon my time than any fault in Michael Scarpitti’s translation. Indeed, the quality of the prose has been a revelation, surpassed only by the humor. Take Nietzsche’s imagining of the moral systems of the weak (the lambs) and the strong (the eagles): “And when the lambs say among themselves, ‘Those birds of prey are evil, and he who is most unlike a bird of prey, who is most like its opposite, a lamb – is he not good?’ then there is nothing to cavil about in the setting-up of this ideal, except perhaps that the birds of prey will regard it with some measure of derision, and say to themselves, ‘We bear no ill will against these fine, goodly lambs, we even like them; nothing is tastier than a tender lamb.’”

There is always the danger that mellifluous prose and trenchant wit (a particular delight of mine) misdirect attention away from the ideas Nietzsche is propounding. And for a pacifist, Jewish reader such as yours truly, these must be awkward fare. Nietzsche’s veneration of the “blonde beast” does not wear so well in the wake of the twentieth century—and did not wear much better in the nineteenth. So, too, the denigration of the Jews as “a priestly nation of resentment par excellence” and the propagators of “slave morality” rankle all the more in the light of recent tragic events in Pittsburgh. I learn from Cathy Gere’s excellent Knossos and the Prophets of Modernism (2009) and other scholars that Nietzsche himself was a dedicated critic of anti-semitism and that the filiation between his works and the ideology of National Socialism was largely the creation of his vehemently anti-Semitic sister. Perhaps so, but Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche was not without material to work with in her brother’s writings.

These uncomfortable flashes of prejudice aside, the content has been striking in its familiarity—my ignorance of Nietzsche’s work notwithstanding. What I have realized is that a century and more of thought and culture steeped in Nietzsche has made his ideas ubiquitous, even banal. The suggestion that morality is the creation of power does not shock in 2018, even for those to whom it is anathema.



Just this week, I picked up a slightly older book: P. Steven Sangren’s Chinese Sociologics: An Anthropological Account of the Role of Alienation in Social Reproduction. More than a work of ethnography in China, this volume is primarily a theoretical treatise which unfolds a slightly modernized Marxian understanding of social mechanisms and patterns while drawing upon the author’s fieldwork in Taiwan for examples and illustrations. While some aspects of the work merit critique (particularly the titling of the work as “Chinese Sociologics” when the vast majority of its basis is specifically Taiwanese, and a bit of a simplistic take on “Gender and Exploitation”), its primary purpose as a cohesive and thoughtful Marxian analysis is insightfully fulfilled.  With chapters focusing on classical Marxian cultural features such as production, alienation, circularity, etc., as well as copious citations from Marx, Durkheim, and other related scholars, this work serves as an interesting insight into the Marxian tradition of social theory as well as more modern attempts to incorporate Marxian theory into modern ethnography.



This month I’ve found myself reading quite a bit about the history of gunpowder. Gunpowder was first discovered by Chinese alchemists before the 11th century. The earliest European gunpowder recipes from the 13th century were written in code because the alchemists were fearful of the compound’s power: “No clap of thunder can compare with such noises. Some of them strike such terror to the sight that the thunders and lightnings of the clouds disturb it considerably less.” (Kelly DeVries, Gunpowder and Early Gunpowder Weapons, in Gunpowder: the History of an International Technology.) States were less fearful. Centuries of experimentation used gunpowder to make fireworks, rockets, cannons, blunderbusses, rifles, and pistols. For the next six hundred years, battlefields would be covered with a black brimstone smoke.

Gunpowder is a mixture of saltpeter, charcoal and sulfur. The result is a brownish, smelly powder that when exposed to flame can produce a fire so sudden that its shockwave hits the speed of sound—an explosion. Of gunpowder’s three ingredients, the most unusual and most important is saltpeter (potassium nitrate), which makes up 70% of most gunpowder recipes. There are some natural formations of saltpeter in cakes of whiteish powder forming a crust atop nitrate-rich soils. Damp caves with beds of guano or fetid houses sometimes produce a white salt on their walls—the salt of the rock (petrus). But this was not enough to meet states’ growing demand for gunpowder.

You can manufacture saltpeter as well. The big European powers employed roving armies of saltpeter men who were allowed to go into people’s dovecotes and mangers looking for guano and manure. They’d cart this ordure off to special factories, and soak it in urine (that of drunk men worked best) to leech out the saltpeter. Antoine Lavoisier, the great French chemist, searched for a way to make artificial saltpeter after the British seized the world’s great Indian saltpeter areas during the Seven Year’s War. Lavoisier’s success kept the French gunpowder barrels full over the next quarter century of war. (During the Revolution, Lavoisier’s apprentice, Éleuthère Irénée du Pont, fled to America where he set up a gunpowder mill—the birth of DuPont, the world’s biggest chemicals company.)

Saltpeter is a form of reactive nitrogen, and reactive nitrogen is one of the hidden foundations of the modern world. Nitrogen is plentiful: it makes up three quarters of the air, but this is tightly bound up in N2, hitched together with strong triple bonds. But reactive nitrogen is rare. To use nitrogen, we need to make reactive nitrogen like saltpeter and ammonia that can be used by plants and animals. Much comes from bolts of lightning turning atmospheric N2 into nitrogen oxide. Some plants (particularly legumes) have symbiotic bacteria in their roots that can make reactive nitrogen. Fertilizing crops with manure helps plants grow by giving them the reactive nitrogen bound up in our dung. Without nitrogen, no food.

In the early 20th century, German industrial chemists looking for a way to make explosives figured out how to turn atmospheric nitrogen into reactive nitrogen in a lab—the Haber-Bosch process. This is now the most important source of fertilizer on earth. Perhaps 80% of the nitrogen in your body comes from the Haber-Bosch process. All this readily-available reactive nitrogen is probably one of the reasons why we have nearly 8 billion people on earth today. Nitrogen kills: nitrogen feeds. The early alchemists treated gunpowder and other nitrates with wonder. Perhaps we should do the same.


From the Archive: The Early History of Arabic Printing in Europe

by Maryam Patton (April 2015)

In the middle of the ninth century, Paulus Alvarus complained about Spanish Christian youths who were abandoning Latin for the native Arabic of their new conquerors. Yet nearly seven hundred years later, when the last Muslim state of Grenada fell to the Reconquista in 1492, the sustained study of Arabic in Europe suffered a fatal blow. In the following years, royal decrees banning the use of Arabic and book and manuscript burnings, such as the one initiated by Archbishop of Toledo Ximénez de Cisneros in 1499, worked to undo the special relevance Arabic had had for Europeans (Toomer, 17). Until well into the seventeenth century, European interest in the philological pursuit of Arabic waxed and waned. The sources for this interest included the Crusades, scientific knowledge, the rediscovery and transmission of Greek classical texts from Arabic and Syriac translations, and faith-based missions to the Near East. These factors constituted a “first wave” of interest in Arabic study in the medieval period. It was not until a “second wave” of interest beginning in the sixteenth century that Arabic became a sustainable subject for philological inquiry (Russell, 1-19).

This second wave embodied some of the same concerns the original Arabists felt concerning the religious significance of Arabic. In addition to their evangelical missions, early modern students of Arabic sought to reconnect with Eastern Christian communities such as the Maronites and Coptic Christians. In 1584 Pope Gregory XIII founded the hugely successful Maronite College in Rome for the education of Jesuit missionaries traveling East. Meanwhile, growing pressure from the encroaching Ottomans, combined with Ottoman “capitulations” allowing for expanded economic involvement within Ottoman territories, offered economic incentives to study Arabic, as well as Persian and Turkish.

Yet, during the early modern period, an increasing emphasis came to be placed on studying Arabic for its own sake, rather than purely religious or economic concerns. Joseph Scaliger (1540–1609) was one significant example of an early modern scholar who argued for the study of Arabic as an end rather than a means. He stressed the importance of the Koran as a waypoint to understanding Arabic language and culture. His own knowledge of Arabic was limited, but his influence as a professor at Leiden and the example he set for his students ought to be emphasized. Upon his death he bequeathed his impressive library of Oriental manuscripts to the university, helping to establish the Netherlands as one of Europe’s most important centers for the study of Arabic (Toomer, 42-45).

The pursuit of Arabic for its own sake was facilitated by the appearance of printing presses sophisticated enough to print in Arabic using moveable type without relying on crude woodcuts. John Selden’s (1584–1654) 1614 book Titles of Honor for instance relied on woodcuts for the ‘words of the Eastern tongue’ like amir and sultan, but the letters looked strange and often appeared alone when they should instead have been connected to the following letter. In some cases, blanks were left in books where Arabic words were called for and were written in later by hand, like in Richard Brett’s Theses published at Oxford in 1597 (Roper, 12-13).

