Critical theory

In Dread of Derrida

By guest contributor Jonathon Catlin

According to Ethan Kleinberg, historians are still living in fear of the specter of deconstruction; their attempted exorcisms have failed. In Haunting History: For a Deconstructive Approach to the Past (2017), Kleinberg fruitfully “conjures” this spirit so that historians might finally confront it and incorporate its strategies for representing elusive pasts. A panel of historians recently discussed the book at New York University, including Kleinberg (Wesleyan), Joan Wallach Scott (Institute for Advanced Study), Carol Gluck (Columbia), and Stefanos Geroulanos (NYU), moderated by Zvi Ben-Dor Benite (NYU). A recording of the lively two-hour exchange is available at the bottom of this post.

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Left to Right: Profs Geroulanos, Gluck, Kleinberg, and Scott

History’s ghost story goes back some decades. Hayden White’s Metahistory roiled the profession in 1973 by effectively translating the “linguistic turn” of the French deconstruction into historical terms: historical narratives are no less “emplotted” in genres like romance and comedy, and hence no less unstable, than literary ones. White sparked fierce debate, notably about the limits of representing the Holocaust, which took place alongside probes into the ethics of those of deconstruction’s heroes with ties to Nazism, including Martin Heidegger and Paul de Man. The intensity of these battles was arguably a product of hatred for one theorist in particular: Jacques Derrida, whose work forms the backbone of Kleinberg’s book. Yet despite decades of scholarship undermining the nineteenth-century, Rankean foundations of the historical discipline, the regime of what Kleinberg calls “ontological realism” apparently still reigns. His book is not simply the latest in a long line of criticism of such work, but rather a manifesto for a positive theory of historical writing that employs deconstruction’s linguistic and epistemological insights.

This timely intervention took place, as Scott remarked, “in a moment when the death of theory has been triumphantly proclaimed, and indeed celebrated, and when many historians have turned with relief to accumulating big data, or simply telling evidence-based stories about an unproblematic past.” She lamented that

the self-reflexive moment and the epistemological challenge associated with names like Foucault, Irigaray, Derrida, and Lacan—all those dangerous French theorists who integrated the very ground on which we stood—reality, truth, experience, language, the body—that moment is said to be past, a wrong turn taken; thankfully we’re now on the right course.

Scott praised Kleinberg’s book for haunting precisely this sense of “triumphalism.”

Kleinberg began his remarks with a disappointed but unsurprised reflection that most historians still operate under the spell of what he calls “ontological realism.” This methodology is defined by the attempt to recover historical events, which, insofar as they are observable, become “fixed and immutable.” This elides the difference between the “real” past and history (writing about the past), unwittingly taking “the map of the past,” or historical representation, as the past itself. It implicitly operates as if the past is a singular and discrete object available for objective retrieval. While such historians may admit their own uncertainty about events, they nevertheless insist that the events really happened in a certain way; the task is only to excavate them ever more exactly.

This dogmatism reigns despite decades of deconstructive criticism from the likes of White, Frank Ankersmit, and Dominick LaCapra in the pages of journals like History and Theory (of which Kleinberg is executive editor), which has immeasurably sharpened the self-consciousness of historical writing. In his 1984 History and Criticism, LaCapra railed against the “archival fetishism” then evident in social history, whereby the archive became “more than the repository of traces of the past which may be used in its inferential reconstruction” and took on the quality of “a stand-in for the past that brings the mystified experience of the thing itself” (p. 92, n. 17). If historians had read their Derrida, however, they would know that the past inscribed in writing “is ‘always already’ lost for the historian.” Scott similarly wrote in a 1991 Critical Inquiry essay: “Experience is at once always already an interpretation and is in need of interpretation.” As she cited from Kleinberg’s book, meaning is produced by reading a text, not released from it or simply reflected. Every text, no matter how documentary, is a “site of contestation and struggle” (15).

