In this interview, Simon Brown speaks with Sophia Rosenfeld, the Walter H. Annenberg Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania. Professor Rosenfeld works in the intellectual history of the trans-Atlantic Age of Revolutions, and she has written books on the history of signs and gestures in the French Revolution, and the politics of Common Sense in the eighteenth century. Her new book, Democracy and Truth: A Brief History (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018), shows how contemporary concerns over how we reconcile science, scholarship and expertise with democracy are not so contemporary after all, and have persisted and changed since their first articulation in the Enlightenment. The conversation ranges from epistemology and politics, to common sense and expertise, to the long history behind our putatively “post-truth” moment.
At first, Russian TV surprises and disappoints with its conventional appearance. A mixture of entertainment and news competes for viewers’ attention, logos flash across the screen, and pundits shuffle their notes, ready to pounce on any topic. However, the tightly controlled news cycle, the flattering coverage of President Vladimir Putin, and a steady indignation over Ukrainian politics serve as reminders that not all is well. Reporters without Borders, an international watchdog that annually ranks 180 states according to its freedom of press index, this year assigned Russia to a dismal 148th position. While a number of independent print and digital outlets persevere, television has been largely brought under state control. And precisely because of these circumstances, television programming tends to reflect priorities and concerns of the current administration. When an ankle sprain turned me into a reluctant consumer of state programming for nearly three weeks, I realized that despite various social and economic challenges, the Russian government remains preoccupied with the Soviet victory in WWII.
Celebrated on May 9th, Victory Day—or Den Pobedy (День Победы) as it is known in
Russia—marks the official capitulation of Nazi Germany in 1945 and is traditionally celebrated with a military parade on the Red Square. During the few weeks preceding the holiday, parade rehearsals regularly shut down parts of Moscow while normal programming gives way to a tapestry of war-related films. The former adds another challenge to navigating the already traffic-heavy city; the latter, however, provides a welcome opportunity to experience some of the most distinguished works of Soviet cinematography. Soviet directors, many veterans themselves, resisted simplistic war narratives and instead focused on capturing human stories against the historical background of violence. Films like Mikhail Kalatozov’s Cranes are Flying (1957), Andrei Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood (1962) or Elem Klimov’s Come and See (1985) are widely recognized for their emotional depth, maturity and an uncompromising depiction of the consequences of war. Unfortunately, these Soviet classics share the silver screen with newer Russian productions in the form of Hollywood-style action flicks or heavy-handed propaganda pieces that barely graze the surface of the historical events they claim to depict.
The 2016 adaptation of the iconic Panfilovtsy story exemplifies the problematic handling of historical material. The movie is based on an article published in a war-time Soviet newspaper, which describes how a division of 28 soldiers under the command of Ivan Panfilov distinguished itself during the defense of Moscow in late 1941. The poorly armed soldiers who came from various Soviet Republics managed to disable eighteen German tanks but were all killed in the process. The 1948 investigation, prompted by an unexpected appearance by some of these allegedly dead heroes, exposed the story as a journalist exaggeration, designed to reassure and inspire the country with tales of bravery and an ultimate sacrifice. Classified, the report remained unknown until 2015 when Sergei Mironenko, at the time director of state archives, used its findings to push against the mythologization of Panfilov and his men, which he saw as a sign of increasing politicization of the past. His action provoked severe, public scolding from the Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky that eventually cost Mironenko his job, while Panfilov’s 28(2016) was shown during this year’s Victory Day celebration.
Many western commentators have already noted the significance of Victory Day, including Neil MacFarquhar, who believes that President Putin intentionally turned it into the “most important holiday of the year.” The scale of celebration seems commensurate with this rhetorical status and provides an impressive background for a presidential address. The most recent parade consisted of approximately ten thousand soldiers and over a hundred military vehicles—from the T-34, the venerable Soviet tank to the recently-developed Tor missile system, which can perform in arctic conditions. Predictably the Russian coverage differs from that presented in the western media. The stress does not fall on the parade or President Putin’s speech alone but extends to the subsequent march of veterans and their descendants, emphasizing the continuation between past and present. The broadcast of the celebration, which can be watched anywhere between the adjacent to Poland Kaliningrad Oblast and Cape Dezhnev only fifty miles east of Alaska, draws a connection between Russia’s current might and the Soviet victory in the war. Yet May 9th did not always hold its current status and only gradually became the cornerstone of modern Russian identity.