Proper Arabic type made it possible to finally print grammars and dictionaries. Previously, students had to rely on native speakers and others who already knew the language. The first book containing Arabic printed with moveable type was a book of hours printed in 1514 and intended for use in the near east. Though it was published independently by the Venetian Gregorio de Gregorii, it was paid for by Pope Julius II, and featured odd shapes for some of the letters (cut by Gregorii himself). The characters dal and dhal in particular were too large and should not have curved down below the baseline.

Book of Hours 2


A number of other religious texts intended for Christians in the East appeared soon thereafter, but the most impressive feat was a complete Koran published in 1538 in Venice by Paganino de Paganini and his son Alessandro. It was printed entirely in Arabic without any Latin characters whatsoever in an effort to disguise its Western origins, and was most likely intended for sale in the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans did not establish their own printing presses for another two hundred years, with the efforts of Ibrahim Müteferrika. Sadly, a lack of demand and the costs associated with creating new Arabic type (not to mention the numerous errors contained therein) bankrupted Paganini. Only one extant copy of this text is known (Nuovo, 79-81).

First printed Qur'an in west

Italian printing in Arabic reached its height in Rome starting in 1584 with the founding of the Medici Oriental Press by Cardinal Ferdinando de Medici. Pope Gregory XIII again offered his support, and with a newly designed type from the famed typographer Robert Granjon, the Medici Press was in an ideal position to seriously advance Arabic studies. Yet the director, Giovanni Raimondi, grew too ambitious and published many obscure texts with a limited audience. The press faced criticism for its lack of fundamental books such as grammars and basic readers. Few scholars besides those already learned in the language could make much use of these advanced texts, and the press effectively shut down upon Raimondi’s death in 1614. Granjon’s elegant type was, at the very least, saved for later use by the Vatican Press and others, and helped raise the aesthetic standards of Arabic printing. As in the image below, Granjon’s type was far more rectangular than earlier fonts. These instead resembled the curvier handwriting of the manuscripts on which they were based, while Granjon’s type resembles modern Arabic fonts.Thomas-Stanford Plate11After the Medici Press ceased operation, the center for Arabic studies shifted to the Netherlands thanks to the diligent efforts of a few key individuals. Scaliger arrived at Leiden in 1593 and swiftly set to work encouraging others to pursue Arabic. His student Thomas Erpenius (1584–1624) was arguably “the first native European to achieve true excellence in Arabic.” Erpenius assumed his position as Professor of Oriental Languages in 1613 and in the same year published his masterful Grammatica Arabica. Its type was cast by Francis Raphelengius, and served as the authoritative grammar for many years to come with several updated editions and the addition of reading passages. Erpenius unfortunately died at the young age of 40, but his student and successor Jacob Golius (1596–1667) carried on in the same vein and produced an Arabic lexicon in 1653. His brother Petrus was then serving in Antioch, and Golius relied on this connection to build an extensive library of Arabic manuscripts rivaled only by Edward Pococke’s collection in England (Toomer, 43-45).

By this point, there was still no press capable of printing Arabic in England. Scholars instead would travel to Leiden to have them printed with Raphelengius, or rely on unsatisfactory woodcuts. Although William Bedwell succeeded in purchasing the type from the Raphelengius brothers when he visited Leiden, what arrived in England in 1614 were worn out types rather than the matrices from which fresh new types could be cast. England’s entry into Arabic printing was thus delayed until 1652 when Selden published Mare Clausum. Erpenius and Golius’ philological texts expanded the possibility for further Arabic study not only because students could be self-taught but also because they encouraged standardization in the teaching. Even after difficult financial setbacks and the technical challenges of a language with varying letter forms, the printing presses ultimately made it possible for serious advancements in the early modern period. As in the case of Greek, advances in typesetting expanded access to printed texts and made it possible for early modern scholars to learn the language from a grammar, instead of having to rely on someone who already knew the language (Dannenfeldt, 17).

Maryam Patton is a third-year PhD candidate at Harvard University in the dual History and Middle Eastern Studies program She studies early modern cultural and intellectual history, and her dissertation project focuses on time and temporality in the 15th and 16th century Mediterranean.

From the Rational Animal to the Metaphorical Animal: Max Müller, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Metaphor in 19th Century German Thought

By Contributing Editor Andrew Hines

The theme of the relationship between language and rationality has resurfaced as of late. This is not in the least due to concerns about “post-truth” that have emerged from a political landscape in which rhetoric takes on a life of its own, divorced from the necessity of facts or rational argumentation. Some commentators have suggested the blame lies with twentieth century French thinkers such as Lyotard or Derrida. I am sorry to have to tell the reader that the re-evaluation of language’s relationship to rationality is much older. While post-war French philosophy has undoubtedly had a dramatic influence on the trajectory of Western thought, its relevance to the relationship between rationality and language is part of a longer story that goes beyond radical developments in cafés on the Parisian left bank.

One particularly poignant chapter of this story is the transformation of the West’s view of the relationship between rationality and metaphor in 19th century German thought. Metaphor, the device of figurative language which Aristotle famously described as “the application of a word that belongs to another thing”(1457b), was given a distinct relationship to reason in the Enlightenment by Hobbes and Locke. They recognized metaphor’s power to persuade, but for them such persuasion operated in all of the wrong ways. While they believed that metaphor had entertainment value as a poetic device, they also believed it should be avoided in rational argumentation because it was illusory and led one’s thinking away from the truth (26, 36; 372). Other Enlightenment thinkers, such as Vico and Rousseau, were more charitable but metaphoric expression and rational thought were still viewed as distinct categories.

What is startling about 19th century German thought is the way in which this distinction was transformed. We could cite many episodes in this story such as Gustav Gerber’s distinct understanding of Lautbild (a phonetic or articulated image) or Heymann Steinthal’s notion of linguistic relativism. But one episode in particular encapsulates the transition from the view of the human being as the rational animal to the human being as the metaphorical animal: the influence of Max Müller on Friedrich Nietzsche.

This transition was set against a backdrop in which various 19th century German thinkers were grappling with the implications of Schlegel’s historical comparative method and Christian Gottlob Heyne’s and Friedrich August Wolf’s approach to language. In this approach art, religion, customs, and usage were considered equally important to the mechanics of grammar. Thus, as Benedetta Zavatta has put it, some thinkers in this period had an ‘anthropological interest’ in language because they viewed language “in relation to the man who speaks it”(285). This “anthropological interest” interest in language reframed the question about the relationship between language and rationality. Why? Because it allowed space to question the ability to judge between rationality and the aspects of language, deemed, from the perspective of thinkers like Hobbes and Locke, as productions of poetic fancy, such as metaphor.

Müller is significant because while he is widely known for his assertion that mythology was a “disease of language,” it is less recognized that metaphor is in fact central in this notion (129 – 130). This reminds us that, for Müller, metaphors play a central role in the formation of abstract concepts. Yet, as we shall see, it also shows us that Müller is still firmly committed to a distinction between metaphor and reason where one can judge between the two.

In Müller’s Lectures on the Science of Language, he called language “the one great barrier between the brute and man… Language is our Rubicon, and no brute will dare to pass it” (392). This quotation reflected Müller’s anthropological interest in language and how he held on to language as a demarcation of what it meant to be a human being. When a human being used language, from Müller’s perspective, he or she used language as a rational being that is distinct from the irrationality of animals. This commitment to the human being as the rational animal also appeared in Müller’s famous notion of mythology as a ‘disease of language’.

The phrase “disease of language” referred to Müller’s suggestion that key features in a myth, such as the name of a god, were metaphorical descriptions of natural phenomena. However, these metaphors were imbued with anthropomorphism and over time become more substantial. One example of this can be seen in Müller’s long essay “Comparative Mythology.” There he wrote about the gendered nouns in Greek or Sanskrit. He said that because of these gendered nouns it was ‘simply impossible to speak of morning or evening, of spring and winter, without giving to these conceptions something of an individual, active, sexual and at last personal character’ (72–73).  Gendered nouns inevitably anthropomorphized their subject because they projected a human characteristic – gender – onto natural phenomena like morning or spring.

Müller famously generalized this idea to show the way that language works in the creation of mythology. He wrote, “Mythology…is in truth a disease of language. A myth means a word, but a word which, from being a name or an attribute, has been allowed to assume a more substantial existence. Most Greek, Roman, Indian and other heathen gods are nothing but poetical names, which were gradually allowed to assume a divine personality never contemplated by their original inventors. Eos was a name of the dawn before she became a goddess, the wife of Tithonos, or the dying day” (12).