Kleinberg’s intervention is to remind us that this erosion of objectivity is not just a tragic story of decline into relativism, for a deconstructive approach also frees historians from the shackles of objectivism, opening up new sources and methodologies. White famously concluded in Metahistory that there were at the end of the day no “objective” or “scientific” reasons to prefer one way of telling a story to another, but only “moral or aesthetic ones” (434). With the acceptance of what White called the “Ironic” mode, which refused to privilege certain accounts of the past as definitive, also came a new freedom and self-consciousness. Kleinberg similarly revamps White’s Crocean conclusion that “all history is contemporary history,” reminding us that our present social and political preoccupations determine which voices we seek out and allow to speak in our work. We can never tell the authoritative history of a subject, but only construct a possible history of it.

Kleinberg relays the upside of deconstructive history more convincingly than White ever did: Opening up history beyond ontological realism makes room for “alternative pasts” to enter through the “present absences” in historiography. Contrary to historians’ best intentions, the hold of ontological positivism perversely closes out and renders illegible voices that do not fit with the dominant paradigm, who are marginalized to obscurity by the authority of each self-enclosed narrative. Hence making some voices legible too often makes others illegible, for example E. P. Thompson foregrounding the working class only to sideline women. The alternative is a porous account that allows itself to be penetrated by alterity and unsettled by the ghosts it has excluded. The latent ontology of holding onto some “real,” to the exclusion of others, would thus give way to a hauntology (Derrida’s play on the ambiguous sound of the French ontologie) whereby the text acknowledges and allows in present absences. Whereas for Kleinberg Foucault has been “tamed” by the historical discipline, this Derridean metaphor remains unsettling. Reinhart Koselleck’s notion of “non-simultaneity” (Ungleichzeitgkeit) further informs Kleinberg’s view of “hauntology as a theory of multiple temporalities and multiple pasts that all converge, or at least could converge, on the present,” that is, on the historian in the act of writing about the past (133).

Kleinberg fixates on the metaphor of the ghost because it represents the liminal in-between of absent presences and present absences. Ghosts are unsettling because they obey no chronology, flitting between past and present, history and dream. Yet deconstructive hauntology stands to enrich narratives because destabilized stories become porous to previously excluded voices. In his response, Geroulanos pressed Kleinberg to consider several alternative monster metaphors: ghosts who tell lies, not bringing back the past “as it really was” but making up alternative claims; and the in-between figure of the zombie, the undead past that has not passed.

Even in the theory-friendly halls of NYU, Kleinberg was met with some of the same suspicion and opposition White was decades ago. While all respondents conceded the theoretical import of Kleinberg’s argument, the question remained how to write such a history in practice. Preempting this question, Kleinberg’s conclusion includes a preview of a parallel book he has been writing on the Talmudic lectures Emmanuel Levinas presented in postwar Paris. He hopes to enact what Derrida called a “double session.” The first half of the book provides a secular intellectual history of how Levinas, prompted by the Holocaust, shifted from Heidegger to Talmud; but the second half tells this history from the perspective of revelation, inspired by “Levinas’s own counterhistorical claim that divine and ethical meaning transcends time,” telling a religious counter-narrative to the standard secular one. Scott praised the way Kleinberg’s two narratives provide two positive accounts that nonetheless unsettle one another. Kleinberg writes: “The two sessions pull at each other, creating cracks in any one homogenous history, through which portions of the heterogeneous and polysemic past that haunts history can rise and be activated.” This “dislodging” and “irruptive” method “marks an irreducible and generative multiplicity” of alternate histories (149). Active haunting prevents Kleinberg’s method from devolving into mere perspectivism; each narrative actively throws the other into question, unsettling its authority.

A further decentering methodology Kleinberg proposed was breaking through the “analog ceiling” of print scholarship into the digital realm. Gluck emphasized how digital or cyber-history has the freedom to be more associative than chronological, interrupting texts with links, alternative accounts, and media. Thus far, however, digital history, shackled by big data and “neoempiricism,” has largely remained in the grip of ontological realism, producing linear narratives. Still, there was some consensus that these technologies might enable new deconstructive approaches. In this sense, Kleinberg writes, “Metahistory came too soon, arriving before the platforms and media that would allow us to explore the alternative narrative possibilities that were at our ready disposal” (117).