While in 1945 Joseph Stalin insisted on celebrating the victory with a parade on the Red Square, the holiday itself failed to take root in the Soviet calendar as the country strived for normalcy. The new leader Nikita Khrushchev discontinued some of the most punitive policies associated with Stalinism and promised his people peace, progress, and prosperity. The war receded into the background as the Soviet Union put a man into space while attempting to put every family into its own apartment. Only after twenty years was the Victory Day officially reinstated by Leonid Brezhnev and observed with a moment of silence on state TV. Brezhnev also approved the creation of a new Moscow memorial to Soviet soldiers killed in the war—a sign that Soviet history had taken a more
solemn turn. Known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (Могила Неизвестного Солдата), a bronze sculpture of a soldier’s helmet resting on a war banner with a hammer and sickle finial pointing towards the viewer symbolizes the massive casualties of the Soviet Union, many of whom were never identified. Keeping an exact list of the dead was not always feasible as the Red Army fought the Wehrmacht forces for four years before taking Berlin in April of 1945. Historians estimate that the Soviet Union lost approximately twenty million citizens—the largest absolute (if not proportional) human loss of any state involved in WWII. For this reason, in Russia and many former Soviet republics the 1941-1945 war is properly known as the Great Patriotic War (Великая Отечественная Война).
The victory over Nazi Germany, earned with a remarkable national sacrifice, was a shining moment in otherwise troubled Soviet history and a logical choice for the Russian Federation, a successor state of the Soviet Union, to anchor its post-ideological identity. Yet the current Russian government, which carefully manages the celebration, cannot claim credit for the popularity that the day enjoys among regular people. Many Russian veterans welcome an opportunity to remember the victory and their descendants come out on their own volition to celebrate their grandparents’ generation. This popular participation has underpinned the holiday since 1945. Before Brezhnev’s intervention, veterans would congregate informally and quietly to celebrate the victory and commemorate their fallen comrades. Today, as this war-time generation is leaving the historical stage, their children and grandchildren march across Moscow carrying portraits of their loved ones who fought in the war, forming what is known as the Immortal Regiment (Бессмертный полк). And the marches are increasingly spilling into other locations—both in Russia and worldwide. This year these processions took place in over fifty countries with a significant Russian diaspora, including Western Europe and North America.
This very personal, emotional dimension of the Victory Day has been often overlooked in western coverage, which reduces the event to a sinister political theater and a manifestation of military strength. The holiday is used to generate a new brand of modern Russian patriotism precisely because it already resonates with the Russian public. People march to uphold the memory of their relatives regardless of their feelings towards the current administration, views on the annexation of Crimea, or attitude towards NATO. Although this level of filial piety can be manipulated, my Russian friends seem to understand when the government tries to capitalize on these feelings. Mikhail, my Airbnb host, who belongs to the new Russian middle class, and who few years ago carried a portrait of his grandfather during the Victory Day celebration, remarked that the government attached itself like a “parasite” to the Immortal Regiment phenomenon because of its popularity. The recent clash over the veracity of the Panfilovtsy story also given many Russians a more nuanced understanding of their history even as some enjoyed the movie’s action sequences. Additionally, the 1948 investigative report that Mironenko had posted online, remains accessible on the website of the archive.
At the same time, many Russians are genuinely frustrated with what they perceive as the western ignorance of their elders’ sacrifices or what seems to them like the Ukrainian attempt to rewrite the script of the Victory Day. In this respect, they are inadvertently playing to their government’s line. This interaction between the political and the personal, family history and national narrative occurs in every society but in Russia seems particularly explicit because the fall of the Soviet Union shattered Soviet identity, creating an urgent need for a new one. While the current administration is eager to supply the new formula, based on my recent experience in Moscow, Russian citizens are still negotiating.
Agnieszka Smelkowska is a Ph.D candidate in the History Department at UC Berkeley, where she is completing a dissertation about the German minority in Poland and the Soviet Union while attempting to execute a perfect Passata Sotto in her spare time.
When I was beginning my undergraduate studies in the mid-1990s, “collective memory” was all the rage. Back then, and it does seem like ages ago, new books about cases of collective memory were published en masse—Henry Rousso’s The Vichy Syndrome (1991), Richard Terdiman’s Present Past (1993), Jay Winter’s Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning(1995), and of course Pierre Nora’s Les Lieux de mémoire (1990) all discussed in the book under discussion—as well as new journals such as History and Memory (est. 1989), were reframing the historical profession on the basis of memory studies. Much of this preoccupation with memory was a result of the Historikerstreitof the mid-late 1980s, which showed the need for a more nuanced understanding of the Holocaust and the ways in which its investigation depends on one’s perspective and sense of belonging. As the Friedlaender-Broszat debate demonstrated, the memory of perpetrators and memory of the victims were not the same, even if the testimonies related to the same events. The entanglement of narratives, forms of representation, memories and philosophies of history exposed historical methodology—and much of critical thinking with it—to a new set of questions. And for a while it seemed the philosophy of history had became fashionable again, not only among historians, but also among theorists of all kinds.