As Andreas Musolff has pointed out, for Müller metaphor created a “fundamental misunderstanding” in thought (129 – 130). The reason that Müller called it a misunderstanding at all, comes back to the view we have seen where Müller asserted that language was a unique human phenomenon and indicative of an underlying rational mind.  Therefore, it followed that, for Müller, “the disease of language” was apparent because there was a clear line between the natural phenomenon, the metaphor and the figurative expression used to describe it.

Nietzsche appropriated this idea in a subversive way. Nietzsche is perhaps the most famous for his critique of propositional truth via metaphor when in ‘On Truth and Lying in a Nonmoral Sense’ (1873), he wrote, “What, then, is truth? A mobile army of metaphors…”(146). Müller became central to this famous critique when Nietzsche appropriated him to explain metaphors role in the creation of truth claims:

[Truth is] a sum of human relations which have been subjected to poetic and rhetorical intensification, translation…and which after they have been in use for a long time, strike a people as firmly established, canonical, and binding; truths are illusions of which we have forgotten that they are illusions, metaphors which have become worn by frequent use and have lost all sensuous vigour, coins which, having lost their stamp, are now regarded as metal and no longer as coins (146).

When Nietzsche was trained as a philologist in Leipzig by F.W. Ritschl and Georg Curtius he encountered Müller’s work and also frequently borrowed it from the university library in Basel (273 – 274). However, while Nietzsche clearly drew on Müller’s ideas, he took them a step further when he wrote, “the intellect shows its greatest strengths in dissimulation, since this is the means to preserve those weaker, less robust individuals who, by nature, are denied horns or the sharp fangs of a beast of prey with which to wage the struggle for existence” (142).   This ‘disease of language’ as Müller would call it, was the greatest strength of the intellect according to Nietzsche. For Nietzsche, dissimulation, calling a natural phenomenon by a metaphorical description that relates to a divine personality, was not some aberration of rationality, like it was for Müller, rather, it was the greatest strength of our intellect. He uncompromisingly asserted that metaphor was the rule and law of cognition when he wrote that it was “that fundamental human drive which cannot be left out of consideration for even a second without also leaving out human beings themselves” (150–151).

This does not simply critique truth. Rather, with Nietzsche’s subversive reading of Müller, he collapsed the gap between metaphor and reason and transformed the Aristotelian rational animal, which Müller held up as the clear distinction between ourselves and animals, into something we might call, a “metaphorical animal,” as the French philosopher Sarah Kofman so poetically put in her book Nietzsche and Metaphor (1983) (25).

The intellectual-historical question this poses for us regards the trajectory of the relationship between our western conceptions of rationality and of metaphoricity. A re-evaluation of the relationship between these concepts in this period could shed light on the still murky relationship between them across a number of fields, including post-war French philosophy and cognitive metaphor theory. Politically, the question it poses to us is much more pragmatic: whether we can detect reason’s error, whether we can distinguish between dissimulation, between truth and lying is perhaps irrelevant. For as Nietzsche also wrote, while truths are simply metaphors that “strike a people as firmly established, canonical, and binding,” the fact that they strike us as canonical and binding, help us to create “peace treaties.” However relative these peace treaties may be, they help society to prevent a Hobbesian “war of all against all” and enable communication (143).  Perhaps, what matters most about metaphor in the age of post-truth is whether we want to see the world shaped by these new attempts at “peace treaties.” If not, what are the alternatives besides a nostalgic yearning for good old rationality and rhetoric that plays by the rules?

Dr. Andrew Hines studied at both the University of Oregon and the University of Tübingen, obtaining a BA in Philosophy. He also holds a MA in Philosophy from University College Dublin and a PhD in Comparative Literature from Queen Mary, University of London. His thesis was on the concept of metaphor in European philosophy after Nietzsche. A specialist in the history of metaphor theory and post-Kantian European philosophy, he is more broadly interested in the political power of language, the history of ideas, and the relation between philosophy and cognitive science. He has written for The Conversation, The Huffington Post, and Newsweek.

From the Archive: Passage and Place: Loci in Humanist Travel Writing

by Madeline McMahon (November 2015)

12th-century Church of the Sepulchre of Mary, Jerusalem (Wikimedia

12th-century Church of the Sepulchre of Mary, Jerusalem (Wikimedia)

After midday on August 14, 1483, the Dominican friar Felix Fabri and his fellow pilgrims to Jerusalem began to prepare for their celebration of the feast of the assumption of Mary. They constructed a small kind of tent around the altar in the very “place from whence the blessed Virgin was carried off” to heaven after her death and created “a beauteous holy grove,” adorned with “leafy boughs of olive and palm trees, strewed with grass and flowers.” In the evening, incense intermingled with the scent of the branches, and the pilgrims sang “Et ibo mihi ad montem myrrhae.” After the service, a group of Eastern Christians used the same space, although Fabri was unimpressed with their hymns: “they seem to wail rather than to sing.” Nevertheless, the liturgical calendar dictated when both Fabri’s Western Christian companions and their Eastern Christian neighbors celebrated this particular feast. But because they were in Jerusalem, the actual place associated with the Virgin’s death also played a central role in their liturgical celebrations: they circled her sepulchre in a procession and sat vigil around it throughout the eve of her feast (Fabri, Evagatorium, trans. Stewart, 7.193-4).

Later in his journey, Fabri returned to where “Mary departed from this world,” but described it very differently. On a walking tour, Fabri’s group “came at no great distance to another place enclosed with a higher dry stone wall, wherein tradition says that the house of the blessed Virgin stood, wherein she lived a domestic life for fourteen years” (8.328). Rather than singing solemnly and adorning the place with branches, Fabri elaborated on the tradition surrounding the Virgin’s life after the death of Jesus. In fact, his understanding of that tradition is perhaps surprisingly inclusive (although mediated and confirmed by a Christian source, Nicholas de Cusa): “We are told in the Alcoran of Mohamet that she only survived five years [‘after our Lord’s ascension’], and that her years in all were fifty-three, as is said also by Nicholas de Cusa, Book II, chapter xv” (ibid.). The physical location (or locus) of Mary’s house led Fabri to cite two passages (loci) in order to solve—or at least state possible answers to—a chronological conundrum. Two meanings of the Latin word locus, textual passage and physical place, overlapped.

As the center of the liturgical celebration, Mary’s grave might be seen as a lieu de mémoire, a site for formally memorializing a long-ago and otherwise inaccessible event (Nora, ‘Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire’, Representations, 26 (1989), 7-24). But in Fabri’s walking tour, Mary’s house functioned as a kind of commonplace heading on the topic of her life after Christ and death. By analogy, the landscape could become a commonplace book, with each new holy site a potential topical heading to organize various related texts and relevant oral knowledge. Text could be inscribed on the terrain.

A book inflecting the way space was approached was nothing new, of course—that was the essential premise for pilgrimage itself. Petrarch populated his 1358 Itinerarium to the holy land with famous literary figures. He celebrated the cities on route to Jerusalem for being where Vergil wrote the Georgics, or Pliny the Elder died in volcanic ash (trans. Cachey, 10.3). And he assumed that his reader was comparing his itinerary with the words of famous authors ringing in their ears: “It should not surprise you that Virgil in the third book of the divine poem [the Aeneid] apparently placed [Scylla and Charybdis] otherwise. He was describing in fact the voyage of one who was arriving while I the voyage of one who is departing” (12.1). He also expected them to see “everything through the Gospel, which is fixed in your mind as you look” (16.4). But the reader’s familiarity with scripture often meant Petrarch felt he could pass over enumerations of minor holy sites and instead recount classical texts and histories. In contrast to Fabri’s later narrative, Petrarch’s imagined itinerary did not elicit the same references to specific texts, though he referred readers to Josephus for further information on a historical point (16.6). His guide to the holy land was meant to help his reader appreciate the landscape. The itinerary itself only loosely organized the texts that Petrarch alluded to reference to it.