Listening to Kleinberg, I thought of a recent experimental book by Yair Mintzker, The Many Deaths of Jew Süss: The Notorious Trial and Execution of an Eighteenth-Century Court Jew (2017). It tells the story of the death of Joseph Oppenheimer, the villain of the infamous Nazi propaganda film Jud Süss (1940) produced at the behest of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. Mintzker was inspired by the narrative model of the film Rashomon (1950), which Geroulanos elaborated in some depth. Director Akira Kurosawa famously presents four different and conflicting accounts of how a samurai traveling through a wooded grove ends up murdered, from the perspectives of his wife, the bandit they encounter, a bystander, and the samurai himself speaking through a medium. Mintzker’s narrative choice is not postmodern fancy, but in this case a historiographical necessity. Because Oppenheimer, as a Jew, was not entitled to give testimony in his own trial, the only extant accounts available come from four similarly self-interested and conflictual sources: a judge, a convert, a Jew, and a writer. Mintzker’s work would seem to demonstrate the viability of Kleinbergian hauntology well outside twentieth-century intellectual history.

Kleinberg mused in closing: “If there’s one thing I want to do…it’s to take this book and maybe scare historians a little bit, and other people who think about the past. To make them uncomfortable, in the end, I hope, in a productive way.” Whether historians will welcome this unsettling remains to be seen, for as with White the cards remain stacked against theory. Yet our present anxiety about living in a “post-truth era” might just provide the necessary pressure for historians to recognize the ghosts that haunt the interminable task of engaging the past.


Jonathon Catlin is a PhD student in History at Princeton University. He works on intellectual responses to catastrophe in German and Jewish thought and the Frankfurt School of critical theory.



The Archive is Burning: Walter Benjamin in Brazil

By guest contributor Niklas Plaetzer


Walter Benjamin

Walter Benjamin never left Europe, yet his writings have had a remarkable impact on critical thought around the globe. As Edward Said suggested, the dislocation of an idea in time and space can never leave its content unaffected. “Having moved from one place and time to another, an idea or a theory gains or loses in strength,” so that its “travels” render a theory “altogether different for another period or situation” (226). The plasticity of ideas, their capacity to be torn out of context and made to speak in ever-new constellations, lies at the heart of Walter Benjamin’s own work. Benjamin’s thought never took the form of systematic exposition, but rather unfolded in essays, journal articles, sketches, and thought fragments. This was not just a stylistic choice; in fact, it corresponded closely to his view of a radical break in the linear time of progress—to a splintered temporality, shot through by the unmasterable memories of the oppressed.


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Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus, iconically envisioned by Benjamin as “the angel of history”

Benjamin’s syncretic fusion of Marxism, Jewish mysticism, and the German Romantics continues to cast its spell on contemporary readers. Perhaps it is precisely this fragmented character, combined with the palpable urgency of his writings, that can account for the globalized interest in his work. But more importantly still, Benjamin’s relentless emphasis on dialectical reversal—on another kind of history, told from the “point of view of the defeated”—continues to resonate with post- and decolonial projects and a “reading against the grain” of history. Paul Gilroy, in his The Black Atlantic, explicitly drew on Benjamin to write a “primal history of modernity to be reconstructed from the slaves’ point of view” (55). Decolonial scholars continue to find inspiration in Benjamin’s scathing critique of modernity as well as his call to cling to a “humanity-in-the-making” amidst an unending catastrophe. In 2015, the international conference “Benjamin in Palestine: Who Owns Walter Benjamin? On the Place and Non-Place of Radical Thought” was held in Ramallah. It opened new paths for such an engagement with Benjamin from within states of exception, “among layers of rubble and generations of resistance,” escaping the confines of academic canonization (60–64).