By the time I reached graduate school, at the end of the 1990s, collective memory was already suffering the corrosive effects of a wild neoliberal privatization of the public sphere. (If you can’t buy it, it’s not there.) 9/11 and its aftermath changed the discourse once again, and the earlier pluralism of voices and narratives were replaced with a demand for moral clarity and narrative unity. Plurality was fine, but only so long as it did not undermine an extra-juridical sense of sovereignty and a booming market. Unlike trauma studies—which continued to flourish in conjunction with psychoanalytical theory— historians gradually retreated from the critical engagement with representation and memory in favor of facts, social and economic data.
In the twenty-first century, global theorizing, the anthropocene, and the biopolitical—in response to both good and ill—have left theorizing of individual and collective memory largely to the side.
Jeffrey Andrew Barash’s new book is the first major philosophical attempt in two decades to adopt the concept of collective memory as its methodological focus. Barash brings the post-Holocaust discussions of collective memory into conversation with more recent theories of temporality to create a new theory of collective memory that can serve a more global sphere. It calls for theoreticians, interested in the philosophy of history, and historians to reexamine the notion of “living memory,” or “living generation,” for the sake of “experiential continuity that quickly fades when no living memory remains to recount past events” (Barash, p. 55), as the sociologist Maurice Halbwachs (1875-1945) argued. Broadly, Barash’s argument is that if known concepts of history, such as facts, truth, and testimony are necessary for a well-grounded examination of the past, then they must be weight against their immediate impact on collectives, institutions, and individual experience.
In Collective Memory and the Historical Past, Barash divides the notion of “collective memory” into three spheres: “the rhythms of habitual practices of everyday life, the periodic, socially organized… commemorative event, and the ongoing subsistence of group dispositions…that span generations” (91). In other words, memory weaves together the exceptional and the habitual, the individual and the group, the immediate and the longue durée. If the philosophical origins of collective memory are embedded in the neo-Kantian intersubjective, Cassirer’s symbolic forms (“all the forms assumed by man’s understanding of the world,” Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, vol. 3, 13), Husserlian phenomenology, Dilthey’s living experience, Bergson’s durée, and Ricoeur’s hermeneutic, then the historical and literary roadmap of the book proves a strictly modernist tour that parallels Baudelaire and Proust’s themes of voluntary and involuntary memory (mémoire involontaire). It concludes with a clear Sebaldian melancholic tone, as Barash realizes that “attempts to obliterate the past… are no more feasible on the collective level than they are in regard to the personal past” (p. 209). From this angle, any attempt to disconnect the epistemic from the ontic and ontological is merely delusional.
Barash’s modernist discourse expresses an irrevocably humanist commitment. He takes the ineradicability of collective memory as an alternative to the skepticism of the linguistic turn, or “the decades following World War II” during which different philosophers—Hayden White is a case in point—interpreted “the facts of the past” as nothing more “than a linguistic existence’ and as such ultimately figments of the historian’s imagination” (p. 210). Instead, Barash asks his readers to use insights from theories of collective memory from Halbwachs’s broad identification of collective memory with the historical past to what Barash (following Koselleck) calls the “horizon of contemporaneity,” which concerns “not only an abstract capacity to recall given past events,” i.e. “not only data, facts, or circumstances…but primarily the temporal horizon itself” (p. 172). In other words, Barash strives to reunite the earlier social understanding of collective memory with the universal value of human finality.
This, to my mind, is Barash’s most innovative contribution to a philosophy of history in this populist and post-humanist moment: A contemporary reconsideration of history and memory, fact and imagination that moves with the human and its humanness to the point of no-return, yet where finality—the evident fact of our expected death—does not contradict chronology, continuity, or reality itself. One recalls here Barash’s earlier work on Heidegger and the stress on finality or “temporal intentionality” which enables “a unity of temporal continuity between a certain collective past and present” (p. 98). As Barash implies, without saying so explicitly, it is his (and our) project, to find a proper response to Heidegger’s understanding of existence (Dasein) as inherently final, on the one hand, and to his nationalist sense of belongness, on the other, without falling into a relativist or skeptical mode of thinking. In more explicitly political terms, it is to find an answer to Jean-Marie Le Pen’s provocative invocation to take hold “of the sacred rights of the collectivity in regard to its continuity” (quoted in p. 108). According to Barash, an open discussion of “collective memory” in philosophy, literature, and, finally, the mass media should help us in this task.