Cyriac of Ancona's drawings of stone carvings on the Church of the Dormition of the Virgin in Agia Triada, Greece (Milan, Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Cod. Trotti 373, f. 115r, nauplion.net)

Cyriac of Ancona’s drawings of stone carvings on the Church of the Dormition of the Virgin in Agia Triada, Greece (Milan, Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Cod. Trotti 373, f. 115r, nauplion.net)

Sometimes, though, the landscape could provide textual loci of its own. Cyriac of Ancona (1391 – 1452) traveled for mercantile business from a young age in the Mediterranean and was struck by the remains of classical and (to a lesser extent) Christian antiquity. He wrote six travel diaries, describing how his friends and hosts in Frankish towns and Venetian colonies guided him through fields to inspect “remnants” (reliquiae or monumenta) of antiquity, including ancient temples, floor mosaics, and hundreds of inscriptions (Diary V, trans. Bodnar, II.307 – 9). He believed, as his lifelong friend Francesco Scalamonti wrote, that “the stones themselves afforded to modern spectators much more trustworthy information about their splendid history than was to be found in books” (Scalamonti, Life, trans. Mitchell, Bodnar, and Foss, I.48 – 9).

Nonetheless, Cyriac frequently made use of texts to make sense of objects in the landscape. He identified the iconography of the Parthenon—then dedicated to the Virgin Mary— “from the testimony of Aristotle’s words to King Alexander” (quoted in Brown, Venice and Antiquity, 84). The landscape induced both Fabri and Cyriac to turn to texts, but Cyriac was more concerned with the material buildings and remains than Fabri, who used pilgrimage sites in his account to recount memories or textual loci. Texts made the landscape interesting to Petrarch, but both fifteenth-century travellers toggled back and forth between physical and textual loci to make them speak to each other. Cyriac even replicated the loci in the landscape for his friends, sending drawings and transcriptions of monuments across the Mediterranean. Most of his own manuscripts are now lost—as are many of the inscriptions he copied. But his writings circulated widely through scribal copies in his circle, preserving the landscape that so fascinated him in text.

Madeline McMahon is a 4th-year PhD candidate in history at Princeton University (and a former editor of JHI Blog). She studies the intellectual, religious, and cultural history of early modern Europe. Her dissertation examines episcopacy and scholarship in the Church of England and the Catholic Church in Italy after the Elizabethan Settlement and the Council of Trent, when the ancient institution of episcopacy was reimagined for a changed present.

What can we even think about immaterial spirits?

By guest contributor Matthew Rukgaber. See the full article in the Journal of the History of Ideas, “Immaterial Spirits and the Reform of First Philosophy: The Incompatibility of Kant’s pre-Critical Metaphysics with the Arguments in Dreams of a Spirit-Seer.”

Perhaps it is because Immanuel Kant’s life was so uneventful that his minor controversies seem to take on a heightened significance. Kant’s Dreams of a Spirit-Seer, Elucidated through Dreams of Metaphysics from 1766 is a moment of self-created controversy that resulted in a worrisome review from Moses Mendelssohn that could have derailed his entire future. Charged with making metaphysics into a laughing stock, Kant made clear to Mendelssohn in correspondence that that had not been is intention. But it seems that Kant is laughing at something in the text and scholars have had a rather hard time figuring out what exactly.

Dreams of a Spirit-Seer is nominally concerned with the visionary theosophy of Emmanuel Swedenborg. Perhaps this is the target of his laughter? After all, throughout Kant’s life he was a critic of what we know under the untranslatable term of Schwärmerei, which he defined as “a delusion of being able to see something beyond all bounds of sensibility, i.e., to dream in accordance with principles (to rave with reason)” (AA 5:275). Mendelssohn himself seemed unable to determine whether Kant’s aim was to make Swedenborg’s communion with the world of spirits into something credible or ridiculous. Even today some scholars argue that Kant’s text has a hidden agenda to support esotericism. Although entirely mistaken about such esoteric undercurrents, the Swedenborg apologists are certainly justified in attempting to counteract the unusually large influence that Dreams of a Spirit-Seer has had on the fortunes of Swedenborg’s thought. The reason that they are justified is that Kant’s text says almost nothing of substance about Swedenborg. When Kant finally turns to Swedenborg’s writings in the sixth of seven chapters, he abruptly ends the discussion for fear that in reproducing these ecstatic visions that he might frighten pregnant women (AA 2:366). Although Kant has some rather harsh words for these “spirit-seers,” he ultimately sees them as akin to ecstatic poets, whose imaginings hold a sort of internal logic that, while detached from true reason and fact, are not the sheer irrational nonsense of complete madness. He concludes that his own philosophical treatise is not of much use to such prophets of the netherworld, but he does offer a brief account of why people are drawn to the possibility of spirit-seeing: we are afraid of death and hope for an afterlife.

When Kant sardonically cuts off his discussion of Swedenborg, he pulls back the curtain and confesses that he had “a purpose in mind” that is in fact “more important” than the purpose that he claimed to have in discussing spirit-seeing (AA 2:367). According to some scholars, that more important purpose is in fact to ridicule metaphysics as a whole and the dominant rationalist Schulphilosophie. His claim to Mendelssohn to not be doing so and to actually hold that that “lasting welfare of the human race” depended on metaphysics (AA 10:70) must be, according to this reading, Kant recognizing that he had insulted one of the most respected thinkers in Germany. He was in no position at this stage in his career to burn such a bridge. Those who believe that Dreams of a Spirit-Seer intends to demolish metaphysics in general see within his Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime from 1764 a shift towards a common-sense, anti-metaphysical school of thought referred to as Popularphilosophie. This skeptical destruction is presumably a step along the way to Kant’s mature philosophy as spelled out in the Critique of Pure Reason in 1781. But there are serious textual problems with such a reading, not to mention the fact that Kant seems to return to the metaphysics in the 1770 “Inaugural Dissertation” that he supposedly laughed at in 1766. If Kant is laughing at metaphysics in the 1766 text, then that also means he is repudiating over a decade of his own previous publications. Major works interpreting Kant’s early writings have claimed that this is so. But is there any evidence that Kant has tossed his previous labors out the window?

One would expect such a radical change in Kant’s thinking to be rather obvious. Given the divergence of interpretations, it obviously has not been. What has plagued the interpretation of Dreams of a Spirit-Seer is the fact that the first four chapters of Kant’s text obscure what his own view is. The first chapter offers a “metaphysical knot” that asks what sense we can make of the idea of immaterial spirits. Because Kant wants the most charitable reconstruction of what we may be thinking of when we talk about immaterial spirits, he uses his own past metaphysical writings to illuminate this concept of a sort of entity that is in space and time but that will never constitute an impenetrable body no matter how many are combined together. Those scholars who believe that Kant is rejecting his own past metaphysical beliefs and the rationalist metaphysics that dominated Germany at the time must contend that this charitable reconstruction is a) an accurate representation of his earlier thinking and b) that he rejects this attempt to make intelligible the notion of an immaterial spirit. In the article “Immaterial Spirits and the Reform of First Philosophy: The Compatibility of Kant’s pre-Critical Metaphysics with the Argument in Dreams of a Spirit-Seer” in volume 79, issue 3, of JHI, I show that (a) is false: this is not a legitimate application of Kant’s philosophy from the 1750s and early 1760s. So although (b) is true, it does not have the implication that most scholars have claimed. It neither repudiates all metaphysics nor overturns Kant’s earlier reflections on the metaphysics of simple substances (i.e. monads). Instead, the view that Kant ultimately holds is that although legitimate philosophical metaphysics leads us to the idea of metaphysically simple substances at the foundations of rational physics, rational psychology, and rational theology, the nature of such entities is not given to us and cannot be made comprehensible. It is this fact that is overlooked by metaphysicians using reason and spirit-seers using mystical visions. Thus, they both mistakenly believe that the idea of an immaterial spirit is something we can understand. Kant makes very clear that even the possibility of immaterial spirits is beyond the limits of human understanding, whereas the metaphysical notion of simple substances is a necessary rational posit indicating a nature that remains beyond our understanding.

Besides the fact his early works are generally misread as advancing a Leibnizian-Wolffian philosophy that they actually diverge from in numerous ways, a contributing factor to misreading Dreams of a Spirit-Seer is that Kant ignores his own view of the limits of legitimate metaphysics in order to reconstruct a notion of what spirits are that he then facetiously allows to spin out of control in the second chapter dedicated to “occult philosophy.” He counteracts the excesses of the second chapter in the third chapter by offering a reductive, physiological explanation of all this talk of spirits that he calls the position of “ordinary philosophy.” Spirit-seeing may not be full-blown madness, but ordinary philosophy views talk of spirits as the result of a non-rational disturbance in the body. Neither the second nor the third chapters actually represent Kant’s own views. The first chapter does at least give us an accurate picture of Kant’s metaphysical beliefs, but the extension of those beliefs for the sake of rendering intelligible the idea of immaterial substances is not something Kant endorses or had ever endorsed.