Slipping under the radar of Euro-American academia, Benjamin has exerted a particular influence on Brazilian critical theory. In an admirable study on his reception history in Brazil, Gunter Karl Pressler of the Federal University of Pará, Belém, has traced this unusually fruitful interplay of traditions: between North and South as well as between thought and revolutionary practice. What accounts for the elective affinity between Brazilian critical theory and Benjamin’s work? Pressler ties it back to the 1960s, when experimental poet and translator Haroldo de Campos, one of the co-founders of the Concrete Poetry movement in Brazil, took inspiration from Benjamin to theorize translation as “transcreation” [transcriação], as a practice of “parricide dis-memory” [desmemória parricida] (p. 149-153). Haroldo de Campos and his brother Augusto thereby took a decisively “anti-Eurocentric, anti-ethnocentric, deconstructive strategy, beginning with the idea of cannibalism, understood as the appropriation of the vital energy of the Other, beginning with his destruction” (9). In doing so, they read Benjamin alongside a classic of Brazilian modernism, Oswald de Andrade’s Manifesto Antropófago (1928), in which cannibalism is reconfigured as a positive model of cultural appropriation by the oppressed: eating up the potency of the colonizing North, destroying its claim to control, and producing new, unauthorized constellations in the process. Authors like José Guilherme Merquior and Flávio R. Kothe further helped disseminate Benjamin and the Frankfurt School at a time when the Brazilian military dictatorship had taken over and the student movement organized its resistance against heavy repression.

For the Brazilian left, Benjamin’s peculiar Marxism seemed like a way to both articulate critical thought in solidarity with on-going movements, and still open up a gap within Marxist discourse, creating spaces beyond authoritarian orthodoxy. A turn to Benjamin also broke up space for counter-histories of Brazil itself, resonating with the memory of indigenous genocide and slavery. His phrase that “there is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism” has rung true in a society dominated by rural latifundistas (plantation owners) and a state ideology of “Ordem e Progresso” (Order and Progress). It also spoke to theorists who tried to position themselves between an elitist attachment to European intellectual production on the one hand, and the rising visibility of black, indigenous, and landless workers’ movements on the other. As Pressler argues, Benjamin thereby became part of 1970s Brazilian counter-culture, somewhere between Marx and Caetano Veloso.

Two key figures in this creative reception stand out: Leandro Konder (1936-2014) and Michael Löwy (born in 1938). As Löwy puts it,

there is a necessity to look at the past in Brazil—even recent past—from the point of view of the oppressed [derrotados], the poor, Blacks, women, workers, revolutionaries. In Benjamin, this sensibility finds a coherent philosophical expression. I believe that this has helped to develop a current of people in the social sciences, in the historiography of political thought, who are very interested in Benjamin. (200)

What unites Konder and Löwy is their appreciation for the deep melancholia of Benjamin’s thought, which they regard as the truly revolutionary attitude, at odds with a bourgeois belief in progress. For Benjamin as for his Brazilian readers, social critique must begin with a critique of the very idea of progress, including its leftist varities, and fuel a lucid melancholia from which there is no escape. Yet such Benjaminian melancholia has “nothing to do with fatalistic resignation and even less with the conservative, reactionary, prefascist German Kulturpessimismus,” Löwy emphasizes (9). “This is not a contemplative sentiment, but an active, ‘organized,’ practical pessimism, directed entirely at preventing the onset of disaster by all possible means” (9). For Leandro Konder, Benjaminian melancholia, “brought into tune with the calls for ‘revenge’ among the traditionally exploited social classes and stimulated by their movements of contestation,” should thus be understood as “melancolérico:” a melancholic kind of anger, organized and fueled by memory.

Löwy’s seminal book on Benjamin, Fire Alarm, was originally published in French, in his Parisian exile, where he has lived and worked since 1969. Born in São Paulo as the son of Jewish immigrants from Vienna, Löwy has not ceased to push Benjamin’s insights to new conclusions—such as ecosocialism—without ever abandoning a practical commitment to the radical left. Unlike many critical theorists, he also remains acutely aware of non-Eurocentric imaginaries at work in social struggles. He has written about the quilombo dos Palmares, the revolution of maroon slaves (fugitives) in the Brazilian North-East, who, until their defeat in 1695, resisted the onslaught of Dutch and Portuguese armies under the leadership of Zumbi dos Palmares. While the Haitian Revolution is today receiving increasing historiographical attention, the quilombo dos Palmares still remains a largely ignored event. Against such enforced forgetfulness, Löwy’s writings place it in an unusual conversation with the history of the 1871 Paris Commune and the struggles of international workers. But what might seem like an arbitrary juxtaposition is better grasped as a Benjaminian constellation of memories in resistance. They not only animate Löwy’s thinking, but continue to fuel the practices of Brazil’s opposition: for instance, when black movements, hip hop artists, or occupations of landless workers draw on the memory of Palmares, invoking the legendary name of Zumbi, as they fight for land reform and against institutional racism. As Benjamin’s Thesis VI puts it, “articulating the past historically does not mean recognizing it ‘the way it really was.’ It means appropriating a memory as it flashes up in a moment of danger.”