Barash’s argument ultimately leads to a short examination of mass media—mostly conceived as a set of televised news reports—at the book’s end. The stress here falls on the commercialized delivery of information as adapted to a mass audience. This is the most relevant part of the book but also its least convincing section: the commercialized nature of mass media—the “field of currency” in Barash’s terms— implies an “anonymous, decontextualized, haphazard, and continually updated mode of presentation [that] lends information a spatiotemporal pattern and logic that formats it for mass dissemination” (119). Barash seems to here imagine a CNN screen that hops from one disaster to another without examining the history or possible repercussions of any specific situation. Worse, it never accounts for its own method of telling. Rather, the screen is divided in such a way it stimulates our visual appetite, while the editing simplifies and digests images in order to spit them back out for an imagined appeal to the rating.
Barash is right in his critique of the media, of course, but what is to be done when this very “field of currency” is identified by so many with the sacred values of historic capitalism? What to be done, from a present angle, when this form of materialism becomes the last defense of democracy, fighting “fake news” and “post truths”? How might a collective symbolic order arise that cannot be manipulated by the pompous vacuities of politicians or that can compete with the narcissistic subjectivity of a facebook feed? The modernist tools out of which Barash constructs his theory of collective memory seem to falter here. The madeleine of the present does not stand for Proust’s nostalgic recollection anymore, but is reproduced as a pre-packaged, universally consumable image of ‘the good life.’ In this unprecedented contemporary social, political, and above all medial landscape, memory does not suffice—if it even obtains. One would need to analyze the mechanism that enables mass reproduction and bring this analysis into the social and political terrain. In the age of fake news perhaps not only the past is undermined, but the present and, as such, the future too. In fact, it is the very epistemological assumption that there is past, a reliable testimony for example, that could shape our collective memory. Three decades after the Historikerstreit the very ontology of the witness—perpetrator and victim alike—is undermined, and with it the conditions of possibility of a critical and historical collective memory.
Last week, in an essay on the state of global history, historian Jeremy Adelman asked, “In our fevered present of Nation-X First, of resurgent ethno-nationalism, what’s the point of recovering global pasts?” In the wake of last November’s election in the United States, and the slew of executive orders, hate crimes, and retaliatory moves by other governments that have followed, it is a fair question: have the unequivocal challenges to the project and paradigm of global integration put into jeopardy the very task of the global historian? Adelman concludes that the challenges to interdependence and “the togetherness of strangers near and far” levied by “the anti-globalism movement” must be met by historians willing to engage with disintegration as well—willing to listen to the “tribalists out there and right here.” In other words, it would not be helpful or honest to write another global history that does not account for the reasons behind the apparently widespread and domino-like backlash against sunny, cosmopolitan narratives about a world seen, as though from space, as a single swirling orb.
Global history is not necessarily the history of globalization. It is also not, as Adelman notes, “the history of everything.” It is “both an object of study and a particular way of looking at history… it is both a process and a perspective, subject matter and methodology” (Sebastian Conrad). Despite the myriad approaches to and existing volumes on this very subject, I want to return to the version of global history predicated on the interconnectedness and integration of our global present (and the anxiety around this present now quickly fading into the past). When the avowed raison d’être of a historical narrative that calls itself “global” is to explain how the world became so connected in the first place, dialogue among historians of global history has until now meant contending with the assumption that one is participating in this “moment.” The language of historiographical change is replete with the imagery of movement: the current, the turn, the shift, the trend—toward global history. Sitting still for too long isn’t great, but even worse is getting caught out of touch with the “out there.” Given the waning interest in foreign-language training and the desire to strengthen borders and drive out the “foreign,” if one had been proceeding all this time with an understanding of global history as tied to globalization – and its enduring possibilities for a new kind of humanistic citizenship, as Lynn Hunt suggested in her 2014 book—then one might imagine that a threat to that vision might mean a threat to the mission of the global historian.