At the end of Dreams of a Spirit-Seer, Kant seems to have contained his laughter fairly well. Although his harshest comments are certainly directed towards the visionaries like Swedenborg, ultimately he believes that a passionate hope in a future life, which is not to be sneered at, naturally leads us down this path. Although we may continue to hope for such things, we should not deceive ourselves into believing we either see or understand the possibility of a ghostly realm of souls and spirits. But that real purpose that Kant announces when setting aside Swedenborg is the goal of reforming metaphysics towards a more critically restrained and, therefore, less laughable version of itself. This is what Kant had in fact been doing his entire career and would continue to do.



From the Archive: Images of History

by John Raimo (July 2016)

As often as historians and art historians talk past one another, they also come together before common problems, questions, and sources. Both groups recognize the sheer power of images. Such a moment has reappeared in intellectual history. The recent one hundred and fiftieth celebrations of Aby Warburg’s birth underscored how widely Warburg’s terminology could stretch between art and cultural history. Historians such as Carlo Ginzburg and Patrick Boucheron take iconography as a starting point for deeper and deeper reconstructions of political and intellectual milieus. The work of art historians such as Georges Did-Huberman and Giovanni Careri follow similar patterns shuttling between contextual and formal considerations. Anthropologists too have not been far behind, finding in images the source for new methodologies across disciplines dealing with ideas both in and of history. And many museum curators do not shy away from presenting both ethical and historiographical challenges to the public in precisely this tenor, perhaps most spectacularly in the recent Conflict, Time, Photography exhibit at the Tate Modern.


Guerre 1939-1945. Occupation. Destruction de statues pour récupérer les métaux. La statue du marquis de Condorcet, homme politique français, par Jacques Perrin (1847-1915). Paris, 1941. JAH-REP-34-8

Four ongoing or recent exhibits in Paris also directly engage with the stakes that images—and specifically photography—hold for intellectual history today. Exhibitions dedicated to Seydou Keïta (1921-2001) at the Grand Palais, the photographers of France’s Front populaire (1936-1938) at the Hôtel de Ville, Lore Krüger (1914-2009) at the Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme, and Josef Sudek (1896-1976) at the Jeu de Paume have this much in common: their images possess immediate documentary and historical charges, intervening histories challenge any recovery of the same, and the images themselves pose different meanings—political and otherwise—in our own time. How does one reconcile these knotty realities to one another, let alone relate them to questions of sheer aesthetic value, enduring or otherwise? Perhaps counter-intuitively, the question touches at once upon the artists themselves as much as upon each show’s respective curators. Together, they answer for the most part magnificently just how ideas and patterns of thinking flow into and out from photographs.


Seydou Keïta, Untitled (1956-1957)

Perhaps no exhibit succeeds so brilliantly as that dedicated to the Malinese photographer Keïta. Self-taught and a portraitist by trade in Bamako, Keïta carefully arranges various customers against complex cloth backdrops in plain-light settings. Several layers of history collide in what only first appear as beautiful, if straightforward portraits. Keïta’s private practice runs from 1948 to 1962, shortly after Mali achieves independence from the French colonial empire. His customers find themselves at a crossroads: both women and men dress in traditional clothing as often as in European or American fashions, often modeling themselves upon the figures of the latest films and popular magazines. A watch ostentatiously displayed, a certain hairstyle, new western clothing, or certain postures together subtly betray consciousness of new cultural models, economic statuses, and social change ranged against Keïta’s brilliantly-patterned backgrounds. Both the circumstances of the photography session and the material object—the photo itself, as the exhibit makes clear—are intended to circulate by word of mouth and hand to hand. Yet an alchemical change also occurs. Keïta’s subjects prove subjects in every sense of the term; their glances say as much, even as they slowly come to look out upon a new country.

At the same time, a personal iconography emerges across the œuvre. Keïta’s workshop feature props (pens, glasses, flowers, and so on) that appear regularly throughout the portraits. An iconographic vocabulary similarly developed in the photographer’s carefully-choreographed poses. An uneasy sort of modernity can be teased out in the tension between these hugely personable figures, their clothing and possessions, and those objects and gestures which both they and Keïta saw fit to add to the compositions.

The art proves doubly-reflexive, looking inwards to the person and to life in Bamako as much as outwards to a rapidly changing Africa and globalization. Keïta’s own touch emerges in the gap. He arranges women into odalisque reclinings, organizes groups of civil servants into full profile portraits, and captures others at their ease wearing traditional clothing. The hindsight of a retrospective allows us to see how closely Keïta simultaneously engages European art history, the stock imagery of popular culture, and a Malinese society in transition throughout his career. The complex of ideas here reveal the subject much as the same ideas flow from the same person, the photographer himself, and finally the image in its own right.

The Front populaire exhibition at the Hôtel de Ville attains a similar achievement, albeit on a different scale. The show follows upon a burst of renewed popular and academic interest in Léon Blum’s government and the period immediately preceding WWII. What emerges in the photos of such luminaries as Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Chim (David Seymour), Robert Doisneau, and Willy Ronis among other photojournalists is little less than a unified, if contested image of a society rapidly refiguring itself. Here technology proves the first hero. The portability of cameras, wide lens and higher resolution photography, and the ability to turn shots into next day’s paper gave birth to a new documentary language. Close-ups from within a crowd, odd angles, photos taken from rooftops hold their own with group portraits of politicians at ease in saloon lounges or mid-speech before thousands.

Fred Stein.jpg

Bastille Day demonstrations, Vincennes 1935 (©FredStein.com)

The great range or even discrepancy of Capa and company’s interests and work suggest a whole society falling at once under the same photographic lens, even as history jostles against advertisements and film stars in the daily papers. The photos appear on equal terms. Even publicity in the sense of public relations proves nascent, if not off balance. Airs of improvisation and the same-old business surround political figures like Blum and his contemporaries. Striking workers and public amusements achieve a glamour just as photographers accord the homeless and unemployed a new dignity. And slowly certain dramatic poses and compositions take on a new regularity across the exhibit. The vocabulary hardens and situations reprise themselves. New understandings of personal and sexual relationships, masculinity and femininity, and modernity itself track across the years. (One gentle criticism should be added here: it would have done well to have included far more female photographers.) What happens, as Michel Winock and others argue, is that French society comes to understand itself in images just as photographers came to learn their full historical potential—‘History’ with a capital ‘H.’

The German photographer Lore Krüger’s work confronts many of the same issues, if more obliquely. Her career and biography stagger the mind. Krüger studies photography with Florence Henri and other Bauhaus-trained photographers while attending lectures with László Rádványi in 1930s Paris, all the while absorbing the lessons of interwar avant-garde photographers (and living in the same house as Arthur Koestler and Walter Benjamin). An exile from Nazi Germany, Krüger passes through Majorca—witnessing Franco’s troops massacre Republican forces in 1936—and mainland Spain at the height of its Civil War before making her way to New York, where she and her husband work for the exile community’s German-language press. Giving up photography after the war, Krüger eventually returns to a quiet life as a translator and author in Eastern Germany before dying in 2009.


Lore Krüger, “Jeune Gitan, Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer” (1936; © Estate of Lore Krüger)

The exhibits’ curators posthumously assemble what remained of Krüger’s photography. In their composition, lighting, and psychological reach, her work achieves a uniform excellence across still lives, landscapes, portraits of friends, and above all in her studies of interwar gypsies. The balance between all her influences is remarkable, not least as Krüger too follows in the wake of glossy magazines and photojournalism. Yet a dichotomy of sorts also arises. For every ‘political’ image or photograph taken on the street, Krüger veers to high avant-garde experimentation elsewhere. These activities both overlap and command longer periods in her work, persisting until the end of Krüger’s artistic career. Something new emerges at the same time: what might be called the private lives of an avant-garde and an artist in wartime apart from any political engagement. The exhibit’s repeated argument that Krüger’s œuvre forms a consistent whole here seems to miss a much more interesting set of questions. How do we reconstruct private intellectual life, the persistence of international movements once contacts have been severed, and the experience of artistic experimentation continued under the hardest conditions?