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“Limpo Seu Historico” (“I clean your record”): street art in Cachoeira in the northeastern state of Bahia. Photo credit: Niklas Plaetzer, August 2017.

In June 2017, in the wake of the (arguably unconstitutional) impeachment of President Dilma Roussef, Brazilian Congress passed a bill that allows for the large-scale burning of historical documents from national archives after their digitization as part austerity plans. Already accepted by both chambers, the “Lei da Queima de Arquivo” (Law of the Archive Burning) is awaiting a final consultation process before going into effect. This controversial reform must be understood against the backdrop of what many consider to be a coup d’état by President Michel Temer. Yet the current political situation can hardly be considered an anomaly. As Benjamin put it, in his often quoted phrase, “the tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule.”

With the “Lei da Queima de Arquivo,” Löwy’s Fire Alarm has taken up another scandalous reality. Its painful resonance speaks to the ways in which a postcolonial reading of Benjamin cannot be a calm, scholarly addition to a renewed and reconciled canon. The planned burning of the Brazilian national archives remains inscribed in a long history of erasure, of which Palmares is one powerful symbol and of which Brazil’s social movements continue to carry the traces. But reading Benjamin while the archive is burning also speaks to struggles in the present that remain undecided—in Brazil and elsewhere.

Niklas Plaetzer is an incoming doctoral student at the University of Chicago’s Department of Political Science, specializing in political theory. He holds a masters degree from Sciences Po Paris, where he worked on Hannah Arendt’s critique of sovereignty in light of radical democratic thought. At the University of Chicago, he is hoping to do research at the juncture of critical theory, constitutional law, and the politics of social movements, with a particular interest in Brazil. His work has previously appeared in the Journal of International Affairs, the Columbia Journal of Literary Criticism, 3:am magazine, and the Review of Politics (forthcoming).

Towards an Intellectual History of the Alt-Right?

by contributing editor Yitzchak Schwartz

Richard Spencer, a popular alt-right leader, leads the crowd in performing a Nazi salute at his National Policy Institute’s convention this past November (picture (c) Occupy Democrats)

As the alt-right has gained ascendance in American politics and cultural consciousness over the past 24 months, American intellectuals have been scrambling to try and understand its roots and what makes it tick. The media has even been at odds about how to refer to the movement. Most treatments of the alt-right in the news media have been more descriptive than interpretive, but a few very interesting articles have sought to explain the intellectual history and ideology of the movement.