What did one have to believe about the world to look around in 2014 and see a process of closer integration and interconnectedness? What did one have to ignore? In the news were rising deportations by the Obama administration, the prominence even then of an anti-globalization movement (granted, with a different character), and the success of far-right parties in the European Parliament elections in May 2014. These were not considered part of a single phenomenon as widely or nervously as similar, as much more large-scale events are now. Indeed, the difference seems to be regime change: anxiety about a wave of right-wing governments upending the post-war liberal project mark the advance of every major election in the wake of November’s unexpected win by President Trump. The democratically elected far-right cannot any longer be dismissed as the purview of the newcomers to the West, like Hungary and Poland, or those who lie outside its borders, like India. The jeering faces of Marine Le Pen, Nigel Farage, and Geert Wilders loom the morning after every Trump “win”—in congratulations and promise/warning. This is a critical distinction: it is only with regime change, with the “fall” of governments to illiberalism that a trend has taken shape and been given a name in the columns of commentators. Yet the persistence and violence of border regimes, right-wing successes, and anti-globalization have been a part of the before-time just as they are a part of this epoch—post-Trump, post-Brexit, post-insert-catastrophe-here.
It is at junctures like these that it becomes most obvious that our historiographical preoccupations lie flat on top of our anxieties.
Samuel Moyn and Andrew Sartori have sketched an overview of the field of global history as part of their exploration of the possibility of global intellectual history. The current flowed from Hegel to Marx to the present. In Hegel we see the world-historical, the paradigmatic, the antecedent to the global history of our own time (taking some slightly unsavory detours through the “universal”). Indeed, much work on transnational connections and “connected histories” contains an explicit challenge to the Hegelian view of history and all its apparently outmoded Eurocentrism: “Hegel himself might have ended the narrative of the self-realization of ‘reason in history’ with the European state, but others carried the project forward to examine the implications for other parts of the world of the claims of European modernity to universality.”
In 2000, the philosopher and intellectual historian Susan Buck-Morss wrote an essay in Critical Inquiry arguing that “Hegel and Haiti belong together.” In her essay and the book that followed, she demonstrates that Hegel and his contemporaries were aware of and critically engaged with the events surrounding the Haitian Revolution via the widely read journal Minerva. She asks why Hegel scholars, with few exceptions, have chosen to read the dialectic of master and slave in Phenomenology of Spirit as mere metaphor. She also asks, “To what degree is Hegel himself accountable for the effective silencing of the Haitian Revolution?” Buck-Morss notes that the political metaphor of slavery as the embodiment in Western political philosophy of “everything that was evil about power relations” came about at the same time as the “systematic, highly sophisticated capitalist enslavement of non-Europeans as a labor force in the colonies.” She then wonders, why has the uncanny relationship between Hegel and Haiti been ignored so long? “Not only have Hegel scholars failed to answer this question; they have failed, for the past two hundred years, even to ask it.”
Buck-Morss takes this simple observation—the absence, the unasked question—to untangle the meaning of universality in history. What kind of subjectivity was assumed to be held by the singular and universal protagonist of history that moves in Hegel’s work and that of his heirs? (You and I number among them, reader, if the trajectory of intellectual history proffered by Moyn and Sartori above is to be believed.) It is the same protagonist at the center of the teleology of Marxism and indeed, at the center of globalization (and the strain of global history with which it is associated). In place of this sort of universality, Buck-Morss suggests that asking the hitherto unasked question “creates the possibility for rescuing the ideal of universal human history from the uses to which white domination has put it…. If the historical facts about freedom can be ripped out of the narratives told by the victors and salvaged for our own time, then the project of universal freedom does not need to be discarded, but rather, redeemed and reconstituted on a different basis.” Indeed, as Dipesh Chakrabarty has written in Provincializing Europe, without Hegelian universals like history and freedom, “there would be no social science that addresses issues of modern social justice”.
Buck-Morss shows us that inquiring after the unasked question—refusing to take it on faith that Hegel and Haiti were worlds apart—can expand the possibilities of historical inquiry. Permit me an exercise in parallelism: If the historical facts about globality can be ripped out of the narrative of globalization told by the victors and salvaged for a time in which the Western academy seems to have woken up to the fact that “globalization” is neither telos nor panacea, then the project of global history does not need to be discarded either.
In reading this version of global history through Buck-Morss’s Hegel, Haiti and Universal History, I have tried to suggest that we make ourselves unhelpfully vulnerable as historians when we drive the stakes of our narratives into shifting sands. I am not suggesting here that global historians did not, or do not, see the complications or limitations of the approach. As I noted above, there are many ways to write global history, and hindsight will always see blind spots and stumbling blocks more clearly than those who were writing histories even a short while ago. I have been concerned here with a very specific feature of this field: a mission to write a story of the past shaped by an occluded and willfully blind cohesion. Orienting an historical approach around an assumption about the future “progress” of the world does little more than make us prone to hasty retreat as soon as that future is jeopardized by the caprice of the “real world.” In Buck-Morss and in Adelman’s essay, I read a warning. If a single, redeeming, and final world-historical force ever calls out to you, either plug your ears with wax or tie yourself to the mast, because there are other, more distant calls the siren song is doubtless drowning out.