Josef Sudek, “The Last Rose” (1956, Musée des Beaux-arts du Canada, Ottawa. 2010 © Estate of Josef Sudek)

All the same issues confront any attempt to wrangle the great, protean Czech photographer Josef Sudek into a coherent retrospective. The portraitist, the architecture and the landscape photographer, the artist of still lives, and the commercial man all jostle against one another over a career spanning the complicated histories of interwar and then communist-era Czechoslovakia. To reduce Sudek’s photography to any political (or apolitical) stance or simpler historical context would be a mistake on the same order of privileging one genre above the others. Yet the Jeu de Paume’s curators attempt something like this. Moving backwards from the interior studies, they claim a certain artistic unity which in turn drives the late Sudek into a sort of inner exile. An impression grows of intervening notions organizing a narrative: the late Romantic artist gradually finds himself confined to a window by the history beyond it, something like an uncritical reprise of Günter Gaus’s old notion of East Germany as a ‘niche society.’ This is not to say that the merits of Sudek’s work do not shine through the exhibit, or that the curators entirely mute his own thinking. The problem is rather that later ideas and contexts—historical or otherwise—drown out the images. As confidently as Keïta’s or as loudly as the Front populaire journalists’ pictures speak to audiences today, others such as Krüger’s and Sudek’s talk to historians, art historians, and all of us in much quieter tones.

Exhibitions reviewed: “Seydou Keïta,” Grand Palais (31 March to 11 July, 2016); “Exposition 1936 : le Front populaire en photographie,” Hôtel de Ville de Paris (19 May to 23 July, 2016); “Lore Krüger : une photographe en exil, 1934-1944,” Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme (30 March to 17 July, 2016); Josef Sudek : Le monde à ma fenêtre,” Jeu de Paume (7 June to 25 September, 2016).

Sovereignty, Property, and the Locus of Power

Martti Koskenniemi is Academy Professor and Director of the Erik Castrén Institute of International Law and Human Rights at the University of Helsinki, and Global Professor of Law and Associate Faculty of History at New York University. He was a member of the Finnish diplomatic service from 1978 to 1994 and of the International Law Commission (UN) from 2002 to 2006. He is working on a new book, tentatively titled The Sanction of All the World: Legal Imagination and International Power c. 1300-1800, to be published with Cambridge University Press.

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

Anne: Your work has long explored the nature of governance through international law—in the past as much as in the present. The book project you have been working on over the past years, which explores the correlation of sovereignty and property in international law, is no different in this regard. As you seek to illustrate, sovereignty arises from an often hidden foundation of private property relations, while these exact relations are bound to be delimited by what we call ‘public power’—meaning we ultimately have been, and continue to be, governed by both. This argument re-emphasizes some of the questions your earlier work has tackled with regard to the critical role of international law in politics—or, to be more accurate, international law as international politics. But it also appears to address a more fundamental problem in the conceptualization of international law by suggesting that seemingly benign relations of private property are intrinsically connected to the realm of international power struggles. In your mind, how does this project depart from, or perhaps even in part revise, your prior work on the origins of modern international law?

Martti: It is completely continuous with my earlier work. Of course, I realize that I have an interest in saying that, but I am surprised at how coherent it now appears. I tend to concentrate on questions of power—what lawyers do with power, and how we can study what lawyers do with power. From Apology to Utopia (Lakimiesliiton Kustannus, 1989; reissued Cambridge University Press, 2005) is a deconstructive, synchronic operation into the system as it is now. The Gentle Civilizer of Nations (Cambridge University Press, 2001), in turn, is a first history of how this logic has been used, how it was articulated and carried out in practice. Here I was thinking in Foucauldian terms, about synchrony and diachrony, and I was also persuaded by critiques of structuralism asserting that there are structures but these have no life of their own and instead operate within history. In other words, it is insufficient to only expound on the structure—you have to have a pragmatic approach.


But then again, I felt that I was just scratching the surface with these analyses, and my current project departs from both synchrony and diachrony to offer something that is broader in scope. What I am now trying to do when I theorize power—which is always post facto—is to show how lawyers are called upon to exercise legal imagination. Legal imagination, to me, is that which unites utopia with apology, that which enables you to use a certain vocabulary in a particular situation to carry out your work. This legal imagination works in a wholly indeterminate terrain, however, and I am sufficiently Schmittian to appreciate the point that the decision, as Schmitt says, is a controlled miracle. That speaks to me. I have often thought about decision-making in various contexts, including my own decision-making, and I am never able to pinpoint the moment of decision. I am able to give justifications later on, but I have no recollection of ever having made any decision. Therefore I come to this notion of imagination, which is intended to push aside a really heavy philosophical baggage in order to be able to speak to a broader readership that recognizes the spontaneity of legal work.  Legal imagination is the employment by lawyers of the legal vocabularies, institutions, and systems available to them, that enable them to carry out the jobs that they are called upon to carry out. Sometimes you choose to go the way of property, sometimes you choose to go the way of sovereignty. To me, as a former practitioner, this is how you work. You are not deducing your advice from a textbook or a theory—or if you try that, you are not going to be a very good lawyer. What you are going to do, and what people are going to admire you for, is to find another, perhaps surprising argument, doctrine or field of law that will then offer a solution to the problem at hand. For instance, I want to put to question the way people are so invested in using sovereignty within international law. Maybe you can get where you want to go much easier by way of property, or by private law? This would be what David Kennedy calls “disenchantment”: lawyers are enchanted by the law that is familiar to them and the institutions and practices they are involved with; that makes them often unable to find a good solution to the problem they are faced with. International lawyers are enchanted by international law and think that international law is great. But if you only think in terms of sovereignty—the United Nations (UN), the responsibility to protect, etc.—actually, you are going to be fairly marginal. Sovereignty is helpful for some things, especially if you are in the UN and talk to diplomats, but the UN and its diplomats are not very powerful. If you want to know how power works, and you want a language that gives you access to those who are powerful, then you may have to think about company law. Let’s look at how contracts and property operate, let’s look at private law. That move requires imagination. My book is an effort to show how lawyers have used their imagination at crucial moments to find a solution which did not exist previously, in order to gain power, to defend power, or to challenge power. In this sense, it deals with the same questions as the previous books, but it is also an expression of some dissatisfaction with those two prior forms of analysis. It does not detract from them—I think they were right. But I hope that the idea of legal imagination, which operates throughout history in various ways, will open up a further understanding of how power operates within law, and how politics operate within law, at present.

Anne: Sovereignty is a fundamental concern of international law; yet, a number of recent works in intellectual history suggest that it is a rather fraught concept that evades concrete definition and lacks a stable referent. In Sovereignty in Fragments (Cambridge University Press, 2010), a collection edited by Hent Kalmo and Quentin Skinner, contributors investigate what sovereignty, typically imagined as a legitimizing feature of the modern state, might look like in an age of growing interdependence and internationalization. Similarly, in the volume The Scaffolding of Sovereignty (Columbia University Press, 2017), edited by Zvi Ben-Dor Benite, Stefanos Geroulanos, and Nicole Jerr, contributors seek to destabilize the illusion of absolute sovereignty by exploring the supportive architecture around it. Considering international law’s insistence on sovereignty as an absolute, immutable term, what can legal history offer in this quest to shed light on the fiction of complete dominion? If the law does not formally recognize partial, divided, and multiplied sovereignties, can it still be usefully employed to highlight the limits of sovereignty in practice?

Martti: Yes, sovereignty is terribly central. I think one should think about it in structural terms, as much as it refers to the highest power. Sovereignty is ultimate, and because it is ultimate, it always recedes into the background and we cannot seize it. Behind it is the idea of God who acts in mysterious ways, who can only momentarily be reflected, but never permanently seized. Everything that I have now learned from intellectual history tells me that sovereignty is a secular translation of the omnipotence of God, and that this omnipotence leads into a huge number of paradoxes. 13th-century theologians crystallized this into the paradox of the little boy asking whether God can be so powerful that he can create a stone that is so big that even he cannot raise it. But the 20th century offers many legal examples for this paradox as well. The example that I used in Apology is the reasonably famous case of the Austro-German customs union.