In particular, two articles that I’ve come across stand out. The first is is piece that was published at the end of November in the Jewish online Tablet Magazine written by Jacob Siegel, a reporter for the Daily Beast. Siegel uses Paul Gottfried, a conservative intellectual and historian, as a window into alt-right ideology. A child of German-Jewish refugees, Gottfried is an ardent opponent of Nazism but argues, in much of his scholarship, that other, truer forms of fascism were actually quite successful and morally justified. “If someone were to ask me what distinguishes the right from the left,” Siegel quotes one of Gottfried’s books, “the difference that comes to mind most readily centers on equality. The left favors that principle, while the right regards it as an unhealthy obsession.” To Gottfried, since what he considers the economic failure of socialism the Western left has taken on equality as its raison d’etre. This orientation stymies actual progress and individual liberties, allowing what he calls the “therapeutic managerial state” to accumulate power unchecked by healthy nationalism. Siegel thus interprets Gottfried as a “Nietzschean American Nationalist.”
Gottfried is an erstwhile mentor of Richard Spencer, the most visible leader of the alt-right movement and head of its National Policy Institute. Gottfried has since parted ways with Spencer over the latter’s white nationalism. However, as Siegel discusses in this and another article, what figures like Gottfried reveal about the alt-right is that it is unique from many older nationalist and racialist movements in its embrace of grand historical theories, academic jargon and a keen interest in history and metahistory. It is also at once highly populist, with many of its leaders urging a white populist revolution, as well as, like he fascist movements figures like Gottfried and Spencer identify as their forbears, highly elitist and skeptical of democracy.
The white nationalist component of the alt-right is the subject of a longer article by historian Timothy Shenk that appeared last August in The Guardian. Interestingly, the Guardian has taken much more of a keen interest in the American alt-right and began reporting on the movement earlier than many American newspapers. Perhaps the threat of ethnic nationalism looms larger in Europe than in the United States. Shenk orients his article around Samuel Francis (d. 1995), a dissident conservative intellectual and journalist ousted from the conservative establishment for his racialist views. Like Gottfried, Francis, according to Shenk,  sees contemporary society as dominated by a managerial class that threatens the values of most Americans such as morality, nationalism and racial integrity. In his magnum opus, Leviathan and Its Enemies, posthumously-published by a team of editors that includes Gottfried, Francis argues that the Leviathan of the managerial state can be successfully bought down by a white national revolution.  If Gottfried advocates for a new right based in fascism and nationalism, Francis and his protege Jared Taylor, the founder of the online journal American Renaissanceare much more explicitly white supremacist. Much of the Alt-Right today in both Siegel and Shenk’s accounts see themselves at once as a Nietzschean, social-Darwinist vanguard as well as defenders of racial integrity in the United States.
What emerges from both of these articles is an understanding of the alt right that would suggest that its particular brand of right-wing thought is as much a product of intellectual trends developed in the name of left causes — Gramscian Marxism, Frankfurt school critiques of mass society, studies of therapeutic culture —  as much as it is of conservatism. Perhaps it should be unsurprising that the alt-right can tout a radical moral relativism to justify exclusionary nationalism; the origins of relativism in early twentieth century German thought were never far from various iterations of social Darwinism. What also emerges from these articles is an understanding of the alt right that places it, and American conservatism, firmly within American intellectual history.
This framing should make historians reevaluate a lot of the historiography on the right and conservatism written over the past decade. Historians who are part of the current wave of scholarship on the right generally focus on the rise of the Reagan Republicans in the mid-to-late twentieth century. They thus approach the movement as a social phenomena, rooted in popular racist backlash over civil rights on the one hand and corporate-backed efforts to restore pre-New Deal economic policies by popularizing free market economics. Most of these works frame themselves as a corrective to Richard Hofstadter’sconsensus” approach to American history. In his 1948 The American Political Tradition, Hofstadter argued that rather than class conflict agreement on central ideas such as individualism, free market and liberal democracy is what most characterized American politics and under-girded American success. Today’s historians of conservatism seek to disrupt the consensus narrative by exposing the prevalence of racism in American history and understanding conservative ideology as a force in American culture. However, they often  ultimately echo Hofstadter in seeing Americans who joined the republican coalition int the late 1960s-70s as dupes mislead by party elites keen on achieving economic gains.
What follows from the ascendancy of alt right is what many conservatives have been saying all along, namely that whether their critics on the left like their ideologies they indeed have very pronounced ideologies that lead them to take the political positions they do. These ideologies  do not exist in a vacuum either. They dialogue with critical theory and they exhibit nuanced continuities with once very popular ideas of social Darwinism and American nationalism.  In other words, our histories of conservatism may still be tilted  far too much towards Hofstadter consensus narrative: Rather than seeing conservatism in material terms as an aberration based on backlash to Civil Rights without an intellectual history, we ought to be much more explicit with regard to the roots of some conservative ideologies in very prominent , if troubling–and less easily brushed off as reactionary or ignorant– American intellectual traditions. These are intellectual traditions that we perhaps would like to believe long-extinct but the sympathy the alt-right has garnered from many corners suggests that they still occupy a trenchant place in the American national consciousness.  To grapple with and understand the alt-right and its ideas, we, as historians and as citizens, have to take a long hard look at their ideas and their context in our shared history.