In the first decades of the new century, transhumanism aims at delivering the old Enlightenment promise. There can be little doubt that the aspiration to enhance (and even transcend) the capacities of the human being is an endeavor continuous with the Enlightenment ideal of human perfectibility. At least, this is the narrative that transhumanist themselves like to deploy in arguing for the feasibility and socio-cultural desirability of their views.
Although leading transhumanist thinkers hardly invoke the doctrine of the perfectibility of man as per Condorcet and others in explicit terms, they certainly tend to legitimize their views by outlining the respectable historical inheritance of the Enlightenment they wish to carry forward. This is how Nick Bostrom – the probably most celebrated transhumanist philosopher today – binds postwar and twenty-first century transhumanist ambitions (while being more ambivalent toward interwar ones) to certain eighteenth century visions of the progress of humankind when he claims in a historical sketch that transhumanism is rooted in Enlightenment rational humanism. Identifying such roots, however, does not compel anybody to accept the entire Enlightenment paradigm. The appeal of transhumanism based on the historical reasoning of its advocates is precisely that it comes as a better version of the Enlightenment, stripped off of the conceptual shortcomings of the latter. Accordingly, in the argument of Max More – another prominent transhumanist – the insistence upon progress in transhumanist thought prevails without the support of determinism and inevitability which the Enlightenment gave to all forms of progress.
All this adds up to what I would like to call the promise of a technological Enlightenment, that is, the promise of achieving by means of technology what the Enlightenment failed to deliver otherwise: the betterment of the human condition. But does this seem persuasive enough? Is the autobiography of transhumanism the most reliable tool and source of trying to understand transhumanism as a socio-cultural phenomena of rapidly growing significance? Probably not. Accordingly, it seems to me that the promise of transhumanism is something other than what transhumanists themselves claim. There certainly is a transhumanist promise, and that promise is definitely technological, but it has not much to do with the Enlightenment and not much to do with history.
In order to see why it is better to understand transhumanism as a technological promise of its own right and not as the promise of a technological Enlightenment what it aspires to be, the first thing to consider is the Enlightenment promise itself which transhumanism appropriates as its legitimizing narrative. That promise is advancement in the human condition that presupposes a belief in the perfectibility of human beings, which, in my understanding, is expected in turn to play out not on the individual but the collective level of humanity. Hence the idea of the perfectibility of human beings (whether consciously held or tacitly presupposed) necessitated a corresponding belief in the perfectibility of human societies. Reading Kant on universal history or Condorcet on the progress of the human mind equally makes clear that, for Enlightenment thinkers, human betterment can be achieved through the betterment of political constitution which eventually encapsulates the entirety of humanity.
What seems to be even more important is that the betterment of the human condition was supposed to play out both within and precisely as history. For the greatest invention of the Enlightenment was nothing other than the idea of history, the movement and mechanism of human affairs, the idea of the historical process that conceptualizes change over time in the human constitution. In history, humanity could be supposed to fulfill its already assumed potential – a potential that must have been assumed in order to able to be gradually changed for the better. The most striking aspect of the way in which the concept of history configured change was that change as betterment now concerned the very mundane world of human beings. It was against the backdrop of the kind of change entailed in the Christian worldview that the Enlightenment invented modern notions of historical process and progress. Whereas the Christian view held out the promise of a City of God apart from an earthly, compromised one, the Enlightenment promised the fulfillment of the historical process as the processual betterment of the human world.
Now, how does the promise of transhumanism relate to this Enlightenment promise? For it is one thing that transhumanism describes itself retrospectively as a better version of the promise of human betterment, making use of the most conventional historical narrative as a strategy to legitimize itself as a technological Enlightenment. But once you shift perspective and consider how transhumanism describes its prospective aims, the historical narrative about carrying forward an inheritance begins to look rather implausible. Indeed, what transhumanists explicitly wish to achieve in the future looks drastically different from visions offered by the Enlightenment.