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The Austrian delegation at the Paris Peace Conference while negotiating the Treaty of St. Germain

In the treaty of Saint-Germain from 1919, Austria promised to the Allied powers from the First World War that it would not alienate its sovereignty. The idea on the Allied side was that Austria would not join with Germany—but then Austria concluded a customs union with Germany. The Allied powers went to the Permanent Court of International Justice, the predecessor of the present International Court of Justice (ICJ), and claimed that Austria had violated the Treaty of Saint-Germain by concluding a customs union, because a customs union meant that Austria had “alienated its sovereignty.” The pleadings of that case in 1933 are one of the most important sources for understanding sovereignty in law, in my mind, because the Austrians argued that the customs union did not mean that they were alienating their sovereignty—on the contrary. If Austria were unable to conclude a customs union, Austria would not be a real sovereign. That is the heart of the paradox, which appears similarly in the more contemporary case of the European Union (EU). When countries such as Finland joined the union, they were faced with a domestic opposition that argued that we should not alienate our sovereignty to this bureaucracy in Brussels. But the political leadership said that not only do we fully preserve our sovereignty but also enhance it by joining the EU, as it provides us with possibilities of action, with access to money and influence that we would otherwise not have. Now if that is true—and I think it is—then that means that the word ‘sovereignty’, as a sociological description, is compatible with both the situation of a state existing in hermetic isolation and that of a state which has given up its freedom of decision to supranational bodies. And if sovereignty is compatible with both a full ability to decide everything and a complete inability to decide anything, then the term must be pretty flexible. I think that the entire debate on political theology has little more to teach us than what I just put to you in legal terms—and for me, these legal terms are the most important ones. Sovereignty is completely open-ended. But this does not mean that it could not take historically specific forms. At particular moments, it has supported some people and been unsupportive of others. As far as law is concerned, for example, the emergence of modern international law took place as an anti-sovereignty move. The men of 1873 thought that sovereignty was dangerous and opposed to free trade, human rights, etc. People like René Cassin and the Ligue des droits de l’Homme developed that language in the 1920s, and they thought that international law must function as the opposite of sovereignty. How fragile this liberal project was, however, we can see most clearly in Hersch Lauterpacht’s career. Lauterpacht, on whom I have written so much, is one of the great opponents of sovereignty. He is known among other things as the author of the first book on international law and human rights in 1950, in which he celebrates the British tradition of rights à la John Locke. Lauterpacht was at the heart of the international legal project that sought global governance against sovereign egoism. But then suddenly he became one of the legal advisors of the Jewish Agency in 1948 in New York, struggling to create a Jewish state and participating in the drafting of the Israeli Declaration of Independence. So here again, there is the paradox: liberals like Lauterpacht could not just want for there not to be a state, because sometimes the state was needed to protect important values or vulnerable groups—in this case persecuted Jews. This is why you cannot be categorically against sovereignty; it can be many different things.

Anne: In your concluding remarks to the volume spearheaded by Kalmo and Skinner, you bemoan the fact that most current attempts to approach the concept of sovereignty are historical in nature. Yet, you too often choose to take a decidedly historical approach, as will again be the case in your upcoming book. As a scholar trained in law, what value do you see in using the methodology of a history of ideas to address problems of sovereignty as they appear in contemporary politics and law?

Martti: When I wrote that sovereignty is treated mostly as a historical topic, what I wanted to convey was the sense that people are both tired and afraid of sovereignty nowadays. On the one hand, because it is so utterly complicated theoretically, and on the other hand, because it seems to have been associated with such negative political experiences in the 20th century. You don’t want to go there and take a stand on present controversies over sovereignty—so you deal with it as a historical topic. Now, if I look at my own turn to history in my two previous works, I am really interested in conceptual history and Begriffsgeschichte, and I think that for understanding those concepts in the present, we must see them in a historical light. My goal is to understand a larger phenomenon, and history enables me to do that. But there is also a broader connection between history and law. In the first place, legal concepts are historical concepts. Roman law, for example, is fundamentally important. If you don’t know Roman law, can you really be a lawyer? Second, lawyers constantly do historical work. I have pleaded twice in the ICJ, and for the preparation of both pleadings, I needed to go back to the 19th century and read acta and old treatises from the archives and figure out how to use them in the present. History, from a purely professional point of view, is necessary for lawyers. But in my scholarship as well, which aims to understand the politics of law, the past provides me with narratives that allow me to communicate with an audience in a way that is powerful and persuasive. This is important because, after all, engagement with students and other audiences is entirely about persuasion. And persuasive stories are complex stories, stories where real men and women act in complex situations in which we can sympathize with the difficult choices they have to make.

Anne: Let’s bring property back into the discussion. While the concept of sovereignty itself may be slippery, its long-lasting relationship with property, you argue, is perpetual and clearly definable. As you state your recent article “Sovereignty, Property and Empire: Early Modern English Contexts” (2017), for example, sovereignty and property “form a typical pair of legal opposites that while apparently mutually exclusive and mutually delimiting, also completely depend on each other” (388). Indeed, the sovereignty-property divide appears to be reminiscent of another well-known dichotomy—the public and the private, which make equally little sense to consider separately. In how far does sovereignty’s pairing with property make the former more intelligible, and why have both intellectual historians and legal scholars largely missed this link so far?

Martti: If I can start from the end of the question—the reason why this link has been missed, I believe, relates to the technical complexity of the law of property. In order to understand how property operates, one needs to know a huge amount of domestic, technical law, not only going under the name of property law, but also under the name of inheritance law, contract law, real estate law, etc. People have shied away from that, I think, because it is really hard. For me, my early structuralist interests have been simplifying the task in as much as I always start from the dictum of identifying a binary opposition: private/public, property/sovereignty. That binary opposition already gives me a good methodological basis. It has the great advantage that it covers 100% of available alternatives—it is a full description of the world. This means also that when one part changes, the boundary moves and the other part will change as well. The two parts of the binary are wholly interdependent. So whenever I see something happening in the realm of property, I can deduce that something is happening in terms of sovereignty as well, and vice versa. They are the yin and yang of international law. But people concentrate on sovereignty because it is somehow more visible, and there is a more robust political history tradition on sovereignty that is very accessible and attractive in many ways. If we think of property and sovereignty as a binary distinction, there are two basic ways in which we can imagine their relationship in law. The first is that property contributes to the substance of sovereignty, and sovereignty contributes to the substance of property. I am particularly interested in the idea of a “scaffolding of sovereignty”—to me, property is the scaffolding of sovereignty. There is no sovereignty right that would be of interest to anybody if it did not involve the ability to influence relations of property. We see this most easily, of course, in mafioso governments or rogue states, but also in not-so-rogue states when they determine how property is being distributed through domestic legislation, tax laws for example. The very reason for attaining the position of the sovereign is often to become rich, or to have one’s friends become rich, or one’s country become wealthy. But then again, I am Hobbesian enough to think that mere power, irrespective of land and goods, is interesting and attractive as well. The right of property is often motivated not so much by greed as by vanity—the wish to be superior, to have the ultimate control, which is sovereignty. So both lead into one another, yin and yang. There is always one element in a binary structure that is the predominant one, and the other the subsidiary one. But the subsidiary one, as we have learned from Derrida, is the dangerous supplement. The subsidiary one always eats into the apparently hegemonic one. So whenever we think that sovereignty is the ultimate, it cannot be quite right. If we look behind it, we see that everything stands on property. I am now provocatively making the point that everything is about property, because people have not made that point in my field, which is obsessed with sovereignty. But I would hope that in the next generation, there will be someone who says: well actually, sovereignty…

Anne: This leads into my next question, which is about the historical development of this conceptual relationship between sovereignty and property. Your book covers the vast time period between 1300 and 1800, but the case of early modern England appears to serve as a particularly useful example of the entanglement of sovereignty and property, public and private, and law and politics. The pluralism of the English legal system, split into civil law and common law, allowed for the emergence of two different kinds of ‘laws of nations’ in the 16th century. These two idioms, you assert, used ‘sovereignty’ and ‘property’ in contrasting ways—one to support the sovereignty of the king, as visible in the use of the royal prerogative, the other to defend the property rights of common Englishmen. First categorically opposed, these two arguments continually converged over the course of the 17th and 18th century, and property emerged as a justification for expanding the Crown’s sovereignty geographically. British imperial power thus became firmly cemented in a new ‘empire of free trade’ that emphasized private entrepreneurship over formal sovereignty. In other words, capitalism functioned as the driving motor of diplomacy and politics. Is the narrative you propose for this particular case study reflective of the larger argument in the book, i.e. is there a general trend towards the prominence of property? And what role does historical specificity play in your conceptual argument?