The twofold definition of transhumanism in the Transhumanist FAQ wonderfully captures the contradiction between the retrospective historical narrative and the prospective aims. On the one hand, the first definition claims that transhumanism is “the intellectual and cultural movement that affirms the possibility and desirability of fundamentally improving the human condition through applied reason, especially by developing and making widely available technologies to eliminate aging and to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities.” This definition clearly appeals to the inheritance of the Enlightenment that transhumanism merely “affirms” and carries out via technological means. On the other hand, according to the second definition, transhumanism is “the study of the ramifications, promises, and potential dangers of technologies that will enable us to overcome fundamental human limitations, and the related study of the ethical matters involved in developing and using such technologies” (author’s emphasis).
Even though the second definition evidently refers only to the study of a cultural movement which also features in the first definition, the difference between the two descriptions of the potential of technology is striking. Whereas the first definition falls in accordance with its claimed Enlightenment inheritance insofar as it promises improvement upon what human beings are (and have always been), the second definition vests technology with the capacity of being a precise means of escape the confines what being human means.
Simply put, it is not the betterment ‘of’ the human condition what transhumanism desires, but the creation of something better ‘than’ the human condition as we know it. Where the Enlightenment assumed the malleability of human beings and human capacities, transhumanism instead presupposes that, whatever the human being and human capacities may be, technology can transcend them. Whereas the Enlightenment promised the unfolding of an already assumed human potential, transhumanism wishes to surpass what we think is humanly possible. Finally, if the Enlightenment thought that human perfectibility plays out as the course of history in a scenario of procedural and developmental change, transhumanism aims at introducing changes that are not merely stages of a historical development but potentially displaces the entire schema of history itself.
The change that transhumanism wishes to introduce is what I came to call elsewhere the prospect of unprecedented change. By this I mean a wider category that encompasses emerging postwar visions of the future of Western societies on a structural level, exhibiting a temporality other than the developmental one that the Enlightenment brought about. Instead of expecting the fulfillment of a process, the prospect of unprecedented change is conceived of as the sudden emergence of an epochal event defying any preceding states of affairs. Although first I introduced the term in relation to the notion of the Anthropocene and to the ecological vision it harbors, it is technology that has already transformed Western historical sensibility (with the prospect of unprecedented change promised at the time of the institutionalization of AI research in the early postwar years). Seen within this broader framework of postwar future visions, transhumanism is far from being a new chapter in the Enlightenment story of human betterment, that is, the story of history itself. Transhumanism rather proves itself to be one of the most relentless contemporary cultural practices, and one posing perhaps the most serious challenge to the very historical thinking which it employs as a legitimizing strategy.
To conclude, the point I would like to make is this: the technological promise of transhumanism is not a continuation of the Enlightenment story of history itself (the process of human betterment), but an alternative to history as Western thought essentially construes it. Transhumanism harbors a certain configuration of change over time as unprecedented, challenging the processual and developmental configuration of change over time that configures conventional understandings of history. And this, I believe, is something that both transhumanists and historians need to come to terms with and openly debate.
Zoltán Boldizsár Simon is a doctoral research associate at Bielefeld University. You can find Zoltán on Twitter and his work on Academia.edu.
On the cold afternoon of January 30, 1649, King Charles I was publicly beheaded in London, condemned as a traitor by parliamentarians. Royalists, who viewed the king as head of the church, immediately began celebrating the executed King as a martyr. Three hundred and sixty eight years later, this devotional cult remains alive and well, flourishing in unexpected places. This year, the American Society of King Charles the Martyr met for a church service commemorating “Martyrdom Day” at St. Clement’s Church in Philadelphia, a dozen blocks from Independence Hall.
What is the appeal of a royalist devotional cult in the twenty-first-century United States? The cult of King Charles the Martyr had its beginnings in seventeenth-century conflicts between royalists and parliamentarians, and remains entangled with the political theology of sacred kingship. Politics in the United States have taken some unexpected twists recently, but—whatever else might happen—the American experiment in democracy and republicanism probably won’t end with a return to monarchy. Of course, Americans retain an appetite for royalty, as Hello! magazine attests, but Charles I is hardly a celebrity. According to Mark Kishlansky’s unfortunately-named biography, Charles I: An Abbreviated Life, he remains “the most despised monarch in Britain’s historical memory. Considering that among his predecessors were murderers, rapists, psychotics and the mentally challenged, this is no small distinction.” Yet to his fans, King Charles I was and remains a Christian martyr whose spiritual importance transcends the politics of the seventeenth-century Civil War.
Historians tend to disagree about Charles’s reign: was he a victim, a tyrant, or simply incompetent? Whatever the case, once he was deposed he played his part as a martyr with dignity, bravery, and political acumen. On the morning of his execution, he wrote that he would greet the day as “my second wedding day; I would be as trim today as may be, for before tonight I hope to be espoused to my blessed Jesus.” He wore two shirts so that he would not shiver from the cold and appear frightened. Addressing the crowd from the scaffolding, he declared himself “the martyr of the people.” He left a spiritual autobiography titled Eikon Basilke (“The Royal Portrait”), which provided an account and justification of his conduct. Here, Charles explained that he could have saved his life if he had given into the demands of the parliamentarians and abolished the bishops of the Church of England. The historian Andrew Lacey calls the Eikon “the most successful book of the century.” Its heavily symbolic frontispiece was particularly influential, showing Charles exchanging the royal crown for a martyr’s crown. Charles himself thus provided his supporters with the material for his cult.
Charles’s martyrdom was his greatest political success. Widespread uneasiness about this national sin eased the restoration of his son, Charles II, in 1660. In 1662, Charles’s martyrdom was incorporated into the liturgical calendar of the Church of England.
The commemoration of Charles’s execution on January 30 was one of three explicitly political services enjoined by the Book of Common Prayer. On May 29, congregations observed the Restoration of Charles II, and on November 5, the failure of the Gunpowder Plot. The latter, directed against Catholics, has remained popular to this day. Martyrdom Day, by contrast, was politically divisive, and was denounced as idolatrous by reforming Protestants.
Following the expulsion of the Stuart dynasty at the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688-89, Martyrdom Day remained part of the Anglican liturgy but its divisiveness made it a political liability. The festival was popular with high churchmen such as Henry Sacheverell, who feared that the generous toleration given to Protestant Dissenters threatened the safety of both church and state. Nevertheless, the theory of sacred monarchy articulated in the January 30 service, and the close association of Charles’s cult with the exiled Stuart dynasty, clashed with the political imperatives of the new regime. By 1772, when Sir Roger Newdigate defended the Church of England’s “only canonized saint” in the House of Commons, he was met with derisive laughter. Charles’s status as a martyr proved even more divisive in the American colonies. His memory was venerated by loyalist Anglicans during the American Revolution, who found in his patient, steadfast suffering a model for their own behavior during the political crisis. For American Anglicans who supported independence, however, Martyrdom Day was an embarrassment. Following independence, the newly-formed Episcopal Church excised the service from its Book of Common Prayer. In Britain, meanwhile, it remained officially observed until 1858, when the service was removed from the Book of Common Prayer by an Act of Parliament.
Today, the cult of King Charles the Martyr is thoroughly anachronistic, doubly so for its American adherents. The festival is not officially observed in either the UK or the US, and it no longer serves the political uses to which it was put in the seventeenth century. It nevertheless retains supporters among high church Anglicans, Episcopalians, and Anglo-Catholics. The cult was revived by the Oxford Movement, and the Society of King Charles the Martyr was founded in 1894. Part of the cult’s attraction, perhaps, lies in the nostalgic and reactionary appeal of deliberate political anachronism. This appears to have been the case for the Society’s Anglo-Irish founder, the Hon. Mrs. Ermengarda Greville-Nugent. But rather more important is its theological meaning to Anglicans who place a particularly high value on the longevity and perpetuation of the church’s institutions. As the cult’s political utility recedes, it becomes easier to see the theological concerns which have always underpinned it.
Perhaps the greatest part of the cult’s power, from its origins to the present, is not so much the sacred monarchy part as the martyrdom part. Charles provides that rare thing, a specifically Anglican martyr. The Society’s hymns celebrate “Royal Charles, who chose to die / Rather than the Faith deny.” The power of martyrdom lies in this choice: by choosing death, the martyr triumphs over the worst that the world can throw at them. Like shooting the moon in a game of cards, martyrdom turns a weak hand into a trump hand. It is the ultimate weapon of the weak, with the potential to upend structures of social and political power. This tradition is embedded in Christianity, ultimately referring to the model of Christ’s death and resurrection. As Brad Gregory showed in his classic book Salvation at Stake, martyrdom was revived during the Reformation, when the martyr’s willingness to die seemed to indicate that they died for the true faith. However, this claim was progressively undone by the undiminishing capacity of rival versions of Christianity to produce their own martyrs. While martyrdom could no longer be counted on to point the way to religious truth, it continued to demonstrate the irreducible resilience of individual religious belief, marking out the limits of the coercive power of the modern state. For all its deliberate anachronism, then, the cult of King Charles the Martyr might just be an essentially modern form of religious observance.
Peter Walker has a Ph.D. in History from Columbia University. His dissertation is about Anglicanism and martyrdom (among other things).