Martti: Let me say that both as a scholar and as a practitioner, I find that there is always an element of separation between the world and our consciousness of the world. I provide these compelling narratives, all the while knowing that they are not ‘true.’ They are what appears on a flat screen against a really dark, messy background, so to speak. On that flat screen, I can see the deconstructive mechanism, the yin and yang, and I can try to describe it in the hope that my audience can grasp something similar to what I see—knowing that my own grasping of the situation is tainted by my own prejudices, but also an aspiration towards telling the ‘truth’ about power. Behind power, there are human relations in a tremendously unjust world. Now, is my story a story about capitalism? Yes and no. Yes in the sense that I want to convey the message in my profession—“public international law”—people have not paid enough attention to determining power of international economic relations. But of course, I do not think that everything ends in capitalism. Even if I were able to provide a full description of the world as an outcome of the development of globalized relations of production into the kind of massive, rogue capitalism that now exists, I would still know that the dangerous supplement must be lurking somewhere there. That the capitalism I described so efficiently and persuasively cannot be the be-all and end-all. What does that capitalism stand on, what is it dependent on? Maybe it is dependent on mechanisms of violence, on the ability to control the means of violence, and the state happens to be a big instrument for the control of violence…

Anne: In relation to the historical context of time and place, you further suggest that it matters who uses this vocabulary and with what intent. To return to the example of early modern England, your paper gives voice to the factor of intent and takes a semi-biographical approach. The thinkers you survey, including Hobbes and Locke, alter the configuration between property and sovereignty based on their political and personal motivations. This biographical approach also points to a potential problem, though: while such a history of legal imagination proposes surprising revisions to the established intellectual biographies of grand thinkers, it also runs the risk of overlooking possible conceptual developments caused by interactions, dialogues, and negotiations outside of the narrow field of traditional intellectual history. To what extent should figures like Hobbes take priority over others mentioned in the paper, such as Sir Edward Coke and John Wheeler, or those non-elite (and non-European) actors completely left out?

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Sir Edward Coke (1552-1634), an early proponent of property rights and free trade

Martti: Let’s dismiss one way of looking at this: is this an agency-structure problem? No. There is no agency-structure problem. There is, of course, agency and there is structure, and we are constantly negotiating between the two. Agency and structure behave like sovereignty and property—a binary distinction the parts of which both reject and depend on each other. That is not a problem to be solved, but an existential situation that we are in. I would really like lesser figures such as Edward Coke or John Wheeler to have abandoned their modesty at some point. Wouldn’t it be great if in some library a treatise were found by John Wheeler on political theory or on international law? And that work would become the subject of intense scholarly studies! But of course, then they would not be the persons they have long appeared to us. It is a real problem that we always deal with the same guys, their writings and neuroses. But that is hard to avoid. In the Gentle Civilizer, I did introduce some minor figures, and in this upcoming book, I am going to introduce others. But they are still people who are known to some specialized fields, and about whom other people have written. That they are white men is a huge problem, of course. And how does one deal with that problem? I was really impressed by Dipesh Chakrabarty and his efforts as an Indian postcolonial scholar to think of writing history in a postcolonial vein. In Provincializing Europe (Princeton University Press, 2007), there is this really appealing account that he gives of his earlier efforts to write the history of India before the British came in, and not in the way that the British have written it. But then he finds out that all the archives have been compiled by the British, and that one is completely in this prison house of European ideas of what history is, what counts. As he puts it, even the canons of professional historiography on India are European. And if you want to participate in them, that is what you have to buy into—there is nothing you can do. As a response, Chakrabarty chooses the strategy of provincializing Europe, of treating Europe not as the universe, but as ‘men with projects’. Or that is how I have translated what he means. Instead of being large – even “universal” – Europe would be just a set of projects by a group of privileged men. That is how I have seen international law as well: a series of political projects by political men.

Anne: To dwell on this topic of Eurocentrism a little longer, it seems that paying attention to the combined history of sovereignty and property may offer some remedy in this regard. You readily acknowledge that this is a history about not only ‘men with projects’, but specifically white men with projects, and the focus on property highlights how Europeans exercised power over the world through international law by using both sovereignty claims and commercial interests as instruments of European expansion. But I can’t help but wonder if there may be further ways to question Eurocentrism, e.g. by exploring how legal scholarship itself has been implicated by imperial ambitions and systematically privileged the European nation as a unit of analysis. Do you address such methodological implications in your upcoming book?

Martti: No, I don’t. I have written a sufficient amount of methodological texts in the past, in which I tried to make the point that I am just an extreme nominalist. There are no great concepts, there are just men and women with ideas, so I reduce everything thereto. Which is not to say that it would be impossible to write in other ways as well, as a non-nominalist, about doctrines or about concepts operating independently of their operators. Most of legal history is about the history of concepts and institutions, the history of the state, the history of the nation. And I am perfectly happy with other people using ‘my men’ and writing, for example, on the notion of la nation in 17th-century in France based on how it transpires from Mably’s writings. Such things can be extrapolated from them, but I am not going to move radically away from my nominalism. I suppose I have to add that I also think in Marxist ways. I have been struggling with Marxist writings on the early phases of colonialism, the notion of “primitive accumulation,” in which wealth emerges out of trade and eventually enables the productive processes that lead into Capitalism. That process does provide a really important frame within which I think ‘my men’ work. But I will never put concepts such as “primitive accumulation” in my texts—or not in a serious way, anyway. For those who do that will immediately see their work connected and amenable to critiques that have been or may be made against the other works that have used that concept. Guilt by association. I wish to avoid that (as much as anybody can). But I have written on Marxism and international law, and have done work on other conceptual notions in the past. But I often find strictly methodological debates impoverished.

Anne: Your book is organized by national case studies and their respective legal vocabularies. As you insist, these vocabularies changed over the course of time and thus necessitate the study of a longer trajectory. However, one could again argue that traditional longue durée studies of international law have caused certain genealogies and interactions to be overshadowed by others in a framework that is, ironically, categorized by nationality in order to inquire about international legal thought. One example of this would be the contextualization of ius gentium within a distinct German academic, a Dutch mercantilist, an English civil-common, and a French Enlightenment tradition. But does ‘compartmentalizing’ legal history in this manner and assigning distinct characteristics to each national context—contexts that often did not exist as ‘national’ at the time—not set up artificial boundaries of nationally coded and disciplinary distinction? How will your book address cross-influences that exceeded accepted spatial and temporal boundaries?

Martti: I don’t think one can write without some contextualization. All of us know that we act within a number of different contexts—and those who want to understand us will have to decide which of those contexts is relevant for which part of our activity. Again, I suppose I am being a contrarian in my own profession, as I find myself intuitively working against the dominant styles. International lawyers have often thought—especially in the late 19th and early 20th century—that the world was their scene and the universe their audience, and that their concepts had timeless validity. So I want to think of them as local actors who learned everything in a really limited sphere of conversations and readings. These men were lawyers, and the law that they learned first was domestic law. English lawyers, for instance, learned first common law and a certain relationship that common law had with civil law. That was a very specific relationship, and in order for them to become recognized and powerful actors in their own world, they needed to learn and play around with that understanding. If they became civil lawyers, they could become academics and speak maybe directly to the Queen or King. But maybe they wanted to go the commercial route and become legal councilors to a merchants’ company. Then they needed to know common law. But common law also operated within international contexts, and that meant they needed to know some of the domestic laws of France or Holland – but their understanding of those other laws was inevitably and naturally affected by what they had already learned of English law.  So, the first relevant context is often the domestic legal one, and domestic law is often geared towards consolidating the domestic realm. Consider, for example, the very strong way in which French lawyers and the law were involved in the process of French nation-building—lawyers were at the heart of the creation of nationhood. In the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, they were obsessed with the question as to the relationship between the empire and the imperial estates. Every lawyer participated in this debate in some way in their professional capacity, and that was a very specific configuration of problems. Of course, they had conversations beyond their geographies—but when they went to the colonies, for instance, they often just kept on applying their own domestic laws and gave often no recognition whatsoever to indigenous customs. So domestic law is really important as the foundation on which professional lawyers come to every other law, including international law. At the same time, there is interdisciplinarity. Many of them had some relation to theology and spoke to theologians, and theologians spoke to lawyers, as in Spain during the Conquista. Indeed, one of the things I am hoping this book will do—perhaps in contradistinction to what I have been saying so far—is to tell the long story of the European world moving away from a center in theology, first towards natural law and then towards economics, both at the conceptual level and the institutional level. I pay a lot of attention to the way in which lawyers engage in theological debates and theologians in legal debates, and how lawyers engage in economic debates and create what later becomes known as political economy. Adam Smith, who is the typical example, starts out writing a treatise in natural law and ends up with The Wealth of Nations (1776).

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Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, published 1776

That is a really important development. But again, I want to refrain from saying that ‘ergo economics is’, or ‘ergo law is’. I just highlight that Adam Smith seemed to think that an important legal point to make was that freedom of enterprise provides wealth for Britain. So there is some international context, and there is some interdisciplinary context. But I do not want to think of any one of them as ever fully determining — for after all, it is imagination that then does with those contexts what it needs to do in order to carry out the professional business it is engaged with.